Can We Use the “A” Word, Instead?

In the current climate of social upheaval and change (a large part of which surrounds issues of race), I have noted a reactionary disconnect between what some are saying and what others are hearing. It’s as if those on each side are trying to build bridges to the other side of a chasm which separates them. Imagine each group trying to connect with (or hear the words of) the other group from opposite banks of a river. The problem is that they’ve begun their effort from different places, sometimes miles apart. Even in cases where they’ve gotten close enough to those on the other side to hear them, it’s as if there’s a kind of filter between the two that seems to corrupt the messages being heard from those on the far bank.

Maybe a simple two-column chart will help illustrate:

WHAT’S SAID: Black lives matter. WHAT’S HEARD OR INFERRED: Why are black lives more important than other lives?

WHAT’S SAID: Systemic racism in America. WHAT’S HEARD OR INFERRED: America is not (as a whole) a racist system or nation.

WHAT’S SAID: White privilege. WHAT’S HEARD OR INFERRED: I am white but have not led a privileged life. To say I’ve enjoyed “white privilege” means you don’t know me. To assumed I’ve led a privileged life is, in fact a racist statement.

Words carry meaning, and I enjoy the fact that some words carry arcane meanings. I’ve got nothing against having a broad and picturesque vocabulary. But when it comes to communications among large(-r) groups of people, we must pay attention to common meanings and popularly held interpretations. That’s why I’d like to offer a suggestion for the last one on the list, “white privilege”.

White privilege is a real thing, but in only one (perhaps two) sense(s) of the word “privilege”. Because the words “privilege” and “privileged” carry commonly-understood meanings, the description is understandably rejected by most white people, since most white people (I believe) have not lived privileged lives in the sense of not working hard or being given many things they didn’t earn. No wonder there’s an authentic rejection and misunderstanding of the term.

What if we were to use the word “advantage” instead of “privilege”? I don’t think I’ve lived a privileged life, but I can and do recognize that I have enjoyed certain advantages as a white person.

There are two worries I have about this suggestion: 1. That it may not be acceptable to my non-white friends who have become used to using the term “white privilege”. They may see this as softening the reality of the situation. 2. That the term may be co-opted by racist persons who want to corrupt what I’m offering to imply something that is genetic or biologically factual – that white persons do have an actual, inborn advantage over other races. This has been done in the past, and there is much factual information that shows how white people have said things such as “black are physically superior, and white people are intellectually and/or socially superior”.

So… there’s my suggestion, and it comes with a question: Can we use the “A” word? Do you think that changing our discussion from “white privilege” to “white advantage” would help bridge the gaps in our speaking to and hearing from one another? I’d be interested in knowing what you think.

We Don’t Got This

I appreciate and dig the phrase “I got this.” It shows confidence. I like it when people encourage others by saying to them, “you got this.”

For the person of faith, however there’s an even more confident, encouraging, and thrilling experience. It’s when we find ourselves in the midst of a situation that seems to be bigger than us. Something to which we are invited to respond; something to which we are invited and of which we are encouraged to become a part. It’s when God and God’s Spirit moves in human history. In that case, we don’t got this. But God does.

What we are presently going through as a nation (and world!) in terms of recognizing the centuries-long systemic racism by which some have benefited (I’m one) and many, many more have suffered may just be one of those times. As someone who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, there’s a part of me that is excited by the protests of young people and their voices crying out “No more!” It is my prayer that, like the Day of Pentecost we Christians celebrated this past Sunday, what is happening will be more than a moment. I pray it will be a movement.

My reading of history tells me that no significant progress toward moral improvement, justice, or redemption comes without pain. Those for whom the system is working well are often (and understandably) reluctant for change which may threaten their position of dominance or their feelings of superiority. For those of us who are people of faith, we might look to the story of the Hebrew people’s exodus, the many conflicts and persecutions of the early church, or the fact that Jesus suffered and died at the hands of those who sought to silence his voice.

Demonstrators chant Tuesday, June 2, 2020, at Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, during a protest over the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after he was restrained by Minneapolis police. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

I may or may not grow my hair long. I almost certainly will not be as woke as many of my younger friends. But count me in on being part of something that is a movement toward what God wants in this world, even if I don’t get to decide where it leads. I don’t got this. But God does.

It’s Not in the Bible, But

Jesus told stories. When he told them, they were just stories, though they revealed or hinted at deep truths. Later, because he was Jesus and all, the stories became scripture. But they were true and instructive even before they were scripture.

There’s a story I know (and you probably do, too) called “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. It’s not scripture. Jesus didn’t tell it. But it reveals deep truth. Truth that seems especially relevant and needed these days.

Each person has a right to their opinion. Hopefully, those opinions are well-informed and sincerely held. But when people post or re-tell things that are factually untrue, designed to inflame animosity or just plain poorly-fact checked, they diminish the teller’s (or poster’s) credibility. If sources are to be believed (and I believe there is strong evidence), nations have now sought to de-stabilize other nations through campaigns of disinformation and through “bots”, the sole task of which is to troll and incite confusion. Unlike the little boy who cried wolf, this is not simply for mischievous entertainment.

I’m grateful for my friends who have different ideas and opinions than I. Sometimes, they are a source of enlightenment and keep me attuned to the fact that not everyone thinks the way I do. But those who keep yelling “wolf!” about things that are simply untrue or which they unquestioningly repeat as true without checking are not just hurting themselves. They are hurting us all, I fear. What happens when real, urgent truth needs to be shared? What happens when a dangerous situation needs to be attended or investigated?

Authors, thinkers, and philosophers have tried to warn us of this through their dystopian novels and predictions. I don’t think they were just crying “wolf”. But, just in case you need something more canonical than Aesop to make these thoughts worth considering, I’ll offer this (and there are many more I could have chosen):

From Proverbs 6:

There are six things that the Lord hates,
    seven that are an abomination to him:
17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
    and hands that shed innocent blood,
18 a heart that devises wicked plans,
    feet that hurry to run to evil,
19 a lying witness who testifies falsely,
    and one who sows discord in a family.

I promise – for your sake and mine – not to cry “wolf”. Will you do the same?

Not Good Alone

It was during seminary that I heard emphasis upon a word I didn’t use all that often back then: community. I knew what the word meant but being from Oklahoma I was more apt to talk about a particular “town” or “city”; not “community”.

I didn’t understand. The use of the word in the manner emphasized there was not about geographic location but rather shared values; of kinship and belonging. We were taught about the importance of being in community with others. Of a community of faith. Of a sense of community which caused us to see and welcome others as family. A dream of nations living in community with other nations. Citizenship, race and ethnicity are given at birth. Community is something sought, developed, and hopefully valued.

In the Genesis account of the creation of humanity (the second one, in Genesis 2) it is said “It is not good for the man (the Hebrew word is “adam” or “human being”) to be alone.” This is not a case of God figuring out that sexual reproduction might be a good way of saving time, lest God be required to create all future humans one by one. The statement is a profound theological, anthropological, sociological and psychological insight into human nature and how the world is designed to work. We don’t do well on our own. We need others.

During this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people in all parts of the globe have been given instruction to shelter in place, avoid gathering with others, and in many cases to be quarantined, we are experiencing this truth. Not only are societies and economies suffering, but we ourselves are less than God intended because of our isolation from others. I am trying to absorb and learn the lessons of this experience for the sake of the future. I hope I will never again take for granted the gift and blessing of face-to-face human interaction and communal gatherings. Even those we find difficult or with whom we have disagreement are gifts by which God shapes us, even if only by way of challenging us to develop patience, forgiveness and acceptance.

For a couple of decades now, people in my profession have wondered about the future of the church in a technological age of broadcasts and podcasts. These are good things that have enabled connection to many in a way not possible before. But in my mind, the question of “the virtual church” has been answered in this present crisis. There is no substitute for being with others. Smiles, laughter, hugs and handshakes; backslaps, glances, winks and high-fives; sounds, smells, atmosphere and handholding simply cannot be reproduced through video or even holographic re-presentation. Working together side by side on a project, being in a meeting together, or sharing a meal at the same table are gifts from God that we might have taken for granted in the past. I hope many of us will never do so again.

Scared, Nervous, Excited.

I ran track and cross-country in college. I’ve competed in hundreds of races, ranging from one mile to marathons. I completed my first half-Ironman triathlon (70.3) last fall along with my daughter and son-in-law. I ran in a 5K last weekend.

And every time I’ve lined up for a race, I’ve had the same feelings: scared, nervous, excited. Every. Single. Time. Ask any runner, and they’re likely to tell of that internal dialogue. I often pray: “Lord, help me do my best. This is going to hurt. Gotta push myself. Help me leave it all out there on the course. Am I ready?”

My stomach hurts. But then, the excitement is there, too. “This is what I’ve been training for!”

Yesterday, I addressed the congregation I serve, for the last time until May 3rd (we hope). We talked about what we’re getting ready to do as a congregation in response to the coronavirus. It’s scary. We’re nervous. But there’s also excitement: this is what we’ve been training for!

This is what we’ve been hearing sermons and singing songs and studying the scriptures and learning from Jesus for! This is our opportunity to care for others.  This is our chance to organize to feed kids who live in homes of food insecurity and food scarcity who won’t be getting the free or reduced-price lunches at school. This is our chance to check on our neighbors in those at-risk categories as outlined by the CDC. This is a chance to share toilet paper and hand sanitizer and food from our pantry with people who might not have any. This is our chance to go to the store and do shopping for people who are afraid to get out or whose health makes it wise for them to stay isolated for a time. This is a chance to serve, and to trust God. This is a time to share of our means, believing that we are but stewards of anything we possess, and only for a time.

Like the starter’s pistol that starts the race – whether or not we’re ready – so has a time come when it’s time to do our best, with God’s help.

Scared? Nervous? Excited? Me too. But this is what we’ve been training for!

Saving Jesus

The biblical account of what happened after Jesus’ birth – especially the stories of the wise men and of the holy family fleeing to Egypt – is about how Jesus was saved by those who had searched for him, cared about him, who heard from God about Jesus’ endangerment and then obeyed the warnings that they heard.

In the case of the wise men, they were warned in a dream not to return to King Herod. To obey that warning was risky, because it meant disobeying someone very powerful. But if they hadn’t disobeyed Herod, Jesus may well have been killed. Their obedience to God, then resulted in our salvation…which is an amazing thing to think about: that the obedience of one generation – or even one person – can produce ripple effects which change things from that time forward.

Joseph hears from an angel and is warned about Herod’s plan to kill the baby Jesus. The biblical text conveys urgency. His response (it reads) is immediate. The angel spoke, and he gets up, got Mary and Jesus together and took off for Egypt.

Like all scripture, this story speaks inexhaustibly. But I’d like to focus on how the story indicates there are times when God gives warnings and we are called to act – for the purpose of saving Jesus.

I find myself sometimes frightened for the mission and ministry of Jesus when I see perversions of his message. Those who claim to speak for Jesus, but whose words and actions do not reflect his teachings. Followers who claim their leader is speaking for Jesus, when she or he is not. I think of those leaders and pastors who do special harm to the cause of Christ by their very public scandals of infidelity or dishonesty. It’s embarrassing, and it’s harmful. Some people who use these failures as their reason for not being part of organized religion, but I think some are looking for an excuse. Even if that’s the case, these things do harm. I find myself wanting to speak up and say, “wait a minute! That’s not Jesus. That’s not the Lord’s fault. Don’t lump us all together or blame Jesus for the failures of those who claim to be his followers.”

I think that we have an obligation to speak up like that. I know it’s respectful to let people have their own opinions and yes, people may not come to one church because they heard of something that happened in another church, but I don’t want to let such folk do damage to Jesus and his cause by linking him to those failures and perversions. Someone saying, “I’m not going to have anything to do with Christianity because of what happened at this one church or because of what was done by this one Christian” is like saying, “I heard of this one politician who was crooked or dishonest, so I’m not going to have anything to do with the United States of America!”

Jesus and his message are, in a very real way saved by those who, like Joseph hear what God is saying and act. Who listen and obey. They save Jesus and the message he came to proclaim by their integrity, and their witness, and their action. And maybe by being willing to speak up and say “hey, blaming Christianity for the ways some people have perverted it is a copout.” 

We don’t know if Joseph woke Mary and Jesus up after the angel’s warning, but it does say that he travelled by night… that could be because he didn’t want anyone seeing them leave, or it could be because it was night when he got the message, and he responded immediately. But when the angel gave him a warning, he acted.

“Get up”, the angel said to Joseph, “and save the child.” May we do the same.

Saving Jesus

The biblical accounts of what happened after Jesus’ birth – especially the stories of the wise men and of the holy family fleeing to Egypt – are about how Jesus was saved by those who cared about him, who heard from God about Jesus’ endangerment, and then obeyed the warnings that they heard.

In the case of the wise men, they were warned in a dream not to return to King Herod. To obey that warning was risky, because it meant disobeying someone very powerful. But if they hadn’t disobeyed Herod, Jesus may well have been killed. Their obedience to God, then resulted in our salvation…which is an amazing thing to think about: that the obedience of one generation – or even one person – can produce ripple effects which change things from that time forward.

Joseph hears from an angel and is warned about Herod’s plan to kill the baby Jesus. The biblical text conveys urgency. His response (it reads) is immediate. The angel spoke, and he gets up, got Mary and Jesus together and took off for Egypt.

Like all scripture, this story speaks inexhaustibly. But I’d like to focus on how the story indicates there are times when God gives warnings and we are called to act – for the purpose of saving Jesus.

I find myself sometimes frightened for the mission and ministry of Jesus when I see perversions of his message. Those who claim to speak for Jesus, but whose words and actions do not reflect his teachings. Followers who claim their leader is speaking for Jesus, when she or he is not. I think of those leaders and pastors who do special harm to the cause of Christ by their very public scandals of infidelity or dishonesty. It’s embarrassing, and it’s harmful. Some people who use these failures as their reason for not being part of organized religion, but I think some are looking for an excuse. Even if that’s the case, these things do harm. I find myself wanting to speak up and say, “wait a minute! That’s not Jesus. That’s not the Lord’s fault. Don’t lump us all together or blame Jesus for the failures of those who claim to be his followers.”

I think that we have an obligation to speak up like that. I know it’s respectful to let people have their own opinions and yes, people may not come to one church because they heard of something that happened in another church, but I don’t want to let such folk do damage to Jesus and his cause by linking him to those failures and perversions. Someone saying, “I’m not going to have anything to do with Christianity because of what happened at this one church or because of what was done by this one Christian” is like saying, “I heard of this one politician who was crooked or dishonest, so I’m not going to have anything to do with the United States of America!”

Jesus and his message are, in a very real way saved by those who, like Joseph hear what God is saying and act. Who listen and obey. They save Jesus and the message he came to proclaim by their integrity, and their witness, and their action. And maybe by being willing to speak up and say “hey, blaming Christianity for the ways some people have perverted it is a copout.”  

We don’t know if Joseph woke Mary and Jesus up after the angel’s warning, but it does say that he travelled by night… that could be because he didn’t want anyone seeing them leave, or it could be because it was night when he got the message, and he responded immediately. But when the angel gave him a warning, he acted.

“Get up”, the angel said to Joseph, “and save the child.” May we do the same.

An Old, Old, Story

Every generation wants to live in good times. People work to make that so.  But there are sometimes circumstances bigger and more powerful than our efforts. The American Civil War, the stock market crash and Great Depression, the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s… we could reach farther backward in time and just keep going.  It’s difficult to live during a time when our own effort cannot turn things around, when there are forces at work which make us not-so-hopeful for the present time and immediate future. But even then, we are called to learn from our mistakes and to hope. It’s just a drag that any given generation suffers because of the willful, selfish, and short-sighted concern of those who came before them, thereby paving the way for the coming day of reckoning that the aforementioned catastrophes and conflicts symbolize.

Those who count themselves part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, along with secular historians, have biblical examples of such times. We think of the repeated rises and falls of the people of Israel – economically, politically, morally. What’s interesting to note is that each time such a failure takes place – whether in the pages of biblical history or in secular annals – there is one more example added to the list. Christian history has its failures, too and yet they each seem to fit some earlier template. As the late historian J. Rufus Fears often said, “The first lesson of history is that people don’t learn from history.”

One lesson that seems pertinent is that the morality of leaders does matter, whether in the realm of religious, corporate or civic life. In hundreds of ways (if not thousands, over time), leaders communicate to their constituency. Because of each generation’s desire to live in good times, the populace seems ever willing to look the other way when the economy is good, or their group (whatever that group may be, whether racial, ethnic, political or religious) is winning. People gloss over the moral failures of deception, self-interest, arrogance and corruption because things are going well for them. They believe, hope, or delude themselves into thinking that surely the next generation will straighten out the matters of immorality, injustice, inequality and hubris — if indeed they even see them as problems. Sometimes the fall is experienced by the next — or the next after that — generation. Sometimes the leader or people of the generation that experiences the collapse are blamed. In many cases, the seeds of that harvest were planted long ago.

Like beetles under the bark of a healthy-looking tree or the invisible erosion taking place beneath an eventual sinkhole, when the foundational principles of society are so diseased that they cannot bear the weight of life’s ever-present needs and problems, collapse occurs.

I love the principles upon which the United States of American were founded, even if they have not always been realized. I am grateful and blessed to be a citizen. But these days, I sense the growth of a cancer that may, like countless examples in history, result in a collapse of the nation that Americans in every generation have dreamed would come to fruition. If – or when – it happens, I doubt historians will say “they weren’t clever enough at politics”, “there were forces that overwhelmed their ability to feed the people”, or “they were conquered by another nation that was superior in technology and military might.” I suspect that it will be the old story repeated innumerable times and still not heeded: it was the corruption of the moral standards which allowed hate, deception, partisanship, and hubris to take their eternally-predictable toll.

The “The” Word

grey-people

DNA ancestry kits are producing some interesting results. People are finding out “I didn’t know it, but I’ve got some of that in me!” I especially enjoy seeing people becoming excited enough to research and find out about a part of their ancestry of which they may not have been aware until recently. Hopefully, they develop a newfound pride in this part of them they’ve discovered exists.

What we’re learning is that no one is as pure anything as they might have believed. If only we could translate that awareness into our attitudes toward others when it comes to using the word “the.”

You know what I’m talking about: it’s all around us. Far too many people use the word “the” to lump individuals into groups, making it easier to judge, hate, and dismiss them. “The gays”. “The Latinos”. “The liberal media”. “The blacks”. “The liberals”. “The conservatives”. “The democrats”. “The republicans.” We could go on and on.

I’ve heard people talk about “the gay agenda”. There is no such thing. Do you think all gay people agree on all points of their politics, religion, or priorities? Do you think there’s some mass mailing to all LGBT+ people that gives the directive “here’s what we’re all going to do this month”? Do all republicans or democrats or whites or Baptists or Catholics agree on all things such that it might be said they all share the same agenda? Not in my experience. Even in narrowly defined sub-groups, the bell curve rules.

We make it easier on ourselves when we draw such assumptive conclusions, but we don’t make ourselves smarter. We also rob ourselves of one of the most fascinating and wonderful discoveries in life – that every person is unique. Each one has differing hurts, scars, opinions, needs, gifts, strengths, and potentialities.

It’s an easy shift – and helpful, I think – to exchange the word “the” for “some” when describing groups that may share some dominant tendencies or oft-held opinions. Even using the word “most” – if accurate – is so much better than employing the lazy and prejudicial “the”.

Think you could make the “the” shift? I’m going to try.

Do You Have the Time?

an image of people walking in rush hour

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said, “Hurry is not of the devil, hurry is the devil.”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been considering the truth in these words as they relate to the widely-acknowledged spirit of divisiveness and anger in our nation.

I’m not sure I have a solution except to say, “we need to slow down!” When a well-crafted meme that appears on Facebook (and let’s not even ask whether it’s accurate or true) becomes the basis for one’s political, religious, or ethical opinions, something is wrong. Someone “read something on Facebook” about so-and-so, and bases their conversation, voting, and feelings on that post. They re-post it as if it’s the gospel truth. It spreads. More are infected. Something is wrong here. But who has time to read, research, or engage the perceived enemy in conversation? Nope. Too much work.  We’re in a hurry.

Something is wrong here.

But that’s the game these days. Actual debate, discussion, or (God forbid!) listening to the other side has been replaced by the well-thought out jab, barb, or “gotcha” moment that leaders hope will be repeated, reported on, and re-posted. Two hundred and eighty characters (Twitter’s new per-tweet limit) is hardly sufficient for the kind of dialogue necessary to show compassion, interest, or respect.  But who cares about those things? –  that’s not the game these days. The object is no longer dialogue, conversation, or understanding. It’s attack, demean, and harm. Something is wrong here. But who has time for long, drawn out conversation? Who has time to investigate, reason, and consider? Why should I spend time finding out what you think and believe before I launch into telling you about what I believe? Who has time for that?

The answer: we all do.

Time management experts tell us the good news and bad news about time management. The bad news: you aren’t going to get any more time. The good news: you have all there is. Poor people don’t get any less than rich people, smart people don’t have any more than those who are less-smart. Every single person alive gets 24 hours every single day. The difference is made in how they use the time they have.

The problem isn’t that we don’t have time to do the hard work of thinking, reading and listening. It’s that we’re too hurried to do so. What might happen it we re-prioritized our online viewing or reading such that we valued quality over quantity? What if we began to see that one truthful article is of more value than a thousand that are untrue?

According the prophet Isaiah, even God is willing to sit down and listen: Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.” (Isaiah 1:18) Seems to me like an example worth following. I’ll bet the devil wouldn’t like it.