Getting Out of the Echo Chamber

Getting Out of the Echo Chamber

About a year ago, I heard a Korean-American, female pastor challenge white, male, North American pastors to stop reading white, male theologians for the next year.  Her point was, we need to broaden our theologies and perspectives by adding new voices into our learning.  And, I think, her point was, white men reading white men was a bit like reading in an echo chamber – just hearing the same voices repeated over and over and over, reinforcing firmly-established belief-systems.

I didn’t obey her challenge perfectly.  I’ve still read a few white, male authors.  But, I respectfully took her point, and have expanded my reading by intentionally selecting a broader range of authors, than I  have in the past.  And, I’m so glad that I did!

Over the last year, or so, my reading has included, in no particular order…

  • Desmund Tutu – male, South-African
  • Pope Francis – male, Argentinian
  • Dorothy Day – female, Anglo-American
  • Makoto Fujimura – male, Japanese-American
  • Renita Weems – female, African-American
  • Ta-nehisi Coates – male, African-American
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. – male, African-American
  • Deidra Riggs – female, African-American
  • Lisa Sharon Harper – female, African-American
  • Elizabeth Gilbert – female, Anglo-American
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – female, Nigerian
  • Bryan Stevenson – male, African-American
  • Oscar Romero – male, El Salvadoran

This is a challenge I’m glad I accepted, and intend to continue.  The truth is, my shelves are covered with books authored by white men.  While many of them are brilliant and deeply spiritual, they do tend to speak from a vernacular of common life, education, and experience.

By adding new and varied influences, my perspective is being broadened and deepened.  I’m increasingly, painfully aware of the inherent advantages I have as a white, Southern, college-educated, man – advantages I’ve taken for granted, perhaps even assuming I have “earned.”  I’m increasingly aware of the disadvantages others have, simply because of their gender, skin-color, ethnicity, or country-of-origin.  I’m increasingly aware of injustice and unfairness, ways that I’m complicit, and ways that I’m called to live and lead differently.  I’m increasingly aware of my wrong assumptions, attitudes, and biases.

My eyes, and my mind are being opened.  And, while that’s not always easy, I am thankful.

While white, male authors are not permanently banned  from my bookshelves, I plan to continue reading an increasingly diverse group of authors.  I plan to continue being challenged, stretched, and deepened.  I encourage you to do the same.

I wonder, any non-white, male authors you might suggest I read next?

 

The Black Panther and the Church…

The Black Panther and the Church…

Sunday afternoon, I watched the long-awaited and much-anticipated movie, The Black Panther.  I thought it was excellent.  But, when it comes to super-hero movies, I’m easy to please!

The Black Panther is both a super-hero and the king of the fictional nation of Wakanda; a small central-African nation, presenting itself to the world as poor and “third world,” while concealing incredible wealth and advanced technology.  Tradition, and fear, have kept the advanced Wakandan society hidden from the world, for generations, all-the-while possessing gifts that could address the world’s greatest needs.

Underlying the primary story-line of the movie are questions about Wakanda’s purpose. Should Wakanda remain hidden from the world, keeping its precious gifts to itself?  Or, should Wakanda use it’s technology to improve, or possibly punish, the world?  Are these gifts to be shared, protected, or hoarded?  Does Wakanda exist for itself, and its personal hoard?  Or, does Wakanda exist for the sake of the world?

Not surprisingly, I couldn’t help but think of the Church.  We also have a treasure the world desperately needs.  We, the Church, also struggle with the purpose of our existence.  Do we exist for ourselves?  Or, do we exist for the world?  Are we a kingdom in hiding, or a kingdom advancing across the earth?  Is this treasure intended for us to keep to ourselves?  Or, is the treasure meant to be shared?

Many would argue the Church isn’t hidden, that our doors are open, and that our treasure (God) is available to all.  True.  But, I would argue thousands drive by our churches every day, with no knowledge or understanding of what we are, what we do, or why we do it.  For all practical purposes, we might as well be hidden.

But, we don’t have to be.  We have the greatest treasures of all (God, and each other), and there’s more than enough to share.  We have treasures the world needs.  We have treasures that can change the world.

Every Marvel movie has an added post-credit scene – sometimes more than one.  In one of the two post-credit scenes, the Black Panther, as King T’challa, stands before the United Nations, announcing Wakanda’s plans to share its treasures with the world.  One of the UN delegates, not knowing what Wakanda has hidden, ignorantly asks, “What can a third-world nation, like Wakanda, possibly have to offer us?”  The scene ends with T’challa smirking.

Perhaps the world is asking the same of the Church.  “What can the Church possibly offer the world?”   We know.  Lets show them!

 

 

Bravery

Bravery

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  Theodore Roosevelt 

More than once, after listening to me wrestle with a decision, a dear friend has wisely asked, “What’s the brave thing to do?”  Not, “What do you want to do?  What’s the easiest thing to do?   What’s the convenient thing to do?  What’s the least controversial thing to do?”  

“What’s the brave thing to do?”

Yesterday, someone told me I’m brave for something I revealed in a recent blog.  It was a compliment, but also acknowledgement of the risk of self-disclosure.

Bravery’s hard.  Bravery requires risk and vulnerability.  Bravery requires facing the likelihood of danger.  Bravery requires stepping out of the shadows, and into the light.  Bravery requires facing the possibility of failure and defeat.  Bravery requires the courage to be real, to be exposed.

Bravery’s hard.  In my High School Psychology class, I learned about the fight-or-flight response to danger.  I’m definitely a “flight” kind of guy!  My natural tendency, when feeling vulnerable or attacked, is to retreat to somewhere safe.  I know I feel threatened, any time I realize I’m avoiding, isolating, or hiding.  I know I’ve forsaken bravery, when I betray my convictions, by remaining silent or feigning agreement or consent.

Some time ago, I noticed, every reference to courage or bravery in the Bible is a choice – “Be brave…take courage…”  Bravery is a choice.

If I choose bravery, you may not like what I say or do; you may not agree with me; you might be angry with me; you might judge and condemn me; you might fight back; you might reject me.  If I’m brave, I might lose.  But, if I’m not brave, what have actually gained?  Anything?  If I’m not brave, I’ve already lost by consent.

On the other hand, if I choose bravery, I might become your friend; I might be your ally; I might be your advocate; I might be your defender; I might be your hero; I might even inspire bravery in you, too.

Bravery’s risky business.  But, everything worthwhile is.

I want to be brave, even when I’m not.  I want to say and do brave things.  I want to take stands for the things I believe.  I want to be brave for those who can’t be.  Even when there’s a personal cost, and always a risk, I want to be true to my convictions.  I want to be brave.

I want to choose bravery.  Don’t you?

Heroes

Heroes

“God of our life, there are days when the burdens we carry chafe our shoulders and weigh us down; when the road seems dreary and endless, the skies grey and threatening; when our lives have no music in them, and our hearts are lonely, and our souls have lost their courage. Flood the path with light, run our eyes to where the skies are full of promise; tune our hearts to brave music; give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age; and so quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage the souls of all who journey with us on the road of life, to Your honor and glory.” St. Augustine

I’ve been thinking about my heroes.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps I heard something, or read something about heroes.  Perhaps it’s the talk of the heroic acts of students, teachers and coaches at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018.  Perhaps it’s just a thought that randomly popped in my head.

Actually, I’ve been pondering what my particular heroes say about me.  Is there something about who they are (or were) or what they do (or did), that speaks to who I strive to be?

As an only child, I spent a lot of time, growing up, alone – as most only children do.  As an introvert, I didn’t mind.  That space, I think, helped me develop a lively imagination.

In third grade, I discovered comic books and super heroes, and I was enthralled.  I quickly discovered a small comic book store, within a bike-ride of my house. In addition to new comics, and boxes and boxes of preserved comics in plastic bags, there was a box of old, used, worn and torn comic books, for only $.25.  Just about every quarter I earned, found, or was given, was spent buying $.25 comics.

By the way, I still have most of them.

My favorites were Superman and Batman, but I loved them all.  At one point, I created and drew my own super heroes.  I loved their courage.  I loved their super-powers.  I loved their cool hideouts, vehicles, and weapons.  I loved how they always saved the day, no matter how terrible the schemes of their evil foes.

Though I haven’t read a comic book in ages, I absolutely love all of the super hero movies of the past decade.  In fact, while some are more critically acclaimed than others, I’ve yet to see a bad one.  A “bad” super hero movie, to me, is still better than just about anything else!

While I still love the heroes of fantasy, I’ve also accumulated a growing list of real-life “super” heroes.  Though most of my heroes are “known,” at least in certain circles, few are/were rich, or powerful, or successful by “worldly” standards.  Though some have risen to honorable positions, and received accolades, few are/were motivated by such things.

My heroes of history include St. Francis, who abandoned wealth and comfort to serve God and the poor; Mother Teresa, who ventured into the dangerous streets of Calcutta, to serve the sick and dying; John Wesley, whose passion for God and dissatisfaction with the spiritual status-quo sparked a movement; Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement to serve the poor; Oscar Romero, who was martyred for standing with the poor of El Salvador;  Martin Luther King, Jr., who was martyred for his fight for justice on behalf of people of color.

My living heroes include Pope Francis, as he leads the Roman Catholic Church (and all of us) from a place of humility and love for ALL people; Barack Obama, who consistently demonstrates leadership with character; Jimmy Carter, who may not be remembered as a great President, but has given his life to Christ-centered service; Bryan Stevenson, an attorney, author and activist, fighting for the lives of death-row inmates unfairly tried and sentenced.   Dona Maria Tomasa, an incredible Mayan woman, and dear friend, who overcame the destruction of the Guatemalan Civil War and the brutal murder of her husband, to lead a weaving cooperative for widows, called “Ruth and Naomi,” that now sells hand-made products internationally; my Bishop, Kenneth Carter, who leads from a place of consistent, grounded, Christ-centered hopefulness; and many, many, many of my former students from the Florida State University Wesley Foundation, who are now leading and serving to make the world a better place.

As I reflect on my heroes, I see themes emerge: leadership, humility, dissatisfaction with the status quo, authenticity, fearlessness in the face of opposition, service and sacrifice, courage, commitment to change, depth of character, belief that a better world is possible, perseverance, overcoming hardship and resistance, and a deep passion for God.

As much as I love the “super” heroes of my childhood fantasies, I’ll never possess a superpower.  But, as I look at my list of real-life heroes, I see much I can strive to imitate.

I wonder if that’s why certain people become our heroes?  Perhaps they represent who we wish we could be.  Or, perhaps, they represent, to some degree, who we can be.

Who are your heroes?

 

God “Bless?” America

God “Bless?” America

I led a new Bible study, this morning, on the Sermon on the Mount.  I intended to start last week, but delayed due to the swirl of activity in the immediate aftermath of the  Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy.  Today’s class focused on the Beatitudes, found in Matthew 5:1-16…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  

What does it mean to be blessed?  What does it mean when we say, “God bless America?” Health?  Wealth?  Prosperity?  Protection?  Favor?

The Greek word, used in the New Testament, for “blessed” is “makarios,” which means something akin to, “being in an enviable position,” particularly in our relationship with God.  Being “blessed, spiritually-speaking, is a good, desirable, godly place to be.

Jesus says we’re in an inviable position with God when we are poor in spirit, when we are mourning, when we are meek, when we are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and when we are persecuted, when we face opposition for our faith.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds VERY different than the way most of us typically use the word “blessed!”

Is it possible we understand the word “blessed” correctly, but expect the wrong outcome? After all, we live in the wealthiest, most prosperous nation on earth.  But, what’s all of our wealth and welfare doing for us?

Being close to God does NOT automatically lead to health, prosperity, protection and favor.  Instead, being close to God may mean the opposite.  Being close to God will break your heart for the sins of the world.  Being close to God will reveal your insufficiencies, and need for God.  Being close to God means working for justice and peace, even when it brings opposition.  Being close to God requires seeing the impurities in our own lives, and our desperate need for refinement.  Being close to God requires personal sacrifice.  Being close to God can be difficult… and blessed.

Being close to God is undeniably an inviable position.  It’s where we want to be, whether we get that or not.  But, God blesses us to bless others, not to bask in the blessing ourselves.  Being close to God is joining in God’s work of healing and redeeming this broken world.  Being blessed is less about the temporal blessings we may or may not receive, and more about the blessing we can be for those less blessed than us.

This world needs a lot of blessing!

Though I’ve read the Beatitudes countless times, I’m hearing them differently this time.  I can’t help but read them through the lens of our recent tragedy.  I hear the call to mourn and show mercy – Christians are good at that.  But, I’m also hearing God’s call to work for justice and peace, even if it means facing painful opposition.

In fact, just a few verses after the Beatitudes, Jesus adds, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16)  

The “blessed” do.  The “blessed” put blessing into action.  Friends, there’s a lot of blessing for us to do.

Yes, God, please bless America.  Bless us with the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the workers for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace-makers, and those who are persecuted for doing what is right.  Bless us with your Kingdom.  Bless us, please.

Being a “cracked-pot” pastor…

Being a “cracked-pot” pastor…

Crackpot:  “An eccentric, crazy or foolish person.”

I am, undeniably, a cracked-pot pastor.

Not growing up in Church, I didn’t observe pastors performing their duties.  I never had pastoral role models to later imitate.  I never picked up the mannerisms, or the manner of speech.  I never learned the “right things” to say or do in given situations.  I never had expectations of who or what a pastor is supposed to be.  I never learned the nuances.

I didn’t even learn the familiar Bible stories – in Sunday School and sermons – as most pastors do.

By the time I was around pastors, I was becoming one myself.

And, most of my ministry has been just outside the traditional pastoral role.  I was a youth director, then an associate pastor (allowed a lot of “non-traditional” freedoms), a church-planter (of a VERY non-traditional church), and a campus minister.  I didn’t actually become a traditional-“ish” pastor until about four years ago!

I still find myself wondering, almost daily, “Is this what a pastor is supposed to think, say, feel, do?”  I often conclude the answer must be “no.”  After almost twenty-five years of ministry, I’m still figuring out this job every day.  I still call colleagues, asking, “Is this what I’m supposed to?  How would you handle this?  Do your members expect this-or-that, or do such-and-such?”  I feel like I need to apologize frequently for NOT saying or doing something I should have known to say or do.

The role of “pastor,” is still a mystery to me, even as a I try my best to do it.  I must be a crackpot – crazy and/or foolish – to think I can do this job!

If I’m honest – and, I really value honesty – ministry is a struggle for me.  People call me “pastor,” and I wonder who they are talking to.  I mumble and stumble through prayers.  I wonder, sometimes, if my sermons are too off the wall.  I don’t pick up on the non-verbal cues that someone needs something pastoral from me.  I wonder if I’m too introverted.  I think I might be way too comfortable with “grey,” when people seem to want “black and white” answers from me. I don’t have the clothes for the job, the words for the job, or the mannerisms for the job.

Maybe I’m too comfortable with saying, “I have no idea…”  Maybe my ideas and dreams are too lofty, when people really need a pastor to be a practical decision-maker.  Maybe I’m too private.  Maybe I’m too political – or not political enough?

Often – lately – I just feel inadequate.  As a pastor, I feel inadequate.  Let’s be honest – I am inadequate.

Especially as my community reels from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy, I can’t help but wonder what I’m NOT doing, that needs to be done.  As I sit at my desk, scratching my head, I wonder, “What, who, am I forgetting?  What does my church, my community need from me?  What is God calling us to do in response?  What’s the right thing to say?”

Other pastors seem to be moving with such confidence; rushing to the school on the day of the shooting, planning and attending prayer vigils, organizing events, planning fundraisers.  I’m in awe of their clarity, focus and energy.

Pastors call or email me, offering to help, asking what we need, and I find I don’t know what to say.  I’m grateful for their offers, of course.  I just don’t know.

I’m not writing any of this to make excuses for my pastoral shortcomings, or to evoke sympathy for my inadequacies.  I’m not looking for a pat on the back or an “attaboy!”  I’m just being honest.

And, I honestly wonder if other pastors might wrestle with the some of the same feelings, even if for different reasons.  Perhaps I’m not the only pastor who feels inadequate.

The truth is, we’re all inadequate, aren’t we?  I’m pretty sure every pastor is inadequate, to some degree.  Even as we offer our very best ideas and efforts, we all fall short.  Even as we shine in one moment, we falter in the next.  Even as we care for one person well, we may miss the person who needed us even more.  Even as we impress some, we inevitably offend others.  No pastor is sufficiently adequate for everything that’s expected and needed from us, 100% of the time.  We are, after all, human.

But, thank God, we serve someone who is more than adequate.  In moments like these, I take considerable assurance from 2 Corinthians 4:7, “We ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure.  This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.”  

The very best of us – the smartest, most experienced, most eloquent, wisest, tireless, best dressed – fall short too.  Oddly, I take comfort in that.  But, thus far, in my life and ministry, God hasn’t fallen short.  In spite of being a fragile, “cracked -pot” pastor, God sometimes manages to use me.  Or, at least I hope so.

So, again today, I’ll try as hard as I can to be a pastor, even as I know I’m inadequate for the job.  When (not if) I fall short, please be patient with me.  Please forgive me when I disappoint you – and I will.  And, as much as possible, even as I fail, I hope you’ll look more to the treasure I represent, and less to the cracked, fragile container I obviously am.

 

God meant things to be so much easier…

God meant things to be so much easier…

“We want to build a society where it is easier for people to be good.”  Peter Maurin (Co-founder, with Dorothy Day, of the Catholic Worker Movement)

Long before last week’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I’ve been in turmoil over the brokenness I see, every where I look…

  • Thousands dying from opioid overdoses.
  • Countless women revealing the abuses they’ve suffered from men behaving like animals.
  • The growing divide between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
  • The bullying young people endure in our schools, and on social media.
  • The vitriol that dominates our politics.
  • Senseless acts of “road rage,” ending in senseless deaths.
  • The public rise of hate groups.
  • The decline of civility.
  • The alarming negative impact of social media on everything from our politics to our children’s social development.
  • ISIS.  Al-Queda.  Boko Haram.
  • The Pulse night club massacre.  The Las Vegas strip massacre.  The Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre.

What is happening?

I know the world’s never been perfect.  There’s always been war, violence, hate, prejudice, addiction, sickness, poverty, disasters, racism, injustices, etc.  Certainly, anyone whose lived through wars, or famines, or the Holocaust, or slavery, or in a refugee camp, or a natural disaster, may not be as shocked or disturbed as I am by our current state.  Perhaps the world is no more broken than it ever has been, and I’ve just been blind or ignorant.

Nevertheless, my eyes are wide-open now, and I don’t like what I see.

Do you?

Dorothy Day wrote, “We are not expecting utopia here on this earth.  But God meant things to be much easier than we have made them.”

Is it possible that we’ve created a way of living that’s unhealthy, unsustainable, and undermining the kind of life we actually long for? Is it possible that our values and lifestyles – the values and lifestyles of normal, church-going, law-abiding citizens – are actually completely out-of-whack?  Is it possible that for the world to change, we’ll have to change ourselves?

In the shadow of recent events, children are on my mind.  I think we’re failing our children.

  • We aren’t providing children with adequate role models, mentors, and guides.
  • We’re pushing our kids to be too busy for their own good, and have placed too much pressure on them to perform.
  • We’re sacrificing family time, for work and activity.
  • We’re sacrificing community and extended-family, for opportunity and mobility.
  • We’re sacrificing religion and spirituality – in the Church and in the home – to competing obligations and recreation.
  • We’re not teaching children the values of respect for authority, hard work and discipline, and basic morality.
  • We’re exposing our children to way too much evil in movies, TV, the internet, and social media, without the supervision or skills to discern good and evil, right and wrong.
  • We’re indulging our kids, instead of investing in them.
  • We’re allowing our kids to grow up with way too much fear, without the foundations of security we all need to thrive.
  • We are creating survivors, not thrivers.

And, when I say “we,” I’m not just blaming parents.  Parenting is the hardest job I’ve ever had, and I certainly didn’t do it perfectly.  “We” is me.  “We” is you.  “We” is society, culture, government, the Church, the media, the press, school systems, sports leagues, etc., etc.  “We” are the problem.

I’m also not suggesting there aren’t countless parents, grand-parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, Scout leaders, police officers, politicians, etc. trying to make a difference in kids lives.  There are, thank God.

But, something has to change, doesn’t it?  What we’re doing isn’t working, is it?

I don’t have the answers, and it’s certainly much easier to identify problems than to develop solutions.  But, increasingly, I want to be part of building a society where it is easier for people to “be good.”

What if we lived simpler lives, with less stress, and more time for family, friends, and faith?

What if we knew our neighbors, and built stronger community with them?

What if we developed habits of helping each other, relying on each other, supporting each other?

What if we all gave more time to service, helping the most fragile members of our society?

What if we spent more time looking into each other’s faces, and less time at screens?

What if we planted deeper roots in one place, forsaking the next promotion or opportunity, for the sake of long-term stability?

What if we valued character-development – our children’s and our own – over academic, athletic, or professional achievement?  Not instead of, just more than.

What if church, worship, service, and faith development was a priority for the whole family?

What if we were more generous with our resources, our time, and our hearts?

What if we collectively committed to fixing what is broken in our society, instead of turning our backs and hiding from it?

What if we collectively believed we could make the world better than it is, and did something about it?

I want to be part of building a society where it is easier for people to be good – really good.  Do you?