I’m So Tired of Talking About Hard Things

Church friends and I were discussing how our congregations grapple with uncomfortable issues and it was generally said that many of our people are tired of talking about difficult things.  Generally speaking:

  • White people are tired of talking about white privilege.
  • Prosperous people are tired of talking about poor people.
  • People with safe homes and good health care are tired of talking about people who are homeless and sick.

I can almost hear the comments . . . “It’s all I can do to get my laundry done.”  “I don’t have the energy to take on someone else’s issues.”

It’s tempting to ignore the worries of the world because other people’s problems are not our problems.  We can just walk away.  Specifically . . .

  • White people can walk away from grappling with white privilege but People of Color can’t.  I’m sure that People of Color are tired of dealing with it every day but they have no choice.
  • Wealthy people can walk away from grappling with systemic poverty but the poor can’t.  I’m certain that the poor are tired of being poor and they can’t walk away from their poverty as much as they’d like to do that.
  • Those who have safe shelter and good health care can walk away from grappling with issues like substandard housing and poor healthcare.  But those living under bridges or in squalor without an insurance card can’t walk away from their situations.

The whole point of the birth of Jesus – God Incarnate – is that God doesn’t walk away.  God entered this world as a poor infant. Jesus was literally in the same boat with people during a heavy storm.

(We tend to empathize with our neighbors when we are all in the same boat.)

It’s Advent season when we are waiting for relief and light.  And we are missing the point if we forget that  – actually – we have been called to offer relief and light to other people in Jesus’ name.  We have been called to be with those who face daily racism because of the color of their skin.  We are called to be with those who are blamed for their own poverty.  We are called to be with those who are  ignored in the stresses of their everyday living conditions.

We can’t walk away from The Least of These.  At least we can’t walk away if we hope to emulate Jesus.

And if we are tired of talking about racism or poverty or injustice, imagine how tired people must be who deal with racism or poverty or injustice every day.

How to start?  Stop talking about uncomfortable things and listen. Listen to people whose skin is not white.  Listen to the poor.  Have a conversation with someone who needs housing or healthcare.  Note: we can’t listen to the stories if we don’t know any People of Color or any poor people or any homeless people or any untreated sick people.

Are we actually too tired to pay attention to our neighbors?  Advent is a good time to wake up and pay attention.

Image source unknown but I call it, “I’m Tired of Talking About White Privilege.”

About That Narwhal Tusk

I honestly thought narwhals were mythological creatures.

Not only are they real, but apparently some are stuffed and mounted on restaurant walls.

Ever since reports came out that the man who attacked people last Friday on London Bridge was fended off by a narwhal tusk, I have been thinking about the weirdness of that tragic story.  What’s not weird is that there was a terrorist attack.  That’s – sadly – the most normal part of this true story.

What’s unusual about the story:

  • Ten ordinary bystanders helped subdue an attacker who wielded knives taped to his wrists.
  • The ten people – now hailed as heroes – include a kitchen worker, two non-profit volunteers, two tour guides, two “coat check girls” and a convicted murderer.
  • The “weapons” they used to overpower the attacker included a fire extinguisher, a metal pipe, their own bodies to block doors, and the aforementioned narwhal tusk.

We can learn something from this event in terms of how to be community with and among each other.  Listen up, Church.

  1. Terrible things happen.  Terrible nonsensical things.  And sometimes they even happen when we are trying to do the right thing.  Jack Merritt was a coordinator for Learning Together – a rehabilitation program for formerly incarcerated people.  Saskia Jones was a volunteer at the Learning Together event that day in Fishmongers’ Hall by London Bridge.  Both Merritt and Jones were murdered by the attacker.
  2. When people need help, it might be our turn to step up.  The people who dropped what they were doing to run towards the danger are indeed heroes but they were also everyday people.
  3. We should not judge others by the worst thing they’ve ever done. James Ford was a hero on the day of the attack but in 2004, he murdered a woman.  He served his prison sentence and was out and about the day of the attack. For which event will he be remembered?  As the guy who killed a mentally disabled woman?  Or as the guy who saved the lives of innocent people?
  4. In times of crisis, don’t worry about criticism.  Whoever ripped the narwhal tusk off the mounted narwhal did not think, “I wonder who will get mad at me for breaking this wall mounting?”  He just took it and used it.  The guy who used the fire extinguisher didn’t stop and say, “I hope the fire department doesn’t mind me using up the foam.”  Times of crisis require in-the-moment creativity.
  5. It’s not about us.  Most of the heroes that day have not been identified in the newspaper.  The kitchen staffer corrected the media when he was credited for using the tusk.  (He actually used the pole.)  The “coat check girls” have not been named even though they slowed down the terrorist.  These brave humans will be honored with medals and might be invited to Buckingham Palace (except for Mr. Ford.  Apparently ex-convicts are not allowed at the Queen’s house.)  But the story is not about individual bravery.  It’s about working together.

We in the Church can learn from this, especially as we are stuck in an alternate universe that is neither real nor holy:

Sometimes we in the Church don’t want to hear about terrible things.  We want happy stories, and yet the reality of the world is ugly and God calls us to address the ugly. Sometimes we in the Church are quick to assist our friends and family, but we are slow to help strangers (unless we can control the way we help them.)  Sometimes we in the Church are the judge-iest judges in the neighborhood.  Sometimes we in the Church worry more about what the congregation thinks of us than what God thinks of us.  Sometimes we in the Church make it all about us.  We want to dominate the program.  We want to control the financials.  We want to command the power.

Adventures in missing the point.

Like the wielding of a narwhal tusk, we have been called to be and do something rare and unusual.  It looks like this:

Go out into the world in peace. Have courage. Hold fast to what is
good. Return no one evil for evil. Strengthen the fainthearted,
support the weak, help the suffering. Honor all people. Love and
serve the Lord your God, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.

It’s more than a benediction at the end of worship.  It’s a way of life that ten strangers exhibited on a Friday afternoon in London.  As it usually happens, there was something terrible and – still – there was also something beautiful in the midst of that terror.  Because God uses everything.

Image of a narwhal.  Source here.

 

“I Know the Holocaust Happened . . . But Did It Though?”*

*From “Samantha’s Journey Into the Alt-Right and Back” on the 11-22-19 New Yorker podcast.

What we believe to be true these days is based on everything from our “feelings” to “fake news” to unadulterated trust in strangers.

Who and What do we trust?

When I order decaf coffee in a restaurant, I’m trusting servers with my sleep patterns.

When I take a Lyft from point A to point B, I’m trusting a stranger with my safety.

When my second grade teacher taught me that the first Thanksgiving involved people in Pilgrim hats eating side by side with Indians in peace, I trusted her to share real history.

When I read in 2019 that – actually – the Wampanoags were enslaved and murdered by the English settlers in 1621 and that Myles Standish beheaded a Native man named Wituwamat and displayed his head on a spike for many years, I trust that the writers of these articles are sharing the real history.

Or are they?

Trust isn’t everything but it’s a lot.  I depend every day on people trusting me in my work as a professional minister.  Either people trust me or they don’t as I do background checks on other pastors or counsel church leaders through conflicts.

Today we seem to trust each other sparingly.  People who get their news from Fox and people who get their news from MSNBC do not trust each other in terms of political “facts.”  And why would anyone trust church leaders when stories of misconduct are rampant?

Samantha – the woman who left the Alt-Right in The New Yorker podcast noted above – is a great example of someone whose understanding of what is true and what is not true can be molded by people whose “truth” is based on ignorance and bigotry.

What is our truth based on?  (We tend to be lazy fact checkers.)

If we love this country, we have a responsibility to discern facts from misinformation.  Here’s one resource.  Here’s another one.  Here’s another one.

Do your research.

If someone tells you that the Holocaust never happened or Christopher Columbus was a good guy or enslaved people were happy to be enslaved, please read legitimate historians about these things.  Note the authorship of your news sources.  Are they independent journalists or television personalities?  Is our intake of information one-sided?

In whom or in what do we trust?  Discernment requires effort.

Image the book A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and The Assault on Democracy by Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum which is a good but depressing read. When someone tells you that “people are saying ____” without identifying what people, check their sources.

PS Today is Giving Tuesday. Give generously to organizations you trust.

Jesus and The Billionaires

These men are the wealthiest billionaires in the United States of America:

Jeff Bezos: $114 billion
Bill Gates: $106 billion
Warren Buffett: $80.8 billion
Mark Zuckerberg: $69.6 billion
Larry Ellison: $65 billion
Larry Page: $55.5 billion
Sergey Brin: $53.5 billion
Michael Bloomberg: $53.4 billion
Steve Ballmer: $51.7 billion
Jim Walton: $51.6 billion

Note that one of these guys is running for President.

I can’t get my head around what $1 billion looks like much less $114 billion, but here’s what Money Magazine said in 2018:

Bezos’ net worth on Jan. 1 (2018) was $99 billion. On May 1 (2018) it was $132 billion, meaning it rose $33 billion. If you divide that difference by the 120 days in that period, you find that he made $275 million a day. Divide that by 24 hours in a day to get about $11.5 million per hour, the equivalent of roughly $191,000 per minute or — the clincher — $3,182 every second.

Jeff Bezos increases his wealth by over $3000 every second.

Billionaires are not inherently bad people.  Some have worked hard for their money and some have been generous.  But most have not been generous in terms of proportional giving.

The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board asked a couple weeks ago:

Who would do more with $1.08 billion—Bill Gates or Elizabeth Warren? 

Yes, Bill Gates has donated millions – billions even – of his wealth towards public health initiatives.  But he is the exception.  No matter what you think of Elizabeth Warren – or any other candidate for President – I would trust her with $1.08 billion more than Kylie Jenner.

FedEx is an example of one multi-billion dollar corporation which has benefited from the 2017 tax cut (i.e. they pay zero taxes) and they have not kept their promises about investing back into their own company much less contributing to the common good. FedEx obviously uses the nation’s highways but they contribute zero to the upkeep of those highways.  They earned $69.7 billion is 2018 and yet they are “struggling.”

In fact, here is a list of U.S. companies that paid zero taxes in 2018.  Zero.

I met a new neighbor recently who hopes to find space in the men’s shelter here in Charlotte, but chances are slim because the shelters are full and will most likely continue to be full.  Local overnight accommodations hosted by houses of faith did not open for business until last night.  D. has been sleeping in the woods near my apartment.

D. can’t get a job because he doesn’t have an address.  He has a phone, a charger, and a social services card that allows him to ride the bus for $1.  He depends on strangers for food.

There are enormous political and administrative issues which keep us from offering enough homes, enough school lunches, clean water, livable wages, and affordable health care for every human being in this nation.  The truth is that we could offer these things if we wanted to.  We just don’t want to.

The financial divide in the United States will be our downfall as a nation.  It used to be true that you could live a comfortable middle class life working one full time job as a barber or a firefighter or a public school teacher.  This isn’t true in many places because – while unemployment rates are low – wages are also low.

Jesus weeps.

These are not merely political or economic issues.  These are spiritual issues.  How are we – as people of faith – addressing them?  Is it really democracy when elections can be bought?  Can we call ourselves “a good nation” when we ignore the needs of the poorest Americans for the sake of corporate tax cuts?  As one GOP voter said recently: “We have no moral compass, but, hey, we have conservative judges!”

Our nation will be judged for this.  God came into the world once already to help us see the truth.  I believe God will come again and it won’t be pretty – especially for those of us who have congratulated ourselves for being such good people.

PS Prosperity Gospel is a heresy.

Image of Bill and Melinda Gates by Jon R. Friedman seen at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC

White Supremacists Look Like This. And This.

There’s an organization based in Chicago called Life After Hate that exists to shepherd white supremacists out of hate groups.  This is a good thing – obviously.  The stories of people who have left this world are both terrifying and inspiring.

At a gathering of people interested in hearing about the 2022 National White Privilege Conference a couple weeks ago, someone asked about inviting former white supremacists to speak at the conference.  Dr. Eddie Moore, the Founder of WPC, stated that he hadn’t considered this for a couple of reasons.  He is trying to avoid potential drama for one thing.  The Klan has shown up at previous conferences to protest.  And he doesn’t want current or former klansmen to take the attention away from a conference that works to educate people about white privilege and white supremacy – especially in its more subtle forms.

It occurs to me – as well – that inviting “former white supremacists” to an event like this perpetuates the stereotype that white supremacists (or former members of such groups) look like the guy pictured above: racist tattoos, muscular, bearded.

Actually the most prevalent white supremacists in the United States look like the other person pictured. She seems like a nice lady.  She might even be a church lady.  And she has very little idea about how she perpetuates white supremacy in her church, her neighborhood, and her world, but she’s trying to do the work.  Still, she doesn’t realize all the times she expects things to work out for her because they always have.  She doesn’t pick up on the ways the world sees her as more trustworthy than a person who is similar to her except for skin color.  She doesn’t realize the subtle ways she keeps white supremacy alive herself.

This is what white supremacy looks like.  It looks like me and those who look like me. We have a lot of work to do.

Top image source.  The bottom photo is a picture of this blog’s author.

Eye Roll

I was talking to a white straight male person with whom I am very close the other day and shared that Charlotte is hosting the National White Privilege Conference in 2022.  He rolled his eyes at me.

He. Rolled. His. Eyes. At. Me.  I’d become That Person.

Yes, I’ve become the person who “always” has to bring up the annoying thing – like white privilege.  I’ve become the person who asks new condo owners, “So what was torn down before these new homes were built?”  I’m the person who inserts comments like “Where are all the brown people?” and “Why aren’t there women on this board?”

It’s not like I’m the queen of activists.  I’m frankly just learning to ask these questions.

The truth is that I have barely made sacrifices in my own life and there is certainly white supremacy in my DNA.

There’s always that person – the feminist, the environmentalist, the activist for the poor – in big church meetings.  You know who I mean: those folks who stand up at every meeting and make eye-roll-worthy comments.  Eventually everybody else shuts them out.  People stopped listening to them.

I never want to be the person whom others stop listening to.  And yet, I know that white privilege/white supremacy is an evil we have not conquered.  I know that women continue to be seen as less than.  I know that women of color are treated even less respectfully.  I know. I see it every day. And because injustices are part of everyday life, we have to speak up.

Did people roll their eyes at Jesus when he kept talking about self-righteousness?

Personally I am also trying not to roll my eyes at you when you tell me that – as a white man – you’re tired of being trampled upon.  I am trying not to roll my eyes when you declare that you don’t see color.  I’m trying not to roll my eyes when you tell me that you have never received special treatment as a white person.

We need to see each other and hear each other and try hard to abstain from the eye roll.  But it’s not easy.  And especially when we are tired, our response is – at best – just an eye roll and not a snarky comment.

It’s almost that time of year when we gather with friends and family to feast and give thanks.  The potential eye roll quotient is high.  And yet it’s also a great time to engage people with whom we disagree in gracious conversation.  Trying to see each other through the eyes of Christ is a lovely spiritual discipline for these days.

And in the meantime, I don’t know why Anderson Cooper rolled his eyes but I can guess.

“Mom, We Lost the Cobbler”

Parenting experts say that it’s important to model the qualities we want to see in our children.  If we want to raise children who love to read, it helps if they see their parents reading.  If we want to raise kind children, it helps if they see their parents being kind.

PKs (pastors’ kids) grow up in bipolar communities.  They live in a world where people take casseroles to each other after births and deaths.  And they also live in a world where they witness firsthand the hypocrisies – if not the cruelty – of church members.  They also grow up among other kids whose parents hope their offspring will learn to be faithful and kind human beings in a spiritual community.

The world, however, privileges children who are “successful”  rather than faithful and kind.  How many of us parents have gotten together with other parents and – in catching up with each other – highlight our children’s successes?  Success on the playing field. Impressive college acceptances.  Cool new jobs.

This article – Stop Trying to Raise Successful Kids.  And Start Raising Kind Ones by Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant reminds us that kindness seems to be in decline.  We certainly don’t want our children to be bullies.  But we also don’t want them to be pushovers.  We want our children to be “the good kind of competitive.”  We want them to help their peers just as long as they win at life.

When FBC and SBC were in high school, I made dinner for friends who were going through rough days, but I couldn’t take the dinner over there myself. TBC had an event.  And so the boys were charged with driving the dinner over and I remember thinking, “It’s good for them to do this.  They will remember what it feels like to care even for neighbors they don’t know very well.

In the middle of TBC’s event, my phone started buzzing.  I stepped out to take the call and FBC said, “Mom, we lost the cobbler.”  A car in front of our car had stopped abruptly and peach cobbler had flown into the dashboard, into the AC vents, and all over SBC.  What was left of the dinner made it to our friends’ house but what they remember is – not the act of taking dinner to friends in need but the reason why that car smelled like peach cobbler for the rest of the years we owned it.

Teaching kindness is not a one-time lesson.  Most of us agree that the world seems endlessly divided. And the next election already feels like a referendum on the life and death of our nation.  Every day I hear someone express how dire the future looks if a certain candidate is elected or if a certain candidate is not elected.

Between now and then, how can we be kind?  How can we teach our children to be kind?  It’s not enough to be “successful” especially if our success comes at the expense of others.  My own young adult children who happen to be double PKs can be both ferocious and kind.  And so can I.

I’m – for one – praying that I practice more kindness in the months leading up to the 2020 election.  With a ferocity based on my faith in what Jesus teaches, it seems most faithful to be both.

And in the meantime, write notes of appreciation.  Smile at dogs and children.  Bake cobbler for those who need cobbler.

Here’s a delicious Berry Cobbler recipe if you need one.

Thank You Veterans, and Also . . . See

Saying “Thank you for your service” is just the beginning of supporting our Veterans.  It’s important to acknowledge that there are all kinds of Veterans out there:

  • Career military people who gave at least 20 years of their lives in service to our country
  • Veterans who served but were never deployed
  • Veterans who are wounded warriors whose lives are forever altered physically and/or mentally after their deployment

I’d like our nation to focus on this last group today.

Pete Souza, President Obama’s White House Photographer met Army Ranger Cory Remsburg in 2014.  After five years of recovery Sgt Remsburg joined Mrs. Obama in the House Chamber Balcony during the State of the Union that year. And Souza has continued to take photos of Cory Remsburg after the glow of publicity faded away.

It was said that Cory Remsburg “has never given up.”  We would like to believe that every injured Veteran is that kind of hero – one who never gives up and who smiles valiantly through the pain.

Please read this article today as an act of appreciation for our Veterans.  It clarifies not only the heroism of this particular Veteran Cory Remsburg.  It also describes what has happened in the ten years since his injury.  His brain has changed.  His parents’ lives have changed.  His future has changed.  And he still cannot walk without assistance.

There are hundreds of Veterans like Cory Remsburg.  And there are other Veterans who have died by suicide when the injuries became too much to bear.

We Americans need to be sure to vote for candidates who will fully fund the best medical care and physical therapy in the world for these Veterans.  We need to focus on what best supports the military and their families in appreciation of their service. Check out this list of deferred projects that would have benefited our military but was deferred to spend money – instead – on the wall at the Southern Border:

  • A Child Development Center in Maryland
  • An Ambulatory Care Center in North Carolina
  • A Fire Crash Rescue Station in Florida

The list is long.

It’s not enough to say, “Thank you for your service” today.  We need to support our Veterans in tangible, economic actions.  Please vote to support them.

Image of Army Ranger Cory Remsburg after one of his dozens of surgeries.

 

The Impulse to Talk About It

I know it’s been a good sermon, a good retreat, a good movie, a good class, a good Netflix series when the impulse to talk about it with other people is overwhelming.  I’ve experienced this lately after:

Experiencing the creative juices of certain people partnered with the thoughts in my own brain is enough of a reason to live to get through these anxious days.

I would love for every sermon to spark the impulse to talk about it.

I would love for every retreat, every meeting, every class, every conference to spark that impulse.

This is what evangelism is all about:  sharing the Good News of something life-giving and idea-sparking.  When was the last time you experienced this?

What’s the buzz that makes it impossible for you NOT to talk about it with others?  For me it’s the buzz God reveals to me.  The God who created Harriet Tubman and Cynthia Erivo, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Scott Galloway and Shannon Kershner and Colson Whitehead and Damon Lindelof is the God I’m very interested in knowing everything about.  It’s the kind of creativity that lights fires and imaginations and relationships.

I pray you experience something this weekend that blesses you with the impulse to talk about it with someone else.  It’s amazing.

Image of bees outside the hive.

What Would You(r Church) Do If Someone Gave You an Unexpected $10,000?

Everyone once in a while someone contacts me to share that they would like to give The Church a chunk of money.

“Is there anything you could do with $10,000?”  Why, yes, there are lots of things we could do.

In late 1999, I was having coffee with Deb – a deacon in the congregation I was serving – and she had an amazing idea:  to use church space to open a computer training lab for underemployed neighbors.  We had just closed our preschool and space was available in the church building.

Here’s the miracle:  Deb presented her idea to the elders at the same meeting that we received a surprise $10k check from a church member.  Without a whole lot of discussion, someone moved that we give Deb the money to start the computer lab.

It’s not like we didn’t have building maintenance needs to address or a budget to balance, but the whole $10,000 was passed to do something impactful for our community.

On November 20, Computer CORE celebrates its 20th Anniversary.  The lab has since moved from the church building to a larger location and thousands of students have graduated and moved on to get hired into well-paying positions with dental benefits.

What would you do if your Church was given an unexpected $10,000?  

Fix the roof?  Pave the driveway? Send the long-suffering church administrator to Hawaii?

The answer to this question determines the spiritual health of your congregation.

Yes there are administrative and property needs but Jesus didn’t die for a new boiler.  I’m convinced that funds to replace the HVAC system will come when people feel uncomfortable enough.

And I hope that the faithful are most uncomfortable when their neighbors are in need.  Every single congregation in the world has neighbors who deal with hunger, homelessness, addiction, mental illness, and violence.  What could we do to alleviate their pain?  It depends on the situation, but $10k could make a difference.

That $10,000 our congregation was not used to start a project that would “bring in new members.”  Most of the Computer CORE students are not Christian and don’t want to be Christian.  But they have experienced the love of Christ in a very tangible way.

At the first graduation of CORE students a young man from Morocco kept taking my picture – a bit surreptitiously.  It was a little unnerving frankly.  Finally I asked him why he was taking my picture.  And this is what he said:

I told my family in Morocco I was taking computer classes in a Christian church building and they told me to ‘Get out of there!  The Christians will try to kill you!’  But he told them that ‘The Christians are not trying to kill me.  They are helping me.’  I wanted to send them a picture of the pastor of the Church that’s trying to save my life.

Whose life could your congregation save with $10,000?

Image of some of the students of Computer CORE.  You can donate your $10k here.  Seriously.  Make a donation.