Though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times [re-covenant in a museum]

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I spent much of this week in a city I deeply love, which is also a place with which I am in the process of becoming something else.  “Visitor” doesn’t quite get there, and “stranger” never will . . .  but I’m learning the balancing act of living in, and loving, two places, while in some cases un-living and perhaps even un-loving.

It’s tough, and I’m doing it unevenly, unequally, and sometimes ungracefully.  And I’m persuaded that there’s no other way; we create and negotiate relationship, and do change rather than cut-off, by feeling our way through.  It’s a challenging thing for humans to straddle the canyons dividing “I” from “thou,” “this” from “that,”; “here” from “there” while maintaining a sense of balance and selfhood.

We simply move forward in trust, and hope that our mistakes might be small and not harmful. 

I could write a lot of words about that, simply from a personal perspective.  But what occurred to me on this particular visit is that in some way, we’re all here together.  Not in Kansas City, of course, though I’m sure the visitor’s bureau would love that.

I mean that we are ALL strangers living in a strange land right now, trying to maintain communion with what is important and beautiful from “before” even as we reach and lean and lurch our way toward an as-yet unknown “after.”

And meanwhile, we live in neither of those places—we instead exist in a “now” that is present, but undefinable.  And in this landscape, it’s hard to know how to balance the ordinariness of life—the tasks, the priorities, the conversations–with the urgent call to push back against what is changing.  And let’s be clear: what’s happening in our nation is not just change—it’s rupture.  Breakage.  It’s a negation of much of what has come before, including values.  Including lives.

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How do we continue to weave with the threads of “any given Friday” when we know that in the background, damage is being done?

How do we go on, having arrived at a place in which it is normal to eat a four dollar cupcake while reading entertainment on one’s phone, and where it is simultaneously only reasonable to be screaming in the streets and demanding change and answers in the halls of power.

If there are answers to be had to these questions, they will come through our wrestling with and bridging two realities, in those moments when we find ourselves standing atop a widening canyon, a foot on both sides.  And we will do the real work of keeping our balance, first and finally, in the ways we always have: through art—word, image, song, act—, through religion (in churches and before the altars of our own hearts), and through human encounter.

And I thus think it’s not only relevant, but perhaps imperative, to tell you that in Kansas City, right this minute, it is possible to physically weave yourself between the threads of a very old song.  Janet Cardiff’s “Motet” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is exploration of public space, of art and musical harmony, of closeness to one another and to God, of sacred music and the secular curation of culture.

And not unlike custom cupcakes and all varieties of screaming in the streets, it is a product of our social and spiritual hunger.

“Motet” is 14 minutes long.  The room contains 40 speakers, some sound panels, tall white walls, leather benches . . . and a polyphonic memory sung, dissected, reconstructed, and explored.

Though removed in time, space, and cultural context, the song is powerful.  Listeners lean in.  They pause, and then linger.  They close their eyes.  Some cry.

And meanwhile, we do the same, trying to understand what is becoming of our nation.

Writing for NPR, Alva Noë reveals his discomfort with public religion and performance art, both, asserting that “There [is] actually something creepy about [Motet]. A room full of robotlike speakers going proxy for absent singers . . . and a museum or gallery is not a sacred space. There was something almost chilling about the performance of such a spiritual offering in such a secular context.”

This same week for Breitbart, Daniel Nussbaum asserted that the National Endowment for the Arts “has become a controversial agency over time . . . [because] taxpayers should not have to fund art they consider to be against their values, or obscene.”

And simultaneously, writing for the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and for Unitarian Universalism as a movement, Rev. Meg Riley said of covenant:  “I wake up in the morning feeling discouraged by the news of the day before…entire pieces of government being eliminated with no sense that anything of value will be lost; many people I know and love scared for their very lives with the new “health care plan,” news media that focuses on the ins and outs of party politics as if that is what I care most about, rather than focusing on how we are to be together and take care of one another in this time.  So our theme of the month, covenant, feels more and more relevant to me . . . [because it means] that we are all responsible to and for one another; that no one is free when others are oppressed.”

We cannot, in short, be separated from one another.  Cause cannot be separated from effect.  And none of us can be cut off from the context from which we hail—not really.  We are a people who cross borders all our lives, in our hearts if not with our very bodies.

And this is precisely the thing.  “Motet” is powerful because it isn’t separated from context.  It is in fact not divorced from anything that has come before—because it cannot be.

And this, wandering through a place that used to be my home but no longer is, is a revelation I can use.

Janet Cardiff’s exposition on infinite loop lays a song in our laps, parsed to be intimately accessible at the same time that it builds and crescendos to something that cannot be held by walls.  It has the audacity to be both right-sized for our ears and much too big to keep or categorize.

And this, friends, is not what religion has finally been brought to by secular culture.  It is, instead, precisely what we’re all achieving together, in the best moments: a faith that meets us where we are, in the confusion and fragility and human scale of “now,” which then carries us, soaring and together, into something more.

“Motet” is a recognition of all the history we have held, and it’s a simultaneous assurance for the next leg of a journey.  That the ancient song continues even amid displacement, that God may be found amid technological advances, that manna falls even amid changing invitations and varying hungers, and is here for us. still

Not unlike our covenants with one another.

That dusty word–covenant–speaks of the promises that return us to one another, and to ourselves.  The kind that are so strong that they can be redeemed even when broken.  The kind that allow us to straddle, sure of balance, the canyon between “here” and “there.”

In covenant, in “Motet,” in Kansas City: we tread familiar paths equipped with different tools, find ourselves returned to the start of all our wanderings and seeing the place with new eyes, and. know in deeper ways than we were able to before.

Sacred song in secular space is not a break.  It’s a return.

And here is its promise as best I know it:

What has come before is not gone.  It is here with us, here for us, still.  Here for the asking, for the hearing, for the singing.

This is what a sacred motet in a heartland museum can mean.  It is what the institution of church, keeping the songs of the people for millennia, can mean.  It is every cathedral with its sermon in stones, every poem, every protest, every hymn trying to name God by tugging the vibrating violin strings of our hearts.

In two days, “Motet” will close.  The song will once again fall silent.

 

But my people: it is nevertheless not too late.

It is not, yet, too late. 

j

we the people

 

Dear white girl from Kansas: I choose them

Wow, it’s been a few years.  More than that, actually—time flies, right?  We don’t keep in touch, and even though we lived and worked less than 30 miles from each other for the last six years, I haven’t seen you.  We don’t send birthday greetings.  I don’t know that I even understood you to be part of my village.

Until now.  By which I mean last week, when you sent me that message, and invoked the “friend” card.

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Don’t worry; you’re not alone.  I know this story.  It happens every now and again.

While we lack anything that might be taken for a relationship, we have a friendship, and you’re invoking it now to let me know I have put it on the line.

For being out of touch? 

For not knowing your kids’ names? 

For forgetting your birthday?

Nope.

For talking about racism. 

See, we can go a long time without talking, but there are some things friends just don’t do.  And I need to know that.  So you’re telling me.

Here’s the post that crossed that friend line:

“If you voted for Trump, and are also “not a racist,” this might be an important thing for you to read. And reflect on. And speak out about.

If this sort of thing is ok with you, well, you’re entitled to your prejudices. And also: we have a word for them.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-attorney-general-jeff-sessions-racist-remarks_us_582cd73ae4b099512f80c0c2

And here’s part of your response:

“I know I am a sensitive person, but when I see that in the title of your post you mention things like “not a racist”, I really feel bothered. Things aren’t always so black and white. I do think it’s possible to identify more with one party- even while not completely loving your candidate- and not be generalized as a racist. I did read [the article about Sessions] and am intrigued by the choice.

I am worried about President Elect Trump and his choices, however I am hoping and praying too and giving him my hope and optimism. I really am trying to be inclusive and forgiving and allowing people a chance, even if they’ve said and done things that they shouldn’t have. . . . “

You go on to remind me to be tolerant, and, above all, that you are not a racist.

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Dear Facebook friend.

Here are some things I value:

Civil discourse

Dialogue, and the magic I have sometimes found in the midst of it

Learning

Relationships

But we are not having a leveled conversation here. 

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And aside from the things listed above—things that I actually do value—you’re making a strong implicit ask for me to prioritize a couple of things that I do not, in fact, value:

“Friendships” with people I’m not really friends with.

Dialogue about two things (potential of hurt feelings; potential of persecution, harassment, and unequal treatment based on skin color) that are categorically, exponentially different, carried on with “pretend like all concerns are equal” as a ground rule.

“Be nice*” as the fundamental edict of white womanhood.

And friend, there’s also something here about honor.  About respectability as a white woman.  About what we believe, but mostly do not say, about “decency” and “playing by The Rules.”

It’s been impossible not to notice—in fact, I think this is one of the great and unwelcome shocks to upper middle class white America during these last few years—that “don’t be racist” is no longer a rule.  It is my experience that it was a rule, at least out loud, for more than a generation and a half.  But it’s clearly not a rule now.

And yet, don’t be mean to other white women is TOTALLY a rule.  Also: don’t talk about hard stuff.  Don’t say what you’re thinking or wondering or worrying about, unless it happens to be birthday party décor.  Don’t you dare—ever— say something that might indirectly call anyone to account.

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Sister, you’re intrigued?

And you’re asking me to be silent in the face of that?

I am not going to play nice with your casual racism, just because the world we have inherited says that “play nice” is in the honor code, and “check your freaking white privilege” is not.

My reality as a minister in a progressive, anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and multiculturalist faith tradition is that I’m standing atop a widening chasm in maintaining my various relationships.  And I’m not sure how much longer I can do it.

I am no longer sure how to occupy space where I give the same amount of energy—more energy, honestly—to dialoguing about your “a little hurt” feelings than to being physically present with those who are afraid for their marriage rights, for their trans child’s ability to use the bathroom without being beaten or intimidated or psychologically and physically brutalized, for their humanity, for their lives.

I can’t play by white girl rules anymore.  They make real conversation, and underneath that, real movement, impossible.

And I don’t think that’s an accident.  I don’t think my complicity with your comfort is value-neutral.

Thus, as to your implicit threats and explicit invitations: I’m trying to imagine the person you think I might be, the one you’re trying to pull me toward becoming.

I don’t think she’s someone I could live with.

And so, when it turns out I can’t bridge the gap anymore, I will have to make a move.  And the truth is, my choice is already made.

If being in relationship with you means preserving your comfort, keeping your thoughts pure and your cheeks tear-stain free …   if to be “friends,” I must choose silence, over and against solidarity with people whose concerns have never been about comfort—who are acting in a hierarchy of needs that doesn’t get past the physical and psychological safety pieces–

Friend, I choose them.

I choose my humanity.

I choose my soul.

Sound stark?  Feel problematic for your sense of hope, or your understanding of, yes, the magic power of dialogue?

It is.  That’s why it’s taken me this long to say this thing, even to myself.  It violates every “nice girl” norm I know.

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But there is indeed an alternative.  And it looks like you doing some work—to get courageous rather than comfortable.  It looks like you living in flexible, contested space for awhile.

Truly, you want to stay in relationship?  Or establish something deeper?  Or simply read my FB public ministry and not feel personally affronted in considering my words to the world?

That would look like you not expecting me to choose silence as a package deal with “friendship.”

Can you do that?  Are you inclined to?

I don’t know.

What I’m sure of: no one will make you.

And that, friend, is what we call privilege.

j

 

*to those who have social value.  Obvs.

**I’m going, now, to humanize this person.  I’m doing it because humanity and complexity are the deepest call of my faith, and I truly believe that we gain nothing—in any conception of “We” worth having—without that generous willingness.  But before I do that, I want to ask you for a favor.  All of you.  Every single person reading this.

Take a moment, and consider who we are not willing to humanize in our narratives.  To whom do we not offer this gift—this sacred responsibility belonging not to the people we choose to talk about, but to ourselves, as story-tellers?  Who are “thugs” in our narratives, rather than sons, scholars, dads, grads, promise, potential, our future?  Who are “illegal,” in your story, instead of brilliant daughters, future doctors, terrorized toddlers, and the many-centuried hope not just of American shores, but the hope of our nation itself?

I will show you the fuller humanity of this white woman, because we all deserve it.  But remember this: we all deserve it.  And the next time you want someone to look upon you positively in your own story, I invite you to work twice as hard to reframe your internal narrative about someone else.  Especially when it’s challenging.  You’ll know you’re on the right track when you surprise yourself.

So:  this open letter is part of a real exchange, with a real person.  I don’t know if we’re friends now, or if we will be in the future.  I do know that she’s stayed in dialogue as our conversation has continued beyond this point.  I know that she’s been courageous and willing to listen.  I know that she’s working hard to open her heart and hear other, larger stories—and that we can receive that as a gift, because although it is a bullshit way to allocate resources, privilege is real, and it makes willingness optional.  Call-in helps.  So does a willingness to answer when called.

In short, “White girl from Kansas” just might be more impressive than you give her credit for.  May that possibility mean something when it matters.