Bishop Gibbs delivers annual convention address: ‘Life is short…be swift to love’

My dear sisters and brothers in Christ:

Today I want to begin with words that are most often associated with a blessing marking an end of our time together and a sending forth. These are words taken from the 19th century Swiss poet Henri-Frédéric Amiel:

Life is short and we have too little time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”

I find these words to be filled with as much Gospel Truth as any words of scripture because they embody the teachings of Jesus to “love one another as I have loved you”…and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

At this 182nd gathering of the household of the Diocese of Michigan, we have again come together to wade in and be washed by the waters of reconciliation, as we seek truly to know and value the neighbor we are called to love, embrace and respect. The focus of our time together this year is intended to build on presentations made at last year’s convention as well as the ongoing work we have engaged in the months since as our journey toward racial reconciliation and diversity continues.

Throughout the past year, various groups of laity and clergy all over the diocese have grappled with how we can become better followers of Jesus and thus better ministers in the world when we seek reconciliation and honor diversity. Some among us have struggled with confronting the privilege that is an integral part of the life being lived. Some among us have struggled with experiencing hate-filled words and actions while simply reminding others that the value of a life is not dependent upon skin color or occupation. Some of us have begun to confront our own limitations when our offer of radical hospitality doesn’t reach the true depths of what it means to welcome the other. All of us have endured a political season in which words, ideologies and past behaviors have been microscopically analyzed, misrepresented, and ultimately morphed into bully pulpits promoting suspicion, division and fear. The ‘ad nauseam’ critique and explosive rhetoric of the presidential candidates and some segments of the media has unfortunately overshadowed important issues such as education, healthcare, jobs and the environment (to name just a few), while managing to reignite polarization of the electorate along lines of race, class, gender and religious belief.

It is obvious to me that the journey toward profound racial reconciliation and true diversity must continue in all segments of society! There is much need for those who follow Jesus to live and preach the Gospel of love and inclusion, and find ways to build bridges that connect rather than walls that separate. And, there is much need to work tirelessly “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” [Book of Common Prayer, pg. 855]. But first, we must be sure that our own house is in order; we must remove the log from our own eye before we can hope to see and remove the speck from the eye of our neighbor. And, we must be better able and prepared to identify all who are neighbor to us.

The work that is necessary to identify and respect the dignity of our neighbor requires that we admit and own our personal shortcomings and biases when it comes to issues of race and diversity. The work that we must do necessitates sitting with our discomfort and learning to ensure justice – for all, to be devoted to mercy – even when inconvenient, and to walk in genuine humility with the God of all creation! The work begins with me and with you, now…today.

Life is short…we must be swift to love!

A recent email I received had a most eye-catching subject line. It said simply, “How do we talk about race?” I did a double-take to see who had sent the email and realized that it was a promotional email from Cokesbury. With a thought provoking subject line, this Christian publisher is seeking to sell more than a few books. They are also looking to be a resource in support of the process of communication; that is, honest discussion and heartfelt listening, which are essential steps in the journey toward racial healing. While financial gain may be part of their motivation for asking challenging questions, I am hopeful that relationship with Jesus is also an important part of making the challenge to their constituencies about the need for racial healing. Besides, their thought provoking question is a good one!

How do we talk about race? In most instances, we don’t!  Too often race is a topic that folks don’t see a need or simply don’t want to talk about.  During visitations and other diocesan events, I have heard such comments as: “Everything is fine here; we all get along.” “Can’t you see, bishop, we’re a very diverse congregation; we don’t have race issues here.” Or, as I heard recently, “There’s no race problem! We have a black President, a new black Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and you’ve been our bishop for quite a while now!” And, once in a while, “there he goes, playing the race card again! Doesn’t he think the rest of us have had difficulties in our lives, too?” And how about, “If there were one thing I could get across to him is that when people say, ‘All lives matter,’ it does not mean what he states. It means people care about every single human life, every person as a child of God; the way he stated his story made me feel like we were supposed to feel sorry for him and for wrongs committed before we were born.”

Discussion about race in some places has become contentious political debate with one group blaming the other, one group feeling shamed and another group taking on the role of defender for their race. None of this is communication; none of this involves honest discussion; none of this leaves room for true listening and none of this is an example of our adherence to the baptismal commitment to respect the dignity of every human being.  We need to talk about race; we need to take the log out of our own eye.

Life is too short and time too limited!

A few weeks ago, the Gospel reading for the weekday Eucharist was from Luke 11:14-26. In that pericope, we find Jesus casting out a demon. In general, the crowd was amazed at the miraculous work. But, as usual, some suggested that Jesus was doing his work with the help of Beelzebul (one of the names for Satan found in scripture, in case you didn’t know). Jesus, knowing what the gossip was, responded that a kingdom divided against itself cannot survive! Jesus puts a further exclamation point on the matter by making the critics accountable to their own exorcists. Then he indicates that if it is by the finger of God that he casts out demons then the “kingdom of God has come to you.” And Jesus then adds the convicting statement: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

Now that seems like a great place to leave the conversation, but, not for Jesus! Not satisfied with a simple teaching about unity of purpose, Jesus takes us to the next level. He returns to the situation of the person now freed from the demon and cautions that simply being rid of the demon is insufficient. Jesus thoughtfully traces the steps of the evil that has been cast out showing that it is looking for another place to call home. Not finding a home elsewhere, that same demon can and will return to the place from which it had been cast out. He then says: “When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.”

In other words, clean-up is only the beginning. Or as my grandmother used to say, “Idle minds are the devil’s workshop.” Once we have found healing, we must replace that which had captured us in sinfulness with something that moves our heart toward that which is good. Or, to put it another way, the work of racial reconciliation and diversity doesn’t end because we’ve spent time in training, or we’ve suddenly become self-aware. The work is for a lifetime; otherwise, we leave a space ready to embrace evils greater than those we claim to have cast off!

I am frustrated and greatly concerned when I encounter church people – religious people – who are quick to pride themselves on the hard work they have done in the area of racial healing and are even more quickly prepared to state that a movement like “Black Lives Matter” is racist or exclusive or unnecessary.  I grow weary of the Church being smug and self-righteous about taking action to make women’s ordination and gay marriage normative and speaking forcefully in support of racial equality while doing little to assure that people of color have equal access to church resources and positions of leadership. I am horrified when I read news reports of someone’s life being put in jeopardy because airline personnel do not believe a person of color could really be a doctor. I am wearied by the subtle and not-so-subtle racism that occurs when it is more convenient to have meetings in the suburbs (we have better parking), than to have a meeting in the city (where would we park…at night?).

I’m not, and I am pretty sure that the other people of color in this room are not asking anyone to feel sorry for us. We don’t need or want your pity! But I do need all of us to know that our words and our action or our inaction matters. I do need all of us to know that whether wanted or not, most of the people in this room were born with privilege; a privilege that others do not share. I do need us all to be aware that humanity is at its best when the inherent dignity of all people is no longer a topic for debate and skin color or national origin does not determine one’s right to “life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness.” Unfortunately, we are in a time when some in the majority population of our nation are bemoaning the changing society because, quite frankly, power and authority is finding equilibrium across racial lines.

In an essay written in 1988, Peggy McIntosh states:

“I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”

She goes on to list 50 different daily effects of white privilege in her life. I am only going to mention a few. She says:

“I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”

“When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.”

“If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.”

“I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”

If you read through the rest of the list (and you can find it on Google), you can see how white people and people of color experience the world in two very different ways. But please hear me. Listen to me: I am not bringing up this topic or sharing this information to make white people feel guilty about their privilege. I do not fault you for being born with white skin and thus experiencing those privileges. However, whether you choose to acknowledge this reality or not, you do benefit from it, and you are at fault if you don’t maintain awareness of the privilege you have.

So when black men, women and children are being killed with heart breaking frequency by people in authority, it is important to hear the cry of those saying “Black Lives Matter,” as President Obama stated: “not because they were suggesting that no one else’s lives matter…rather…there is a specific problem that is happening in the African-American community that’s not happening in other communities.” And, people of God, it will take all of us to do something about it!

“Life is short and we have too little time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us.”

I suspect one of the challenges that both the church and the world are facing in dealing with racial justice is that the culture has molded, shifted and changed so that racism now has different manifestations from that which was seen in the 1960s. In the book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, author Michelle Alexander puts it this way:

“When we think of racism we think of Governor Wallace of Alabama blocking the schoolhouse door; we think of water hoses, lynchings, racial epithets, and “whites only” signs. These images make it easy to forget that many wonderful, goodhearted white people who were generous to others, respectful of their neighbors, and even kind to their black maids, gardeners, or shoe shiners–and wished them well–nevertheless went to the polls and voted for racial segregation…Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent), when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.”

So then, how DO we talk about race? What can we do? Which way do we go? How shall we overcome?

Last year, we began to engage the conversation. The presentations at last year’s convention began to open doors, and some hearts, to honest discussion and heart-felt listening. In many ways, we began the kind of exchange of ideas and perceptions that make it possible to come to know our neighbor. This year, we have sought to make it clear that in some ways we have identified our neighbor and have begun to serve that neighbor with justice and mercy as the foundation of our ministry. So far in this convention, we have borne witness to our reconciling ministry with global neighbors and the reconciling ministry that is being done locally by congregations and through the diocesan structure. We have also had an opportunity to know of our participation on the world stage through the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, where the Diocese of Michigan has been represented three times since 2009! These are all good and positive steps on our journey. And, later in this convention, we will each have an opportunity to embrace a personal role in the work of reconciliation as we begin to work and hold each other accountable on becoming good neighbors.

It is vitally important that each person here not keep secret the work we do or the lessons learned at this convention. Each congregation, community and household needs to know of the work and engage it on their own level. As we did following last year’s convention, each diocesan sponsored gathering is called upon to provide time and opportunity to focus on issues of race and diversity. Additionally, there will be specific opportunities for gatherings of folks from around the diocese, both lay and ordained, to engage this work. You will hear more this afternoon about the commitment with Visions, Inc. Visions is a team of consultants who will work with us going forward to help us acquire the tools we need to “thrive in a diverse world;” help us remove the barriers that keep us from participating in the work of diversity; and, help us create an environment in our local congregations as well as across the diocese “where differences are recognized, understood, appreciated, and utilized for the benefit of all.” (from the Visions mission statement).

Some of you may be wondering how we have come to the place of working with an outside consultant in the work of racial reconciliation and diversity. Part of the answer to that question is contained in my address to convention last year in which I stated:

“…precisely because we are called to be and profess to be a people of reconciliation, people of justice and people who “respect the dignity of every human being.” I am hopeful about the beginnings of this conversation because, as Christian community, always in need of the cleansing waters of reconciliation and of God’s redeeming grace, we cannot fulfill our duty of making disciples, preaching the Gospel or speaking truth to power if we cannot in spirit and in truth “love one another as [Jesus] loves us.” (John 15:12)  Dear friends, in some respects we have come a long way; but there is still much we have to do!”

Another part of the answer is connected to the tradition of this diocese to expect those in leadership to participate in training aimed at racial reconciliation. At one time that was called “anti-racism” training. However, society has changed and we are realizing that there are more positive ways to engage society, particularly around ideas that are difficult for some to embrace. My personal belief is that anything that is only presented as “anti” whatever already begins at a place of division and sets up an expectation that one side is right, the other side is wrong and to reconcile the difference only the wrong side has to move.

The other part of the answer to how we have come to this place is connected to my own participation in a meeting of several bishops last December. As you may recall, I reported to you last year that I had been appointed by then-Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to serve on a House of Bishops task force that was to begin work on a new pastoral teaching on racism. I said to you last year that it was “my hope and expectation that just as the 1994 Pastoral was a faithful product reflecting the realities of the time in which it was written, so too the next Pastoral must reflect who and where we are today.” Truth is, the bishops who gathered in Chicago, spent three days with the consultants from Visions and came to unanimous agreement that writing another letter was the last thing we needed to do. The exercise and experience of talking and listening to one another and the stories of who we are, helped us appreciate that, with help, we can talk about race without blaming and without shaming. In this way we can be fully present to one another in the way that the Samaritan was fully present to the man who fell among robbers on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho.

From that experience last December, the bishops present went to the March meeting of the House of Bishops and explained any form of speaking to the church not grounded in the bishops themselves doing the work of racial reconciliation was irresponsible. My experience of that December gathering opened my eyes and my soul to the reality that a renewed community is possible by engaging on a diocesan level this work of reconciliation and diversity. I was further inspired by the commitment of the clergy gathered at the 2016 Clergy Conference who, after rich conversation and the usual platitudes about what we ought to do to form beloved community, chose to commit to hold each other accountable in their personal work and on their personal journeys toward embracing racial reconciliation and celebrating the diversity of our community. And, the rich encounters I have been blessed to have with individual bishops, clergy and lay people where honest discussion and heartfelt listening were the foundation of our conversation have convinced me that this work with Visions is the next step in our work together.

So, dear friends, I implore you to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” all that is set before you in the effort to make this diocese a beloved community. For in the words of the author, feminist and social activist, Bell Hooks:

“Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.”

My sisters and brothers, as I stated earlier, “the clean-up is only the beginning!” By our words and actions, by our ongoing encounters with one another, through a new understanding of what it is to be neighbor and how we recognize neighbor, and with an enriched appreciation for the need to respect and protect the dignity of every human being, we will cast out the demons that seek to divide us; and, we must fill that space with the loving, liberating and life-giving promise of God that is the Jesus Movement!

Our Presiding Bishop and Primate, Michael Curry, has shared his vision of the Jesus Movement in a recent video. He states that the Jesus Movement is:

“Life reoriented around the teachings of Jesus and around his very spirit; teachings and a spirit that embody the love of God in our lives and in this world. A way of love that seeks the good and the well-being of the other before the self’s own unenlightened interests; a way of love that is not self-centered but other directed; a way of love grounded in compassion and goodness and justice and forgiveness. It is that way of love that is the way of Jesus; and that way of love that can set us all free. Someone once said when you look at Jesus you see one who is loving, one who is liberating and one who is life-giving. And that is what the way of Jesus is about; and that is the movement of Jesus: a community of people committed to living the way of Jesus…and committed to going into the world to help this world become one that is loving, liberating and life giving. That, my friends, can change this world.”

You see: Life is short…be swift to love!

This past summer, Karlah and I had the great blessing to travel to South Africa. It was a special blessing in that it was not a “work-related” trip…it was pure vacation! Part of our trip included the opportunity to see and photograph the “big five” of Africa: lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. We also crossed into Zimbabwe and visited Victoria Falls – one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

The most poignant moment of our trip had to be the tour of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. If you are ever able to go to South Africa, you must not miss the opportunity to tour the Apartheid Museum. There you will hear about and walk through the history of a nation’s racial turmoil that, in many ways, was more brutal than what was evident in the United States. You will also hear how a diverse people, embracing the vision of one man who chose “to go high” when the other “went low,” found the path to a Bill of Rights that champions the rights of people in ways that we, in this country, so far have only dreamt about

As I moved through the exhibit, tears came to my eyes quite often. It is an emotional experience. My tears were not only a sign of mourning for the evil perpetrated and the lives lost. My tears were also expressing a sadness that, although not a perfect society, South Africa has moved so much further on this journey than we have. My tears were for the realization too many people in the United States are still not afforded basic human dignities: their skin color or their religion or their language or their sexuality or their gender or being an immigrant makes them suspicious, subject to ridicule and bullying and often fearful for their very lives. My tears were for the less-than-dignified season of political strife and rhetorical fear mongering that has contributed to divisiveness that I worry will not end with the closing of the polls. My tears were for the Body of Christ – the Church – in hopes that my tears, mingled with the tears of others, might create moving life-giving water that is not afraid to seek reconciliation among all people, speak the truth to power and bring healing to a hurting world.

Before I close I want to answer a question that seems to be asked at every visitation: overall, how is the diocese doing? I can assure you the Diocese of Michigan is financially and spiritually healthy. As with all institutions, especially the church, we have our challenges, but the household is good. Over the years, some have made an issue of the fact that during the last 16-plus years, the diocese has shrunk the number of congregations from 99 to 75. During that same period of time, mainline denominations have seen a dramatic drop in membership. I will also tell you that during that same period of time, many of our congregations have experienced growth, not from Episcopalians moving from one congregation to another, but in the critical area of the unchurched finding their way to the Episcopal Church and finding a spiritual home here. When I am asked the follow-up question, so how are they doing it? I encourage conversation with those places experiencing a renaissance. To that end, I encourage you to contact Canon Jim Gettel, the Rev. Deon Johnson or the Rev. Clare Hickman who can give you information about our diocesan Requiem or Renaissance program, which provides an opportunity for sharing among congregations: those who are experiencing renaissance helping those who are asking what shall we do next? The other part of my response is to continue to urge the leadership of every congregation to ask the questions: Why are you here, and who would miss you if you were gone? If our reasons for being are solely for self-maintenance, then we’ve discovered the wrong answer to the questions. And these are questions that cannot be asked once and never considered again. Part of the consideration of these questions has everything to do with knowing and responding to who our neighbor is!

My friends, I am just naïve enough to believe that we can change the world. My faith is strong enough to believe that with God’s help we will find ways to break down the walls that separate us; and we will find ways to leave behind the arrogance and hatred that infect our hearts; that we will ultimately we will be united in bonds of love that will allow us to accomplish God’s purposes on earth. And my heart tells me that we must begin now, today – together! We must speak up now, we must listen to one another now, and we must reorient our lives around the teachings of Jesus, now, today — together. It has been said, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”  We are called to go far! And we must do it now!

So let me end where I began,

Life is short and we have too little time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind…and may the blessing of the God who creates, redeems and sanctifies be with you today and always.”

Amen.

 

The Rt. Rev. Wendell N. Gibbs Jr. delivered this address on Oct. 22 in Lansing. 

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