Mother Emmanuel’s Open Door

The door was open for a Wednesday night Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. It had been a busy day at this historic African-American church with several lay members being ordained to preach the Gospel. Once the festivities were over approx. twelve leaders of that church remained to listen for God’s leading from the ancient scripture.

A young white male, age 21 walked in. This was his first time and he received a warm welcome and listened as the small group shared, sang and prayed. At the conclusion when the benediction was given, he took out a handgun and murdered nine people. Each time he reloaded he uttered racist oaths.

The shooter fled and left behind a devastated church who had lost nine well-loved members including their pastor. The city of Charleston and the state of South Carolina which has a long and painful history with slavery, segregation and racism struggled to make sense of such blatant racist hatred.

This tragedy adds to the conversation on racial tension that we as a nation are being forced to have in the wake of recent police shootings of unarmed blacks and abuses of ‘stand your ground laws’ in Florida and elsewhere. It also highlights the desperate need we have to restrict access to guns.

In the midst of the heightened emotions and debate the people of Emmanuel AME Church continue to show us the way to live. Drawing upon their faith in the teachings of Jesus they offer us a way beyond hatred, beyond violence, beyond revenge.

The day after the killings, the families of the murdered stood before the now captured accused and offered forgiveness. Said Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance: ‘You took something very precious away from me. But I forgive you. And may God have mercy on your soul.’ One after another, each family member bore that same witness.

In Charleston, the church is known with affection as ‘Mother Emmanuel’. Since its founding as a church for slaves in 1820, this community has witnessed to the Good News that each person is created in the image of God and has inherent worth and beauty. It was a belief that made this church a beacon of hope during the painful days of slavery and Jim Crow. It was this belief that empowered Mother Emmanuel to be a leader for Civil Rights. And, it was this belief that enabled those victimized by an act of racist hatred, to see even their assailant as a fellow child of God, worthy of mercy and forgiveness.

On Sunday morning, just days following the mass murder, the doors to Mother Emmanuel were open. Open doorAn elderly African-American usher welcomed a little black girl to worship. He wanted her and all of us to know, that love always win. His faith was rooted in the belief that we are loved and cherished by our Creator, that there is no ‘them’ but only ‘us’.

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Beyond Gender: Imago Dei

We’ve come a long way.

Bruce Jenner the Gold medal Olympian and Wheaties All American hero,is transitioning from male to female. In an interview with Diane Sawyer and with a provocative Vanity Fair cover by Annie Leibovitz, Jenner is bringing her story to a national and international audience. In “Call me Caitlyn”, Jenner tells the story of never being comfortable with being a man and suppressing her female self.

The fact that Jenner has chosen to go public and has found a sympathetic audience, is a sign of how far we’ve come as a nation. Yes, prejudice and oppression is a reality for many who live outside traditional norms. Yet, Vanity Fair is capitalizing on the gradual and growing awareness that gender roles and sexuality are much broader than many had previously thought.

This past week I attended a presentation by the theologian Megan DeFranza. She spoke on her new book: ‘Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God’. Much of what I heard was new, provocative and compelling.

In her book Dr. DeFranza speaks of a category called ‘intersex’, people born both female and male. On a continuum some are born with a variety of female and male physiological characteristics, some with ovaries and testes. In a culture that classifies to understand, what do we do with people who transcend our categories?

Too often those who fit outside our parameters are judged, marginalized and actively oppressed. My Christian tradition has too often demanded rigid conformity toward traditional gender roles and sexual expression. In the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant traditions we have narrow parameters of who and what is acceptable related to gender and sexual identity. To confound such a tendency, the question must be asked, what do we do with people who transcend such boundaries?

Dr. DeFranza points to examples since ancient times of tribal communities who have honored those who transcend categories of gender and sexuality. Some became shaman’s and healers precisely because of their unique qualities and perspective.

Dr. DeFranza as a devout believer,also offers hope for inclusion and healing within our Christian tradition. She references Genesis chapter one, ‘In the Beginning God created the heavens and earth…Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…So God created the human in his image, in the image of God he created the human, male and female he created them. And God said, it is good.’

imago dei

God transcends gender, God is plural both male and female. God is ‘intersex’ and if it is true, that we are each made in God’s image (imago Dei), then each one of us has inherent worth. This is true wherever we land on the gender/sexual continuum. If we are more male or female that is good. If we are attracted to one gender over another, that is good. If we are both male and female, that is good.

We’ve come a long way but of course, we still have a long way to go. For those of us who grew up in the majority culture as heterosexuals with traditional gender roles, this in new territory.

Yet whatever our gender and sexual identity may be, we have much to learn from one another. May we approach this journey with humility, openness, respect and good humor. And, let us never forget, that we are each created in God’s image, full of beauty and worth.

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Forgetting Pentecost

Forgetting Pentecost.

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Forgetting Pentecost

This Sunday is Pentecost and I forgot. This troubles me in a big way. I realize for many the word has little if any meaning. But for me as a believer and as a pastor in a Christian church this is a big deal.

Pentecost is that wild, bizarre day when everything and everyone became un-hinged. A day we are told in Acts 2 when that mystery we call the Holy Spirit came upon the first followers of Jesus and they were transformed. It was as if everything became clear, all confusion fell away and each person knew that they were loved and known by God and each person knew they loved everyone and everything. Scripture says it was as if they were ‘on fire’ with this new awareness. It was a time of profound enlightenment. Everything was new. Everything was different.

And I forgot Pentecost.


It was only when Julie, my pastoral colleague leaving for vacation wished me a ‘good Pentecost’, that I realized I’d forgotten. My sermon, the music chosen, the prayers offered would have had no reference to this extraordinary day when the fledgling, fragile church of Jesus Christ was born.

My excuse for forgetting are many: I’d been away on vacation and attending meetings as a college trustee; my Mom’s health needed attending; the car needed to be repaired; families at church were in need; church meetings needed to be planned for etc.

But what troubles me is that Pentecost, when we remember that the Spirit moves in wondrous ways, had (at least for the moment) become secondary both for me and I suspect for some in the church I serve and the church universal.

What troubles me is that I know that the only path to renewal and spiritual transformation for me, the church I serve and the church universal is through openness to that great mystery we call Spirit.

What gives me hope however, is knowing that the Spirit has a habit of breaking into our carefully constructed lives and making all things new. We can’t constrain or contain the life-giving force we call the Holy Spirit.

The Good News is that Spirit comes even when we forget.

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With Thanks to David Letterman

When I heard that David Letterman was retiring after 33 years as the host of the Late Show my heart sank. I’m at the age when my generation’s cultural touchstones are beginning to retire.

I was 25 years old, fit and sassy when Dave came on the air. He was picking up the torch from my parent’s icon Johnny Carson. Over the years Dave has been my companion. He was with me during grad school and moves around the country. Dave was with me when I got married and our kids were born. He’s been there during good and hard times always able to make me laugh.

Over the years there have been two camps. Those who watched Jay Leno and those of us who were with Dave. Jay had higher ratings and from my perspective was the safe choice. One knew where Jay was going, predictable, mildly enjoyable like music on an elevator.

Dave was the un-Jay. He was the loveable curmudgeon who took you to places you’d otherwise not go. While Jay played it safe, Dave celebrated that which was weird. He was willing to take comedic risks. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t but when you tuned in you knew that Dave wasn’t phoning it in.


He also had prophetic side which challenged those with power, whether it be corporate, cultural or political. Dave got mad at injustice and called it like he saw it. He knew that some things just weren’t funny.

An intensely private person he could be wonderfully transparent as when he had heart surgery and brought out his medical team on stage to thank each of them. On another occasion when being threatened with blackmail for having a sexual relationship with an employee, Dave a married man with a young child, went public and admitted his mistake and was ready for the consequences.

On May 20th I’ll tune in for Dave’s last show. I’m glad that Steven Colbert (a cultural touchstone for my daughter’s generation) will be taking up the mantle of the Late Show. I think he too will be willing to take risks and take us to places we’d otherwise not go.

Thanks Dave. Well done.

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Smokey Bear Land

I grew up at the edge of a wetlands in suburban Rhode Island. This 100 acre wetlands became the playground for neighborhood children released from the prying eyes of parents. In that swamp the opportunities for entertainment were endless. In the summer we would catch frogs and turtles. In the winter we would skate on a pond and roast hot dogs over a fire.

All the kids knew this special place as ‘Smokey Bear Land’. There was no official designation, simply a name passed on by the children. It was a place to watch the wonders of nature unfold. I vividly remember coming across a family of Ruffed Grouse and running home as the mother grouse chased me from her brood. Another time my cousin and I found the dead body of a red fox and over the course of months we returned to watch the carcass decompose so that we could retrieve the bones and skull for a science project at school.

children in woods

In Smokey Bear Land (named for the mascot of the National Forest Service), we immersed ourselves in the cycles of nature. It was our playground and our teacher. In a time before laws protected such sensitive places we watched as homes gradually nibbled at the edges of the wetlands, from 100 acres to 50.

It has been a longtime since I was ten years old. But when I return to my old neighborhood I am glad that 50 acres remain. It is still a place where tadpoles hatch, birds nest and brook trout swim. Families still walk in the woods and are grateful that this wetlands continues to be a refuge, a home for neighbors who fly, swim, slither and walk.

On this Earth Day we know that such special places remain only because citizens like us demand and support legislation and zoning that protects. We know that all of life is interconnected and to be good stewards of our corner of the earth is a gift for the children today and for generations to come.

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Death Penalty for the Boston Bomber?

For two years the Boston metro area has been processing the trauma of the Boston Marathon bombing. Four innocent lives were taken: Martin Richard age 8, Lingzi Lu age 23, Krystle Campbell age 29 died in the bombing. MIT police officer Sean Collier age 27 was murdered in cold blood. All had long lives ahead of them leaving behind family and friends. Over 200 others were injured, many losing arms, legs, sight, hearing. In truth the entire psyche of the region has been traumatized.

The perpetrators were two brothers Tamerlan age 26 who was killed during a manhunt by police and Dzhokhar Tsarmaev now age 21. This week a jury convicted Dzhokhar of 30 counts including conspiracy and deadly use of a weapon of mass destruction. Seventeen of the counts are punishable by death.

Now the decision of whether to put Tsarmaev to death is in the hands of the jury. The jury is asked to weigh what is a just and proportionate response to the monstrous act of murdering and maiming so many. Whatever decision they come to, the jury of our fellow citizens deserves our respect and gratitude.

Of course the debate as to what is a just and proportionate response is being debated throughout the region. Which is the most fitting punishment death or life imprisonment? What do you think?

Some argue that the death penalty is the most fitting price for such a monstrous act and a deterrent to others. Some believe that the death penalty is morally wrong and never acceptable. Others suggest that the Tsarnaev brothers were seeking martyrdom (in a perverted understanding of Islam) and that a death sentence would give the younger brother what he wants.

It is an open question whether the death penalty or life imprisonment will bring any degree of justice and closure to those maimed or who lost their loved one. Each person will seek their own path towards a measure of healing and acceptance and deserve our support and prayers.

While I understand the reasoning of those who call for the death penalty I can’t agree. On a deeply emotional and spiritual level I think the death penalty further inflicts an emotional and spiritual toll upon the psyche of a community. In short there is no such thing as a righteous killing.

Surely Dzhokhar Tsarnaev must and will be held accountable for the evil he and his brother committed. I don’t buy the defense strategy that the younger brother was a follower and not the leader. Each of us are accountable for our actions.

I believe that a life in prison is an appropriate punishment. With the loss of freedom this young man will be held accountable for this rest of his life. Will this bring a measure of healing and closure to those victimized? I hope so but I don’t know.

One lesson we have learned over these past two years is that there is a deep reservoir of compassion in the greater Boston area. Drawing upon this compassion has brought out the very best in us and provided an inspiring witness to our nation and the world. My hope and prayer is that we continue to draw from this deep reservoir in the months and years to come.

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