On June 10, I celebrated five years of ordained ministry—pretty cool, huh? I can’t believe that I’ve been administering the Sacraments for five whole years already! When I think about how many hands have glanced against mine when I distribute Christ’s body, or the foreheads I’ve bathed in baptismal waters, I get shivers. I can remember, more clearly than any other aspect of my ministry, the moments when children articulate ultimately and clearly that “God loves everybody!” I laugh when I think about the honesty and curiosity middle school students bring to the table in Confirmation, and I become overwhelmed when I think about the selflessness and compassion that high school students bring to ministry. My heart warms when I think about the hospitality that adult members extend to new pastors, like me.
But, for all of these pleasant memories of my first five years of ordained ministry, there are equally challenging and heart-wrenching memories to balance them. In grief and death, I have walked with God’s children in the most difficult parts of their lives. People have welcomed me into the most delicate and vulnerable places of their lived-experiences—I hold these invitations in my heart and call them holy. It is a difficult privilege to walk with God’s children in this way.
In our current reality, even in the face of the Covid pandemic, the most visible pain for me is the racial injustices that persist, seemingly unimpeded. Exactly one week after my ordination service in 2015—wherein I promised to diligently study God’s scriptures, administer the Sacraments without prejudice, be generous with God’s grace, and work for justice and peace—a fellow ELCA member walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC and killed nine children of God. Exactly one week into my ordained ministry, I was horrifically reminded of the mountains of racism that close us off from God’s vision for our world.
This is a failure I share with my colleagues and peers, but also I share this with my fellow Christian worshippers in ELCA and outside the ELCA. What has changed in these five years of my ordained ministry? Sometimes, I’m not sure my ministry has made any difference at all.
Of course, I know in my brain [and at least sometimes in my heart] that God refuses to leave us alone, that I have been privy to some momentous events of the Holy Spirit. Of course, God has accompanied us in serving others and comforting other. Of course God smiles with me when I place the Holy Meal in the hands of children. Of course, ministry has indeed happened.
But, at the same time, people of Trinity, people of the Lutheran Church of Mahomet (my previous call), people of the SWMN Synod of the ELCA, people of the ELCA, Christians everywhere: we have failed in our call to be God’s hands and feet. Racial injustice and violence separates us from God and God’s children. We must be better. We cannot claim to be Christ’s presence on earth if we do not weep at the sin of racism and rage against the machines that keep it going. Do not let it be lost on you that I was surrounded by white clergy only at my ordination.
It is my hope and prayer that, in five years when I celebrate 10 years of ordination, I can look back at my time in ministry with joy and celebration, that I have served a church that is working to dismantle racism. I know that 10 years is a pittance when compared to the centuries of violence against communities of color, and I weep when I consider how petty my feelings of failure are compared to the grief and fear that my failure inflicts on siblings of color.
I speak especially to the predominantly white ranks of the ELCA: if you, too, look back on your ministry (lay or ordained), if you too look back on your professional and personal lives and see the stagnant persistence of racism, then I ask you to commit yourself to this difficult work with me. Together with God’s call to justice and peace, we can pivot the world away from racism and towards wholeness.
What i'm doing to be better
I know that a lot of well-intending white folks, like me, do just as much harm or more by going with the flow and responding in ways that might feel uncomfortable but are altogether safe and protected in our privilege. If you're at a loss for how to confront your own biases, blindspots, and privilege, there are LOTS of wonderful resources out there. I myself have only become aware of and have only recently made use of some of these.
The last path I'll mention--though it by no means completes the list--is that of advocacy. When was the last time you voted in full awareness of your white privilege? When was the last time you learned about how current legislations perpetuate racist systems? When was the last time you called your representative to talk about race and justice? These are all things you can do from the comfort of your own home (which is somewhere we find ourselves stuck in more often than not nowadays). "Countable" is a great app if you're new to this arena. Another great resource is the ELCA--that's right, your very own denomination! We have advocacy offices all across the United States that keep an eye on everything legislative from immigration reform to racial justice, from voter rights to caring for creation. You can find more information about subscribing to these emails by clicking here. ISAIAH is an inter-faith, inter-political group in Minnesota that does amazing work here, too. Click on their logo for more information.
In the midst of the COVID crisis, I feel disconnected from the worshipping community I’m called to serve—we can’t chat over donuts in the Fellowship Hall; we can’t share quickly in the entry space before worship; I can’t look into your eyes and ask you questions during the sermon; I can’t field questions in Confirmation classes; I can’t enjoy the curiosity of our children; I can’t access the adult forum for our shared learning and discussion; I can’t stay late after committee meetings to hear about your pain and hurts.
For all these reasons, and more, I feel disconnected from the people of Trinity Lutheran Church in Saint Peter. As things keep happening in our country and in our world, people have been wondering about what their spiritual leaders have to say in response. When President Trump mandated (without the power to do so) the opening of worshipping communities, people have wondered why we remain virtual in our gatherings. When George Floyd was murdered by the police officers in Minneapolis (yes, I’m including those standing watch), we wondered how to respond to this injustice and call for an end to violence against black and brown bodies. I think Trinity needs a place where they can find their pastors’ perspectives easily and most importantly quickly after events like these unfold.
I'm hardly ever on Facebook or Instagram. But, I have recognized my privilege in being able to turn off my social media, or the news, or the notifications which pull me into the pain of George Floyd's murder and evidence of racial injustice all around us. My privilege has permitted me to remain distant from social media, and I've used "I'm not normally there" as an excuse to refrain from posting. I've discovered the sin in that silence. I am a white, male, young, heterosexual, cisgender, highly educated, middle-class citizen of the United States of America. These are my sources of privilege. This the perspective from which I write and the perspective that lulls me into complacency and inaction.
I don’t think that saying “Floyd” once or twice in a prayer or sermon is enough of a response from Trinity Lutheran Church, or from any who claim to represent the body of Christ in this world. This means, too, that God is calling us to more than a few posts on Facebook and a few mentions in our personal prayers, too. So, here’s a blog spot, where I can release statements and thoughts in a timely manner. (Let me be clear about this, too: blog posts will not be enough of a response either!)
Words on social media are not enough from white people--but that cannot be my excuse for staying silent on social media; prayers are meaningless without a committed body to embody those prayers--but that cannot be my excuse for keeping my words from God; marching can deteriorate into nothing more than a photo op--but that cannot be my excuse for staying home; navigating political realities can be messy and confusing--but this cannot be my excuse for ignoring my vote's power.
This should be self-evident and shouldn't need further commentary than the video footage of George Floyd's murder, but I nonetheless feel a need to express clearly:
Yesterday, I walked with a hundreds of clergy from across the state to lament George Floyd’s murder and to cry out for justice. Our march was a silent one, led by clergy of color to symbolize the white clergy’s commitment to value and uphold black and brown bodies as sacred in God’s sight. Though we walked in the quiet, with just the crunch of our shoes to fill the street, our protest was deafening in its prayers. As each religious leader marched, representing a diverse range of spiritual traditions and understandings, we focused our minds and hearts on our prayers. We spilt our voices to our various understandings of God with our complete selves: with our minds, with our senses, with our hearts, with our traditions, with our communal and individual spaces, with the worshipping communities we have at home.
Because we weren’t limited to one faith tradition, each of us prayed in different ways and in different words. When my feet started moving, a prayer came to my mind, which I would like to share with you. But first, let’s read this passage from Mark:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” The word “drove” could actually be translated “exorcised,” as it’s the same Greek word used in the exorcism stories later on. Does that change your perspective on Jesus’ baptism? How about your own baptism? “And the Spirit immediately [exorcised] him out into the wilderness.”
Jesus’ baptism—and, I’d argue everyone’s baptism—does not only wrap him in God's comforting arms; it also thrusts Jesus out of comfort. His baptism pushes Jesus—against his wishes?—into a lonely place of vulnerability, sacrifice, and struggle against evil. He has no choice in this; vulnerability, sacrifice, and struggling against evil are the basic missions bestowed on God's baptized.
So, as I walked the streets of Minneapolis yesterday, surrounded by colleagues from many traditions and alone in my thoughts, my prayer was born of this passage. I am grateful for this word “exorcised” and for Jesus’ baptism, which has become my own. Here is my prayer from yesterday’s march—feel free to use it if you find it helpful (there is an audio recording of my prayer below):