The Renewal of Minds

On last Saturday night, May 30th, I got texts from a couple church members making me aware of protests that were getting serious on Sudley Rd. I confirmed this was going on and we put a Facebook Post up inviting everyone to pray for all involved.

Protests on Saturday May 30th in Manassas, VA

By Sunday morning it was clear that the night ended with some violence, vandalism, and looting. By the end of worship we learned that one of the looted stores is managed by a church member.

We had a powerful Pentecost Sunday service after which I drove to that store to see if they needed cleaning up. I talked to our sister in Christ the manager and she told me about her pain and frustration. She said they had folks who could clean the place up, but the damage was done and they may not recover financially. 

I got off the phone with her and drove home, wondering if my day was over or not. It wasn’t. I got word that some Black clergy colleagues of ours were inviting people of faith to come pray for peace before another protest planned for that night. I didn’t really want to go out there, I mean, crowds of shouting people in a pandemic? Thanks but no thanks.

I wrote the church council and our district superintendent and the bishop to let them know about this invitation. The bishop called and told me to be safe. Wear a mask. Wear gloves. The council wrote back in support, promising their prayers. 

I felt compelled. I looked at Allie, “I feel like I have to go. Just for a little bit.” She shrugged and said, “yeah, go. Just wear a mask and don’t touch anything.” I told Hannah I’d be back in time to watch a movie. I was wrong. 

Peaceful Protest June 1, 2020, Manassas, VA led by Pastor Joshua Wesley

I arrived to the sound of a pastor on a PA. “Everyone take a knee, please. Take a knee and listen.” He said, “to all of you here who want a peaceful protest to express yourselves, who want there to be meaningful dialogue here tonight between protestors and police, if that is what you want to support, I have bad news. I need you all night. I need you to stay here as long as you can, and I need you to get us some food.” 

I texted Allie, “I might be a while.” 

I was there in my mask, my baseball cap, and my stole, a red one my father gave me, along with a couple other clergy. I came to pray, but it was clear, this wasn’t a place for kumbaya quietude. This was a protest. A real one. And I didn’t know what to do. 

“We need people to stay late and stay in the middle of the protest,” said the pastor on the PA. “We need people to walk the perimeter, and keep people out of the street. We need you to disseminate, participate, and de-escalate.” 

Rev. Charlotte Lehmann of Bull Run Unitarian Universalist Congregation, me, and Rev. Mandy Dell’Uomo North from Manassas Church of the Brethren.

I didn’t know how to do that. I empathize deeply with the protesters, but I couldn’t in good conscience shout all of the things they were shouting. I love and respect police, but I acknowledge that they’re trained to act without hesitation when things start popping off and I didn’t want to be in the middle when it did. I wanted to work for peace, but mostly I just felt awkward and out of place. I asked myself what am I supposed to be doing here? Then I was given an idea.

I told my colleagues, “I’m going to go get a couple things,” and I got in my car. I drove to the grocery store and got some crackers, cookies, and chips. I paid for them with my church credit card (thank you for your generosity, by the way). Then I remembered that on the first Sunday of Coronatide, I jokingly placed this big Grace sticker on a giant bottle of hand sanitizer and put it in on a little table the back of the sanctuary, ironically I placed it in the place where other churches have a baptismal font with holy water constantly available. Grace takes many forms, I guess. 

I grabbed that bottle, and one other tool from my youth ministry days, a rainbow fanny pack full of lollipops. I stapled a Grace UMC nametag to my stole, and I was off. 

When I arrived back at the protest, the crowd was larger, and louder. There was shouting along the street, and shouting into the mic, protesters locked eyes with the few police officers who had come that night, assigned to lamentation duty, to receive the ire of a people on fire. It was volatile. It felt dangerous. But thank God, I had crackers. That gave me something to do. 

“Hand sanitizer? Crackers? Cookies?” I started my rounds. “You need something to eat? Wanna get washed up?” I think the most disarming thing about me may have been how foolish I looked. I imagine to strangers I resembled a cross between a ballpark vendor and a creepy clown. Picture this dopey white guy tripping over his stole, bumping people with his fanny pack, offering chips and free squirts to people trying to change the world. 

But you know what? Person after person, whether protesting or policing, when I got to them and they saw this bottle labeled grace, they paused and presented their palms. “Yes, please,” they said, “Thank you. Can never have too much of that. Ooh, and cookies? That’s just what I needed. Thank you.” 

Pretty soon I realized this stuff was magic. Armed with this I could go anywhere. I walked the perimeter, then the interior. I offered it to people of every age and color. Even in the very front of the protest, I just walked down Liberia, and person after person put down their sign and said, “yes, please, may I have some?” 

Deep down, I’m a softie, so I started to tear up. Offering crackers and hand sanitizer?  Nourishment and cleansing in the name of God? It was the closest thing to baptism and communion that I’ve experienced as a pastor in months. I had missed it so much. I didn’t know how much of an impact it was having on them, but it was definitely doing things to me. 

I set a goal to try to get to everyone there, to get them these little gifts and to repeat to them over and over, “God bless you. Be careful. We love you. Be safe.” Then I got emboldened. I realized that even the most virulent protesters would stop for hand sanitizer. I had been told to try and de-escalate, so I started to seek out the corners of the protest that seemed to be getting the most volatile. In fact, the more threatening a person or a crowd looked to me, the faster I was compelled to intercept them with the hand sanitizer. It was my way of trying to de-escalate them. 

But (I should not be shocked by this but I was) repeatedly when I would intercept a person that seemed threatening, as soon as I offered these elements, they would stop and say, “Yes, please. Thank you,” and my perception of them instantly changed. Whatever I had perceived as a threat was converted with the sound of a squirt. And then I noticed it, I was doing thi as an attempt to de-escalate them, but in this little exchange, I was the one being de-escalated. Those who I had identified as a threat, when they showed me their palms, I saw them as people, even as Christ. 

In today’s reading from Romans the Apostle Paul gives us language for this kind of moment. He calls it the renewal of one’s mind. 

In Romans 1 Paul begins with a systematic take-down of any notions that any of us don’t need sanitization, that any of us don’t need grace to renew us. It’s Romans where Paul writes those famous words, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” He helps everyone feel condemned in this, convincing us that all lives are flawed, even the most ethnically and religiously pure, like himself. 

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, Valentin de Boulogne, circa 1619

He breaks us all down like this to tell us the gospel that through the death and resurrection of Christ, there is now no condemnation as far as God is concerned. He says the Spirit has revealed in Christ the heart of the Father, a heart of boundless mercy, of everlasting grace, even for the chief of sinners. 

Therefore, he says in chapter twelve, therefore, I appeal to you brothers and sisters because of the mercy of God, present yourselves. Offer up your lives and your bodies, as a living sacrifice, not so that God will be merciful but because God has already been revealed as Mercy itself. So, by the mercy of God, fearing no condemnation, present yourselves, to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. 

In some Bibles this passage has a heading called something like “The True Christian Life,” this life of renewal. The Catholic Church calls it constant conversion. The protestants said they were always reforming. The United Methodist Church says we’re called to make disciples for the purpose of transformation. It’s part of who we are as a church because, as it turns out, this transformation, this conversion and renewal stuff? It is part of who God is. This is what God does.

I did not want to go to that protest. I didn’t want to go to the one I got invited to the next day. And you may not feel like presenting your mind for renewal or transformation today. I get it. The status quo is a hell of a drug.

But just as throughout this last week I have felt the church calling me, my Black colleagues inviting me and the Spirit compelling me to report for duty, to present my body, and my hand sanitizer, and my crackers, as a sacrifice. I believe that is what the Spirit is up to for all of us right now.

The problem of racism and the problems of policing and violence in our culture, they can only improve with the help of God through the renewal of minds like ours.

The problem of racism and the problems of policing and violence in our culture, they can only improve with the help of God through the renewal of minds like ours.

But hear the good news: it happens all the time.

There was a moment at Monday’s protest where I was really testing out just how magical this bottle really is. We were at the courthouse. The Sheriff and his deputies were all in a line, and so the protesters lined up and they faced off. Between them there was this space, a chasm of pain, anger, and distrust only a few feet wide. And, again, likely looking like a fool, I decided to go ahead and just walk down the lane, offering chips and hand sanitizer to any takers. And sure enough, Black and Blue alike, they almost all put out their hands. This little bottle of grace was something they all knew they needed. 

They were lined up like enemies, you know, and they probably were. But, by the end, miraculously, they ended up taking photos together, arm-in-arm. I’m in no way saying that hand sanitizer did that. However, I do believe that grace did that. And Romans proves it. 

Protesters and sherif’s deputies embrace for photos.

Remember who the author is. Paul, the one who calls the church to be transformed, he used to persecute Christians as lawless thugs. He even stood by once as one of them was stoned to death. In fact, it was when he was on the way to a new town to make more arrests, that the Holy Spirit knocked him off his horse and Jesus spoke to him. He was blinded by the light, after which he was cared for and educated by the very Christians he was off to arrest. 

Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Caravaggio, 1601

Do you see? The Apostle Paul, the author of most of the New Testament, he was once a law enforcement officer who was complicit in the murder of an unarmed Christian. But he was then so radically transformed by the grace of God that he join them, was frequently arrested with them, and was eventually killed for preaching what they believed, but not before he had helped their movement grow farther than any of them had ever dreamed. 

When Paul writes, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink,” it’s because when he was hungry, thirsty, and blind, it was his enemies who brought him back to life. When he writes, “do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good,” it’s because that’s exactly what God did to him, God overcame his evil with God’s goodness, with grace that he didn’t deserve and couldn’t imagine. 

When he writes “present your bodies to be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” what he’s saying is, “hear the Good News, this is who God is, a God that renews minds, makes the blind see, converts evil to good, and raises the dead to life.” 

So, my friends, in the midst of conflict, fear, strive, and sin, in the words of Paul, try not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to. Just put out your hand. Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. Do not be conformed to this world. It’s a waste of your time. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your mind through the Grace of God. 

Put your hand out. Present your body. Put your hand out, and grace will abound. Thanks be to God.

To learn more from the young Christian leaders of the movement in and around Manassas, please follow #whatsnextrally

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