Say it again

I have ordered nearly forty new books for the new year.  Half are on race and the other half focus on the spiritual life and Christian community.  Along with you, they are my conversation partners.  I feel that no one wants to talk about race as much as I do, at least not in the way that I do.  I want to talk us out of it.  I want to talk about race until it is discredited, waved off as a distraction from our true human being, until race is stereotyped as a lazy interpretation of people groups, a liar, not to be trusted with our fellowship.

And I want to say it again and again, year after year and in every ear.

William Willimon has mine tonight.  He is saying everything that I need to hear in his book Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism.  Head nodding, I am in agreement with him and in his Amen corner.  I turn another page because I need him to say more, to say something different and to repeat the truth again:

“Race is a socially constructed, psychologically rooted attempt to name humanity through human designations.  Christians defiantly believe that our identity and our human significance are bestowed upon us not by our culture, family, or skin color but rather given us in baptism.”

We know this to be true but it bears repeating so I will say it again tonight and for the rest of my life.  Baptized with Jesus Christ, his gospel is raceless.

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The First Noel

This is not a tradition.  We are not handing down his manger, recycling hay.  This is not something to be passed around like an old fur or grandma’s pearls.  While a part of history, it is also part mystery.  God in flesh, this is not what we would expect.

This is not a habit to be categorized as good or bad, expendable or necessary.  This is not a custom of time passed that we must simply become accustomed to.  This is more than a festival or a celebration.  We are not merely hanging up and taking down decorations.

This is not the stuff of gossip.  This is not a rumor for it comes from God’s lips to our ears.  From tormented priests, raging prophets to the crisp pages we hold now, this is a message unlike one we’ve ever heard: God is coming in Christ Jesus.  There is a young girl who claims to carry him.  At the time, she is waved off. “Kids these days!”

God doesn’t talk to young people.  No, the work of God is for adults only.  Besides, what is Mary going to do with a baby?  Why would God put the salvation of the world in the arms of a girl?

Because it would be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.  How long does God have to say it?  A thousand years have passed but Mary is not ready, and neither are we.  “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.”  But our baby plans are not God’s baby plans.

Nevertheless, she has agreed: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[i]  It is the servant’s surrender.  Mary empties her will to be filled with God’s own.  It doesn’t matter what she and Joseph talked about.  What matters now is what God has said to her.  This is not up for debate or discussion.

This is his story, the beginning of Christ with us.  We begin with him— not in the year of our birth but in the year of our Lord: “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (2.1.).  We are counted with him.  Following in his footsteps, he starts with Mary’s.  So, we start with Mary.

And hers are weighted down.  Belly heavy, she is on foot and expecting her first child.  They are on the road but not due to the holiday rush or to pick up last minutes gifts.  She and her fiancé Joseph are on their way to his hometown.  Unwed and pregnant, she may be wondering what his family will think of her.  Maybe she and Joseph have practiced ways to avoid awkward conversations.  What will they put on the wedding invitations?

Their families are thinking, “What a mess!”  Mary is shamed for our salvation.  She is looked down upon so that we can look up to God.  She carries Christ and in turn, we don’t have to carry the burden of sin.  Jesus is just like his mother.

Poet John Donne says this of her:

“… Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie

In prison, in thy womb, and though He there

Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,

Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.

Ere by the spheres times was created, thou

Wast in His mind, who is Thy Son and Brother,

Whom thou conceivst, conceived, yea thou art now

Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother; …”

This is not a reboot of an old television show, a remake of a childhood favorite.  This is a declaration, the annunciation: God is with us.

And of course, it is business as usual.  Emperor Augustus is building his Roman Empire, but he is too late. God’s kingdom is already here.  Augustus is expanding roadways and God is offering the path to salvation.  Augustus is making savvy deals and God has shaken hands with Mary.

And Mary may be squeezing the hand of Joseph.  She was feeling some pressure but now it feels more like sharp pains.  She thinks that the baby is coming.  She cannot hold him in.  It’s time.

She has to push.  She doesn’t want to breathe.  She cannot just think about something else.  They have got to stop and find a place for her to deliver.  It may be “the most wonderful time of the year now” but Mary is not feeling so hot in the moment.

Oh, we can sing all we want.  It was not a “silent night.”  Two teenage first- time parents with no birth plan, no doctor, no midwife, no birth plan and no epidural are going door to door, hoping someone will take them in.  Two and one on the away, again and again they are turned away.

“Maybe the neighbor next door or down the road can help you.  We would help you if we could.  We really would like to.We don’t have a spare bedroom or a nursery.  We wish that we could help but now is not a good time.  We just used the last of our rooms for a walk- in closet.  We just extended our master bedroom.  We simply do not have any more room.

We don’t have a room for this type of work.  No, we’ve got ballrooms and great rooms but no delivery room.  We do not have a place for God’s kingdom to come.  Besides, it would make such a mess.  And I know you say that you have a word from the Lord and you are just carrying God’s message but not tonight.  Maybe you could come back some other time.”

But Mary doesn’t have any more time.  There is no more room in her body.  She has carried him for as long and as far as she can.  Walking to Bethlehem only encouraged her labor.  And whether you want him or not, invited or not, here Jesus comes.

God created the earth and we can’t find a square foot to receive the Christ- child.  We crack our door and whisper through it.  We won’t budge an inch.  No vacancies.  No room for God.  This is the story though we dress it up now with lights, ornaments and wreaths.

Mary gives birth in the stable at the inn, in the backyard, in the parking lot of a hotel.  Jesus is not welcomed by doting grandparents but by the smells and sounds of the animals.  God in Christ is tucked away in a manger.  God is not in cahoots with capitalism, not dressed in designer duds, not found at a cocktail party in a gated community.  God in Christ is in the manger.

The holy God is not opulent, not draped in diamonds, robed in fields of grass, flanked by mountains, protected by volcanoes.  The presence of God is not massive, but salvation comes in pounds and ounces.  Deliverance is tied to an umbilical cord.  God is with us in a dependent, naked, vulnerable child.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “God is in the manger.”  God is where we would least expect the divine to be.  God is in the manger, in a place we wouldn’t visit, with a person we wouldn’t expect to carry much at all and teenage and unwed, for whom we don’t care much about.  She’s just a child.  We have shoes older than her.

Still, the Word is made flesh in her.  The Creator- God who has and is the word for every living thing coos.  God holds back, holds the divine tongue and Jesus cries out for her instead.  The God who supplies our needs reaches for Mary.  This is the first noel.

_____________

[i] Luke 1.38, NRSV

Don’t stop talking about race

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It is easy to reset, to move on to the next outrage, to the next shiny object.  “Ooh.  What’s that?”  We want to be distracted.  We hope that we can forget.

But, we cannot continue to let this be the case.  Race is a problem and it doesn’t just go away.  Instead, it is here to stay, stuck between our teeth, hanging on to our thin skin.  We carry it with us.  A word with sharp edges that we continue to wrap carefully and reuse, race is the weapon and the wound.

Still, we talk about race as if it is all we have, like it is all that we can say about ourselves, as if we are only flesh and blood.  We talk about race as if our lives depend on it, like we cease to exist if we are not socially colored beige, brown, black, red, yellow and white.  And though we cannot see the end of it (that is, post- racial), race is not our beginning. We cannot see past it but there is no future with race.

A socio- political construct, we talked ourselves into this belief in race and we will need to talk ourselves out of it.  You may not know this but we are not alone in this desire.  Recently, a number of books have been published that aim to discuss our relationship with race and empower readers to talk about it.  Please consider adding these to your reading list and your bookshelves:

Robin Diangelo, White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2018).

Carolyn B. Helsel, Anxious to talk about it: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism, (Saint Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2017).

Ijeoma Oluo, So you want to talk about race?, (New York, NY: Seal Press, 2018).

Derang Wing Sue, Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race, (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015).

Shelly Tochluk, Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk about Race and How to Do It, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2010).

Race is something to talk about

I’m not one to shy away from a conversation on race and today, Prada had an unplanned one after a passerby noticed a bag in the window of a shop in Soho.  There appeared to be a blackface accessory attached to the bag.  Cue the removal of the bag, a statement from Prada and another conversation on race.  Described as “monkey trinkets,” many people are asking, “How did this happen?”

“What year is this?”  “I thought we were farther along.”  But, should we be?  What have we said about race that propels us forward?  What of our conversations about race have brought understanding and healing?  When have our conversations about race not been reactive?  How have we prepared for conversations on race?

Still, we shuffle along, pretending that our cross- cultural relationships are all patched up, only to have someone point out another hole.  We missed a spot.  The job was rushed.  The material was not the best and thus, not able to withstand another brush with race.  We’ll deal with it later or when the time comes.  Well, here we are again.

Deep sigh.  “Why do we have to keep talking about race?”  Because questions of identity, belonging and membership continue to arise.  Because we are not saying what needs to be said.  And we don’t know what needs to be said.  Because we end the conversation at the first sign of discomfort or disagreement.

Because we give race the silent treatment.  Rather than have vulnerable conversations, we enter with our guard up.  We decide that we will only say so much.  We would rather be disingenuous than open up.

This means that our exchanges are not authentic.  Instead, we feign interest, outrage, empathy and/ or understanding.  We don’t invest much more than a head nod and a pat on the back.  “I just don’t know what to say.”  And if we are honest, we have not taken the time to learn what to say.

We don’t want to keep talking about it.  But, that’s the problem.  Conversations on race should be on- going.  We need to keep the conversation going so that the Prada bag never even makes it to the shop in Soho.

I need another word

 

See the source imageWe need new words.  I need new words, ones that roll off my tongue.  The colored ones get caught in my throat.  New being in Jesus Christ, these racialized ones don’t work for me.  They didn’t go down easily.  They didn’t stick to me.  I cannot make them a part of me, just take them when they treat me as foreign, my body no longer kin.

Race gets me beside myself, compared to someone else.  And I just want to be free.  I want this word off of me.  It has no right to rule over me.  I have something to say.  I have the final say in who I am and who I will be.  Still, race interrupts so frequently that I’ve grown tired and now it speaks for me.

Hold my tongue.

Hold my breath.

Die to self.

Die to who God created me to be.

Baptized with Christ, race should be dead to me.

Skin.

Ashes.

Dust.

I need to talk about it in the past tense.  Race was here.

America capitalizes on everything, even skin is its own kind of currency.  But, I am not buying it.  Change the market.  I want something else.  Because race is not another word for human.

No, I need a new word.