Last weekend, when I was gallivanting around parts of Middle and East Tennessee, my ladies had a day at the salon. Like women with beautiful, wavy hair everywhere, they got it straightened. I understand the impulse. Early in high school, when I found I could not get my hair to go into my eyes like Robert Smith, one of the members of the Cannon County Speech and Debate team showed me how to blow my hair straight. I did not do it very often, mostly because it was more work that it was worth (this was prior to the invention of the straightening iron) but I also did not want to run the risk of being labeled a poseur. In the alternative / punk / whatever-we-were culture of late 1980’s suburbia, there was nothing worse than being a fake, inauthentic person.
So the first thing I think when I imagine being an atheist, if just for one day, is that I’m a total poseur. I can’t really imagine being an atheist any more that I can truly imagine being a woman or being black. It’s not how I am built, which doesn’t make the way I am built any better or worse (although it does give me tons of privilege in this society.) The best I can do is a polite bit of fiction, a suspension of belief.
Except it’s not. Lack of belief is agnosticism, which is the end of logic as well. We can’t rationally prove the existence of God, nor can we rationally prove a negative (such as “God does not exist.”) Atheism, then, is the belief that God is not here because there is no God. This day, the day between the remembrance of the crucifixion and the celebration of Easter, is as close as Christians come to atheism. God is not here today.
So where does that leave us? Without God, how do we build a life of meaning? Even on a day without God, my life has meaning. If nothing else, I’ve got a wife that I can partner with and a daughter I can care for. That doesn’t mean nothing. Then there are the other people. Do they have dignity and deserve respect because God told me they did? Not today. Maybe not ever. Maybe they have dignity and deserve respect because they are. And they are all we have. Today, we don’t know if we’ve got God, but we know we have each other. What do we do with that?
Normally speaking, I am a morning person. Actually, I’ve never quite gotten used to getting up in the middle of the night to go to work. It’s almost impossible to drag myself out of the house when everyone else is right in the middle of a solid night’s sleep, even though I’ve usually been conked out for at least a couple of hours by the time they go to bed. Down around the city, there seems to be something stirring at any pretty much any hour. Up here, it gets dark pretty early and by the middle of the third watch the blackness seems to dye even the grey ropes of the nets.
That is, however, the life of a fisherman. The crepuscular animals we harvest won’t wait for us to have a full night’s sleep, so I’m up well before first light to get out on the water and lower my nets. It’s lonely on the lake in the middle of the night. It’s lonely even when I’m out there with three or four other guys. Some of them don’t speak any of the languages I speak, and it’s only because we have been doing this for so long (we being the people who have lived on every side of this lake since Noah came out of the ark) that we can fall into a rhythm of labor that doesn’t need any words. So I’m not alone in my work, but I’m alone in my thoughts.
Mostly my thoughts are about how this is not really going to work out this time, even though it has worked out more or less every time before now. You don’t know what the catch is going to be like until it’s in the boat, and I’m enough of a worrier to worry about it. Each and every time. But when the catch has been dragged up over the gunwales and lays wriggling around in the hull, I can stop worrying for at least as long as it takes to get back to the shore. At about this point, the sun usually peaks over the ridge on the east and the light starts working its way down the bluffs on the west. By the time it is reflected in the lake water, the sun has become a ball of molten bronze up in the sky. Beautiful but also kind of dangerous looking in the still calm of the morning.
I get why roosters crow at that thing. It’s more than a little bit scary, even if you know well enough that the sun is not going to start dripping liquid metal down on you anytime soon. The sun works more slowly but more thoroughly than that, what with the droughts and all, except when you concentrate it a specific spot, the way the Greeks supposedly did to the Romans at Syracuse. Whether or not that story is true, I can imagine what those poor Latins felt like. I’ve had the full power of the sun focused on me, and it’s a wonder that I did not burst into flames. And it all started with at the cock’s crow.
As I said, I’m usually a morning person. But in this case, I had been up most of the night before because the Master had been up all of the night before. We had made a seder. It was not particularly elaborate, but we had not all been together for dinner in a while. It was nice just to have everyone in the same room for once. Then He started talking in that way He has — or had I guess I should say — and everyone got a little nervous. I’ve told Him before to cut out the apocalyptic crap, but He wouldn’t listen. It drove off Judas, like I figured it would. I think He sensed that I was disturbed and He told me that I would be the next one to jump ship, that every night. Once again, the Master knew me better than I knew myself.
I hoped a walk, maybe up to the top of the mountain, would bring Him out of His reverie, but we did not get any farther than the garden. Every now and then, when He’s in the midst of one of these funks, some time alone — a little breathing room — helps. Helped. I don’t know. Anyway, when He wanted to go off alone, I said, “Sure. We’ll be right here.” By the time He got back, we had all nodded off. He did not say too much about it. He never said too much about anything, but we could tell He was pissed. That’s when Judas showed up with the Romans. I keep thinking that I could have kept them out of the garden, if I had been awake. I could have talked to Judas alone, before he had to make a scene.
But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. When they led Jesus off, he looked oddly relieved, like whatever he had been wrestling with all night was resolved. They did not tell us where they were going, so we followed them as far as the palace courtyard. It would have been suicidal to go inside. Only Judas followed them in there. I realized I was the only one of our group left. Everyone else had scattered. I thought about leaving too, but I also had this notion that maybe I could do something. After a couple of hours, the screaming started. My heart was in my throat. I’ve never seen a man tortured, but you can pretty much tell what it sounds like. I couldn’t sit by myself anymore, so I went over to where someone had made a fire.
At this point, I think I had started to come unhinged. Going from the warmth of the meal we had shared to the cold darkness of the garden after He was gone in just a matter of hours was such a shock that I began to suspect I was having some sort of horrible dream. The faces around the fire were foreign faces, unlike any I had seen before. Their eyes were hidden beneath the hoods of their cloaks, but their voices came out sharp and accusatory. “You’re one of them,” they struck out at me. I swore I was not. In the early dawn, a rooster cried. Again, they hurled an accusation. Again, I denied it. The chanticleer heralded a new day. “I saw you with Him,” one testified. “That wasn’t me,” I replied. A cock crowed so loudly, it seemed to be right next to me. I stumbled away, realizing that He knew before I did just how low I would go.
Maybe I’m not the same person. Maybe that guy who followed the Master all over Galilee, up to Tyre and Sidon, and down to Jerusalem, maybe he’s as dead as Jesus. I just don’t know what to think about anything anymore. We’ve stayed together, the eleven of us who are left. It doesn’t seem safe to try to leave, and we don’t know where we would go if we did. All we can do is sit here and wait. For what, I don’t really know.
I don’t really want to talk about it. That thing. You know that thing. That thing I don’t want to talk about. I don’t think you want to talk about it either. Kind of embarrassing, really. Ok, not kind of embarassing, very embarrassing. Beyond embarrassing, in fact. Shameful even. And that’s why I don’t want to talk about it.
So what is it? My friend, brother, sister, or cousin is in prison? My aunt, neighbor, son, or boss is gay? What is the secret that is so bad that if you found out about it, you could no longer stand to be in the same place with me? And we are not talking about sharing the same booth at Shoney’s. No, we are talking about simply occupying the same space while a maximum of 136 other people (seated) or 208 people (standing) are betwixt us. That secret is shameful.
That secret, really, is shame. It’s the idea that something about who I am makes me unworthy of the things to which all people nominally have access. Shame is powerful because when it is put on us or when we take on ourselves, the first thing we do is act like we don’t have it. We don’t talk about the shameful thing. Sometimes we will go to outrageous lengths to avoid talking about the shameful thing.
When we talk about drug dealers we conjure up images of parasitic heroine dealers who try to get junior high kids hooked, but most of us should think of Stan over in Fox Chase Apartments who sold dime bags to frat boys. “But Stan’s different. He’s not that kind of drug dealer.” Meaning, essentially, he’s not black. Because, as Michelle Alexander has so eloquently articulated, the vast majority of people who are incarcerated for drug offenses are African-Americans who are there for marijuana offenses.
Which makes me think, why aren’t people talking about this? Why aren’t we talking about the ways in which mass incarceration has, for all intents and purposes, replaced the Jim Crow system as the means by which we are creating a permanent underclass in this country? Why aren’t we talking about the ways in which horrid, constitutionally indefensible laws are being proposed in Kansas, Mississippi, Arizona, Georgia, and God only knows where else to provide a moral wedge issue at the expense of gay people? Because make no doubt about it, these laws are being proposed in an election year in the hopes of making politicians facing re-election fear doing what they know to be decent. Why are we afraid to be decent to one another? We do not want to risk being tainted with the shame we see being heaped on our brothers and our sisters.
But here is the thing: we don’t have to take this shame onto ourselves. We don’t have to accept the shame that is cast at us. And we don’t have to be afraid that someone else’s shame will infect us. In fact, I believe that we are all called to seek the dignity of every human being not just because that person is worthy of being treated with dignity (which they are) or because this pleases the one who created us (which I think it does) but because, in the process of treating our neighbors in a dignified way, our own dignity is confirmed. We don’t both get infected, we both get healed.
Gay people are not to be used as political pinballs. Black people are not to be used as a menial caste. People are not objects and there is no shame in saying they are people. Let’s talk about that.
People sometimes ask me, “J Dot, why do you want to go to seminary?” The truth is, I want to sit on the couch watching Netflix and eating pizza. Not everything I want is good for me. I feel called to ministry and seminary, and when pressed, I can give some articulation to that feeling. The essay which follows is a short bit I wrote as a part of my application to Virginia Theological Seminary.
The question is:
What do you believe is the greatest challenge to the Church at the present time and how do you think this challenging situation came about? How is the Church currently rising to meet this challenge and how do you plan to prepare yourself to address it in your time at seminary?Describe two or three initiatives you would undertake to creatively move the church through and beyond this challenge and reflect on how your seminary education might contribute to the articulation of these initiatives.
And my answer:
A young friend of mine, a recent college graduate, took a job with one of the fastest growing retail sites on the Internet. With a budget of several million dollars, she and a colleague were tasked with making this site visible in as many online places as possible. Her job was prestigious and allowed her access to the latest developments from the giants of Silicon Valley. It also made her sick. And it made her coworkers sick. During her two years with this company, seven of the one hundred employees died of stress-related illnesses. What is almost more alarming is that none of her peers were willing to discuss the problem or even perceived it as such.
There are causes worth dying for, but selling khakis on the Internet is not one of them, and while I wish that this story was an anomaly, I am convinced it is just a stark example of the kinds of choices we are making as individuals and as a culture everyday. We remain unwilling or unable to examine these choices, even though they are killing us in very real ways, in part because there is no space in our culture for these questions. It may never have occurred to my friend to seek out spiritual counsel, much less a church, to ask questions that might challenge the prevailing culture. I believe this is true in part because the Church has for so long been complicit with and therefore beholden to a materialistic culture that is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus.
The greatest challenge to the Church in the present time, therefore, is to live as the Body of Christ in a time when to do so may risk alienation from the predominant society. Such alienation could result in decreased church attendance, financial support, or social influence. That is, of course, already happening, and in those places where the Church is embracing this reality as the freedom to experience Incarnation, the Holy Spirit is evident. Whether they attend a new church plant, such as the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, or a century old parish, such as The Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, people are starting to find places where they can question the assumptions our society holds sacrosanct and build lives of meaning and integrity.
When Jesus called James and John to leave their nets and follow Him, Jesus was asking them to put their futures of middle class security and respectability at risk. These fishermen may have known just how illusory this security and respectability was since it always depended on the next catch. He called them to a task which was perhaps less immediately profitable but ultimately much more durable: fishing for people. I hope, during my time in seminary, to explore this call more fully and understand how it led the Apostles to live in the community which is described in Acts.
Life in community is at the heart of what I hope for in my ministry. How this life is made manifest will depend, somewhat, on the place in which I conduct my ministry. If I find myself in a rural parish, I might work with the parishioners to establish a feeding ministry, food pantry, community garden, or similar type of outreach based in the resources available to us. In an urban setting, I may find myself in a parish with substantial building space that could be utilized during the week as a co-working hub or gathering place for a group such as Girls Who Code. Again, the goal would be to use the resources available in that context for the people in the community, whether or not they are parishioners.
I hope that a seminary education might prepare me for this work in two ways. The first is to develop my skills in discernment. Bringing diverse communities together requires listening, analysis, synthesis, and communication, all of which must be done with compassion. While there are secular ways to go about this type of work, I believe that communities are stronger when the Holy Spirit is acknowledged as a part of the process. Inviting God into our midst is, of course, the work of liturgy through the Eucharist. The second way in which I hope seminary will prepare me for initiatives that build community is to form me as a minister of the sacraments and equip me to invite the whole community to participate in them. More than any Church building or small discussion group, the Lord’s table is the place where we can gather to lay open our questions and our hearts, and to be filled with sustenance for carrying out lives of abundant meaning.