Series 24: For The Love Of Faith Icons | Episode 08
Love is the Game Changer of Our Faith: Bishop Michael Curry
Our guest in this continuation of our For the Love of Faith Icons series has conducted his faith leadership through a lens of love, sacrifice and goodness. Bishop Michael Curry is here to share his ideologies behind faith and what it means to live a life looking at Jesus. You’ve probably already heard of him without even knowing it: Bishop Curry had the honor of preaching at Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding. Of course, we had to ask him how he kept calm during that AMAZING moment, and he’ll share a bit about that, but the heart of what he’s here to say in this episode all comes down to one simple concept: love. The kind of love that he says “must move beyond being a sentiment to becoming a commitment—a commitment to seek the good and the welfare and the well-being of others as well as the self.” The kind of love that truly reflects the love of God. Bishop Curry provides a glimmer of hope in recognizing that even though we all tend toward vanity and selfishness, the desire to do good—the desire to seek God’s will—will propel us to love Him, love people and love ourselves.
Jen: Hey, guys. Today is so great. I’m so happy that you’re here. This is Jen Hatmaker, your host of the For the Love Podcast.
Before I get into it, I just wanted to remind you really quickly that there are so many exciting, fun developments that are coming out constantly with my upcoming book. If you haven’t seen it on social media, where I rolled it out, it’s called Fierce Free and Full of Fire. It comes out April twenty-first. Basically, it’s everything I know and have learned [up] to this point on what it looks like to actually live in freedom and with a fierce holy fire about you. Oh, it’s all in there.
Here’s my point: I want you to be in the know for all the cool stuff coming with it and around it and special deals and initiatives and really fun editions. Here’s the very best way you can be the first to know: I hope you are my email friend. That’s the way. If you are a subscriber to my email, I call you my beloved EFs, my email friends. You get first dibs on everything. It is so simple to do it. All you have to do is just zip over to JenHatmaker.com and right there on the homepage, there’s a place to sign up. It’ll take you six seconds.
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Okay, you guys. We have been talking to leaders of the faith, leaders of the church who’ve been at this for decades. They have put their hand to this work for a really long time, and we’ve been learning from their experiences, from their failures and losses, and from their hard-fought wisdom, and it has really been amazing.
Today—lucky me—I got to host a conversation with The Most Reverend Michael Curry.
Okay, just a reminder. Bishop Curry is the presiding [bishop] of the Episcopal Church in America. Okay, so go way up to the top of the heap there. He was elected in 2015 as the very first African-American to lead that denomination, [which was] hugely important. I asked him about this, and we talked about it.
For decades and decades, he’s been a noted advocate for human rights and the author of several fabulous books.
Here’s how you probably know him, for those of you who are outside of the Episcopalian Church. Bishop Curry is recognized as one of the most popular preachers in the English language, because you’ve probably seen him preach, if you happen to remember Harry and Meghan’s Royal Wedding, remember that little thing? That little thing seen by one-sixth of the population? You remember that fabulous sermon? That was Bishop Curry. Bishop Curry preached the sermon at the Royal Wedding.
Oh, don’t worry—I ask him all about it. We are going to talk about what it was like to take a phone call about doing the Royal Wedding and what it was like, because of course, I was watching the Royal Wedding in the middle of the night, like a very, very good loyalist. Okay? My sister and mom and I all had our fascinators on. I tell him this because I have no shame. That was my introduction to Bishop Curry, and I immediately followed him everywhere I could find him. I Googled all the information about him.
You’re going to love this conversation. Oh my goodness. I’m just telling you. We talk about the Royal Wedding of course, but we really dig into what love looks like. I don’t know if you saw the sermon in the wedding, but he structured the whole thing on what he called the way of love. We talk about that in this horrible world right now, in this divided country. What does it mean? What does it look like?
It’s so good. Our whole conversation, I’m just leaning forward on the edge of my seat, hanging on every single word. You are going to love him. You are going to learn from him today. We are so lucky to have him, For the Love listeners. Like, we don’t deserve this, and I don’t know why we have it. I don’t know why these amazing leaders speak to us over here on our little show all the time. But I am so grateful for their investment in our community, and today is no exception.
So please enjoy my outstanding, fascinating conversation with the ever-wonderful Bishop Michael Curry.
Well, it is my absolute delight to welcome Bishop Michael Curry to the For the Love Podcast today. Oh, I’m so happy to have you. Thank you for saying yes.
Bishop Curry: Oh, how can I say no to you? I’ve got to say yes.
Jen: It is possible. It’s so possible. You and I got to chat just a few weeks ago on your podcast, and I immediately hung up the call with you and texted my team and said, “Well, I mean, we just have to have him on the show. That’s just the next thing that has to happen.”
Bishop Curry: I tell you, I’ve told everybody, I said, “We’ve got to have her back!”
Jen: Oh, yay!
Bishop Curry: I’ll be your biggest cheerleader.
Jen: Okay. Absolute same, so let’s just keep each other’s numbers in our hip pockets and just know it’s always a possibility.
Bishop Curry: Sure thing.
Jen: Bishop Curry, I have told my listeners the high level information about you and who you are. For a lot of us, of course, our introduction to you, for those of us who weren’t in the Episcopalian Church, was just a little wedding you performed. That is where we met.
Bishop Curry: Yes.
Jen: And, and we all fell hard. I mean, we fell hard for you. I don’t know if you could hear the echo of Twitter everywhere, but every one of us was trying to tweet out every single sentence you said over the course of that entire wedding. It was so beautiful.
I wonder if you would indulge me for just a minute, and tell my listeners a little bit more about you, and your work, and your path to get all the way to where you are today.
Bishop Curry: I grew up an Episcopalian in the Episcopal church. My father was an Episcopal priest. His daddy was a Baptist preacher, and his granddaddy was a Baptist preacher. Well, actually a preacher. I’m not sure if he was Baptist or not going that far back, but a preacher. So I come from a family of preachers and I grew up in the womb of the church, if you will.
I grew up in a home where the ministry of Jesus Christ was taken seriously, and was linked directly with both our relationship with God, but also our relationship with each other as human beings, as children of God. I grew up with a father who was very much involved in civil rights work in Buffalo, New York. I just always grew up with a view of faith, of following Jesus as having implications for both my spiritual, social and our political and corporate lives together. It was all intertwined. That’s just kind of the world I grew up in.
I went off to school, to college, eventually, and didn’t know what I wanted to do for sure. You know, I had worked on the campaign for Bobby Kennedy when he was running for Senate. When I say I worked, I mean I licked envelopes and put stuff in mailboxes, but you know, it was my way of participating. And [I did that] when he ran for president, as well. I really had a vision of entering politics, going to law school and entering politics, as one path of actually being able to do something that makes a positive difference.
It was while I was in college that I took a course. I was an economics major at the beginning, and then I took a course in the religious studies department called Prophetic Imagination.
Jen: Oh, great title.
Bishop Curry: Oh, it was incredible. I mean, I read people I had never heard of before: Christian writers, theologians, and other biblical scholars, as well. I mean, it was like my eyes started opening up, and I remember reading more specifically some of the works of Dr. King and actually reading, not just hearing him, but actually reading more of his work. I began to say, You know, it may be that ministry is an avenue for making a deeper impact and being able to actually reach body, mind, and spirit.
Anyway, that led to the journey that eventually led to me heading off to seminary and being ordained.
Jen: Yeah. I mean, and here you are, at the top of the pile, if you will.
Bishop Curry: I don’t know about that!
Jen: Can you believe it? I mean, what an incredible journey, a ministry you have had in a thousand ways and for a thousand reasons, but not the least of which is of course, you know, being the very first African-American to lead this denomination. I’m curious how that feels to you. What is the lived experience of occupying a space without precedence like that?
Bishop Curry: You know, there’s a part of me that [feels that] you kind of do your job day-to-day.
Bishop Curry: But there’s a part of me that’s very aware that God’s got something to do with this. I really know that. Just all sorts of little things happen that I know.
For example, I didn’t ask to preach at a Royal Wedding. I didn’t put it in my resume from the job. It was just kind of happenstance, and a variety of things that I had no control over, really. Even when I got there, I was very aware that this really wasn’t Michael—this was not about Michael Curry. I mean, I knew that, and I knew that I’d mess up if Michael got in the center. I knew that I had to say something about Jesus Christ and His gospel. If I wasted that, then woe unto me. I knew that.
And I know that about being Presiding Bishop. I know, you know what I mean? That kind of keeps you humble and keeps it real.
Jen: Sure does.
Bishop Curry: It really does. To take that space and to realize that God’s put you here for God’s purposes. And my job, like Dr. King actually said in his last speech that night before he was killed, he said, “I just want to do God’s will.”
Jen: That’s right.
Bishop Curry: You know, at the end of the day, Michael Curry is as sinful and as vain as everybody else. But at the end of the day, I just want to do God’s will.
Jen: That’s so great. Well, you’ve not squandered that responsibility.
Bishop Curry: Well, on the best days. There are other days.
Jen: Well, yes, same here. But I mean, wow, that was something to watch.
Listen, my listeners will just kill me if I don’t ask you this. We’re about to get into some other stuff, but I have to ask you what it felt like when the phone rings and someone says, “Hey, Bishop, we’re interested in you saying a few words in front of God, and Oprah, and also the Queen of England.” Like, that is a weird phone call! Were you just shell-shocked? I mean the Royal Wedding, for crying out loud!
Bishop Curry: To be honest, I didn’t believe it.
Jen: I bet you didn’t!
Bishop Curry: No, I didn’t believe it. I thought it was, I thought members of my staff were…
Jen: Were punk-ing you?
Bishop Curry: Just like an April fool’s joke. Yeah, exactly! Chuck Robertson, who is a member of the staff, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office reached out to him. I think I was on an airplane traveling somewhere, so I wasn’t reachable. They got Chuck and explained it to him. Once I landed, Chuck got ahold of me and I said, “Get out of here, Chuck. What is it you want? I mean, what do you really want?” I didn’t believe it.
Jen: Of course.
Bishop Curry: Once he convinced me—and this is sort of the funny part—once I realized this was for real, then I couldn’t tell anybody.
Bishop Curry: I couldn’t even tell my wife. We couldn’t tell anybody in our staff.
Jen: Oh, terrible.
Bishop Curry: We couldn’t tell anybody, because it was all embargoed because they were really trying to manage the media and how the news of various things went out.
Jen: You couldn’t tell your wife?
Bishop Curry: Nope.
Jen: Oh, my gosh!
Bishop Curry: It was about a month later when we were given permission to tell her. But it was funny, because I was supposed to be somewhere else that particular weekend, in the Dioceses of Arizona. We did have to ask, “Can we at least tell the Bishop of Arizona why I can’t come? He can’t tell anybody, but we’ve got to tell the guy something.” They did give us permission to tell him, but we had swear him to secrecy.
Jen: Yeah, and at that point, he’s got to give you a pass. I mean, that’s an easy out right there.
Bishop Curry: When I was in Arizona later to ordain their new bishop, I said, “Now I owe you guys.” They said, “We know.” So now I owe Arizona.
Jen: Oh my goodness. I mean, it was such a spectacular ceremony. And I’m not kidding when I tell you that I found it the most meaningful and the most magical because of you. We were not expecting it. You know? I mean, listen, you have to understand, I got up in the middle of the night, with my sister and my mom. We had on the fascinators, you know the little hats…
Bishop Curry: You actually had the fascinators on?
Jen: Oh, did I ever. We had them ordered weeks in advance.
Bishop Curry: Oh my gosh!
Jen: We watched it live. It was dark outside, in the middle of the night. When I tell you I was invested, I’m not even kidding.
Bishop Curry: You were serious.
Jen: Your sermon in the middle of it was so unexpected and so wonderful and so challenging and so delightful. We just couldn’t believe it. We just couldn’t believe it. We just kept looking at each other going, “Google him! Who’s Bishop Curry?!”
Bishop Curry: “Who is this??”
Jen: “Who is this person? We need him in our lives!” Were you nervous? You had to have been nervous, right?
Bishop Curry: Somewhat, but you know, the nice thing is I was sixty-five when I did that. After almost forty years of being ordained, I’ve done enough weddings…
Jen: That’s true, you have.
Bishop Curry: …that I’ve learned to preach to the couple.
Jen: Ahh, that’s great.
Bishop Curry: Preach to the couple. Focus on them, and you’re going to touch everybody else.
Jen: Oh, that’s so great. And you did.
Bishop Curry: Once I was doing it—of course I was nervous ahead of time—once I was preaching, they [became] another couple, like hundreds of couples that I’ve married over the years. I was talking to them.
Jen: That’s so great.
Bishop Curry: That helps.
Jen: It sure does.
Jen: I want to talk about this idea around the way of love, which was, of course, the phrase that you used in that wedding, and it was lightning for the rest of us. It resonated with tens of millions of us, and it felt like, and still feels like, your vision for the way of love has become its own movement with its own momentum. Can you talk a little bit more about it, the genesis of that idea as you begin wrapping language around the charge that you were going to present then. This is not a new concept for you, or for any of us, but I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about the way of love and how that formed.
Bishop Curry: Everything I said was basically what Jesus taught us.
Bishop Curry: It really was. The nice thing was I didn’t have to invent anything new.
Bishop Curry: And the reality is that at the heart of the life of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus, and the reality of Jesus as the living Lord today is love. You know, 1 John 4 is just such, I don’t think there’s any better theology anywhere else. It’s just that clear, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God and those who love are born of God and know God. Those who do not love do not know God because God is love.” Now love is not God, but God is love.
Jen: That’s good.
Bishop Curry: And that is the core. You know, that conversation between Jesus and the lawyer in Matthew 22 where it says what’s the greatest law and all of the teachings of Moses. For Jesus to reach back to the Shema in Deuteronomy 6 and to Leviticus and pull together love of God and love of neighbor and then to say, “On these two, hang all the law in the prophets.”
Bishop Curry: That is a stunning declaration. [Jesus] says everything that Moses taught, everything that the prophets thundered forth about, everything that is said or that is about God is about love. Love of God, love of neighbor. And I add—I’m not adding, I think Jesus meant it—love of self.
Bishop Curry: That’s the core. I mean, I would argue that Jesus was basically saying, “If you want the whole Bible, it’s trying to show us ways to love God and love each other.”
Bishop Curry: Even The Ten Commandments, if you think about it. You look at the Decalogue and Exodus 19 for example. The first set focused on our relationship with God, the last set focused on our relationship with each other. It’s the love of God, love of neighbor, that is the key. I mean, of course there’s a sentimental side to human love and romantic love, but love must move beyond being a sentiment to becoming a commitment—a commitment to seek the good and the welfare and the wellbeing of others as well as the self. That kind of love reflects the love of God.
Jen: That’s great.
Bishop Curry: That God so loved the world that He gave His only son. He didn’t take, He gave. That’s what love does.
Jen: That’s right. That’s good.
Bishop Curry: And Jen, that’s a game changer. That is a real game changer. It’s not easy, because sometimes some folks are hard to love.
Jen: That’s right.
Bishop Curry: And love doesn’t mean being a doormat, it has nothing to do with that. But it does mean seeking what is good, what is the greatest good possible in this relationship and in this context, and how do I make that happen? How do I become an instrument of that?
I was somewhere just this past weekend, and a soloist stood up and sang from the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Lord, make us instruments of your love.” I just believe that that is the hidden dynamite in our faith.
Jen: He was, and that sort of simple through line has changed my life, too, the way that we’ve structured and organized our life and the way that we operate in the world. I’d like to hear your take on this, because you’ve been pastoring for so many years. Why do you think—and I think there’s a lot of answers here—but you’re right, Jesus took it all and that’s how He distilled it for us. We have to know that that was on purpose, and that was real and true and good and right.
Why do you think we, as His followers, make faith a thousand times more complicated than that, than what Jesus handed to us? Why do we do that? Why do we take our rules and our laws so far beyond what Jesus told us to do? Which is—you just mentioned—love Him, love people, love ourselves.
Bishop Curry: Mm-hmm. Now that is a real question. I don’t know that I know fully the answer to that and, to be honest, Jen, I have some suspicions.
I think part of it spins out of a misunderstanding of love. It’s the same dilemma between faith and works. In the New Testament, there’s this constant struggle between faith and works. Are we justified and put right with God by faith, or are we put right with God by works? It’s really not either/or. You are put right with God by faith, but real faith leads to works.
Bishop Curry: You know, I mean, it’s not that much, but it’s that same tension, and you see it in the New Testament, for example, in the epistle of James where it says it’s not good enough to just say you have faith, but then you see somebody in need and you don’t respond to their need.
Bishop Curry: Faith by itself is dead, but faith that leads to works of love is life. It’s easy to live in either/or, it’s hard to live by both/ands.
Jen: That’s so true.
Bishop Curry: I think love forces us to sometimes live with both/ands. [I’ll] give you an example. I can love you—I must love you even when I disagree with you and even when you don’t love me back. You see?
Bishop Curry: That’s not either/or.
Jen: That’s right.
Bishop Curry: I mean, we’re in this together. That is hard.
Jen: It sure is.
Bishop Curry: And an easy way out is, “Well, if I just come up with some specific rules and don’t have anything as big as love, I can manage that better.”
Jen: That’s true.
Bishop Curry: “Or sometimes control it better.”
Jen: That’s true.
Bishop Curry: You see what I mean? Love is too demanding. It really is. The real deal is really too demanding. I think, at least I know with me, I tend to want to avoid that. I love to, I mean one of the things that I’ve learned in work of social justice, it is so easy to become self-righteous.
Bishop Curry: It is so easy. I mean, it just is.
Jen: It is.
Bishop Curry: That you become righteous for the cause and you try it, you want to do the good thing and the right thing and you believe you’re doing the right thing and therefore people who don’t agree with you are wrong. “I’m going to heaven and you’re going to hell.” No, it doesn’t work that way. Love says, “Okay, there may be a right thing. You may have some intimation of it, but you don’t have the whole of it.”
Jen: That’s good.
Bishop Curry: “And the people who disagree with you and have another perspective may know something you don’t.”
Jen: Yeah. Gosh.
Bishop Curry: “You might learn from them. And even if you don’t, you got to love them anyway.”
Bishop Curry: “Because they’re your sister, they’re your sibling, your brother.” Love is much bigger than being right. It’s about being love. Being love.
Jen: It’s so hard.
Bishop Curry: It’s hard.
Jen: It’s as you said, it’s the harder path, not the easier path. I think it gets a bad reputation, this posture of love as being soft or easy or avoiding hard things, when in fact I find it to be the opposite.
It’s interesting that you mentioned self-righteousness, because I see a lot kind of in my ministry and in my work that a lot of people step away from a church that they experienced as self-righteous in their childhoods or even in their adulthoods, for that matter. And then doing so—and I’m the first, I’m raising my hand as the most guilty—become self-righteous, just opposite, right?
Bishop Curry: Yes.
Jen: Just in a different space. But then, it’s this same sort of posture. I find the way of love really challenging, because it’s not really revered in the public square.
Bishop Curry: No.
Jen: People don’t like it, they don’t like when you find a way to stay connected or reach across lines or spaces. That in and of itself is a real draw for criticism.
So let me ask you this, what does love look like toward people who may be causing harm or trauma or toward those on the powerful side of an injustice? Especially if they are using faith as either a shield or a justification. How does love play there?
Bishop Curry: It’s interesting. If you look at Romans 12, I mean, I was reading it the other day. Romans 12 is the “Present your bodies as living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Then he goes into several verses down. He goes into this discourse on love. And then he concludes that discourse on love by then saying, “Now do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Paul is equating love as working the good. Now, if you stop and ask it, say if love is equal to the good, then what is the good in this situation?
Jen: That’s a great question.
Bishop Curry: You see, how do I accomplish or realize or help to realize what is the good in this situation or the greatest good that that can be attained? Because sometimes there’s no perfect good—on this side of Jordan. You’re going to get an approximation anyway, right? Our love is never what God’s love is. It’s an approximation of that.
Jen: That’s true.
Bishop Curry: What does love look like when you’re dealing with somebody who is mistreating you or abusing you?
Jen: Yes, or other people, or they’re using their faith to harm or traumatize or exclude a whole people group.
Bishop Curry: Finding the good in that situation is, How can I stop the hurt that’s being done and find a way to bring help and healing, if that’s possible?
Bishop Curry: Sometimes it’s not possible right away. So for example, loving doesn’t mean allowing somebody to abuse me.
Bishop Curry: Because if I really love me and love them, I can’t allow the abuse to continue.
Jen: That’s good.
Bishop Curry: But it doesn’t mean I have to heap more abuse on them. It means that I have to find a way to stop the abuse, to stop the harm, to protect myself or protect whoever’s being harmed, as well as seeing if it’s possible for them to get the help they need, as well as me to get them the help that I need. The point is, how can I bring the good—that which is healing and that which actually helps—into that situation?
Jen: That’s good.
Bishop Curry: It doesn’t mean letting bad behavior continue.
Jen: That’s great. That’s a great grid to think through, because love is just a word that is thrown about so casually, to some degree. In some way, it’s lost its meaning, its depth, its impact. And so that is a really wonderful way to think about bringing love to bear on any given situation, with any given person, or people group, and that’s a great filter for us to imagine what love looks like played out.
In your most optimistic moment, when you’re having a good day, when you’ve had enough coffee and when you have not been on Twitter.
Bishop Curry: That’s right, that’s right. Oh God, yes. No, Lord, help!
Jen: Please, please, please make it stop. How would you suggest that in practice at its highest level, how do you think love could change our culture right now? The world that we’re living in, specifically our American culture, it’s so disintegrated and fragmented and it’s fear based and it’s full of fury and anger and these binary ideas that as you mentioned really aren’t even true. I wonder how you see love as the antidote here.
Bishop Curry: Well, I can give you a good practical example.
Bishop Curry: One of the things that I think is going to be critical for the health of our democracy in the long run, not necessarily short—it may not fix things in the short run—but in the long run is I really do believe we have to have a revival of relationships…
Jen: That’s great. I do, too.
Bishop Curry: …in this country. I really do. I’ve begun to realize that to a great extent we don’t know each other.
There was an incident—this was a couple of years ago during the last presidential campaign in Fayetteville. I’m in Raleigh right now, but in Fayetteville, at one of President Trump’s rallies when he was running for, I think it was in the Republican primary season. There were some protestors who were protesting Trump. Then there were people who were supportive, pro-Trump in the rally.
Bishop Curry: The police came and escorted the protesters out. As they were escorting the protesters out, one of the Trump supporters literally jumped over the police and punched another guy in the face, one of the protesters, in the face. He was arrested, the guy who did the punching was arrested. At the time, he said something and it was carried in the Raleigh News & Observer. He said something like, “You know, we don’t know who this guy is. He could be a terrorist, for all we know.” That was quoted in the newspaper.
Well, a month later, or whenever he was sentenced, the guy he punched was there at the sentencing and after he had been sentenced, the guy who did the punching went over to the guy he punched and he said, and I’m paraphrasing, but this is pretty close. He said, “I’m sorry about what I did to you.”
Bishop Curry: He really did. He said, “I’m sorry about what I did to you.” And he said, “Our country’s in a real mess, and we’ve got to do something to heal our country.”
Jen: Wow, hmm.
Bishop Curry: Jen, we have to do something to heal our country.
Jen: I agree.
Bishop Curry: Part of the key of that is a revival. I mean, I just call this a revival of relationships between us. It so happened that the guy who punched the other guy was a white guy, the Trump supporter, and the other guy was black. You have racial divide, you have ideological divide, political divide, all that stuff going on. A country cannot continue. Abe Lincoln quoting Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” And it’s true.
Jen: It is.
Bishop Curry: And that’s not just a political situation that doesn’t feel just political views, solutions, relational solutions are the key. Unfortunately, one of the realities in our society is that we have been segregated and fragmented, not just along racial lines now, but along socioeconomic lines and along political lines. Remember reading that book The Big Sort a few years ago where they said, you know, people live in neighborhoods with people who pretty much agree with them? Republicans live in Republican neighborhood, Democrats live in a Democrat neighborhood, and you know, black and white. It’s ethnic, it’s racial, it’s political.
Jen: Yeah, totally.
Bishop Curry: Even on TV. Liberals watch MSNBC. Conservatives watch Fox. Folk in between watch CNN, I guess. But the point is, everybody picks and chooses on our playlist. I mean, I don’t buy entire albums anymore. I pick and choose the music that I want from different albums. That’s how we’re beginning to live our lives. It’s like we’re living playlist lives.
The truth is that kind of fragmentation, separation, that’s a kind of segregation. You cannot build a democracy on a segregated reality. A revival of relationships, I mean, when I’m preaching in various places, I tell folk, “You want to know what love looks like? Well, any Democrats in the house? You need to go and find and love on a Republican. Any Republicans in the house? You need to go find a Democrat and love on a Democrat. Any Independents? You can go either way. Go find somebody.”
Jen: It’s true.
Bishop Curry: And so this love thing is not a sentiment. This is a commitment that the democracy itself may well depend on.
Jen: I could not agree more. And that bears out, that counsel bears out, for me in my real life. There’s this one version of everything that I see that is online and through the pundits and on the news stations. It’s very wild and reckless and it’s polarized and it makes great use of dehumanization, really, from either side.
Then there’s another reality that I experience in my real life, ‘cause I’ve got in my own family of origin, we run the gamut of political ideologies.
Bishop Curry: Oh my gosh, yes.
Jen: And how we think the country should be run. We have different fiscal ideas. But in my own life, I see a much more, I see the fruit of loving one another. It creates some space for us to remain in dialogue.
Bishop Curry: Yeah!
Jen: And to remain in relationship, of course, and to honor one another’s humanity, even as we have different ideas inside of structures and systems.
I appreciate your counsel, and I don’t find that soft at all. I find it hard and necessary.
Bishop Curry: It’s hard, yes. And necessary.
Jen: But it’s going to have to be intentional. Right? Because to your point, we live in our silos on purpose. We live in our neighborhoods, we are in our churches that are incredibly siloed out, and they very much lack diversity. They’re incredibly homogenous. We’re going to have to do this on purpose, right? We can’t expect this just to happen.
Bishop Curry: Yes. Amen. E pluribus unum must become a decision. It will not happen by default. “From many, one people.” It won’t happen by default.
Jen: I agree, and you said a minute ago that this is a long term strategy. It’s not a quick fix. It can’t possibly be, we’re too broken, but it is a long game worth playing. We’ve got to hedge our bets on love and believe that it’s as powerful as Jesus told us it was, even when it’s going to be misunderstood in our communities. Right? Because our communities prefer that we stay siloed. That makes us feel right.
Jen: You mentioned earlier in our conversation how you had your comeuppance through activism and social justice, that you had a real front row seat to the civil rights movement. I would love to hear you talk more about that. Your journey through social justice as a kid and then a young adult and, of course, now as a faith leader. I’m curious about the changes that you have seen, having born such close witness and participation through the years, in terms of what you believe that people on the margins—and of course that is a lot of categories—what do they need from their allies and how have you seen those spaces develop and grow and change?
Bishop Curry: You know, it’s interesting. I was a child during the Civil Rights era. This would be the late fifties, sixties. But as it evolved, there was a period when it was clearly, deeply grounded in faith. I mean, [there’s] just no question about that. All of the talk of nonviolence, the talk of love, was at the center of it, that love is the mother of justice. Justice apart from love can quickly degenerate into revenge. Love was at the root of it. Then the movement evolved, and began to, I would almost say, secularize. As it secularized, it began to peter out.
Jen: Oh, interesting.
Bishop Curry: It lost its energy. I mean, those who were committed stayed committed, but it lost a lot of its energy and vitality. Now I think that’s a parable that those who are committed to the work of social justice and social change for the good, it needs to have a God base, or it will either one, peter out, or two, degenerate into self-righteousness, just another political party.
Jen: Wow. Interesting.
Bishop Curry: And so one of the learnings for me is we need God in this. And we need, I mean, I need Jesus. I really do. Because Michael Curry by himself is just not enough. Like that old Broadway play, “Your arms are too short to box with God.” You need God, you know? That’s one thing. The other thing that I’m aware of is that justice can’t be just for us.
Jen: That’s great.
Bishop Curry: True justice must be for all.
Bishop Curry: You know, we even say it in the pledge of allegiance. What is it? “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Notice that word, indivisible. Talk about a revolution, a revival of relationships.
Jen: Great point.
Bishop Curry: Yeah, it’s right there in our pledge.
Jen: There it is.
Bishop Curry: Actually, I’ve never said that publicly before. I hadn’t thought of it before. Thank you, Jen.
Bishop Curry: Yeah! A whole notion that justice must be for all, and not just for all who are Americans.
Jen: That’s great.
Bishop Curry: But for all human beings.
Jen: That’s right.
Bishop Curry: Our God is a just God. Amos: “Let justice roll down like righteousness and righteousness like an ever flowing brook.” I mean, that’s at the heart of the God who is love, is a just God and is compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast mercy. But He’s just.
Jen: That’s right.
Bishop Curry: He is just. He’s the standard of justice. Justice must be for all. Justice by itself, though, is not enough. Just as God, in God’s very being brings together justice and mercy, so must we.
Jen: Yes, that’s great.
Bishop Curry: So must we.
Jen: Well, it’s a high and holy calling, isn’t it?
Bishop Curry: Yes it is, and it is hard.
Jen: It sure is.
Bishop Curry: We live in a desire for either/ors.
Jen: I know it.
Bishop Curry: Sometimes there are either/ors, but not most of the time. I mean, I used to say when I was young that I could see black and white. And now that I’m getting old I see a lot of gray.
Jen: Oh, right. I say the same thing. The older I get, the less I know.
Bishop Curry: That’s right.
Jen: I know less every year.
Bishop Curry: It’s true. Most of life is lived with gray. Most of the tough decisions, I mean, they’re easy everyday decisions, but there’s a lot of gray. You know, even as a bishop, in a position that I hold, there are a lot of times when I have to eventually make decisions or help the church make decisions where there are no clear winners and there are no clear losers.
Jen: Oh wow.
Bishop Curry: Where it’s not black and white. Where it’s shades of gray and [we have to decide] what is the best we can do in tough circumstances or situations? What’s the best we can do?
I mean, there are times that the church has hurt people, and there are times when the church has to own up that we’ve hurt people, and that’s not the way of Jesus. We have to face up to that. And how do we face up to that? There’s no solution, but you can do as much healing as you can. Do as much good as you can. You know, who was it, John Wesley? That famous Wesley saying, “Do all the good you can in every way you can.”
Jen: That’s right.
Bishop Curry: You can’t do all of it, but you can do all the good that you can.
Jen: That’s great.
Bishop Curry: That’s why we resort, I suspect, because that’s so difficult to do sometimes it’s easier to resort to simplistic rules.
Jen: Yes, it is. It is. And to your point, it’s also easier to just toe the line instead of lean into humility and repentance when we have been wrong. I see a church craving that from its leaders right now, just craving that sense of humility to be able to say, “We got this wrong and it caused harm and it caused pain and we wish we could go back and change it. We cannot do that. From here, we ask your forgiveness and we’re committed to do better.”
Bishop Curry: Yes. Yes.
Jen: My eyes are always looking for those leaders. Where are they in the world? I’d love to see what an openhanded leadership structure would look like to say, “We are literally in this for the love of God and people, and that is it. When we’ve missed that mark, may we be gentle and merciful and humble enough to say it, and turn from it, and restructure or reevaluate our practices.”
I find that we’re hungry for that, and that brings me to my next question for you. I know that you speak often to students and young adults and young people of faith. And so it’s no mystery that the church in general—the large church, all of it—is struggling to retain the loyalty and the spiritual imagination of the next generation. I mean, every single marker trends downward here. I’m curious to that end, as we look toward the next generation, what is something that’s giving you hope inside the Episcopalian Church right now as we seek to pass the baton to the young people?
Bishop Curry: Well, I tell you, and I think one of the dilemmas, one way to say it is—and this is to borrow from the old preachers who used to say, “Sometimes we spend so much time majoring in minors and minoring in the majors that we miss the mark.”
Bishop Curry: My sense is that culturally,in American culture right now, as Bishop Vashti McKenzie at the AME church says, “We have often spent more time with churchianity than Christianity.”
Jen: That’s a great term.
Bishop Curry: I think there’s not as much interest—and I think rightly so—in “churchianity.”
Jen: That’s right.
Bishop Curry: I think Jesus is of much more interest.
Jen: I do, too.
Bishop Curry: His teachings are much more interesting. The teachings of His life hold much more interest. The reality of who He is and can be for us now hold much more interest. I would submit that when the church majors in the major, the main thing, there will be interest again.
Jen: That’s great.
Bishop Curry: When biblical scholars look at the early origins of Christianity, they taught in the work of Jesus, when Jesus of Nazareth was on earth. They refer to it as “a Jesus movement.” I want to suggest that the church will find its life again, anew in new ways for old and new generations, when we stop living as primarily institutional church and begin to exist as a Jesus movement. Where Jesus of Nazareth is at the center of our life and we try to live a life together that looks something like His life.
As we do that, I can assure you. I think that movement, that Jesus movement, that’s what Jesus was talking about in Matthew’s gospel. Was it Matthew 16 where he said, “The gates of hell will not prevail against that?” The institution will come and go, but that Jesus movement, even Pilate couldn’t stop that.
Jen: Oh, right.
Bishop Curry: Even Pilate couldn’t stop that. The Roman Empire couldn’t stop that. I think when we stop majoring in minors and major in the majors, the real thing, or better yet major in the Messiah, then I think that message of Jesus, that reality of Jesus will apply to any and all generations.
Jen: I couldn’t agree more, and it’s so contagious. It’s so inviting because it informs real life. A community built around the teachings of Jesus and following in His footsteps, it looks some kind of way.
Bishop Curry: Yes, it does.
Jen: I mean, it is radical and it is inclusive, and it is wild with holy fire and mercy, and it changes structures and it challenges systems. I mean, it has real world repercussions for how that community is living. That can’t be denied. If the church—I mean this as nicely as I possibly can—it’s structure, the institution of it, was my only fuel, the fire would have burned out a long time ago, to be honest with you.
Bishop Curry: Oh, yes.
Jen: Jesus, I can’t get away from that guy. You know? I mean, He’s too wonderful and too thrilling and the exact kind of leader that I’m always craving. I mean, that’s it, that keeps me in, that keeps me in this thing.
Bishop Curry: Yes, I hear you.
Jen: Let me ask you one last question before we wrap it up.
Bishop Curry: Sure.
Jen: I would love to hear what has you spiritually curious right now. Is there something inside of scripture or inside of faith or inside of the church that’s capturing your imagination or your attention? Because it’s interesting, true and sincere faith and scripture has this way of constantly renewing itself, even in our own lives. Even when this is our work, our livelihood, it still manages to be new. Like year after year, there’s something fresh for me, something new. I’m just curious like what’s going around in your head that you find like spiritually fascinating?
Bishop Curry: You know, it’s funny you asked that. It’s amazing. I was literally in a conversation with somebody else over the weekend about this. I said, “You know what is really striking that I’m wrestling with? There’s a passage in Hebrews, in chapter 12 in Hebrews, which follows chapter 11. That’s the one that says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And then chapter 11 goes through people of faith in the Hebrew scriptures who trusted God on faith. Not by sight, but by faith.
It goes through everybody from Moses, Abraham and Sarah, and on and on and on. Then chapter 12 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was before Him, endured the cross, despised the shame, and now sits at the right hand of the throne of God.” I’ve been wrestling with, What does it mean to live a life looking at Jesus?
Jen: Oh, I like that question.
Bishop Curry: I mean, I’ve been paying attention to that passage. I’ve known that passage for a while, but for some reason, that looking at Jesus, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith. Pioneer has gone on ahead of us.
Jen: That’s true.
Bishop Curry: You know? I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, I’m not sure what it is, but for some reason that is speaking to me and it’s beckoning me.
This may sound strange, but when I was a kid, I remember my grandmother used to love to watch religious movies and stuff. My daddy was an Episcopal priest, but my grandma was a dyed in the wool, rock red East Carolina Baptist.
Jen: Okay, got it.
Bishop Curry: Oh yeah, grandma’s always whispering in one ear and daddy’s whispering in the other.
Bishop Curry: But I remember she used to always, around Easter, you know, Holy week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, they used to have on TV, they would play all the religious [movies]. The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Ten Commandments, The Robe, all these religious movies would be on TV. I don’t think they do that anymore, but they used to be on TV, and Grandma would always watch them.
One of her favorites was The Robe. It’s an old, it’s from the fifties, and it’s a fictional thing based on a book about the soldier who took the robe of Jesus when they crucified Him, and they were gambling. That part is in the Bible about them gambling for the robe that Jesus was wearing when He got crucified. But then, there was a fictional story that was made up of the Roman soldier who took the robe, he eventually became a Christian. I mean, he eventually gave his life to this Jesus who he participated in executing. And as a result, he frees his slave. He tries to say, he’s a loyal soldier in the Roman Army, but he won’t do what’s wrong. At the end of the movie, he’s so infuriated by the Caesar of Rome that he refuses to submit to what is hurtful and wrong.
Jen: Oh yeah, sure.
Bishop Curry: But at the end, he and the woman that he loves, they are willing to give up their lives for this Jesus. They walk off, and basically you have to imagine that they walk off eventually to their deaths. They followed Jesus into glory.
I wonder if looking to Jesus looks like being willing to follow Him, His way of love, no matter what the cost.
Jen: That’s good.
Bishop Curry: I don’t know that I do that, but I want to.
Jen: That’s great. That’s beautiful.
Jen: Okay, your time is so precious. I’m going to ask two quick questions. This is just off the top of your head stuff. I’m asking all the amazing faith leaders in this series these questions.
Here’s just the first one, and you probably just have to pick one. It’d be hard to pick.
Bishop Curry: This is like David Letterman? Number nine?
Jen: Yes, exactly. Just whatever comes to mind. Here’s the first one: Who’s one of your biggest mentors in faith?
Bishop Curry: You know who is probably the biggest one? My grandma.
Jen: Oh, your grandma!
Bishop Curry: I mean, she’s gone on to glory now, but in terms of the depth of her what we would call spirituality, she was [was amazing]. I mean, my grandmother buried a couple of her own children. She sent two sons off to war. They both came home, but she didn’t know whether they would, this is during the second World War, but they both lived.
Then she buried her husband, then she buried my mother when I was a kid. And she turned around and moved in with us and helped to raise us.
Jen: Did she?
Bishop Curry: And did that in her seventies. The woman was a sharecropper’s daughter. She did domestic work during her adult life and put her own kids through college.
Jen: Wow, a hero!
Bishop Curry: I look at this woman and say, “My God, she did that?” I mean, I haven’t even remotely attained [what she had]. But I ask myself, How did Nellie Strayhorn do that? Nellie Strayhorn was in Messiah Baptist Church every Sunday, she sat in her pew—and it was her pew. Sat in her pew—you know how folk are about that pew.
Jen: I sure do.
Bishop Curry: Let me tell you, when the preacher got to preaching and the choir got to singing, something—whatever her life was like—something lifted her up above all the mess that is sometimes life. And she saw a vision, a transcendent vision of something greater than this world. That gave her the energy and the vitality to live in spite of what life sometimes throws at you.
She figured out some of the secrets of life. It’s kind of like where is it, Philippians? “I know how to be abased and I know how to abide. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Nellie Strayhorn figured that out, and I figure she’s the best mentor I could get.
Jen: I am so happy you just told that story. I’m so glad to know about her life and to draw some strength from her faith and courage and resilience. That’s it, right? That’s it. That’s the thing. That’s what we’re doing here. Oh, thank you for telling her story. That’s fantastic.
Here’s the very last question, and I ask everybody–every single guest this. This is the last question. This is from another Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor.
Bishop Curry: Oh yeah, great preacher. Great preacher.
Jen: Who I love and has been such just such a mentor to so many of us. Anyway, she asked this question and I love it, and you can answer it however you want. This can be incredibly important or not at all. What is saving your life right now?
Bishop Curry: Coming home.
Jen: Oh, nice.
Bishop Curry: Coming home. It just makes all the difference in the world to go and then come home. I mean, I’m on the road a lot. And I love what I do and I’m blessed to be able to do it, but ain’t nothing like coming home when I fly into Raleigh. Depending on the approach, I can see the silo from the Angus Barn.
Jen: Amen. Amen.
Bishop Curry: When I see that silo, I know I’m home.
Jen: Oh, that’s so great. I love that answer.
Bishop, I want to thank you so much for your time today and your wisdom, for teaching us and leading us today with such candor and faithfulness. Your witness has meant so much to me, and I’ve learned from you and I really appreciate your voice in this world right now. I’m so grateful for your leadership and I am just thrilled about it and I cannot possibly cheer you on more.
For decades now of being a faithful person of Jesus, we’re grateful. Thanks for coming on. You know, look, I’m in Raleigh quite a bit, so I’m just telling you…
Bishop Curry: Are you really?
Jen: …you don’t know when I might just knock on your door. Don’t put it past me.
Bishop Curry: You let me know when you’re here. I’ll pay for a meal.
Jen: Okay. Okay.
Bishop Curry: Jen, you are the best. God bless you in this ministry, you’re incredible.
Jen: Thank you. You, too.
Well, are you in love? Are you in love? I am. I am. How wonderful. I can’t remember if I mentioned this earlier, but I actually got to talk to Bishop Curry for the first time when he invited me on his podcast just a few weeks ago. I think I maybe did mention it, and I was so nervous, like I was so nervous to speak to him for the first time that I just had to do meditation. Of course, he is the kindest, most generous, approachable, wonderful pastor and preacher. I had nothing to be nervous about. But I’ll see if I can find the link to his podcast. I’ll put it over at jenhatmaker.com—which, by the way, is where we will have this entire interview. The transcript is over there. If you want to read it, we’ll have links to all of Bishop Curry’s sites and social media handles. He’s really great to follow.
I think I told you as soon as he performed the Royal Wedding, I followed him everywhere that very second, on my phone, because he was so spectacular. I hope you are using the podcast page over at Jenhatmaker.com, it’s an amazing resource for you. If you haven’t already done it, guys, go subscribe to the podcast. Wherever you listen to it, it’ll show up for you every single week. You won’t have to work for it at all.
Thanks for listening. Thank you for being here. See you next week.