Processing the unimaginable: Guidance for pastors and leaders after the election

November 11th, 2016

On November 8, the election for President of United States of America yielded a result that made the most vulnerable among us more vulnerable still. In the hours, and now days, that followed, I have prayed for words and strained to process a personal sea of emotions. To say I am overwhelmed is an understatement. “But you’re a person of a faith … a pastor … former player in politics … a prayer warrior … an individual of letters and reason.” That is all true, and yet I still believe and need help with my ebbing unbelief. Especially in times of such distress.

I am steadfast in my certainty that everything is gonna be alright. God is in control, and trouble don't last always. I know that love trumps hate … that theocracy will rule the day over our broken democracy. However, pious platitudes, elaborate eschatology and elocutionary expressions are not what the doctor should prescribe, nor are they what traumatized people need. Please stop pushing ideological opiates on me and others. Now is not the time for sedation. That is exactly how and why we have awoken to our present reality. A reality in which we are hurting, and continuously seeking to hurt others by means of the sinful precedents we set (history), the way and means of existing and interacting that are executed upon us collectively (systems), and the attitudes, behaviors and practices we live out towards one another (culture). A reality in which these complex structures have life or death consequences for many in our society.

Personal is the pain, angst, concern and discomfort of my family, colleagues, parishioners and friends who suffer at the hands of these structures. I feel the pain of the continued evidence laid at our feet and thrown in our faces, evidence which proves that our lives don’t matter. I’m thinking about the instability and uncertainty of financial markets, global partnerships and our mutual existence. I’m discomforted in not knowing what will come. More importantly, I feel and see the confusion of believing while also needing help with unbelief. As a cleric, I am affirmed in faith and I trust the sovereignty of God. And yet, I remain gravely troubled by this situation, this human crisis.

This is a crisis that we cannot sweep under the rug; a division and difference of ideology that we cannot ignore. We must be honest in acknowledging the divided and divisive state of affairs that is our current democracy. Exit polls, recent social unrest and a longstanding historical record document this growing divide between inclusion and isolation; between bigotry and justice. Whether you see it daily or not, our country is in crisis. And, more alarmingly, our Christian faith is in crisis.

We should not be surprised by the indecency of our corporate and individual humanity. Our history is full of examples of human failing and indecency. There are too many of our human tribe, in this nation and world, who have struggled for rights and human decency since their arrival to our shores or the interruption of their pre-existence here in this country. The question remains truly, “do we wish to be united Americans?” As those grounded in Wesleyan belief, do we really want to exist as co-laborers “united” in covenant connection, witnessing as one body in Christ?

Finding our refuge and strength

Amid this time of strife, I am driven to the word and witness of God. To borrow from my colleague, Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre, God’s word has always been a minority report — directed, understood and acted upon by a few, but impactful for all.

Psalm 46:1 tells us that “God is our refuge and our strength, a help always near in times about struggle.” The entirety of the 46th Psalm is about the regaining or sustaining of holy confidence. It is about the nature of God and the expectations we can have regarding God in the times of our distress. David’s assurance in faith expressed here is not apathetic to the great threat both he and his kingdom faces. It is a threat that is not unfamiliar or unconquerable, but one that requires acute attention. In the face of this threat, God affirms God’s presence, provision and promise, and gives an imperative for the people of God to rise above the “politics” and cultural cataclysm that loomed so large in their context. No the sky is NOT falling, but we must guard against our own failings. And we can only do so by an anchoring ourselves in faith, not in systems of this life.

In unexpected and prolonged periods of distress, we are graced with a refuge. The Judeo-Christian faith is inherently unevidenced, unrealized hope residing in our human expressions and experiences, where it becomes actualized and real. Accordingly, in our spaces dedicated to the forging of faith we must seek to embrace, encourage and edify ourselves and others who are in process.

In this time of distress, we are gifted with a peculiar strength. It will make us able to endure, persevere, withstand and overcome even that which seems inconceivable, unconquerable and utterly overwhelming now. In times like these we have help in the form of hope. We hope for things as they should be. For that which is not yet. We can envision what we hope for, because we have tasted and seen it. Hope is our unique strength, and our resilience helps it along when we grow weary. Our God is greater than the city. God is more than any political candidate or system.

We have awoken to a country that, by democratic means, has given sanction to racism, xenophobia, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and oppression. As a nation we were presented with an indecent binary proposal and, disturbingly, an ill-reasoned, irrational and irreverent numeric minority chose hate and fear over decency and righteousness. Notice I make no mention of candidates. Truthfully, this recent electoral exercise was not a vote for, but actions taken in response to or revenge towards. It was not about real policies or plans, but puppetry, demagoguery and deep-seeded fear of the other!

What are we to do?

So what happens now? How now are we to think about leadership? What is our theology and its function in light of our divided contexts? What are we to do in a denomination that is 90 percent white, when its brethren of color and those considered “different or other” suffer under starkly different threats and realities? What are we to do we do when so many in our nation’s electorate (and in our churches) espouse values of faith but exhibit virtues that are otherwise? What are we to do about those whose cries, howling and hollering — lament — go unheeded?

We are reminded that we are not the first to feel this pain and confusion. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. admonished in the darkness of his day, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Now is the time to rely on our hope. Now is the time to remember that the assurance of God is real and non-negotiable. Both these times and our faith require that we lean on one another. We must discern our willingness to respond. We must ready our collective energies for tomorrow, for our continued struggle to work at the intersection of hope and hurt in order to create empathic models of transformation.

In my upcoming book, Holding Up Your Corner: Talking About Race in Your Community, I examine hollering as a contemporary expression of lament. Hollering “is that primal cry and expression of pain, of abuse, of separation. It is a refusal to be silent in a world that denies our existence and humanity.” In times of distress, we must create spaces for this hollering. We must create circles of conversation where we can question and wrestle with the pain and fear that many of us feel today. This conversation is where we can begin to enact change by truly humanizing the other.

The wrestling of the purpose, potential and power of prayer is juxtaposed within the reality of being pissed off beyond imagination. Our faith tells us that our feelings have meaning, no matter how dark or confusing they may be. Our first step must be to express these feelings in community.

Let us seek, in days forward, to evoke authentic worship not solely with lethargic or lofty liturgy. Rather, we must be willing to allow our filthiness to be seen and washed, not over, but through. Our witness must extend beyond patios of praise and syrupy letters and videos from leaders standing distant like spiritual voyeurs. Let our words echo ancient texts of then with a reality-check and revelation that embraces our now-ness and enlivens us to press toward our ought-ness.

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