There is Room at the Table

There is Room at the Table

The night settles in as we drive across the Florida Georgia line. The blue horizon fades to black, pale stars blink awake, and rows of pines trees rise up to replace buildings on either side of the road. I watch out the window as the occasional illuminated billboard passes by, holding my husbands hand and shuffling through podcasts to sync up to the radio.

We land on the story of a Christian man, a pastor, who recently came out to his family and friends as gay. It a beautiful story which I will not do justice to as I attempt to recap it here. You can listen to it on the Liturgists podcast.

Basically, this man lived a life of celibacy for 40 years, because that is what he believed faithful obedience to the scriptures looked like for him. As a young person, he buried feelings of same-sex attraction beneath prayers to be made straight, self help books and focus on the family hotlines. As he grew, he lived a life of genuine faith and love for God and others. He served the body of Christ, studying the scriptures in seminary, earning his doctorate degree and teaching as an ordained pastor. Listening to him, you can tell how thoughtfully he considers everything he does, how wise he is, and how humbly he walks with his God.

Despite his commitment to living the way many evangelical Christians would advise gay men to live- celibate, seeking to change- he ends up hospitalized by stress and battling suicidal despair. He reaches a point where he has to be honest with himself and with others to save his life.

His subsequent journey to reconcile his gay identity with his faith is so moving. He proceeds with emotional and mental integrity, prayer, humility, and honesty about who he is. He describes the ongoing process of trusting and resting in these words: “God loves you. You have people who love you. You are going to be O.K.”

All the while, he maintains a high view of scripture, leaning on biblical truths and their authority in his life.

But wait, how is that possible, some Christians might ask? The scripture is clear about homosexuality. If you believe in the bible, you have to reject homosexuals/homosexuality. That’s the end of the conversation, right?

Maybe not.

The Bible has been “clear” before, after all,” Rachel Held Evans points out in her blog, “in support of a flat and stationary earth, in support of wiping out entire people groups, in support of  manifest destiny, in support of Indian removal, in support of Antisemitism, in support of slavery, in support of “separate but equal,” in support of constitutional amendments banning interracial marriage.”

Christians have gotten it wrong before- horribly wrong. They’ve rejected science or reason or even their own conscience because they thought the bible told them to. There’s always the chance, maybe even the likely chance, that we’re still getting a lot of our interpretations wrong today. This issue is not as “black and white” as a lot of people would like to think: There are good arguments from authors like Matthew Vines who say that the scripture does not say what so many people think it says about homosexual relationships. There are nuances and gray areas in scripture, and there is a uniqueness to every individual soul which should be honored and dignified when thinking these issues through.

In our limited understanding of complex issues, it is my prayer that the Evangelical Church would err on the side of graciousness rather than judgement; inclusion rather than exclusion, and empathy rather than condemnation.

My heart is broken over the casualties that lie in the wake of American Christianity’s political and social wars. Entire groups of people-who are made in the image of God, who are deeply beloved,  who are valuable and beautiful and worthy, have received the message loud and clear from the church: you are not welcome here. You are not loved as you are. There is not room for you at the table. Today, that is especially true of the LGBT community. As much as Christians claim to “hate the sin, love the sinner,” unadulterated hatred and exclusion has been the defining experience of gay people in relationship to the church.

Christians who don’t affirm same-sex relationships ought to weigh the relative cost of thinking they’re “right” with the cost of excluding people from the family of God. Your words and your actions have the power to do that. Even if they’re said from behind a keyboard. Even if you defend them with a bible verse.

I see that stuff you post on your Facebook wall. I hear you discussing the HB2 Law on the radio. I hear the easy, dismissive, confident assertions about LGBT people dripping with insinuation of pedophilia and perversion. I struggle with when to remain silent and when to open my mouth.

So many Christians mistake what their role should be in the lives of others. Instead of unconditional love and “judging not lest ye be judged,” they take it upon themselves to be the moral police for all society. They make spotting people’s “sins” a sport; they consider their public disapproval a virtue.  Instead of empathizing with, listening to, and honoring the struggles of others, they distance themselves from people’s suffering by making it into a metaphor; a debatable topic with which they can agree or disagree without consequence. 

They fail to realize, or perhaps just refuse to acknowledge, that behind every “issue,” every political debate, every hot button topic, there is a real man, woman, or child  who is experiencing the day to day realities that issue represents. Racial injustice. Debates over immigrants. LGBT rights. Gun violence. Even if you’re not directly effected by them, someone is. Someone is agonizing over it. It’s someones entire life.

I imagine the long line of human beings stretching back into our history who have been dehumanized and silenced in the name of a God who loves them. I’m haunted, because that tradition lives on today, and it is so damn antithetical to everything I know and everything I love about Jesus Christ.

Once, a group of religious leaders were prepared to stone a woman to death for her sexual sins, and Jesus stood in their way. He defended her, even though we can safely assume that this woman was guilty of the adultery she was accused of. Yet it was not her who Jesus reprimanded, but those who sought to condemn her for her sins. It was important to him that the religious elite knew it was not their job to judge others lest they be judged by the same standard themselves. And since none of them were perfect, none had the right to cast a stone.

Their only job was to love and serve this person: it was up to Jesus to deal with whatever sins she struggled with.

We are defined by how well we love the most vulnerable, not how loudly we disagree with them. Jesus said that the way you treat marginalized people in society is how you are treating him. Whether you dismiss or embrace a person is in fact your response to Christ himself.I hope that we can remember that; that we would learn to see Jesus in the faces of people who are stigmatized, judged, and mistreated by the Church.

The kingdom of God was meant for these people you accuse- these scandalous, these strange, these terrifying, these beautiful souls. There is room at the table. That is the good news Jesus came to proclaim. 

Confronting Racism>Colorblindness

Confronting Racism>Colorblindness

For most of my life, I didn’t think very much about race.

In my neighborhoods and schools, I had friends who were black, white, Latino, Middle Eastern, and Asian. I thought of racism as something that used to exist in real life but now was confined to a chapter in our text books. With the purest of intentions, I was one of those people who’d say “I don’t see color, I just see people.” I wore the rose-tinted glasses you get to wear when you are young- when you are white.

As I got older, things started to change. I started to listen to the stories of my non-white friends and realized that they experienced day to day difficulties I never have.

I watched along with the rest of America as black men continued to be shot in the streets- some of them not men at all, but children, not much older than the ones I teach at school. Their pictures were broadcast on television, posted on social media, and held up in mourning as the nation awaited the results of each trial. There was protesting in the streets, mothers with tear stained faces, and hovering above it all, political debate about guns and laws and standing your ground.

The noise was almost enough to make you forget what we were really talking about: unarmed teenagers, whose lives mattered, were being killed over loud music, over toys guns, over “misunderstandings.” Over race.

Suddenly, colorblindness didn’t feel like the most noble response to racism, because rather than address it as a serious problem, it denied that a problem even existed. Our white silence at the dinner table did not serve to improve a situation where many people did not have the luxury of living in comfortable ignorance.

Desmond Tutu said  “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”  And what is “colorblindness” if not neutrality? However well intended it may be, ultimately, it is cowardly, and it’s less than we’re called to.

I came to understand that being white had afforded me the me the luxury of never having to think about race if I didn’t want to. Mine is the dominant culture, and because of that, I could to go through life without defining myself by my skin color. Being white means I can turn on TV or go to the movies and always see someone who looks like me. It means when I apply for a job, I don’t have to worry that my employer might be biased against “ethnic-sounding” names. It means I am less likely to be incarcerated or stopped by police, whether or not I am doing something illegal. It means my mom didn’t have the same fears about me riding my bike around the neighborhood as a black mother has about her child.

We call these luxuries privilege.

I have spoken to many white people who, when I mention “white privilege,” become defensive and even lash out. They reject outright the idea that there are any societal factors at play which might put them at an advantage, often citing anecdotes about their own personal hardships. These are usually the same people who claim that racism is not a significant issue in America anymore.

But maintaining the belief that we are living in a post-racial society requires a mixture of willful ignorance, historical amnesia, and arrogance. 

It’s so easy to look back on history and assume you’d be on the right side of it. With hindsight, you can claim that, of course, you would have sided with Dr King, and not with the White Alabaman Clergymen who urged him to stop his demonstrations. But at the time, those Clergymen believed that telling Dr King to keep quiet and quit protesting was the best way to achieve “peace.” Dr King famously responded, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.” 

From prison, Dr King wrote letters in response to the clergymen’s position which included these words: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not . . . the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

Polls show that in the mid century, the era of Jim Crow, most white Americans believed that African Americans were treated fairly in this country. Black people, of course, disagreed. Looking back, most white people today would admit that black people were right and white people were wrong back then.

Which begs the question- asked by Author Drew Hart- what changed? “Is it likely that the white dominant group and the black marginalized group instantaneously swapped roles regarding who perceived injustice more preciously? …To affirm that white people are suddenly getting it right and that black people have simultaneously lost their capacity to interpret their own experiences seems an unhelpful response not based on serious reflection of our past nor the testimonies.”

To my fellow white people who bristle against the #BlackLivesMatter movement, who hesitate to admit that our society is structured in such a way that they receive privilege, please consider this: When people of color, as a collective community, are sharing their experiences with racial injustice in America and speaking out against an unfair system, is it outrageously arrogant for us, as white people, to dismiss them by assuming we know better than they do how prejudice operates in America.

I think one of the major roadblocks to humility and reconciliation is that our colorblindness has made us ignorant of what racism actually is. We assume that just because we don’t use racial slurs or overtly downplay people’s value, we’re guilt-free. We fail to see that racism is subtle, nuanced, and evolving. Its deeply ingrained in our history and cannot be done away with by snapping our fingers. Perhaps most important, we fail to realize that racism isn’t just individualistic, its systemic. 

 Near the beginning of his book, Trouble I’ve Seen, Dr Drew Hart describes a conversation he had with a well meaning white pastor who wanted to “dialogue across the racial divide.” The pastor tried to extract a metaphor from the cup of sweet tea that sat between them. We’re both looking at the same thing, he figured, just from different perspectives- neither can see what the other is seeing on their side of the cup. 

Drew thanked the man for this gesture, but went on to explain why this metaphor simply didn’t hold up as accurate: “In fact, I did know what was on his side of the cup. This is because I have learned Eurocentric history written from a white perspective. I have read white literature and poetry. I have learned about white musicians and artists. I have had white teachers and professors through every stage of my educational process… the truth is I wouldn’t have been on track to a PhD without becoming intimately familiar with the various ways that white people think….in contrast to me, he most likely could go through his entire life without needing to know black literature, black intellectual thought, black wisdom, black art and music, or black history.”

This clarification was important for me to hear, and I assume it will be for many others how read the books as well: “Racism isn’t first and foremost about a horizontal divide; it is a vertical and structured hierarchy. Social hierarchy and power have defined, in varying degrees, human worth, beauty, and significance in society.” 

As a followers of Christ, we’re called to stand in solidarity with the marginalized, even if we can’t fully understand their experience. I want to honor and dignify the voices of those around me who experience oppression to which I have been blind to. Honestly, I’m not sure yet what exactly that is suppose to look like. I am still receiving feedback (and welcoming it from readers.) I’m continuing to read books on the subject by people of color, including The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.

I think a good place to start is with genuine humility, self-critical examination, and a willingness to learn.

We need to celebrate the voices of black artists and writers and thinkers.

We need to listen when people say they are experiencing injustice.

We have to break our silence, in our homes and from the pulpits.

We need to be unafraid to affirm the truth that Black Lives Matter in our conversations, friendships, and churches. (We need to say it without feeling the need to quality it with, “Well, ALL lives matter.” Of course they do. That’s the entire point. )

And we need to repent of the ways racism has effected us both systemically and individually.

This can be daunting for a lot of people. It’s not easy. But it’s worth it. And I have hope, because I believe in redemption and in the Resurrection and in a God who is making all things new, that there’s so much beauty and healing we’ve yet to discover here.

I want to end this post by recommending a book that I read recently by Dr Drew Hart called Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the way the Church Views Racism. It is a powerful, challenging, hope-filled read. It’s caused me to stop and reflect, to seek out further reading, and continue the process of prayerfully reconsidering what it should look like to follow Christ in a nation where racial injustice is still so prevalent. You can order it in the link provided.

 

 

Renewing our Minds by Wrestling with Doubt

Renewing our Minds by Wrestling with Doubt

I have a confession: I am a Christian who doubts. My faith holds hands with big, challenging, often unanswerable questions.

I am a Christian who isn’t sure that everything happens for a reason or why God allows suffering.

I am a Christian who doesn’t think she believes in hell anymore.

I am a Christian who grew up in the evangelical Church, a pastor’s kid, an alumni of more living room Bible Studies than she can count- a christian who knew all the right answers from an early age.

I am a Christian who doesn’t see scripture as black and white as she used to.

I am a Christian who doesn’t know how to reconcile the hypocrisy and politics of the American Church with the teachings of Jesus.

I am a Christian who can’t always smile in quiet agreement with everything the pastor says- who sometimes wishes she could raise her hand during Church service.

I am a Christian who is hungry to occasionally hear from someone other than a middle aged white man speaking from the pulpit.

I am a Christian who is finally listening to LGBT voices instead of assuming I already know what they are going to say and that they’re wrong.

I am a Christian who has been comforted to discover a vast diversity of perspectives within her Christian faith, but disheartened by how so many of them claim, without an ounce of humility, that theirs is the denomination which hold a monopoly on truth.

I am a Christian who woke up to the concept that God might care about things like feminism, global warming, and the lives of animals. That he might value this world, this life, this creation- not just the one after death.

I am a Christian whose God seems to be growing into something more mysterious and less containable than before.


 

On most days, I feel really positive about the changes happening in my heart and mind which are reshaping my faith. But I am not immune to an old, ingrained sense of guilt that always seems to accompany doubt. It’s an effect, I think, of growing up in an American evangelical world, where its not always particularly safe to ask questions.

I rolled over in bed the other night and asked my husband, “Do you think its a bad thing, to have all of these questions?” After all, I had been taught most of the “right” answers- the ones I was suppose to automatically trust.

He said, “Answers don’t mean very much if you’ve never really asked the question. Keep wrestling.”


 

In College, the Bible Study I attended was pretty heavily influenced by John Piper. The girls  watched his video sermons regularly and took a lot of cues from Desiring God

Around my Junior year, Rob Bell published a book called Love Wins. In it, he challenged the current mainstream view of hell, which is that of eternal conscious torture after death for all who don’t believe in the Christian God. 

Before Love Wins even hit bookstores, John Piper reacted to it by sending out a short tweet to his nearly 900,000 Twitter followers.

Farewell-Rob-Bell

“Farewell Rob Bell.” That was all it said.

That tweet was a clear message to all of us who followed Piper. Not only was Rob Bell wrong, he was asking dangerously wrong questions. The implication was clear: Do not doubt this doctrine. Do not believe the wrong thing. If you do, you’re out of the club. Period. Ironically, according to Piper, not believing in hell made you in danger of it.
We listened to Piper. We ditched the Nooma videos mocked Bell for trying to make the gospel more palatable, more fluffy, more mainstream. Not everyone could handle the bloody truth as well as we could, we figured.

Secretly, part of me wondered about the book. Part of me hoped, deep down, that he might be right- that there were room for mercy and uncertainty about this terrible fate everyone was so certain of. 

But I kept that part of me silent, because I thought that to doubt what I had been taught would be “unchristian.” 

Looking back, it seems obvious why my attempts at critical thinking, doubt, and questions were always met with discomfort by my fellow churchgoers. It makes sense why I was often handed a quick solution or explanation or apologetics book instead of being met with genuine consideration. Asking the wrong questions is dangerous because arriving at the wrong answer is heresy.


 

I’ve heard it said that there is no meaner person than a Christian who thinks you’ve got your theology wrong. Ain’t that the truth.

When the most important part of our faith becomes having the correct answers, war ensues over what those answers are. The comments section gets nasty. People call other people heretics. Hell-fire is threatened.

I have known a lot of people who, when someone disagrees with them, become agitated, nervous, and angry. Such reactions are usually just an imitation of confident strength, thinly veiling  fundamental insecurity. It’s as if the wrong line of questioning might send the flimsy infrastructure of their worldview crashing down.

What does that kind of defensiveness say about our view of God? Is he not big enough to be questioned? Is he threatened by our doubts? Is he as offended and angered by people’s multiple perspectives as many of his followers seem to be?


 

Every once in a while, you get really lucky, and you find a book that speaks directly to what you’re going through. It walks you through the things you were feeling but couldn’t quite articulate. It is a gentle, steady voice that says: you are not crazy to feel this way. You are not alone in this. That’s what David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything recently did for me. (Plus, he quotes South Park, so I was obviously hooked.)

sacred

In it, he describes how his mental image of God evolved from a foreboding, pitiless, “Uncle Ben” character into a God who was big enough to welcome his questions.

“Over time, the Bible ceased to be a catalog of all the things one has to believe (or pretend to believe) in order not to go to hell. Instead, the Bible became a broad, multifaceted collection of people crying out to God- a collection of close encounters with the God who is present, somehow, in those very cries….and Christianity, far from being a tradition in which doubts and questions are suppressed in favor of uncritical, blind faith, began to assume the form of robust culture in which anything can be asked and everything can be said.”

I’m starting to realize that God never intended us accept doctrinal truths like a suppository. When reasonable doubt arises in us, God does not ask us to dull our critical thinking or bury our rationality. He doesn’t want forced allegiance, he doesn’t want us to fake it.

Instead, we are invited to wrestle with God. After all, that’s the meaning of Israel- the meaning of the name of God’s chosen people. He who struggles with God.

We’re invited to think critically, because critical thinking reinforces truth and clears away untruths (which you should want cleared away.) If you refuse to think critically, you end up believing nonsense. You might even end up with a Creation Museum in Kentucky.

We’re allowed to ask big questions. We’re even allowed to arrive at different conclusions.

Because maybe having the right answers is not the point. Maybe being right is not as important as being kind. Maybe treating others the way you’d like to be treated is more important than correcting their theology.


 

The way to combat all of this hostility between people, I think, is simple humility.

When human beings talk about God, we are grappling with mysteries bigger than any of us can really comprehend. The Milky Way Galaxy  alone is 100,000 light years wide. Your brain is only the space between your ears. It is a wise idea to have a little grace on one another as we navigate enormous concepts like meaning, truth, life, and God.

We all have something to say, we all have something to learn, and none of us has all the answers. Each of us is most certainly wrong about a great many things we think we know. It is a wise idea to remember that before we speak. Do not crush an opportunity to empathize with someone because you are unwilling to dignify their point of view.

David Dark says, “For the love of whatever peaceable kingdom you proclaim, come out of your isolated subculture and learn. Watch. Wait. At least every once in a while, practice your right to remain silent. Know when you don’t know. Have the wit and the human kindness to say so. Practice tact.” 

 

 

As Christians, we are all called to the renewing of our minds. This “renewal” is not a one time event. There is no bold red line we cross at conversion,  no moment where we once and for all change the way we think and act and live. Instead, we have to participate in a daily  lifelong process of turning our hearts and minds over to Christ, in order that we may become more humble, more merciful, more just, less judgmental, less violent, less prideful.

Be sure of this: You cannot be open to the renewing of your mind if you firmly believe that you’ve already got it all figured out.

You cannot be open to the renewing of your mind if you are unwilling to listen to and learn from people who are different than you- people of other creeds and colors and communities.

You cannot be open to the renewing of your mind without the self awareness to admit when you are wrong; without the humility realize that you most certainly are wrong about a great many things you think you know.

So doubt. Struggle.  Be honest, be open, and willing to learn. Be humble, no matter who you are or how much you think you know. Be patient with yourself and with others.

Wrestle with God. You are not called to anything less.

You can order The Sacredness of Questioning Everything here.