Robinhood, Wall Street, and Religion

An unusual thing happened this last week: the masses made their voices heard.

And it didn’t happen through voting, though that is one way this happens more regularly in the world (when voting restrictions don’t keep people away from the polls).

And it didn’t happen in a courtroom.

It happened on Wall Street, and it is so rare there that it actually brought the beast to a little bit of a halt this last week.

If you’re not up to speed, you can find an extended story here. If you want a basic (very basic) version, this is basically what happened:

To make easy money on the market, some entities do some fancy footwork to play the system. It’s set up to be played, by the way, but only if you know the right moves…and usually only the very wealthy can afford (literally) to know the right moves.

Basically, you bet that a stock will fall, so you borrow securities, trade them on the open market, and assume you’ll be able to buy them back at a lower price. You payback what you borrow, and you get to keep the excess.

This last week the market recoiled after a group of small (in terms of Wall Street) investors decided to bet on nostalgia and bought up shares of GameStop, you know, that place in the mall where they sell (and buy back!) video games.

What’s a mall, you ask? It’s that place where the elderly walk in circles and pass by stores no one goes in anymore. But, I digress…

The reason they bought these stocks, though, was because hedgfunds were using GameStop (and other entities like it) to “buy short” as they call it, betting that the stocks would fall and wanting to make some quick cash.

The influx of GameStop buying sent the stock soaring, causing a number of short-buying investors to lose millions. Billions, even.

Seriously.

And it was largely done because a bunch of little investors using no-fee sites like Robinhood, a place where people can trade small amounts just to dabble in the market. In fact, Robinhood even shut down for a bit to stop the blood loss for the billionaire class because this collective buying by small-time investors was working so well at beating the game by playing the game.

It’s all pretty fascinating. Popcorn-eating fascinating.

But what I’m most confused about is not how it happened (I think it should happen more! The market should be risky for everyone, not just the little investor!). I’m more confused about why Robinhood, a site that says it is dedicated to getting small investors in the game, shut down when the billionaire class became imperiled because other users figured out how to play the game better for once.

Isn’t Robinhood supposed to encourage that kind of enagement?

I mean, it’s named ROBINHOOD. You’d think it would be happy to live up to it’s name, right?

Oh, what’s in a name…?

The truth is that Robinhood, and other sites like it, were instrumental in transforming the system, if just for a moment. But, unlike it’s name would suggest, it turns out it wasn’t interested in transformation, but rather in just propping up the system so that nothing changes at all!

And this, Beloved, is where critique of religion comes in because, I have to be honest, religion, too, doesn’t often live up to it’s name.

Religion literally means “connect again.” “Re”-back and “ligio”-ligament, actually means to re-bind or re-connect, and at its core should be invested in life transformation through a connection to the Divine.

But honestly, on both ends of the operation, this is usually not the goal of most religion as it we currently find it.

If you think that’s not true, just talk to the number of pastors frustrated because they can’t get people to invest in a deeper spiritual life through dedicated spiritual practices. They’d rather have their Spring Picnic and Youth Car Wash and

Or, if you think that’s not true, talk to the thousands who never darken the door of a religious building anymore (accept on a tour) because “nothing happened” for them in those walls.

On the participation side and on the facilitation side it seems like religion isn’t really too interested, most days, in living into its name.

You know, kind of like how the elite Wall Street investors and the sites like Robinhood weren’t too interested in transformation, but only in paying lip-service to getting people into investing and embracing risk.

Systems that live for self-preservation are not interested in making a difference in your life, but rather only interested in propping up their own lives.

This is why I think that for every religious institution the question of “should we sell our building” be on the table, every year. The building can become an idol, Beloved, and if it’s not working for the mission, it’s working against it.

This is why I think that most every team of a church should be ad hoc, by and large. Why have a team if there’s no reason to? The Spring Picnic Team should only be convened once it’s clear that there is a good, missional reason to have the Spring Picnic! And, yes, a time to gather and get to know one another is absolutely a great reason for a Spring Picnic, but if all you have are a bunch of Spring Picnics under different names, then, well, you need to reevaluate your purpose.

Good religion needs to live into its name, or else it is no better than Robinhood: inviting people in but, once they have been transformed and want to do something differently because of it, shutting them out or down because, well, “that’s not how we do things around here…”

Invest in places that are interested in both being transformed and in helping you transform, Beloved. They are out there, both in the market place and in the halls of religion.

But it doesn’t seem to be the norm.

So make sure they’re living into their name…

Abuse Lingers

I talk with people who have been hurt by religion.

I talk with them quite a bit, actually. It’s part of what I do, and I’m grateful to be a space where people can be brave and safe and admit their doubts, frustrations, fears, and, yes, moments when they’ve been beaten and bruised (both metaphorically and in real life) by religion.

I also talk with folx who have been hurt by what they consider to be hostile political policies these last four years.

And, let’s just get it out of the way, while a less-than-equitable tax code is certainly not fair, and certainly takes advantage of the poor and vulnerable, that’s not the kind of hostility I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about is making fun of a disabled person by the President of the United States.

What I’m talking about is having the phrase “Muslim ban” being thrown around in the halls of power with conviction rather than concern.

What I’m talking about is barring transgender people from serving in the military, and announcing it by Tweet, the way you or I might announce the latest cute thing our kid said into the ether of the world.

What I’m talking about is a President ordering the dispersion of peaceful protestors by MILITARY FORCE so he could take a walk and hold up a Bible for a political headline.

What I’m talking about is the systemic libel of our democratic systems in an attempt to keep and consolidate power.

This is not “snowflake” sort of stuff. These are triggers. They’re abusive behavior.

And the reason I bring it up is because, well, I’ve heard some people tell those who struggle with religion, often due to the coercion or the abuse they felt in those hallowed halls, that they should just “get over it.”

Or that they should “forget about it and move on.”

One of the interesting things about abuse is that, while many of the marks that you can see fade with time, the marks that aren’t visible seem to last.

Imagine waking up every morning not knowing if your spouse was going to hit you or cook you breakfast. Do you think that feeling just immediately leaves when you’re out of that situation?

That crap lingers!

Now replace that “spouse” with the Divine, and instead of breakfast or a slap, it’s a “blessing” or “eternal damnation.” You think that just goes away if you stop going to church?

That crap lingers!

Now replace “the Divine” with the voice from the Oval Office who literally pulls the strings of power in the nation…

…yeah, yeah, save your “separate but equal” lip-service for another blog; I intend to be real. This last administration (much like the Jackson administration they so emulated) has shown that the Executive Branch is the mightiest on the tree when there hasn’t been adequate pruning…

…and imagine that instead of “blessing” and “eternal damnation” it’s replaced by “emboldened privileged existence” and “open season for outright abuse.”

Why do you think racists could march un-hooded through the streets without fear? Why do you think Confederate battle flags and Neo-Nazi flags marched alongside Trump flags when they stormed the Capitol?

Why do you think that hate crimes rose by 20% the last four years?

So, when people say, “He’s out of office, just move on…” to that I say:

THAT CRAP LINGERS!

It lingers.

And abuse that is not addressed, somehow, continues to harm long past its life-expectancy.

And anyone who says, “words are just words” has never sat with a spouse who was continually dressed down and verbally shamed for years. They’ve never stood next to a kid who was mocked for how they look or what religion they practice (or don’t) or how their family is composed.

Words hurt, Beloved. They move people, for good or for ill. Words have power, they change things, and trying to pretend they don’t is like saying that the abuser isn’t at fault because the ones who are hit let the blows land.

I write all this as a way of explaining why it’s still important that we have some sort of discussion…no, not discussion, a “come to Jesus” about what has happened the last four years.

About why we can’t just “move on,” because we have the serious tendency to “move back again” if we just try to move on.

I write this for everyone wondering why it still matters enough to mention. It still matters because, to be honest, I cringe when I turn on the news, even now, because I wonder what other right has eroded, what safeguard has been crushed, what minority group has been scapegoated…

And, no, elections will not fully prevent those things from happening, but we have seen what happens when an election accelerates it!

And, Beloved, it lingers. In the soul. In the spirit. In the head. In the heart.

It lingers.

Rachel Just Wants Someone To Cry With Her…I Do, Too.

One of the most haunting and touching collisions of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament happens in the Gospel of Matthew where the writer recounts Herod’s rage over the birth of Christ, and the tragic resulting aftermath.

The story is well-known, of course. Herod goes on a rampage and kills all the young boys three years of age and under throughout Bethlehem. This horrific episode is captured in the Christmas carol, “Lully, Lullay,” an ancient song written for a long-lost nativity play that towns and villages would put on during Christmastide.

This song, with the minor tone and lullaby lyrics, “Lully, Lullay, thou little tiny child/bye bye lully, lullay…” is meant to mimic the quiet song the mothers of Bethlehem sang to their little ones to keep them quiet while soldiers went door to door searching for children to kill.

The writer of Matthew, as he is wont to do, overlays Hebrew Scripture prophecy on the scene, recalling an obscure verse from Jeremiah 31 where Rachel, the seminal matriarch of the Hebrew people is crying over the death and exile of her descendants. “She cries,” the prophet shouts, “and she refuses to be comforted.”

She refuses to be comforted.

This whole scene has always moved me, and does so even more so now that I have my own children. It is striking. It is raw. It is a commentary on political power and political fear. It is a testament to the endearing love of mothers, of all parents, for their babies.

I am currently in a program where I’m learning to effectively coach people who are in the process of dying, or who are grieving over those who have died. We talk a lot about the process of death and grief, about saying goodbye well and remembering well.

And we talk a lot about the fact that the dying and the grieving don’t want our pity, and they don’t need our platitudes. After all, a euphemism or a trite moralism is just another way of saying that you don’t know how to care.

Caring doesn’t mean patching over grief, but about walking into the valley of the shadow of death with someone else so that they don’t have to do it alone, by God.

Being in this course (and, by the way, if you’re in need of someone to walk with you in grief, death, or dying, don’t hesitate to reach out), I was reminded of an old midrash, a tale that I know I heard somewhere but that I can’t now place.

It talks of Rachel, and of her seeing the devastation of her ancestors, her babies, and seeking out someone to cry with her. She goes to the patriarchs, but they will not do it. She goes to the angels, but they can’t grieve with her. She finally goes to God and says, “And you? Will you not grieve with me?” And God, in Divine mercy, weeps with her into the night, not consoling her (she refused to be consoled), but simply weeping alongside her.

And that made all the difference.

Rachel didn’t need someone to make her feel better, and she didn’t need someone to “fix” her…she wasn’t “broken.”

She was grieving. Her heart was broken, and that can’t be fixed in any other way than by walking through that valley and grief, and she needed someone to walk with her, to hear her tell the stories of her babies, of her ancestors, to laugh as she pulled out picture after picture, and to cry as she missed them in the night.

I know why Rachel refused to be consoled. I know why Rachel wanted someone to just cry with her.

I’m thinking these days of all the anger and hurt and grief we’re all experiencing today. The losses of normalcy, those loved ones lost to the pandemic and our collective inaction.

I’m thinking these days of the way we assault one another, of how we refuse to hear other perspectives and so easily fall into the trap of conspiracies and group thought that promises easy outs and secret remedies.

We’re grieving, Beloved. We’re grieving.

And what we need to do is, like Rachel, refuse to be consoled for a bit. We need to just let it out, to cry a bit, to stop hanging our hopes on every tilting windmill and instead sit and just be with it all for a little. damn. while.

I know why Rachel refuses to be consoled.

I’m refusing, too.

A Matter of Words

If I were preaching tomorrow…here’s what I’d preach.

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Beloved, when I was eight years old, I was told by my 3rd Grade teacher that I was, “just not good at math.”

I went through the rest of my elementary, middle, and high school years believing what she told me. It was just a fact: I wasn’t good at math.

I carried this truth upon my shoulders until I went off to University where, as part of my Philosophy Minor I had to take a course called “Logic and Critical Thinking.” It involved a number of word problems, proofs, and in that course, at the age of eighteen, a full ten years after I first was told with all certainty that I was “just no good at math” I realized I had been lied to.

And here’s the shame of it: because I had been told that I was no good at math, and I believed it, I never explored math. I always took the lowest math courses I could find, the most remedial in the catalogue.

I just took it as truth because, well, they were a teacher, right?! They knew best, right?

Words matter.

My friend, as a kid, was called a “fag” every day at school.

Now, I don’t think his bullies actually implied that he was trying to sleep with other guys, though maybe that was part of the implication, I don’t know, but really what they were trying to do was dehumanize him in some way. They wanted him to know, in no uncertain terms, that he was different, unwanted, and unliked.

And, well, later on in his years, when he crouches in a corner clutching a bottle of pills, thinking maybe he should just swallow them all…I mean, that’s part of what was running through his head, Beloved.

Words matter.

In Genesis today we hear that not only do words matter, but words create matter! The Divine speaks into the chaos of the universe and forms order out of it, parting the waters and the celestial bodies, helping to create a rhythm to the hours, helping to create safe spaces for all kinds of what would be created: land dwellers like you and me, ocean inhabitants like the majestic whale and the whimsical sea horse, and those who take to the air like the high-flying condor and the swift hummingbird…and, well, the Wright Brothers who, by the way, just a few days before their first flight would read in an op-ed of a national paper the projection that flight was generations off for humanity.

Good thing they didn’t take those words literally or seriously, right?

Words matter. Words create matter.

Words can create: safe spaces, brave places where creation can be comfortable, order in the chaos of a world that seems hell-bent on entropy most days.

And words can destroy, Beloved. They can stigmatize. They can dehumanize.

They can incite.

Terrorize.

We’re all acutely aware of this now, right?

So today, here are some other words, words to create a brave and safe space, words to lift up and inspire and provide some baptismal hope on this Sunday where we remember not only the baptism of Jesus, but our own baptism:

God loves you, for Christ sake, and will not let you go.”

These words were spoken to me again and again by my Theology professor and surrogate grandfather, Reverend David Truemper. He said these words, wrote these words, inscribed them on my heart, and I etch them now on yours, and he did this even as his body was laid waste by a cancer that ransacked him in my Senior year.

Cancer is a word that can destroy and terrorize, but these words carried him through it to the other side of the Jordan where he undoubtedly heard, “You are my son, my Beloved, in whom I’m well pleased.”

It is good you exist.

In one of my darkest moments as a teen, these words were spoken to me by a friend who guessed I was on an edge. It reminded me of something very deep and very true.

We shall overcome…

In my Black Church course in seminary we started out the semester standing and singing this song, all together, led by our professor who had, himself, marched the streets with Dr. King. Tears ran down his face as we sang, a second baptism of sorts washing our heads and our hearts, re-centering us. We were not pastors who preached just any words, but we must be pastors who preach liberating words! Gospel words. Words that don’t rev people up into frenzies, but lift people up to new heights, by God!

You must work for justice and peace…

I’ve said these words over a hundred times in these last ten years, making sure that before people get to the font they know what they’re doing. These words are part of the baptismal liturgy, and they make clear that entering the waters of baptism means exiting oceans of hate and violence. The waters of baptism don’t wash away prejudice, but they birth you into a life of unlearning it, by God. They birth you into a life of reading the scriptures not through a lens of grievance, greed, and group-think, but through a lens of grace, both for yourself and your neighbor.

Justice and peace hold hands, Beloved, because one ensures the other. Peace and justice work for the good of all people. They lean toward truth and away from lies. They overthrow the halls of power not by force or “trial by combat,” whatever the hell that means, but by a fierce determination that changes hearts because they say, “See how much they love…a sacrificial love.”

Love lifts up the oppressed, it does not oppress.

And, finally, how about these words, ripped straight from our Gospel today:

You are my child, my Beloved, in whom I’m well pleased.

Here’s the thing, Beloved: words matter. The words that grip you, matter. The words that you cling to, matter. Words affect matter, and as you know, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return…”

We don’t just matter, we are matter.

You are matter. I am matter. And matter, Beloved, can be manipulated. Molded. Moved, for good or ill.

Which means we have to be honest about words, Beloved. Words matter.

In the spirit of our baptismal calling, we condemn words that incite, right?

It’s no wonder that in the Gospel of John Jesus is called The Word. God’s love letter to the world. Because words matter, love letters matter, and when we have words that go against The Word, that aren’t love letters but hate speech, we rely on those sacred words, like those I lifted above to carry us through.

To remind us not to fall victim for wards that affect matter, but rather live in the embrace of words that remind us that humanity matters, peace matters, love matters.

And yes, words will call us to flood the streets in protest. But we cannot do so over just any words, especially lies and feigned grievances. We do so over words like, “I can’t breathe,” and words like, “You can’t marry,” and words like, “You’re illegal,” and words like, “Move to the back of the bus.”

Marching on those words is not marching for grievances, it’s marching in solidarity with true grief! And if you cannot tell the difference, well, then we’ve grounded ourselves not in The Word who calls us to defend our neighbor, but in words that call us to destroy.

Beloved, we’ve been doused in a river of news this last week, an ocean of words that have spilled over into our hearts, homes, and have covered our heads. There were points this last week where I felt like I was drowning in sorrow, in anger, in sadness.

But we must remember those other words, Beloved. Words that can carry us through. Words that compel us to counter the words of lies, selfish grievance, and hate. Words from The Word.

So, Beloved, be baptized in the deep words that compel you to peace and justice, not the shallow words of grievance and guilt.

Be baptized under the name of the one who created you, not the name of any demagogue out there who longs to move you against your neighbor.

Be baptized under the name of the one who says, unequivocally, “I love you. You are my Beloved,” and who will love you to death and one step beyond to show how true those words are…

Have these words poured over your heart and head today.

Because, words matter.

Why We Didn’t Take Down the Tree

If you ask my youngest son what his favorite ornament on our tree is, he’ll point to a square glass ornament, red and white, shaped like a present.

“That one,” he’ll say, lightly touching it with a gentleness not usually seen from a five-year old. He’ll smile at you, look back at it, and stare at it in a way that makes you want to be the ornament: with awe and wonder and possibility and love.

Who knows? When his back is turned, maybe it becomes a real present, falling like an apple from the tree to be opened on Christmas morning. The imagination is wild and wonderful, especially at five.

January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany, and in our house that means taking down the decorations at the end of the night, blessing the house, and formally folding up Christmastide.

But we didn’t do it yesterday.

In fact, we ushered our kids out of the living room where the tree with the beautiful present ornament resides. We stuck a toy they got for Christmas in their hands and told them to play as long as they wanted for the afternoon as we looked in pained faces at the screen in front of us.

Horror on the Capitol.

You kind of want your kids to look at their lives with awe and wonder and possibility and love, right? Like that ornament: who knows what can happen?

But what do you do with a day like yesterday? A day when leaders they’re supposed to trust and follow turn on them? When the highest office of the land curves in on itself like a deranged parasite, eating away at its own body to satisfy its own needs?

You leave the tree up.

You wait on that door blessing, for just one more day.

I’m not saying that you put off the holiday/holy day by any means, but you allow it to live, by God.

You allow it to live, to do the thing it’s meant to do.

Because the Epiphany is supposed to be a day of awe and wonder and possibility, a day when you honor the fact that the Divine is up to something in this world, dammit.

And yesterday was not that day.

And I don’t say that for political reasons, by the way.

I say that because, well, when words are used to incite violence–which is what happened–then the Word of God that we honor on the Epiphany, the Word sent to confront such words, is shadowed in anger and violence.

Especially because I saw, in those rioting mobs, more than one “Jesus” flag alongside a nationalistic flag that had nothing to do with a nation. I saw “Pelosi is Satan” and “Jesus Saves” signs as they broke windows and busted into the democratic halls intended to ensure our freedoms.

It’s an imperfect union, Beloved, but it’s all we’ve got at the moment. And it was not awe-some.

It was awful.

Holy days are intended not just to be observed, but to help us observe, Beloved.

What I mean is, holy days are meant to help us interpret all of life.

For instance: Advent is a time where we practice waiting so that we will know how to wait when the time comes. For births. For deaths. For new jobs. For the next big thing. For anything! Advent teaches us how to wait.

Lent, likewise, teaches us repentance…and Lord knows we need some of that in this world.

The rhythm of the church year is meant to help us breathe, to keep time, to know what to do next in life. But it is, above anything and everything, practice for those times in our lives when we’ll need to put these sacred skills into practice!

I’ve been in a season of Advent in my heart all throughout Lent when I was waiting for my son to be born. I was absolutely in a season of growth (Pentecost) when Lent descended on my heart at the death of my grandmother.

The seasons of the church teach us how to be in the world, if we’re willing to pay attention.

And so, yes, yesterday was the Epiphany. But it wasn’t an Epiphany.

In fact, what was needed more than anything yesterday was a little more Christmas, a little more celebration, a little more “God-with-us” and “Word-became-flesh” as too many angry words were spewed from the halls of power.

Yesterday needed a little more thwarting of Herod, and so we invited the Magi to stick around a bit longer, Beloved.

We’ll take down the tree later this week. Probably this weekend.

And we’ll slowly take off each ornament, inspecting it, standing in awe of it, telling one another stories about where we got it and how beautiful it is.

And then we’ll bless the house, pray a blessing on 2021, and tell each other how beautiful this new year is on the other side of yesterday. The wonder. The awe.

The possibility.

I want them to look at this world and see the possibility. The “good bones,” as Maggie Smith would say.

Because it has good bones…it just needs a bit more Epiphany.