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Be Not Afraid

good-spreadI’ve learned how to “tweet.” This involves putting words together to share, using 140 characters. One of my most “retweeted” “tweets” on the internet came out after a tragedy had everyone in panic mode. These were the words: “The world is transfixed by fear. Perfect love whispers in fear’s ear to turn his head toward hope.”

I was paraphrasing a fourteenth-century mystic, Julian of Norwich. I am writing a book about what her visions have taught me about fear. She is really in my head this week because, according to every news media outlet around us, we are supposed to be scared of one another. Restaurants, waiting rooms, and the pump at my gas station have news blaring: EBOLA! ISIS! Short of sleeping at the Eno River, you too will be exposed to the contagion of FEAR.

I recommend an antidote. But first, a history lesson. Julian of Norwich is the name given to the woman who wrote the first book written in English attributed to a woman. We don’t know what name “Julian of Norwich” answered to before she came to be called “Julian of Norwich.” We refer to her by that because, toward the end of her life, she was a resident wise woman in a church in Norwich, England that had long been called St. Julian’s. Sometime near the late fourteenth-century, this woman took the name of St. Julian’s church in Norwich. The church was bombed to oblivion by the German air force during WW II. But it was rebuilt for people who have the means to travel and love the writer known as Julian of Norwich. Tourists who don’t know a fig about the second century St. Julian go there because they think Mother Julian, from the fourteenth century, was holy. They go to see the apartment she lived in, adjacent to the place where people received Mass (the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion) and feel close to her.

St. Julian's Church, Norwich

St. Julian’s Church, Norwich

Norwich, England was a port city. In the fourteenth-century there were “sumptuary laws” in England. This meant that peasants, farmers, and other human beings without certifiably blue blood were forbidden to dress in a way that might allow them to pass above their station. As a port, Norwich had people coming in ships from Europe, dressed in ways that could not be easily sorted. Also, the official English church at this time distributed the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, according to rank and station. The first were to be first to the table, and the middle to be middle, and the last to be very, very last. If there was no more bread by then, so be it. Christianity, as it was practiced in the beautiful, fancy churches that people pay good money to see, was practiced during Julian of Norwich’s time to remind everyone to keep in their place. And, well . . . then there was The Plague. Thousands of people during this period were dying, horribly and suddenly. And they were dying “unshriven.” There were so few priests left alive in some areas to deliver the last rites to the dying that people were dying without being cared for to say confession and receive blessing. People left behind were stricken with fear that their husband, mother, or child was condemned to hell.

The Lollards' Pit is now a pub.

The Lollards’ Pit is now a pub.

Norwich also had what came to be known as “Lollard’s Pit,” a place where heretics were brought by the

church authorities to be burned alive. Fourteenth-century followers of a man named John Wycliffe, a group known pejoratively as “the Lollards,” were thrown in a pit and burned alive as examples of how not to think around the time that Julian of Norwich was bravely trying to write down what she had seen. The Lollards were in trouble for suggesting that regular people ought to be able to read the Bible. This was a dangerous suggestion. If regular people started reading the Bible themselves, they might believe they could think for themselves, without the strictly hierarchical authority of the feudal and church system. Wycliffe and his band of merry men and women had caught an idea that was irrepressible throughout early Christian history. No matter the chaos and rules around you, Jesus had given a new rule. Sit down and eat with your brothers and sisters. And, by the way, your brothers and sisters are those you most fear.

When Julian of Norwich wrote, people were dying by the thousands of disease. People were scared of newcomers, given that they could be carriers of disease, chaos, or heresy. And, Christians were being hanged for saying that Jesus did not care much for the stupid rank and file system. Her answer? Laugh at the devil. Look to Jesus. Keep hope. And don’t let fear be your new religion.

Sheep pen, from the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1320-40

Sheep pen, from the Luttrell Psalter, c. 1320-40

Happy Birthday!

Pop! My dad had been called Reverend Hall, Dr. Hall, Father Hall, and occasionally “DAD!” but not Pop, until my Mom chose to go by Cookie. Pop goes with Cookie.

Want to know why my mom is called Cookie? I have a picture that I will eventually share of my dad, after my mom bought Rachel her first Mall Cookie Shop cookie. Rachel is sitting in Pop’s lap and looking really smug. Pop is also looking smug. They did it behind my back. My mom and my dad were right. Rachel deserved a huge cookie and icing sandwich thing, with no guilt. She deserved to be just smugly satisfied that they’d accomplished this without my knowing. That is what grandparents are supposed to do. So, Cookie became Cookie after that. Rachel knew who had just given her the best thing she’d ever had. Thank you, Pop and Cookie.

Here is what Pop knows about my younger daughter, Emily. Pop told me, when Em was about 3, that I needed to recognize she is truly an athlete. Em is smart. And she is brave. She is really, really, good at NOT running away from a soccer ball or volleyball coming full force at her head. (I have finally stopped wincing each time this happens while she is playing.) Emily is really, really good at not running away from a challenge. My dad, who is also an athlete, knew this. When Em was going through the very difficult toddler stage, Pop told me that I should make each hard thing a game she could win. He understood her. Thank you, Pop.

Pop also tried to understand me. I have told this story when teaching Christian Ethics 101. My dad told me, after having sat with me asking question after question for six months in his Confirmation Class, that if I did not understand everything, I should promise God that I would keep asking God good questions. Pop did not tell me that I would embarrass him if I did not conform in front of the congregation he was serving. He told me that I should see confirmation as a process. I think anyone teaching confirmation should take a hint from Pop.

Cookie and Pop taught me to understand Christians who do not always understand one another. My mother is so strong and smart she could have been the Governor of Texas. My father is so wise and kind he could have been a United Methodist Bishop.   I have just embarrassed them. But so be it. It is true. Neither one of them spent their time running for bishop or for governor. I am grateful. If they had been running for either, my girls and their cousins would not have seen them half as much. I am grateful Pop loved the people in his churches so much that he forgot to find time to run for bishop. He is the pastor I think of first when I tell my students that I want leaders whose gifts outstrip their ambition.

Pop hates to fly, but he is going to get on an airplane, again, to come see us this Thanksgiving. When I went off far away to college so long ago, I think we all knew it was going to be hard for me ever to move back to Texas. They have been patient with my wayward ways, and Pop evidently beams a little bit when he tells people back home I teach at Duke. He is a basketball fan. And he loves me.

Happy Birthday, our dear Pop, from all 3 of the Green Street Girls! We love you so much the 8 falls over! (That is our cute way of saying infinitely : )

This Labor Day, I Want a Union

I have been working this past year on an effort to encourage people to say the words “labor union” (without epithet) at their place of worship the weekend before Labor Day.  My favorite encounter came this summer.  I was at a worker justice rally in downtown Raleigh one Monday, handing out snappy fliers with a picture of an apple pie.  The flier read “Labor Day is as American as apple pie.  So are labor unions!”  I spotted a labor trailblazer in a group of people, so I waited politely for my turn to talk to him.  I flashed my smile and pulled out a flier, with flourish.  He looked at it and said, without a blink, “Do you have a union?”  “No,” I answered back.  “Why not?” he asked.  Huh. Read more

[Kara Slade] Surely Kin to Me (?)

In May 1970, a 23-year-old black Vietnam veteran, Henry Marrow, was killed in Oxford, NC.  The circumstances of his death, and the subsequent acquittal of his accused killers by an all-white jury, touched off riots and arson in Oxford, including the firebombing of a tobacco warehouse that sat almost across the street from where this sermon was preached.  I (Kara Slade) wrote it with one eye toward the events in Ferguson, MO, and the other towards the history of the community in which I hoped to bring a word of confession, conviction, and hope.  The following sermon, delivered on August 17, 2014 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Oxford and based on the RCL New Testament texts for the day [Matthew 15:10-28 and Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32], is the result.

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’d like to begin this morning by noting that there are some sermons that I’m excited to preach, some words that I can’t wait to get up here in the pulpit and share with you. This sermon is not that. To be honest with you, I’m terrified this morning. I’m terrified because the word that the Holy Spirit gave me to give to you is one that might touch on some painful things. But just as a surgeon causes pain in the process of healing an illness, sometimes the proclamation of Word of God can be the same way. All I know is, what I can’t do is ignore those painful places and hope that they go away on their own – because they very obviously won’t. I can’t get up here and pretend that what happened this week didn’t happen, and that what has happened in the past in our own community never happened either. Read more

Unreconciled

A colleague recently explained that his target readers are friends in the State Department. I explained my target readers are readers who haven’t given up on the local paper. About a year ago, I sent an op-ed, unbidden, to the Durham Herald Sun. I heard back that they really liked my piece, and that they wanted to run an essay for the first Sunday of every month. (You can find them all if you want, online.) Academics brag about how many words we’ve written in a day, but I have learned that saying something worthwhile in 800 is tricky. Last month, I wrote something on pornography, online education, and pull-down-screen preaching that was so tricky a colleague I respect told me he finds my work “disgraceful.” I stand by what I wrote. It was a good op-ed. I asked people to think, and to ask good questions, and even to laugh at themselves. The following essay is what I have submitted for this month’s entry. I never ran for student government, at San Angelo Central High, at Emory, or at Yale. I am not comfortable playing by rules if the rules are set by people who are intimidated by the truth. In other words, I never wanted to be Hillary, and I will not vote for her. Here is my first op-ed against the Fellowship Family. I don’t like the way they play cricket. And I am tired of seeing people bamboozled or intimidated by bullies who use the name of Jesus as a geopolitical lubricant. They are not beyond redemption. But their behavior is lacking in grace.

“I know I have to forgive him, because otherwise I won’t get into heaven.” A friend said this to me recently about someone who had treated her horribly. Casting forgiveness as a duty is one take-away message from the New Testament. But how did that particular bumper sticker receive such tenaciously sticky backing in mainline, evangelical circles? Harboring a spirit of revenge is exhausting, even toxic. But carrying around the burden to forgive can also warp a soul. A song I sang as a kid goes: “So high, you can’t get over it. So low, you can’t get under it. So wide, you can’t get around it. You gotta go in through the door.” I remember being told that door was Jesus Christ. How did my own will to forgive become the door to heaven?

A few years ago David Crabtree interviewed me about John Edwards. My answers reflect my crushed hopes that John and Elizabeth Edwards were going to facilitate change in the South. I answered David’s question about forgiveness from the gut, and accidentally got it right. The idea that anyone in the Edwards family had a responsibility to forgive John Edwards seemed off. I had heard people in evangelical circles ask a similar question about the Mark Sanford and John Ensign debacles. Don’t family members have a responsibility to reconcile? When asked about one of my own fallen heroes, I said something controversial, but consistent. No.

I believe no one wronged by another human being has a responsibility to reconcile, for two reasons. First, forgiveness is God’s work. To ask a mere mortal to make forgiveness their duty is to mistake a person for Jesus. Second, I have heard the term “reconciliation” used to elide the ramifications of injustice. The word is often used more for opacity than truth. Camera operators apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly to the lens before an actor’s close-up – to make the image more “forgiving.” “Reconciliation” has been used like petroleum jelly in some circles– to blur the truth. Spokesmen have told people who have suffered injustice to focus their spiritual energy right back onto their former relationship to an individual or a group that has wronged them, and then used the blurring power of “reconciliation” to smooth over the fractures of that wrong.

This constitutes religious gaslighting. In case that term is unfamiliar, here is a definition from Wikipedia: “Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.” Take, for example, a commonly used Biblical passage from 2 Corinthians: “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation.” Whatever this means to a Christian surviving or recovering from injustice, such passages should not be used to conjure an alternative world where wounds are healed because a third party has described them as healed. I have seen “reconciliation” used like a Jedi mind trick. A Christian leader with sufficient training can almost convince a human being that she didn’t see what she saw and did not suffer what she knows she suffered.

A Christian leader whose name became synonymous with “Reconciliation” is Desmond Tutu, for his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. His name has come up again recently, with an emphasis on “Truth” and the invasion of Iraq. In July, 2012, at a forum on faith and public life, Tony Blair again denied praying with George W. Bush about invading Iraq. Several weeks after the event, Archbishop Tutu publicly refused to appear at a conference on “Leadership” with Tony Blair. “If leaders may lie, then who should tell the truth?” Tutu asks in his September 1, 2012 essay for The Observer. Tutu suggests Bush and Blair “should be made to answer for their actions in the Hague,” and reminds readers: “Good leaders are the custodians of morality.”

I want in closing to ask about the glue that has made a bumper sticker version of forgiveness so tenaciously sticky. The Fellowship Foundation facilitates the colossal, week-long, spectacle of faith and leadership that is the National Prayer Breakfast. The word “reconciliation” appears repeatedly on their official website, and I heard “reconciliation” used as often as “Jesus” when I attended the Prayer Breakfast two years ago. I think the concept is being used to dupe perpetrators as well as survivors, encouraging obliviousness or cynicism. (Blair and Bush have displayed both.) Reading Tutu’s words, and thinking about what truthful reconciliation must mean – whether in matters of war, or domestic violence, or racism, or geopolitics – another “R” word comes to mind. That word is “Reparations.” I’d like some glue on that bumper sticker.

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