Friday, May 29, 2020

Were You There - two poems for George Floyd, when poems are not enough



image credit -- shirien.creates on instagram

two poems written in grief & rage, love & protest -- when poems are not enough

as should be obvious, no endorsement implied from any of my professional affiliations

Were you there
when they lynched Jesus
Were you there
did you carry the nails

Did you like the crack of the whip
did he get what he deserved
did you sip the sour wine with the soldiers
did you tweet this at 1am

the only good Nazarene is a dead Nazarene
& when the prophecy starts
the crucifying starts
Christ ain't nothing but a thug

were you there when they lynched Jesus
did you watch the temple burn to the ground
did you praise Roman law
did imperial lives matter
did you care a thing for the Jews
were you there when they lynched Jesus
if you were what did you say

you know they are still lynching Jesus
his name is George Floyd
his name is Breonna Taylor
his name is Ahmaud Arbery
his name is Martin Luther King

the truth it may bug you
but our Lord is a thug too
were you there when they lynched Jesus
& now what are we going to do

-----


Not enough folk songs
Not enough punk songs
Not enough poetry 
Not enough prayer
Not enough protest
Not enough rage
Not enough mercy
Not enough love
Not enough hate
Not enough investigation
Not enough reparation
Not enough transformation
Not enough solidarity
Not enough slogans
Not enough revolution

Exorcism & fire
a situation that dire
who said their God
has no wrath

for the slave-owning 
land-stealing
indigenous-killing
*&%$#@-grabbing
whiskey-swilling
frat party without end

don't wear a condom
don't wear a mask
don't even ask 
but hang a governor in effigy
kill another black man in the street

this $%#* ain't neat 
&#*( this ain't nice
Jesus Christ was crucified 
by an empire this cruel & crass
the Holy Ghost is coming

to exorcise your racist @$$

Friday, April 10, 2020

Unholy Week

this is an unholy week
not because all the special Holy Week services are suspended or online
this is an unholy week
not because John Prine just died
this is an unholy week
not because we don’t know what we are doing or where we are going
this is an unholy week
not because the professor has bad grammar & a worse work ethic
this is an unholy week
not because the pastor has been cursing a lot
this is an unholy week
not because the original holy week was so much like this one: uncertain, terrifying, clouded by death
this is an unholy week
because we have forgotten the pure fear of the first holy week & want to deny it in our now
this is an unholy week
because we are trying to fix things that are beyond broken beyond repair should stay broke
this is an unholy week
because we are arguing online about the finer points of theology while we forget the fierce now of this pandemic theology
this is an unholy week
because we are still committing our most unholy crimes against earth & humanity & for some, as soon as “this,” whatever this is, is over, it will only get worse
this is an unholy week
because we are missing the hard but beautiful lessons in our faces, in our hearts, on the prophets’ tongues
this is an unholy week
for now a Holy Saturday with a vague beginning but without end until the radical revolutionary resurrection resumes

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Remembering Rachel Held Evans

Remembering Rachel Held Evans
June 8, 1981 – May 4, 2019 Appeared in the Cookeville Herald-Citizen on Friday, June 7, 2019.
Back in April, when I heard through friends on Facebook and Twitter, that religious author Rachel Held Evans was in the hospital, I prayed. Her situation sounded serious, yet I also felt with great confidence that she would get through it. I was wrong. Rachel Held Evans died on May 4, and her funeral was held on June 1. June 8 would have been her 38th birthday.


Back when I heard that Rachel was in the hospital, I started listening to her last audio book, Inspired, released in 2018.  Driving the backroads of rural White County, where I am a part-time preacher for a small Presbyterian Church, Rachel’s words, passionate and skeptical, faithful and funny, her words about the Bible strengthened me and encouraged me. Today, they comfort me.  


On a beautiful and warm Saturday night, the first day of June, I was driving back to White County to preach the next morning, and I finally finished listening to Inspired. Earlier that day, I had watched Rachel’s funeral in a livestream from Chattanooga, as I finished my worship prep for the next day. I listened to Rachel’s friends and family members, as they fought back tears, tell stories about her and proclaim the resurrection, the resurrection that even we, as believers in Christ, are part of.


While hundreds gathered in Tennessee for an Episcopal liturgy in a Methodist church, thousands more gathered on Twitter to share their collective love and grief under the hashtag #RememberingRHE, while watching the memorial which the family so generously streamed on YouTube. Somehow in all the sadness, sincerity, and serious call to Christians everywhere to be more inclusive, something else shown through that Saturday, Rachel’s sarcasm and sense of humor. People laughed, and people wept, at the same time.


Back in 2012, Rachel came to Cookeville. She drove herself to Tech from her home in Dayton in a modest car, to give a lecture on her book about biblical womanhood. Please set aside any notion about the successful young author living large, because independent authors do struggle, and you could tell that getting to speaking engagements stretched her. Yet she was so joyful, humble, hilarious, down-to-earth. I think she said something about perhaps raising her modest speaking fee in the future.  


There’s not that much more to write or say about Rachel, that has not already been expressed by her closer friends and by obituaries in places like the New York Times. But having the honor to host and work with her back in 2012, having the privilege to have read all her books, having the pleasure to follow her online and have her follow me back, I feel terribly close to her memory and feel terrible about this loss. So I have just a little more to say.


Coming from conservative evangelicalism and landing in progressive mainline Christianity, Rachel Held Evans modeled for the rest of us how to be a prophet and peacemaker and to allow the love of Jesus to transcend and overcome all our differences and debates, whether petty or profoundly principled, not by avoiding difficult conversations, but by leaning into them with love and grace.


Rachel did this with her great gifts, but she did this more by reminding us who Jesus is, friend of sinful saints and outrageous outcasts. Rachel brought folks together by being generous to a fault, and finally, by pointing us to a table where we find grape juice and bread and Jesus inviting us, to eat and to drink.


So on the first Saturday in June, I sat at my computer with headphones, and I joined the people in Chattanooga in remembering Rachel and remembering Jesus, by taking some grape juice and bread and partaking of this very holy meal prepared for unholy people, breaking down barriers and bringing us all home. Thank you, Rachel. Thank you to Rachel’s family. Rachel is home. Thanks be to God.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Calling A Truce In The War On Christmas


Note: a version of this essay appeared in today's Cookeville Herald Citizen newspaper. A longer version was my sermon for the first Sunday in Advent, preached at Blue Spring Presbyterian Church, on Sunday, December 2, 2018.

Did you ever notice that lots of family Christmas movies consider the threat that Christmas could be canceled? The canceling of Christmas seems to be an abiding cultural concern. What would it do to the children, what would it do to the economy, and what would it do to the church?

So we get the usual debates, about whether we can also say Happy Holidays, about whether we have enough Christ in Christmas, and the whole ‘War On Christmas’ controversy carries on, year after year.

So despite Christmas movies threatening cancellation and the so-called War On Christmas hype on television and social media, I am not the least worried about the erasure of any of our culture’s Christmas identity or community’s Christmas traditions, not this year, not any year soon.

However, Christmas was not always so safe. There was a time in England and America when Christmas was actually banned. It was not the atheists or secularists or interfaith advocates either, no it was Christians, Puritans to be precise, who cancelled Christmas.

That’s right, Christmas was once against the law. In 1659, the Puritan government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned Christmas, following the lead of the Puritan parliament in England, which banned Christmas in 1644. Sad to say, but Presbyterian reformers would have found themselves in the heart of the anti-Christmas camp back then.

That old-school Christian hatred of Christmas, responds to at least three strict strands in reformed faith. A Christian War on Christmas was anti-Catholic, some calling the Feast Day mere “Popish idolatry.”

This anti-Christmas crusade was also against the common folk, for whom the day had turned into a rowdy festival of eating, drinking, parades, and all kinds of outlandish carnival and even criminal behavior, kind of like Mardi Gras is today, but just in December.

Finally, the anti-Christmas Christians correctly noticed the similarities in our outward Christmas celebrations to ancient pagan rituals of a seasonal variety. So anything that seemed more like a general winter festival without Biblical authority was out.

Please forgive me for shattering any nostalgic notions that our Christmas traditions come from an unbroken Christian lineage going direct to the days of Christ. For one, nobody knows for sure the exact day that Jesus was born, and there are compelling cases made by serious scholars, for springtime, for April or for May, or for even September. We finally settled on December 25 during the 4th century, more than 300 years after Christ.

The magic of Christmas is not a primitive pagan notion, but the everyday practice of a powerful God. Instead of debating whether Christmas trees suggest too much God-in-nature, perhaps we might ponder again the true nature of a God revealed in a powerless infant, born in a cruel cave, in a Bethlehem backwater!  

So I just wrote these words to say: We need to call a truce in the war on Christmas. As Christians, we need to be concerned about keeping Christ in Christianity; Christmas the holiday is already complicated and chaotic enough without our adding to the fight.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Autumn of Love (Banjo & Bread Chapter 7)



The summer of love lingered in Tennessee, got started in late September 1967, and didn’t completely heat up until around the winter holidays for two compassionate Tennessee Tech history majors. 

Before 1967, Nelia Tripp of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee did not seem that different from many of her ambitious female peers. The former high-school cheerleader was a beautiful young brunette decked out in matching Bobbie Brooks outfits with roles in student government and an underground sorority to her credit. She already had a boyfriend, who would that November purchase a diamond ring for a proposal that would never take place.

But in the months preceding her intense encounters with the tall, skinny guitar-and-banjo player from Nashville named Calvin Kimbrough, Nelia had been undergoing the first serious phase of a radical transformation that would continue to shape her for the rest of her life, what she described as a “complete 180-degree turn,” including international travel and a change of majors from Accounting to American History.

For one, her mother suffered from a bipolar disorder, even though this mental illness remained undiagnosed then, that revealed itself in intense manic fits that were difficult for Nelia, who recalls, “I had gone home at Christmas of my junior year, and she was just absolutely berserk.” In early 1967, Nelia continued her one-on-one counseling with Bob Lewis, the campus minister for Tennessee Tech’s Wesley foundation. She reflects, “When I came back from Christmas break, I had a session with Bob and I said, ‘I’m never going back to Lawrenceburg again.  I’m not going home this summer; I’m going as far away from my mom as I can.’” Not only impressed with the young woman’s enigmatic beauty and keen intellect, Lewis also helped her develop a plan for freedom.

When I met Bob Lewis for lunch and coffee at the Thistle Stop CafĂ© in West Nashville in January 2015, he had an enthusiastic sparkle that made him seem much younger than his years, a sparkle that lit up whenever he spoke of his initial meeting with Nelia. At their next meeting, not only did Bob Lewis provide a scheme for Nelia’s coming summer, this plot provided several hours of college credit.  

She remembers, “He handed me this brochure from the Board of Higher Education. The United Methodist Church was sponsoring a tour for students in the Soviet Union.” The 10-week adventure would be led by academics from American University. Despite Bob’s encouragement, Nelia thought, “No way. I had no money.” Yet Bob Lewis convinced her to write the required essays and complete the application. Then, he applied for and secured a loan to fund the trip. “And I came in one day for a counseling session,” Nelia shares, “and Bob said, ‘Well, here, sign this paper.’ And I signed the paper, and he handed me the check, which I paid off for many years.”

Come summer, this expedition brought culture shock not just to Nelia—who had just turned 21 and therefore felt bold enough to take this journey—but to her whole family. She remembers the dread and defiance of her departure: “So I had never been on an airplane. My parents drove me to Nashville and were horrified. My whole family was horrified that I was going to the Soviet Union because they thought that was the place of Satan, and the Cold War, and how could I embarrass my family that way, with what was I doing.” But brave Nelia went and learned lots from people she had never met before.

After extensive work in the Soviet Union, going to Czechoslovakia conjured quite the contrast. “And from there, we came out into Prague,” Nelia explains. “We were there right before the spring invasion, and Prague was alive—all the artists and writers and poets! It was just so amazing to come there after being in the Soviet Union.” In Prague, this former high-school cheerleader from the former confederacy inhaled the air of the international youth revolution that defined the 1960s for some and defiled it for others.

When the students returned to Cookeville for classes that fall of 1967, Nelia and Calvin rubbed shoulders at a mixer, because they were both student leaders. While the culture shock of returning to the United States was hard enough for Nelia on its own, she had also been sick, and to make matters worse, most people did not seem to care how her world had been turned upside down or how what little was left of a conventional worldview was being upended. People didn’t really want to hear about her experience of the Soviet Union, much less the deeper kinds of questions this journey kindled.

But Calvin was different. He didn’t just like Nelia but wanted to learn from her. “Calvin, however, was intrigued at that [student leaders] retreat, and he started asking me questions. And questions led to dates, and dates led to passion, and then we got together.” By the Christmas holidays, they were most definitely a thing. A couple. The spirit of their relationship also reflected the spirit of the times. They both grew out their hair and started adopting the more comfortable, colorful, and unconventional clothes embraced by the more restless youthful spirits of the period.

Just as Nelia was utterly transformed by her excursion to eastern Europe, Calvin, too, would have his own mind-blowing, life-changing experiences. At the end of 1967, after they were clearly together as a couple and had been to the respective homes to meet the respective families, Calvin embarked to a conference in Cleveland, Ohio, simply called “The Cleveland Week,” a culminating event of “Process ’67,” sponsored by the University Christian Movement.

The conference brochure—which Calvin has kept in one of his numerous, well-organized scrapbooks—boasts that attendees would engage in “a style of education which is dialogical, nonauthoritarian, issue- or problem-centered, and future-oriented.” The leaders for the conference were dubbed DEGs or Depth Education Groups and were steeped in topics such as “liturgy, public opinion, psychedelics, theology, the military draft, technology, the church and its relation to the university.” 

With thousands of attendees from “Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox member groups,” the week looked towards “social change through the reformulation of the university.” From art workshops to film festivals to jazz bands, all broadcast to every conference hotel room on closed circuit TV, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer article of the time and to this 21st-century observer, Cleveland Week appears more like a hippy happening than what most people might think of as a mainline church event.

By comparison to the distinctly conservative evangelical vibe found at today’s praise conferences, it’s difficult to describe the extent to which the gatherings and ecumenical activism of college Christians comingled with the larger changes heralded by the militant New Left and secular counterculture. As vividly and meticulously documented by the Methodist Student Movement’s visionary motive magazine, an activist and artistic revolution was already taking place on the Christian left years before the carefully branded “Jesus People” would co-opt the religious counterculture to much more conservative ends.

Calvin clearly had his mind blown by the experience in Cleveland. A love-letter sent to Nelia in a Sheraton Hotel envelope is scrawled in bold-black marker on pink tissue paper. The joyful author of the love note admits to wishing he had brought boots and love beads. Calvin describes meeting the colorful collection of all the other Christian activists, “It was the first time I had ever encountered blacks with afros in overalls, and men with long hair and beards, and of course I didn’t have long hair and a beard, but it was wonderful being there.”

As the older Calvin recalls that event, it’s as if he is once again caught up in the energy of the time, and by sharing the story, we can feel the power of the revolution, too. Just as Calvin had his mind opened at the close of 1967, our minds might adjust our vision to just what was going on for this young couple and probably many others in the religiously-rooted youth movements of the era.

We wouldn’t have this love story if it were not for the sacred intuition of a mentor like Bob Lewis, but this personal love story includes,  yet transcends, our biographical subjects and intersects both culturally and spiritually with the larger love story of the late 1960s. It’s an incredible witness to an irresistible form of refreshing rebellion that the youth revolution of the ‘60s would have its own outposts in a conservative town like Cookeville, Tennessee and at a campus like Tennessee Tech and in a fellowship like the one that grew up around the Wesley Foundation. It’s a loving, radical, youth revolution that, for these folks, was deeply rooted in the body of Christ.

If you would like a copy of the complete Banjo & Bread as an Adobe PDF, please send a message to Andrew Smith at:
preacherandrewsmith [at] gmail.com with 'Banjo & Bread' in the subject line.



Sunday, April 8, 2018

MLK50: Liturgy of Fire & Blood at the Lorraine Motel

(photo by Maddison Potter)

I am still shaken to my core by last Wednesday’s April 4th liturgy of fire and blood.

This was no misty commemoration but a courageous confrontation with the wicked worldly continuation of the triplicate evils of racism, poverty, and war that King died to end; and this was a testimony to the risky resurrection tenacity of the beloved community that King died to create.

Church took place from a stage in the parking lot, but church also took place from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, from the balcony draped in a black cloth like the cross in church is draped in black on Good Friday.

At a ceremony that opened in reverent invocation, we prayed. At the end with irreverent incarnation, we danced. We danced to Al Green until they cut his mic during “Let’s Stay Together.”

One speaker spoke of fire, another speaker spoke of blood. This is where America’s Moses died, but this was no day for the embalming of the prophet. This day demanded that we deal with the prophecy.

The speakers could not help but speak of this as the site of a crucifixion. Jesse Jackson trembled at the lectern, his voice weakened by age, but he still spoke truth to power, tired he might be after decades of love and rage.

Reverend Barber lives his roll, wearing a stole that says “Jesus Was A Poor Man.” And he somehow shot through our souls a bold word that stripped the sheen from every simplistic meme of the day. He just preached us back to our deep movement roots and dared us past darkest truth.

“We must be the resurrection,” he warned. “We need to reach down into the blood,” he pleaded. “We need to hold up the blood-stained banner,” he preached.  The moral revival at which Barber currently presides is a nationwide grassroots movement of direct action to rebuild and be our generation’s iteration of King’s Poor People’s Campaign.

At one point a parade of paler complected Tennessee politicians went to the parking lot mic to welcome us, only for two-out-of-three of them to be drowned in a thunderstorm of boos. Thanks be to God their remarks were so brief; even fifty years later some of us are still dealing with the grief.

If this motel in Memphis is King’s Calvary, then the historical controversy about the conspiracy to kill King might ultimately ask the wrong question.

Let me say for the record, even as I have looked at some but not all of the monographs about King’s death and some but not all of the theories that surround it, that if this was indeed our culture’s crucifixion of a sinner and a saint, a leader and a liberator, then we do not ultimately need to take a side on the possible problematic innocence of James Earl Ray or on the implicit guilt of elements within the federal government.  

Of course behind all the books and research, one story is truer than the other, and I remain undecided but am uncomfortable with claims I have heard from both sides of the debate. Strangely, it seems wrong to assume it was a conspiracy and wrong to assume it wasn’t. We can pick a theory, but we do not need to, not if this was a crucifixion.

But if in fact America crucified King, which after Wednesday my heart tells me we did, then the only true answer for me theologically is that we all killed Martin King, and white Americans share that responsibility with a special kind of accountability. This for me is a moral and theological fact, that only by wrestling with repentance from racism, will we ever comprehend.

We cannot wring our hands; we can go church with everyone else this somber and searing day, and in the days ahead, and raise our hands, waiting for the next bell to ring.

The bells ring and keep ringing. My voice may be singing, but my heart is stinging, because we still have so much work to do. Hold it up, the preacher said. We have got to get back to the work of being the people who bring King’s resurrection to the whole world.


Saturday, December 23, 2017

Mary Knew (& Me Too)


Do you know the song, “Mary Did You Know,” an updated version of the story of the mother of Jesus? The lyrics are a series of rhetorical questions. It does not take long to look at the texts of Christmas to recognize that Mary knew.

We cannot exactly call “Mary Did You Know” a classic carol, written in 1991 by Mark Lowry and later popularized on Christian radio. But when it comes to the story of the first Christmas, we get a more reliable narrative from a centuries-old Bible reading than we do from a decades-old hit song. 

Not only did Mary know, we know that Mary knew. Even Mark Lowry, when he wrote his song, he knew that Mary knew. But because the lyrics to this stunning song are what we know as “rhetorical questions,” we should give Lowry some leeway with his poetic license. 

But there is another important reason that contemporary hearers of the Christmas stories need to be reminded today that Mary knew. This reason links up with a movement that has been called “Me Too,” which is about women standing up for themselves and naming the shameful abuse they have encountered in the work world. It is also, we could hope, about men being both repentant and accountable. 

Clearly, even in the original Christmas story, there were naysayers who might say: the whole Christmas story and Christianity itself are fake news because, some people, they do not trust women and girls, not girls like Mary. But Mary knew. 

There is another reason to connect Mary Knew with Me Too. Because some powerful men recently held up Mary, a very young girl when God chose her and she chose God, they brought this Bible miracle into broad daylight but out of context, they did all this to justify the clearly sinful actions of older men who harm the young women and girls of our present world. 

The workplaces of our world, especially the church and the school, these need to be safe and protected places for children and young people to grow in faith and in knowledge, for girls and boys to discover themselves in trust and freedom from fear, no exception and no tolerance for abuse. That people of all ages might fear even the sacred profession of teachers and preachers, as well as all other employers and co-workers, in this manner, this is wrong. No matter your politics or your theology, this is not right or left but right or wrong. Mary Knew and Me Too. 

(Listen to the audio of the longer sermon version here.)