In Others’ Words, Pt. 2: David Swanson

I asked a friend, David Swanson, to respond to the “current moment,” particularly speaking as a pastor to our children, our church’s children, stating what things we might say. I’m grateful for his careful reiteration of a basic truth.

Thanks to Aaron Burden

Thanks to Aaron Burden

To Our Church’s Children,

In my sermons to your mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and the other adults in our church, I often tell them that, though there are many, many important things about them, there is one thing that matters the most: each of them is loved deeply by God. You are generally not in the room when I say this, but I know you hear it from the adults who love you and from the teachers who tell you the story of how God is rescuing this world through Jesus. Even so, I want to say it to you too. Of all the interesting, beautiful, and challenging things that make you who you are, the most important of all is that God loves you.

I know this might not sound so important. Most of you have people who love you and they tell you this. But if you could see what I see when I tell the adults that they are loved so completely and profoundly, you might begin to suspect that there is more to this simple statement. And there is, mostly because it is God and God’s love we’re talking about and whenever we talk about God we have to be humble about all we don’t know. We have to, in other words, admit that we will always be discovering new ways that God loves us. And we’ll be discovering for the rest of our lives how this love changes us and everything around us.

But there is another reason it is a life-long struggle to accept all of God’s love for us and this one is harder. We live in a country where it is normal to make people feel less worthy of love. There are many reasons given for this lie: girls can hear that they are less worthy than boys; children with darker skin can hear that they are less worthy than their friends with lighter skin. Does this make sense to you? I hope it doesn’t, but I need to tell you that for too many of the adults in this country it does make sense. I don’t want you to imagine that the adults you love actually think these lies are true, but this country finds so many tricky ways to tell us these lies that they begin to wiggle their way into our thoughts and our hearts.

These lies are the hard reason that we have to hear over and over again that God loves us. Because when we live in a place that lies to us all the time, trying to convince us that some people are more loveable than others, we have to hear loudly and clearly that we are loved. We need to know that the One who made everything, including us, loves us. He loves us exactly as we are, as boys and girls with hair that is just the right texture and color, with eyes and noses that are perfectly shaped, and with skin that can’t be improved upon. Look at yourself in the mirror and know that God loves you.

I hope you will spend the rest of your lives exploring God’s love for you. And as you do, as you experience God’s love as the particular person you are, I pray that you will make sure that everyone around you knows that God loves them too. Because the lies are strong and constant and most people you meet will believe them at least some of the time. But, as you will find out, the lies have nothing on the truth. And the truest thing in the universe is that God loves. God loves you.

In Other’s Words, Pt. 1: Aja Favors

I asked a friend, Aja Favors, to respond to the “current moment” and to reflect upon two of her roles in the world, those of mother and lawyer. I’m grateful for her wise, pointed words.

I’m a lawyer. Not long ago, I received a called from a friend asking what she might tell her son as it pertains to getting pulled over by the police. Her son is a freshman in college.

Before going into my normal response to such questions, I thought for a moment. I thought about being a mom. Even more than that, I thought about being the mom of an African American boy in a city that has been rightly or wrongly renamed “Chi-raq.”

My son is a baby—only nine months old. Still, the question I was being asked begged a response congruent with the mindfulness a young man’s mom might give.

After pausing far too long, I said…

“He should pull over. He should keep his hands on the steering wheel. He should be deliberately courteous and compliant. He should accept the citation (if issued) and go on his way. If they ask to search his car, he has the right to say, ‘no.’ There are a few reasons why they may be permitted to search it regardless. If he is asked to get out of the car, he should do so. And yes, the officers may pat him down if they have a reasonable suspicion that he could be a threat.”

I spouted out those instructions the way I had been trained to. Still, the justice-seeking, card-carrying NAACP member in me wanted to “beat my chest,” and talk about Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. However, the mom in me wanted her son to make it home—to live to tell the story.

As a staunch supporter of “the struggle,” I believe and know that Black lives matter. I live in Black skin everyday. I’ve wrestled to elevate myself in a system flanked with those who have proven to themselves that I don’t deserve it…simply because I’m Black. Notwithstanding that reality, as a parent I believe and know that my son’s life matters.

I know that in order to protect him, in order to continue to lay my eyes on him—he has to be smarter than the system that makes it acceptable for him to be shot on sight, hanged with a trash can liner, or gunned down with his hands up.

He has to be smarter.

Thanks to Wellington Sanipe

Thanks to Wellington Sanipe

I’m not in favor of a world that makes Black men more docile, more compliant than their White counterparts, or more at risk because of their Black skin. But, I am in favor of a world in which Black children outlive their parents—a world in which one can be Black and die of old age and not from a police officer’s bullet.

Admittedly, what we tell ourselves as parents often contradicts what we tell our children. It’s true. I’d tell my son exactly what I suggested my friend tell her son.

All the while, on the inside I’m telling myself, “If anybody touches my child (police officer or common citizen), I will hunt them down. I will be neither deliberately courteous nor compliant. I will be vicious and vigilant. And, yes, at any cost there will be justice.”

20 Things Worth Saying to Our Children These Days

In no particular order:

  1. People die everyday but I want you to live a long, full, gorgeous life.
  2. Don’t believe that there aren’t safe spaces for you. We will find them together, protect them, and play in them.
  3. Slow down and be as small as you can for as long as you can, because I only see big things in you. When those things mature, you will turn the world upside down.
  4. Turn off the TV and listen to the words of Jarena Lee, Ida Wells, Booker Washington, WEB DuBois, Benjamin Mays, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Renita Weems, Louis Farrakhan, Michael Dyson, and your pastor if she or he has courage to speak to right-now-issues.
  5. The news does not define you and neither does the pain that envelopes our people. We include the pain in who we are, but we are more than our pain.
  6. I want the best for you, and though I will make mistakes in pursuing that, I commit to you that I’ll live with you in mind for the rest of my life.
  7. Your skin is precious, so precious that it can get you into as much trouble as death if you’re black, free from accountability for your actions if you’re white. This is still the country we live in.
  8. The unmistakable print of God’s finger is on your life and people may not call it that because of their own faith differences, but know deep down that you were made by the most fascinating Creator to live a most fascinating life.
  9. Talk to your oldest relative about the way they make sense of the bottom parts of life, and then write down what you hear and how you feel and how it makes you want to be better.
  10. You are beautiful, you are brilliant, you are beloved. This a benediction I pronounce over my son and I gladly share it with you for your children, for your revision.
  11. Obey those who have rule over you. This is a biblical warrant, so listen to your parents when we tell you “how to act” in public.
  12. Disobey authorities when necessary for goodness sake and do so for a worthy cause. You won’t be the first to “go down” for justice, and when you do, your blood will join the saving stream of God’s heroes.
  13. Make noise in life and be a bit irreverent because the people who’ll complain about your noise will be those of us who have lost our throats, who need you to inspire us, and who will, surprisingly, follow your lead.
  14. Take the helm of something that stirs the hearts of people, challenges the fixed impressions of others, and helps you practice your best values.
  15. Love the women in the world because they will be more reliable than the men and they will support you harder than the men and in your love, you will continually lift them.
  16. Love the men in the world because your love will correct and heal our broken places, places we’ve spent years covering, hiding, avoiding, and convincing ourselves aren’t there.
  17. I do not want you to die, but you will die as will I. Live with that end in mind, and move the world toward something more beautiful, more compelling, more attractive, and more whole while you’re here.
  18. Give something away and get into the habit of giving. It will save you when the world takes and takes and takes because you will have defined yourself and your needs and your hopes in a generous way.
  19. Be a messianic force for peace, tolerating no violence, even the violence in your own soul because that self-control is the strongest grace, the most Christlike offering you can give the world. It may save us.
  20. Tell me what I should have said and feel free to update me as we go along.

My Son & Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old black child from Florida, was killed on February 26 by a 28-year old white man named George Zimmerman.  The killer has not been arrested, and a lot of people in and outside of Florida are calling for his arrest.  Many have spent days demanding, minimally, an investigation into Trayvon Martin’s death.  Almost as many are seeking some sensible understanding of the laws in Florida, and states like it, which allow for a gun-carrying questionable character like Zimmerman to follow a child with a pocket filled with skittles, harass him, and kill him.

At this point, the US Dept. of Justice has opened an investigation into the case.  The Martin family is struggling to find consolation and justice for their dead loved one.  Newspapers are reporting on how bright and cheerful and smart the young man was.

Bloggers and journalists are providing details about the killer’s background.  He likes calling the police to complain about black kids.  He said, the day he called 911 to complain about Trayvon Martin, that “they always get away.”  He was permitted to walk away after gunning down a child, with his 9 millimeter weapon.  He was not detained or arrested or charged.  Trayvon Martin is dead.  George Zimmerman is free.

My wife asked me if I was planning to blog about the situation.  I immediately said no.  It didn’t take two seconds to respond.  I didn’t want to think, much less write, about another kid getting killed.  I had heard about the case, seen it on television.  I tried to close my eyes to it because it was too much.

I didn’t want to think about Trayvon Martin or his family and how many tears they were shedding because their child was murdered by a guy who had hardly been questioned by the police after he was the last person to hear their child’s voice.  That murderer heard the child screaming, yelling for help that never came.

I didn’t want to think or write about how that long destructive history that doesn’t release people with skin like mine but that creeps and creeps and creeps until it opens up its big mouth and screams out loud because nothing and no amount of “coverage” can hide how hard it is to be black, to be a man, to be a father, to be a son.

I didn’t want to think or write about that place in my inner soul that keeps memories locked away in my heart.  Like the time a woman crossed the street when she saw me approaching her and like the shame I felt when I turned around after passing her only to see her cross back to the same street after I’d gotten beyond her and how downcast I felt because I was headed to a class in seminary where the story of my faith would remind me that I was called to love and serve people just like that woman who clutched her bag while passing a preacher on his way to being better.  If I were in Florida studying theology at that time; if I were in Florida carrying my briefcase with a Bible and a text on salvation-history and pastoral ministry; if I were in Florida with an essay on the elements of pastoral case most effective for families in today’s time, I could have lost my life.

I didn’t want to think about how similar Trayvon Martin is to the vision I have for my son.  He was a boy, enjoying life, getting good grades, collecting admiration from teachers; he was loved by his family, who over and over called the extremely deceptive police department when he had been missing for three days because his body was cooling on a medical examiner’s table and left like his parents didn’t want him when all they wanted was him.  That young child was so much like my child, the child in my imagination’s future.  He had a girl who liked him.  He ate candy.  He was wise in discerning when trouble showed up.  He called for help.

I didn’t want to believe one more time that a young child, approaching early adulthood, could be treated so terribly and that hatred and evil—whether because of racism or bigotry or power or other foolish sins—could continue to be so bold.  I didn’t want to think one more time that we had another example of criminal justice in the United States where the criminal was the only one who saw justice and when he saw it in the face of that sweet kid, he had to laugh in his blood-covered face.

I look at my son everyday.  I say things to him, things that I know don’t make sense to most people if they’re listening to my words.  Even Dawn laughs at the things I say.  And if I’m honest, there’s a strong dose of this current reality behind my instructions to my son.  His brain doesn’t get it when I’m just a bit too firm.  His brain doesn’t get that there is no difference between his father and the last black man who was walking down a street and mistaken for some other black guy.  Bryce’s mind doesn’t conceive that his daddy, the man who loves him, could be mistreated to the point of death for no other reason than he looked suspicious.  But my son’s father knows these things.  I know these things.  And I don’t want to think them, talk of them, or admit them.  The topics, taken together, form a gross compromise of morality and justice just to discuss them.  And yet I have to raise my son with these words in his ears.

I don’t want to look at my child, who is not even able to stand up at the toilet yet, and witness the closeness between his lovely face and the loveliness of another parent’s son in Florida.  The proximity between those two children is as long as a breath.  And I am aching with a lot of people about the assassination of promise and hope and joy in Trayvon Martin and in every other black loved one he has now joined on the other side of death.

In a strange way, I knew Trayvon Martin’s future.  In a strange way, I know the next son’s future.  Whether or not he is the image of the child who lives in my house, he will be my child.  And the worst fear in me these days is that I won’t be so gracious as the day I continued on to seminary class, that I won’t be loving when my next child, son or daughter, Florida or some other place, meets death in such a horrendous way.  After all, there is no difference between my son and Trayvon Martin.  And I don’t know if there is that much love in any world.