In 2009, at a time of civil unrest and rising tensions, Bishop +Johnston wrote a letter to the clergy of the Diocese of Virginia in which he said, "In a world marked by division, inclusive faith communities can - and must - serve as models of a more just and compassionate society. We are called to restore all people to unity with God and one another in Christ." It seems what goes around comes around.
Bishop +Johnston was referring to issues of racial division which have been a part of our national life since our nation was formed. His letter, and subsequent letters, could easily have been written yesterday—and no one would bat an eye. It’s as if nothing has changed! The history of our corporate struggle with issues of race relations is as long lasting as it is bewildering.
I have tried over the past 20 years to work with various evolutions of the Diocesan Race Relations Committee to help chart a course through the “doldrums” we seem to be stuck in. In the past month I have had very thoughtful and candid conversations with Aisha Huertas, the Diocesan Minister for Missional Engagement, who oversees the current committee. Our conversations were thoughtful, respectful, positive and affirming, a refreshing change from my past experiences. These conversations were simply starters to identify concerns; not about race relations, but about talking about race relations. I believe this is where we are stuck, we are simply not able to talk.
Fear is a terrible thing. Fear can lead to panic and panic is simply evil. As scripture attests, The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I (Jesus) came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10) Fear overwhelms us and steals our ability to think clearly; panic immobilizes and paralyzes us. Our defense in the face of this fear of the encounter is to never risk engaging.
The tricks and tools we use to avoid engaging become almost innate. So ingrained in our process that we rarely question our motives or opinions because to do so is to engage—if only with ourselves. The result of this insidious Mobius Strip of emotional reasoning is immobilization, the doldrums.
In the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he describes in detail the oppression and hopelessness of the doldrums,
I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.
I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat;
For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky
Lay dead like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.
In the doldrums nothing happens and to make matters worse, the evil one preys on the little initiative there is. There is nowhere to turn because everything is the same and all that is there is the self and everything turns inward and inward is the same because it is a mirror. Nothing new can happen when we are stuck in the doldrums.
We will never be free of our racial divisions, none of us-red, green, black white, purple, it makes no difference, until we turn outward and free ourselves from “the painted sea.” “Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other.” (Isaiah 45:22) It is only and first turning to God in prayer and supplication, admitting our defeat and asking for God’s love and compassion that we will be set free. It by allowing Jesus to “breath on us” and, being filled with the Holy Spirit, to start anew and to be free of fear.
“For the heart of this people has become dull, with their ears
they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes, otherwise
they would see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and
understand with their heart and return, and I would heal them.”
I am committed to work towards freedom from the tyranny of self. That starting point is not our history or the protests or “when I was a kid”. The starting point is our acknowledgement that we are in the doldrums and wanting more than anything to get out, when we turn to God.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
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Father Bill Burk†