"Are you religious?"

January 17, 2018

"Are you religious?" the poet was asked after she read one of her most recent poems—a poem which ended with the poet repeatedly invoking, "Lord," because no other word could carry the weight of compassion and healing she experienced when a stranger—unprovoked—professed to her "I love you." The words "I love you" were spoken to this poet after she had finished a personal journey, one that took her all over the United States, visiting historical landmarks of slavery. Mind you, the poet, Tracy K. Smith, is not just any poet, but the current United States Poet Laureate and professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University.

"Are you religious?" she was asked by an interviewer on NPR. She didn't answer. She paused, obviously not wanting to be labelled as "religious" for reasons she explained. She said she believes in a "greater power of great wonder" but not the white bearded deity she learned about in Sunday school who dictated what to and what not to do. She was turned off by the god of her Sunday school. I wasn't sure if Smith's response was simply her attempt to disassociate herself with those who confessed faith but whose actions didn't attest to their love of God and of neighbor. Regardless, her response made me sad. For obvious reasons. The first, because I teach Sunday school. It reminded me again why l tremble at my choice of vocation; why I still get nervous before I give the children's sermon on Sundays. I know that the day I stop trembling is the day I need to stop teaching. I take James 3:1 seriously: "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgement." So, I wept yesterday for Tracy K. Smith when I heard her interview. Wept for the child that she was years ago, that Sunday school had failed her—failed a child to see God as the beginning and end of all our wonder, failed a child to see herself as the beloved daughter of the Most High, the maker and protector of her own creative genius which must have been bubbling over at an early age. I am sorry that we failed you, Tracy. God, have mercy on us who teach.

Then that night, I wept again as I watched I Am Not Your Negro on PBS. I wept as I watched an interview taken in the sixties with James Baldwin, a writer whom I admired since college, as he explained how he no longer belonged to a church, because the church in America did not live out the Gospel it preached. For him, he couldn't ignore a simple reality: that the American people who went to church on Sundays idly condoned the lynching of blacks and were repeatedly victims of police brutality. If anyone or any group was positioned to make a difference for them, it should have been the Christian, the church. But the American church failed. I am sorry that we failed you, James. I am sorry that we failed you, Emmitt. I am sorry that we failed you, Trevon. God, have mercy on us. God, have mercy on the church in America.

God, help me to understand that we will never get anywhere, if we don't get there together. I don't want to set my goal on the promise land while I ignore the wounded on the side of the road. I mustn't leave the wounded behind. I know it means that I would have to pay for my neighbor's wounds, I would have to sacrifice my time, my comfort, my life. But what else have you called me to than to pick up my cross and follow. God, forgive me for I am weak. 

 Author: Pastor Do Hee
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