Episode 4: Hoodies and Fruit Salad

Finally get caught up on editing episodes! This week Ashley and Rob – and the third wheel, as she affectionately calls herself – discuss appearance and race in stores, in ministry, and in life. Also, Rob is given more grief about not drinking smoothies.

Two Normal-ish People Talk About Race – Episode 4: Hoodies and Fruit Salad

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Jesus Was the Divine’s Protest

Today we celebrate the first federally recognized Juneteenth Holiday, celebrating the day that the final slaves received word of their emancipation. We celebrate an event I…honestly, the first time I heard it, I leaned on my racist training and believed it was just a holiday black people made up.

Yes, I was that racist and well on my way to overtly white supremacist beliefs and making Jesus into a white power hero. If not for the love and care from people who wanted me to do better – and saw my desire to love more fully – I would not be the “far left” “political” pastor I am today.

I do not need to spend a lot of time on the specifics of what turned me away from racism to love, but the past 15 months has strengthened the turn in me and created a new understanding of Jesus:

Jesus – the second person of the divine walking on Earth as the completely human man Jesus – was a protest, inherently a protest against systems of oppression, systems of marginalization, systems of slavery and exploitation, systems of bigotry and hatred.

When the divine chose to walk on Earth with us, the divine chose to take a life…

  • born of an unwed mother.
  • stepson to a poor day laborer.
  • raised and often seen only as a child of the poor, backwards, uneducated part of ancient Israel.
  • being homeless and living only on the generosity of others.
  • living as a poor street preacher.
  • preaching political (read: admonishing the powers that be and prophesying the results of their greed and self-righteousness) sermons.
  • dining with the dirty, the sinful, the physically broken, the sick, and all others deemed unworthy to enter the temple – the temple God did not want yet humans built, anyway.
  • dining with the man who would betray him.
  • going to the garden despite knowing it would lead to his arrest.
  • letting church leaders successfully demand his murder.
  • letting his oppressors murder him.
  • dying from the likely most painful, drawn out, humiliating, and dehumanizing form of execution we have every devised.
  • calling his followers to follow the same path as him.

The divine chose this. If we believe Jesus could turn water into wine, heal the sick and wounded, and be resurrected after his execution, then none of that had to happen from a practical standpoint. Jesus could have chosen to increase his wealth, acquire power, and live a life of luxury and painlessness.

But for the toppling of systems to happen, for the unseating and redefinition of power and strength to happen, for the change of hearts and minds to happen, Jesus had to live this life radically and inexplicably different than the faith leaders of his time – and faith leaders of our time. He had to live contrary to the worldly values of his time – and our time. He had to stand up to the powers that be and demand change for the poor, the sick, the outcast, and the different – much the same way the faithful today must stand up to the powers that be today and demand change for the poor and working poor, the sick, the outsider with melanin levels that bring additional risk to their lives, and the different whose love causes no pain but makes some people uncomfortable and offends their restrictive theology of God’s love.

Jesus chose to sacrifice himself – the divine chose to sacrifice themself – as a protest against the evil and pain of the world. We, as believers in that divine, must choose lives of sacrifice and giving ourselves up.

Jesus was the divine’s protest against our systems of restricting and withholding love. Maybe we need to stop being offended by the protest and more offended by the pain being thrust upon the least and the lowest in the name of profit, comfort, and nostalgia.

Ending American chattel slavery did not occur because those benefiting from it had a spontaneous change of heart, nor did the Black community gain any rights denied them through spontaneous change of hearts from the white supremacists who benefited from their disenfranchisement. Everything came from hard fought battles – some literal, some metaphorical – that included protests and standing up when their oppressors demanded politeness and properness.

The first sermon our savior gave as an adult almost got him murdered. If Jesus, our messiah and the perfection of humanity, had to preach in that way to save us, maybe we all need to.

And we definitely need to listen to the message of the protest, not just recoil in the discomfort it causes the powerful and empowered.

Peace,
– Robby

PRIDE (I Love You)

I struggle with what do say during PRIDE Month (and other months recognizing and celebrating marginalized groups). I fail at “looking the part” as an ally, I really struggle with seeing the sharp uptick in “performative allyship” that does nothing to help but looks really good, and I really don’t know what to do, per se, as an ally.

I know what thought leaders and privileged progressives outside of the LGBTQ+ community tell me to do, but I don’t know what will actually bring healing, safety, repentance, and reconciliation.

But I can say this: I love you.

Your identity is a sacred reflection of God.
Your love is a sacred reflection of Christ’s love.
Your voice is sacredly empowered by the Holy Spirit.

God made you in God’s image, exactly as you most vulnerably and authentically are.

And I love your most authentic and vulnerable self.

I don’t understand the struggle of your identity being used to justify violence against you. I know my identity affords me certain privileges and safeties that an LGBTQ+ identity denies you. I see a struggle I will never have to fight for myself to simply love another people and be my most authentic self.

I don’t know your struggle, and, though I can empathize with rejection simply for being different, I never will.

But I love you, and I want to help end the pain, begin the healing, and envision a more beautiful world with nothing but authenticity and vulnerability – and safety.

I have never stated this publicly, but I will today:

I will joyfully marry you and show that God sanctifies your love.
I will welcome you into Christian community.
I will walk with you in every stage of life and learn more about you to love you more fully.
I will preach and teach about Christ’s love being for you as you are.
I will mourn – in public and private – how any church would declare you anything other than beloved and beautiful.

I love you, and I want you to safely be your authentic self. I pray I can find the way to make that more of a reality tomorrow than it is today.

Love,
– Robby

P.S.: This is not an invitation for anyone outside the LGBTQ+ community to school me on how to be an ally. Just…don’t.

A Year of Lent

A few days ago, we marked one year of all of this. Like many people – and many pastors – it feels like we never got the Easter release from Lent; we never found an empty tomb and never received the visit from the risen savior in the midst of the darkness and pain of the world.

We just experienced a year of Lent. No Easter, no Advent, no Christmas, no Epiphany, nothing but Lent. We absolutely went through the motions, singing the right hymns for the season and making sure the right paraments hung proudly for each liturgical movement, but the darkness of Lent never left us.

Or at least it never left me.

We did not just experience a pandemic. We saw 400 years of anti-Black racism come to a head – and just how much force the system will use to silence any sort of dissent. We saw anti-Asian racism used to distract from incompetent handling of a respiratory virus – and fanning anger and hatred to sow seeds of division to protect the ruling class. We saw a political system weaponize division and tear us apart by deifying an adversarial justice and political system.

And nothing got better. The world never got less dark.

We have some hope now. Well over 100 million Americans have receiving their first dose of the vaccine that will – hopefully – give us a path to being with each other without introducing risk of exposing each other to a deadly virus, but people still die every day and variants continue to prove their increased transmissibility and strength.

But still the virus of racism and White Supremacy ravage our nation. Just a couple days ago a man – taught to feel deep shame over his natural sexual desires and filled with racial hatred – killed multiple Asian women and had his actions absolved because he “had a bad day” by the very law enforcement officials we pay a lot of tax money to protect us.

All of us. Not just those who look right and/or have the correct amount of money.

The darkness of Lent never went away. At least not for me.

The holiday of Easter shines in the near distance. I find myself wondering if we will feel that relief of seeing the empty tomb this year or if Lent will continue to cover us.

Have we reached the Holy Saturday of our year long Lent? Have we finally reached the end of this liturgy of wailing and darkness? Will we experience the resurrection?

Will I see the empty tomb and have our savior enter the locked room?

It all makes me wonder: what differentiates between falling into despair and naming the reality of the darkness that surrounds us? Where do we delineate between hopelessness and the prophetic reality? Have I failed to see any hope or simply spoken the truth of God’s call in our lives and the state of what we have made God’s creation into?

I don’t know, but I have hope.

I have hope because Jesus died on the cross and so many more have sacrificed their comfort, their treasure, their livelihoods, and their lives to share the message of his sacrifice. I have hope because we can make those sacrifices, we can repent to bring about Earthly reconciliation, we can bring light into the world.

Easter did not end the story; Easter started the story. The cowards, the scoundrels, and the proud gave all of that up because they saw the risen Christ – and they gave themselves up to try to heal the world.

I have hope – reckless and idealistic hope – that our collective dark night of the soul will end, our year long Lent will get its Easter relief, and collective repentance will happen.

Darkness still covers our world, and I still long for light. My preaching and writing will speak to bringing light into the world, even if the comfortable and contented find its taste too bitter.

This is Holy Saturday; I don’t know what the empty tomb looks like, but I long for it.

Peace,
– Robby

Fearless Moral Inventory and Cancel Culture

I debated posting this because of how “hot” this issue is. I will touch a nerve that some will call political. I have selfishly avoided controversial public statements recently for a host of reasons, but I need to address a horrific trend I see happening in people I love and respected.

Real Talk: U.S. politics manufactured your outrage over the estate of Dr. Seuss stopping production and sales of six titles you have never heard of – or haven’t heard of in years, at least. The beloved classics the outraged keep bringing up and demanding be read until all of our dying breaths will still be available at every bookstore and library – with a few, radical exceptions of places the outraged would never patronize, anyway.

U.S. politics manufactures outrage to distract from bigger issues. I wish the estate had quietly just stopped selling the titles *PUTS ON CYNICAL HAT* instead of doing a press release to make the estate look more woke to sell more books to progressive millennials *TAKES CYNICAL HAT OFF* but they made their decision on how to do it and we played into the outrage game that decision gave to us.

No one got canceled and everyone got distracted from the bigger issues going on all around us. We played right into the game, and our politicians love that they can come out against “cancel culture” instead of addressing, again, all the big, life-and-death issues going on all around us.

But I cannot add anything to the direct conversation. If you want to get mad and read more Dr. Seuss, you will; if you want to stop reading Dr. Seuss – or did years ago – you will. The whole exercise wasted everyone’s time and only served to anger and divide us further.

I only even addressed it in specific as a conduit to the bigger issue this and other stories like it point to. I see something else happening here, something I have seen since everyone started screaming about “Cancel Culture” and wanting to just ignore past transgressions because they happened “in the past” and were perpetrated by our heroes and beloved creators of things we love.

After reading The Refuge and Kathy Escobar in Searching for Sunday, I have argued that Christianity and church needs to take a lesson from the recovery moment and start using the 12 Steps to guide our path of repentance.1 We, as individuals, as communities and congregations, as institution, and as the whole Body of Christ need to actively repent and do better – and give up our addiction to comfort.

(I encourage you to grab a copy of the 12 Steps a guide; you won’t need it to read this, but you might find it helpful for bits I didn’t write complete and useful later if you decide something I said resonated with you)

The first three steps you can easily mimic and declare just by sitting in the pew and saying the words. Cradle Christians have done this since their birth (adapted to fit a generic Christian repentance movement and not recovery from addition specifically):

  1. Admit we are powerless over sin and that our lives have become unmanageable.
  2. Come to believe a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
  3. Make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God (as we understand God).

Read the gospel, believe the gospel, believe the cross, and decide to put God in charge. Easy to say and easy to fake; only really requires showing up and saying the right words.

Also pretty easy to sniff out a liar, but naming that liar – even with proof – is problematic to say the least. Comfortable liars don’t take kindly to admonition, and their apologists really don’t take kindly to it.

But when you get to step four – and especially step five – just arriving at church and reading the words on the page stops fulfilling your visible obligation. We must look in the mirror and see our true selves, not the polished version we created for job interviews or the “selectively, perfectly imperfect” version we create hourly for social media. We must name our sin, name how we have wronged each other, wronged ourselves, and damaged our relationship with God.

We must name when we chose sin and its comforts over love and its sacrifices. We cannot just generically say, “I am sinful; forgive me, God,” at this point. We can no longer privately confess and only name those sins that don’t really make us look “that bad” as we have our personal, private conversation with the magic, vending-machine version of God that provides tickets out of Hell that only cost a silent confession once a week. We must name our sins, in detail to at least one other person.

We must bear our souls and say, “I am broken and sinful, and I must name the ways for facilitate healing.” Our healing and making this creation closer to what God intended requires it.

And then we ask God to take away our sin and make amends to those we have hurt.

On an individual basis this looks exactly as you would expect, and most people do not lose their mind and try to convince someone making amends they have nothing to apologize for and their feelings of sinfulness only come because culture and popular opinion have shifted.

We absolutely need to do this on an individual basis – and frankly, we need to not just encourage it in worship but give space and safety for it to happen (I don’t know what that looks like, exactly, but that’s also a different conversation). We need to acknowledge and name how we have damaged relationships and withheld love, and we need to do what we can to heal the relationship. 2

But this must go beyond our individual sins; we must confess the sins of the bodies and institutions we hold up and systems we benefit from. We must do this for God’s creation to get better and heal. We must do this much the same way Jesus did this (which got him killed).

Yet every time anyone sees something wrong in our history and says, “That’s a terrible thing that happened…” or, “That was wrong then and is wrong now…” and suggests trying rectify the situation and make amends to those hurt, sections of our society – and especially particular parts of the Body of Christ – start jumping up and own, hollering about how it’s silly and anyone offended by our harmful past actions – and present actions – are “snowflakes” who just follow popular culture.

Racism is real and depictions of non-White people – and who we consider White now but did not before – from periods of our past are incredibly racist and lift Western European and American White-ness as superior to all other races and cultures. Depictions rooted in sexism, homophobia, and any other -ism, do the same to the marginalized for the benefit and entertainment of the privileged. Continuing to publish those depictions does active and lasting harm to the groups depicted.

Ceasing publication and distribution of those images and depictions shows at least a small sign of fearless moral inventory and a step toward doing better.

I will never give Disney any room for moral authority – just, no – but I find part of the updated disclaimer they put on dated and problematic pieces they have available for viewing incredibly apt and approaching righteous (as much as I want to vomit saying anything Disney does is righteous):

“These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now.”

You don’t have to believe Disney truly believes this or says this for any reason other than financial gain to see the righteous truth and frank confession in that statement.

These things did not suddenly become wrong, and culture did not dictate our morality to us. We (royal we) do a fearless moral inventory of our society, systems, and culture, and, in doing so, learn that we did things that were wrong but acceptable when we did them. We look to both do better and make amends for our wrong actions.

As far as I read in the gospels, that sounds like what Jesus called the religiously comfortable and powerful to do.

We do all of this inadequately and constantly fall short3, but if we continue to take a fearless moral inventory – and act upon it – we can move the needle toward justice and God’s will. We can follow and embody Christ instead of fearfully and angrily holding on to what was because the fearless moral inventory might uncomfortably implicate us and taste bitter in our contentedness.

Do we refuse to participate in following God’s will for justice and sacrificial love because we might find ourselves implicated and needing to repent and take the bitter herbs, or do we follow Christ even to death – especially the death of our sinful and comfortable selves?

I think you know the right answer. I hope you choose it, and I pray for the strength to choose it myself.

Peace,
– Robby


1 I know the 12 Steps as written and published contains problematic language for a couple of reasons – gendered language for God, an implied necessity for Christian faith, etc. – but the steps themselves are a pretty spot on and incredibly challenging path to repentance. Unless you can stop sinning whenever you want, you have an addiction to selfishness and withholding love (and if you can stop any time you want, why don’t you)?

2 No one owes us forgiveness or absolution, by the way; you apologize to open the space for reconciliation and find peace yourself, not so you can receive Earthly absolution from the person you wronged. Any apology that ends with, “Are we good?” or any other request for absolution is a false apology.

3 Some (read: very few, but not zero) people do get wrongly “canceled” or have no opportunity make amends for small, past actions, but this is rare and exaggerated by those whose beloved heroes refuse to make amends for egregious past and present actions and fall victim to what some have started called “consequence culture.” I wouldn’t acknowledge this on principle, but if I don’t, it gives opportunity to discount the whole thing. I must say to those people, “Cancel Culture” for being kinda bad on social media but not awful isn’t nearly as prevalent as is being canceled standing up to the rich and powerful and not being rich and powerful yourself.

Fidget Spinners and Rejecting the Youth

I fidget, and I play with whatever object I can get my hands on to fidget. I have left an impressive trail of broken pen and mechanical pencil clips, springs from disassembled pen, and worn screw parts from being disassembled too many times. The battery compartment of almost every remote I have ever owned refuses to stay closed because I open it, spin the batteries, and close it multiple times a night.

I fidget. I never realized it until, of all people, a loan officer noticed us both playing with whatever object we happened to have in our hands during any lull – which we experienced a lot filling out the loan application. I sorta knew – again, many broken pen clips and ineffective battery doors throughout my life – but it never clicked with me until this complete stranger pointed it out.

I bought my car in 2015 – the loan officer for that car made the observation – and I now constantly notice myself doing it. Not in a bad way, mind you, but just an acknowledgement of, “Hey, that’s a thing I do.”

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary offered Transitional Ministry Week 1 online this year. To welcome us, they sent care packages with things to just make us feel better and set our learning spaces: colored pencils and mandala sheets, pipe cleaners, chocolates, a coffee mug, origami paper, Play-Doh, all sorts of things to help you focus no matter how it is you focus.

Including a fidget spinner.

It made me chuckle at first. I hadn’t seen one in a while – mine had gotten buried in the mess that became my home office when I stopped using it – and I never really used the one I had bought a lot. I also remember just how insanely popular they became – and how insanely judgmental and dismissive everyone became about them, writing them off as a distracting toy and fad. It became incredibly popular to hate on them, calling them a bad fidget solution and demanding people choose a different toy to fidget with.

(I will note that I always believed the light-up versions – and the Bluetooth speaker versions, because those existed – served no purpose and got designed to capitalized on the meme-like popularity of the object at one point. Please know I know things got out of hand, but also know money caused that, not the object nor their users.)

I chuckled remember all of this, then a thing happened: I stared using it during the first class session. A lot. I grabbed it out of my box and…just started fidgeting.

I have had a few meetings since – include a tense meeting or two. Every meeting since I first grabbed it has included me using the fidget spinner. It serves its purpose, and actually serves it very well; I even found myself using it while watching TV instead of constantly opening and closing the remote door on the new Google TV remote.

I find myself thinking about that fidget spinner more and more, but not the object itself or my use of it – though I mentioned the battery door thing to Nora and she gave me a knowing smile about all of our remotes.

No, I thought about how we just love to hate on anything the younger generations enjoy. We call their music, their cultural icons, and everything they like inferior. We call those who do not act like us immature – and those who do act like us mature – while ignoring both our own immaturity at that age and our own spiritual and moral immaturity now.

Like the fidget spinner, we condemn their idealism, their cultural influence, their learning about themselves and finding their identity, and their desire to move us toward a better and different world. We don’t understand it and, instead of trying to understand it, we just condemn it and write it off.

I can only speak so much for the secular world – it honestly never rejected me, but we never really got into a long-term relationship, either – but I can speak at length to the Church and its outright rejection of anything that questions the old guard and puts the onus for people leaving the church on those leading the church. I can speak to churches wanting youth but treating the youth like failed adults who would really love church and all it represents if they would just grow up. I can speak of the Church rejecting the teachings of Jesus – and acting like the disciples in Mark 10:13-16 – to make the Church serve their comfort and desires instead of serving the Body of Christ as demanded in Matthew 25:31-44.

I can speak to the Church being the Body of Christ in name only and not desiring to follow anything Jesus commanded that asks anything of them but a check or a couple of hours they will never miss.

Let me speak clearly: you do not have to enjoy the youth. You can dislike fidget spinners and have no desire to listen to BTS or…I have no idea; I didn’t even enjoy pop music in my youth. But condemning what the youth like as inferior and refusing to hear them when they speak, especially when they speak prophetically like Jeremiah, will do nothing but drive them away – and ultimately kill our Earthly expressions of the Body of Christ.

Some youth – and people – need things like a fidget spinner; because you do not doesn’t give you the right or privilege to call it pointless or bad.

Breathe in, breathe out, fidget.

Peace,
– Robby

Postscript: If you want something practical to take from this, I can actually use a previous thought to describe something you might take away. At the height of the “fidget spinner” craze, you could buy light-up fidget spinners, speaker fidget spinners, and all sorts of other pointlessly “improved” and “fancy” fidget spinners – including brass ones with high-dollar finishes and super intense bearings.

My fidget spinner is a 3D printed affair with a decent bearing – that did need a little bit of lubricant, but I had some spray silicone on hand – and weights on the points. Clean, made to do its job, and not distracting unless you find fidgeting distracting (which people do, but also…eh?). It does not need have things added to make it more attractive; its simplest and compete form does that already.

If you want to bring youth in and made them want to stay, making our faith into cotton candy and trying to make it more attractive by taking out the hard parts will not bring them in long-term – especially those from situations that actually afflict them instead of comforting them. No matter your age, you can only eat so much empty sugar before it makes you sick and you start rejecting it.

The youth know this, especially older youth. Adults had a year of their adult life shaken by the pandemic; kids and older youth had a formative year destroyed by the same pandemic. The youth see and hear the Church preaching love, kindness, sacrifice, and giving while its members – and often leaders – live vastly different lives. The youth read passages like Mark 10:13-16 while the church demands they be something other than what they are.

If you want youth to live in the Earthly expressions of the Body of Christ, you must listen to them, take them seriously, and treat them with the same respect and love Jesus treated with them. Because our culture no longer obligates them to the Church – and thank God for that – they have no reason to live with us if we do not follow the commands of our scriptures. In their maturation, they need spiritual food, not spiritual candy that adults so often demand of churches.

I truly believe using the unadorned calls of scripture – justice, love, and compassion lifted over proper worship – and addressing their faith and God’s call in their lives will bring youth into faith (even if it does not bring number to our Earthly expressions of the Body of Christ). Not cotton candy or “spiritual milk” but true expressions of faith without pretense or glitzing up.

And frankly, the youth see things we do not, and we must acknowledge their wisdom when they share it. If they call out our hypocrisy, we must confess to it and repent instead of getting defensive. If they see evil in the world, we must also see that evil instead of saying, “It’s always been that way.” If they mourn poverty and suffering, we must mourn with them, too, instead of callously misusing, “The poor you will always have with you.”

Jesus preached idealism, and I don’t hate that we decided realism plays better.

I cannot guarantee these attitudes and actions will increase your youth numbers – never had that motivation in my ministry – but I do know that not doing these things will drive away those who do not have obligation or built-in comfort in our congregations – it drove me away for many years. Do we desire to live as the holiest expression of the Body of Christ, or the church with the most Earthly success and hope that our programing will just make it happen?

Only you can answer that question, and only you can decide to change your heart and mind to the call of God. Know our youth see what you do and hear what you say, and they might have good and holy reasons to reject it.

How Long, O Lord?

I still have no words.

The beginning of Psalm 13 has rang in my ears since I first started watching the attack on our democracy yesterday:

“How long, O LORD?”

How long will we deny the problem?
How long will our leaders deny truth?
How long will the powerful sow seeds of hatred?
How long will can we bear the violence of weaponized discontent?

13:1 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
– Psalm 13:1-2 ESV

Lord, in your mercy…
…hear our prayers…
…hear our screams…
…hear our wails…
…hear the pain in our speechlessness…

I cannot give commentary, I cannot make more sense of it than anyone else has, I cannot even speak more truth to the powerful than has already been spoken.

I can only mourn. The America I believed in – the America promised to me by those who loved me – came under attack yesterday, or at least the illusion of and eventual hope for that America.

A misguided American – a misguided child of God – lost her life because she believed this was necessary; she was lied to and believed it, and she lost her life because of someone else’s lie.

I just…have no words anymore. I have said it all before, and today I can only mourn and pray for healing that has not come yet and does not appear on the horizon.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Come, Holy Spirit, come.
Come, Lord Jesus, come…

Blessed Agony

Pastors have a list of things they never learned before becoming pastors. We learn skills – some more useful than other – and learn about God and how to wrestle with God, but only living a call can teach you what that life entails.

You never learn about agonizing over something every time you do it. I believe every pastor has their thing – the thing they demand perfection of themselves over. When it comes, you agonize over your thing every time, worrying yourself sick and polishing imperceptible imperfections out of your thing.

(For those entering ministry: if preaching becomes your thing you agonize over every time, you cannot sustain that for very long. Find another thing to agonize over. Just, trust me on this.)

I agonize over every funeral. I put every funeral liturgy together from scratch, pulling bits and piece from every worship book I have, rewriting already beautiful prayers to make them fit slightly better, worrying about doing more harm than good. I will rewrite the opening words at least three times before I allow myself to go to the next piece. I will spend more emotion energy on the short homily for every funeral than I do for half a dozen Sunday sermons.

I agonize for hours, and I love the privilege of it. I will agonize for multiple hours today over a funeral tomorrow, I will stand there at 11:00 A.M. in the most nervous state I regularly feel as a pastor, I will humbly present my offering for a man who I never met, and I will feel the presence of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in me for just those few moments.

I will declare the love of Christ for people looking for hope and comfort in pain and loss, and for that moment I can provide just a small measure of comfort.

This moment – this moment when the weight and agony of seeking perfection makes me question everything I know I do well – fills me with such joy that I can – that I get to – do this for a family that expects nothing more than just a few words taken from a book, given by a person who has a calming and loving presence.

Maybe it ages me, maybe it takes too much out of me in a time when I have so much extra taken out of me already, maybe I should stop agonizing over every liturgy and allow sufficient to be enough, but I love the privilege of the skill and the desire to agonize over this and make it unique, good, and holy.

This is blessed agony for me, and I would never trade it for anything. These are the moments I became a pastor for.

Peace,
– Robby

Two Letters to My Beloveds

(This post started as just the first letter. I have felt the push to write that letter for months – maybe years – as a call for people after my own heart to see their real enemy and to stop serving as weapons of the powerful against other poor people.

I long to see the loving people I love vote and act according to that love and not political talking points force fed to them. I want them to vote and act according to their true identity and not a convenient, falsified identity given to them by the powerful.

Since starting that first letter, Iowa – my heart, my soul – suffered significant destruction, including 10 million acres of crops destroyed and 20% of the counties under a state of emergency. This happened to almost no acknowledgement and almost no national coverage. A forum post actually said, “I know we’re a flyover state, but still…” like being a flyover state is a legitimate reason to ignore the suffering of people.

As I thought more about the first letter, I realized I needed to write the second letter, something I have thought about for many years and wrestled with as my beliefs moved to what the American political spectrum would call “Left.”

As I write them, please read them in love and a desire love – and justice. Truly I love the people who I want to hear both. Both groups lovingly formed and molded me into a loving, compassionate, universal justice-loving pastor who truly wants the church to live as a reflection of Christ’s love, especially to the marginalized, the ignored, the impoverished, the despised.

I want the people I love to love each other and work together to make Christ’s love the definition of the church and the world.

I love you all, so I write you these letters.)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

To My Rural, White Siblings

I see you. You may take this as a liberal ploy to endear myself to you, but I do see you. I hear your frustrations and laments, and I feel your pains.

You are my heart; you always have been, and you always will be.

I know you are unheard and unseen. I come from you – you created me, raised me, and taught me how to be a pastor – and now that I find myself in an urban area serving on our presbytery council, I see more clearly how much the larger church – and the larger society – ignores you. I speak for you every opportunity I get, and my voice almost always goes unheard.

So, as I write you, I want you to hear me in love because I believe my path and your needs align. I believe a better way forward can come if we focus our anger and frustration at the people actually causing the pain and not everyone just trying to find a way to a better life, a better country, and a better world.

I have heard many blue-collar workers lament the disconnect between laborers, service workers, and the general the working poor and lower middle class, and those who govern us. A common refrain of, “I just wish someone like us would get in there; then things would be better.”

Your lament the poor treatment you receive economically. You lament how gutted your schools become. You lament that your bosses can – and joyfully do – underpay you. You lament seeing the rich keep getting richer and the poor staying poor. You lament the Sophie’s choice of either leaving the area you love – I love – and your home or working exceedingly hard to live in poverty until you die. You lament no one hearing you or caring about your pain.

I feel your pain my heart. When you hear phrases like “white privilege” while you suffer poverty with no opportunity or prospect to improve and while the people in Washington/Des Moines/Indianapolis/(insert your capital city) ignore you unless they want your vote, and then ignore your more until they want your vote again, you feel attacked while you presently suffer. You lash out – at people of color, at our “ruling class” of a different political party, at educated elites who tell you how awful and sinful you are – because no one sees or hears you.

It pushes you toward a political agenda that lies to you, saying “they” are the problem – they being the people who look different, live differently, think differently than you. If you just obediently follow a particular party, the party says it will protect you and punish “them.”  They lie to you – they do not provide for or protect you, and they only harm those who threaten their power – but at least they hear you, even if they will do nothing to help you and twist your concerns for their own greedy and racist agendas. They lie to you, but at least they do not call you “evil” because of where you live and what you believe, so you vote for them.

I get why you believe, but things continue to get worse. Their promises go unfulfilled, yet they tell you to keep believing because, eventually, you will get what you need.

Instead of seeing a system that oppresses you – that takes away your economic privilege, educational privilege, and many of the other privileges that, frankly, people like me enjoy – you only see people who want to oppress you and people who promise to stop them from oppressing you. Instead of seeing that a system built upon racism but also built upon keeping all working poor beaten down so they do not have the energy to revolt against it, the system feeds you a lie that Black and LGTBQ+ folks hate you because you are White, straight, and Christian.

They lie to you, promise fixes that will never come, and use you as a weapon to keep our anger focused laterally and down instead of up at the system that oppresses you and keeps you poor.

The system does the same to Black and LGBTQ+ people, just focusing their anger on you.

It breaks my heart when loving, gracious, good people act and vote hatefully because powerful people lied to them. You are gracious, loving, and good; I want the world to see that.

I will not lie to you and tell you the party you hate has treated you well. I will not pretend you do not get ignored and condemned as uneducated bumpkins who revel in joyful ignorance. I hear you, and I see you; I want your lives to get better, and I want people to see and hear you.

So, I will tell you what I see as someone who loves you.

In the war to control the lower classes – keep them underpaid while making billions for companies and select individuals – the wealthy have weaponized you and your pain, distracting you from the cause of it and convincing you to blame someone lower than you instead of the system.

If you blame people of color for your lack of opportunity, if you despise “educated liberals,” if you believe the LGBTQ+ community does not share your values of love, compassion, and authenticity, then you cannot see someone benefiting from hatred derived from your real pain. You become a vocal weapon in a battle pitting the poor against each other to distract from the real war of systemic oppression that, again, keeps you nearly as poor as our Black siblings and other siblings of color and nearly as minimized and ignored as our LGBTQ+ siblings.

They convinced you to righteously hate the “other” and rebel against identity politics. To do this, they have convinced you your identity aligns with theirs.

Whose identity do you actually align with?

  • A poor laborer who often loses his job because of his unreliable car and who cannot afford good work boots and tools, or a billionaire who started life rich and has never had a real job?
  • A bartender elected to a first term in office, or a senator who was first elected to public office in 1959, first elected to federal office in 1975, and has been a U.S. Senator making over the 2020 equivalent of $150,000 since 1981?
  • People told their culture is violent and they are the cause of their own misery, or people who have never served in the military sending your young people to war – causing literal violence and death?
  • People condemned by the church because of their consensual relationships and chosen identities, or people protected by the church after grooming and preying on vulnerable people?
  • People hassled by the cops, or people who the cops allow to commit crimes without repercussion – and whose political and financial influence helps them in court?
  • Normal people just living their lives and wanting basic human rights and the economic power to live comfortably outside of fear, or rich people who govern and create laws based upon donor requests and political party agendas?

If you take the race, sexuality and gender, and political party away from every person above, you look, act, and live more like the first person listed than the second. I know this, because I hear you and you raised me. I know you want a better world, I know you want no one to suffer, I know you want everyone who works hard to have enough to live comfortably; I know, because I hear you say it.

So, please do this for me. Listen to the stories of people who suffer and listen to their cries for justice. Listen and realize confessing the privilege of your Whiteness – lack of police and societal violence, representation in entertainment, etc. – does not minimize the lack privilege you have from economic disparity, educational disparity, opportunity loss, and generally being ignored by most of the system unless they want something from you. Share your own suffering and help them see that you, too, need what the system promises to provide but never does.

Unless you have vast wealth gained on the exploitation of workers, your fight for what you deserve as a human is the same fight that #BlackLivesMatter and PRIDE fight.

You have sins of racism, sexism, and homophobia to repent of, and smarter people than me have spilled more ink on the subject than a person can consume in multiple lifetimes to help you wrestle with those sins and your confession, but know that system built on racism was also built on keeping the poor, poor. It does not do the same violence to you, but it keeps you poor and ignored all the same.

Stop fighting the people the system also harms – and harms more – and instead focus your anger up at those doing the harm.

In love, my beloveds,
– Rob

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To My Justice-Focused Siblings, Especially Those of Faith,

I grew up with a definition of Christian – conservative, gun-owning, LGBTQ+ condemning, convinced of judgement upon others but not on real Christians who espoused those values – but I found myself questioning how we could believe those things that clearly conflicted with the person of Jesus attested to in scriptures. I could never reconcile my believes about Jesus and this image of Christianity.

Many of you loved me into a space where I could wrestle with the views I held and actually address the inconsistency between what I read and believed about Jesus and what I believed about the world. I have too many to name, but you telling me your life experiences – especially those beloveds of color – and embracing me as my full self unconditionally allowed me to grow and see the pain and injustice we must address.

You helped me find my faith. You helped me see the path of compassion and sacrificial love that I could not find on my own. I owe my soul to so many of you. I would not be the pastor – nor the person – I am without you.

I write you to remind you of the lesson you taught me: give special care to the suffering of ignored and marginalized.

When you call rural people privileged because of their race without acknowledging – or willfully ignoring and/or blaming the victims for – their poverty, lack of opportunity, educational disparity, and how our institutions, especially the church, ignore them, you make it impossible for them to hear you. You pass judgement for the sins of the powerful onto the powerless instead of helping them see how the systems harms BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people and that it harms them, too.

Please try to not mishear me. As I have become more vocal in my calls for justice, many racist views of people I love have become louder and more angrily and forcefully thrust at me. I do not, for a second, believe you should stop the calls for personal repentance and systemic justice. Many rural folk – especially those not encumbered with poverty – hold and act upon incredibly racist beliefs, and those beliefs cannot be ignored.

I do not want you to absolve them of the sin of racism; I only call for you to also see their pain and poverty.

We cannot equivocate rural poverty with the horrors of chattel slavery, violence against Black women and girls, white supremacy, and the unique sins of creating the mirage of race and building our system on racism. We cannot equivocate rural minimizing with violence and silencing of the LGBTQ+ community. We must acknowledge the difference in degrees of magnitude of suffering between the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities and poor, rural communities and definitively name that the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities have suffered more – especially in terms of violence and destruction of identity.

But same system that harms BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people also harms poor, rural folk. The same system that drives educational funding away from inner city schools also drives funding away from rural schools. The same system that keeps inner city laborers poor keeps rural laborers poor. The same system that enriches a select few does so in urban and rural communities.

The same system forces us to see each other as enemies instead of allies in the same war, forces us to see each other as victims of the other side instead of victims from a system of greed and weaponized hate.

The same system harms us all, and many I address this letter to do not suffer the economic and living hardships our rural siblings do because of other privileges you have – education, opportunity, location, etc.

If we want to fix the system – or burn it to the ground – and end the suffering of the marginalized, oppressed, and ignored, we must not ignore the suffering of people who look and act different than us; we must all start working on repenting of our own sins and working together instead of working to only improve the lives of those who look and act like us. For many of my justice-focused Christian siblings, that means you have to stop believing poor, rural folk do not suffer systemic poverty and marginalization.

Instead of attacking poor folk, attack the system that lies to the them and keeps them poor. Love them in the same way you loved me. Tell your stories to them, not accusingly but vulnerably and honestly. Try to not place the sins of the powerful on the shoulders of the powerless.

We cannot correct – or destroy – the system if we continue to punch those who the system has already beaten down. Punch up at your oppressors, not those the system has placed slightly above some of you only to make an ally an enemy – and so the system and pick their pockets while they focus their anger at you.

I truly love you, I truly owe my soul and life to you, I see the holiness of your calls for justice, and I long for our calls for justice to include – and come from – all oppressed peoples.

I know some of them hate some of you because of your identity, I know some of them celebrate your pain, and I know some of them refuse to understand racism and their role in it, but propaganda and lies shaped them and keep them beaten down. Given the fair opportunity, most of them would feed your – our – entire community with their last dollar instead of watching anyone go without.

They want what you cry for: to be seen, to be heard, to have enough, and to live as they want to live (as long as it does not harm anyone else). If we want them to hear our cries for justice, we must also hear their cries for justice. If we want them to see the pain and suffering of racism and homophobia – and their role in it – we must also see their pain.

Rural people value community above almost anything else; community is family to them. If we start treating our rural siblings as our community and not the other, we can help them to see their sin and also how they can fight the system with us.

We are not enemies and neither group is evil nor unredeemable; may we, as the one who know and understand, start fighting our battles in that truth.

In love, my beloveds,
– Rob

The Difference in Murders

My Facebook newsfeed has many pictures of Cannon Hinnant on it, a young boy who was murdered this past week.  And I am as horrified as everyone that someone – anyone – could murder a 5-year-old in broad daylight.

The world became darker that day.  And I cannot imagine the pain and rage his parents feel.

I weep for them. And I cannot believe I need to write the rest of this blog post.

Something dark and nefarious comes with these posts.  The refrain read, “White Lives Matter!”  Some include unsubstantiated and probably false claims the man murdered him due to his whiteness.  Comments about the “urban community” and how “awful” George Floyd was flood the conversation below the photos.

I notice one stark difference between Cannon’s murder and Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and even George Floyd: they already attested Cannon’s murder and charged him with first degree murder. 

Breonna Taylor’s murders still go free, Elijah McClain’s murders still go free, George Floyd’s murders were only charged because of a video and the protests – and only one received a second degree murder charge.

Why call for protests for this young life?  Who will you protest against?  You only need to protest justice not given, and the justice system came down hard on Cannon Hinnant’s murderer.

No one claimed his life didn’t matter, and the system declared his life mattered.

His death was senseless, and we long for something to make sense of it.  Making it about race helps the world make sense – even if horrific – and without that, we lost a little boy for no reason.

And people took advantage of that vacuum of pain and made it a story for pushing racist agendas.

Shame on you if you use a child’s death to further your racist beliefs.  Shame on you for creating a false narrative and claiming anyone – including the system – said his life was less than sacred.  Shame on you for caring less about the death of a child and more about you and your insecurities as a system of racism finds itself more reveled every day.

All like is sacred, and the justice system treated Cannon’s life as sacred.  The protests and cries for justice come because the system does not treat Black, Brown, and other lives of color as sacred.

As soon as you see people of color the same as you see this child, then you will see; until then, I cannot engage with your racism because we have no common ground.

I weep for you, Cannon. I weep for your parents. I only wish I could not believe people took your death and made it into something worse.