Christian formation … in fear and lies.

Another southern preacher in Atlanta, writes about her experience dealing with an outcome of what I call “slaveholder Christianity” — approaches to Scripture that are aimed at advancing one group ahead of another, as if one group can only be included if another is excluded from God’s family.  I think these words from Rev. Kimberly Knight about the effect of exlusivistic forms of Christianity on her child gives us all alot to pause and think about.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie here,

Micah

 

Kimberly Knight
May 19, 2013 By

“Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the dispossessed, the disinherited…deception is perhaps the oldest of all the techniques by which the weak have protected themselves against the strong.” Howard Thurman.

 

“Archery, definitely archery – and ropes-course and kayaking and dance, can I sign up for dance too?” said our youngest as she hopped around the kitchen, chattering about which activities to choose for her very first summer sleep-away camp. “Not arts and crafts and no way baby-sitting 101!” As we browsed the selections she nearly burst with excitement for “outdoor living skills” – the nut sure doesn’t fall far from the tree.

“Praise team, what’s that one?” she asked. “Well honey, it seems to be a group that practices, mmm, worshipping…they are a small group that sings and plays music and helps lead worship. “Oh, so this is a Christian camp.” she said with undisguised surprise.

So there it is, we’re letting our baby girl (and by baby I mean rising middle-schooler) go to a Christian camp. Actually this is the second kid we’ve let go to this camp. To be clear it’s a Y-Camp for girls in the north Georgia mountains to which she has been invited to attend with a friend we love and trust – a friend whose family loves and trusts us right back.

When I told our oldest kid that Little Bit would be spending a week at the same camp she went to she was not as thrilled as I thought she would be. “Mom, make sure and tell her about the people there, ok? Tell her to be careful.” I sighed “Yes love, I know.” I remembered the ride back from camp when “Thing 1″ shared the tearful conversation she’d had with one counselor who assured her if we all just prayed enough her mommy could change.

And so it begins; teaching our youngest the first game she will play at camp – the pronoun game. In the weeks leading up to camp we will work to help “Thing 2″ find the right ways and words to navigate the cool mountain waters of Christian camp as a kid with two moms. Why the hell would we we send her here? Well, this camp has a fantastic reputation for safety and fun, a good friend she has known a long time will be there with her and to be frank, it is a camp we can afford.

See, we don’t want her to be bullied by other kids or made to feel ashamed of her family by adults. We really just want her to have a fantastic time horseback riding, swimming, running, playing and being free. Except she won’t be quite as free as some of her cabin-mates and really, a little of the bullying has begun before she ever sets foot on the creaky old porch of her cabin if trepidation is reaching all the way to downtown Atlanta a month prior to camp.

I suppose it comes as no shock that this is troubling me on many levels.

Can you picture it, the first evening in the cabin as the girls sit around in their jammies, hugging knees or stuffed animals to their chests with their cabin leaders getting to know one another? Can you see her eyes shifting and her legs squirming as her turn to accept the invitation to share about her family moves around the circle? Can you hear the wavering in her voice as she talks about her parents, careful not to say moms? Can you feel her little heart beat as she talks about what we do, where we live and stuff we do together as a family? Can you see the truth behind her eyes as she figures out how to tell the truth and lie at the same time? Can you see her little fingernails chewed up as she learns how to carefully preserve the identity of the two people who love her most in the world? This mamma can picture it.

And I am scared to death of what we her parents are teaching her. In Jesus and the Disinherited Howard Thurman reminds us, “The children of the disinherited live a restricted childhood. From their earliest moments they are conditioned so as to reduce their exposure to violence.” This is true and this is real but at what point do we help her tap into the deep well of courage we both know she has. Why is it so hard to confidently teach “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”

And lastly I am devastated knowing that this is part of her Christian formation. Formation by Christians who will teach her one important and terrible message of what it means to be a Christian in America. For many, to be a Christian in American means to know fear and know how to lie.

The other day I asked some friends (that I lovingly called Jesus freaks) what they think of when they hear the phrase “Christian formation” and here is what some of them said:

A different Kimberly said: “Spiritual disciplines/practices”

Ben: “Being formed in the ways and teachings on Jesus”

Diane: “transformation walking in the Spirit!”

Yet another Kimberly: “all the ways that we are sharped and formed in our Christian spiritual life, including CE, workshops, Bible study, and worship (especially the hymns).”

Michael: “The infusion of the theological virtues in us by the Holy Spirit which leads to development of all moral and intellectual virtues.”

Priscilla: “I prefer “faith formation”…those experiences and learnings that inform and deepen my faith…I happen to be Christian so I suppose it is Christian formation.”

Seth: “Makes me think of striving toward a particular worldview, but it’s not a word I’ve heard often, even as I’ve spent time in fundamentalist groups.”

Nar: “Simple for me … continual formation into the image of Christ.”

But when I zoom out and look at the situation impacting our family I see systematic, Christian formation in fear and lies – born in the church and sanctioned by the state. In the churches that have not yet come to understand that love makes a family and that homosexuality is not intrinsically sinful there remains a pervasive pedagogy that teaches our children to be afraid to be themselves and wary of the families that shelter them from the storm. There is in these churches a cultural currciulum that creates scaffolds for building lies about yourself in order to be safe. There is direct instruction that clogs the arteries of our souls with the cholesterol of conformity and control so that heart of Christ that animates our own is suffocating on despair and deceit.

Through this formative education a person learns to suppress inner truth in order to survive. The gay child is taught to despise lovingly crafted elements of their created selves so they can be lovable by the community around them. The child of gay parents learns to tell half-truths and out-right lies to avoid the sharp pain of rejection and bullying. And perhaps the most tragic of all, the young child whose soul is born wide open to the goodness of the universe, learns to suppress the love and compassion that come from Christ in order to please the parents and community to which they are born.

This Christian formation in fear and lies teaches us to reject our inner Christ – the Christ who was, is and will always be the light of love and truth in our hearts. It teaches us to turn away from our God who is pure agape and choose a false god of transient affection.

This formation to fear and hate those God has lovingly created and who we’ve been created to love – your neighbor as yourself and yourself as your neighbor – is nothing less than sinful.

God is love. We are made in the image of love so we are created to be loving creatures. When society – family, friends, church and government tell us that to truly love our neighbors (or to love ourselves as God has created us) is an abomination we learn to display behavior, and even internalize the psychology of fear and hatred of our neighbor, or worse, ourselves. Some learn to fear and loathe themselves according to the same message. As my cousin Michael lifted up recently “If we cannot love our neighbors, our claims to love God are false.”  Loving our neighbor is inextricable from loving ourselves and if our neighbors are teaching us we are unloveable then the triquetra of the great commandment is shattered.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I take a moment to quote Macklemore & Ryan Lewis here:

“When I was at church they taught me something else
If you preach hate at the service those words aren’t anointed
That holy water that you soak in has been poisoned…”

When the spiritual practices and religious disciplines form us and our children to fear and lie they are not forming us in the ways of Jesus. To be disciples of Christ we must persist in creating communities of faith that truly listen to the still small voice of God that calls us forward, forms us, in the ways of radical love, infinite compassion and equal freedom.

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A Terrifying Look at Slave-Holder Christianity

I call the racism, homophobia, and sexism we see in alot of southern Christianity a holdover of what I call “slave-holder Christianity”, the approach to Christianity that was used to justify slavery just a few hundred years ago.   This is the approach that says for one group to be graced, another has to be cursed; for one group to be included, another must be excluded.  I hope in future blogs to explore what this is and how it continues to be a tendency we must fight against in ourselves and others today.

I recently found online the footage to a mock documentary that paints a frightening picture of what the natural end result of slave-holder Christianity would have been.  I had seen this years ago with my friend Terrence but was not aware it was online.   Just a warning, some scenes are frightening and graphic.    However I think you will see in this film both how much of the logic behind our modern prejudice was rooted in the approach to Scripture and faith used to justify institutions like slavery, and how much of our language of “traditional family values” has to be reconsidered based on that history.

Remembering God this Mother’s Day

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This is a sermon I preached last year on Mother’s Day about God as mother, and the hope that gives each of us as we face sometimes pleasant and sometimes hurtful experiences in our own families. I hope posting it on my blog helps invite all of us to experience and embrace God as both mother and father this mother’s day. Feel free to hear this sermon at http://sermon.net/diversityinfaith/sermonid/119915387

I want to begin my sermon with this video clip because of the fact that sometimes on mother’s day we overlook the experience of people whose heart cry is reflected by Clarkson’s words. In this song she sings of a parent who fails to be there for her in the way she needed growing up, and how that failure to really be the parent who was needed leaves her shaken up and broken throughout her life. Though its words are aimed at Clarkson’s father, I have met many a person whom I have counseled who came to church broken and hurting, feeling unable to live life to the fullest because of the pain and brokenness of a mother who failed to live up the positive image of motherhood we usually picture on mother’s day.

I remember just such a conversation from a young lady in a church who grew up with a father who was abusive and alcoholic. Her mother ignored the alcoholism of the father, covered it up, and instead of defending her children let them become beaten and abused. Years later I met another young lady who grew up with a mother strung out on drugs who not only beat her but allowed men to use and abuse her.

Some of us, though I doubt most of us, know such extreme pain at the hands of our mothers. Many of us have wonderful images of motherhood we can look to either in our biological families or in strong women in our lives. Many of us here also know the pain of being rejected by our families for who we are, of feeling neglected or used by those who should be there for us, and have experienced patterns in our own families that wound us deeply. My wager if I was a betting man is that most of us in fact are a mix – having many beautiful things to thank God for in our families of origin, but also points of deep pain and patterns which we must work against daily.

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As we continue to celebrate Christ’s victory in our lives, does God’s Word give a word of hope or a word of encouragement to those of us who face such brokenness, who like Clarkson can will full hearts cry “because of you”?

I think so. I believe there is hope for each of us, for our families, especially when they are torn apart through cycles of brokenness. Turn with me if you would to Exodus 34, beginning in verse 1, to verse 9.

The context for this passage is family. The Bible is a tale of families. Beginning with Adam, we see choices families make that shape the generations to come. Sometimes we see wonderful choices – such as Abram’s choice to embrace the God that is and commit his family to following that living God, not just the comfortable faith he grew up with. Sometimes we see horrible choices – such as Abram’s choice to have a child with a servant girl, stand by while his wife Sarai abused that firstborn boy, and then watch his son Ishmael be sent out into the desert as if to die. This patterns of blessing and brokenness in families continue on through Genesis into Exodus. In the book of Exodus when God calls Abraham’s descendants out of slavery and into freedom, we see the brokenness and the blessings that occured in families come to head in this same family of Abraham. When we join them in Exodus 34, the brokenness of their background raises its head as they repeat the same family pattern of rejecting a real relationship with the living God for their own comfortable human ideas about who God is, which Abraham had promised to break when he left all to follow the God who is. Exodus 34 shows us God’s response when this family of promise falls into the same bad patterns that have hurt their family over the years. In this short passage of Scripture I believe we are given words of hope and healing for each of us who have been broken by family pain, or whose families are in crisis.

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain. No one shall come up with you, and do not let anyone be seen throughout all the mountain; and do not let flocks or herds graze in front of that mountain.’ So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, ‘The Lord.’ The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
‘The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.’
And Moses quickly bowed his head towards the earth, and worshiped He said, ‘If now I have found favour in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.’

God who has birthed us to life, lifting us from our mothers’ wombs and placing each of us in families, help us to discover the victory we have in You, the power of your love to overcome our pain and brokenness, granting us healing, hope, and comfort. Open our ears to your words, and our hearts to your living Spirit. In the name of the One born of mother Mary, Jesus our Savior, Amen.

Does anything stand out to you from this passage that speaks to our experiences of motherhood and fatherhood that left us broken and wanting? How about our cycles of brokenness in our families?

There are Three things that I see as important to us this Mother’s Day which God reveals in this event in the family of Abram:

First, God reveals to us God’s name, and it is Mother.

Secondly, God demonstrates that through working together with God we can heal our brokenness and break the bad cycles in our families.

Finally, God shows us hope that ultimately healing and love will overcome all that is broken in our families.

First, I say that God tells us God’s name and it is Mother.

How many of you grew up with the idea that God could only be called father, never mother?

I know a lot of people who grow up with this idea, an idea a lot of churches reinforced, that God could be known as father but never mother, that God was an old man in the sky. For me the main image I had for God growing up was God as soon-coming king, an angry king ready to judge me and condemn me. When God appears to Moses at this family crisis when the whole family of Abram looks like it will fall apart – have you been there in your family? – God reveals to Moses and to all of us that this is not who God is.

First God says God calls God’s self Yahweh. A lot of times we think this God is giving a formal name for God, like when I say I am Micah Royal, or you are Miss Jones or Mr. Gibson… but if you pick apart the “name” of Yahweh it really isn’t a name at all. Yahweh is the Bible word for “is” or “to be” turned into a noun. Literally it just means “the One that is”. What God is reminding them w that they don’t worship a God who can be boxed in by their notions or images or whom we can totally wrap our minds around. God is bigger than any of our ideas about or images of God. Our God is the God who is who God is, who will be who God will be.

So instead of naming God or giving Moses another image for God that can be turned into a statue, God describes God’s character. God is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”. What does this tell you about God?

What is interesting here is that up to this point, where God reminds them that God can’t be boxed in by any human image or name for God, God has been pictured by them just as I grew up picturing God: as a king, as an angry jealous father much like the fathers they had known, whose first word to us is “no” and whose character is “jealous”. This isn’t who I really am, God is saying, this is your idea of me. Instead I am “merciful and gracious”. Literally “merciful” comes from the word for “womb” in Hebrew. It is an image for how a mother feels for the child moving in her stomach, for the child nursing at her breast, for the little one she nurtures, feeds, and cares for. God is saying I am not like the angry parent you knew who uses, abuses, manipulates, and controls. I am the loving mother who will not let you go.

Scripture pictures this well when it quotes God as saying in Isaiah 49:15-16, ““Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…” In the Psalms God I pictured like a mother hen who, if you ever watch one, shelters its babies under its wings to protect it.

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So God is not just angry father but also loving mother. What does this love look like? This love is the power of God at work in our lives from beginning to end. It is steadfast, more powerful than any disappointment, more lasting than any anger God might have toward you for your failings. It is strong enough to enable God to forgive any and all of your mistakes. God is the one whose love like mother’s milk strengthens us, heals us, grows us, into full and abundant life. God’s love is like the wings of a mother bird that which lift her babies into the air so they might be able to soar. Ultimately God’s love is for you and me the reality of which the best motherhood is but a crayon drawing. Ultimately God the Spirit is the ultimate mother whose love sets us free. As we come to know know God’s love personally we can begin to experience what true motherhood should be and find healing if our experience of mothering was not healthy. Jesus later goes further by imagining himself as a mother bird sheltering us under her wings, portraying Creator God as a Father with the same selfless love depicted here. So ultimately coming to know God’s mother-love in the depths of our heart fill us with the healing we need which can begin to undo the damage done by fathers or mothers who have let us down.

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Next we see that God’s love has the power, if we will work together with God, to heal our brokenness and set us free from the destructive patterns we find ourselves in. When the Bible talks about how in Adam’s sin all die it is not saying somehow we are all born guilty because of what someone else did. No, it is talking about what Exodus describes – how when we are born, before we are aware of it or have a say in it, what we have modeled to us shapes us, sometimes blessing us but often warping us. So a child born to a parent that is on the bottle learns often to drink to solve their problems or to think supporting people who drink or do drugs in those habits is love. A child who sees people who don’t ever talk about how they feel from the time they are little may learn to hide who they truly are. If we don’t break these patterns in our lives, we will continue them into adulthood and pass them onto our children. In fact many of the most harmful things in families are things that go back may generations which keep being recycled and repeated.

Exodus 34 acknowledges this: yes, the sins of the fathers are visited to the third and fourth generation; and no God cannot always rescue us from their consequences. To do so would be to rob us of our dignity, steal our humanity by making our choices not matter. But we are told that God’s love, God’s grace, is a thousandfold more powerful and enduring in our lives.

This means that God’s love can break the chains of alcoholism, addiction, co-dependency, self-loathing, accepting abuse or being an abuser, the inability to make a relationship last. These cycles repeated in your family over and over again can end. God’s mother-love that will not let us go, the same love that we see at work raising Jesus from the dead, can set you free. Setting you free begins the healing of your family. If you do the heart work of really examining your life, putting your relationships into the hands of God, and allowing God to break these cycles. God’s help may come too with the help of others such as those who have gone through what you have, pastors, therapists, friends. With God’s help those cycles can be broken.

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Finally this image of God as mother includes a promise that ultimately all will be well not only in our biological families but throughout the whole human family.

We have examined the hope that God’s love will give us victory over the brokenness in our biological families. Often when we look around, as many of us did this week on Wednesday morning, and lament, aghast at the hate in our world and community, the homophobia and bigotry, the gangs and war, racism and sexism, mistreatment of the least of these. We can feel hopeless and powerless in the face of all this injustice and pain. In those moments we need to remember that Exodus follows Genesis, which pictures all of us in its geneologies as all descended ultimately from the same two people, so no matter what religion, language, nation, race, tribe, or background, we’re all one human family. This means that not only can God’s love conquer cycles of brokenness in our biological families, but also God’s mother love will not abandon any in our human family and will certainly break these cycles in which we reap pain, heartache, and evil upon each other. God’s love is a thousandfold stronger than them.

This promise that God is giving both to your immediate family and the human family in general is beautifully pictured by the visions of a lady in medieval England. Looking around at the horrors of the black plague, of abject poverty, of war, disease, and tyrants all around her, Julian of Norwich fell to her knees spending months in prayer lamenting how dark her days were. In A Revelation of Divine Love, sister Julian writes of the vision God gave her then of the Trinity appearing a loving mother: our Creator as a mother who births us into life; Christ our Savior as a mother nursing us with life and strength from her own body; and our Sanctifying Spirit present to us as mother-love surrounding us in an embrace. In the midst of her vision, Julian saw the Trinity holding all of life like a tiny seed in God’s hand, safe and secure, and heard the Spirit say “all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well”. I want to conclude my sermon by playing you a modern rendition of this vision, by Meg Barnhouse. It beautifully pictures the promise of Exodus – that God’s mother love can show you the love you have always needed, healing that brokenness; that God’s love can conquer the brokenness in your family and cycles that wreak heartache; and that God’s love will conquer all that is broken in the human family. This is the sure and certain hope – love will conquer hatred; light will extinguish darkness; justice and peace will overcome bigotry, oppression, and violence, both in our families and in our world. All shall be well; all shall be well; all manner of thing be well.

—-

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!

Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,

Micah Royal

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Lessons from My Mother

ImageLast night I strode forward to take a diploma from the hands of the dean at Campbell Divinity School, while joining many smiling and laughing colleagues in receiving the bright hood of a Divinity School graduate.

This graduation was a long time coming for me. Many times I gave up hope and never thought it would come. My journey to a Master of Divinity in Pastoral Counseling began over a decade ago, when I began seminary at Azusa Pacific’s Haggard School of Theology. I attended there very early on in my pastoral ministry. My hope had been to receive the Master of Divinity and become a pastor in the denomination that I had begun my ministry within, which is today called Grace Communion International.

We plan, and God laughs, or so the country proverb says. Shortly after I was ordained by this denomination I faced a crisis of conscience. Serving as an assistant pastor on a church circuit in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, I began to see the exclusion that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people faced at the hands of my then denomination. My heart broke to see the barriers standing in front of those men and women. That fellowship of churches joined many other denominations by standing in the way of people in that community experiencing the embrace that God seeks to extend to all in Christ not because of how God looked at them, but because of the church’s ignorance and prejudice.

When the senior pastor of the church I was serving pushed me to practice that same exclusion to someone in our community in order to keep peace at the church, I chose to part ways. I knew the God I had experienced in Christ opened God’s arms wide to all people, and that I couldn’t rest easy in my walk with God by joining in the decision to stand in another’s way who was trying to come to Christ. I began to minister independently then, something I continued until I affiliated with the Progressive Christian Alliance around 2 years ago. While this opened up the doors to reach out with God’s love to people the traditional and mainline church were not then yet embracing with Christ’ love, leaving my denomination of origin and ministering independently also came at a great cost. It meant losing the sort of funding for ministry that had allowed me to begin my theological education in the first place. When that happened I had to take a break on my theological education. I thought the degree I just received was no longer possible for me.

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Where does this connect with my mother? Well one of the great lessons my mother taught me growing up was it is never too late to further yourself and move forward. Receiving last night’s diploma was in large part inspired by her example. When we were little, my mother stopped her career as a teacher both to help raise us and also to take care of my ailing grandmother, Myrtie Mclamb Barefoot. On one level this is what she wanted, and another it was what her culture expected of her in that day and time. I have always wondered what that was like for mom. For me it would have probably felt like I was done, and it was time to throw in the towel on my dreams. But when we kids had grown older and needed less care, mom went back to school. Mom earned a Masters degree which she used as an educator.

Mom’s example of not giving up on her dreams, of doing what must be done in her time and place but, when the time was right, shaking off the dust from her feet, rolling up her sleeves, and going for her dreams has stayed with me. It is a part of what gave me the strength to go back and finish my degree after all this time. It is a lesson from my mother that stays with me.

This willingness not to give up on her dreams, but to dream again, reminds me of one of my favorite images of Scripture, the words of Psalm 126:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them.

Thank you, mom, for teaching me to be as them that dream! Thank you for inspiring me to, when I have done what needed being done, to shake the dust off my feet, roll up my sleeves, and get to work living the dream God has given me.

Another lesson my mother taught me was to find faith for myself, not simply going along with what I had always heard. For many years while I was growing up we went to church in a really extreme offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists: one that did not keep Christmas or Easter, one that didn’t allow us to eat pork or shrimp, and one that had a lot of beliefs most Christians (including myself today) find pretty far out there. This church was the church where my daddy found God, and I think that is part of why my mom eventually supported him by going there with him. However, she never really fully bought into their ideas, still holding onto certain aspects of her Missionary Baptist upbringing. I can still remember as a young teenager, when friends invited me to visit their Sunday-keeping pork-eating church, hearing my mother say to me, “Listen, Micah, you have to decide for yourself what to believe and what you think is right. Whatever church or religion you join, you need to know we will support you”.

This conversation with mom laid the foundation for me realizing that what counts is following God, not what church, denomination, or religion you or I join. Just as I mentioned how grandma’s background as an educator instilled in me the importance of always learning and keeping an open mind, so this example of my mother helped me realize I had to find God for myself, on my own terms. It is a part of why I felt free to embark on this journey of progressive Christianity that has so shaped my own life when it became clear to me the form of Christianity I had been brought up in wasn’t completely working.

My mom taught me to embrace my creativity too. Mom has always been a creative person. Growing up, our house was covered with paintings momma had made over the years. Right now Kat and I have paintings my mom made covering our walls in our home. Beyond painting, mom did artwork, crafts, jewelry design, made hand-sewn clothing, and did so many things with her hands while I was growing up that I lose track. Mom encouraged us to also be creative – to paint, to draw, to sing, to write stories. One of my earliest memories of church was sitting at my mom’s feet drawing pictures inspired by the sermons I heard. I still remember later on as a child how my little sister and I would act out skits for mom. Momma taught us to be creative, and to embrace creativity as a gift.

I would have to say that this love of creativity is part of why I write, a part of why I love music, and even a part of why I do theology. Just as fishing with dad opened me up to the fact that God is Creator, so momma helped me learn that you and I are Co-Creators with God. Working together with God we can make the world more beautiful, more kind, and more just. Writing is part of this. Painting is part of this. Dance and song too help create beauty. Even theology, at its best, is a form of artwork – putting into words the unspeakable beauty that breathes life into each moment.

Finally my mom taught me that strength can be found in weakness. She stood again and again by people dealing with pain and hurt. She showed great strength and compassion caring for Grandma Myrtie when she could not care for herself. She continued to put the needs of other family members with debilitating health problems ahead of her own. Much of her career was working as a teacher for special needs children, where she helped those children and their families find their own strengths in situations where often the world at large only found weakness. Later in life mom has had some bad health problems of her own, some that were painful to both her and to the rest of the family. Yet them it all she remained a person of strength.

The strength she has exemplified in the midst of pain and the strength she helped others discover within themselves in the midst of what others saw as weakness reminds me of these words by Mumford & Sons –

But I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

Or as the Lord told the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12.9)

What are your stories of southern mommas? What are some lessons your momma taught you?

I hope to share some more thoughts on motherhood later, but in the meantime I look forward to hearing your stories.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie here,

Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,

Micah Royal

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Septima Clark: A Southerner Worth Knowing

One of my hopes in this blog is to take time here and there to point out the lives of southerners who have modeled the progressive values I am embrace as a progressive redneck preacher.  These southern embraced the best of their values, their culture, and their faith, while also rejecting the slave-holder logic still holds many of us back in the south.  Some, like the figure I want to introduce today, were progressives before progressive was cool.

I am currently using Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s and Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy For Ordinary Radicals as a daily devotional.  Its May 3rd reading, Common Prayer  introduced us to not only a southern who was progressive, but (like me) a Carolinian as well.


“Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987) … was born in Charleston, South Carolina, to a father who as an ex-slave and a mother who had been raised in the Caribbean.  While her parents ahd very little formal education, they emphasize the need for Septima to go to school.  Though Septima was eligible to teach after completing the eighth grade, her parents and teachers encouraged her to finish high school.  After graduating she took a post as a teacher on Johns Island, off the coast of Charleston.  There she began to notice the extreme disparity between the education of African-Americans and that of their white counterparts.  This experience stayed with her and fueled her quest for educational reform.  An avid social activist during the civil rights era, Septima travelled throughout the South to educate African-Americans about their voting rights.  She worked closely with Myles Horton of the Highland Folk School.  Together they trained many civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks, in nonviolent resistance and local leadership.  Although Septima was thrown in jail, threatened, fired from job, and falsely accused of wrongdoing, she never turned from her task of working against and unjust educational system.

“Septima Poinsette Clark has become known as the Grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

The devotional continues quoting Clark: “I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking.  I consider chaos a gift.”  When I read this devotional, I thought “what an important southerner for us to remember at the Progressive Redneck Preacher”.

 

Clark’s story reminds me of my grandmother who prized education, instilling in me the importance of a strong mind and an openness both to learn and teach.   These educated women devoted to educated others are a strong thread woven into the tapestry of our southern culture.

Her story also reminds us that the Civil Rights movement began as a southern movement.   Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Septima Clark were all southerners speaking out against discrimination, prejudice, and abuses that emerged in our southern culture based on values they had learned at southern schools and southern churches.  Many others who faced such prejudice simply moved out of the south.  About a decade ago when I was in training to be ordained as a pastor, I assisted on the pastoral staff at a church in Inglewood, CA, a historically black neighborhood of Los Angeles.  I met the some of the most interesting and loving men and women who as young people had chosen to flee the southeast due to its Jim Crow laws.   In many ways their neighborhoods felt to me like pockets of southern culture transplanted into California.  Their restaurants had some of the best southern fried chicken and grits I have ever eaten.  I still remember one church elder, Felix Johnson, who would bring collards to church on a regular basis just like a member of a church I preached at in South Carolina used to do there.  Their stories spoke of the courage they found inspiring them to move across country from a land they had called home to a new city, where there was greater opportunity.

Yet southerners like King, Parks, and Clark were making the choice to stand up against the unjust Jim Crow laws precisely because they were southerners who called the south home, and they refused to be pushed out by injustice.  They had a particular courage.  We fail to tell their story correctly and fail to remember our own history and culture of the south properly when we don’t bear in mind that the south was their home, and they were fighting for the right to stay here while getting equal treatment.  They chose not to be pushed out of the south, but to change the south from within.

Finally I think it is important to remember this Civil Rights movement began as a movement of faith.  It was largely southern Christian leaders, together with some Jews, who spoke up against the prevailing racist laws and agendas of the south.  Martin Luther King was a Christian preacher raised in the south, educated in the south, who preached in Baptist pulpits all over the southeast.   Rosa Parks lead a youth program with a Baptist church.   In many ways she was an equivalent to a youth pastor in her church.   Clark, too, was a woman of faith.   Many Catholic and Episcopal leaders joined eventually in Civil Rights work.   Also Jewish leaders joined in this fight, including figures like Abraham Heschel.

They show us the power of a progressive faith to stand against domination systems, against prejudice, and to transform our culture.

These civil rights leaders are an example of some of what is the best and most beautiful of our history and our culture.  It challenges us to examine which values of our culture we are embracing.  The south is a strange place with both a history of oppression — Jim Crow, opposition to women’s rights, mistreatment of illegal immigrants, and more recently homophobic laws — and also a place where some of the most powerful forces for social justice like King, Parks, and Clark are born.  Which values are you living out?

Our values and our faith should lead us to be educators like Clark.   We should seek to lift up those caught up in cycles of ignorance and poverty who live without hope.

Our values and our faith should lead us to become advocates like Clark.   Though a part of southern culture is the example of Civil Rights leaders, another very living aspect is the legacy of slave-holder mentalities and slaver-holder Christianity.   Here in Fayetteville, NC, as the Driving While Black study has shown, racist attitudes have not left us.  In NC we still struggle in our legislature about whether things like a Racial Justice Act are a good idea.   Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the day.  And the same bigotry aimed at people in the black community in our recent past is today aimed at Hispanic immigrants and gay, lesbian, bisexual, & transgendered citizens.  Our faith and values should lead us to work to transform this.

To live out what is best & truest in both our faith and our values, we need to find ways we can join in the fight of speaking out against injustice, bigotry, and ignorance in all its forms.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie here!

Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,

Micah Royal

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The Spirituality of Fishing


You get a line, I’ll get a pole

We’ll go fishing in the crawfish hole…

“Boondocks” sung by Little Big Town

 

     It is that time of year isn’t it?  The air is warming up.  I can feel the wind blowing in my hair, and smell the honeysuckle.  It all is drawing me to creeks, rivers, … well anywhere with water teeming with life.

     It is fishing time.  A tradition I think many of us southerners embrace with a true gusto.

     I can still remember staying up all night, camped out at a fishing hole, with my friend Paul in high school, not coming home til pre-dawn hours, waiting for that just right catch.

     From childhood on, fishing has been a part of my life.  In fact for me, like many southerners, fishing is not just a past-time.  It is part of my spirituality.

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     Perhaps the first spiritual conversation I can remember was serenaded by the songs of catydids and crickets as I sat, pole in hand, listening to my daddy.  

     “You have to be really quiet, son, or the fish will hear you and won’t bite.  Be quiet and still.  Just listen to the sounds of nature around you.  And watch — watch your pole.  You’ll see it and feel it when you get a bite”.

     There is something about that practice — sitting in silence, looking and listening to all around you.  It forces you to take it all in — the ripple of sunlight on the water, the buzz of the dragonfly asparkle with the sun, the robin’s and whipporwill’s call —  that opens your eyes.   The noise, the busyness, and excitement of a child’s day is stopped.  The stress, anxiety, frustration of an adult’s world vanishes.  And you take in the wonder of it all.

     “Wow”, I whispered one day to my dad, commenting on how beautiful the nature all around us was.

     “I know,” he told me, “and imagine Micah.”  Waving his arm before the scene tall around me, daddy whispers to me, “And just imagine…. God made all of this”.

     I can only remember a few times other than at the family dinner table I ever heard my daddy pray.  He was and is a praying man, but daddy was private about his prayers.   However as often as he could, as regular as he could, daddy took us fishing.  And it is because daddy took us fishing that I know God made all of this.  Fishing is how daddy taught me God.

     Since growing up, getting married, and starting a life of my own, sometimes I am so busy I rarely take the time I ought to sit by the riverside.   But I know I should.  To someone who has never sat pole in hand, quiet before nature, waiting to receive its gifts, fishing can seem a silly hobby.  It can seem a quiet waste of time.  But for me it sure ain’t.  It is through fishing my daddy taught me God.  And when I fish I open myself to God’s presence.

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     Earlier this year, in getting certified to teach on world religions, I had to visit some Buddhist temples.  I went to Pittsboro and went to the Zen Center, a beautiful wooden shrine nestled in a forest teeming with life.   After quietly watching some deer playing by its entrance, I went and met a Zen Master.  He taught about the importance of meditation.  He demonstrated to me the breathing techniques Zen practitioners use.  He showed me their chants.  He had me try out the posture with which they sit.  He explained to me its purpose — to quiet the mind so you can truly see yourself and see how you are connected to everything around you.

     I tried it out.  And I found myself doing just what I remember doing as a little boy — being quiet, pushing aside the noise of the day, silencing the excitement and frustrations of the day, and simply watching my life.   

     Both fishing and meditation get me in the presence of the holy.  Fishing, for me, is a form of meditation.  The fishing hole is a place of communion with the Creator of all.

     My experience fishing reminds me of some great quotes of Christian mystics over the ages, many of whom were far better at meditation than me:

     “I am the light that is over them All.  In am the All: the All has come forth from me and the all has returned to me.  Cleave a piece of wood: I am there.  Raise up a stone and you will find me there” — Gospel of Thomas 77

 

The Holy Spirit animates all, moves all, roots all, forgives all, cleanses all,

erases all our past mistakes, and then puts medicine on our wounds.

We praise this Spirit of incandescence for awakening and reawakening all creation.

Spirit of fire, Paraclete, our Comforter,

You’re the Live in alive, the Be in every creature’s being,

the Breathe in every breath on earth.

Holy Life-Giver, Doctor of the desperate,

Healer of everyone broken past hope,

Medicine for all wounds,

Fire of love, Joy of hearts,

fragrant Strength, Sparkling Fountain,

Protector, Penetrator,

in You we contemplate

how God goes look for those who are lost

and reconciles those who are at odds with Him

break our chains!

You bring people together.

You curl clouds, whirl winds,

send rain on rocks, sing in creeks,

and turn the lush earth green.

You teach those who listen,

breathing joy and wisdom into them.

We praise You for these gifts, Light-giver,

Sound of joy,

Wonder of being alive,

Hope of every person,

and our strongest Good.  (Hildegard of Bingen)

 

Glory be to God for dappled things –

  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

     For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

  Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

     And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

                            Praise him.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins.

 

     What is your spiritual practice?  What helps you quiet yourself before the universe and see God?

     And is there a southern practice that helps you find the Spirit?  Let me know.

     For me fishing is my Zen meditation.  And, at the end of the day, it does meditation one better: I get some tasty trout that tastes oh so good fried up in corn-bread with biscuits.

     And I ain’t just whistling Dixie here!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah Royal

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