SPU, Ferguson, and a New School Year: A Sermon

I was honored to be asked to be the preacher at Seattle Pacific University’s Faculty Retreat this week. In the wake of the shooting on our campus at the close of our academic year last year and the reminders of our violent and chaotic world in Ferguson, Israel/Gaza, the Ukraine, I was especially aware of the weight of this moment for our faculty.


Making Words Incarnate: Anticipating a New Year in the Shadow of Violence

Good morning everyone. I would like to thank Jeff Keuss for his kind invitation to share with this you this morning. As I read the email I felt the weight of what this morning means for us as a community entering a new year even as the shadow of the previous three months continues to loom over us.

As I began to reflect and pray about what this morning and this year might mean for us, I continued to return to Mary. This might be an odd choice, but in Mary I found this particular theme resonating again and again: What does anticipation look like in the face of an encounter with something we cannot and do not understand?

This theme, I think, is particularly important for us as a place of “higher learning.” We are a people devoted to questions, to inquiry, to understanding what is not presently understood. But what happens when we experience something that we cannot stretch our questions around? Its circumference is simply too much to take in with one look, and it leaves us shaking in the few glimpses that we manage.

As we anticipate a new year we have been encountered by such a reality. The reality of a world that seemed distant has come far too near. We are a people who now know what it means to cry out and lament and question. Perhaps your first few steps back to campus were ambivalent ones. Certainly our students, many of whom were wary of leaving may now be fearful of returning. We do not simply know about violence in the world. Our community has encountered it in a real way and we are different because of it. How will our questions change, I wonder.

At this point perhaps you are wondering, “This use of Mary seems a bit off-putting, Brian.” Mary’s encounter was news of a miraculous birth and a savior at that!” In the face of such violence how does Mary point us to hope?” Yes, Mary’s encounter with the angel was certainly one of joy and hope. Her song of response begins with a litany of praises and acknowledgements of God’s goodness.

But let us not forget that these confessions are made in the face of a reality that this promise would also ask something of her. It would ask her to enter into a space of risk. She was a young girl whose people were impoverished and subjugated and as a woman was utterly dependent upon a marriage to sustain her. And yet this news declared to her that she would enter into a space of disgrace, at best if Joseph did not break off their covenant. Good news indeed?

In the face of this utter mystery and fearful reality, her question is this, “How can this be for I am a virgin?” How can this be… how can it already have happened, how is this reality already present to me? Mary does not choose this encounter or its consequences and yet her question is one of wonder… of bending herself into the presence of what has happened, to her, her people, and the world.

He has shown strength with his arm;

   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

   and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

   and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,

   in remembrance of his mercy.

Mary’s question is not the question of Zechariah, who, faced with a similarly miraculous announcement sought to find certainty in the utterly mysterious, “How will I know this is so…” but was left silent, unable to contribute to the unfolding drama that was God’s work in them and among them until the very end.

Mary’s question is an opening to the mystery, however fearful and risky it might be, to the transformation this encounter will require of her. She is now pregnant with possibility. What does our encounter mean for us? What has changed for us? What marks us now? What will our questions be?

These transformations are so often difficult to anticipate, but they come upon us in sudden moments of realization. I still remember my first trip to the mall a few days after my first child, Caleb, was born. I was getting some more film for the camera and as I was walking my heart jumped when I heard a baby cry. I had been to the mall hundreds of times before and never once had I noticed the cries or laughter of the babies or noticed the tiredness of their mothers and fathers. But when I heard that child cry on my first trip to the mall as a father, that child was my child. That mother’s tiredness was my tiredness. I could not walk through the mall without hearing new sounds. I experienced my world in a new way now.

Something has happened to us. We have been touched by the reality of the world’s senselessness but in the midst of that we also have been reminded that even chaos cannot resist love and dark cannot overcome the light. There is nothing that cannot be made new. And as we hold on to this promise will our ears hear in new ways? We have been touched with a reality that makes us different, where we do not simply know that school shootings happen, but the news shoots down our spine and makes our knees weak. How will we see differently? What will our presence in the world be now?

In this encounter we now participate, hear the reality of this world in a new way – and as we do, I wonder if we are not on the precipice of a new possibility. Perhaps this possibility is not too distant for us. Even as we gather together again it is not only our community that has been touched. This fall students and faculty will return to campus with a profound reminder of how little black bodies are regarded as Michael Brown lay dead in a street for four hours, as the cries for justice were choked by tear gas and beat back by rubber bullets, and those throughout the country who felt the pain of this community were met with steely silence or pseudo-rationalized appeals to “wait for the facts.”

Some of us return to this community still sensing the dual atmospheres of those who feel our pain and rage only to enter a new room where life roars back in as we raise our head out of the waters of suffering…

Will our bodies respond to the news of a community’s rage over an equally senseless death of its young men and women? Perhaps most communities would not know what to do with the questions connected to such senseless violence. Most communities would not know what to do with the anger that lies beneath the surface with the realization that we are not as safe as we thought.

But that community is not us anymore. Perhaps you do not know what it means to be black in America, but you know what it means to have your community marked by the intrusion of violence. You may not know what it means to be a community perpetually criminalized and marginalized, but you know what it means to try to convey with a family member the fear or sadness you feel and have them look at you with eyes that do not see you and so they never ask you anymore questions, journey with you any farther than what is comfortable for them.

You, we, are different now. We are burdened with hearing cries and joys and laments. In this encounter our community can now conceive new people.

Will we sing with Mary in the face of uncertainty and our neighbors uncertainty, “How can this be?” with a confession that God is already present. Will we allow our words conceive lives of righteousness that expose the prideful, bring down the powerful from their thrones, feed the hungry with good things?

And perhaps this is what Christian higher education might begin to mean – that we fall into mystery unafraid to become something new, something foolish. That we are unafraid of the question that makes us uncomfortable. That we are not afraid to bind ourselves to children, to questions, to causes where assessment is insufficient.

Perhaps Christian higher education begins to look more like the work of an artist where our vocation is a prophetic creativity.

I spend much of my time in the university art department just looking at the student’s work. I am in awe of the technical proficiency, but even more, I just allow the images to soak into me. But after awhile I will peak back in the classrooms and studios where the students are learning and working. And I marvel at how a few pigments became and image that could well up within me deep despair or joy. How a few scraps of wood and rubber hose set out as waste can become a structure of hope and redemption. But even more, I marvel at the artists who mingle their own pain and joy and questions, skill and technique with these seemingly insignificant materials to create something that resonates with me. Every piece of art is nothing short of a miracle. Art is incarnation.

And perhaps this is the point of Christian higher education. Perhaps this is our calling this year. In our encounter with the heinous, will we mingle our words and work and lives with the questions that seem so foreign to us? In asking “How can this be?” each day we open ourselves to the growing reality of God’s presence in our midst. We are blessed by the burden of its weight, of its discomfort, its pressure. But most of all we are blessed to participate in the reality of God’s kingdom, both already and not yet. Mary’s witness is an icon of our daily work… that the possibility of justice and love lay in the ordinary and unexpected places and even in the midst of our unknowing.

May God’s peace be with you all this year.


What Will I Do? A Call to Theologians

Police Shooting Missouri

Ferguson is not new. The cycle of provocation, harassment, and severe punishment to any response is a reality well-documented by African-Americans. We have seen the suspension of people’s rights and wonton abuse of force by the police. But while I and so many others have been lamenting, crying, shouting over television reports and twitter feeds, I can’t help but begin to feel the beginning of the slow wane of public interest. I feel the tiredness of my brothers and sisters. I feel the authorities seemingly trying to wait us out, hoping this story will pass.

But being so far away in Seattle, I have been having to ask what will I do? What will my calling and vocation look like given what I have seen? As a theologian, I occupy the space of the academy and the church. But those spaces are not isolated. They are inhabited by people who are seeking answers to questions about how they will live, who they love, how will they survive and prayerfully flourish. These people are my parish.

What will I do? As theologians we presume to teach about who God is and who we are as God’s children and what is this world that God created and that we inhabit. What will our classes look like this year? Can we really teach about who God is without considering the realities that we have seen throughout the world this summer?

So I am going to teach. My students will be introduced to a God who is transcendent and who is near. They will hear about the theological journey through the words of W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass and Lauryn Hill and Shawn Copeland. They will be asked to consider not only the individual effects of the Fall, but also the structural realities of our fallen condition. They will encounter a Christ who does not save their souls, but in his incarnation tells us that we are more than souls. But even more, that the kingdom of God is not a far away status of safety, but the presence of a kingdom that breaks down the structures of exclusion and suffering. It is not enough for us to include a few “alternative” voices in our classes. We must ask ourselves the dangerous question, “What if they are right?” If they are, you can’t just pin them to the end of the class and say your teaching is diverse. If they are right you will need to reconsider the whole thing.

But I am also going to sit on a committee. Watching the work of all those who protested so diligently at the Moral Monday marches in Raleigh, NC and having seen how the sausage is made in a university, I am beginning to realize moments are like Ferguson are not resolved in the immediate aftermath. Moments like Ferguson become the catalyst for the mundane, everyday work of revising policies, agitating for funding, changing curriculums. So I am going to sit on a committee this year and strategically choose one policy at my university that might begin to make our university more equitable, more diverse, more justice oriented.

And lastly, I am going to learn about my city. I am going to learn the histories of my neighborhoods, become aware of the policies that govern the police, learn about what is already being done and how I can help. But this is not just about policing. This is about education, about the criminal justice system. It is about a legacy of racism in this country that cannot be ignored.

There have been so many words and seemingly so little peace for the people of Ferguson. I am going to continue to prayer, to post, to shout out with them. But I am also going to pray with my life in the coming year, learning about the realities of my neighbors and working to help further the mechanisms, policies, and communities that can testify to God’s presence among us. 

What will you do? What will your teaching looking like this year? What will you risk in your committees? In your neighborhoods?

Reflecting on Ferguson with Frederick Douglass

“The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of the week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation. He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of God who made me. He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution. The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families,- sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, – leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate.” (Frederick Douglass)

In the many arguments for slavery there was an insidious and persistent rhetoric that attempted to portray slaves (and all black bodies) as lazy, violent, sexually promiscuous, and unconcerned with hard-work, family life or the cultivation of their bodily, intellectual and spiritual personhood. This rhetoric served to legitimize slavery but even more served to create an image of black bodies in the white mind. This image would serve to mediate the interactions between whites and blacks throughout the history of the United States, but even more perniciously, frame any conversation about equality, rights, violence, marriage, or any other issue that effected black America.

We see the perniciousness of this visual rhetoric on full display as America must confront yet another killing of a black man by white authorities. But even more visibly, we are seeing just effective and malleable the rhetoric, this time of black criminality, is when buttressed by the illusion of authority and militarized power. But even more disconcerting is the utter silence of so many who are watching as civil rights are being routinely ignored and a city comes under quasi-military rule, not for the protection of its citizens, but for the protection of those with power. 

But I keep coming back to this quote by Frederick Douglass. Douglass reminds us that the “so-called” problems of black bodies was not a matter of their “natural” predilections, but rather directly tied to the sinful practices of white people and their institutions. And yet, the power of whiteness is such that the response to the institutional reality (a molotov cocktail tossed against an armored vehicle, for instance) becomes an indictment of a whole people or town and thus the justification for even more violence, repression, or inequitable policies. 

Douglass’ implication of the church should be a warning to the contemporary church. While we may not teach racism in our Sunday school classes, our silence serves as a tacit suggestion that black criminality is the norm and the response of law enforcement is justified. Our silence confirms the lies of the Ferguson police who have engaged in a systematic campaign to criminalize a young black boy and repress a community. 

Perhaps our churches are not filled with women-whippers and baby-stealers, but God forbid we be the people who stand by and watch as others do the dirty work, secretly thinking to ourselves, “Well, this is what they deserve.”

The story is longer and deeper and darker than we could ever imagine. And we cannot be Christ’s body until we confess to its centrality to this story. Douglass reminds us that the attempts to silence critiques of black bodies can never be isolated from the white violences that brought black bodies to this land and perpetually worked against their flourishing throughout America’s history. 

The events in Ferguson put on display how these violences continue in America and are irrevocably bound to the images and rhetoric of what the black body is and what is justifiable. If we are Christian, how will we refuse this rhetoric? How will we disrupt the narratives that serve to diffuse the justified rage we must feel in the face of such senseless violence against black bodies in the United States?

We Should all Be Terrified

Today, do not speak to me of peace. Do not speak to me of reconciliation or “turn the other cheek.” Today we must confess. We must confess to what our nation was and is continuing to be. We must open our eyes to the way the cancer of race in America not only persists but has mutated, calibrated itself to the supposed inoculations of “multiculturalism” and “post-racialism.”

This morning we need to face a terrifying fact. George Zimmerman is a product of the “multicultural.” A mixed-race man, the son of a Latina mother and a white father, a man who identifies himself as Hispanic, killed a black boy who he identified as dangerous and followed as a suspect. The “not guilty” verdict in this case means quite simply that the [white] jury in this case deemed his actions “reasonable.” Race permeated this case, but in new ways that we cannot lose sight of.Image

To lose sight of Zimmerman’s racial self-identification is to lose sight of how race has worked in this country, how whiteness was never about biology. Whiteness has always been about a presumption of innocence, a power to judge, the freedom to exist and to be who you declare yourself to be.

Whiteness is a story, a current that generations of people have been excluded from and worked to have access to: Irish, Italians, Polish, Jewish. These were people who found themselves to be strangers on these shores, whose citizenship was in perpetual question. To varying degrees they were called criminals, lazy and seen as threats to “real” Americans. But through a mysterious process these peoples slowly became a part of the fabric of the American dream. How did this come to be? They became acceptable citizens by emphasizing their difference from the black bodies of America.

More recently we have seen waves of immigrants from China, Japan, Mexico, Korea. Their arrivals have been met with the same vehement refusal as the Irish and in so many ways they continue to struggle to be seen as citizens. But even recent immigrants are not immune from the pattern of differentiation that served earlier immigrants so well. But these various in-between bodies, even while they experience their own exclusions, are not immune from the legacy of American racial logic that deems white bodies safe and ideal while seeing black bodies as criminal and dangerous.

Zimmerman’s case reminds us that too often citizenship and freedom to name yourself, to protect yourself (your home, your job, your family) is built upon an old a tragic foundation, that “we” are not the dangerous ones, that “we” are not the lazy ones, that “we” are not “them.”

Who is the “them”? It is the dark body, brought here in shackles so long ago, whose bodies were measured by their capacity to work, to bear children. But these bodies were also feared. They were feared for their difference, they were feared for the strength, they were feared for their joy, they were feared for their faith, they were feared for their curves all of which seemed so foreign to the white bodies that were their masters.

Is the fear that fueled anti-miscegenation laws, and lynching, and Black Codes, and Jim Crow, the War on Drugs and “Stop and Frisk” policies, and racial profiling so different than the fear that drove Zimmerman to appoint himself a neighborhood watchman for his community and routinely report suspicious black men?

We cannot lose sight of the fact that Zimmerman, this mixed-race man, does not make this case less racial, but reveals how thoroughly the fear of black bodies is knit into American life. Zimmerman is not the exception; he is the image of how American whiteness continues to endure. It draws people (even non-whites) into a desire to determine their own lives, to believe in their inherent right to protect what is theirs, in their own capacity to determine what the “good life” looks like.

Today we cannot speak of peace or reconciliation. We must speak of the fear that is driving our country into wars against others and into war against ourselves. We must confess the deep terror that abides within us that allows us to justify the deaths of innocent lives because we can better identify with the fear of the killer than the innocence of the victim. We must risk these confessions lest we become lost in a quagmire of an oversimplified dichotomy of white/black. Zimmerman was a self-identifying Hispanic, deemed white by police, deemed innocent by a jury white women, all while a black boy, Trayvon Martin was as much (if not more) on trial than Zimmerman.

None of this is simple and if we have the eyes to see, we must begin to recognize how an old disease is becoming something more invisible and more dangerous. This is not about a white man and a black boy. This case is about the impossibility of seeing ourselves as untouched in this moment. All of us, recent immigrants, mixed-race, Asian American, Hispanic, black, white… we should all be terrified at how thoroughly race envelopes our world. We should all be terrified at how easy it is to see a black boy murdered and how easy it is to justify doing nothing.

So in the midst of this, my hope is not necessarily for more conversation, for more awareness or, right now, for talk of reconciliation. My hope is for confession, confession of the fear that is driving us to see the deaths of some as more reasonable than the deaths of others, the prosperity of some as more legitimate than the poverty of others.

From these confessions perhaps we can begin to see our crucified Lord more clearly, perhaps we can begin to see ourselves as we are. But if we fail to do so… God help us.

Race on the Menu: Cheerios, Paula Deen, with Some Supreme Court for Dessert

imgresIt’s been a bad month. For some reason incidents and issues of race seems to appear like death, in groups of three. They clump together, overwhelming those whom they hurt and they come too quickly for others to process.

In the last month alone:

I have been reminded of the vocal minority who resent interracial marriages (as well as the capitulation of the entertainment industry to these irrational people).

I have read in horror as one of my children’s favorite food personalities displayed the myth of how racial epithets and historical hatred somehow becomes benign in a distorted familiarity, deep-fried in butter and coated with sugar. How someone could claim to love a person and not understand the history of her words is incorrigible.

And of course, the news yesterday that the Supreme Court struck down the provision of the Voting  Rights Act that would require states with a historic record of racial discrimination and voter suppression have any changes subject to federal approval before their enactment. But even more discouraging was the logic the majority justices tried to employ in defending their decision claiming that there is simply no need for these laws any longer.

All the while, the aroma of the Zimmerman trial is also wafting from the back of the kitchen, ready to overtake us all at any moment.

There are many who are providing excellent, insightful analysis of both the Supreme Court decision and the Paul Deen fiasco. I myself am just trying to sort out the court cases, the cultural commentary, and the various viewpoints. But in the midst of this storm I keep coming back to the Cheerios commercial that caused such an uproar several weeks ago.

It was a sweet commercial featuring a bi-racial child with her white mother and her black father. While garnering wonderful support the commercial generated a surprising level of angry, hateful and racist comments. But what does a commercial for cereal have to do with Paula Deen and the Supreme Court?

It seems to me that the Supreme Court cases, the discrimination case that led to Deen’s comments and the subsequent uproar with the inevitable question, “Is she a racist or isn’t she?” all have a common root: our inability as a nation to comprehend the ways the story of race has constituted who we are, and how the visual cues of what “America” looks are so often suppressed or manipulated.

All of these moments are putting on display a deep internal struggle that many in America are having with what America is and what it is becoming. These fears are not fears of race explicitly. Instead, race takes on the face of “practical” matters such as the fear of crime, fear of unemployment, fear of new languages, fear of people who are not known. That all the redress of these fears promoted racial inequity and criminalization is somehow overlooked. Many in America are scared and the Cheerios commercial unwittingly displayed much of this raw fear.

But in my view, the trigger of the Cheerios commercial’s agitation was not the interracial couple, per se. Rather, the negative, racist outcry against the commercial displayed the difficulty many have in understanding the child… this mixed race, neither/nor, beautiful little girl… in the midst of her parents. We have seen the prevalence of interracial couples and seen interracial actors, celebrities, even presidents. But in all of these moments we see them isolated from one another, we see only the child whom we can visually locate as one or the other and thereby see as safe or “other” and inconsequential to us. Or, we see only the couple for whom we can cheer, “two people are crossing boundaries so courageously.” “Isn’t that wonderful!” “Exotic!” “So post-racial!”

But what is it about the mundane morning of a mother and a father and child bantering playfully over cereal that is so threatening? In one respect we see the terrifying normalcy of it. We see a child who is born out of two seemingly disparate people’s desire to share a life together. In the image of the child with her parents we cannot escape this choice, this decision to be with one another. In another respect, this child represents the possibility that we cannot easily disentangle ourselves from the various stories and histories and realities that flow into this child from her parents. Viewing her in the triangulation of child-mother-father, we are not allowed to dismiss her as “just a black child.”

And while we live in a very different society than the society of my mother and father, we still live in a place that sees these configurations as strange, as requiring second and third looks that move from mother to father to child and back again.

These issues of Paula Deen and her discrimination (we cannot forget the context these comments arose in), the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act, the murder of Trayvon Martin and Zimmerman’s trial are all complicated, messy, tragic moments. They are moments where, whether we want to admit it or not, race plays a vital and central role.

But I am becoming less convinced that we will be able to have rational conversations about the facts of the cases, about how race functions in our society, what the consequences for our ignorance are for people of color. We cannot have these conversations because I am not sure we have really grappled with the reality of our condition as American citizens. We do not see ourselves as we really are. While some imagine themselves as the white wife and others as the black husband, what we fail to understand is that we are all the mixed race child. Regardless of our race we are children of this interracial union called America. We are the progeny of a tragic, dark, difficult history that we bear in our skin, even while we exhibit many wonderful possibilities.

But we will never move forward until we can admit who we are.

Paula Deen failed to realize the story of the words she thought she was using in love and familiarity. She failed to realize the hostility those words bore for many who worked for her. While some may ask, “How could she have known?” We must ask of her, how can you not know the history of your people?

The justices of the Supreme Court, who seemed so certain of the progress of the United States, could not see the ways in which prejudice and injustice have morphed into new, seemingly practical modes of suppressing some to vote. “How could they know?” They would know if they accounted for the histories of poll taxes and reading requirements. They would know if their lives were at all intimately involved with the daily realities of those whom they presumed to judge. But they did not judge the facts of the case, but what they wanted to believe of themselves, that they were not the child of this interracial union that is the United States. As much as they want to believe that race is no longer an issue, they are so ignorant of their involvement in the story that they do not even realize their own participation in its persistence.

In the midst of all of these stories and even as I write, I am finding it difficult to see a way forward. I am finding it difficult to articulate an argument that could turn someone convinced that racism does not exist, to beginning to see the pernicious effects of its poison in so many facets of American life, much less in their own life. This is why, in this moment, I am not turning to analysis of the VRA’s legal framework or statistics on voting patterns and diversity in higher education, to proper definitions of racism or adjudicating Paula Deen’s “real” views of African Americans.

At this moment I am returning to the mundane disruption of a little girl being loved by her white mother and her black father. In this moment I believe the visual disruption of what America has always been might give us reason to pause. If we pause and breathe for just long enough, perhaps our eyes will begin to open to the ways all of our lives our entangled in the messy reality of race. Perhaps we will see that we are all children of this land and we are children of its tragic history. For many people of color in the US, this fact is reiterated to us in little ways and in big ways, though we all must continue to work to see its fruit in our lives. But for my white brothers and sisters especially, perhaps it is time to look at that child and begin to see yourselves, and begin to ask yourselves if the questions of the immigrant, the dark, the one marked stranger… our history, our rage… can these be your questions, your history and your rage? If not, what is preventing you from seeing a different history? a different set of problems? a different set of fears that beset so many of us?

I believe this little girl and her beloved pretend family might give us pause because I also believe that a child made all the difference for our humanity. A child born unto us gives us pause to consider ourselves in new ways. A child born unto us remakes us and our world even if we are fighting to hold on to an old one. A child born unto us makes possible an accounting of our failures and our lack of sight. A child born unto us allows us to see who we really are.  We are children born of a broken world, bearing the marks of that tragedy and disfunction and death in ways that we mistakenly believe to be life. We need to be new. We need to confess. Sometimes we need to be shown what to confess and what to write and what to eat. We need to be open to the possibility that we do not know the ways we are unfaithful. But we cannot do that unless we recognize how we are that mixed child, many histories flowing into one body.

Be Still and Know: Living Into the Gaps

“Be Still and Know: Living into the Gaps”

Seattle Pacific Baccalaureate Address, Spring 2013

I am deeply appreciative of the invitation to share with you all tonight. It is of course an honor, but even more it is a gift. When we venture onto a road we have been called upon we do it not for the money or the promise of what is at the end, but because we know it is simply unfaithful to not be on the road and the work God calls us to is its own end. But when others join you upon that road or give you affirmation that your work has meant something to them, that is truly a gift. So thank you to the Baccalaureate Planning Team for such a gift.

Graduates, I imagine you are finding yourself somewhat nostalgic in this moment. Sitting in this arena perhaps draws you back to your very first moments on this campus four years ago. Perhaps you remember being called down onto the floor to stand amongst 200 hundred strangely robed men and women fingering strange baggies in their hand, eagerly waiting to welcome you to campus. Perhaps you recall those first awkward glances of leaving your parents, your siblings, those you had shared your whole life with to know find yourself anew.

Perhaps you are recalling the mixture of excitement loss, joy and anxiety all balled up into one now independent compression of sleeplessness.

Perhaps you are recalling the laughter, the inside jokes, the strange traditions, the sleepless nights, the vehement arguments, the numerous jobs you were going to have to string together just to pay tuition and if you were lucky, eat…bacc photo

I suspect that these are the feelings that are rising and falling within you right now, not because I was once a freshman, now 20 years ago. I suspect this because four years ago I was a new professor, freshly minted with fancy letters behind my name, an expensive albeit elegant and fly robe, and most importantly, a job!

In fact, I had the joy of having some of you in one of my first classes, UFDN 1000 in the spring of our first year.

Nervous, excited, tired beyond belief… I found myself asking some deeply existential questions. Why am I here? How am I going to do this successfully? Can this really be home in the way home is home?

By the spring of our first year, in many ways, we had flown breathlessly off a cliff of a new journey and screaming with joy and fear because we could not see where we were going to land.

But here you are… Having gotten your bearings, more or less, you find yourself having landed, upon a small precipice of safety and able to catch your breath and look how far you have journeyed and how far you have flown.

But upon this landing you find that you are not on the ground yet. You are not finished yet.You are on a precipice and it seems a long way down and perhaps find yourself asking yourself these deep existential questions “why”…. “how”…..

But this evening I want us to reflect together on the practice of “Selah.” Of rest, of looking back. In Psalms we see this passage in a variety of moments:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah


For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah


Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts,
he is the King of glory.

As we read and breathe “Selah” with Israel’s songs and proclamations we see rest not simply as a cessation of movement, a chance to chill, play a few video games before the real work begins. No, Selah is a rest of remembering, of recalling so that we might turn forward and lean in to the uncertainty that is before us.

Selah is the breathe in the gap, in the in between when you are looking ahead and the distance seems to far, the mountain too high, the promise to vague and illusory. So all there is left for us is to remember.

It is in this moment that I would like us to return to those deep existential questions of our first year, how? why? when? But perhaps these are not the questions of Selah, of waiting, of remembering… perhaps instead we must as a different question. perhaps the question of Selah is who…. Who has encountered us in our time here? who is the one who has sustained us and kept us from falling, who is the one whose power and strength and compassion breaks through the intermiinable, deep, dark.

Israel’s rest, Israel’s reflection is not a question of how will they get out or where will they go, or why do they suffer, but it is a question of who goes before and who draws them in from behind.

But so often we want our lives to be full of power and certainty. We want to be a torrent, a river rushing with strength, cutting a path through the earth. We want to be the energy, have direction, to be….

But perhaps the pauses of psalms, so many of them mid-stream, are halting the reader before they move on to another verse, slowing the readers desire for an answer for completion simply to remember who you are, who are you with, who is for you, who is in your midst.

Perhaps in these pauses we can begin to ask a new question.

What does it mean for us if this is the question that we ask resting upon this landing, this precipice?

In slowing to ask this question of who, of slowing to remember who was for us and who is in our midst we risk dissipating the river of our hopes and aims. In looking back you risk taking your eyes off the path before you and perhaps falling or missing something so we keep running with our eyes ahead.

But sometimes when water runs too quickly it simply collects at the bottom of the hill, sometimes it floods, sometimes it destroys the things in its path because it cannot be absorbed by the earth beneath it.

But water that is slowed begins to seep into the earth, this water that moves in drips and drabs gets drawn up into flowers and trees, collects in small channels to water the inhabitants around it.

To rest and remember is to ask yourself who am I for. Who is for me? To rest and remember is to risk slowing down, it is to risk tripping on something unexpected, it is to risk losing a part of yourself because now that gift, that relationship has been sown into the very ground beneath your feet and is sprouting up as a lily, or a green grass, or a yong sapling and you cannot ask for it back.

To rest and remember is to risk finding you are someone new and that there are people in your midst who share your fear, your hope and your possibilities.

So as you leave this place this evening, take your final walks through the meandering sidewalks, share hugs and laughter with friends you may not see for a long time…

rest… breathe… remember

And as you do walk from this place not in a torrent of power, with the anxiety of how or why or when… Selah. breathe. look back. allow yourself to seep into the lives whom God has given you. and then allow yourself to fall from that precipice into a new possibility knowing that there is a landing, there will be another precipice, there will be more times to rest and to remember and all the while your movement or lack thereof is not in vain. You are moving within a vast sea of love, held by God’s everlasting mercy. You are remembered and sustained by more than your own capacities. As you leave this place into new jobs, new careers, into the unknown… rest, remember….

be still and know.

Being Baptized with Goggles On

This morning I watched with wet eyes as my youngest son Joseph was baptized by my wife, Pastor Gail Song Bantum. It was emotional on a number of levels. He is our youngest and last to be baptized. His baptism reminds me of the baptisms of his older brothers and how much has changed since their bodies were submerged into waters of death and life. I have been blessed to see all of my children grow into a knowledge of Jesus and a desire to walk with him in their lives. None of us are perfect, but we are all seeking to live into his image day by day.

Joseph’s baptism was just as special but also somewhat different because of the sheer excitement he had for this day. Having watched his older brothers and others be baptized, he has been literally counting down the days, confirming the details of where he would stand and what he would say. His exuberance for this moment has been a joy and a blessing to my own walk.

And as it is with every child, Joseph entered into those waters with his own story. In fact, his baptism was perhaps different than most because he was baptized with goggles on. And not just your little “Michel Phelps-speedo-olympic-racing-goggles” but the “snorkling-looking-for-exotic-fish-goggles.”

302904_10152809004920052_1501291130_nIn talking with him in the last year about baptism and about his readiness for this part of his walk with God, he was always excited, but scared. He didn’t want to get his face wet and he was especially scared of getting water in his eyes and his nose. “Maybe we should just wait” my wife and I thought, “until he can do it without the goggles…”

But that day did not seem to be coming and it was becoming increasingly clear that he was ready for this step in his life. So we said, “You wanna wear goggles for baptism? You can wear goggles for your baptism!”

He appeared to the church to the amusement of all with giggles and cheers. But in some ways I was deeply struck by the symbolism of my goggle-wearing son on his baptism day.

So many of us are waiting for the perfect set of circumstances before we give ourselves up to the death and life Christ makes possible for us. Sometimes we want complete the work ourselves on the front end to die to our fears and die to our transgressions or just die to the embarrassment of being the center of attention.

But here was my son, submerging his fears along with his faith. He was still afraid of the water, not sure of what was going to come but in his nasally proclamation of faith beneath his full-faced goggles he was also professing that a life of following is not the presentation of a perfectly disciplined life put on display for all to see. Rather, our life of following is a profession of the fears we struggle with and willfully submerge into the waters of Christ’s life and death for us.

My prayer for Joseph is that someday he will not be afraid of getting his face wet. And I am sure he will soon enough. I am sure that his life will slowly conform to the image of Christ whom he loves and adores. But I also hope that he continues to faithfully confess his weaknesses and submit them to Jesus. In doing so today, he preached to me and reminded me that it is not the perfections of my life that God desires, but the continual truthfulness of my confession. God will do the rest.