Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Help My Unbelief: Before He Died, He Lived

When we follow the Christian liturgical calendar, celebrating the birth of Jesus in December, it is only a few scant weeks until February when we begin to prepare to commemorate the crucifixion and the passion of Christ. The Lenten season comes so quickly after the Advent season that it affects how we understand who Jesus is. In our theological imagination, Jesus is born just to die. We have a fixed image of the nativity, the cradled hope of humanity in a manger. And then we replace that image, very quickly, with the crucified body of Christ on the cross. But if we are to truly understand who Jesus is, and what it means to be a follower of the man whom James Baldwin calls a “disreputable sun-baked Hebrew,” then we must fix our attention on the many years after Jesus’ birth and before his death. Because before he died, he lived.

Before he died, he lived. Jesus was Mary’s beloved son; a son who loved his mother so much that he began his public ministry at her prompting, turning water into wine at her insistence.

Before he died, he lived. Jesus nursed at his mother’s breast and learned at his earthly parents’ feet. Like all children, he played, laughed, loved, and grew in stature and maturity.

Before he died, he lived. Jesus knew every temptation common to man. He wept, he grieved, he got angry, and he lived in the fullness of his humanity. He walked dusty roads and knew weariness and hunger, homelessness and rejection.

Before he died, he lived. Jesus ate and fellowshipped with his closest companions. He loved others deeply and was deeply loved in return. Before he was Savior, he was friend and confidant.

Before he died, he lived. Jesus, facing execution as a political criminal, took time while on the cross to make provision for his mother and those he loved. He cared for the material and spiritual needs of those he held dear.

We need to know this Jesus who lived and loved, this Jesus who walked the earth fully human, but no less divine. We diminish the witness of decades spent working for justice and setting the captives free if we don’t take seriously the living, loving Jesus. We need the Jesus who loved the unlovable and forgave the unforgiveable. We need the Jesus who touched the untouchable and healed the incurable. We need a Jesus who lived before he died, so that our Christian witness is one of life and the fullness thereof, not simply one of suffering and bearing the cross. We need to know the Jesus who lived, so we can truly understand the importance of the One whom Roman authorities put to death.

Living in a moment in which so many innocent black and brown bodies suffer public and tortuous deaths, we need the reminder that these men and women, these boys and girls, lived and were loved before they became hashtags. They were fully human and fully present - before being executed by powers and principalities. And it is only by taking seriously their lives, and the potential of who they could have been, that we can then understand the utter devastation of their deaths.

Before Trayvon Martin died at 17 years old, he lived. Before he was cut down by a vigilante’s bullet, he was a high school junior, son, brother, and beloved child of God.

Before Sandra Bland died at 28 years old, she lived. Before her lonely death in a Texas jail cell, she was a sister, daughter, friend, volunteer, and beloved child of God.

Before Michael Brown died at 18 years old, he lived. Before his body lay on that hot Missouri pavement for hours, he was friend, brother, son, and beloved child of God.

Before Renisha McBride died at 19 years old, she lived. Before her death by a bullet at a stranger’s front door, she was a daughter, sister, niece, and beloved child of God.

Before Tamir Rice died at 12 years old, he lived. Before he was shot, two seconds after being encountered while playing in the park, he was an artist, basketball player, son, brother, and beloved child of God.

This Lenten season, I am reflecting on the many ways black and brown people suffer and die, both physical deaths and spiritual deaths by a thousand indignities. But, we still manage to live, love, and be loved - even in a world that has an almost pornographic obsession with our deaths. I am a follower of Jesus not only because of the work of the Cross, but also because of the life he lived before the Cross. May we spend our lives doing what Jesus modeled for us in life: fighting the forces that diminish, dehumanize, and destroy the least and the lost.

© Yolanda Pierce

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Help My Unbelief: Trespassers

I remember the first time I heard the recitation of the Lord's Prayer in which the speaker and congregation together prayed, "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." I remember it distinctly because they were not familiar words to my ear. Taught this prayer as a young girl, even before I could read, I learned to pray: "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." This version of the Lord’s Prayer - unwieldy though it may be - feels more natural in my mouth.

I am delighted to listen and share either version of the Lord's Prayer and I'm frankly happy that anyone still prays, at all. But as a lover of words, I am someone who wants to wrestle with language and to seek truth even in narrow spaces. So it is this notion of "trespass," that speaks most intimately to me, navigating life as a Black Christian woman.

To ask for forgiveness for our trespasses is to acknowledge the ways that we have willfully and deliberately sinned; it is to admit that we have ignored the spiritual "No Trespassing" signs - and that our thoughts, words, or deeds have caused someone injury. Our forgiveness is dependent first and foremost on the acknowledgement of our wrongs, those deliberate and those unintentional. Yes, we are certainly sinners in need of grace.

But to "forgive those who trespass against us" also requires the naming of sin and the acknowledgment that one has been sinned against. When someone has trespassed against you, they have crossed a line or a boundary, violating your space and your very being. When we are courageous enough to forgive those who trespass against us, it is only by first naming the infringement and the violation. We need to publicly and collectively name the forces, principalities, structures, and persons who have harmed us, continue to harm us, and seek to harm and silence us in the future. Because yes, we have most certainly been systematically sinned against.

There can be neither true repentance nor true restoration without naming the actual nature of the trespass. When someone uses language that is demeaning and degrading, calling you everything but a child of God, the sin is not merely the language they use; the trespass is the assault on human dignity. When someone commits an act of physical abuse or violence, the sin is not just a physical event; the trespass is the disrespect of a creation made in the image and likeness of God. When someone despises the flesh and the body God gave you, the sin is not simply one of hatred; the trespass is making a liar of the God who proclaimed you fearfully and wonderfully made.

To trespass on someone's land or property is to insist: "I have a right to cross into your territory, at will and on my own terms." When you trespass on the spiritual realm, it is by insisting on your own superiority and the other person's inferiority and submission. We trespass when we determine the terms of the discourse, the participants in the discussion, and we exclude those we deem do not belong at the table. We trespass every time we announce yet another conference on the future of the church, but fail to invite two-thirds of that very church as full participants and leaders in that conference. We trespass when we claim we want to have a conversation about “young people” and the church, but we refuse to listen to what they actually have to say, while we busily critique what they are wearing. We trespass when we talk about mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, but we do not deal with the stigma of shame that religion attaches to those who are imprisoned.

The wages of sin is a vicious cycle: broken people who have been so trespassed against and stigmatized, often lash out against those closest to them, and fail to critique the very powers of racism, sexism, and elitism that actually have them bound. My Lenten meditation is to name the ways I have fallen short and need God’s grace; not fear naming the forces of evil that have sinned against me; and acknowledging that both forgiveness and restoration requires truth - even painful truths - in the innermost parts.

© Yolanda Pierce

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Help My Unbelief: A Lenten Devotional

Immediately after seeing her name connected to a hashtag, I was confronted with the smiling face of Gynnya McMillen, the sixteen year old African American girl found dead in January at a detention center in Kentucky. We do not know what happened to McMillen during her one night stay at the Lincoln Village Juvenile Detention Center. We do not know whether the “aikido restraint” used to detain her, as they tried to remove her sweatshirt, hastened her death. We do not know if the failure to perform mandatory routine checks on her would have saved McMillen’s life. We do not know if the 11 minutes that passed before jail staffers discovered her and the time at which they began CPR would have made any difference. There are many things that we do not know about what happened to Gynnya McMillen.

But we do know that a vibrant, healthy black teenage girl was dead less than 14 hours after being taken from her home. We do know that she neither ate during her 14 hour stay nor did she respond to multiple phone calls. We do know that the guards did not perform a visual check after she failed to respond to offers of food or calls from her mother. We do know that she died in a cell all alone, with no one to witness her final moments of life.  And we do know that her story is simply one of countless other mysterious deaths of black men, women, girls, and boys detained in police custody.

Every picture I encounter of McMillen reminds me that she was still a girl, on the cusp of womanhood. I see in her face the promise of adulthood coupled with the innocence of childhood. She, at 16 years old, was just on the verge of “becoming;” those teen years are moments of uncertainty and yet, moments of hope. In a world that far too often denies black children the opportunity to simply be children, I look at her face and I see a child. I see the potential adult she would be and all the fullness of her humanity. And as I contemplate her death, alone in that jail cell, I grieve with the words: “felt in the days when hope unborn had died.”

I begin the Lenten season with a sense of unbelief. But is it not a faith crisis regarding the power of Christ – a Savior who heals, delivers, and sets free. Instead, I am sitting with my utter disbelief of living in a nation where Gynnya McMillen dies alone in a cell; my utter disbelief of the richest country in the world poisoning the water of its most vulnerable citizens and attempting to cover it up; and my utter disbelief of the cruelty and indifference shown to hurting and suffering people, to those in poverty, and to those bearing the yoke of racial injustice. There are days when one simply cannot believe, cannot conceive of, the levels of racism and oppression that are so rampant in this world.

My Lenten meditation is: “Help me to have faith, O God, when I just cannot believe the cruelties of this age.” It is an important prayer because I never want to become indifferent to hate and injustice. I never want to grow accustomed to children dying in jail cells alone. I never want food deserts and poisoned water to become the usual state of affairs. I want my disbelief to propel me to work harder, pray more, and turn over tables.

© Yolanda Pierce