I’m Not “Woke”

Oil Lamp

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.” – Matthew 25:1-10 (NRSV)

In high school, I had thick, springy curls that my straight- and thin-haired friends and family envied. One of those friends, a white girl, told me that I had “black people hair.” I took it as a compliment.

I took it as such a compliment that I told my mother what my friend said while we were riding on the DC metro, and a woman of color was sitting in the seat right behind me.

My mother tried, in vain, to get me to shut up. But I still spewed those words out of my mouth.

There’s no nice way to put it: I made a racist comment.

At the next station, the woman in the seat behind me got up to leave, and as she walked by our seats, her bag bumped me rather roughly in the arm.

It was more than likely an accident. But I felt enough shame to never say the remark ever again.

*****

I wish I could say I stopped making racist comments and remarks, intentional or otherwise, after this encounter. But I didn’t.

Hell, I still say and think problematic words and thoughts. I still have strong biases that need time, effort, and intention to destroy.

Yet I once considered myself a “woke” person. I’m sure other white people did, too.

And that in and of itself is problematic.

First of all, as a white person, I shouldn’t be using a term that began as an urge by and for people of color  to “remain vigilant, but also to keep safe,” before being appropriated into a badge white allies use to say that “if they walk the walk, they get to talk the talk.”

Second of all, the use of the phrase implies that there is a prize white people get when they cross the non-existent finish line of “not being racist anymore.” For white people, our so-called “wokeness,” our collection of quotes, behaviors, and friends, does not prove we’re “no longer racist.”

Our work of dismantling white supremacy is more than that. It is an uncomfortable and unceasing journey, and white people can cover themselves with merit badges without putting a dent in this system.

Claiming a so-called “wokeness” separates us from other white people. It allows us to claim we’re done being racist while other white people are not.

It’s a false claim that says we no longer have biases towards people of color that still need to be broken down.

It’s a claim that falsely announces the demise of this whole system.

The hard truth of it all is I didn’t magically stopped being a racist when I started chanting “Black Lives Matter” or when I marched in Charlottesville.

I’m still part of this broken system, so I’m still a racist. And that hasn’t stopped yet. Not now. Maybe not even in my own lifetime.

The same applies to all of us white folks.

*****

Along with most white Christians, I like to think I’m one of those wise, eternity-minded bridesmaids in Matthew’s parable, ready and waiting for the coming Kingdom with oil overflowing.

But more often than not, I’m one of the foolish ones caught unaware and unprepared, left begging my siblings of color for oil to light my lamp instead of fetching it for myself ahead of time.

So I’m getting rid of this “woke” label, one that was never mine to claim to begin with.

Instead, I’m waking up to my own self, my own biases and complicity, and the system that has made them all possible. I’m waking up to my past sins and attempting to move forward in humble repentance instead of being paralyzed by personal shame. I’m awakening compassion, empathy, and understanding within me, and I’m opening my ears to be more attuned to the stories of pain and joy from people of color. I will wake up to my need to admit wrong-doing and to apologize.

But waking up isn’t an easy process, either, nor is it a quick one.

Sometimes, I hit the snooze button. Sometimes, I take a long time to rub the sleep out of my eyes. Sometimes, that bed of privilege and supremacy is so comfortable that I don’t want to dream of resting on anything else, even when I know that comfort is built on the backs of my marginalized siblings.

Sometimes, like the seven bridesmaids in Matthew’s parable, I awaken with a jolt to discover I have no oil in my lamp and am lost in the dark, and those wiser and more prepared are moving towards a more perfect world.

It is in those times I am called to remember it’s one thing to bring a lamp in a dark space and quite another to bring the oil to light it.

And the sooner we realize we don’t have what we need to illuminate the darkness, the sooner we might start following those who have known the way much longer than we have.

Ignoring the Bodies, Losing our Souls: A Plea to the American Church

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BloxImages

Christians talk a lot about the fear of gaining the whole world and losing their souls.

Have we ever wondered if we can lose our souls by ignoring the world?

Martin Luther’s enabling of common people to be able to read the Bible in their own language and focus on Scripture emboldened the peasants of his time to air their physical grievances with their rulers, resulting in one of the largest rebellions ever. Yet before he ordered the princes to destroy them like “mad dogs,” Martin Luther said the liberation was for their souls, not their bodies.

American slave holders refused to let slaves learn to read the Bible, lest they get any ideas about what freedom really means, for the body and the soul. They also kept the upside-down Gospel to themselves, because they knew God’s call to never enslave a brother or sister, someone equal to you in all things. In his Narrative, Frederick Douglass describes the bleak reality of “the Christianity of this land: “We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! all for the glory of God and the good of souls!”

Christian artists like Toby Mac claim Jesus ended the debate over which lives matter since “he died for all.” Prominent Christian leaders like Franklin Graham uphold refugee and Muslim bans, despite the biblical commands to welcome the foreigner, by saying “it’s not a Bible issue.”

What has happened?

Have we tried so hard to forget the importance of our bodies that we’re threatening to lose our souls? Have we forgotten we are part of Christ’s living Body, and when part of us isn’t well, the rest of us suffers? Have we forgotten our complicity in structures of unjust power, because as long as our “souls” were right with God, everything else would fall into place?

Is this why we can come to worship on Sunday and ignore the detained and barred refugees and immigrants on the news? Is this why we can give our tithes and offerings but talk about the “deserving poor?” Is this why we can pray for God’s Kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven” while resisting any type of change that gives more people more access to the rights and privileges we take for granted? Is this why we can pretend we care about “equality” and “justice” while condoning police brutality because “if people would just behave, the police wouldn’t have to retaliate?”

This Lent, may we repent of our complicity to physical neglect for the sake of a misguided idea of spiritual preservation.

May we remember we are living, fragile, beautiful bodies, made from dust and destined to return to the same dust into which God first breathed life. May we remember our bodies and spirits are intertwined, that our souls are embodied and this flesh is both our struggle and our gift.

This Lent, may the Body of Christ remember to take care of her physical needs, the physical bodies which compromise her, or else she will risk losing her soul.

Kinetic Sand and White Privilege

KSand2

Kinetic Sand is pretty great.

Parents love it, because they don’t have to worry about pulling grains of sand out of the carpet. Kids love it, because they can have beach or sandbox fun indoors without getting reprimanded.

Kinetic Sand is also an amazing teaching device, and it put me face-to-face with my privilege and need for repentance.

This lesson occurred one morning in seminary chapel. Laura Lehman, Creative Learner Extraordinaire, gave the gathered assembly space to engage our senses, using tools like Play Doh, coloring sheets, Scrabble tiles, and the aforementioned sand. With these tools, we were to reflect on where we see longing, repentance, and celebration in our lives.

The sand sat at the repentance station, and it called me the moment Laura explained its purpose. I wasn’t sure why I felt the tug in my heart to go. I initially thought because I loved playing with the sand with my younger cousins.

I should have known a real Truth moment was about to happen.

After Laura’s instructions, I got up with the rest of those gathered as we awkwardly shifted to our chosen station. I walked over to the repentance station and picked up the sand, letting it sift through my fingers as I thought about repentance and the ways in which I needed to turn and return, to God and love of my neighbors. I began shaping the sand.

Soon, I found myself building walls. Due to the sand’s consistency, this project took a lot of effort. By the time I finished making them, the walls were high and mighty and formed a circular fortress.

Satisfied with my walls, I played with the remaining sand on the tray. I wanted to make something symbolic of myself, so I rolled my sand into a little ball and put it in the middle of my fortress.

The moment I put the ball down, it crumbled. I noticed the irony but insisted on taking the ball and mashing the sand tighter, hoping that little sand-me could hold it together enough to make this symbolic art serve its purpose.

I finally put sand-me back together again and placed her in the walled fortress. I looked at my creation and realized something was missing. If this was to be a proper place of defense, it needed to be sealed, and there was an opening from above. Quick to solve my dilemma, I dumped more sand on top of sand-me and covered the circle from above.

The walls became a sealed dome. I could not be seen.

It was then that I realized why I went to this station.

This is nothing new to me. I make defenses, for my heart, body, and soul. When I did this exercise, I knew they were high, but I didn’t realize they engulfed me. No one could come in, and I couldn’t get out.

At first, I thought this was all about me refusing to let the people around me in. But it’s so much bigger than that, too.

This was about me having the privilege to shut out the world around me, and this was about me wanting to keep those walls in spite of the damage done to my black brothers and sisters.

Like most white children, I grew up with teachers and textbooks that taught me racism was dead and buried.

That belief received a huge challenge on February 26, 2012, when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL, and the movement known as Black Lives Matter began to form.

This belief continued to be challenged time after time in the next four years, after hearing too many more names.

Eric Garner.

Michael Brown.

Tamir Rice.

Freddie Gray.

Reverend Sharona Singleton.

Sandra Bland.

And too recently, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

In spite of hearing all those names up until (and even after) this experience, I still found myself wanting to shut down, to turn off the TV and computer and let someone else figure out what to do.

And what a privilege it is for me and others like me to be able to do that. To simply turn away from what we’ve seen and heard, to build up walls between “us” and “them,” to live lives insulated from a dark reality.

Sometimes, I build these walls out of a sense of hopelessness in the midst of such pain, but in all honesty, most of the time I build them out of fear. I don’t want to offend anyone by saying the “wrong thing” in the face of such injustices. I claim to want to know the “full story,” because these must be “misunderstandings.” So I keep my mouth shut, and I ignore the stories of needless brutality harming black human bodies. I make the walls higher.

The walls continue to grow when I am called out. When I am confronted with my own white privilege, by teachers, friends, and activists, I close my eyes instead of confronting it head on. I don’t want to know of my own complicity in a society that favors my skin over that of my black brothers and sisters, because if I challenge that, I challenge the powers that keep my privilege intact. I don’t want to take the risk of standing up for equality when it could harm me or my reputation.

I want to be safe and secluded, so I turn my walls into a privileged, suffocating dome.

This dome shuts out everything. It shuts out the cries of my black brothers and sisters for justice. It shuts out the screams made at them to just “behave” themselves and “All Lives Matter.” It shuts out the reality I don’t want to acknowledge: that I can to assume I will be safe on a regular basis, but my black brothers and sisters cannot.

The good news is, Truth can bring my walls a-tumblin’ down.

When Truth shows her face, I learn that my black brothers and sisters have to be taught how to get home safely if pulled over by cops, which shatters the illusion that I live in a society which is just for all. Truth whispers and even shouts into my ear every time I hear a name become a hashtag, and every time that name of a beloved person becomes a topic of debate instead of a valued human life. Truth shifts the ground beneath my feet when she reminds me that I am not an autonomous being, that my actions and inactions affect people around me, especially the marginalized, which forces me to recognize that staying inside my dome is not a legitimate option.

Truth worked hard in my heart as I looked at my small sand dome. I knew the walls needed to come down, but how? I told Truth she might as well save her efforts with me, because I knew I’d put them back up again, so why bother taking them down to begin with?

But Truth reminded me, like an old, estranged friend, of other times she took down a wall only for me to build it up again overnight. Truth told me that taking down the walls today would be good for today, and I would receive the strength to keep taking down the walls when they came back up, day after day until the rubble is beyond repair. Truth reminded me of the new things made from the rubble, the new relationships and new ways of life and being that come from the difficult, painful work of tearing down walls.

And then memories of new life I’d seen in the rubble began to come to me. I remembered David Evans’ classes about race and religion, how the Church has silenced black voices and abused black bodies and continues to do so today, but in the act of listening to those once lost narratives, I am challenged to seek similar stories and voices today so that all those silenced may be heard loud and clear. I remembered Christian Parks struggling against the powers in my own educational institution to tell a new story about Jesus and how, despite their failure to affirm him, the story got told.

The Truth reminded me of resurrection, the power to make all things new, and the new life that happens when I turn away from my walls and walk into the light of Love.

I picked up my dome and held it in my right hand. I spread my fingers and let the sand collapse onto the tray. I watched as it fell between my fingers and thought of the security I agreed to abandon and the risky love to which I hoped to open myself day after day. I adjusted my hand to get the more solid clumps moving. Finally, the fortress was gone, dissolved right in front of me. Before I went back to my seat, I thought to myself, “Until next time.”

May it be so with your fortresses, too.

KSand

Resurrection in the Prayer Labyrinth

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http://www.emu.edu/year1/faith

There’s a song by Casting Crowns that resonates so deeply with me called “The Altar and the Door.” Growing up in my Pentecostal church, I simply understood God’s grace and love. In those days, on the surface at least, I was so certain that no matter how many times I had to go to the altar, I could leave with confidence out those doors that I was turning a new leaf. This song kind of challenged those preconceived ideas about forgiveness and resurrection, but it still slightly reinforced my idea of God’s love. Now it hits me in the gut more than ever is because I actually understand the narrator’s doubts about his own merit, motives, and strengths. Now, I feel like I’m waiting at the door to go to the altar, but I’m too afraid to go in. Why? Because I know that before I know it, I’ll have to go through this whole process again, more times than I’m willing to admit. You could say I finally understand the song now.

Repetition can be really annoying, especially when it’s concerning my flaws, insecurities, and, dare I say it, sin.

Which brings me to seminary.

On the second day of seminary orientation, we were invited to walk a prayer labyrinth. They made it very clear that it wasn’t a maze, lest we be worried that in the midst of our prayerful walking we had to worry about getting lost. Honestly, though, I think a crazy maze would have been more realistic, as I find myself too frustrated to be prayerful in the every day because I’m staring at a tall hedge, wondering how to find my way out of the dead end and chastising myself over my poor direction skills.

I was the fourth person in my group to start walking the labyrinth, so there were three other people ahead of me on their journey that I had to be conscious of and make room for. There were some paths that were very short and had quick turns, and there were a few longer paths. After a while, I took off my flip flops so I could feel the hard, cool stones and damp grass under my feet. I remembered how as a child at my grandparents’ farm, I used to run around barefoot all the time. Whether it was rain or shine, through freshly mown lawns or cow-pie covered fields, over soothing grass or jagged rocks that ripped my little feet to shreds, the ground of my youth was too holy for sneakers. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed those more innocent days until I removed my shoes on this holy ground.

As I was walking, I reflected on what had brought me to seminary, my life thus far, where I was now in my faith. However, as I drew closer and closer to the center, where I could stand and reflect with God about the journey and enjoy a spectacular view of the Blue Ride mountains, I started to get worried about reaching the final destination. When I finally reached the entrance to the center, I hesitated. I realized that I was scared to enter the center of the labyrinth. Because suddenly it hit me: I’m going to be back here again.

I’ve returned to the altar so many times. I’ll return to that center of the labyrinth just as many times if not more so. And honestly, I’m kind of sick of it. And to be even more honest, I am sick of myself.

I’m sick of always finding myself back in this spot. I’m sick of having to confess that, once again, I’ve failed expectations, that I’ve failed in general, that I’ve let people down and disappointed them. In short, I absolutely hate admitting failure and defeat. I’m sick of admitting that I’ve been acting as human as Peter in his denial and as proud as the sons of Zebedee when they asked if they could be the greatest. I hate having to ask for mercy from Someone who has already seen me this way innumerable times, and the human that I am is only thinking of the times I have left until This One’s patience reaches its limit with me.

Because honestly, I just don’t get it.

How can God keep taking me back? Why does God keep loving me this way? What good does God see in taking me back and giving me the chance to start the day anew? Why does God still have that much hope in me?

On good days, I get it. On good days, when my hope for the world and my spirits for the day are at new heights, God’s grace is immeasurable. It only makes sense to me on those days. On bad days, I just don’t get it. On bad days, I’ve taken God’s place on the throne to issue judgment on the world and myself, because I think God is too damn exhausted with me to deal with my problems at the moment.

Because to be honest, resurrection doesn’t make any sense to me. Resurrection, for the longest time, was a one-time thing. You got saved, and while you stumbled every now and then, things were overall supposed to go pretty well for you. Now, resurrection is a long, exhausting, tedious process, and I honestly don’t see how God can keep throwing the second chances my way for much longer.

I don’t trust God. I don’t trust God to keep loving me, to keep giving me chances, to stick by me through my best or my worst. I don’t trust that my best will be good enough for God, and I definitely don’t trust God to love me at my worst, because my own shortcomings make me cringe. And if I can’t trust God in these ways, how can I trust others? If I can’t trust the Love within me, how can I trust the Love outside of me and throughout the world to not reject me?

Maybe that’s why I like the Psalms and the books of the prophets. They get this fear of a God who gets frustrated with them to the point of packing his bags and leaving us to our own destruction. And they’re a lot more honest and upfront about it than I usually am. But they also, like me, have this flicker of undying hope that maybe, just maybe, this God loves them enough to return and restore them, to give them another chance, to stay by their side in the midst of chaos.

Maybe God really does get that we’re human, that we mess up, that it’s not always OK, but still gives us the grace to die and live again, to be forgiven. Maybe God wants to open the door to forgiveness for us when we insist on locking ourselves inside and have even thrown away the key to our freedom. Maybe God really hates us stewing in the prison of our lack of forgiveness, for ourselves and the world around us, and for some reason wants nothing more than to let us out of it so we can truly live in love.

I still don’t get resurrection. I still am kicking myself for all the returns I’ll have to make to the altar, or the center of the labyrinth, in the future. But I have a few glimmers of hope.

I know that worry will consume me and doubts will plague me. I know that impatience, injustice, anger, and hate will get the better of me. I know I’ll have to come right back to the center, where the God of Love still stands for some crazy reason, and die to it all again.

But then again, joy will overtake me. Love will always be in my midst. Community will support me. Growth will come. Discernment will take place. And maybe, instead of always coming back to lay down all the pain again, maybe I’ll come back and thank God for the fruit of resurrection in my life.

I eventually walked into the center of the labyrinth with some of my peers, my fellow companions on this journey of faith. Some stared into the beauty of the horizon. Some bowed to their knees. Some wiped away tears. I stood there and got a bit snippy with God about all this resurrection stuff, and finally I left in the hope that even though I still don’t understand resurrection or God’s love and grace completely, I can still look forward to coming back to the center of God’s Love, even when I have my doubts that God will still be there.

Every day, I have a choice. With every breath, I have a chance for redemption. For some reason, deep in my bones, I know this.

But I still don’t get it. Not at all.