May God give you grace never to sell yourself short, grace to risk something big for something good, and grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.
-A prayer attributed to William Sloane Coffin
Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
IN SOLEMN REMEMBRANCE OF THE ENSLAVED PERSONS WHOSE LABOR CREATED WEALTH THAT MADE POSSIBLE THE FOUNDING OF ST. JAMES’ CHURCH, HAMILTON SQUARE, 1810.
Christ have mercy.
-Text of plaque near entrance to St. James’ Church in New York City
Jesus came to comfort the afflict and afflict the comfortable.
A saying originally attributed to journalists about their work,
but adapted to the Christian context by Martin Marty in 1987
Standing on sacred ground
“We don’t know what we don’t know.” That’s been a key principle in our work with congregations, based on the idea that as disciples (a.k.a., students, learners), there is always more for us to discover in the journey of faith. We can always go deeper. That means we are ready to find new dimensions of the good news of God’s amazing grace. It also means that there can be difficult learnings about ourselves along the way, as light shines in darkened places.
Over the past couple of months, my spiritual journey has been shaped by a series of discussions called Sacred Ground, an excellent program put together by the Episcopal Church. It helps us reflect on where we’ve been, where we are and where we are called to go as church and society, based on our nation’s grim history of racial divide.
I’ve always prided myself (an attitude which usually doesn’t end well) on being a student of history and politics. I watch a lot of news. I consider myself well-informed and fairly enlightened. (Again, red flags should be going up.) But what I learned in this series has challenged and chastened me. There’s a lot of history I either didn’t know, was not taught, chose not to know, or benefited from not knowing. Separation of children from parents in indigenous communities in Maine, as just one expression of a war on Native Americans. Apparent perpetuation of de facto slavery long after the Emancipation Proclamation, through Jim Crow and mass incarceration. Chinese workers ostracized and denied opportunity to start families on the West Coast. Mexicans in Texas and California whose land was taken from them. As I traveled these ten weeks with others, the group of folks in these discussions repeatedly confessed that there was a lot we hadn’t known. Were we asleep? Were we misled? Were we too busy savoring privilege?
This Monday morning, I’m sharing the experience that I was woefully ignorant or willfully blind to histories of violence and abuse, prejudice and injustice, dynamics in which family and friends participated (as well as yours truly) for this reason. I believe that my ignorance and/or willful blindness are fundamentally spiritual issues, issues of discipleship. In RenewalWorks, we speak of the importance of pastoring the community. Addressing these issues in a pastoral way is key to the vitality of congregations, to the healing of the world, to the healing of my soul.
On recent Sundays, we’ve been reading from New Testament letters attributed to John. They talk about love, which is sweet, but with this edge. They say if you say you love God but dis your neighbor, good luck with that (my translation). Until we recognize the truth that good church people (like me) have participated in the tragic brokenness of human relations, in the systemic denigration of whole groups of God’s children in our own history, there will not be healing.
A theme in the last of our ten sessions was truth and reconciliation, the most notable example being work led by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu as apartheid fell apart in South Africa. Since that time, others have taken on this work in other contexts, based on the premise that reconciliation, healing, wholeness will not emerge without first being truthful about what has taken place. That’s true for societies, for nations. It’s true for churches. The church where I am serving here in New York put up a plaque for passersby to see. It’s a small step, but it speaks truth. (See text included above)
That’s true for us as individuals, in family relationships, in neighborhoods and workplaces, in relationships with people who differ from us. Our liturgy provides an opportunity for weekly (and if you so desire, daily) individual truth and reconciliation commissions, as the Confession invites us to consider what we have done that we ought not to have done, what we left undone that we ought to have done. The Confession offers the following statement which is true every day of my life, true before my feet even hit the floor when I wake up: I have not loved God with my whole heart. I have not loved neighbor as self.
The prologue to John’s gospel tells us that Jesus came to live among us, full of grace and truth. Lord knows, we need both. Later in the gospel, Jesus tells those with ears to hear that the truth will set them free. I’m grateful to have discovered a few of my own growth opportunities through Sacred Ground. Now I’m wondering: what are ways I can keep learning and then participate in reconciliation and healing? How would you answer that question for yourself this week?
Our Churches After Covid: Wednesday, May 12 at 7pm EST
- The Rev. Chris Harris, Associate Rector, Christ Church Cranbrook, Bloomfield, Michigan
- The Rev. Edwin Johnson, Rector, St. Mary’s Church, Dorchester, Massachusetts
- The Rev. Marissa Rohrbach, Rector, St. Matthew’s Church, Wilton, Connecticut.
We’re grateful for the insights these three will offer, and we’ll make sure to have time for comments and questions.
RenewalWorks: Connect seeks to gather folks who want to continue to explore spiritual growth as priorities in their congregations. All are welcome.
Be sure to receive the Zoom invitation by joining the RenewalWorks: Connect email list. Click here to join.