My journey started two weeks ago, when I traveled back to Northern Virginia for the first time since I moved here in February of last year. I visited friends - clergy colleagues, music friends, neighbors, book group - and my son and I spent a quiet hour in the new labyrinth behind my former church, a green and peaceful spot where the ashes of my former husband rest. After a night of spectacular Virginia thunderstorms, complete with green sky and tornado warnings, we set off driving back to San Diego, a journey that took us six days.
We experienced the full breadth and diversity of this country's geography, from sea to shining sea. We drove through richly green forested hills in Virginia and Tennessee. We passed acre upon acre of agricultural land in Arkansas. We enjoyed the amber waves of grain on the prairie in Oklahoma - I even saw two buffalo, sad reminders of the millions that once roamed there. We were surprised by the green freshness of the breezy North Texas hill country, with its spacious skies. We admired the purple mountain majesties of New Mexico and Arizona, even as the temperature soared and the green turned to desert brown. And we breathed a sigh of relief as we came through the dramatic mountain passes into California and the thermostat finally returned to tolerable levels. It was an education in the beauty of this land. "O beautiful for spacious skies," indeed.
Along the way there were reminders, too,of the less beautiful side of America: a friend we met up with on the way told us of the racism she has encountered in one of the nation's most prestigious universities; we saw rickety shacks and evidence of extreme poverty in the lands set aside for American Indians; and the streets of Santa Fe were full of people living outside, sleeping in the parks and on the sidewalks. "America, America, God mend thine every flaw."
And then, there was the news, as we searched for the local National Public Radio station in each region. News that provided a roller-coaster ride of emotion. The day I arrived in Virginia, an angry and disturbed young man entered a church, participated in a Bible study, and then took out a gun and shot nine good people to death. An incomprehensible act, to first enter into relationship and prayer and then to kill, and kill, and kill again.
The ensuing national controversy over the Confederate flag ironically echoes Ezekiel's characterization of a nation of rebels, impudent and stubborn, a people who refuse to hear the prophetic voice leading them onward, even as the grief-stricken family members of the nine murdered Christians uttered grace-filled words of forgiveness in court. The burning last week of eight southern churches with predominantly black congregations - so far three have been determined to be arson - adds a bizarre and twisted element in this story. And now comes more news: that female African-American pastors in South Carolina have received death threats, and that our President was greeted by a display of Confederate flags when he visited Tennessee this week, a gesture that is hard to see as anything other than a blatant attempt at intimidation. Whatever happened to the call to "Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law"?
Speaking of law, as Sam and I drove across this splendid nation, trying to reconcile all these conflicting impressions, the Supreme Court released its rulings on the Affordable Care act, on immigration, and of course on marriage equality. We arrived back in San Diego on the afternoon of the latter decision, and I put on a clerical collar and attended the celebration at the LGBT center in Hillcrest. On my way there I watched as a huge and beautiful flag, the Stars and Stripes rendered in rainbow hues, was raised at the corner of University Avenue. The crowd was enormous and raucously joyful as we crammed ourselves into the Center, but then the mood shifted, as the San Diego Women's Chorus began to sing the National Anthem, and everyone around me took it up.
I will confess, I don't care for the Star Spangled Banner as the national anthem. I don't like the text that glorifies bombs and warfare. I don't believe it should be in our Hymnal as it isn't a Christian hymn, especially given that I've never heard anyone sing the second verse. One of the reasons I waited 27 years before becoming an American citizen was my internal struggle over the anthem's sentiments. But on that Friday evening, in that crowd, for the first time I was truly moved by the anthem.
I saw the tears in the eyes of my friends and neighbors. I heard a community that had always, always felt sidelined on the margins of the American dream, expressing in this national song a newfound confidence in their full citizenship. I saw a sweet idealism and pure patriotism in the faces of so many who had never imagined that this day of full inclusion would come in their lifetime. It was a holy moment, and I was grateful to witness and bless it with silent prayer. "The land of the free and the home of the brave", for everyone.
As the Supreme Court was issuing its decisons, the Episcopal Church's General Convention was getting under way in Salt Lake City. As if divinely ordered to echo the national conversation, last Saturday our Church elected its first African American Presiding Bishop, Michael Bruce Curry, who not coincidentally is the most exciting and inspiring prophetic preacher in our or probably any church. If you doubt this extravagant claim, run, do not walk, to the nearest computer and find one of his sermons on YouTube. You will not be sorry.
When we sang the black national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing", in worship at General Convention on Tuesday, I found myself again choking back tears as I witnessed the joy of deputies of color, and as I appreciated that they were feeling much as I had felt nine years ago when our church elected Katharine Jefferts-Schori as our first female PB.
And then, again as if divinely ordered, this week the Episcopal Church passed changes to our canons or denominational rules, expanding the definition of marriage so that there is no longer any distinction between opposite-gender and same-gender couples who desire a sacramental marriage. And like icing on the cake, our deputies also approved a liturgical rite for the changing of a name, permitting trans-gendered Christians to have their true identity celebrated and blessed by the church.
The Episcopal Church, like most Christian denominations, has a long and shameful history of discrimination against women, minorities, and LGBT persons. Ezekiel's words echo once again down the centuries, but now with a hopeful tone: a nation of rebels, impudent and stubborn, yes, but a people who have heard the prophetic voice and have been moved by the Holy Spirit to recognize the prophet among us and to further the journey towards liberty and justice for all, all, all. Let me hasten to say, we haven't yet arrived at our destination. We still have much work to do, as indicated by the minority report of certain bishops and the Convention's ambivalence over divesting from polluting industries; the law still allows discrimination on the basis of orientation; some Americans still believe that skin color is an indicator of personal worth; but we have taken significant steps as a church and as a country, in these last days.
The prophets point a way forward, for a rebellious nation. They direct us, an impudent and stubborn people, into a path of obedience to God's word of truth, justice, and unconditional love, a word personified by Jesus. They point us to the God who continues to speak to us today, moving us from hatred to love, from law to grace, from death to life. As we pray for God to crown our good with brotherhood, we also pray, in the words of James Weldon Johnson, author of "Lift Every Voice", for continued guidance in the right direction.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way,
Thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee;
Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.
Lift every Voice and Sing, vs 3 The Hymnal 1982 # 599
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
July 5, 2015