Civil Rights: History, But Not Yet Past

This month at the NEXT Church blog, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Here’s my contribution–cross-posted here. Check out the whole series!

I have a lot of friends these days who are reading books about the rise of fascism in Germany. I will leave it to the reader to consider the reason for consuming such reading material, and any resonances between that time period and our modern day. (For now, I am content with occasional binges of The Man in the High Castle on Netflix, which imagines a world in which the Allies lost World War II, and a small band of dissidents imagines a better, more peaceful and compassionate world. They call themselves the Resistance.)

Rather than fill my Kindle and nightstand with the history of Nazism, I’ve decided to focus my heavy reading on the civil rights era in America. At the beginning of the year I resolved to read Taylor Branch’s three-volume series, beginning with the 1,000-page Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963.

Some time after undertaking this project, a friend informed me that there’s a summary book that condenses this history into one volume. But I’ve committed at this point. As for how long it will take me to read almost three thousand pages? I can only promise that it will be less time than the 14 years that comprise the movement Branch chronicles.

At last year’s NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta, I heard loud and clear our call as an 89% white denomination to undertake conversations about race and racism, however uncomfortable these conversations may be, and however much some may push back at us for “dwelling on the past rather than moving on.” As I read Branch’s careful accounting of the ills of white supremacy, I consider today’s travel bans and border walls, and Iowa Congressman Steve King’s odious comment that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Meanwhile many of us carry signs and risk arrest, and we rejoice when the judicial branch puts a check on bigotry through legislative executive order. And I marvel at the truth of the words, attributed to William Faulkner, that the past isn’t dead — indeed it isn’t even past.

Like many of us, I knew much of this history only in the most cursory way. We studied civil rights in school, and I remember my AP Government teacher arranged for after-school showings of the magnificent documentary Eyes on the Prize. (He felt it so important for a bunch of white suburban smartypants to see it that he offered two additional points on our entire semester grade if we watched the whole thing. In retrospect, it was so wrenching and transforming I would have done it for free.)

I did not know, or perhaps didn’t remember, that Martin Luther King Jr.’s first major troubles with the law came when the state of Alabama tried to get him on charges of felony tax evasion related to his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. What ultimately saved him was his incredibly meticulous record-keeping; attorneys and accountants working on his behalf were stunned at the painstaking way he kept track of his expenses. I think about my haphazard financial records and how they would not hold up to such scrutiny. And I recall how African-American friends talk about learning from a young age that they must always, always “be better.”

I also offer my own confession, prompted by a section about the 1957 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Eisenhower. The bill was watered down as to be almost useless (though that didn’t stop Strom Thurmond from filibustering it for some 24 hours). Many civil rights leaders refused to support it because it was so weak. Yet King and other civil rights leaders ultimately signed on. As Roy Wilkins put it, “If you are digging a ditch with a teaspoon and a man comes along and offers you a spade,” he said, “there is something wrong with your head if you don’t take it because he didn’t offer you a bulldozer.”

As I read this section, I remembered King’s injunction that justice delayed is justice denied — and yet here he was, putting his stamp of approval on an almost useless bill. Here is the confession: I felt welling up in me a sense of self-righteous “gotcha-ism”: See! Even a civil rights icon acknowledges that progress is slow, and sometimes you take what you can get rather than hold out for real justice. Take that, Letter from a Birmingham Jail!

Except there’s a big difference at work here: I am white, and King was black. Yes, in the struggle for civil rights, sometimes the progress is slow. But there’s no way for me as a white person to push for baby steps and partial measures without getting tangled up in my own motivations: Am I really on the side of the angels, or am I trying to preserve my own sense of comfort? As an ally, it is my call to listen to the voices of people of color and follow their lead in terms of strategy. When they say it’s time to turn up the heat, we do. When incremental change is called for, they alone drive that, not my desire to placate white America.

When my kids come home from school every January with photocopied handouts about Martin Luther King Jr., I like to ask them if they knew what his profession was. The older ones are used to it by now, and sigh as they say, “He was a preacher, Mom, like you.” In my defense, I want them to know that the struggle for civil rights — whether it’s justice for the descendants of enslaved Africans, or the right of transgender people to use the bathroom with which they identity — is work we do in light of our Christian faith, not independent of it. But it’s also a sinful pride, I admit: a desire to hitch my wagon to one of the great heroes of the 20th century simply because we share a common vocation.

Reading Branch’s book, I catch a glimpse of King’s frail humanity as well as his gifts for ministry (prodigious beyond my own though they were). He soared and he struggled. He felt a strong sense of God’s call, and he wasn’t always sure which strategy was best. In that way, he resembled all of us who have had heavy hands laid on our head and shoulders, who try to do God’s will yet often muddle our way through.

The struggles of 2017 are different, yet frustratingly similar. King was a pastor, like me. But that also means I am a pastor, like King. And it’s time for me — for all of us who lead Christ’s church — to make that real.

Ten for Tuesday: Joy, Inspiration, and Tough Conversations

Here we go!

1. Robert E. Lee Worshipped Here: A Southern church wrestles with its Confederate history.

That church is St. Paul’s Episcopal in Richmond, where I am preaching all week as part of their mid-day Lenten series, a 120-year old tradition. (Wow!) It’s been lovely to get to know these people, and as it turns out, they are featured in Sojourners Magazine this very month about their efforts to come to terms with their past. Article link is above; below is a short video:

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2. Breathe Easy, Repeat.

The alumni magazine of Rice University had a great story about how Rice professors and students have helped saved the lives of preemies in Malawi through a cheap, sturdy CPAP machine made from a simple aquarium pump. Improv at its life-saving best! Proud of my alma mater.

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3. Artist Replaces Billboards with Photos of the Landscapes They’re Blocking

visible-distance-second-sight-my-jennifer-bolande-for-desertx-1When life hands you lemons, err billboards…

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4. These are the top 37 things you’ll regret when you’re old

Number 1 is travel. Some expected ones and some surprising ones.

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5. A Mendelssohn masterpiece was really his sister’s. After 188 years, it premiered under her name.

“Easter Sonata” — a complex four-movement piano composition from 19th century Germany — could only have been written by Felix Mendelssohn.

Or so thought many of the archivists, scholars and musicians who encountered it. The sonata was “masculine,” “violent” and “ambitious,” all the hallmarks of the celebrated Romantic era composer.

Written in 1829, the manuscript of “Easter Sonata” was considered “lost” for more than 140 years, until the original turned up in a French book shop bearing the signature “F Mendelssohn.” The collector who bought it concluded the “F” stood for Felix.

It took yet another four decades and a lot of clever musicological sleuthing, but in 2010 a Duke University graduate student revealed what some had suspected all along: “Easter Sonata” was not written by Felix Mendelssohn, but by his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn, herself a musical prodigy.

Fantastic! Now let’s work on identifying all those “Anonymous” works…

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6. Walls and Wells: A Prayer of Confession

Last week’s NEXT Church National Gathering was as wonderful as it is every year. Many of us were captivated by one of the closing readings, a prayer that turned out to be written by a friend, Shelli Latham. So potent for these days:

Creator of All,
of the mountains that cut jagged and purple against an infinite sky,
of the forests that pulse like a heartbeat with an immeasurable collection
of wiggles and squiggles and colors and calls.
Creator of us – Imago Dei . . . made in the image of God.
And so we busy ourselves with creating too . . .
constructing, building, branding, barricading,
policing the sacred with a limited imagination for you unlimited grace.
And so we pray,
that you might overturn our misguided architecture.
For every barrier that should be a bridge,
for every wall that should be a table,
we pray, O God,
when we build them up,
won’t you knock them down?

Click the link above for the whole thing. Turns out confession really is good for the soul.

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7. Five Self-Care Strategies That Aren’t F***ing Mani-Pedis

There’s nothing wrong with a good mani-pedi, but I loved this article and have been working on putting many of these strategies in place for myself. Wise, with some PG-13 language.

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8. Miniature Displays of Contemporary Urban Buildings by Joshua Smith

Courtesy of Colossal. These are fantastic!

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Uh-oh, that’s only eight links!

I think I’ll let that be enough, inspired by numbers 15 and 23 of the regret article above. Haha.

Have a day filled with beauty and ordinary and extraordinary courage.

 

 

The Five-Minute Journal, Tweaked. Again.

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I wrote a couple years ago about my five-minute journal practice. It’s a morning check in (with optional evening one) that’s short enough not to be too burdensome every day. (Confession: I don’t do it every day.)

A few months later, I wrote about some tweaks I had made.

Well, I’ve tweaked it again. (Improv!)

I made the changes in response to an interview I heard with Evie Serventi on the RunnersConnect podcast. She is a sports psychologist and has her clients do a number of things to get mentally prepared for races. One is to have them check in with themselves each day and write down how they feel physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

I decided this is something worth doing for me. I’m a 3 on the Enneagram, and it’s easy for that type to get focused on productivity and achievement, to the point that we lose touch with our own inner life.

So here is my new five minute journal. (It still only takes about five minutes!)

Check-in
Physically
Emotionally
Mentally
Spiritually

Gratitude
1.
2.
3.

My Enough List for the Day (three things I will do/focus on that will be enough for this day)
1.
2.
3.

Curiosity (something I’m puzzling over or wanting to pay attention to)

An Intention

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And the evening list, which I’ve been very irregular with. Oh well:

Three things to celebrate about the day:
1.
2.
3.

One thing I could have done better

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Photo by Barry Silver via Flickr and used through a Creative Commons License.

Ten for Tuesday

Onward!

1. Liz Climo is an illustrator on the Simpsons, and her cartoons are simply darling:

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2. Bees Are Awesome. This swarm apparently followed a car for two days to try and rescue its queen trapped inside.

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3. The Secret Student Group that Stood Up to the Nazis:

On this day, 74 years ago, three young adults placed their heads beneath a guillotine and prepared to die. Their crime? Speaking out against the Nazis with graffiti and hand-printed pamphlets. Their names? Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst. It was a violent end to a peaceful student movement known as the White Rose—one that used the power of language to resist the horrors of the Nazi regime.

#resist #neveragain

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4. This dude caught a baseball bat as it helicoptered toward him:

In related news, Luis Guillorme is Batman.

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5. Smithsonian Magazine is having a photo contest. Peruse and vote for your favorites here. I love this firewalking one from Binh Duong:

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6. Every New York Times Cover Since 1852. This quick video shows how and when images began to appear in the paper of record. It’s arresting and oddly poignant, to think about all of the news that came and went. We survived all of the things reported there. Perhaps we will survive today’s challenges too.

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7. Eight Changes Made to Richard Scarry Books: to keep up with the times. Love it.

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8. Tilapia to the Rescue!

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9. Your Weekly Wisdom from Mari Andrew’s Instagram: I’m making a habit of this.

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10. The Impact of a Book

A friend posted this to Facebook, a memory from a year ago. I love this art piece by Jorge Méndez Blake.

The-Impact-of-a-Book-Jorge-Méndez-Blake

What book has disturbed your well-ordered life?

 

Monday Runday: From PR to DNS?

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Been wearing my running shoes around the house as I rest and recover.

This Saturday I’m signed up to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon here in DC. It will be my third time running it.

Or… it could be my third time.

It might be?

I’m having trouble with the verbs here, because I’m not sure whether I’ll be at the start line. And if I get to the start line, will I get to the finish line?

Last Tuesday I went out for a six-mile run. Half a mile in, I started to feel a dull ache in my shin, disturbingly similar to the sensation I got eighteen months ago.

Back then, I didn’t know what it was, but little aches and pains happen all the time in running, so I kept going. I logged at least another 25 miles before I ultimately got diagnosed with my tibial stress fracture.

But when you know better, you do better. Last Tuesday I stopped immediately, walked slowly home, and haven’t hit the pavement since. I’ve been icing and rolling, and I’ve done two pool runs (a great non-weight-bearing activity) and a little strength training, but that’s it. I need to rest it if I have any hope of running RnR on Saturday.

It’s an example of the hard thing being the easy thing. It’s really hard for me to put my training on hold and rest, when I really want to run, try it out, or do the hop test to see how things are healing. But the harder thing in the short term is much easier than taking 6-8 weeks off because I couldn’t leave well enough alone.

So I’m doing all the good things I know to do.

But it may still not be enough. I will find out tomorrow, when I go for a test run. And even if tomorrow goes well, 13.1 on Saturday might still be too much.

I was training for a personal record, a PR. Now I’m hoping I don’t get a DNS or DNF–did not start/finish. I’ve had a few DNS’s, most of them when I was injured. I’ve never had a DNF.

Experiences like this can bring to light deep spiritual clutter we didn’t know we had. As a pastor and spiritual companion for all kinds of people, I’ve spent a lot of time with the question, “What did I do to deserve this?” Most of the time, there’s nothing the person did. I don’t believe that if we behave well we’ll get rewarded with a cancer-free life. Kindness to animals or paying our taxes on time doesn’t inoculate us from a job loss or a divorce.

Yet I think deep down, many of us do believe we are rewarded or punished based on our actions. We just don’t realize we believe it until something happens to us and we start casting about for explanations, or maintaining our innocence.

Eighteen months ago, I did a lot of things wrong. It was a perfect storm of ignorance, slightly worn out shoes, too many miles, and cambered streets. So yes–sometimes we suffer as a result of our actions. No denying that.

This time, I didn’t do anything “wrong” in my training. I’ve gone over it all in my mind and am fairly confident I didn’t make any egregious errors. Besides, I came back from an injury, stayed injury free, and ran two half marathons, a marathon (which I PRed) and a Ragnar relay. That’s a success!

Rather than be comforted by the fact that I did everything right, it annoys me that I may be injured anyway. (My annoyance is compounded by mildly injured runners all over the Internet who do stupid things, and yet somehow their bodies let them get away with it more than mine seems to.)

But ultimately, what does any of that matter? Would the fact that I did everything right change anything? Tomorrow’s outcome is gonna be what it is. Sometimes stuff just happens. Things go down that are out of our control.

I hate this, by the way. But it’s reality. I study and write about improv, not because it comes naturally to me, but because it doesn’t–I fight the unforeseen every step of the way, and denial + bargaining is a favorite tool. I did everything right, universe! Shouldn’t that count for something?

No, it doesn’t count for anything.

The only thing that matters in the end is what we do with the stuff life hands us. Where is the Yes-And? That is my question, or will be, if tomorrow doesn’t go well.

If RnR is off, I get to attend a workshop on Civic Engagement with some friends.

Instead of the sprint triathlon in May, I’ll sign up for the aquabike (which sounds like a fun contraption but is just a swim + bike event).

And I’ll take several weeks off, and I’ll start over. Again.

I’m not thrilled about it, but it’s all there is.