Posted by: smstrouse | August 23, 2015

Reflections on “Being Mortal”

contentIt has been a week of being confronted with mortality. Not so much mine, although being with others who are having more immediate health challenges, certainly causes self-reflection.

Coincidentally, I’ve also been listening to an audio version of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. I probably wouldn’t have chosen this book, especially not in audio form. Listening to mystery novels in the car is one of my greatest traffic stress relievers. But the East Bay discussion grop picked it for our gathering next week and listening in the car is the fastest way for me to be prepared. Little did I know how relevant it would be.

As I said, it’s been quite a week: a member of the congregation with a sudden life-threatening medical condition, a death in other members’ family, another having to make the difficult decision to move into assisted living. Added to these is my own significant other’s surgery and possible long-term implications.

MjAxMy1mM2FjNzM1NWYwNWRlOGRiEach of these has brought a unique perspective to matters of life and death. But they all remind us of a very basic fact of our existence: just as we are all born, so will we all die. Two weeks ago, our Buddhist Pluralism Summer guest last week told a joke about the Buddhist medical examiner who was always getting into trouble because on every death certificate, after “Cause of Death,” he would write “Birth.”

That’s a good joke, but it’s also an excellent reminder of what being mortal is all about. The book Being Mortal takes this reality into the realm of modern medicine and calls on us to find better ways of facing our mortality imagesand specifically to find better ways of dying well. My nomination for the patron saint of this has got to be former president Jimmy Carter. He is doing what can be done to treat the cancer, while also accepting whatever the outcome will be. Here is a man at peace with himself and with the birth/death cycle. Although it is touching to read that he waited two weeks before telling Rosalyn about the latest diagnosis.

All of these people – the world famous and the famous only to their loved ones – are teaching me what it means to be human. As they face their own changing bodies and life situations, I am forced to reflect on my own. I, too, have a terminal diagnosis. I’ve had it since birth; in fact it was my birth – no joke.

How am I going to live with this inevitable outcome in the time I have left? How will I deal with whatever illnesses, disabilities, limitations come my way?

And – how will I care for those who are going through these life changes? Atul Gawande’s book describes ways that have not been helpful. His is the perspective of the medical profession, but he’s challenging me also, as a spiritual caregiver.

It’s been a difficult week. But I consider the timing of the assignment of reading this book to be a gift. Even after all my years as a parish pastor and my training and years as a hospital and nursing home chaplain, I still have a lot to learn about being mortal. Maybe it’s part of my own aging process.

Hopefully I’m also becoming wiser.

 

 

 

Posted by: smstrouse | August 16, 2015

Snakes Alive Redux

Well, a good time was had by all at the Serpentine Celebration Circle for Women at Terra’s Temple last night. It was a celebration of the Divine feminine symbolized by the snake, organized by my friend Sridevi Ramanathan. August 19 is Nag Panchami is the festival of snakes on the Hindu calendar, so this was a fine way to celebrate.

My part of the evening was to explain how the serpent came to be equated with evil. So of course I started with Genesis 2-3. You know the story: Eve s tempted by the devil. Oh, wait; it doesn’t say that, does it? No devil or Satan figure in Genesis – which was written, by the way around 500 BCE during the Hebrew exile in Babylon.

This is where they would have become familiar with the ancient Gilgamesh Epic, written around 2100 BCE. In this creation myth, a man is created from the soil by a god, lives in a natural setting among the animals, and is introduced to a woman who tempts him. Hmm, sound familiar? Parallels between stories of Enkidu/Shamhat and Adam/Eve have long recognized by scholars. But to top it all off, a snake steals a plant of immortality from the hero.

Creation stories from the Nag Hammadi library tell interesting variations on the tale. In The Hypostasis of the Archons, the “female spiritual principle” comes into the snake as an instructor, then goes away, leaving the snake behind as “merely a thing of the earth.”And in The Testimony of Truth, the author casts the serpent as the hero and comments about God: “Surely, he has shown himself to be a malicious grudger!”

Genesis is not the only source of serpentine wisdom. In Numbers, Moses lifts up a bronze serpent on a pole in order to heal the people who have been bitten by poisonous snakes. John’s gospel takes up the theme again, casting Jesus as the healing presence being lifted up. Hmm, Jesus the serpent? And of course in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Not an evil way of being at all.

The thing is: the symbol of the serpent is multivalent. You can find places where the snake represents wisdom, healing and eternal life. You find places where it’s about temptation and death. And you can find places where it’s both. Like the cross (and the snake on the pole): a symbol of death that also brings life.

So, celebrate snakes this week and let’s wish a Happy Nag Panchami to all our Hindu friends!

Posted by: smstrouse | August 8, 2015

What Would Jesus Debate?

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Full disclosure: I didn’t watch the Republican “debate” on Thursday night. I was facilitating our Uppity Women of the Bible discussion group (which would be a good series for the GOP to watch, now that I think of it!) Then when I got home, it was a tough choice between the end of the A’s game or the last Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It ended up being a weird back and forth channel-changer, so I didn’t really get out of either what I really wanted.

As I read the reviews of the “debate,” I’m convinced I wouldn’t have gotten much out of that either. Not that I would have expected to see a real discussion of issues or much beyond male posturing, jostling for position and good sound bites, and anti-Obama/ anti-Clinton rhetoric. But there was actually one comment that was worthy of some further thought.

No it wasn’t a Trump bluster. It was Ohio governor John Kasich who actually defended the Donald by saying that Trump is “hitting a nerve in this country. People are frustrated, they’re fed up. For people to just tune them out is a mistake.”

Republican-bashing has always been a popular sport among progressives. Trump-mocking has taken it to new levels. But I think Kasich is on to something here. We often ask how people can buy into the rhetoric of the Tea Party and their ilk, especially those who profess to be followers of Jesus. What would Jesus debate? For starters: care for the immigrant, economic justice for the “least of these” and health and wholeness for all people. That’s not socialism or communism; that’s just plain biblicalism.

But there’s another thing that Jesus has always been about – and that is a message that God has been speaking throughout the ages: Be not afraid. I would add to Kasich’s admonition that people are afraid. They’re afraid, not only for their economic future, but also the future of a way of life. That way of life may indeed be passing away (as it should with its racism, white privilege, xenophobia, homophobia and patriarchy), but even as we welcome in a new day of equality for all we can have compassion for those whose fear is blinding their sight.

Is it easy to have compassion for some of these folks? Nope. But I think it might be what Jesus would want to debate with us and them. He wouldn’t tune them out and neither should we.

How can we, as progressive Christians, convey a message of “Be not afraid” to those with whom we disagree? I don’t have a ready answer to that question. But I hope we on the progressive side of things can take it into consideration as the “debates” continue.

Posted by: smstrouse | August 1, 2015

Snakes Alive!

images-1For someone who doesn’t have a great affection for snakes, they’ve been appearing pretty often in my life recently. Earlier this year, during Lent, we read: As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so the Chosen One must be lifted up  . . .  (John 3:14, from The Inclusive Bible)

In the course of sermon preparation, I became intrigued with the symbolism of the serpent in ancient mythology and how it was incorporated into the biblical stories (the Internet has made it so easy to go down this kind of “rabbit hole!) I got so fascinated by it that I even went to the library at the Graduate Theological Union and found  a few tomes on the subject.

But practicality intervened. I wrote the sermon, and as is the way of pastors who preach every week, I moved on to preparation for the next week. The books were returned unread.

However – in the midst of this serpentine meandering, I had coffee with my friend Sridevi Ramanathan. I don’t remember why the subject even came up, but we started talking about snakes. Maybe I’d mentioned that I’d been reading about Nag Panchami, a Hindu snake festival.

UnknownAnd I probably went on about how the snake in the Garden of Eden had gotten a bad rap by becoming equated with Satan. And how we’d lost the multivalent meanings of the serpent – even within Judaism and Christianity. After all, John 3:14 compares Jesus to a snake – that is, as a symbol of healing from Number 21: Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then whenever the people were bitten by a snake, they looked at the bronze snake and lived. 

And then, snakes alive! Sridevi announced that she was going to hold an event in Berkeley on August 15. It’s called Serpentine Celebration Circle for Women and here’s some information about it:

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Around the world and throughout time, the Divine Feminine in her Serpentine form was revered and worshipped. The Snake can move on Mother Earth and within Her, undulating between darkness and light. But attitudes have changed. Today, in many cultures, darkness is dreaded and snakes are demonized. Yet the Snake endures.

On the 5th day after the new moon of August, certain communities in India hold Nag Panchami, a Celebration of the Snake. On the other side of the world, we also celebrate the Snake in a different way. Calling women to reclaim darkness and the healing Serpentine energy of the Divine Feminine!

You can find all about it on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/events/394140994105791/

But now I have to go back to the library and take out those books again, because I’ve been asked to make a presentation about how the snake came to be demonized. And this time I have to read them! I guess I’ll have to rely on the snake as my symbol of wisdom.

After all, wasn’t it Jesus who said, “Be as wise as serpents”?!

Posted by: smstrouse | July 25, 2015

Thoughts from the ‘Dismantling Racism’ Workshop

There extwere maybe sixty people in the sanctuary of the church that hosted the ‘Dismantling Racism’ workshop today. Ten of them were people of color. Six of the ten were from Lutheran Church of Our Savior, San Francisco. I had traveled to the workshop with the pastor and members from LCOS. We talked on the way about o6a010535ce1cf6970c01b8d06105e4970cur expectations and hopes for the day. Would the presence of African-American folks inhibit the discussion? Would there be action plans or just more talk? Would we get to the issues of white privilege and white defensiveness?

On the way home, we discussed how we thought it went. Pastor Evered Cohen from LCOS, who is African-American, was pleased with the day. He was glad to know that there are white people of good will in our synod who are wiling to honestly look at the issue of systemic racism and begin to take steps to tear it down.

I appreciated the presenters’ definition of racism and our need to be clear on what it is we’re talking about. In this definition, we’re talking about talking about institutionalized racism, not individual acts of prejudice.
Race prejudice + the misuse of power by systems and institutions = racism

The other thing I really appreciated was the TED Talk video we watched, “The Danger of a Single Story.”

What this perspective did for me is offer a way through the logjam of white defensiveness. I admit that during another video about white privilege I felt myself wanting to argue with the premise – even though I certainly agree in principle. But, as the presenters said at the beginning, as they asked us to agree to create a safe space, these are emotional issues.

Self-awareness is key.defensiveness-judy-nelson1

And so are tools. As I remembered the TED talk, I recognized that I didn’t have to get stuck in my defensive posture. I hope you watch the video; it was really helpful!

So we agreed that the day was worthwhile. Now our congregations are going to explore ways that we can carry on the conversation together. Some of our youth had an idea to invite kids for other churches to come, make pizza together and have some kind of discussion about race. We’ll be working on the best way to help them make that happen.

Because the other thing that will enable us to abolish our nation’s “original sin” is relationships. In my opinion, the workshop would not have been as effective without the presence of the ten African-Americans, especially six from LCOS, an historically Black congregation. The burden of dismantling racism should fall on white shoulders. However, it is good to have Black allies who encourage us white folks as we struggle and love us when we stumble. I hope that I can learn to be just as good a white ally.

Today was a good start.

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Posted by: smstrouse | July 18, 2015

Demanding Justice for Sandra Bland

If changing lanes in traffic without signaling is a capital offense, there are a whole lot of peoUnknownple who should shaking in their brake shoes. I don’t know about anywhere else in the country, but here in the Bay area, turn signals seems to be considered optional. It’s a pet peeve, hence one of my favorite bumper stickers is: “Visualize Using Your Turn Signal!”

Having said that, I admit that I’ve been guilty of it myself at times. I even got pulled over once in San Francisco. I’d swerved into the right lane to avoid a car that had suddenly pulled out of a driveway to my left. I was at fault, no argument there. I’d acted on instinct and swerved.

To my chagrin, the cop who stopped me was really angry (OK, I probably almost hit him), but how he handled the situation has stayed with me ever since. In a very condescending manner, he asked me if I knew how to correctly make a lane change. I said I did. He then made me tell him, step by step: signal my intention, look over my shoulder to see if the lane was clear, etc. I complied, feeling humiliated but knowing it wouldn’t do any good to argue with him. Then he gave me a lecture and let me go – no ticket, thankfully – but all the way home I experienced a combination of humiliation and anger. I still think about that incident, especially when I pass that spot, and wonder why he felt that he had to act in such a condescending way. My conclusion: because he could.

My little (almost) run-in with the law is nowhere near what Sandra Bland experienced. For one thing, I’m not Black, and for another, I’m not in Texas. I got away with a lecture; Sandra ended up dead in a Texas jail. Her death leaves us incredulous, asking how in the world this could happen. Why would a cop treat a driver who had made a lane change without signaling with such brutality? Answer: because he could.

It’s come to light that the county sheriff where this happened had been fired from a previous position as chief of police because of documented cases of racism. So I have to wonder about the culture of the law enforcement community under his leadership. But I also know that anyone in a position of authority is susceptible to the temptation to abuse power. Power in itself isn’t a bad thing; we need police forces. The trouble comes when we don’t recognize this temptation to cross over from legitimate authority into abuse and educate law enforcement people to be self-aware enough to know when it’s happening. The trouble increases by leaps and bounds when abuse becomes part of the system.

My run-in with the law was a one-time thing. Sandra Bland’s was part of systemic racism and abuse of power – at both the local level where she was arrested and at the national level where we’ve never done the collective work of atoning for the sin of slavery and our on-going racism. So while I’m glad that the FBI and the state-wide Texas Rangers have been called in to investigate this case, I’m wary.

Maybe it will turn out that Sandra did mouth off at the cop who stopped her. But so what? Did that call for the extreme measures he took? No.

Maybe it will turn out that Sandra did commit suicide. But that’s no reason to write this off. If she did, it was because of the precipitating trauma she experienced.

We must continue to shine the spotlight on the abuse of power to which many in law enforcement have succumbed. We must demand justice for Sandra Bland – and for all the others who have died at the hands of out-of-control power.

Systemic racism and the abuse of power that goers with it is a national disgrace. And not one of us should be silent in confronting and dismantling it.

Texas – and everywhere else – we’re watching you.

Posted by: smstrouse | July 11, 2015

“No Cheap Grace for White America”

There’s been a lot said and written in the wake of the murder of the martyrs of Charleston – so many ways of expressing shock, sorrow, outrage and all the other emotions that have been roiled up by this senseless act. There has also been much said and written about the forgiveness extended to Dylann Roof by the victims’ relatives.

Their act of forgiveness raised a lot of questions about how people of faith respond to acts such as these. We’ve seen it happen before. The Amish school shootings in 2006 comes immediately to mind. A former seminary classmate forgave the man who murdered her husband and daughter. It’s hard for most of us to fathom how they could do that. Could I do that? Does it let the wrongdoer off the hook too easily? Is it cheap grace?
There’s a really good interview with the Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, in which  she reminds us that religions have always wrestled with how we respond to wrongdoing.
Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and former President of the Chicago Theological Seminary. She’s also a contributor and editor of Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War, which offers practices of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation.
She admits that she initially opposed including the forgiveness aspect in the book because of the ways it’s been used against battered women. And now in this case, she wants us to remember that forgiveness is not a “get out of jail free” card, that repentance is part of the process. A relative of one victim said about Roof, “I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”
Maybe this call to repentance will have an effect on Dylann Roof. Maybe not. We can only hope, for his sake, that it does. But Thistlethwaite doesn’t stop with Dylann Roof. She takes the issue deeper and speaks to all of white America: “White America craves this language of forgiveness because they want to forget. You want absolution, but you don’t want to confess, you don’t want to repent, and you don’t want to change.”
That’s a powerful indictment. Are those of us who are white able to hear it, feel it and do what is necessary to confess, repent and change? I’m afraid Thistlethwaite is right; in very large part, we are not. I can’t imagine us collectively doing what Pope Francis did in Bolivia  last week when he apologized for the “many grave sins” committed by Christians against indigenous peoples in South America.

But, at the same time the process of canonization of Father Junipero Serra continues, to the dismay of Native Americans who see him, not as  a saint, but as an agent of brutal colonization. Will the Pope also apologize for this?

All this is to say that the issue is not simple. Racism isn’t going to go away just because our churches had services of repentance and mourning last week. With repentance comes change. With change comes action.

As Thistlethwaite declared, “There is no cheap grace for white America!” We are not off the hook. We do not get a free pass on this. Racism does not go on the back burner until the next time it so violently rears its ugly head.

I don’t have good answers for how we’re going to achieve reconciliation. I often think the only way is to do what South Africa did with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Also by Canada in response to the damaging legacy of Indian residential schools.

Could America – land of the free and home of the brave – be free enough and brave enough to undergo the same kind of truth-telling and, hopefully, reconciliation process?

Posted by: smstrouse | July 4, 2015

Who’s Left Out on Independence Day?

Before we get too giddy this weekend with waving flags, patriotic songs and exploding fireworks, how about we take a moment to consider who’s been left out?

If we go all the way back to 1776, then let’s remember African-American slaves and Native Americans for starters. We still have a long, long way to go to make up for the freedom we took away from millions of people. I wish we could have a Truth and Reconciliation process like they had in South Africa after apartheid. How else will we ever be able to hear the terrible wounds that still infect our nation today?

Let’s at least recognize the fact that the original Independence Day left out a lot of people. And while we’re at it, let’s recognize the fact that we haven’t been too quick to grant freedom (the Civil Rights Act wasn’t passed until 1964) or willing to protect it (as of 2014, 21 states have enacted new restrictions).

We also took freedom away from thousands of Native American children, forcing them into boarding schools for the purpose of assimilating them into “American” culture. They were separated from their families, forced to give up their native languages, clothing and even their names. The Church had its hand in this as well, replacing Native American traditions with Christianity. This is but one aspect of the tragic history of America’s treatment of the indigenous population of this land. But this history isn’t one that we’ll hear about on Independence Day in the midst of boasts about being “the greatest country in the world.”

Then there’s what’s become known as the Prison Industrial Complex, which is fueled and sustained by an ever-increasing prison population made up of an inordinately large percentage of people of color. The inherent racism in the justice system calls into question the denial of freedom to many who are caught in its maw.

These are just a few examples of those left out of our Independence Day celebration. We could add those who are not free from poverty, from discrimination, from the threat of gun violence, from fear of attack because of race, sexual orientation or gender identity.

On this Independence Day weekend, we would do well to adopt a spirit of humility. We are indeed a great country in so many ways. But we aren’t perfect by a long shot. So instead of leaving it up to God, as we do in the second verse of America the Beautiful (“America! America! God mend thine every flaw”), I suggest that we take it upon ourselves to “mend our every flaw,” calling on God for courage, guidance and wisdom in so doing.

Have a wonderful weekend. Celebrate well. But, please, give a thought to those who aren’t included -and a commitment to make Independence Day truly meaningful for all.

Posted by: smstrouse | June 27, 2015

I’m About to Offend Somebody

Let me just say it from the start: I’m a white, Western, able-bodied, straight, cis-gender, Christian, middle-class person of privilege. So in any expressions of thought or opinion, I am bound to offend someone. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for political correctness. But even in my my most well-meaning attempts, I sometimes step on a land mine. Trouble is, what’s a land mine to one person may not be one to another.

Years ago, in a conversation with a gay activist, I used the phrase “has his head screwed on straight” and got roundly chastised. Years later, I was (half) jokingly telling members of my congregation that I’d been worried about the part of the scripture reading that day when St. Paul visited “a street called Straight.” They thought I was being pretty silly, so I told them the story of the “head on straight” debacle. They thought the activist’s reaction was pretty silly, too. So – who’s right?

A lot of metaphorical ink has been spilled since the Charleston shootings about racism and white privilege. Of course, that’s been going on since #BlackLivesMatter. What role do white allies have in protests and demonstrations? I tried to talk about this dilemma at a dinner party recently and a Jewish guest immediately explained to me how I also could never understand her history as an oppressed person.

I get that. I really do. But I’m worried that we have become so siloed in our own stories that we aren’t able to communicate with those in other silos or  join together with everyone for the good of all. For example, a friend who is lesbian was chafing against being lumped into the “white privilege” category without a recognition of her own history of marginalization. She’s not against accepting her place of privilege, but would like there to be a better way for us all to talk about these matters.

In a way, I get Rachel Dolezal. I don’t condone what she did and I don’t know all of her story to really know why she did it. But in a way I get that to be accepted as an advocate for a particular group pf people, you have to have experienced their oppression first-hand.

Back in my Buffalo days, we tried a program of getting folks from white congregations in the suburbs to visit black churches in the city, not just for worship but also to sit down and talk. One pastor of a suburban church was honest enough to express his anxiety at the start of the conversation time. He said right up front that he was afraid he was going to say something that would come out sounding racist.

I’ve had that same anxiety – in many circles. After all I’m a white, Western, able-bodied, straight, cis-gender, Christian, middle-class person of privilege. And I know that I’m probably being offensive in even asking if we can somehow come out of our silos – a least for a little while – in order to talk together openly and honestly. Could we agree to be respectful, listening to one another’s stories, gently correcting one another’s misconceptions and errors?

Could we, in a spirit of interdependence, explore ways to advocate for one another that honor the unique experiences of one group without excluding the gifts of another?

Maybe we have to be willing to risk offending and being offended. This is big, I know. One category where I can claim marginalization is as a woman and a woman in a male-dominated occupation. So my feminist hackles can go up pretty quickly. I know how challenging it will be for all of us to take these risks.

Still I wonder. Is it time?

Posted by: smstrouse | June 20, 2015

Battling the Giant of Gun Violence

422396990_640In the wake of the horror in South Carolina, the image that keeps coming to mind is that of Goliath. Tomorrow we’ll read the story from our ancient sacred text about the heavily armed and armored giant as he taunted the terrified and hopeless Israelites. Today I have no trouble seeing Goliath in the guise of intractable systemic racism and a cultural obsession with guns.

We tend to read the story of David and Goliath as a nice children’s story. Who doesn’t love the little shepherd boy’s chutzpah? First because he volunteers to fight the giant, and then as he eschews any of the armor and weaponry he would surely need if he was going t6795322470_7275a68f59_bo survive, let alone win, the battle.

A slingshot and five smooth stones. And – it took only one stone to do the job. Hooray for David!

But what if this is more than a sweet Sunday school flannelgram (do they even make those anymore?)? What if this is a battle cry to us as we rant and rave about the roots of this latest nightmare?

I am grief-stricken at the nine deaths in Charleston. I am horrified at the manifesto of the shooter. In no way do I mean to take away from the suffering over this latest tribulation. But I am also aware that it is (as one blogger put it) “but a leaf from a poisoned tree.” It’s mixing metaphors a bit, I know, but we’ve got to take an ax to the tree – go up against the giant.

But how? That’s the question. I do feel small; I do feel powerless. How can we not slip back into complacency and fulfill Jon Stewart’s prediction on his Daily Show monologue the day after the murders, that “we still won’t do jack shit.”

How can we be David in the face of Goliath? It’s going to take a lot of real thinking, serious discussion and intentional action. But here’s my best answer for now:

1. Name the giants.
There’s a lot of chat in the blogosphere, speculation about the shooter, his family, his church, etc. But let’s naracismme the real giants here. The NRA. Gun culture. Racism. Symbols like the Confederate flag.
When we name the real enemies, we can be more focused on defeating them.

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2. Be fearless in facing them.
We can’t give in to fear, despair or apathy. One person can make a difference. Individuals joined together in a case can change the world. There are plenty of organizations working for justice; get involved.

3. Use the right weapon.
One smooth stone brought down Goliath. Sure, it’s a legend. But there’s truth behind it. David knew what worked on a wild animal. He didn’t need the “big guns” to bring down the beast. What are our best resources in fighting the giants?

4. Hit ’em where it hurts.
In their  wallets. At the voting booth. In the court of public opinion. Wherever they’re most vulnerable. We’re not stupid; we can figure this out. But we’ve got to stay focused on the giants, look them right between the eyes – and take aim.

We’re grieving today – rightly so. But as people of faith, we have a legacy of courage to uphold.  May we remember David and the five smooth stones – and take aim for justice.

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