A Meditation on Race

May 8, 2016, changed my perspective on the world and my place in it.  It was the day that I traveled with a group of Christians from around the world through the concrete wall from East Jerusalem into the West Bank.  Like all Christian pilgrims, we visited Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity, but we also broke bread and shared conversation with Palestinians living in the West Bank.  Some of our Palestinian hosts remembered having had their lived uprooted and their land confiscated decades ago.  Others had lived their entire lives in the West Bank as refugees in their own country.  (As a side note, Americans often equate “Palestinian” with “Muslim,” but the indigenous Christians in the Holy Land are all Palestinian as well.)  As our bus was in the queue to leave the West Bank and cross back through the concrete wall into East Jerusalem, we saw a stream of men and women passing through a checkpoint and crossing into the West Bank on foot.  “Who are they?” I asked the Dean of St. George’s College.  “They are Palestinians who work in East Jerusalem,” he explained, “If they aren’t back behind the wall by 7 p.m., they lose their work permits and their jobs.”

Israeli Troops Attack Palestinian Teen at Border Crossing– IMEMC News

Palestinians waiting to cross back into the West Bank

That night I was haunted by questions: “If I were enclosed within a concrete cage (which is what the West Bank wall is, as anyone who has experienced it in person will attest); if the authorities treated me differently in my own country; if by either law or social pressure I were forced to be wary all the time; how would I react and respond?  How long would it take before my frustration overflowed, and I erupted in violence?”  I did not pose these questions generally; I pondered them with my actual self in mind: I, who am quick to stand up for myself and those I love, who knows in myself what indignation looks like, who believes with my whole heart and soul in God’s vision for the kingdom.  And my honest and sobering answer, which kept me up all night, was, “It wouldn’t take long.”

Ever since my experience in May 2016, my wonder has not been at the occasional violence in the West Bank; it has been, rather, that there is so little of it.  I am amazed at the fortitude, the patience, and the faith of Palestinians who yearn for a better—and fairer—life.[i]

Closer to home, my experience of the West Bank also altered the lens through which I view issues of race in the United States, and especially the relationship between black and white America.  I am a Southern, white, heterosexual, cisgender male, which means that when making small daily decisions or large life-altering decisions I have never (literally never) had to pause and consider anything other than my hopes for my own actualization.  Whether certain opportunities might be denied me; whether those in authority might treat me poorly; whether I might be profiled nefariously because I am somewhere I look out of place…I’ve never had to consider any of these things.  But if I did have to do so—every moment of every day—how might I respond and react?  How might indignation and frustration build in me?  And then, if I saw every attempt at peaceful demonstration denigrated as unpatriotic; and if I repeatedly saw unarmed people who look like me molested, harmed, and killed by bad actors with the authority to protect; what would I do then?  Not what would some hypothetical person do then, but what would I do then?

All that is to say, it is not a wonder to me that the aftermath of George Floyd’s death has included violent protest.  Rather, it’s a wonder to me that such protest is so rare.

Which is not to excuse violence.  Violence is like cancer.  It refuses to remain within any bounds, and as has already happened in Houston (as happened last night to the Magnolia Hotel just across the street from Christ Church Cathedral) violence quickly leaves destruction in its wake.  And the destruction is not merely of physical property.  As a friend and former parishioner who is a police officer said on Facebook yesterday, the overwhelming majority of police officers are good cops, and last night in Houston good cops were injured while faithfully doing their jobs.  That is also unjust.

I can lend my voice to condemn violence, which I do without reservation, and I can say forthrightly that violence in the face of chronic racial discrimination is to be expected.  Human beings created in the image of God will demand dignity, and when dignity is denied indignation will become frustration.  When no remedy is found, frustration will become violence.  Tamping down protests is akin to taking Tylenol for a fever.  It may mask the symptom briefly, but it will not restore health.

Justice for George Floyd's Death - Resources and Donations

In order for us to be a healthy society, in order for us to approximate the Beloved Community of which Holy Scripture speaks, we must individually and corporately soul-search.  We must acknowledge, as I realized that day in the West Bank, that our experiences of the world are constitutively different, and in order to understand one another we must be willing to see and to listen.  To put a fine point on it: This must begin with white people.  Earlier I listed all the things I’ve never had to do as I walk through the world.  We could add to that list, that white people have never had to listen to the experiences of black people.  The world has been our world, in which we choose the frequency and the song to be sung.  To put down the microphone and let another speak, especially when we know that the words will, at least in part, indict us is very uncomfortable.  But it’s not as uncomfortable as the black experience of seeing, again and again and again, versions of the police officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck.

For Christian people, this is not only a civic pursuit; it is a calling.  From the prophets through the Lord, Holy Scripture points us to the Beloved Community that will be the fulfilled kingdom of God.  And, Christians are called to live now as if the Beloved Community is already a reality, to model what the kingdom looks like as a witness to the world.  When we read the beautiful metaphors in the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, they are not to be for us mere poetry.  For Christian people, they are the mirror in which we are to see ourselves, and they are the blueprint for how we are to live our lives:

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

The Cathedral’s Justice & Peace Council has begun formulating a program on racial reconciliation, which we’ll launch next year.  In the meantime, may I be—may we all be—agents of grace and reconciliation in the world.  And may God weave us together as the Beloved Community.


[i] It is important to say, because some will read into my comments things I do not intend, that I believe equally that the enduring State of Israel as a safe and secure home for the Jewish people is a necessity.

The Keystone

In 2015, twenty-five parishioners and I traveled to Ireland to study Celtic Christianity and visit sacred sites.  We spent three days in Glendalough, the site of St. Kevin’s ancient monastic village and one of my favorite places on earth.  “Glen-da-lough” valley of two lakes.  It is almost unbelievably verdant, and if one cannot detect the presence of God there, then God doesn’t exist!  It is no wonder that St. Kevin was enthralled by Glendalough in the early 600s, and it is no wonder that pilgrims have traveled in droves to the valley ever since.

With the exception of the stunning round tower, most of the stone monastic buildings at Glendalough are in ruins.  Even so, these were so well constructed that in every ruin the archways still proudly and solidly stand.  When we made the trip in 2015, among our Cathedral group was Charlie.  Charlie is genteel and soft-spoken.  He is also a brilliant architect and viewing the stone structures of Glendalough alongside him was a revelation.  As we moved prayerfully and in awe among the buildings, we stopped before one arched doorway.  Pointing to its top, Charlie said, apropos of nothing, “See that keystone?”  I’ll finish his thought in a moment, but first, let’s consider Charlie’s first three words.

Glendalough Archway, Wicklow, Ireland Poster Effect1a Digital Art ...


The web resource Grammarist defines keystone thusly: “A keystone is the central stone placed at the top of an arch. The keystone is the apex of an arch; without it the arch would not stand. The keystone is placed last when constructing an arch, locking all the other stones into place. It allows the arch to bear its own weight. The word keystone is often used figuratively to mean the central idea of a philosophy, process, business proposition or principle upon which the entire philosophy, process, business proposition or principle stands.”[i]

Though often the terms keystone and capstone are interchanged, they are not the same thing.  A capstone sits atop a structure and may be protective or even just cosmetic, something to make the thing more attractive.  But a keystone is structural and central.  Without it, everything falls apart.

Except…back in Glendalough in 2015, we stood in front of that stone wall with its arched doorway.  Charlie pointed up to the top and said, “See that keystone?  Under very unusual circumstances, there have been arches in which the keystone has been removed without the arch collapsing.  The forces around where the keystone was begin working together, pushing and pulling.  It’s rare, and it seems mysterious, but it happens.”

I looked at Charlie, and then I looked around for wisps of the Christians who had built these sacred buildings a millennium ago.  And I saw the disciples of Jesus with whom I’d traveled from Houston halfway across the world, who yearned to know God more deeply.  And Charlie’s words were, indeed, a revelation.

In our scripture readings today, Jesus leaves the disciples.  We read these passages today because last Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, when we celebrated the Resurrected Jesus’ return to God.  But here’s the thing: on Ascension Day two thousand years ago, the followers of Jesus didn’t celebrate.  They knew, and Jesus himself had told them, that Jesus was the keystone.  Biblical translations often say “cornerstone” or even “capstone,” which, as we’ve already said means something different altogether.  “Keystone” is an equally accurate translation and one that makes much more theological sense.  A capstone isn’t essential.  It is sometimes cosmetic.  And even a cornerstone is often ceremonial rather than structural.  If Jesus is only that for us—window dressing or an excuse for our pomp and circumstance—then he’s not worth keeping and we should be glad he ascended out of view.  But Jesus is, in truth, the keystone.  He bears the weight of the world.  Jesus is central, and as he takes his leave today his followers have visions of everything collapsing around the void.

Glossary of Medieval Art and Architecture:keystone

These days especially, I understand that feeling.  At first glance, for us, everything does seem to be collapsing.  COVID-19 still has us mostly confined to our homes; unemployment is projected to reach as high as 25%; West Texas crude is selling at $33 per barrel; we haven’t been able to worship together in person in almost three months.  Jesus showing up, actually and in person, would be welcome.

But each time I begin, like the disciples, to lapse into despair, I’m drawn back to that cool Irish day five years ago, standing next to Charlie, and looking at that arch:

Under very unusual circumstances… it’s rare and mysterious…the keystone can be removed and the arch still stand.

Jesus says today in his conversation with God, “Now [the followers of the Way] know that everything you have given me…I have given to them and they have received it all…I have been glorified in them, and [though] I am no longer in the world, they are.”

The forces around where the keystone was begin working together, pushing and pulling… 

Like the new sight I received that day in Glendalough, I look at our world today, and the way we as the Cathedral are engaging it, and it is a revelation.  We gather online by the hundreds each Sunday (and each weekday at noon) for worship and Sunday school.  We come together throughout the week for bible studies and other groups so large that the computer screen can’t accommodate all the Zoom squares.  Our 100+ Cathedral Good Neighbors are checking in on us, to make sure we aren’t left in need.  We are sewing facemasks for our community.  Next Sunday we will donate more than 30 pints of blood.  The Beacon’s good work among our homeless sisters and brothers continues unabated.  And, we are at work even now imagining new ways that we can connect, and comfort, and strengthen the lonely and the lost.

It is clear that, though Jesus the keystone has ascended to the Father, his church has not collapsed.  It stands, with integrity and strength, walking the Way of love and extending grace.  How is that so?  The mystery is that Jesus, though ascended, is not gone.  As he says in John’s Gospel, Jesus has given his very self to us.  In and through us Jesus is present, even now.  When we look into one another’s eyes—even when a mask covers half our faces, or we see each other through a computer screen—the eyes of Jesus look back at us.  So it was fourteen hundred years ago when St. Kevin and his followers walked over the Wicklow Mountains to Glendalough, and so it is today, as we meet the great challenges the world has set before us.  We lean on one another like the stones in an archway, knowing that together we will not, we cannot, fall.  Everything Jesus has, he has given to us.  And that is everything.  We stand together, and we rejoice.


[i] https://grammarist.com/usage/capstone-keystone-or-cornerstone/

Apollo 8, and what really matters

The Reverend Lane Hensley once told me that as a kid, he watched the launch of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon. As the giant Saturn V rocket burst forth from the surface of the earth, Lane was awestruck by its power and grandeur.

Six days later, Lane saw footage of the return of the three Apollo 8 astronauts, and he was confused and dismayed by the tiny capsule that splashed down in the ocean. Where was the rest of the rocket? Where was that enormous expression of power, might, ingenuity, and promise that he’d seen take off a week earlier? Lane couldn’t conceive that the little capsule was all that mattered in the end, that it was the bearer of human hope for the mission, that it was the real thing worth caring about.

Forbes on Twitter: "50 years ago, Apollo 8 lifted off from Kennedy ...

Lane said it took him a long time to realize that most of the Saturn 5 rocket, and indeed the most impressive and memorable parts, existed only in service to the small capsule. It was the capsule that made it to the moon. It was the capsule that saw Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders to the dark side of the moon and safely around to the light. It was the capsule that shepherded them through the void of space, protected them on their fiery reentry to earth’s atmosphere, and held them on the surface of the murky and deep ocean while they awaited the U.S.S. Yorktown.

Lane’s story came to my mind this past week, and I considered for the hundredth time all the things that I once assumed were most important, indeed essential, in my life prior to the emergence of the coronavirus. There were big things, flashy things, things that drew my attention and, thus, my commitment. But this spring, we’ve all had the blessed chance — and it is a blessing — to look again at our lives and see with greater clarity that most things are (or should be) in service to a very few things.

What is truly essential are the things in our lives that carry us along the journey, that see us through darkness to new light, that protect us through fiery tests and buoy us when the waves rise and crash.

What are those, but our relationships with one another and with our God? In normal times, these things may seem so small that, like Lane’s childish eyes blind to the capsule atop the Saturn V rocket, we may fail to take adequate notice of them. But just as when the other stages of the rocket inevitably fall away the capsule remains, our relationships with one another and with God remain with us now, and they preserve our lives through every trial.

Apollo 8 - Wikipedia

This Easter season we’ve been studying the Book of Acts, which chronicles the earliest followers of Jesus at a time when all they had to sustain them was the Jesus’ Gospel of grace and love. That Gospel redefined for them what was important, the bearer of human hope and the real thing worth caring about.

So it can be for us. Darkness, trial, and drowning waves may all be a part of our COVID-19 experience, but surely so is the renewed recognition of the capsule of grace that preserves us, that carries us, that empowers us to go places and do things otherwise unimaginable. We are apostles and astronauts, borne by the Gospel. We are drawn in love to God and each other. When all else falls away, that remains, and it is all that matters.

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”

In the late 1990s, I was a graduate student in Chicago.  Jill and I lived in Wrigleyville, but I went to school on the south side.  To get there I took a circuitous route.  I boarded the Brown Line L a couple of blocks from our house and rode to the Loop, where I got off the L, walked a block to the train station, and hopped a shoreline train to the 59th Street depot, where I’d walk into Hyde Park with the lake at my back.

During that time, I had a recurring dream that I would hurriedly board the train just as it is leaving the station, take my seat, and settle in relief that I haven’t missed the train and therefore been late for class.  But in the dream, just as my breathing calms, the conductor enters the car and yells, “Tickets!” and I’m aware with a new sense of foreboding that I don’t have one.  As the conductor makes his way down the aisle, punching tickets along the way, I search every pocket, my backpack, the seat next to me…but there is no ticket to be found.  When the conductor reaches me—every time—the look on his face makes clear that he knows I am ticketless even before I admit it.  His look reveals that I don’t belong on this train.  The seat in which I sit is not mine.  At the next stop, I am ushered off the train, onto a platform in a neighborhood I do not know, left alone to find my way.  It is fearsome and shameful.  And then I wake up.

Conductor punching the ticket for Polar Express - Picture of Polar ...

Another story.  An actual one this time; not a dream. Fast-forward a few years.  I’m in seminary in Austin, and I’m engaged in a summer of student hospital chaplaincy.  A man is in the hospital who has had a stroke.  He’s not bouncing back, and in addition to the severe physical effects of the stroke, he has aphasia: he can’t craft sentences that make sense.  There is a disconnect between his brain and his speech.  The man’s wife is afraid for his life, both present and eternal, and one day in agitated desperation she asks me, the student chaplain, to come into his hospital room and coax him into repeating the words after me, one-by-one, “I. Accept. The. Lord. Jesus. Christ. As. My. Personal. Lord. And. Savior.”

What is the connection between these two stories?  In the second story, the wife worried as I did in my nightmare of the first story.  Her husband’s life was almost over.  He was about to board the train to whatever is next, and she feared that he didn’t have a ticket, the password, the map key to get him where he needed to go.  Lacking a ticket, he’d be kicked out, in fear and shame, into some other place where he would not be able to find his way.

This is a prevailing understanding of Christianity, perhaps especially in the United States, and it is undergirded by our Gospel reading this Sunday, in which Jesus discusses with the twelve disciples that he must soon depart from them.  The disciple Thomas is apprehensive, and he says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  To which Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

There is an exclusivity and a finality to Jesus’ words.  Standing alone, they seem crystal clear and unassailable.  Jesus is the ticket, and without a ticket, we are lost.

But here’s the thing: Where this interpretation prevails, despite a veneer of grace and mercy, despite forced smiles and upbeat music, despite outwardly confident testimonies of one’s faith, such flavors of Christianity are often characterized by shame and fear.  God becomes the abusive father in whose presence we flinch, to whom we choose what we say with trembling care, hoping we’re stringing together the words that are acceptable and that do not betray our crippling inner doubt.  Indeed, many who leave Christianity behind altogether are leaving this Christianity behind, having recognized that it smothers and in no way fulfills Jesus’ other claim, which we read just last Sunday, that he “came that [we] might have life, and have it abundantly.”[i]

As is so often the case, if we let scripture interpret scripture and read Jesus’ words today in their context, we come away with an altogether different understanding.

First, let’s parse Jesus’ central sentence itself, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  The order of words here is not incidental.  First and foremost, Jesus shows us a Way.  Indeed, the Book of Acts tells us that before followers of Jesus were ever called Christians, they were called people of the Way.[ii]  And “Way” here means a way of being in the world, a path, a manner of life.  Truth and life in Jesus’ statement are derivative of this Way.  In other words, Jesus’ words might best be translated, “I am the Way, which is truth and life.”

I am the Way

And what is the Way of Jesus?  Is it stringing together the right magic words?  Is it testifying to a specific belief that gets our tickets punched?  No.  The Way is the life that Jesus himself has demonstrated and into which he has called us throughout the Gospels.  The Way of Jesus is the life that embraces the leper, listens to the voiceless, shares table with those the world would call unworthy.  The Way of Jesus is the life that looks upon every fraught situation not as a battle to be won with an enemy to vanquish but as an opportunity to extend and receive grace.  The Way of Jesus is the Way of love.

Importantly, this is not merely a program for good deeds, and it is not a doctrine of earning salvation.  (That’s worth saying again: This is not merely a program for good deeds, and it is not a doctrine of earning salvation.)  Rather, and as Jesus himself says in the Gospel today, living the Way of Jesus is how we come to know God.  That word—Know—is a crucial one.  In scripture, it almost never means “to know about.”  It isn’t about collecting datapoints and compiling facts and figures.  Rather, it almost always refers to a deep and intimate understanding.  It can even mean sexual intimacy: to know “in the biblical sense,” as you’ve undoubtedly heard someone joke at some point in time.   But that gets at it.  To know God, to really know God, is to have a depth of connection, understanding, and trust with the divine ground of being that is as real as our relationships with our spouses or lovers, that is as intimate as our awareness of our own souls.  That is what it means to know God, and Jesus teaches today that we can only come to know the God who is love when we live the Way of love.

Think about it this way: I can tell my spouse that I love her—I can string those words together—but the words are meaningful only when they are a verbal expression of a life of love towards her and with her.  Only as I walk that way with her does my life become the love that I claim for her.  And so it is with the Way of Jesus.  Any words we might say about Jesus, or God, or our faith are just words.  They are not magic.  They hold no weight, and especially no weight toward our salvation.  The Way of Jesus is not about words.  It’s not about getting a ticket punched.  It is about living grace—extending it and receiving it—until we are transformed into being different people, until we are transformed by love into love.

Spiritual Counseling | Your Lighted Path | Forest landscape ...

That is what Jesus means when he says no one comes to the Father except through him.  Jesus means that we know the God who is love only when we walk the Way of love.  And that is self-evident.  When we begrudge, or hate, or dismiss, or undercut, or tear down, we shut out love.  When we bind up, reconcile, and extend and receive grace, we are transformed by love into love.  And then, we have life abundantly.  Then, we know God.  Then, we are never lost.  We know the Way because we have walked the Way until we have become the Way.  No shame; no fear; only love.


[i] John 10:10

[ii] Acts 9:2


In our contemporary world, distractions abound that allow us to ignore questions of ultimate meaning and purpose.  Our material abundance, including the endless string of gadgets that supersede one another every year; our access to infinite information that prevents us from any idle moments in which to ponder and dream; our freedom of movement, both physical and virtual, which enables us to experience new places whenever the usual gets stale all provide means by which to elude the deep questions of existence.  Or, perhaps more accurately, all of these things grant us the pretense that the ultimate answer to life’s ultimate question…is us.  We tacitly believe that we are the center of the universe; everything revolves around our wants and needs.

Prior generations didn’t have this luxury.  As Robert Nicholson recently pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, “Our ancestors’ lives were guaranteed to be short and painful.  The lucky ones survived birth.  The luckier ones made it past childhood.  We now float in an anomalous world of air conditioning, 911 call centers, acetaminophen, and pocket-size computers containing nearly the sum of human knowledge.  We reduced nature to ‘the shackled form of a conquered monster,’ as Joseph Conrad once put it, and took control of our fate.”

That is, until now.  The past forty-five days have reminded us of our contingency and fragility.  A virus has emerged against which we have no natural or pharmacological defense.  In our efforts to stave it off, we have cloistered ourselves in our homes, sundering virtually all physical human connection.  We have shut down our economy.  These actions, in turn, feel as ominous to our long-term well-being as the virus itself.

DAWN Trial May Lay Groundwork for Extending Treatment Window for ...

But God redeems all things, and I believe God is weaving redemption through these challenges by reawakening us to three things essential to our humanity:

Relationships are central to who we are.  Whether introverts or extroverts, we are created to be in one another’s presence, not to live in isolation.  The doctrine of the Trinity reveals that even in God’s own nature relationships are essential, and that essence overflows into humanity.  We are created to gaze into one another’s eyes, to share laughter, to embrace in sorrow.  Our lives intertwine, and when the threads are pulled apart we are diminished. We are built to need one another, and that need is a blessing from God.

We find our grounding in sacred spaces.  As we have posted Cathedral worship services online, I have received many emails from parishioners saying, in some version, “Seeing the Cathedral makes me yearn to be in that holy space.”  Some who have not been regular churchgoers in years have remarked that they didn’t realize how much they missed the Cathedral until they could not be there.  Holy Scripture teaches us that sacred spaces, set apart, call us like a lodestone.

Almost two centuries of Christians have been baptized, married, and buried within the Cathedral walls.  It has been the location for innumerable holy moments of hope and sorrow.  The stained glass, the rood screen, the high altar: all communicate God’s grace.  We rightly cherish the sacred space entrusted to us.  God is surely present there.

And most importantly, our source, our center, and our end are God.  Once we are stripped bare of the many distractions in our lives, and once the earthly things in which we place our confidence are proven unreliable, we remember that our lives truly are contingent, and our mortal future is never sure.  But that is no reason to fear!  We are created by a God who loves us more than we can ask or imagine.  Our meaning in life is to know God as closely as we know the very air we breathe, to recognize that the veil between God and us is so thin as to be porous.  And our end is a return to God, who awaits us as the father waits upon the Prodigal Son.  God will meet us with joyous abandon.

These days of COVID-19 have reawakened us to these truths of human existence.  When we are on the other side of the coronavirus, as we surely will be, I pray that we will stay awake.  I pray that we will cherish one another, gather again in joy in sacred spaces, and know the one great truth: that we find our very lives in God.