Friday, December 9, 2016

An Advent Reflection: Holy Thoughts

The phrase, “another piece of trash off the streets,” has been haunting me this Advent, leaving me unable to enjoy the beauty of this season in which the Christian world commemorates the birth of Christ. These are the words, according to Charleston, South Carolina police, that the alleged killer of 15-year-old James Means uttered while being questioned for his role in the murder of the teenager. The alleged killer, who shot Means once in the chest and then a second time in the back after Means attempted to run away, left the crime scene after the killing, had dinner, and then went visit a female friend. James Means died shortly upon arrival at the hospital on November 21, 2016, leaving behind his mother, three siblings, and many other family members and friends.

Another piece of trash off the streets…the phrase has turned over in my head, time and time again, raising so many questions: what does it mean to live in a world which views your very existence as trash that can be discarded? Is that what people really think when they see a 15-year-old black kid hanging out with his friends – trash, garbage, waste? Is it possible to kill someone, go enjoy a pleasant dinner and time with a female companion, unless you see the person you killed as trash – somehow less than human? What levels of arrogance, privilege, and hate have to be operative for someone to see himself as appointed to rid the streets of “trash?” And who gets to be the arbiter of those who deserve to live and those who, because they are deemed “trash,” can be dismissed and discarded?

I have tried listening to Christmas music, my absolutely favorite genre of music. I have trimmed the tree, decked the halls, and set the Advent calendar and wreath. I have read the Magnificat and sang “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” But all I feel is a troubling in my soul and a disruption in my spirit. I am angry that James Means’ mother had to bury her son. I am angry when I read the news and see the normalizing of racism and white supremacy. I am angry when those who consider themselves Christians refuse to speak or act against injustice, choosing instead a “safe” position of neutrality…without recognizing that "if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor" (Desmond Tutu).

And as much as I love the Christmas season, as much as I cherish the celebration of the Incarnation, and as much as I just want to just be at peace during the holidays, I have decided that my wrestling with these very human, very difficult questions is also holy. Because the ancient Advent story itself raises pressing contemporary questions with which Christians must wrestle.

There are mothers, like Mary, who cradle their sons at night while fearing that their boys are destined to die. How do we minister hope in a world that disproportionately robs black and brown mothers of a lifetime with their sons?

There are those who are hungry and cannot afford shelter from the cold; those who find themselves (like Mary and Joseph) on life’s journey when the unexpected happens and there is nowhere safe for them to lay their heads. How do we make a commitment to helping the stranger, the traveler, the homeless, and the most vulnerable?

There is an edict from the halls of empire, like Herod’s, which places a value on certain lives but sentences others to a lifetime of profiling, surveillance, and tracking. How do we fight against injustice and refuse to participate with the forces, powers, and principalities that see some as inferior or marked for death?

These are the questions raised by ancient scripture and contemporary prophets. So let us not sanitize the Advent story, because when we do so, it loses its power. The twinkling lights, beautiful music, and little children dressed as angels that we use to mark Advent today are indeed beautiful. But we need, perhaps now more than ever, to wrestle with the messiness of Advent: a child already condemned to death by political decree; a fearful mother who had not volunteered for the task of bearing the Christ-child; a son born among the domestic animals in the humblest of circumstances; a mother who endures childbirth, dangerous even under the best circumstances, while traveling on the road; and a family that must wrestle with what will become of their vulnerable child.

Advent for the Christian is about expectancy: the Christ-child who was born and the Anointed One who shall return. But Advent is also about how we live in the world, how we model our lives after the One who was made flesh and who chose to live, breathe, work, love, and move among us. So there is no Advent apart from seeking justice for the mother in Flint, Michigan who is still bathing her children with bottled water. There is no Advent disconnected from the work of dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, which condemns some children to the social death of prisons while they are still toddlers. There is no Advent unless we are feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, while also fighting against the forces which allow the hungry and homeless to exist in the world’s wealthiest nation. And there can be no Advent in a world in which a 15-year-old boy is killed and his death is dismissed as “another piece of trash off the streets.” Because Advent means looking at those pictures of James Means and seeing the reflection of the image and likeness of God - not trash, not a problem, not a statistic – but a beloved son of God.

 © Yolanda Pierce

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Mother's Day - A Long Way From Home

Every second Sunday in May, we pause to say "thanks" to mothers. And that is an honor well deserved. No single day can capture the essence of the gift that is a mother’s love. And yet, for some of us, Mother's Day is a complicated mixture of joy and happiness, but also sorrow and loss.

For those of us who have lost mothers or grandmothers much, much too soon, Mother's Day is a time of remembering, but also for mourning. The loss of a mother leaves a hole in your life that time never heals. And so this holiday reminds you that you are a "motherless child" and that you do indeed feel "a long way from home" because of that loss, even as an adult. And for those of us who are motherless daughters, the loss of that special female bond is irreplaceable. There is no greeting card to capture both this powerful sense of loss, but also the profound wellspring of memories.

And there are others who are motherless because of abandonment, forced separation, or general estrangement; people for whom a relationship with a mother is extremely complicated for a wide variety of reasons. Not every mother is a loving mother; not every mother has made good choices for her children. Not every parent and child relationship can be summed up by a Hallmark greeting card or a jewelry commercial. So how do you celebrate an occasion with cards, flowers, and candy when you are working through anger, despair, or grief?

So I want to pause for a moment, even in this weekend of celebration, to reflect on loss, because all of our lives are shaped by it. We find it difficult to talk about, even though it is a common denominator that binds us across race, creed, color, gender, class, political affiliation, and sexual orientation. I am a motherless daughter and the loss of my mother has shaped me in profound ways. Grief and loss mold us in ways seen and unseen. This loss has left a void in my life that nothing has ever filled. Because the truth is: time does not heal all wounds…time simply softens the scars.

On Mother's Day, I pray that we will celebrate all the mothers in our lives; biological and adopted mothers; grandmothers and aunties; "play" mothers and godmothers; church mothers and neighborhood mothers. Let us celebrate the biological ties of motherhood, but let us also celebrate the power of love and nurturing from all the women in our lives, even those women with whom we share no blood ties.


Celebrate all the women who were not allowed to be mothers to their children. Celebrate all the women who cannot or will not ever be mothers. Celebrate all the women who made the courageous decision to give their children to families who could care for them. Celebrate all the women who, when left and abandoned, made a way out of no way for their children. Celebrate all the complications of motherhood...even loss.

And while you celebrate, say a prayer for those who so deeply feel the pain of being a motherless child.

 © Yolanda Pierce 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Help My Unbelief: Risen!

I join with millions of Christians across the globe in a profound celebration of the Risen Christ. It is in this miracle that I find my hope, my confidence, and my very life. My whole being worships with an utter certainty in remembrance of the cross, the grave, and the empty tomb. I love the cries of “He is risen,” offered in celebratory wonder. Sometimes, even the weather cooperates and Easter Sunday seems to embody new beginnings and new possibilities; the earth itself resurrecting from her long winter slumber as we commemorate the resurrection of Jesus.

But I am struck by the question put forth to the women who returned to the tomb after the Crucifixion, in order to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. Perplexed at finding the tomb empty, the women are asked: “why do you look for the living among the dead?” They are chastised for not remembering, or believing, that Jesus himself said that he would rise again. For some of the disciples of Jesus, this promise of resurrection seemed an “idle tale,” unfathomable in its scope and meaning. If we are honest, many of us are like the women at the empty tomb, looking for the living among the dead. Too many broken promises and too many unfulfilled dreams have made us cautious that we could dare to hope for new life.

Too many politicians have stood in our pulpits promising to support our communities, only to enact unjust legislation. Too many developers have promised to enrich our neighborhoods, only to allow gentrification to take a foothold and force us out. Too many preachers have promised a return for our financial seed, only to take advantage of the poorest of the poor. Too many authorities have promised to protect our neighbors, only to reinforce racial policing strategies. Too many teachers have promised to educate our children, only to set them up for the school-to-prison pipeline. So many broken promises…how can we believe? How dare we hope amid our unbelief?

If Easter means anything, it is a moment to pause and embrace a theology of the impossible. Impossible things have been done and impossible dreams have been achieved even in the face of death. Everyday, as poet Lucille Clifton writes, something has tried to kill us and has failed. The active and passive genocide of people of African descent has continued unabated. But we are still here. The leaders of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements have been killed, assassinated, and silenced. But the dream embodied by the Black Lives Matter movement is still here. The economic and social sanctions of Jim and Jane Crow have diminished opportunities and resources. But we are still making a way out of no way. I celebrate those who are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; those who are perplexed, but not in despair; those who are persecuted, but not abandoned; those who are constantly being struck down, but are not destroyed. This is the Easter message: new life and new possibilities emerge even in the face of death.

As I close my Lenten devotional series, my prayer is for all those individual and collective hopes and dreams that have died an early death or have been killed with harsh words, lack of support, or lack of resources. Let those dreams and desires arise anew in you. Risen, indeed!

© Yolanda Pierce

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Help My Unbelief: Holy and Silent Saturday

In anticipation of a joyous Easter, churches are preparing for one of the busiest Sundays of the year. The parking lots will be filled and the pews will be overflowing. All are looking forward to the triumphant message of Easter morning: "He is risen." For Christians, those words stir something deep within our souls. “Risen, indeed” is the joyous refrain we offer to the message of the defeat of death.

It is Holy Week and each day has a precious meaning. On Maundy Thursday, we remember the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples. On Good Friday, we turn our focus to the Passion of Christ and the suffering on the Cross. And on Easter Sunday, we declare the victory of the Risen Savior. But we often forget about Holy Saturday. In truth, our Saturday before Easter is a day filled with cooking and shopping. But I would argue that Holy Saturday is perhaps the most important day of this sacred week.

Holy Saturday is the silence of a period which straddles death and life; it is the silence of work done and yet unfinished. That silent and holy Saturday is the space between mourning and rejoicing; it is a time in which death has not yet been defeated, nor can victory be proclaimed. Holy Saturday is a time of doubt and unbelief. It is a time of a descent into hell.

Many of us spend quite a bit of our time in this liminal space that Holy Saturday represents: struggling with doubt, struggling with hell on earth, and struggling with work insistent and yet unfinished. We live in the space of justice delayed and justice denied. We live in the space of dreams deferred and dreams deterred. We cannot declare defeat, nor can we declare victory. It is a time in which God feels absent or silent. It is the pinnacle of all the times we cry to God, “help my unbelief.”

Holy Saturday is the tomb of parents mourning the deaths of their murdered children, with no hope that justice will prevail. Holy Saturday is the tomb of families at the borders who must choose between uncertain life or inevitable death. Holy Saturday is the tomb of those holding a vigil at a loved one’s bed in hospice. Holy Saturday is the tomb of a mother who must choose between feeding her babies or paying the rent. Holy Saturday is tomb of barren wombs, lack of love and healthy touch, and few choices for the future. Holy Saturday is the place where hope unborn has died.

There is a ritual in some churches which commemorate Holy Saturday. It involves blowing out candles, extinguishing all the lights of the sanctuary, and then waiting in silence, but with great expectation, for the coming dawn. Sometimes there is an empty coffin present at the altar. It is a powerful worship experience to simply sit with death and all of the various representations of death: doubt, fear, loneliness, disbelief, and weariness. You know that the dawn will come, that the lights will be turned back on, and the candles re-lit. But sitting in the silence of Holy Saturday prepares your heart for a resurrection and a rebirth.

Perhaps this is all that faith is: an assurance that even when things are at their dimmest, light will surely come and illuminate the darkness. Even in the silence, a voice can speak words of comfort. Even in the presence of death, a new circle of life has already begun. And so, during Holy Saturday and throughout our lives, we wait in the silence and in the stillness to hear the voice that says to us in the midnight hour: "be still and know that I am God."

© Yolanda Pierce