A window into so much more

Grateful for what Allen A.M.E. on Edisto Island, South Carolina, continues to teach me…and the world.

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Whiteness or Wideness?

The guest preacher for the morning, a black man, and I were sitting on the chancel bench preparing for worship. In front of us the Rainbow choir was rehearsing their morning anthem, “There is a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” Our guest seemed distracted. Suddenly, he let out a relieved-sounding chuckle. “Oh, it’s wideness. For a minute there I thought the choir was singing, “there is a whiteness in God’s mercy.” “Thanks a lot,” I said in response. “I will never hear that song the same again.” We both chuckled some more. Then we were quiet as we waited for worship to begin. And that’s when I saw him in a new light. By him, I mean Jesus. And by Jesus, I mean the representation of Jesus encased in stained glass at the back of the Rainbow Mennonite Church sanctuary. 

As worship continued that morning, the choir began to sing again. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea. There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty…But we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own…”

And as they sang I kept looking up at this representation of Jesus who shares the same skin-tones as me.

Something shifted in me that day. It’s not that either the hymn or the stained glass window have been completely ruined. (It’s not like I’m going to tear this hymn out of the new hymnal or throw white Jesus out the window!) If anything, both of these worship symbols motivate me, a white woman, to widen my seeing and hearing. This includes understanding my whiteness and the ways my path is made wide(r) by that very fact.

In many ways this Stained theology project is an effort to widen my seeing. And thanks to funding provided by the Louisville Institute, I have had the good fortune of visiting over 50 sanctuaries (and counting!) across the country. I’ve asked church leaders from different denominational backgrounds and races to reflect on the questions listed below.

  • How do I/we participate in assigning a color to the sacred? How have I/we given whiteness a holy face in subtle and not-so-subtle ways?
  • What racial assumptions about Jesus are embedded in the art and music around us or in our individual psyches? 
  • Am I/are we aware of the racial lens through which we experience or interpret what we see and hear? 
  • And are we able to see the ways racial hierarchies are sometimes created and enforced through art, specifically art that, more times than not throughout history, assigns holiness to the color white? To put it more bluntly, shouldn’t it deeply trouble all of us—how the White American Christ has become a cultural icon of white power and supremacy?  

Below I will start including videos from the various churches I have visited. I begin with my first visit to Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, SC.

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Unlearning and Relearning

This pastoral study project, which I’m now calling Stained Theology, began in January 2022. The funding entity—Louisville Institute—hosted a two-day consultation (by Zoom) for the 25 grant recipients. It was a beautiful array of people and backgrounds and interesting projects. Click here to see more: Pastoral Study Grant Recipients 2022

Here is where I stayed during this consultation—a Church turned into an Airbnb, still with the original stained glass.

One of the most memorable and provocative presentations was led by Rev. Dr. Christine Hong. It was called “Decolonial Futures—Intercultural and Interreligious Intelligence.” Dr. Hong used the phrase “postures of colonialism” to describe the colonial frameworks or ideologies often embedded in our every day lives and that harm all of us, especially those without certain power. Unlearning these colonial postures and resisting them requires that we first see or acknowledge them as frameworks that are all around us and in us—postures that we often flex without even realizing it.

Dr. Hong put it rather starkly: Colonialism—defined simply as control by one power over an area or people— is not just a thing of the past. Rather, we are all living in a world shaped by colonialism. It is so pervasive and embedded—it’s the air we breathe. And the Church is no exception, she said. In fact, Christian spaces writ large (whether more conservative or liberal or so called progressive) are often where embedded supremacist and colonial ideologies go unexamined. We have a lot of unlearning and relearning to do, she said. All of us.

Therefore, after the consultation, I taped this slide from her presentation to the front of my Stained Theology binder. I try to review this every time I’m about to step into a new place or meet someone new or talk about my project. In case it is difficult to read, I’ve typed it below.

  • Be aware of bias and violence that emerges from white and Christian supremacy.
  • Be aware of the tendency to map over other people’s experiences and understandings.
  • Work to deconstruct that bias and white and Christian supremacy (unlearning and relearning) as part of daily life and research.
  • Be wary of compare and contract models (Christian and “Other”) and closed questioning.
  • Complexify binary thinking and models of understanding (colonialism posture wants us to think in binaries which often flattens people’ s experiences and narratives. Notice difference. See and let different narratives co-exist)

The following post will be more about what steps I took next, which was to partner with Nekeisha Alayna Alexis. Nekeisha is the Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism (ICUR) coordinator at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She also leads a team of teaching faculty, administrators and students in the ongoing work of AMBS’s strategic priority of undoing racism and building intercultural competence throughout the institution.

I’m so grateful she will be coming to Rainbow August 27-28. More on that soon.

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Seeing Color

Recently I had a dream where I was floating amongst pieces of colorful stained glass. The light was so vibrant that it was turning my skin into a kaleidoscope of colors. It was a trip!

I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that I’m starting to dream in color. It’s a sign that this stained glass window project really has gripped me, hopefully in a good way.

Even my spouse Jesse, who is legally color blind, has enjoyed accompanying me in this stained glass inquiry (at least so far!). This coming week we will travel together to Harrisonburg, VA, and spend time with a Mennonite-raised professional stained glass artist. He’s going to show us around churches in Harrisonburg where his stained glass creations are featured.

The stained glass colors and color combinations will no doubt be different in every space.

In many ways this whole inquiry into stained glass is my attempt at learning to see more deeply and in color, or with color in mind. I’m trying to intentionally work against what I learned from so many 80s pop songs fantasizing a color-blind world. I’m even having to revisit one of my favorite Janet Jackson songs, Rhythm Nation, where she sings:

We are a nation with no geographic boundaries
Bound together through our beliefs
We are like-minded individuals
Sharing a common vision
Pushing toward a world rid of color lines

While I still think it’s a great tune, I’m taking cues from an older Janet Jackson who now sings in, “I should have known better”–

I had this great epiphany
And rhythm nation was the dream
I guess next time I’ll know better

This utopian view of a color blind world or a world rid of color lines leads to so many problems. Speaking for myself, I’m in the process of trying to unlearn this “we are all like-minded individuals” way of thinking. Instead, I’m trying to learn how to analyze and interpret and SEE difference and injustices across color lines. And this includes me appreciating how my own skin color and culture impacts how I see and carry myself in the world, and how I treat others. So in short, I am trying to unlearn my tendency to minimize difference, which I believe stunts true progress toward a world where we can interact more respectfully across color lines.

Learning to see more deeply across color lines has even made me think twice about our Rainbow welcome statement:  We strive to welcome everyone without regard to race, ethnic identity, gender, sexual orientation, age, and economic or other life circumstances.

I’m curious about the words “without regard.” Is that minimizing language? What if, instead, our welcome extended across these diverse realities of race, ethnic identity, gender, age, etc.? Perhaps we could try this on for size: Our welcome extends across differences of race, ethnic identity, gender, sexual orientation, age, and economic or other life circumstances.

Reactions?

I look forward to sharing more pictures and reflections soon, hopefully of the most vibrant colors and varieties!

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“A picture is worth a thousand words…”

This oft-quoted adage rings true for me, who tends to be a visual learner (and semi-lazy reader). Perhaps that is why reading picture-less books such as the Bible is sometimes a struggle. Yes, there are plenty of illustrated Bibles to choose from, including Robert Crumb’s illustrated book of Genesis, which touts itself as “the first book of the Bible graphically depicted! Nothing left out! (It also recommends adult supervision for minors.) Any more though, I often find illustrated Bibles deeply problematic too, especially given how often God and God’s entourage is portrayed as white, as if that is somehow the “norm” or default.

So these days, while I still think images are a powerful mode of communication, I don’t see images as inherently superior as communication tools. Images, just like words, can mislead, manipulate, damage, remain ambiguous, and all out fail at communicating effectively, sometimes even at a faster rate than words. Images are loaded in other words, sometimes with the agendas of those creating them and sometimes they are exploited by the agendas of those with the power to interpret and replicate them.

It’s no wonder we as humans often clash over images (and words). What we see, how we see what we see, and what shapes our interpretations of what we see is loaded. Images, just like words, have the potential to create worlds full of wonder and/or horror, depending on who/whose you are.

That’s why, as I launch this new inquiry, which I’m calling Stained Theology (more on that later), I’m clinging to 1 Corinthians 13 of the Christian Bible, especially the words,

12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

1 Corinthians 13:12

Why this chapter of this letter, you may ask? It’s not lost on me that in the very next chapter in 1 Corinthians 14, women are admonished to be silent and subordinate. So to be clear, it’s not Paul’s specific conclusions that I cling to as much as the sad but accurate reality that Paul seems to paint of the church being a place, just like any other place, where humans have the potential to clash–to become clanging cymbals and noisy goings, to become harmfully competitive, to reason only like children, to be rude, insistent on one way, and to rejoice in wrongdoing. It’s always been this way and the potential for this behavior therefore always remains. So does the potential, I believe, for unlearning some of these behaviors and the power dynamics that fuel them.

“When you come together,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” I’m not under any illusion that this inquiry into Stained Theology will be smooth sailing and without any clashing. Some things, quite frankly, need to be torn down in order to rebuild. And yet I remain committed to the goal of creating conditions where faith, hope, and love can abide and be built up-the greatest of these being love.

So in closing: Did you know that the quote “A picture is worth a thousand words,” originates from the saying, “A thousand words leave not the same deep impression as a single deed”? How we treat one another with our words and images matter. That is the case in this inquiry and all inquiries.

This blog henceforth (and foreseeable future) will be a place for Stained Theology prompts, learnings, quotes, journaling, and yes lots of images. Probably some mistakes too. Hopefully, together, we will keep unlearning those things which need to be unlearned.

__________

Special thanks to Louisville Institute who is funding this inquiry that I’m calling Stained Theology. Click here to learn more about this Pastoral Study Project.

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Late for Easter

This year at Rainbow one of our high school students is accompanying the opening Easter hymn, Christ the Lord is Risn’ today. I hope she isn’t late, which I say only from personal experience. (My one and only debut as the high school Easter trumpeter wasn’t meant to be. Likely after rehearsal I fell asleep upstairs in a Sunday School room and no one could find me in time for the opening hymn.)  

With time, I’ve become a punctual person, which is a good trait for a pastor, especially on Sundays. And yet, I’ve learned that you can be or feel late for Easter in other ways. One can be on time and even the one with the microphone or solo, and still feel out of key/step, not altogether “there.” In other words, just because you are on time for Easter, doesn’t mean it feels like Easter.  You can know the Easter “notes” and still feel a few beats behind from where you’d like to be or where you think you should be in terms of Easter joy and hope. Again, I say this from personal experience. Pastors, too, can feel late to the Easter party and promise—some years we, too, go through the motions, hoping that the motions themselves will keep us going or just be enough.

This year I don’t want just to show up on time for Easter in a going-through-the-motions-way. I want (us) to be fully awake for what it might be like to live Easter in real time. I even wiped dust off the old trumpet case. I couldn’t squeak out a single note, but that’s ok. Fortunately Abigail has the trumpet covered this year. 

And to those who show up late or not at all, or who choose, instead, to find a comfy couch (or pew) to nap on, that’s ok too. Same for those who will undoubtedly feel as if they are half there, just going through the motions this year. 

Maybe just maybe, you will find yourself hoping, with me, for something different this year. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll find ourselves living the Easter promise, in real time.    

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It came upon a violent midnight



The police and emergency responders were called to the 1400 block of Southwest Boulevard (the same block as Rainbow Mennonite Church) near midnight on December 3. A gathering of teenagers and community members had gotten out of hand and violence broke out. Two teenagers now gone from the world—one killed by gunfire and the other died later after being hit by a car trying to get away. So many teens and families now in utter shock, their lives will never be the same. We continue to meet some of these individuals as they make their way back to the 1400 block of Southwest Boulevard to light candles, cry, and seek to make sense of something absurdly senseless.

We hope and pray that these teens and their loved ones will face the pain and hurt in ways other than taking revenge. And yet revenge is all too often the chosen recourse and as a result, the cycles of violence and retribution go on and on. More teens gone way too soon from this world. More lives forever altered—left behind grieving midnight after midnight after midnight.

Recently during a restless night, I thought about another midnight that Christians sometime sing about in December. “It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold. Peace on the earth, good will to all.”

The music associated with this carol is rather maudlin for my taste, but the text speaks truth and comfort to me, especially this year. Too many bullets have been unleashed in schools, homes, parking lots, alleyways, businesses, churches, etc. Too many guns. Period. The glorious midnight song of angels bringing and speaking peace, which I still believe can be found and heard, is too often drown out by shouts and shots.

And so perhaps I will sing (maybe cry?) these words all the louder this year. Will you join in?

“Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled, and still their heavenly music floats over all the weary world. Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing, and over its Babel sounds, the blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife, the world has suffered long; beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong, and warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring. O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.

The carol ends with a picture of humankind sending back the song of peace and good will to all. So to those who, in the days to come, will come rest and grieve along the road we call Southwest Boulevard, we hope the song of angels will come to you and touch your weariness. And to those of us who continue to worship along Southwest Boulevard, let’s listen too, for how we might let the angel’s song of peace sing through our lives and actions.    

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Liv

You may or may not have noticed these yellow ribbons near Rainbow.

They started appearing over a year ago, after a three year old named Olivia died.

You can read about it here and here. Warning: Child Abuse

Olivia’s death, and the ongoing trial associated with her death, has led to an outpouring of love and demands for justice for Olivia. There is an Olivia memorial on Steele Road that is impressive in size and scope, and absolutely heartbreaking.

Why so much yellow?

Olivia, or “liv” as she is often called, loved the color yellow.

I spent a morning recently at this memorial.

And I was left rather speechless, so I’ll let the images and this community lament do the talking.

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Holy week triggers

Every year during Holy Week I try and find ways (not always successfully) of issuing a trigger warning. That’s because the Biblical stories of Jesus’ arrest and trial includes horrific and brutal scenes–unspeakable torture and terror. Those of us haunted by the realities of violence, in varying ways and to varying degrees, are often especially triggered by these scenes.  “Tread carefully,” I tell myself (and other clergy) year after year. 

Holy Week trigger warnings seem especially important this year when many of us have the murder trial of Derek Chauvin on our minds. (Let’s please not call it the murder trial of George Floyd–as if Floyd is the one on trial). The trial is both terrible and important to witness, especially as a white person. (People of color in this country experience and witness these terrible, threatening, life-ending realities more often than any white person can even imagine, and so watching this trial may be too traumatizing for people of color.)  The sounds, the shouts, the sirens, the panicked 9-1-1 calls of that terrible day, coupled with the scenes of the courtroom–the testimonies, the defense, newly released body cam footage, and the anticipation and aftermath of a verdict–it’s a lot to think about for Christians any week, but perhaps especially Holy Week.

So along with issuing this trigger notice, I want to issue this word of hope: This Holy week I hope and pray that those of us who identify as Christians will learn better ways of existing in spaces of trauma. And I hope anyone who attends a Good Friday service will not be subjected to the glorification of suffering, but instead will be brought into a grace that meets us in all of our sufferings, helping us to rise. May God’s unending love meet us all, whatever this week brings. 

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Duh-ciples

For those of us traveling through the gospel of Luke this Lenten season, let’s take a brief look at Luke 13:31-35:

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Can’t you hear the foreshadowing? Luke, the literary genius, begins to cast an ominous pall over the story. There are references to death, three days (think Good Friday to Easter), and we are introduced to what will become our age-old Palm Sunday liturgy.

Jesus is beginning to feel the stress and weight (see Luke 12 :50). Division, violence, and abandonment are on the horizon. And it didn’t have to be this way, Jesus says. “How often have I desired to gather you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13: 34).

The weight of what Jesus is up against, the foxes out to get him–these things are clearly crushing in mind and spirit. He is watched closely and some of his onlookers become indignant by what they see Jesus do and say (Luke 13:14).

And yet Jesus continues to rise above (does this count as a pun?). He keeps people on their toes, often telling stories or parables packed full of whimsy, challenge, grace, instruction, and truth.

And so, as we consider the heaviness of the evolving story, let’s also not overlook the whimsy in chapters 14-15. And in that spirit, I’ll share these (somewhat dated) very short pair-of-bells recordings.

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