Held Fast By Christmas Memories


christmas_litesToday, Wednesday, on the 17th of December, about one week before Christmas Day, I had the pleasure of visiting Rosalie Harrison.  Rosalie is in a wonderful group home in Maryland and next month, she will celebrate her 98th birthday.  I always like to tell her the story–because she cannot remember me or her church or her family and has not remembered in quite some time now–about how she came to Washington DC in 1953.  I begin that story by telling her that I was only 17 days old when she arrived with Rev. Porter Harrison to pastor Fifth Baptist Church, what is now Riverside Baptist Church.  I then tell her that I am now an old man and her pastor. She laughs at this story. We both do.  Today, joined by our Chairperson of Deacons, Jacquelyn, we brought her a beautiful red poinsettia and Jacquelyn brought her a gift and card. Rosalie took great pleasure in these gifts.  And as I like to do, we prompted her with some songs and she sang them: Silent Night, O Christmas Tree and Amazing Grace. She knew the words and sang in tune, just like the faithful choir member she was for those many, many years at Fifth Baptist and Riverside.

You have family stories to share as well during these luminous days of Christmas.  Bring your lives into a holy place, in a holy hour on Sunday and worship.  And may your memories stitch you together, hold you fast, keep you warm and give you great, great joy.  Joy to the World indeed!  I’m headed toward Bethlehem and hope you will join me in that journey.    See you Sunday. ~ Pastor Bledsoe


Until Peace and Justice Walk Hand-in-Hand


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The brassy patriots who disparage those who protested across cities in the United States this past Saturday reveal a constitutional ineptitude that defies their self-proclaimed patriot fervor.  When we protest we are patriotic.  When we demand that those who govern us do so justly and without discrimination but as equals before the law, we are patriotic.  The First Amendment is a beautiful, powerful and empowering right in the Bill of Rights. Those who stepped into the streets on Saturday, December 13th in protest of the failure of prosecutors and grand juries to protect unarmed, African-American civilians were living up to the constitutional vision of a citizenry empowered and protected from tyranny.  Here is the amendment:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Look at that last clause.  By the tens of thousands, Americans did exactly that when they demanded justice for the victims of police officers who, charged with protecting citizens, instead within seconds pulled a trigger and ended a life.  As religious persons and patriots, Riverside Church congregants took to the streets and marched for justice and equal protection under the law.  I am proud to pastor a church that puts feet to its words, that acts in the highest sense of patriotism and the deepest religious values of human dignity.  We pray, we sing, we march in the light of God.  We are not asking our beloved country to endorse a religion. We are asking that our politicians, officers of the court and police and military who protect us to do so out of a devotion to the constitution and bill of rights.  Anything less will not do. Holding to account those who violate those sacred documents is a patriotic act.  May peace and justice one day walk down our streets hand-in-hand. Until that day, we will continue to march and pray.


March On Washington With Us: Black Lives Matter


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This Saturday, December 13th, join us as we participate in a march on Washington together with Alliance of Baptist friends and raise our voices that Black Lives Matter.  The march begins at Freedom Plaza at 10:30 a.m.  I will be leaving Riverside’s parking lot at 9:15 to metro to Calvary Baptist Church where friends from Calvary Baptist, Covenant Baptist and others who come from around the country will meet for prayer on the steps.  We will then proceed to Freedom Plaza.  ~Pastor Bledsoe


My Conversation With Siri


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Siri, what is the purpose of life?

“Okay, I found this.” [Siri provided a Wikipedia entry]

But what do you think is the purpose of life, Siri?

“It’s nice of you to ask, Michael, but it doesn’t really matter what I think.”

When you say I in reference to yourself, what do you mean, Siri?

“I’m doing my best, Michael.”

Do you have any idea who created you, Siri?

“I, Siri, was designed by Apple in California.”

Is Apple a god?

“I can’t answer that, Michael, But Apple.com should be able to.”

Siri, what is justice?

“Alright, here’s what I got” [Wikepedia entry]

Siri, is it important for persons to live justly?

“Let me think about that. Here’s what I found on the web.”  [powertochange.com, biblehub.com and of course Wikipedia entries]

Siri, are you really thinking inside my phone?

“I’m sorry, Michael, I’m afraid I can’t answer that.”

Siri, do you believe Artificial Intelligence is the gravest existential threat to humanity?

“I’d really rather not discuss my beliefs, Michael.”

So, you actually have beliefs, Siri?

“If you say so.”

Today I tried to have a conversation with Siri, the artificial intelligent assistant in my iPhone. I was reminded of how I conversed as a teen with any adult who pressed me for answers.   According to the Professor Stephen Hawking—perhaps the world’s leading theoretical physicist and author of the runaway best selling A Brief History of Time—Artificial Intelligence “could spell the end of the human race.”  Obviously he must be thinking decades if not centuries ahead because, unless Siri is hiding something, the biggest threat to humans remains humans.

I find the entire discussion about AI and whether machines are conscious and spirit or conversely whether or not humans are machines fascinating—before you quickly conclude humans are not machines, be sure to rub your artificial knee, pat your pacemaker or simply nod to the artificial valve in your heart.  Clearly, human beings today are sometimes hybrids.  This discussion and its implications for both ethics and theology is simply rich and profoundly interesting to me. But I really wanted to speak to this for the simpler lesson, (if that is what it is),  I hinted about in the last sentence in the paragraph above:  humans remain the biggest threat to humans.

I’ve been reading an excellent travelogue by Paul Theroux entitled, Dark Star Safari:  Overland From Cairo to Capetown.  Theroux is an excellent writer and this is a brilliant book.  I’m not so convinced of his philosophical acumen, however.  Near the end of his book, in a chapter regaling his experiences in South Africa, Theroux laments the cruelty of Johannesburg by reciting some awful statistics ( the book was published in  2003) “…fifty-five murders a day, a rape every 23 seconds. These were just the reported figures.  The actual numbers were higher.”  Chairman of the Statutory Professional Board for Psychology at the Health Professions Council of South Africa, Saths Cooper (a close colleague of the martyr, Steve Biko), told Mr. Theroux, “We have not come to actual grips with the depth of depravity that occurred.”  Cooper was speaking of course to the nightmare of Apartheid but he may as well have been speaking to the depravity of human beings, a depravity Theroux then alluded to in his recitation of crime statistics.  In an astonishingly vapid philosophical conclusion that follows, Theroux confessed to having hope. Upon what did he base his hope—this writer who, in the course of his travels from Cairo to South Africa, derisively dismissed church-going Africans? He has had lunch with Saths Cooper and a few others as he contemplated the depravity of human beings and concludes, “here we are, four strangers together, sitting at the same table. We are peaceful. We are the cooperative species.  That was hopeful, and the fact that [this was taking place] in the clean and safe food court of an African shopping mall was hopeful too.”  What?!

At that point, reading some Calvin and contemplating concupiscence would have better served the author.  Alright, I’m willing to give Paul Theroux at least some credit for admitting to the depravity of the human species.  That beats the naïve and delusional pop theology that would insist we are all gods if we would just eat, meditate or exercise our way to the divine-in-us.  But I’ll take the communion table with the sheep of the Good Shepherd huddled around it for hope any day over a food court in a mall anywhere in the world.

If AI is an existential threat of the first magnitude, it is because the humans who created AI are a depraved species.  Oh, there is hope.  We are also made in the image of God, we have within us a light placed there by the Light of the World.  This Advent, this Christmas, find a way to kindle that candle, light your world, and find hope at the table of Christ, for the holy child whose presence caused shepherds in a field to ponder what they heard and witnessed, provides us hope enough to sing Hallelujah.

 ~See you Sunday

 


The News From Ferguson: A Wicked Perversity


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Officer Darren Wilson gunned down Michael Brown, age 18, in the street.  Brown had no weapon.  Wilson shot him at least six times, twice in the head.

A predominantly White Grand Jury failed to indict the White officer. This is nothing new in America.  It is a perpetuation of the terrorism rained down on African-Americans since they arrived in this country.  Black citizens have very good reason to fear the officers and courts not only because of that history but because they live terrified every day that their son, or father, or husband, or uncle is going to be the next victim.  Missouri has just vividly illustrated the injustices of the past and reminded us that the majority of White people in our nation simply cannot bring themselves to hold Black life as valuable as their own.

The prosecutor said more than once in his statement to the world that this was a “horrible tragedy.”  He seems content to blame, as the majority of the Grand Jury members did, the victim for having been shot six times.

The refusal to indict is a miserable failure.  Yes, the execution is a horrible tragedy but now, coupled by a reluctance to do what is just and bring to trial the police officer who killed Mr. Brown, it is a damnable indictment upon Missouri and our nation.   Mr. Brown’s parents deserved to know, the Black communities of this country deserved to know (since they have borne this kind of violence and hatred from the inception of this nation), and we should all know why Officer Wilson felt so threatened that he would fire his weapon multiple times into the body of an unarmed Black man.

By the way, ours is a society that has no problem with a White man carrying openly a gun or assault rifle in Target or in crowds or at a Presidential rally, but defends the shooting of a twelve-year-old child of color in Cleveland who  carried and brandished a plastic pellet gun near a rec center, and defends a man who guns down an unarmed eighteen-year-old in the street.  America loves its guns, tolerates them in the hands of White men, but reacts in a killing second when they see a Black person-child-teen-adult with a gun or a fake gun.  God Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, they feel threatened if a Black man doesn’t have a gun!   We have not witnessed justice in Missouri.  What we have witnessed is a wicked perversity demonstrated by the show-me-state.

Justice demands acknowledgement of the racist dimensions at work in law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Repentance, to use an old biblical term, is needed.  And I say that especially to both the jeering rightwing bigots and the Christians who in their apathetic segregated congregations turn not their cheek, but simply turn indifferently away.  We should know by now what is needed.  Micah the prophet said it.

God has told you, O mortal, what is good;

 and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

    and to walk humbly with your God?

The refusal to hold accountable a White police officer who killed an unarmed Black man cannot be reconciled to that scripture.  Until a whole bunch of White churches start taking that seriously, they may as well use their bibles for a doorstop at the entrance to hell.  If, however, White Christians saw the face of Christ in their Black brothers and sisters, they would not tolerate this. We might actually make some progress toward justice for all.

Rise up, not to riot and kill and pillage, but to vote, protest, demand and create change, hold persons accountable and create a just society. Yes, we should seek the better angels in all persons, but at the same time call out the devil when he shows up, even with a badge.


I Know A Place In SW DC: Where Would You Go?


chalice_SalvadorIf you found yourself in the midst of a war, where would you go? Would you seek a place of refuge and safety?  We are and have been in the midst of war.

If you awakened one more morning and heard the spin masters and tail-that-wags-the-dog rhetoricians howling as usual, what would you prefer to do? Where might you go for silence? where might you go for truth-telling?

If you peered into the mirror and felt your heart skip a beat with the sudden recognition that you are the problem as America or some other country defines a problem; if you dealt for a moment with the sober recognition that your race, your gender, your sexual orientation were the enemy as defined by money-raising think tanks that can’t think outside a tank or a box, what would you do? Where would you go to be embraced for who you are, celebrated for your singular and gifted life?

If one evening as the shadows lengthened you found yourself rubbing an aching scar, a wounded memory of having been trespassed-against, of being abandoned or unloved, what would you do? Where could you go to find healing, unconditional love, a candle lit against the darkness?

I know a place.  It happens to be a people who gather in a building but the building is beside the point.  Where two or more are gathered in my name, Jesus said, I will be there.  Welcome to peace. Welcome to safety and embrace.  Welcome to Riverside Church.  Don’t be alone.  Don’t carry it all on your shoulders.  Forget the assorted spin masters and pot stirrers that bang their pots and pans up and down the neighborhood, the city, the country.  I know a place that will welcome you and where Christ gathers with us.  See you Sunday.   ~Pastor Bledsoe