For Jeff

For my friend Jeff Krehbiel, who passed away yesterday, who lived his life and ministry shaped by his Reformed (Presbyterian) heritage and the sentiments expressed in this quote. From Doug Ottati’s Reforming Protestantism: “Genuinely reforming churches will not shrink from the prophetic task. . . . [T]hey will denounce the persistent scourges of racism, sexism, and homophobia. They will point to severe economic disparities among communities linked in a single garment of global interdependence…[The] world may respond with benign neglect and refuse to take the church seriously. . . . In that case, prophetic churches have all the more reason to remain in the world, refusing to leave it alone. [The church] has every reason to be pests and persistent nuisances, calling into question business as usual. . . . The prophetic task may have its cost and burdens. . . . The task of faithfully objecting to the forfeiture of the good and abundant life for which we are fitted may place the church into direct opposition to the principalities, powers, and climates of opinion. . . . It may lead others to question the church’s good sense or prudence. . . . By the faithful logic of theocentric devotion, none of these possibilities constitutes a reason to relinquish or attenuate the critical and prophetic attitude. . . . God alone is God, and we should serve no others. Reforming churches have to remain true to the first commandment.”


Shared Humanity

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From Pema Chodron’s The Places and Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times: “In cultivating compassion we draw from the wholeness of our experience—our suffering, our empathy, as well as our cruelty and terror. It has to be this way. Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”



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From Brian Bantum’s The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World: “Race is the lie that I can be who I am, without you. Race is a system that makes some people’s thriving contingent on other people’s dehumanization. Christian discipleship is the confession that I am not me without you, and that our community is not whole while some are perpetually diminished.”




From Brian Bantum’s The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World: “When God created us, God created us to be like God. God wanted us to love and to be loved. But when you love someone you have to choose them. You have to choose them in the big things and in the small things. To love someone you have to see how they are like you and how they are not like you, and you have to see how their differences are gifts, ways of helping you to see yourself and God and the world in new ways. We were made like fountains that are always being filled by a stream of living water and pouring out into the other fountains around us. We are always being filled and we are always pouring out. That’s what it means to be made in God’s image. God puts us in the garden with one another, with creatures, and with two trees—the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Our lives are made whole in these differences. Difference is the opportunity to choose one another and to choose God. If we each desire something different, our morning ritual requires recognition of another, and in that seeing we must put our needs or desires into conversation with the other. In that small decision we must choose the other.”


Dust and Breath


From Brian Bantum’s The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World: “The relationship of Adam and Eve to the land is not simply one of stewardship, of ruling over. Every time they tended a tree, dug a ditch, or plucked fruit from a tree they were reminded that they were not so different than that dirt or that tree. In a racial world, colonizers believed that the world existed to be subdued, that there were creatures so different from human beings that they should be packed onto boats or herded into pens. But the misperception was twofold. The colonizers thought life could be created and determined, but ignored just how fragile their lives were, just how much like the trees or the squirrels they were. We are all dust and breath.”




From Brian Bantum’s The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World: “In the creation of humanity we see what is most fundamental to being created like God, that we are different from one another and that we are made to be with another. Our bodies are what make this difference and our love for one another possible, incarnate. The body is love. The creation story is a sign that we were created to be with God and with others. These two creatures that are formed from primordial chaos, formed and breathed into being, beautiful signs of how difference and likeness are tangled together, that we are ground and God, flesh and Spirit, male and female—and that these differences are what make it possible for us to be like God. But perhaps most of all, this creation story is a story that reveals what it means to be free, to be a unique creature in this world, and that being free is not a kind of sovereignty, but rather a profound exercise of love. Retracing our beginnings is a kind of resistance. It’s a way of renaming what is beautiful about our bodies and our lives so that we can see more truthfully what dehumanizes us, and what God hopes for us. If race is a story that becomes manifest in our bodies and lives, different stories must be told and embodied to resist the deathly consequences of this racial story.”


Spiritual Activists: Five Lessons for Today

By Rev. Karen Brau

On Saturday, April 8, Rev. Karen Brau gave the second talk in a four part series, “Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman.”  The presentation was sponsored by the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and was held at Luther Place Memorial Church.  Below are notes from that presentation.

Rev. Brau focused on lessons from Howard Thurman’s teaching that she said were directly relevant for those who work for justice today.  She gave specific examples of insights and practices that enable us to draw on the spiritual/mystical tradition that Thurman wrote and talked about.  She discussed Thurman’s emphasis on a direct experience of God and how it can sustain us, quoting Thurman’s example of people who were enslaved and told they were worthless and yet they discovered God on the inside and knew they were of worth.

Rev. Brau explained that when Howard Thurman went to India and met Gandhi, he was asked by Gandhi to sing a spiritual.  Thurman obliged by singing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and she used that as an example of how important spirituals are for tapping the religious experience. She then paused her presentation to invite Jeremy Grenhart, director of music at Luther Place, and four students from Howard University to sing several spirituals.

After the musical presentation, she summarized five specific lessons from Howard Thurman for today’s spiritual activists:

1)    Engage Spirituals—Music, especially music that is rooted in deep suffering, can help open us up to an experience of God.  In many ways, “spirituals are miracles” which can transform how we see things. Rev. Brau urged all of us to engage with spirituals on a regular basis and be open to what they can reveal.

2)    Articulate Hells—It is important to tell the truth about the suffering and evil we see around us.  Thurman talks about hell being “fear, deception and hate” and we certainly regularly see examples of all of those.  In particular, our politics seems more and more characterized by these indicators of hell and we need to be aware of and acknowledge that.  Rev. Brau also pointed out that the title of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon that he was to preach the Sunday after he was killed was “Why America May Go to Hell.”

3)    Love, Love, Love—There are many way in which Thurman expresses the power of love, and we need to hear his message that love is the greatest expression of the spiritual experience.  We need to focus on this type of love and practice it as regularly and fully as we can.

4)    Engage Inner Life Practice—Rev. Brau talked about various practices Thurman and other mystics have used to develop a rich inner life.  In particular, she talked about the simple power of silent prayer, reflection and meditation.  She gave an example of a “breath prayer” which can be used to calm and focus the spirit and then stopped talking and asked everyone to engage in that prayer for three minutes.  After three minutes of silence, she again spoke to the group and pointed out how regular time nurturing the inner life is so crucial.

5)    Be Mystic Activists—Rev. Brau reminded us of the challenges we face, especially in this political environment, and urged us all to be as active as possible.  She said we need to draw upon our spiritual resources and be bold in responding to the injustices we see around us.  We also need to stay in touch with other “mystic activists” to support and encourage each other.

Rev. Brau closed her presentation by summarizing these five lessons and then once again calling on the musicians who presented two more spirituals.  After the music, there was a time of brief silence and then a discussion between participants and Rev. Brau.



From Brian Bantum’s The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World: “The heart of Christian confession is that God abhors the deaths we are subjected to. Scripture is the testament to God’s continual desire for us to be alive, to love and be loved, to be with God and with one another. In our deluded sense of independence God reminds us of our essential relationality. In our exile or imprisonment God comes near. In the midst of our violation of others’ bodies, bodies made in the image of God, God becomes like us, makes bodied life a part of God’s own life. For lives repeatedly alienated through a thousand little comments or rendered invisible by society, God sees and names and touches. In the midst of these the incarnation is God’s Word to us that our bodies were made to be free and to love.”


The Body of Jesus


From Brian Bantum’s The Death of Race: Building a New Christianity in a Racial World: “In America, Jesus is only occasionally the center of Christian identity, especially for those who seem to utter his name so often. Too often, Christian identity in America is more about bodies governed by a racial ideal in the guise of a so-called Christianity. Race is more determinative for our lives than being a Christian. Race shapes who marries who, where we live and cannot live, who is more likely to be seen as guilty or innocent, who shapes our prospects for education or health. Race permeates our existence in this country. This story is not simply about a few bad apples or an abstract notion of sin. This is about a Christian story that has not accounted for the body of Jesus or the bodies of those who believe.”




From Thich Nhat Hanh’s Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society: “When we water the seeds of mindfulness through practice, happiness will appear. The other morning when I opened my water tap to wash my face, I felt my fingers as they were in touch with the water. I felt that the water was very fresh. The water had either come from a very deep source in the earth or from high mountains, and it was connected to the water tap in my room. Outside it was very cold, so the water inside was also very cold, and when I wet my eyes it was so refreshing, like the Buddha’s teaching. Whenever I brush my teeth I do so aware that I am free from all agitation, worries, and projects. I dwell peacefully, freely, happily in the present moment, in touch with what is positive, like the cool fresh water. My eyes are still in good condition and my legs still let me walk. I’m very happy.”