Lament for the World I Know


Have you ever noticed how much time and energy we spend trying to keep ourselves safe from other people? Both as individuals and as a society, we assume that somebody, somewhere, is out to get us, and we have to do something to stop them. We lock our cars and our front doors; we install panic buttons in our classrooms; we teach our kids how to call the police. We employ vast numbers of people to police our cities, defend our borders, and protect our interests abroad. We may argue over the right means of protecting ourselves, but the assumption is that we do need protection from other people. (For example, the gun control debate is about how to regulate the type of weapons people can have, not about whether people need some way to defend themselves). Even the virtual world of computers is filled with ‘bad guys’, as evidenced by the fact that companies can’t seem to hire and train cyber-security experts fast enough.

My individual life has been relatively free from violence. Apart from the occasional fight as a school-boy and a few petty thefts here and there, I’ve had it pretty easy. But I live in a country that has engaged in violent conflict on at least eight separate occasions on four continents in my lifetime. My children have lived their whole lives under America’s ‘War on Terror’. War is given. There is never a question of whether we need to employ, train, and equip some of our citizens to kill citizens of other countries – the debate only seems to be around when to deploy, and how much to spend on equipping them. The violence of our world is undeniable.

A favorite slogan of gun-rights advocates is: Guns don’t kill people – people kill people. While there may be truth to that slogan, have we ever stepped back to think how irrational, insane, and horrible it is that people kill people? Animals kill other animals to survive. But there is no rational reason why one human should ever kill another. Humans killing other humans is not a necessity for survival, or even for enjoyment of a full life. We kill because we are broken people who live in a world ravaged by evil. Even in the case of self-defence, violence is only a secondary necessity, made unavoidable by the violence of another; ‘it’s either him or me’ is only true if one of you is unwilling to walk away and let the other live.

I guess this is more of a lament than anything else. It makes me sad that so much of life is spent having to defend and plan for the reality of evil. And I’m not immune to the influence of evil in my own heart – I’m part of the problem too. I have been reading in the Old Testament book of Joel recently. Joel 3:10 encourages the hearers to make weapons out of farming tools and come and do battle. Not because fighting is good, but because God is about to respond violently to evil. But Joel gives only a partial picture of God’s response to evil in the world.  The prophets Isaiah and Micah paint the opposite picture, of a day when swords will be turned into plowshares. And we only discover that this latter vision of the future wins the day when we see that Jesus is God’s ultimate violent response to evil. Jesus takes God’s violent response to human violence on himself in order to put an end to all violence and guarantee a future where nobody has to fear anybody else.

So, what if armies and war and locked doors are only a temporary necessity? What if gun ownership is less an eternal right and more a temporary sad reality of our world? What would it mean to long for the day when there will be no more guns on earth, when all weapons are melted down to make works of art and tools for cultivating the earth? Can we even imagine a world where everyone can be trusted and nobody is out to get you; where you can plant a garden and not be afraid that someone will steal from it, or build a house and not worry that someone will break into it; where our daughters and sons are safe and violence is unknown? It’s hard for me to imagine that world. I know I want to, though.

When Fear Fuels Religion

lightstock_87161_xsmall_user_3911910As I’ve written before, I’m no stranger to fear. I live in one of the safest time-periods of history, in one of the safest places on earth, and yet I have a hard time remembering the last time I wasn’t worried about something. Even if I’m doing something I enjoy, sometimes I’ll catch myself having too much fun, and remind myself that there is always something to dread on the horizon.

In college, I was involved in a Christian group on campus, and one of our favorite sins to confess was fear of man. What we meant by fear of man was that people were more important to us than God, so we worried about the opinions of others and wanted them to like us. Being concerned about what other people think may seem like a natural inclination, and it might not appear on a top-ten list of ‘worst vices to struggle with,’ but it was a big deal to us. I remember sitting at a light on my way home from school one weekend, begging God to help me fear him and not people. But even as I prayed, it hit me: I still didn’t really care about God. I just hate the feeling of my stomach being twisted in knots, and I want God to make it better. I was using God as a tool to take away my fear. Fear was fueling my religion, and it wasn’t pretty.

That’s not the only way fear can fuel religion

I was talking with a group of people this weekend about the recent under-cover videos taken of Planned Parenthood staff and facilities. One of the women was very out-spoken against abortion, saying that abortion is murder. This isn’t unusual – many Christians believe that the life of an individual starts at conception. But then she said something striking: she said that if she found herself in the situation of being pregnant and un-married, that she might choose to end the pregnancy, even though she believes it would be wrong – and the church would be one of the factors influencing her to have an abortion. Her fear of losing her reputation, of being scorned or judged by others in the church, would drive her to do something she feels strongly opposed to. I have a lot of respect for this woman – her assessment of her own heart and motives is honest and refreshing. She said what others probably think, and what some may have experienced first-hand: the church’s strong stand for ‘what is right’ actually pushes people toward making decisions that are wrong.

In some ways that shouldn’t be surprising. In Romans 7, Paul says the darkness in me seizes on the law as an opportunity to produce more sin. But, he says, the problem is with me and not the law; and so the remedy is not to create a better law, a stronger set of rules. When the church makes a strong stance for what is right in the area of sexuality and reproduction, it is right to do so. But where we trip ourselves up is when we think that taking a strong stand for truth has the power to make people live better lives. Because when we do that, we end up providing more opportunity for fear to seize on our failures and turn what should be something good into something that actually drives us into more failure.

Grace trumps fear

Paul says the remedy is not more law, but grace. Grace to own my failures AND the forgiveness that comes in Jesus. Grace to let the Spirit of God connect me to Jesus for life. Grace to hear the Father’s voice without a drop of condemnation saying “You are my beloved one, I am pleased with you.” Grace has the power to break the cycle of fear fueling our religion.

What about you – how have you seen fear fueling your religion? Have you seen grace break the power of fear?

Caitlyn, Rachel, and the Gospel of Identity

I will give...a new name
I will give…a new name

“Like it or not, we have entered into an era … when people expect that one has a right and dignity to claim the identity of one’s choice.”

So says Camille Gear Rich, law professor at USC and author of a fascinating op-ed piece for CNN in which she compares the conflicted response to Rachel Dolezal’s outing as a white woman with the largely positive response to the Caitlyn Jenner reveal. What’s interesting to me is the way Rich takes for granted the notion that our identity can and should be self-created. She ends her article with this sentence: “We should not have to be slaves to the biological definition of identity, and we should not use race or gender identities as weapons to punish one another.” While I agree that race and gender should not be, but often are, used as weapons, I do not think that self-created identities are the answer. Partly because people are people, and no matter how our identity is crafted, others will find ways to hurt us. But more importantly, I believe the Christian story has a lot to say about our identity and how it’s formed, and that story is quite different and in my opinion offers greater hope than the one told by Professor Rich.

On the one hand, the good news of Jesus says that we do not have to be stuck in society’s boxes. Others’ perception of us does not define us. Our identity is not locked into what the world around us tells us we must be. The hurts, the rejection, the pain is not the sum total of who we are. The color of skin we are born with does not lock us into a particular way of relating to God. Our gender does not restrict us to only certain levels of achievement or status in God’s kingdom.

But neither are we the masters of our own identity. Not because we aren’t free; but because we are not up to the task. If we had the last word in defining who we are, we’d be just as trapped as if we let social convention define us. Trapped by our own misperceptions and poor judgments, we are bound to repeat on ourselves the same harmful mistakes those around us make when they mis-identify us. We are not as good at defining ourselves as we think. We do not get the final word in saying who we are, or who we become, and that’s a good thing.

The Christian hope is that we are given an identity by one who knows us better than we know ourselves, and loves us more deeply than we can imagine. At the very end of the Bible, in the Revelation of St. John, Jesus says, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” Jesus affirms our culture’s sense that identity is a deeply personal, individual thing. Only I will know the name he gives me. But at the same time, he confronts the notion that I get to choose whatever identity I want.  He is the one who gives me my name.

This is good news for people like Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal. The gender stereotypes and racial norms that have caused them pain do not get the final say. Jesus knows them even better than they know themselves, and offers them a name that is completely, 100% true to who they are.

Really, this is good news for all of us. Though I haven’t faced the same things as Caitlyn or Rachael, I do struggle to live up to the various names I’m given by those around me: Father, Husband, Pastor, Friend…I’m painfully aware that I often fail to live up to those names.  I do not fully embrace them the way I should, nor do I feel that any of them on their own is a completely accurate picture of who I am.  When I try to create my own identity, those names I give myself are not my true name either: creative, runner, smart, lazy, fearful, sinner, nerd, awkward. Some of those names are a piece of who I am, some are true but not the final word, and some are just plain wrong. But all of them leave me feeling disoriented if I embrace them as my truest self, because my true name is known only to God. One day, he will reveal it to me too. And in the meantime, my search for identity will always come up short if I rely on myself to define who I am.  Society cannot accurately define me, but the solution is not an identity of my own choosing.

Baltimore Police – Community Partners Interview

Credit: flickr/bionicteaching
Credit: flickr/bionicteaching

On June 14, 2013 Baltimore City Police Lt. Col. Melvin Russell appeared on an episode of WYPR’s Between the Lines to discuss the relationship between police and the community. The original episode can be heard here. I was in the car last week and heard a portion being rebroadcast, obviously in response to the current situation in Baltimore. I don’t want to say too much, because I really just want to offer this as an opportunity to hear from someone who is closely involved with efforts to bring the police and the community together – efforts that were going on long before Freddie Gray and the recent unrest in Baltimore.

I do want to give just a little context: I have met Lt. Col. Russell on a number of occasions and worked with him and other community leaders on several initiatives in the city. I have a great respect for him, and I’m proud to count him as a brother in Christ. In addition to his role as head of the city police’s Community Partners Division, Melvin Russell is also an assistant pastor at his church. He brings an important perspective to the current discussion of race, policing, and life in Baltimore. You may not agree with everything he says, and I don’t think any one person has all the answers, but I do think he offers helpful insight and a measure of hope to the current situation.

So enjoy the interview (it starts with a short conversation with a Baltimore hip-hop artist, which is also worth hearing).  If it sparks anything for you, please feel free to share it here.

Reflections from Baltimore

shutterstock_273288269This time last week I was writing at my dining room table in north Baltimore, oblivious to the violence that was unfolding a few miles away in the area around Mondawmin Mall. It wasn’t until a friend texted and asked if we wanted to come stay with them that I knew something was up. We turned on the TV, and, like many in our region, watched as the ugly scenes unfolded under the watchful eye of the news helicopters. Family started calling to make sure we were safe. My kids wanted to know how long it would take the police to arrest the looters. My wife wondered how she would get to work the next day. I had more questions than answers myself: Why is this happening? What do they hope to accomplish? When will order be restored? Will anything change? Why the CVS?

That last question may seem a bit small given the scope of all that was happening, but I just couldn’t understand why CVS stores seemed to be a prime target for looters. I’ve had a week to reflect on all this, and I don’t have answers for all the questions. But I offer the following to possibly spur further discussion:

TV Doesn’t Tell The Whole Story

Not all of Baltimore is violent, and not all hope is lost. This may seem obvious, but watching the news coverage on the night of April 27 it was hard to tell. The morning after the violence, another pastor and I went to Sandtown to help a sister church with cleanup. We arrived about 10am, but by that time most of the neighborhood was already done. The residents had come out early in the morning to clear their streets, pick up trash, and restore a bit of beauty. They expressed a love for their neighbors and a care for each other. In the face of the despair and frustration that was being expressed the night before, the community came out and showed that all is not lost – there is still hope, there are resources available and people who care enough to use them, and their neighborhoods and streets are worth cleaning.

Relationships Are Key

It’s a confusing, complicated situation, with many factors that no one person fully understands. This means that relationships are key – we have to be in relationship with people and listen to them and their story if we want to respond well. This is where my question about CVS becomes relevant. I had a guess about why those stores were targeted, but when I asked 3 people from Sandtown why their CVS was attacked, I got three different answers. None of them were the reason I had thought of. I still don’t know the real reason – maybe there are many different reasons that motivated the various looters. But the whole quest for an answer reminded me that it’s more important to know people, to hear their stories, and to listen to them, than it is to get ‘The Answer’.

It also reminded me that the confusion is fueled by the lines that separate us: lines of race, lines of economics, of where we grew up, of our experience of the police (the people you call when you need help vs. people you avoid for your own safety). We have to be willing to cross those lines and engage with each other and listen. It’s not helpful to say “I’m glad I don’t live in the city.” or “You wouldn’t understand, you’ve never lived in this neighborhood and experienced what I’ve experienced.” We may in fact be glad we don’t live in the affected neighborhoods, but we can’t simply leave it at that, because that creates lines of separation. And it may be true that you can’t fully understand the situation if you’ve never lived in a rough neighborhood, but dismissing those who have only experienced privilege also draws a line and doesn’t help them understand.

Jesus didn’t look at earth and say “You guys have really messed that place up, I’m glad I don’t live there.” He crossed the line, lived with us, ate with us, shared stories with us. He shared our pain and sorrow in order to redeem it. We need to follow Him in crossing the lines that separate us.

Everyone Involved Is Made in God’s Image:

That’s true for the police who patrol the streets, the boys doing the looting, the store owner who was attacked, and the grandmother worrying at home about her grandchildren. It’s also true for Freddie Gray, the young man who’s death is at the center of all this. Freddie was a man in the image of God – and so his life had infinite value. Whatever he had done or not done, whatever or whoever it was that caused his death, his life mattered and to die at 25 is a tragedy. People are carrying signs in the streets that say ‘Black lives matter’ and ‘All lives matter’ – and this is true, because all lives are made in God’s image. Jesus died and rose to restore us into God’s image and bring us together, so that one day before God’s throne there will be police and rioters and gang members and politicians and pastors all standing to worship God.  This is the ultimate hope for our city. In the meantime, sharing a meal together, or picking up some broken glass – these are small steps that point to the reality that will one day be.

Palm Sunday Reflection

I thought for Holy Week I’d offer a more reflective post – a chance for us to engage with the story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, and all that would come after.  This is a photograph of a 14th Century fresco of the arrival of Jesus and his disciples at Jerusalem.  As you study it, what strikes you?  Can you see yourself in anyone in the crowd?  What does this tell you about your own attitude toward Jesus?

By Pietro Lorenzetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
For me, what jumps out is that none of his disciples seem to be looking directly at Jesus.  They are talking to each other or looking off into the distance; some appear to be arguing.  The most obvious, for me, was the guy second to the left from Jesus, in the dark red robe.  His attention is captured so strongly that his head is completely turned away from Jesus, either taking in the beauty of the city, or else wondering if the boy standing dangerously close to the edge of the cliff is going to fall off.  I’m not an expert reader of artwork, but it looks to me like these guys are all missing something important because they are so caught up in the moment that they aren’t focussed on the one person this moment is about.  Makes me wonder how often I do that too.  Hope you have a great Holy Week.

Rule Number 2: You’re Probably Wrong


If you think you understand what’s going on – you’re probably wrong. That’s cross-cultural rule number two, and it was drilled into our heads before we left America and moved overseas. Rule number one? – Don’t drink the water. Everyone knows that one.  But then rule number two immediately applies because when we hear ‘Don’t drink the water’, we assume it’s because other countries have inferior water treatment systems…and that’s usually not true.

But I don’t want to talk about water. I want to talk about cultural assumptions. We all make them. It’s how we make sense out of the world. We need a set of shared assumptions in order to communicate with each other without having to spell everything out. The problem for most of us is that when we are placed into cultural contexts with different assumptions, we don’t usually pick up on that right away. Instead, we jump to explanations for things that we don’t understand based on our own experience; almost inevitably these explanations are wrong.

 Lessons from Cricket

Here’s an example: When we lived in England, someone told me I should like Cricket. I like Baseball, so I thought I’d give it a try. But I couldn’t figure out what was going on. How can one person score fifty runs in a game? How come they keep playing after one team makes three outs? Why are there only two innings in a match? And what would possess one team to simply decide they have enough runs and end their turn? And don’t get me started on all the crazy terms: Duck, Century, Yorker, Maiden. None of this made any sense, because I was trying to explain it using my prior experience with Baseball.  But the rules of Baseball didn’t apply to Cricket, so my conclusion was that Cricket was lame – a boring game that lasts for five days and is just an excuse to sit outside with friends and drink beer.

Until I sat down with someone who loved the game. And he walked me through it. He explained the terms, the strategy, and the rules (it helped to have a rule-book in hand while watching the match). He helped me understand the context. And then I loved the game – all five days of it!

Why is all this important?

Along with a few other pastors in our denomination, I’ve been reading The Warmth of Other Suns, which tells the story of the migration of black Americans away from the Southern US and into the North and the West. The book has opened me up to a different world – where the assumptions I make about life are not adequate to explain the experiences others have had. It reminds me that even though I’ve come home to America, I can’t shut down my inquisitiveness about other cultures. I can’t assume that I know what’s going on, just because I’m from this country. Even here, it’s easy to make assumptions that are wrong.

If I asked you for a half-and-half to drink, what would you bring me? Depending on where you are from, or where we are in the country, you might bring me a glass of half lemonade, half iced-tea; or you might bring me half sweet-tea, half unsweet; or, you might bring me a tall glass of creamer.   That may seem like a silly example, but we are a multi-cultural country – a place where different cultures live side-by-side, sometimes without even knowing it. Race is not the only part of the cultural difference, but it is a big part of it. And I think one of the ways we can begin to engage and move toward one another is to remember cross-cultural rule number 2: I’m probably wrong. My assumptions probably can’t explain the experiences everyone else in this country has had – especially people of a different race. And that’s ok – we don’t have to fully understand in order to engage. But I do need to hold my assumptions loosely, and it helps to find someone like my cricket friend who is willing to share their love of a different culture with you while you fumble along.

So what about you? Have you had any experiences that remind you that you don’t have an inside knowledge of all the cultures that make up the USA? Have you ever had someone jump to conclusions about you because they didn’t understand your context?