Lent II – Black History Month

NewJimCrow61dV3M-HnLL._SL1024_The New Jim Crow
by Michelle Alexander

This afternoon I had a long drive from Atlanta to Nashville, and I decided to start a book I’ve been wanting to read . . . by letting my iPad read to me. Just the fact that I can drive state to state, and choose a book to “read” while driving, and let my electronic device read to me as I go, says a lot.

What is says is that I benefit from a lot of privilege and prosperity and class liberty. I have a blog and a computer to write it on, and a lot of other things that prop up my “freedoms” and “choices.”

I’m part of a system that benefits me and others. That system also harms me and others. Mostly the others who are the inheritors of slavery, racism, Jim Crow laws, and the new Jim Crow, mass incarceration.

Author, lawyer and professor, Michelle Alexander argues, “mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow and that all those who care about social justice should fully commit themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system” (p. 11).  She continues by addressing the objection raised by some that we live in a “color-blind” society having elected President Barak Obama to office twice: “the widespread belief that race no longer matters— has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system” (pp. 11-12). Black History Month, says Alexander, is often presented as a celebration of the end of Jim Crow, yet it did not end. Not exactly. It morphed into a racist system of mass incarceration.

I’m riveted by this book and Alexander’s arguments. I’m a bit late joining this conversation, and frankly my teaching a college credit course in a medium security prison last fall is what brought me fully awake to the severity of mass incarceration. I joined the Middle Tennessee group “Revisioning Justice” last fall, and members of that group are introducing me to more arguments, activists, teachers, and ideas.

As I arrived home this evening, I became aware of a campaign to try and stay an execution for Kelly Gissendaner. (If you are just learning about her situation, you can read more HERE.) The death penalty and state sponsored executions are deeply troublesome. They are interlocked with an entire system that does not reform or rehabilitate, but rather hardens people, misappropriates justice, and goes on building an economy on the backs of criminalized bodies – mostly brown and black bodies. I want to continue to move my own racialized white body into the social, economic, and class gap that the mass incarceration system creates. Once in that gap, I want to continue partnering with others to imagine new creative solutions.

For now I’m going to keep reading Alexander and see what else goes on my reading list, my to do list, my participate-in-change list. Alexander says: “if we say to ourselves that the problem of mass incarceration is just too big, too daunting for us to do anything about and that we should instead direct our energies to battles that might be more easily won, history will judge us harshly. A human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch” (p. 15).

Lent I – Black History Month

Harlem - Feb 2015Selma

I began this first Sunday in Lent by traveling to Harlem in the heart of New York City. After a week of sleet, snow and ice in Nashville, I was grateful for the sunshine, and even the slushy sidewalks. People here looked delighted to be out greeting the day and each other. When I was here last month, I wanted to see Selma showing in a nearby theater, but the trip was too full. Following a morning of writing on the plane, I thought it a good Sabbath practice to drink deeply of this story of American history, a tragic and courageous piece of history.

The movie definitely pulled me up short. I heard Terry Gross’s interview with the film’s director, Ava DuVernay a few weeks ago. I was moved as she described her approach to the story. During the movie itself I was jolted to tears and to furor several times. DuVernay says she hoped “to place the audience right front and center emotionally to what it felt like to be black in the deep South in 1965.” She does so exquisitely. I’ve never felt the impact of the violence, the politics, the personal cost, the complexity of the Civil Rights movement so profoundly.

My lenten discipline this year is to be open-hearted to life, to risk, to the reach for the courage enough to love, even when I don’t feel like it. Being open-hearted to the history and the present reality of what it means to be black in America means being moved emotionally and feeling the demand for outrage and for action. It means seeing the stakes of what racism is and what it does, and what it costs.

Fifty years ago the events of Selma brought thousands of protesters into the streets of Harlem. Last year Ferguson brought more protesters into these streets. Much has happened in between. Thanks be to God. But so much more still needs to happen. Lives and dignity, and futures are on the line. When will the day come when no more protests are needed? When, O God, will we be just as delighted by each other as we are with a sunshiny winter afternoon?

How shall we find the courage to turn our open hearts to God and to each other?

Ash Wednesday – 2015

Gimme All Your Love 

So tell me what do you want me to do…
You want me to lay down and play dead and do backflips for you?

Walk in your shoes for a while? 
Tell me, what’s right?

Gimme all your love
Gimme all you got, baby

— Alabama Shakes

Joel 2:12-13 – Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

That’s my Lenten discipline this year. To love God by loving God’s world more whole-heartedly. Brene Brown speaks and writes beautifully about loving and living wholeheartedly. It takes vulnerability, risk, and courage. It means letting go of shame, defenses and white-knuckled control. What does this look like in concrete practice?

Hearts of IceJesus offers some help at this point. He says where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also (Matthew 6:20-21). And he says not to invest it in material places where our investments are easily destroyed – by moth or rust. One very concrete way to understand this teaching is to invest in relationships which are concrete yet so much more than mere material objects. To be sure, investing energy, money and love in the people we care about can also come to destructive ends. Yet the investment of ourselves in work and love that follows our hearts . . . puts us in a realm beyond easy destruction. Relationships stay with us long after people are gone.

So this Lent, I’m going to explore more publicly how love and wholeheartedness can be our guide to investing our lives – which is to say, all of our time and money – because in most cases it is our lives we trade away for time and for money. So with the vulnerability of weeping and mourning, not weakness, but courage, I’m aiming to explore the places where God is saying, “Gimme all your love.”

Where is God asking you to open your heart and share your love this lenten season?


Scholastica: A Saint for Women Called to Ministry

Women breaking new ground in ministry need a network of peer support.

Saint Scholastica and Sainted Abbesses - photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.
Saint Scholastica and Sainted Abbesses | photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

February 10 is the Feast Day of Saint Scholastica, the twin sister of Saint Benedict and founder of the first Benedictine convent for women. These “holy twins” were born late in the fifth century (480 C.E.) in Italy, to a wealthy family. Benedict is best known for establishing a number of monastic communities and for writing the Rule of Saint Benedict, which remains a source of inspiration for thousands of Christians, providing guidance for their daily spiritual lives.

Although lesser known than her twin brother, Scholastica provides inspiration of her own as a patron saint for nuns. Through the fifteen centuries since Scholastica lived in a spiritual community of women, the number and types of possible vocations for women in religious leadership has expanded enormously across the landscape of both Catholic and Protestant churches. In the last half century in North America and Europe, the entry of women into ordained and authorized leadership in Christian congregations has created one of the single largest changes to the face of the church in two millennia.

With these notable changes and growth of women’s pastoral leadership in the church comes an undeniable need for connection and support. Again Saint Scholastica offers inspiration. Adopting the name “Scholastica” Middle Tennessee women in ministry have a new opportunity to gather monthly for connection, support and inspiration, in a peer mentoring lunch series sponsored by Central Seminary, Scarritt Bennett Center, and Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

“Scholastica” began in the Fall of 2014, and is set to meet monthly from September through April of each year, drawing on resources that resonate with the Benedictine tradition, to build spiritual friendship, conversation, hospitality, and collegial relationships. Peer groups for ministers are an important source of spiritual guidance, learning, and support; they leads to healthier pastors and stronger congregations or ministries; and they assist in overcoming isolation that can undermine ministry.

Spiritual Guidance and Support

Ministers, like all people of faith, need guidance and support for their spiritual lives. Scholastica and Benedict, as spiritual ancestors in ministry leadership, knew the benefits of a shared life of prayer, work, study, worship, and hospitality in community formed in Christ. In a recent book on peer learning in ministry, So Much Better, author and sociologist of religion, Penny Long Marler distinguishes adult study and learning from childhood training. As Christian disciples and ministers, adult learners “need to be convinced that a learning experience is really worth their time and effort.” Marler observes that for pastors “commitment hinges on the promise of something more that really matters.” Ministers benefit from a circle of peers who help them articulate what they need and want to learn so they may grow in their vocations of leadership.

Better Pastors and Better Congregations

Two national surveys of pastors (2010) reported strong evidence that involvement in peer learning and peer networks of support contributes not only to healthier and more balanced pastors, but also to stronger, vibrant congregations. In fact when pastors are part of intentional peer groups with facilitators and a clear plan for learning, they are more likely to be part of churches that are renewing their purpose and growing.

All ministers benefit from a supportive community of peers to thrive in ministry. When women are breaking new ground, especially in denominations that still harbor suspicions of women’s leadership, they need a network of peer support to meet the challenges they face daily and to overcome the isolation of ministry.

Overcoming Isolation

Ministry in congregations, hospitals, schools and non-profits is demanding work. To teach, lead, care for people, and bring lasting and meaningful change to situations, requires deep spiritual resources. It is easy for ministers to find themselves alone in their work, and expending more spiritual energy than they are receiving. That situation can foster isolation, resentment, and self-doubt. And isolation is especially detrimental for women in professional ministry, who remain a minority in nearly every Christian denomination.

Meeting with others who are doing similar work of ministry breaks down the isolation, normalizes the profound challenges of ministry, and allows space for honest self assessment – thinking neither too lowly nor to highly of oneself.

To be sure peer support alone will not solve all the challenges or riddles of ministry. However, making and sustaining connections with other ministers does enhance one’s spiritual, imaginative, and relational capacity for the practice of ministry. The middle Tennessee initiative “Scholastica” aims to foster:

  • Peer conversation to support learning relationally over time about the practice of ministry;
  • Fellowship at tables grounded in the practice of the shared supper and the communion of saints;
  • Networking with other ministers to support and build relationships leading to more opportunities for collaboration in ministry;
  • Mutual support for women who are often isolated in their work of ministry.

Scholastica is a saint for women called to ministry. She was said to be “one who loved more.” The work of ministry is grounded in the work of God’s love for humanity, and today we can gaze briefly into this one life of Saint Scholastica to say thanks for the work of God’s love.


This post first appeared at Baptist Global News: Perspectives.


Black History Month – Rose Marie McCoy

rosie-marie-mccoyHidden Talents
Black History Month – Day 3

This afternoon I heard on NPR a remembrance of Rose Marie McCoy, who died at age 92 in on January 20. She was “one of the most prolific songwriters you’ve never heard of,” and she produced more than 800 songs in her lifetime. McCoy wrote for singers from Elvis and Sarah Vaughn and Nat King Cole to Etta James, Faith Hill, Linda Ronstadt, Aretha Franklin, and James Taylor. And she wrote in many genres of popular music from Blues and Rock to Country and Jazz.

One of my favorite things about her is her independence, having never signed with a particular label or publisher, but in her life time wrote with various partners and collaborators.  The first really big hit by McCoy and her writing partner Charles Singleton was recorded by Elvis in 1955. Here is a 1968 rendition. Enjoy!

And here is a recording by Rose Marie McCoy herself, “Stop Dippin’ in My Business.” Among the joys of celebrating Black History Month is the discovery of good art, music, writing, inventing, and the amazing human beings who created it.

Black History Month – Maya Angelou

BlackbirdCaged Bird
Black History Month – Day 2

In the fall of 2014, I taught a course in World Religions to 25 men in prison. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had as a teacher. It was also one of the most disturbing and unsettling experiences I’ve ever had as a pastor and theologian. I’m still unpacking the experience, and plan to continue writing in that direction.

For tonight, in honor of Black History month, I want to share a poem that I shared with my students at the end of class. We couldn’t take food into the prison, so I had to find a different way to celebrate the end of the term. I shared poetry. I’ve long loved Maya Angelou and she presciently captures the tragic situation in which U.S. prison systems are steeped in racial injustice and work to keep a form of slavery in place.

Let her words take flight and open up your imagination and your heart with compassion . . .

By Maya Angelou

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird” from Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? Copyright © 1983 by Maya Angelou.

Black History Month – Ms. Lauryn Hill

Who’s Lovin’ You? 
Black History Month – Day 1

At 13 years old Ms. Lauryn Hill took the stage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NYC. Already her fierce determination shows through when she keeps singing in the face of the crowd’s booing. I think it is a beautiful metaphor for the resilience required for surviving and thriving in a culture that devalues your being and your gifts. The best part is that she gets back on key and finishes the song. So when we ask with the song, Who’s Lovin’ You? One clear answer is God. It is God who loves the “souls of black folks” (DuBois) and bestows the courage to live in the face of dissing of the soul. Inspiring.


Scholastica: A Peer Mentoring Initiative

The image of Saint Scholastica was written in the Byzantine iconographic style by Sister Mary Charles and is distributed by The Printery House at Conception Abbey in Missouri.


When I was starting out in ministry, I drove four hours every couple of months to meet up with three other women in ministry for connection and support. We laughed and cried together and told each other about our lives, ministries, doubts, and struggles. No one should have to drive four hours to find a network for connection and support! Yet isolation remains a real issue for many ministers, and particularly for women who are still a minority in nearly every Christian denomination.

To assist in overcoming the barriers of isolation and to build a network of support and creative relational learning, Scholastica is now welcoming women to a monthly peer mentoring luncheon. Scholastica offers informal connections for women in ministry across denominations and experience.

Last Friday a group of nearly 20 women gathered for networking, lunch, and deepening conversations about ministry and life. Scholastica is sponsored by Central Baptist Seminary, Scarritt-Bennett Center, and Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The peer mentoring program exemplifies the kind of collaborative and entrepreneurial spirit that Central Seminary’s create program seeks to foster in its students. Scholastica also supports Scarritt-Bennett’s mission to empower women for leadership and life. And supporting women in ministry is one of the goals of Tennessee CBF as well.

Purposes for the program include:

  • Peer conversation to support learning relationally over time about the practice of ministry;
  • Fellowship at tables grounded in the practice of the shared supper and the communion of saints;
  • Networking with other ministers to support and build relationships leading to more opportunities for collaboration in ministry;
  • Mutual support for women who are often isolated in their work of ministry.

Scholastica will meet once a month on Fridays between September and April for networking and lunch. Once each Spring and Fall semester, Scholastica will feature a speaker who will address a topic of interest for women in ministry. The first speaker will be Central Seminary President, Dr. Molly T. Marshall, on Friday, February 27, 2015. To attend, please register for lunch HERE.

Dr. Marshall will address the question: Why do we need a women’s leadership initiative for ministry?

As a pioneer advocate for women in ministry, and one of the early spokespersons for women’s ordination in Baptist life, Dr. Marshall will bring her considerable depth of understanding of both congregational needs and the gifts of women in response to the question. I hope you will join us for this conversation. And bring a friend!

Future Dates for Scholastica:

Friday, February 27, 2015:  Register Here
Special Guest Speaker:
Dr. Molly T. Marshall, President Central Seminary

Friday, March 20, 2015:  Register Here

Friday, April 24, 2015:  Register Here


Advent III – #AdventVigil Prayers

AdventVigil#2Advent Vigil

O Lord, deliver us from believing that surveillance is a substitute for relationship.

Turn us away from thinking cameras alone can deter violence.

Give us instead new eyes to see one another with trust and new hearts to act with integrity.

Renew our minds for empathy, care for our neighbors, and compassion for our enemies.

#Ferguson #EricGarner 


Advent II – #AdventVigil


In late November, I started planning some posts and op-eds to participate in awakening other white friends, family and followers to reflect on Advent After #Ferguson.

That was before the failure to bring an indictment in the #EricGarner case.

Rather than give in to my temptation of paralysis, I’m going to hold vigil on social media and elsewhere.

White people: We have a lot of work to do for our complicity in the broken system of injustice: laws, courts, prison systems, mass incarceration, open and hostile prejudice – as well as oblivious and implicit prejudice – that gets away with murder. Repeatedly.

Before we open our privileged mouths too far, however, we need to start by witnessing the harms, reading the news, quietly supporting our grieving friends, and praying in silence for a long season of lament and repentance . . . the real stuff of Advent. Then we can (continue to) work quietly, relationally, and deliberately as allies and advocate for change.

Only then. Only then.

Until then: #AdventVigil #blacklivesmatter #alllivesmatter #pathofnonviolence