The Communion Partners, the ACNA, and the Children of Divorce

 

Ilustração - Divórcio

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed (Acts 15:36–40)

Becoming a child of divorce bursts the bubble of safety that envelops a kid’s first years in the world. It may be hard to remember that bubble as adults, but we see that look of safety on the faces of the young. We may try to chasten it, but parents will tell you that kids stride through life with an irrepressible assurance that the world is a plaything that will never do them harm. If you are lucky enough to have such a childhood (I didn’t), you might even come to believe that the love of parents and the safety of home is a birthright, something that will always be.

Becoming a child of divorce changes that. Mom and dad, the cause of every breath you take, come apart at the very moment when you are trying to put yourself together and make sense of the world. Do not misunderstand my statements here. This is not some facile claim that marriages must never end. Sometimes abuse or infidelity destroys that which was once beautiful and true (For those who need to hear this, if someone is abusing you, get free). With those caveats firmly in place, it is important to acknowledge that for the child the death of a marriage brings trauma. It forces you to confront, before you are ready, the world as it is not the one that you would like it to be.

The traditional Anglican/Episcopal priest in the United States, who lives in the aftermath of 2003, is a child of divorce. This divorce is not in fact between the Episcopal Church and what would become the Anglican Church in North America. This is a misnomer. The Episcopal Church has, in truth, never loved us. She has to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the season, tolerated traditionalists as a manifestation of the diversity that gives her a sense of self. My family was a smaller fellowship within the Episcopal Church that told me a beautiful story. This family described the Anglican Communion as something that transcended the limited perspective of a homogenous American church that had lost herself amongst the ruins of modernism and the false start of post-modernism. This family spoke of creeds, sacraments, the three-fold office, the consensus of the church fathers, and the authority of the Scripture. I believed them.

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Black Movers, White Neighborhoods

 

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Yesterday, four movers arrived at our new home to deliver items I had not seen since we placed them in storage some three years ago. Two of these delivery men were African American brothers. When one of them walked in he said, “I remember this house! I moved the people out of here a few weeks ago.”  Then he gave me that subtle nod that black people exchange.  Next he asked me what I did for a living.  I told him that I was starting a new job as a professor of New Testament at one of the schools near here. Soon after this, his brother walked in and he told him that I was a professor and that I moved here to start a new job with my wife and kids. His brother then started to educate me on the glories of my new neighborhood and the local attractions within walking distance. They both said your kids are to love this place.

There were two conversations happening at once. One was the normal small talk that all strangers share, but beneath that I could tell that there was some black pride on display. I did not know exactly how to take that. I have always believed that all honest work was good work. I did not consider myself to be very different from them. I did not come from money and NT professors are not rich. But they seemed to see things differently.

As they began to move my stuff in, the younger brother complained, “these small boxes are heavy!” The other brother responded, “those boxes are full of books.The man is professor, fool! he needs those books!” I think that all older brothers talk recklessly to younger brothers.

Around midmorning, I brought them some coke and chips. They took a break and we sat down to talk. They asked me how old I was. It turns out that we were all about the same age. I was 36, He was 41, and his brother was 38. Then asked me how I had managed to become a professor at such a young age. I responded, that I was not that young. Most folks in my Ph.D. program were younger than me. I wanted to say more. I wanted to say that I grew up just like they did. I wanted to say that I knew about drugs, gangs, and rough high schools.

I wanted to shrink distance that they wanted to create between the three of us. But I sat there sipping Coke and listening to them talk about their kids. One of them told me that he had two good kids who had moved to the suburbs so that they could get away from the city schools. They were on vacation with their mom. This was the longest he had ever gone without seeing them, but he texted his son every day.  It almost felt like he was trying to prove to me that he was a good father. He missed them. I said I missed my kids too. My kids were vacationing with their mom as well. In that moment,  we were two dads talking about our kids and our hopes for their future. Then they went back to work and I went back to checking things off the list as they came out of the truck.

At one point, during a lull in the work, one of them came up and said, “It is good to see a young black man living in a place like this and working as a college professor.”

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Alton Sterling, a Son’s Tears, and Psalm 137: A Lament

 

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept –Psalm 137:1

What does it look like to reach the breaking point of orthodoxy?  What does it look like to arrive at the place where the desire for reconciliation gives way to anger and resentment?  It looks like a fifteen-year-old boy weeping uncontrollably over the death of his father. His tears and our anger are not new. The Psalms knew of such breaking and lament:

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!  (Psalm 137:7–9)

What could motivate God’s people to utter such a despairing and uncomfortable prayer?  Quite simply, they had experienced a great trauma.  When the Babylonians rushed into Jerusalem and burned it to the ground, Israel stood helpless while their children were killed, their wives were assaulted, and husbands were murdered.  Now they longed for revenge.  They had reached the breaking point of orthodoxy.  With no other recourse, they  turned their anger and pain upward to God. They told God what they felt.  God’s people were tired, angry, and devoid of hope.  All that remained was the cry for justice or vengeance or some combination of the two.

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Lecrae, Patriotism, and the Fourth of July

Lecrae created a bit of a firestorm on twitter when he posted this picture with the caption:

“My ancestors on the fourth of July 1776”CmiUo5CUEAAqryi.jpg-large

This post caused a bit of an uproar because Lecrae is supposed to be the one rapper all evangelicals can love. Many were hurt, but for me this was not at all surprising. This picture is just another form of a post that comes up quite often  on my social media feed on the 4th of July.

In the past, Frederick Douglas has been the patron saint of “woke fourth of July.” People love to recall that powerful speech he gave on July 5, 1852. It is popularly known as, “What to a slave is the fourth of July.”  In it Douglas wrote:

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.—The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

 

Douglas’s point was straightforward. To the descendants of the slaves, the fourth of July reminded them of the freedom they did not have in 1776.

But many wonder why people feel the need to mention this now when slavery is over and America seems to have made so much progress? Lecrae’s post (and others) appear to be motivated by two realities. First, they want to challenge simple narratives in which our founding fathers were saints who built America upon principles of freedom and equality. This is a false, or at least incomplete, telling of our story. Our founding fathers, for all the good they did, were flawed. It should not be controversial to find it somewhat problematic that they declared that all men were created equal while at the same time owning their fellow brothers and sisters. On a day dedicated to memory is it really improper to remember the whole story? The second reason people post pictures like the one above is to remind Americans that despite the fact that we have made progress there is still work to do. Put differently, folks speak about slavery on the fourth of July to bring to mind the fact that America will only be truly American when there is real liberty and justice for all.

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In God’s Good Time: On My first class at Northeastern Seminary

 

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The people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be…You must have missed the come up, I must be all I can be. Call me Mr. Mufasa, I had to master stampedes– Chance the Rapper

Until what he had said came to pass, the word of the LORD tested him –Psalms 105:19

This week I found myself standing before the eight students who would participate in the Doctor of Ministry course at Northeastern Seminary. Someone more humble than I am might have been nervous. I wasn’t. I was excited, probably too much so. Excitement causes me to speak much too quickly; the ideas come tumbling forth rapidly.  Grant me that flaw. I have an excuse: Jesus excites me.

This particular class gave me cause to be emotional. I experienced something that had not occurred since I graduated from high school some eighteen years ago. I was in a classroom where the majority of students were African-American. Although Northeastern is quite diverse, this was out of the ordinary. We have around 150 students, 50 of whom are black. This class had eight students­–six African-Americans and two Caucasians. And it was taught by a black man (me). I couldn’t help but notice that my entire educational experience had been an inversion of the present reality. In my studies, having another black student in class was the exception rather than the rule. Through my 12 plus years of higher education, I can recall having one black professor (shout out to Dr. Roberson at Sewanee).

But this extends beyond the classroom. Pursuing a doctorate in biblical studies means that just about every conference you attend, every gathering of professionals, every trip to the pub for drinks, every casual conversation, and just about every church experience will be largely white. Why does this matter? Why focus race instead of being excited about teaching all of God’s church?

For the past 18 years, I have done I lot of teaching, and I have enjoyed every moment of it. But the section of the church with whom I share similar experiences, stories, and culture had been largely absent from that experience. My concern is not about my own comfort; it is about access. When I went to Seminary, I learned so much about God’s word that I never knew. Then I realized that most of my classmates had no interest in returning to communities like the one I grew up in to teach people like my friends and family. More than that, I realized that there were very few of us black folk at the Seminary. This meant that even if every one us returned to urban communities we would be a minor blip on the radar.

Of course, I recognize that one does not have to go to seminary to be faithful to God’s calling, but it doesn’t hurt. Furthermore, it was a matter of equality. Did God only want suburban churches to access to this material? Is Greek and Hebrew only for the rich?

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Seminary and the Curse of Ham: On the need for Diverse Faculty

 

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Noah damning Ham, 19th-century painting by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov.

 

Part I: Seminary, the Sons of God, and the Curse of Ham (if all you care about is the interpretation of the curse of Ham feel free to skip to Part II below)

I went seminary to learn the Bible. I think all of us who become clergy or professors are drawn in part by our curiosity about the Scriptures. We are driven by a desire to know. At our best, we want to take that information and use it to preach God’s word faithfully to those he has entrusted to us. For me, this desire to know took me far from the south of my childhood. But I was willing to brave the snowstorms and New England culture that was so alien to me if it meant understanding the Scriptures better by the end.

So I did as I was told. I learned my Greek and Hebrew. I studied paradigms and learned (at least partially) how to diagram sentences. But the more time I spent in exegesis and theology courses, the more I realized that my interests and those of my caucasian colleagues diverged at a variety of points, none more so than in the issues that received extended discussion in class.

I remember being told that everybody had to be able to answer questions about the following text, as it was sure to come up during the course of our pastoral ministry:

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years (Gen 6:1–3).”

Who were these sons of God? Fallen Angels? The descendants of Seth? If memory serves, we were all required to write a paper on the topic. I honestly cannot recall what I said. Before seminary, I had never given much thought to who these sons of God might be and since seminary, no one has asked me about them.

From childhood, I had known about the curse of Ham. I knew that it meant I was supposed to be inferior. Thus, black slavery in the past and our present second-class status was a manifestation of the will of God. I remember looking forward to dealing with this text in detail at some point in seminary.

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He is Everything or He is Nothing: The Resurrection and the Claims of Jesus

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To be quite honest, the Easter Sunday Mass has never been my favorite. I have always been drawn to the evening services of Holy Week. Each year I am struck by the stripping of the altars on Maundy Thursday when the altar, divested of it’s glorify, mimics the stripped and beaten body of our savior. Then there is subsequent departure in silence. Have you been there? Have you seen it? Have you felt deep within in your soul that we share in failure of the disciples who abandoned Jesus at his hour of great need? That was the hour of darkness when the Son of Man was handed over to sinners.

On Good Friday I am stirred by the entry in silence. No hymns, no incense, no altar hangings, just the bare wooden altar that symbolizes the cross that awaits our king. Then we venerate the cross. The church, the whole of it, gathers one by one to glory in an instrument of death that has become our life. In the American church, we conclude the Good Friday liturgy with a prayer that says

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set
your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and
our souls, now and in the hour of our death.

That’s it isn’t? The Son, who has authority to cast us away into darkness, the judge of the living and the dead, is the one who intercedes on our behalf. Good Friday says it plainly: set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls.

The last of the evening services is the Great Vigil of Easter. If any celebration can lay claim to being the summit of the Christian year, it is this one. Have you been to one of these services? Have you begun outside the church in the dark of the night and heard the cantor proclaim the light of Christ? Have you heard the exultet: Rejoice now heavenly host and choirs of Angels! Have you heard the repeated refrain this is the night each time more urgent:

This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children                                                  of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt.

This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered                                            from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness
of life.

This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell,                                       and rose victorious from the grave.

But when we turn to the morning – Easter Sunday – the church has no special liturgy for this day! I find that shocking. There is a collect celebrating the resurrection, but otherwise the liturgy of Easter is almost indistinguishable from any other Sunday. It is almost as if the church has said, we have given you our testimony. He has died, he is risen, and we are filled with joy. It seems that the church recognizes that we cannot fit the entire story of the Christian faith into a Sunday morning and so it does not try. In fact, the liturgical experts will tell you the services of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are not three services, but one. We take three full days to reflect on the death and resurrection of our savior and even then we only skirt the edges of the mystery. There is a lesson in this.

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Give me your feet and I will give you mine: Footwashing amongst the Baptists and Episcopalians

 

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Image by © Homer Sykes/CORBIS

 

I can say with confidence that I have washed more feet than any Episcopal priest that I know. This is not because my previous parishes enthusiastically embraced Maundy Thursday. No, I make this claim this because I was raised as a member of the Primitive Baptist Church. In that tradition, once per month as a part of our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we washed each other’s feet. I am not speaking about the pastors washing the feet of the elect. The whole church joined in this work. Well, at least the faithful who stayed after the main service concluded to share in “the Supper and Footwashing” as we used to call it.

I recall looking at my mom  with pleading in my eyes when that faithful Sunday rolled around. “Can we please go home? The football game is about to start.” Before you judge me for my lack of piety, keep in mind that by this time I would have already been at church since 10:30 (9:30 if we made it to Sunday school). By the time the main service ended, we would be knocking on the door of 1:00 pm. The Lord’s Supper and footwashing, when added to the small talk that inevitably followed, would move our departure to something north of 2:00 pm. As often as not, we stayed and I endured.

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Two Boats, One Gospel: Black History Month and the Church’s Witness

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(Orthodox icon of the Church as boat)

 

And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, “For we are also His offspring.” from the Acts of the Apostles

I have learned three histories in my lifetime. In school, they focused on the exploits of the descendants of the Mayflower. Theirs is a story of triumph over every obstacle that hindered an inevitable rise to greatness. It glories in America’s interventions at turning points in world history. The heroes in this tale do not look like me. My ancestors are relegated to the background, only invited forward to speak on the equality that should exist on the other side of our suffering. But that suffering itself must be forgotten. This is a past that gets omitted from the retelling. If some want to hold to their most cherished narratives, it stands as a sign to be contradicted.

I learned the full story of the survivors of the Middle Passage on my own. The twenty-eight days of Black History Month were insufficient to cover it. That tale had its own esteem, but it initially produced anger. Resentment is understandable when you discover that the neighborhoods and schools that still press hard against the dreams of the children who reside there — places that you too had to survive — did not arise by happenstance or the laziness of your ancestors. They were legislated. I can’t unread W.E.B. Dubois. The poets and novels of the Harlem Renaissance reshaped my imagination, and I live in the aftermath. But what shall I do now? Do I use my history as a weapon of mass destruction and locate evil in the flesh of those caused us pain?

That is not the path I choose to take. A third and deeper story has intervened. Before there was an “America,” before the slave ships arrived on the shores of West Africa, we were — all of us — profoundly loved by the one who gave his life in order to welcome us to his father’s home. In the midst of my anger, Jesus has come and spoken words of peace. I now see that our destinies (black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Native-American) are united, caught up in the one story of the one people of God. America’s story is only important as a witness to the gospel’s power to bring beauty out of pain and estrangement. We are penultimate.

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