White Humility Matters

In recent years I’ve made no secret of my interest in the conversation about the way folks of different colors view and relate to one another. I’m particularly concerned with how this is going in the Church and with what Jesus and his Good News have to say about our pain, our sins, and our hope for healing and growth in these areas.

My personal history here is without a doubt a mixed bag — part typical white guy and part kid permanently rattled in fifth grade when C.L. Armstrong told me about Martin Luther King and why he mattered to black people. And a lot of other parts generally fitting one of those two categories.

But the gist of my more contemporary engagement has been the realization of how little my life and surroundings have changed, despite my sincere decades-long concern for racial reconciliation. In that awakening I began to hear the Lord ask me — yes I’m one of those; no, it was not an audible voice — if this was all about passive enlightenment for me (something I do quite well) or if I was going to be intentional about altering my life and relationships. In response to that, I decided I can’t get to the end of my days and find I never changed this part of my life. So far that has mostly meant seeking new voices and friends and just sitting, listening, and learning. I still give myself a C-minus in actually doing what I want to be doing, but I’m determined. 

Though both my life and my learning are works in progress, I have taken hold of one clear conviction which has led me to make one specific request of others who look and generally believe like me. The conviction: Humility is always the right posture for me in this conversation. The request: Just be willing to listen and learn before you speak. I’ve made my case for that in a few ways, perhaps most clearly in a sermon I preached last January on the words of Jesus about peacemakers.

My prompt for writing today is to give attention to and commend what I believe to be a helpful model for this kind of listening and learning. Andrew Peterson, a singer/songwriter I’ve long admired who is also now a friend, last week released a video for the song “Is He Worthy?” from his upcoming album, Resurrection Letters, Volume 1. You can watch the video here:


Soon after the video released, some observed that all the faces in the church are white, an unintentional but noticeable visual juxtaposition with these lyrics:

From every people and tribe
Every nation and tongue
He has made us a kingdom

I wasn’t in this corner of the internet when the video released, and I did not observe any of the reaction until Andrew wrote about it today. Here are some of his words (I’ll link to his full piece at the end):

If I could go back in time I would tell the Andrew of a month ago, “Don’t assume. Make sure that this video is a true reflection of the Kingdom. Make sure it paints a glorious picture of the promise in Revelation that every people, tribe, nation, and tongue will sing (indeed, already sing) of the worthiness of Christ, the Lamb who was slain to free the captives. Think about the subtext, about what this video will say, wordlessly, to your friends of all colors.”
– – – – – –
So, as a white American singer/songwriter whose only hope is Jesus, I’m asking forgiveness of the friends and listeners to whom this video brought any measure of grief. I’m also asking the good people who have come to my defense to refrain from using social media to do so. Be silent long enough to really listen. And then, if the Spirit leads, engage with love and patience and humility. As I said, the only way to learn something is to screw up. What was only a small voice in my head a few weeks ago will, I assure you, be a loud, clear voice of wisdom in the future. I’m sure I’m going to make a mountain of mistakes in the days to come, but, Lord willing, this won’t be one of them.

When I aim to be humble, and when I ask fellow white Christians to assume a listening posture when these conversations arise, this is the kind of thing I have in mind. I am convinced the cross compels us to believe we have nothing to lose and everything to gain in selflessly placing the experience of others above our own but the cross itself to lose in dismissing others for the sake of self-preservation and self-defense.

Andrew has a lot at stake here. This song is part of a decade-long gathering of creative and spiritual energy, and the video has to feel like part of his soul’s work coming to life. I can imagine that releasing it into the world and quickly receiving negative feedback is awfully painful. I’m not suggesting it’s equal to or greater than anyone else’s pain. I just know Andrew well enough to understand that he cares about his work pointing to the reconciling mission of Jesus, so the realization that it did something else for someone couldn’t have been fun for him.

And because I know his intentions were good, I know how easy it would have been to respond with self-defense or to try to excuse the situation with explanation.

It would have been completely natural to just say, “Of course I didn’t mean to be hurtful. Could everyone just cut me a break here?” After all, he certainly didn’t intend to be hurtful.

It would have been simple to insist, “Let’s all just focus on the point of the song and video — Jesus — and not get distracted by silly little arguments.” And focusing on Jesus is, of course, important. 

But the way of the cross is:

Deny yourself

and

If your brother has something against you

and

Don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought

and

In humility value others above yourselves

and

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.

This is not about shame or guilt, white- or otherwise. It is not about political correctness or safe spaces or anything of the sort. It’s about coming to terms with how we obey the directive to think like Jesus.

He was always right, but he didn’t cling to that. He instead gave up his privileges and served those of us who are often wrong.

He was God, but he didn’t stay separate from us or above us. He instead put himself in our skin, saw the world through our eyes, and suffered the pain we created.

Do that, the Bible says as clearly as it says anything. Do it for the people you don’t understand, don’t like, and don’t think are right. Do it and discover that real victory comes from selfless sacrifice, not superior arguments or standing your ground or trying to force God back into spaces he never left.

So when brothers and sisters say to us: “This part of what you do and how the world works is hurtful to me and to my children,” or ask us “How natural is it for you to think about how your words or work or life impact me and people who look like me?” our response ought to be to listen and consider how we might value and serve them rather than to leap to a posture of self defense or bemoan the demands to be fully inclusive all the time.

For the record, in my experience, the people I talk to aren’t asking for total inclusivity all the time. They’re asking me, as a person, to consider them, as a person, in the way I think, talk, and live. That request ought to be easy for me to honor because Jesus called me to that way of life long before any person of color ever asked it of me.

But of course it is not always easy for me. I don’t hold any high ground here. This requires death to self and to long-held points of view and to comfort and convenience, and I still resist all of that at every turn. But I’m convinced it’s the way of Jesus, and the promise is that it’s the death before the resurrection — the way to the life that is really life.

One last word: Sometimes in these moments we go a step too far in making heroes out of people for just doing the right thing and owning a mistake. That’s not my desire. Andrew is admitting an error that matters, and I’m sure part of him would rather no further attention be drawn to it. But I think his confession is one many of us need to join, acknowledging that we still aren’t as inclined as we should be to pause and consider how our words or lives impact people who aren’t like us. We don’t mean any harm, but we also don’t “value others above [ourselves]” in areas where doing so is completely reasonable and attainable.

So this isn’t about heroism; it’s just about seeing signs of the way forward and acknowledging them. This strikes me as such a sign.

There is longer, harder, deeper work to be done, but it will only be possible if there are beams of simple, sturdy humility to hold it up. Let’s build.

Andrew’s response in its entirety: Waking Up to “Is He Worthy?”: An Apology

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Call Me By Your Name: Even without Spacey and Weinstein, Hollywood is still impressively tone deaf to #MeToo

Over time, my feelings for the movies — or for film, when I’m feeling pretentious — have morphed from common enjoyment to personal sanity hobby to deep appreciation for filmmaking as an art. I am still an amateur movie-watcher in every respect, but my perspective on movies and the ways I engage with them have evolved significantly. I pay attention to and appreciate smaller details and very specific elements of filmmaking that I never noticed at all in the past. I think about the intentions of the writers and directors and actors and can find value in their work even when I don’t particularly enjoy it or share their point of view. I’m even doing some research for a story a friend and I hope will eventually become a script, so I’m now watching movies with a deeper appetite for learning and understanding than ever before.

The most important part of that information for the sake of this piece is this: I see a lot of movies, including movies I’m confident I won’t like very much. So in recent years I’ve made a point of catching a greater number of Academy Award nominated films. My skepticism of these awards runs deep, but I’m interested in what kind of work the people who are making our movies value and celebrate. If nothing else, the Oscar-nominated films give some rough estimate of that.

On Tuesday, this year’s nominees were announced, and as I always do, I began to make a mental note of which nominated films I haven’t seen, particularly in the major categories. There were only two Best Picture nominees – The Shape of Water and Call Me By Your Name – that I hadn’t seen. I had already decided to pass on Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water because it’s a fantasy love story about a woman and a sea monster and, well, no thanks. I don’t see everything.

I knew almost nothing about Call Me By Your Name, but it also received nominations for Best Actor (Timothée Chalamet) and Best Adapted Screenplay (James Ivory). As a writer I have a particular interest in the screenplay categories, so I skipped around the internet and read a summary, a review, and excerpts from several other reviews. Here’s what I assume is the studio’s summary:

It’s the summer of 1983, and precocious 17-year-old Elio Perlman is spending the days with his family at their 17th-century villa in Lombardy, Italy. He soon meets Oliver, a handsome doctoral student who’s working as an intern for Elio’s father. Amid the sun-drenched splendor of their surroundings, Elio and Oliver discover the heady beauty of awakening desire over the course of a summer that will alter their lives forever.

The reviews I skimmed revealed that Oliver is 24, which caught my attention because, you know, it’s 2018. And:

metoo

Despite my deepening appreciation for out-of-the-box films, this is one I normally wouldn’t see. I still make decisions about how I spend my time and money, and art romance films just don’t check many boxes for me. But I kept thinking about this one, bothered by the possibility that Hollywood might be shamelessly celebrating the kind of story this seemed to be even while the crescendo of outrage over sexual harassment and abuse is still building. So today I went to find out for myself.

Frankly, it’s as bad as I feared it might be. A 24 year-old man begins and carries on a sexual affair with a 17 year-old boy. And that’s the story.

Before I address the obvious, let me add: This is not a deeply textured love story. The affair is characterized mostly by sexual desire, briefly repressed, then turned loose with no looking back. Age aside, to characterize it as a love story is to accept a relatively low definition of love, where sex takes the lead, emotional intimacy is secondary (at best), and concern for the best interests of the other is acknowledged only to be bulldozed by lust. The attempt to persuade the viewer of a deeper connection or care between the two is feeble and disingenuous. We’re never given any true reason to believe that the older Oliver’s attraction to the teenaged Elio runs deeper than sexual attraction. Indeed, Oliver ultimately confesses to Elio that he first attempted to make his interest known when he put his hands on Elio just a day or two after they met.

Let’s deal with the facts first. Though both Oliver and Elio are Americans, the movie takes place in Italy where the age of consent is 14. In much of the U.S., the age of consent is 16 or 17. In a number of states, including New York, Florida, and (ahem) California, the age of consent is 18.

So technically speaking, the relationship depicted in the movie isn’t illegal. But it’s a movie about a 24 year-old man in a sexual relationship with a boy who still has a year of high school left. It’s a movie about a sexual relationship that would be illegal in Hollywood.

I won’t belabor the details, but Oliver plans and initiates the first true sexual encounter between the two. Both before and after that event, Oliver engages in several weird psychological and sexual tests that anyone even a little familiar with predatory behavior would identify as manipulation and grooming. The two have sex multiple times before Oliver leaves Elio to sort out the aftermath of his affair with a grown man, a thing I suppose we’re meant to see as a normal way for Elio to spend his senior year of high school.

I also can’t shake a subplot in which Elio deals with his mounting sexual interest in Oliver by having sex (at least twice) with a teenaged girl who clearly cares for him and thinks her love is reciprocated. Once his relationship with Oliver turns physical, he ignores the girl completely since he no longer needs her body as an outlet for his pent up sexual energy. When she confronts him and asks, “I’m not your girl?” he simply shrugs. She leaves on her bicycle, devastated. This storyline finds “resolution” at the end of the movie when the girl, for no particular reason at all, tells Elio, “I’m not angry at you. Not at all. I love you.” And then asks, “We can be friends?”

So, to summarize: A 24 year-old man grooms and teases a 17 year-old boy. The 17 year-old boy uses a girl as an outlet for his sexual frustration until the 24 year-old man finally has sex with him, at which point he ghosts the girl. The consequence for the 17 year-old is a “no big deal, I’m not mad at you, let’s be friends” response from the girl whose body he used without any apparent remorse. The consequence for the grown man is a free pass on any emotional aftermath and a return to America and his heterosexual relationship. Cue three major-category Oscar nominations.

Frankly, I don’t care that the relationship depicted is legal in Italy or in Texas, and neither should anyone else. It’s creepy as hell to watch, not because it’s a relationship between two males, but because it’s painfully tone deaf in a moment when the culture in general and Hollywood in particular is facing such a messy reckoning over the willingness to blur sexual boundaries and overlook sexual power dynamics. How can everyone from the production house to the cast and crew to a long line of critics fail to see or refuse to acknowledge what a bad time it is to romanticize sex between an older, powerful man and a teenager — sex that would be prosecutable in Hollywood, Manhattan, or Miami?

Think I’m being dramatic? Ask yourself how the folks heaping praise on this movie will respond if tomorrow’s headline reads: “Kevin Spacey defends relationship with high school boyfriend, 17.”

See?

I’ve paid close attention over the last several months as the downfall of Harvey Weinstein cascaded into a courageous movement of women—and some men—who have suffered and survived the painful wounds of sexual abuse and manipulation. I’m grateful for the unearthing of buried secrets as some of our crueler demons have been named and brought low. This is progress.

But we have a long way to go, and the collective cheers for Call Me By Your Name are a frustrating reminder that an unprincipled morality and selective outrage will not get us where we need to go. As long as we celebrate stories about grown-ups sexually “educating” teenagers as “coming of age love stories” and wink at depictions of teen boys using teen girls as “authentic tales of sexual awakening,” we are enabling a sexual ambiguity that empowers predatory behavior and shrugs at the real emotional and spiritual damage both kinds of stories produce.

But, you know, who wants to see that movie?

 

Let the ancient prophets speak: Frederick Douglass

The history of my faith, by which I mean both the people of my faith and my personal faith, is to readily see the errors of the history of my faith while insisting we have moved beyond those most egregious evils.

This is a centuries-old habit of self soothing. We recognize the wayward ignorance of our ancestors and venerate the prophets they rejected while doing exactly as they did: We resist suggestions of defects in our cherished ways, defend the infallibility of our certainties, and scoff at living prophets who name our faults.

But if our finely tuned capacity to dismiss and discredit our contemporary critics numbs us to their corrections, the prophets of old still see, still speak.

The ones who decades and centuries ago saw and named this repeating cycle of soul-destroying religion,

this refusal of even the possibility of systemic sins,

this resistance to the disruption of treasured “institutions,”

and all of this under the cover of false unity and so-called standing up for God and country,

those prophets whom we celebrate now that they are safely dead and unable to see us as we are,

still they see us, still they speak to us.

Frederick Douglass in a speech at Finsbury Chapel, May 12, 1846:

But you will ask me, can these things be possible in a land of professing Christianity? Yes, they are so; and this is not the worst.

I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is the great supporter, the great sanctioner of the bloody atrocities to which I have referred. While America is printing tracts and bibles; sending missionaries abroad to convert the heathen; expending her money in various ways for the promotion of the gospel in foreign landsthe slave not only lies forgotten, uncared for, but is trampled underfoot by the very churches of the land.

What have we in America? Why, we have slavery made part of the religion of the land. Yes, the pulpit there stands up as the great defender of this cursed “institution,” as it is called. Ministers of religion come forward and torture the hallowed pages of inspired wisdom to sanction the bloody deed.

I have found it difficult to speak on this matter without persons coming forward and saying, “Douglass, are you not afraid of injuring the cause of Christ? You do not desire to do so, we know; but are you not undermining religion?” This has been said to me again and again…but I cannot be induced to leave off these exposures. I love the religion of our blessed Savior. … It is because I love this religion that I hate the slaveholding, the woman-whipping, the mind-darkening, the soul-destroying religion that exists in the southern states of America.

WAR AND CONFLICT BOOK
ERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND: SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISM

Blessed are the people from $*ithole countries

Eight years ago today a devastating earthquake split Haiti open, a disaster whose impact blew my mind when I saw it a full 16 months later. My words below were shaped by my trips to Haiti, by the strong people I’ve met there, and by my friends who live among and for the Haitian people. And by the words of Jesus.

H2

In recent months I’ve commented on only the silliest Trump moments, unwilling to be baited into the muck. But I know and love too many people in and from Haiti and Africa to just roll my eyes today. The spirit in the words spoken by the President about these people is an anti-Christ spirit. This is not surprising. It’s the same spirit that inhabits many of his words and actions over many years.

I’m not easily offended by bad words or frank talk about third world countries. I’m just sure of this: It’s not the spirit of Jesus who grows angry when people around him are concerned about caring for people from “$*ithole countries.”

It’s not.

My feelings aren’t hurt. This is just Sunday School 101. The spirit that births anger at compassion for people from lands scarred by poverty and war and exploitation and disease – the spirit that curses the presence of the vulnerable and the unclean is another spirit, and it’s one that opposes Christ.

There is no left-wing conspiracy here. I’ve not been hoodwinked by fake news. I’m a conservative-by-the-standards-of-the-world Christian pastor who simply believes Jesus when he tells us that Donald Trump’s mouth speaks the overflow of his heart. If I’m judging, I’m judging as Jesus told me to judge. I’m judging the plain fruit, not anyone’s interpretation of it.

I’m not seeking converts to my opinion, and I’m not shaming anyone for their vote. I am, however, indifferent to the ongoing protests that there is some truth other than the one that is in plain sight. And what an age of absurdity we live in that it feels odd to comment on what’s in plain sight because it so often seems like trying to apply reason to insanity.

So tonight I’m just voicing my small resistance to the insanity, if only to remind myself that sanity still exists. And to say out loud that the people from $*ithole countries are my people. And more importantly, they’re God’s people.

Bondye wè. Bondye tande. Bondye Bon.

H1 H3 

Buechner on X-mas and “your own business”

X is the Greek letter chi, which is the first letter of the word Christ. Thus Xmas is shorthand for Christmas, taking only about one-sixth as long to write. If you do your cards by hand, it is possible to save as much as seventy-five or eighty minutes a year.

It is tempting to say that what you do with this time that you save is your own business. Briefly stated, however, the Christian position is that there’s no such thing as your own business.

-Frederick Buechner
from Wishful Thinking

Romans 13: You keep using that text. I do not think it means what you think it means.

“Respect Authority. Romans 13.”

This has to stop. As a blanket, dismissive response to any and all protest or critique of government, king, and country, it has to stop. When you pull that reference out of context and use it to label as sinful anyone who doesn’t bow to a given authority or symbol of authority, you do violence to the text and to God’s people.

If you disagree and insist on holding to that generalized understanding and use of Romans 13, consider and be prepared to reconcile it with the following:

  • Paul himself, the author of those words, resisted government authorities and defied Roman and religious laws often enough that he wrote words that you probably have on your mirror or desk or bumper sticker or living room wall from prison. You don’t author four books of the New Testament behind bars if the intention of seven verses you wrote to folks in Rome was to require unqualified yielding to all laws and customs of king and country.

  • Jesus violated the patriotic, legal, and religious norms of his day so frequently that he was rejected and despised and, well, killed for it. You can’t strip Jesus down to a spiritual fairy tale and remove him from the legal and patriotic context in which he lived. He was a real man angering real people by not following their customs – customs which existed primarily to show respect and submission to human authority.

  • Exactly no one I know when having this conversation has ultimately held to this position: “Yes, I believe we should always respect and submit to and obey ruling authorities no matter what they do to, ask from, or demand of us.” There is a line of conscience and injustice for all of us; the appropriate drawing of that line is a matter of reasonable debate, but this haphazard invoking of Romans 13 suggests that any such line is sinfully rebellious. I don’t think most who use it that way actually believe that, and I don’t believe such a claim holds up to the weight of the Bible as a whole.

  • This broad application of Romans 13 has been one of the primary weapons against the growth of self-determining government (democracy) for centuries, because such a reading of Scripture easily dismisses even non-violent resistance of human authority (read: voting against an incumbent power) as rebellion against God.

  • We all look around at various ruling authorities in the world every day and hope and pray good people can resist them and free themselves from such oppression. We thank God for and sing hymns about successful revolutions.

  • The flag at the center of our current controversy and the government for which it stands came to be because a group of people decided to no longer be subject to their ruling authorities. We now call them our Founding Fathers. The original American heroes. Celebrating their decision and its successful implementation by means of war is the center of all American patriotism. That it happened a long time ago makes it no less subject to Romans 13. Now we turn around and accuse people who do not appropriately honor on our terms that authority-rejecting revolution and the nation it birthed of not respecting and and being subject to God-appointed authorities. This is a blatant inconsistency.

King George

After the Declaration of Independence was read in New York City for the first time, a crowd of budding Americans headed for the statue of King George in Manhattan. They pulled it down and later melted it into 42,088 musket balls to shoot at British authorities.

  • The flag at the center of our current controversy and the government for which it stands actively defies this universal application of Romans 13 and has done so for well over 100 years. Right or wrong, regime change is central to U.S. foreign policy, and the heart of our approach to regime change is encouraging, funding, and arming local peoples to resist, oppose, and overpower their governing authorities. We’ve done it on every continent but Antarctica and Australia. Recently. To assume Paul’s words uniquely apply to U.S. citizens but not others is not only ethnocentric, it is a terribly poor interpretation of Scripture.

  • Because of that last fact, demanding that people submit and show respect to that flag and the government for which it stands in uniform ways that you approve of actually demands they show allegiance to an entity actively defying the very principle that compels you to demand their allegiance in the first place. (I know, writing that makes my head hurt too, but it has the doubly painful quality of being true.)

I’ll stop there, though this list could continue. None of this means Paul’s words in Romans 13 (or other biblical instruction about governing authorities) are wrong or useless. It means they have a context and meaning that fits in the big picture of Scripture and isn’t determined by our current patriotic sensibilities. The Bible always demands a level of understanding and care that simply isn’t present when we turn texts into oversimplified weapons against those with whom we disagree.

One of the particular errors involved here is that we are allowing the human authority itself (and popular opinion that human authority has helped shape) to define respect and submission instead of letting the full counsel of Scripture and the lived examples of Scripture’s players form our understanding of those concepts. The assumption that the Bible’s and the world’s definitions of respect and submission would be the same or that the Bible is demanding we swallow whole the definitions of submission and respect given to us by human authority runs counter to the clear teachings of the Bible (instructive and modeled) in numerous other texts.

This isn’t an invitation to debate any particular protest, so please don’t do that here. This is a plea to use real care when handling the Scriptures – care for the Bible itself and care for the people you are using the Bible to accuse and dismiss. I know (almost) no one is purposefully misusing the text, but this is dangerous ground for people who love the Scriptures.

I’ve been memed: a short word on dismissing people you don’t understand

We’ve been traveling and otherwise occupied since Saturday, so I’ve missed a lot of the heat over the national anthem protests. As I glance through my timeline, I’m discovering that a lot of people I know and love – friends, former teachers, mentors, etc. – seem to be closed-book indignant about and dismissive of a deeply held spiritual conviction of mine. Most of these folks are Christians. Most don’t know I have this conviction; it’s not one everyone holds, and it hasn’t seemed fruitful for me to advertise or advocate widely for it. But it’s a conviction absolutely rooted in my faith, my reading of the scriptures, and my being convinced that Jesus is King and that my whole self belongs to him. 

I think most of these people, because they love me, would be willing to sit and listen to me explain my conviction. I think most probably would disagree with me, but I don’t think any of them would respond to me with dismissive memes or decide to “unfriend” me in real life (or request that I “unfriend” them) or suggest everyone boycott me or accuse me of being an ingrate or conclude that I hate America or the troops. 
I’m not prepared to dive into this debate more deeply at the moment. I do request this: if because you love, like, or respect me, you would afford me the courtesy of listening to my deeply held conviction instead of assuming any of those things I listed about me, please extend that same courtesy to those you don’t know. Disagreement is fine. Concern, confusion, of course. But I’m not the only neighbor Jesus was referring to when he told you to “love your neighbor as yourself”. When Paul urges you “don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought,” your opinions and convictions are included in that admonition. When he instructs you to “in humility consider others better than yourselves,” he means be humble and to actually assign higher value to people whose convictions you disagree with and don’t understand than to yourself. He simply can’t mean anything else if he means anything at all. 
So at the very least, by the mercy of God I beseech you, stop reacting to one behavior you don’t agree with by posting dismissive, punitive, indignant memes and words that reduce other people who you don’t understand to cliches or the worst version of who you assume they might be. Whether you know it or not, many of you have done the same to me. It’s extraordinarily rare for me to say or write something like that. So please know I’m fine. Lots of folks have been insulted and reviled far longer and with far more venom than I have, and it’s good for me to occasionally sit in that space in this very small way. But I share that you’ve done that to me because it’s true and because I think it would matter to you. And I want it to matter, not because I’m deeply wounded or need any sort of apology, but because I think it matters just as much when you do it to my brothers and sisters who you don’t know and you don’t understand. 
I’m still learning what this means in fits and starts and through regular rebellion, but I’m convinced that Jesus continues to stand and urge me and urge you: Love your neighbors – and your enemies – in the same way that you love yourself. Pray for them and bless them, not condemning, condescending prayers, but with the same kinds of prayers and blessings you pray for your friends. For your kids. For yourself.

Twenty years and twelve

The nineteenth of September will forever link two people who never heard of each other and who lived very different lives. Twenty years ago on this date Rich Mullins died in an accident on an Illinois interstate. He was 41, a year younger than I am now. Twelve years ago my Mamaw died peacefully right in front of me. She was a few weeks shy of 93.

rich1     cecil-estelle-2-2.jpg

Below are some words I wrote a couple of days after Mamaw passed in 2005. My writing and some of my perspective has changed since then, but the heart of these words has not. Both of these people shaped my life in ways I’ll never shake, one from a distance, the other up close and literally from within.

I miss them both a lot.

A good day to die

Eight years ago, back in my single metrosexual almost-North Dallas days (I don’t really know what metrosexual means, but it makes my early 20s sound more exciting, don’t you think?), I got some sad news. My friend Brad and I walked into his apartment and were greeted by a message from Brad’s roommate, a big red-headed guy named Pape (which is illogically pronounced “Poppy”). Scrawled barely legibly on a scrap of paper was this note:

your dad called – rich mullins died

Both the news itself and something about its delivery were startling to me. Why would God let Rich Mullins of all people die now and why am I finding out from a stupid note like this? Silly questions, of course, but those were my initial reactions. Strangely, though I don’t remember doing it, I apparently stole the note and kept it (sorry, Brad). I only know this because I ran across it as I was shuffling through a box of miscellaneous evidence of my pack-rattery during one of our recent moves. If I had a little more energy, I would dig around for it and scan it instead of retyping the note above. The possibility that it’s in one of the 22 boxes still stacked in our garage just barely persuades me that such an effort is completely unnecessary.

Anyway, as I think I’ve said somewhere before, Rich is one of the only people I never knew who I genuinely feel like I miss. One of my first blog posts ever alluded to this. It’s okay if you think I’m weird. I just listen to him sing and read his words and feel like he knows me better than a lot of people who actually know me. I feel like he knows life the way I know life; knows Jesus the way I know Jesus; knows failure and ache the way I know failure and ache. I think lots of different people who live very different lives feel that way about the guy, and I think that says something meaningful about the residue of his life (a phrase he’d probably like).

My point here is not to gush endlessly about Rich. I’m not writing about Rich and the day he died because Monday marked eight years since he crossed over. Not really. I’m writing about him and the day he died because Monday, eight years after Rich died, I held my grandmother’s (Mamaw to all of us) hand as she made her own crossing. After a long life in this realm that we see and smell and touch and hear and taste, her lungs quit breathing and her soul slowly vacated the broken-down body it had inhabited for nearly 93 years. My cousins David and Jesse were also at her bedside, and Amy and David’s wife Linda stood behind us as we did what we could to help escort Mamaw from here to There.

AT MamawI don’t really know what those moments were like for Mamaw. She was still and peaceful – obviously more comfortable than she’d been in the days (years, really) prior. She didn’t speak to us or acknowledge our presence in ways that we could see or hear. That had ceased the night before, when several of us had spent time with her before the medications sustaining her body were pulled back. In moments Amy, my Aunt Molly, and I will never forget, Aiden sat on a stool by Mamaw’s bed and poured three year-old tenderness all over her. Writing about it would fail to convey the ways in which his reassuring words, soft hands, and sweet smiles created life all around a dying woman.

But Monday morning was quiet. We touched her and spoke to her in whispers. Though she didn’t physically respond, I sense she was more alive than ever, as the her that was slowly became the “new her” with each fading breath. She wasn’t gone, and the shriveled shell on the bed didn’t define her. It never really did; it just appeared to. Dying just sealed the deal, finally divorcing her eternal identity from the physical confines of flesh and bone (and arthritis).

Mamaw was ready for this, and she had been for some time. In some ways she’d been ready since that day in 1982 when Papaw went on ahead of her. Most days her readiness was dignified and patient, tempered by her love for all of us and her faith in God’s curious wisdom. Other days it was less steady, driven by the frustration of pain and immobility or a deep ache to be with her Cecil. I understand and love her for both. She was faithful and sure; she was tired and fragile. I’m 63 years behind her in this journey, and I get all of that.

But I don’t think she was the only one who was ready. Tonight I talked with my cousin David, and he described a keen awareness in those final moments of Papaw waiting for her, pleased as punch that the three grandsons who could get there were by her side. David didn’t see a ghost or hear any voices; he just knew Papaw, and he knows Papaw was on hand for the big event. I wonder if we are too inclined to discount ideas like that, maybe because we’re skeptical of what we can’t see and maybe because years of powerless religion have convinced us that all the supernatural stuff happened a long time ago.

They tell us a “cloud of witnesses” continually surrounds us, apparently looking on with anticipation as we run the race marked out for us. This moment was the end of Mamaw’s race, but it was a meaningful bend in the course for the rest of us. I think David is right. I think Papaw is in that cloud — he’s probably the designated cloud farmer and janitor — and I think he’s ecstatic to have Estelle join him in keeping an eye on us. I know she is thrilled beyond all imagination to finally be with Cecil and Jesus.

Tonight I was struck by the realization that Mamaw and Rich left us on the same date. It may seem insignificant to everyone else – old folks die and famous musicians seem to have a strange and disproportionate tendency toward fatal accidents. I don’t theorize that there is some deep, divine meaning in the coincidence. I mean, these people never heard of one another. Rich smoked and cursed. Mamaw was a true, old school Southern Baptist who shocked the world when, in her last weeks as her health deteriorated, she answered a group of church folks visiting her in the hospital who asked if they could pray with her with an emphatic, “Hell yes.”

There seems to be no connection between the two but the day they died. Well, that and this: they loved a guy named Jesus desperately, and they lived their lives to follow him as best they knew how. Neither had it all right, this living as a Christian. Rich probably loved his liberty (and nicotine) too much at times. Mamaw may have been a bit too committed to certain religious traditions (like being Southern Baptist). They were both humanly flawed and incomplete. They were both heroically devoted and faithful.

So, strange as it may seem, I wonder if Rich was in that cloud that greeted Mamaw on Monday. Maybe it was his eighth birthday party and he wished for a widow to be rescued into eternity. Maybe Papaw caught him smoking in his corn field and promised not to rat him out if he’d make that wish. And maybe those wishes really come true on the other side. Who knows why September 19 is such a good day to die, but it’s two-for-two in my book.

Whatever the story, Mamaw is home — with a chain smoking vagrant named Rich, a jolly Texas logger and farmer named Cecil, and that guy named Jesus whom she followed to the end.

Mamaw, I’m glad you finally made it, and it was an honor to sit next to you on your way out. Oh, and if you’re “looking on,” go easy on the ones like Rich. I know they seem like ruffians, and maybe you never expected to see them up there, but don’t lobby to get the rules changed or anything. Some of your grand-kids are taking the same route those hoodlums took. We weren’t allowed to tell you that before, but all those secrets are history now, aren’t they?

Mamaw2_1

Estelle Belle Geldard Hatton
1912 – 2005

 

The leader of the free world

On Saturday I wrote about my deep concerns with the president’s choice to not name the particular evils of white nationalism, neo-Nazism, and the alt-right movement. Two days later, he did that. I’ve spent 24 hours reflecting on all of this, sincerely eager to root out my own biases and see the good in Trump’s decision and his words. And the words are good; refusing to acknowledge that would be, for me, obstinate cynicism. Despite my strong reservations about Trump’s character and leadership, I am daily praying for him, hoping for wisdom, goodness, and mercy. So I’m sincerely thankful for something other than a continuation of the void that stretched from Saturday to Monday morning.

And yet: the void. His refusal to be specific for those two days, certainly set against a backdrop of some history I mentioned on Saturday night (and a lot I didn’t), will remain troubling for me and for many others. I won’t belabor the reasons why that mattered so much, but it did. It does. And if you still don’t think it does, I plead with you to spend some time sincerely listening to people of color explaining why it matters. There are many who are as theologically and socially conservative as you who are happy to do so. Don’t just watch CNN or FOX and let the divisions grow deeper. Have a conversation with a real person.

And, of course, since Monday morning we’ve had multiple head-shaking presidential twitter moments that torpedoed most of the patience and trust Trump surely aimed to buoy with his more specific statement. [Literally as I wrote this, Trump walked back to his Saturday language.]

Wait, don’t leave. I promise I’m not going to do a twitter play-by-play. Who has the energy for that at this point?

I mention those tweets because of what they reveal about the striking contrast between Trump’s spirit over the last 24 hours and the spirit of Heather Heyer’s father, Mark. If you haven’t already seen this short video, please pause for three minutes and watch it:

That, folks, is your leader this week.

As I said when I tweeted this video Monday evening: This is other-worldly forgiveness. I’m a father to two daughters. This isn’t natural. It’s supernatural, the power of the cross among us.

Mark Heyer is reminding me that it’s safe to love and forgive, that it’s safe not to hate.

Despite my many years of relative political ambivalence, I think it’s a shame that the President of the United States is not only not modeling that same spirit, but he’s undermining his own words about hate and unity. The difference between what the two men have lost since Saturday is unquantifiable, yet one is angrily focused on his own mistreatment while the other is courageously modeling redeemed humanity.

As Mark Heyer points to the self-sacrificing Jesus of the cross and forgives the white supremacist who murdered his daughter, the president tweets about how he is being picked on by his “truly bad” enemies and then shares with the country a picture of a train emblazoned TRUMP running over a reporter two days after Heather was run over by a car. I mean, good grief, man.

So here’s my confession: it makes me kind of want to hate Trump. Just a little, but it’s there.

See, that’s our cycle. That’s my cycle. Even when it’s love or tolerance or grace we say we value, all it takes is a little hate to make us want to hate. Maybe all it takes is a little them…a little of the other who isn’t like me, who I don’t like, who I don’t understand.

But here is Mark Heyer, undone by the murder of his child yet unmoved by the hate that killed her. Here he is, an old man in a food pantry t-shirt on his front lawn, acting like the leader of the free world.

People need to stop hatin’, and they need to forgive each other. And I include myself in that in forgiving the guy that did this. He don’t know no better. I just think of what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Lord, forgive ’em. They don’t know what they’re doin’.

Thank you, Mr. Heyer, for reminding me that as I labor to oppose evil in the world and call the the Church to purity in her allegiance to Jesus, my first audience is me.

Silence is political

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Today in Virginia, which is to say in America, various white supremacist groups paraded around advocating for Nazi nonsense. One of them drove into a crowd of people and killed someone. There’s no need for me to report the news. You know.

A few weeks ago I started an essay explaining why, as a pastor who for a decade mostly avoided politics, I decided to start talking and writing publicly about politics in some very particular ways. I’m writing that essay because I think my shift in thinking and behavior merits some explanation for those who haven’t already tuned me out because I’ve gotten “too political”.

But today brings into sharp focus one of my reasons: I simply cannot ignore the experience of people I love who are not white who have been damaged and deeply discouraged by the politics of the last year.

Let me be clear: This is not because I feel guilty.

This is because, in my particular case, I am hearing wise, sane Christians who aren’t white – many of them as theologically conservative as Trump’s white evangelical base, some demonstrably more so – articulate the impact of this political phenomenon on them and their communities. And as a follower of Jesus, I must listen. And as I listen, I’ve been compelled to care about their experience as much as my own.

Today put on display what many outside the white evangelical mainstream have known far longer than I have known it: silence by well-meaning members of the Church who would never march in a Klan rally or use the n-word emboldens those who do and generally communicates indifference or approval.

In this particular case, when 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, the overwhelming majority of black and other non-white evangelicals said, “What the hell?”

My goal here is not to shame anyone for their vote, but if we’re sincerely interested in how to love those brothers and sisters well now, it’s fair to know how so many felt about the election and how they view the Church’s response today.

If you think they were overreacting, today proved otherwise.

If you aren’t sure how, take two minutes to go watch David Duke as he proudly wades through a crowd dotted by Nazi and Confederate flags and t-shirts bearing Hitler quotes and happily declares that the crowd is there to “take our country back” and “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump”. Go look at how easily white nationalist Richard Spencer used Trump’s particularly non-particular response to today’s events to further lay claim to legitimate power.

These people have been emboldened by the election of Trump because they believe he is promising to give them their (white supremacist) country back, and they are here to take it.

But they’re just the fringe lunatics, right? Trump shouldn’t be unfairly saddled with an association with them, should he?

Well, let’s ask him.

In response to violence incited by assault-rifle carrying white supremacists,

In response to defiant, open advocacy for the kind of evil that a generation of Americans fought a six-year global war to put down,

In response to a man driving his car into a crowd of people and murdering a woman,

In response to those people openly associating their actions with a fulfillment of the promises of the elected President of the United States, Donald Trump tweeted this:

This and the equally generic statements he made later are not just woefully insufficient, they are strategically unspecific. The moment was ripe for Trump to speak simply and clearly: “The racism the so called ‘alt-right’ espouses is evil. I reject it top to bottom. And I reject the support of anyone and everyone who clings to this particular hate.”

His choice to speak more generally cannot be attributed to Trump’s style or a penchant for diplomatic language in response to evil or people he desires to condemn.

It seems unnecessary to document this, but Trump regularly and specifically targets those he clearly rejects with language that is anything but diplomatic. He is historically and notoriously not content to just say, “everyone who does wrong is wrong” when he has some particular wrong or enemy in his crosshairs. Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is “very weak” and “disloyal”. Republican Senator Ted Cruz is “bad” and his campaign did “very sleazy and dishonest” things. The “failing New York Times” has a “sick agenda”. The media as a whole is “the enemy of the American people”.

But in response to today’s events, we get a willful refusal to name white supremacists, the alt-right, or any of its leaders or to distance himself from them even as they specifically hail him as a trailblazer for their movement. And this is not new. Trump has long avoided clearly repudiating openly racist groups who support him, a decision that can’t be anything but intentional after so much time. And lest we forget, this movement built its momentum and message on a platform provided by a man Trump chose and has kept as one of his top two advisors.

There really are only two possible explanations for this: either he does not reject the ideology of these groups as evil or he is unwilling to use words to separate himself from them and their support.

Either option is a very big deal.

We have a sitting president unwilling to clearly disavow the ideology, actions, or support of brazen, violent enemies of my brothers and sisters of color. It does not matter why.

I never wanted to get political, but I literally have no choice anymore. If I remain silent about Trump’s complicity in the evil that has plagued us as a people and tormented black Americans for centuries, I am simply choosing another kind of politics – the politics of silence in the face of evil.

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe. –Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor