As we head toward the weekend, our nation is reeling from the challenging events of the last few days. Our week began with explosive devices in New York and New Jersey, and then, a suspect was detained. It continued with the news that three black people have been killed by police officers — Tyree King, thirteen years old; Terence Crutcher, father of four; and Keith Lamont Scott, father of seven. We are ending our week with mass protests and reports of rioting.
Many of us feel fear and anger. . .
Many of us long for real solutions. . . Some of us are afraid of our own feelings.
And ultimately, this is problematic.
Black lives matter more than white feelings.
In the face of racism and state violence, there are more than enough temptations for white people to remain silent. Sometimes, we are afraid of saying the wrong thing and causing more harm. But other times, within ourselves, we are tempted to silence our thoughts and empathy too. Rather than grapple with the reality of systemic racism, we are tempted to move toward denial and blame. And if we feel inconvenienced by it all — hearing about it, feeling through it, or acting against it — we can simply walk away from the conversation. It does not endanger our lives to do so.
And this is a total privilege, because black people and other minoritized communities simply cannot do the same. As a white person, I cannot speak for people of color or represent their full experiences. But I can share some of what I hear.
This is what I want to share today:
While white people choose whether or not to grapple with racism —
at times, fearing their feelings more than the loss of human lives;
at times, turning the shields of denial and blame into weapons —
Black people live with the threat of continual trauma.
Black people live daily with the threat of continual trauma.
We’re invited to listen, wake up to this reality, and act. Silence is a privilege. It is also a form of violence when it bolsters the very racist systems which continue to cause death, discrimination, detention, and despair.
Let’s listen and be led by black voices directly. Here is a powerful video from KevOnStage:
This is abundantly true: I am in love with writing.
Truly, I am.
This website and its blog are nearly a year old, and I want to express gratitude for everyone who has visited, read, followed along, shared, and cultivated conversations here. The last year has taught me how much I love to write, and I want to thank you for that. I am especially grateful when others have added their voices too, as it has allowed me to meet new people and hear a variety of perspectives. Thank you for your presence and encouragement.
In a multitude of ways, this last year has been an incredible journey. In addition to this blog, I have been working to form a new spiritual community called Michigan Nones and Dones. Its formation emerged as a bit of a surprise when I started a group on Meetup.com, then realized I had stumbled completely into a vision that is needed. Michigan Nones and Dones is a community for those who are “spiritually curious but institutionally suspicious.” It includes people who are religiously unaffiliated (the Nones) and people who have left traditional, institutional churches (Dones). We meet in coffee shops and restaurants to talk about our experiences and hopes for our spiritual lives. This community, its formation, and most especially, its people are a real gift.
Earlier in the summer, I was invited to a retreat to talk about this new vision and what I am learning. While I was there, a participant asked me, “So are you tentmaker?”
Now you might wonder what on earth she was asking, or how such a question might emerge out of the blue. But I knew what she meant. She wasn’t curious if I am especially adept at designing tents. I’m definitely not! She was referring to a type of ministry service.
Tentmakers are people who practice forms of ministry without pay, as they are funded through alternative means. The term has its origin in the 1st century with the Apostle Paul who traveled around Asia Minor, forming new churches and funding his work by making tents. At the time of her question this summer, while so much was in process (and these days, it still is) I answered, “Yes.” Then after a short pause, I added, “But I don’t know what my tent is!” We laughed.
This is why I am featuring a photo of tent this morning. This amazing, emerging calling of writing has become as a bit of a tent. It is “that other thing I do,” except it’s not simply a side project. I have discovered that I am truly in love with writing. It is a part of this new chapter.
This work will always remain free of charge. So in that sense, it’s not really a tent. Perhaps I need a tent for this emerging tent! But it has occurred to me, in part because folks actually ask (thank you!) that people would love to support what I do, especially this tent of writing.
So today, I am offering that opportunity if you so desire. If you would like to give a gift to this work at Smuggling Grace, you can go to this link and donate: Support Smuggling Grace. Your gift of any size contributes toward the cost of maintaining this site, and it supports all those coffee and restaurant dates with this new, unfolding community.
[The Garfield Bulldog football team takes a knee during the national anthem Friday at the Southwest Athletic Complex. Visiting Garfield played West Seattle. Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times.]
Over the last few days, people have posted news stories and videos on social media, accompanied with feelings of anger, dismay, and pain about the violent death of Terence Crutcher at the hands of police officers. Let’s just go ahead and call it what it is — state violence and murder.
Terence Crutcher’s vehicle broke down on the interstate. He was on his way home from the community college where he takes classes, and with a stalled SUV, he was in need of aid. He committed no crime, and he had no weapon. As it circled above, a helicopter captured video. Police cars nearby also captured the footage. While the video is recording, Terence Crutcher holds his hands up and complies with orders. From the helicopter, we hear someone say that he looks like a “bad dude.” On what basis does he make such assumptions and assertions?
We never hear the words that are spoken on the ground, but there is no lunge or act of aggression in that video, even in defense as police officers have their weapons drawn. Instead, suddenly, there’s a man dying on the pavement from gunshot wounds, and officers do nothing to render aid. Instead, one begins to console Betty Shelby, the police officer who shot Terence Crutcher. They do not assist his dying body. They do not console him as a person.
Terence Crutcher, a beloved father of four children, church leader, student, musician, and friend is now additionally one more unarmed, black person killed for no crime and no aggression. And the nation waits again, sadly expecting more of the same. When police officers practice brutality and exact violent death of unarmed citizens, especially citizens of color, they rarely face accountability in the justice system.
The police officers who killed Tamir Rice, Natasha McKenna, Eric Garner, Aura Rosser, and John Crawford never went to trial. Four police officers were indicted in connection to the death of Freddie Gray, but in the end, none of them was held responsible. There are other examples also.
I do not paint all police officers with a broad brush, as I know they do not all behave in these ways. But we have a larger system of injustice and a code of silence which keeps accountability from being realized. This renders safety unrealized.
So today, I want to say this clearly:
This is the reason Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during the national anthem.
It is not to disrespect veterans.
It is not to disrespect patriots.
It is a cry and a call for respect —
respect for people of color,
respect for their value,
respect for their lives, and
respect for their families.
It is a cry and a call for respect
to live in a nation without
state violence, and
Or we can just add our misplaced outrage to the young students who follow Colin Kaepernick in protest. They are experiencing lowered grades and death threats for taking a knee or refusing to stand. By all means, if we have no empathy or decency, we can just place all of our outrage there.
This is an intriguing parable. And if you’re wondering, “What is Jesus really saying here, and what does it all mean?” you’re in good company. This parable about the dishonest manager is only found in the Gospel according to Luke. It shows up in the Revised Common Lectionary once every three years, and each time it rolls around, pastors all around the world scratch their heads, and wonder, “What does this mean? And what should I say about this parable?”
It turns out that pastors and preachers are in good company too because Biblical scholars are also unsure of what to make of this parable. They aren’t convinced about how to interpret it. There are many unique details in this parable which speak directly to the culture in which it was told and then later written, and we just don’t have a clear window to view how those details functioned.
But with boldness and humility, let’s just go ahead and dig in.
So a rich man had a manager, and he heard that the manager was squandering the property. “What is this I hear about you?” he asked. “Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”
The manager must have panicked, realizing he was going to lose this position. What could he possibly do next? What if his reputation was about to be ruined, and there would be no future opportunities? He said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” So he came up with a plan, and this is where the parable becomes particularly interesting. The manager said, “I have decided what to do, so that when I’m dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” He comes up with an intriguing plan and then gets to work.
One by one, he contacts the debtors of the rich man and reduces their debt. “How much do you owe my master?”
“A hundred jugs of olive oil? Okay, take your bill and make it fifty.”
“A hundred containers of wheat? Okay, take your bill and make it eighty.”
One by one, the manager contacts all the debtors and puts this plan into place. Here’s something scholars simply do not know: How do these actions square up with the customs of the day? Is the manager doing something illegal? Is he reducing the debt by his own commission, relieving the debtor but taking the hit himself? Something else? We’re just not sure.
But we know what comes next in the story. The rich man discovers what the manager has been doing, and he commends him for acting shrewdly. We don’t know if he gets to keep his job or not, but we do know he is commended.
And here’s where we might get more confused. Jesus commends the manager too. He says, “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” What does that mean? Is Jesus truly commending dishonesty? Surely not, so is he being sarcastic? Something else? Even scholars aren’t sure.
But his next words offer much for us to ponder. Jesus says, “Whoever is faithful in very little, is also faithful in very much; and whoever is dishonest in very little, is also dishonest in very much.” Perhaps this statement reveals something about character. Or perhaps it encourages the disciples, reminding them that their faithfulness in the small things is truly having a large impact of faithfulness. Perhaps it charges the disciples to serve faithfully with what all that is before them, acknowledging that God is about to entrust them with larger things.
Then Jesus says, “If you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” If we’re not faithful with what we have in this world, how will we be able to enter a reality of deeper meaning and connection? How will we see, know, and participate in the Kingdom of God?
And Jesus finishes with this statement. Perhaps it is the culmination of where he is going and an interpretive lens for the rest: “And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
This is one of those deeply convicting and deeply troubling statements of scripture because it’s easy to nod our heads in agreement but then struggle in our hearts with our own wealth or our ideas about how wealth should function in our world. Money is not evil in and of itself. It’s a resource and a valuable one. But it’s also a powerful one. Our relationship with wealth and our ideas about how wealth should function can become idolatrous.
So here we are. . . with a challenging parable. It’s challenging to understand and interpret, and it challenges us as we consider how God calls us to live our physical and spiritual lives. There are many directions we might go because the parable is so complex, and this is a reminder that we are invited to have a humble relationship with scripture. Before scripture, we are always invited to ask God, “What are you revealing in my heart today? Which part do I especially need to ponder? How are you calling me to act in the world? What are you asking of our church? How can we live faithfully as disciples toward our neighbors?”
And with all these questions swirling about, it’s also a good reminder that each one of us, and all of us collectively, are always part of the sermon on Sunday morning. The sermon does not belong ultimately to the preacher. It’s not something that can be fully contained on pieces of paper, or in my case today, an iPad. It is not encapsulated in a link or a recording that will be placed on the church website later. The sermon is a moment we all participate in, and every holy conviction in this room is a part of it. Every action lived in response to this scripture today is part of the sermon. You are co-preachers with your thoughts, words, and actions. We live this moment together. So how is God calling each one of us, and all of us collectively because we’ve gathered around this parable today? I wonder how that answer will emerge.
I will lift up one particular observation about this parable. Most weeks, I listen to a wonderful podcast. It’s called the Pulpit Fiction Podcast. The two co-hosts of the show delve into the scriptures which are about to appear in Sunday worship. They call their show a “lectionary podcast for preachers, seekers, and Bible geeks.” So if you fit into any of those categories, you are most welcome to listen sometime.
This week, Eric Fistler, one of the co-hosts, said something about this parable which got me thinking in a particular way. He made this observation: Even though the manager was ultimately dishonest in his actions, he chose those actions in the service of relationship. He hoped that reducing amounts of the debtors would gain favor and build the trust of relationship as he moved forward in a new direction. In this parable, Jesus says, “. . . the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Eric Fistler invited listeners of the podcast to consider how we might use our means – wealth, time, talents, convictions, commitments, love, and compassion – toward relationships. If this dishonest manager did so through dishonest means, how much more should the children of the light use good means to build and honor relationships with our neighbors?
And what would happen if we entered a season of pondering questions about relationships. How can we use our wealth, time, talents, convictions, commitments, love, and compassion toward relationships? How can we build and honor relationships of trust with our neighbors?
I believe this is a vital question for churches. In the next few weeks and months, many congregations will enter a time of stewardship – a season to consider faithfully how to use our resources and to consider prayerfully how we might give to support the ministries of the church. Eric Peltz, a good friend and colleague, is the pastor of a congregation in Silver Spring, Maryland, and he recently published an excellent article in the Presbyterian Outlook magazine entitled, “Trusting Stewardship.” He raises the point that many of our neighbors do not trust churches. Some do not trust that they will not be welcomed fully. Others expect poor ethics from leaders.
I know this personally in my own work. I’m the organizer of a community called Michigan Nones and Dones. We often describe ourselves as a community for people who are “spiritually curious but institutionally suspicious.” Our community includes people who are religiously unaffiliated (the Nones) and people who have left established, institutional churches (the Dones). In coffee shops and restaurants, we explore spirituality and the teachings of Jesus together. We talk about our life experiences. We’re not discouraging people from having a relationship with a congregation. But we are recognizing that many of them have had painful experiences with congregations, or they are very suspicious based on what they’ve seen. Very frequently, they have felt manipulated by Christians who want to grow their churches and may view them as just another number sitting in the pews for worship. . . or just another person who might give money to sustain the congregation’s budget. They want more than that.
It’s clear that the Church needs to build a stewardship of trust. How might we use our wealth, time, talents, convictions, commitments, love, and compassion to build healthy, trusting relationships? That is something that we will answer with our lives.
Responding to God’s call, where does this parable find you today? It is a complex one, hard to interpret and hard to live. But you are co-preachers every time we gather together before scripture. So how will we live in response?
When I was 22 years old, I spent an academic year working as a substitute teacher. One day, I was assigned to a second grade classroom. Most experiences from the day were rather typical, but I became intrigued by one student’s behavior. Throughout the day, he issued a constant, verbal refrain to remind me that he was not like the rest of the children. Unlike them, he never needed to be corrected.
To the entire group of students, I would say things like,
“Okay, class, I need you to lower your voices.”
And he would respond with, “I wasn’t talking.”
“We need to stand in line as we walk down the hallway.”
And he would pipe up with, “I’m in line.”
“Eyes up here please.”
And he would declare, “I’m looking at you.”
This went on all day. The first time, it was kind of cute. Then it became increasingly annoying. Finally, it brought me to a place of curiosity, wondering what is going on in this child’s world. All day long, this refrain continued, even if I shared that he didn’t need to respond. His tone was never a huff of defensiveness. These verbal comments were spoken calmly as reminders that he made no mistakes, as if some intense form of perfectionism was already forming in his young life. When he said these comments aloud, he was reminding himself as much as he was reminding me. He needed this to be true. He needed to feel exempt from all forms of correction. His pattern was likely a defense to keep other feelings at bay. Perfectionism is frequently rooted in shame.
I have not thought of this memory in many years, but it came into my mind last night as some folks from my community were talking about racism. Specifically, we were discussing how white folks will frequently do just about anything to duck out of a conversation about race. If we* do enter, we have tendencies to remind ourselves and others that racism is real and wrong, but we’re not the ones who do or say racist things.
This is white fragility, a dangerous defense which works to keep certain feelings at bay. We don’t want to feel guilt and shame, so we remind ourselves and others that we aren’t racist.
Sure, most of us do not intend to hurt others through overt forms of racism. Yet we do make harmful mistakes, and we let stereotypes and fears go unquestioned. Most of all, we participate in systems of white supremacy which are designed to benefit and privilege white people at the expense of people of color. We inherited these systems, and collectively, we need to dismantle them.
But we can’t even begin to do that if we won’t enter honest conversations about race. We can’t even make a dent — in fact, we can create much more harm — if white folks do no internal work to recognize the internalized, racist ideas and instincts we carry within ourselves. We all have them. We were socialized to have them by virtue of the systems that surround us.
We want to feel enlightened as though we are above the fray. We are like that 2nd grade student.
The solution is not ultimately to get mired in feelings of guilt and shame. Those feelings may need to arise, but they’re not ultimately what’s at stake here.
What is at stake are the lives of people of color — lives which are subject to the violence and disadvantage of the systems of white supremacy we refuse to acknowledge. We need to question and dismantle the ways those systems operate.
An example is on my mind this morning. I encountered an important news story today: Five students who went to some of the least resourced and thus lowest performing schools in Detroit are now suing the state of Michigan, saying their constitutional right to literacy is being violated. The story discusses the perspective of one of these students: “He says he can’t even seem to get a teacher in every class. He is sick of being sent to the gym to play basketball during Spanish class because he has no Spanish teacher.” The conditions of Detroit Public Schools are inexcusable, harming the lives of young, students of color and their communities. This happens while nearby school districts with more white students flourish.
If we can’t reflect internally about racism’s role in our lives, how will we recognize that we participate in the continuation of these realities?
If we can’t talk to one another about race, how will we build partnerships to actually change these realities?
If we can’t move beyond our feelings and our “Not me!” denials, how will we ever see racism as the sinister reality it is?
Back in October, a spontaneous idea turned out to be very fruitful. I started a new spirituality group for Nones and Dones on Meetup.com. Perhaps you’ve heard the religious buzzwords ‘Nones’ and ‘Dones’ before. If not, Nones are a growing population of people who are religiously unaffiliated. Dones, meanwhile, are people who claim a religious identity but have left traditional, religious institutions behind (most frequently, Christians who have left institutional churches for good). I wanted to create a community space that feels inviting and safe for friendships and meaningful conversations, so in the group description, I knew we should say outright, “This is no bait and switch, trying to get anyone to join a church.”
Why? So many people have had experiences of showing up to an event only to discover it has a hidden, religious motive attached. To my joyful surprise, since the Meetup Group came into being, Michigan Nones and Dones has become a community. But to my sad surprise, I have discovered the depth and breadth to which people regularly feel manipulated by Christians. Though I expected some of this, the extent of these experiences is so much larger than I anticipated.
Fortunately, this is not the primary atmosphere of our community space when we are together. The participants create a different kind of experience. Personally, I concern myself with this a lot, as I am the most obvious, religiously affiliated person in the group (I’m a Presbyterian minister and often self-identify as a ‘quasi-Done;’ I love my faith and tradition, but I want to see a new wave of reform in churches). Perhaps because the space feels safe enough for it — it’s not a bait and switch — people can tell their stories authentically. I am learning so much from them. In this community, we keep the details of stories confidential, but I can say that manipulation is a common theme in the emerging narratives.
In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that for many people, their primary experience of Christians involves Christians trying to sell them something. It seems to take two primary forms:
I am trying to save you from hell. This involves a lot of techniques to convince people that their ideas and backgrounds are wrong so they will see the right-ness of Jesus and have an experience of salvation.
I suppose if someone’s belief, theology, and expectation of hell is truly that strong, it would be somewhat loving to try to save people from it. But. . . I also wonder, if you believe that God can only show grace and love to people after they formally become Christians, can you authentically love the people in front of you right now? Can you learn anything from these people, or are you the sole teacher (ahem, salesperson) trying to move them from one set of beliefs to another?
I am trying to save my church from decline. This involves a lot of techniques and marketing to sell the value of a church community to people in the hopes that they will affiliate, thus increasing worship numbers and bringing in more pledge dollars to sustain the financial needs of the community.
There’s nothing wrong with authentically welcoming and inviting others into an experience of Christian community. That can be a beautiful expression of discipleship and friendship. But. . . I think we need to evaluate which motives are fueling our invitations. Do we have authentic love and welcome for the people we invite, or are we trying to ‘get’ them back through the doors of churches to ‘get’ some form of institutional survival from them?
I recognize that these strains above seem extreme, but I find them to be very active. And I’m sad — truly so very sad — that sales, marketing, techniques, and manipulation are some of the most frequent experiences people have with Christians.
Meanwhile, however, I’m also discovering this:
People are pretty cool with Jesus.
There are a variety of beliefs about Jesus, but I find that most people, including Nones and Dones, have great admiration for him. Alongside that admiration though, Jesus has sadly become a symbol of our manipulation.
It makes me wonder then, what kind of life-giving conversations could happen around the teachings of Jesus if we were not working to convince, or if people were not bracing themselves to be manipulated? Whether folks are Christians or not, I’m also finding that many would welcome Christians following the teachings of Jesus more and more in the world.
So can we lean more fully into the love, respect, and teachings of Jesus?
If so, let’s start here:
Thou shalt not manipulate.