Saturday, November 12, 2016

Family Values: An Open Letter to My Son


I need to tell you something and you’re probably not going to like what I have to say when I finally get it all out. The lucky thing for me is you’re too young to comprehend what happened this week, so even if I tried to do this face to face, we’d end up talking about dinosaurs or trains or Dinosaur Train. To be honest, any of those conversations would be better than some others I have had this week.

Seven days ago, your mother and I set out to plan for our future with you and any potential siblings of yours in mind. As we drove back home from Virginia, we borrowed your dry erase board and laid out our family’s values. We arrived at five: Integrity. People. Generosity. Optimism. Curiosity. By the time you’re old enough to read this, you’ll probably roll your eyes and scoff at the importance we place on knowing our values and living our values every day. You’ll undoubtedly have witnessed us fail at upholding these values – I know you did this afternoon after you got in trouble for kicking your grandfather. Our failures aside, these are our family’s values and we have committed to use them as guides for ourselves, for you, and for the way we encounter others around us.

There must have been a reason we had this conversation when we did, for the day after we talked about values a bunch of adults around us came to the conclusion that the next person to lead our country would be a man who we’ve found to embody the antithesis of our family’s values. I once heard someone remark that if you find yourself praying for strength or mercy or peace you just might be confronted with situations which require you to be strong, merciful, or peaceful. This seems to be one of those times. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

It has not been easy to find words to discuss what has transpired in our country this week. There has been no lack of speculation about why he won and how she lost and what will happen next. There have been questions posed about our electoral system and how someone can earn more votes than someone else and still lose the decision and how can so many people see the world so drastically different from one another.

There is good news. There’s a lot of bad news, but there is some good news. The good news for you is you were born into a family of privilege who’ve succeeded financially, gotten great educations, acquired and sold property, paid down debts, and rarely if ever struggled to find work. The good news for you is you are privileged like we are and are therefore have a greater potential of being insulated from the ramifications of this man’s proposed policies.

Here’s the bad news:

What’s true for you and me and your mother isn’t true for everyone. The system and society in which we live is set up to advantage us from our birth. This is unacceptable. We have friends for whom such privilege does not exist. The playing field isn’t level and it won’t be until babies who look different from one another come into the world with the same chance to succeed. You started out further up the hill simply because of who we are and what we look like. 

Because we value people in our family, we cannot sit idly by and allow this system to prevail any longer. We will work to level the playing field.

This is where the news will get harder for you in the short run.

Because we value integrity and people and generosity, we are committed to leveling the playing field for everyone even if it comes at your expense. Will we strip you of opportunity or fail to provide you what you need to succeed? Never. Will we work to rebuild the world in ways that make it so that your darker skinned friends get the same benefit of the doubt when they are listening to loud music in a parking lot or playing in a park as you do? We must. Will we work to see to it that no matter whom someone loves, they have the opportunity to love them and care for them in all the ways we are able to love and care one another? We must. Will we do whatever it takes to protect our friends whom the powers that be deem unworthy of support or disposable or dangerous because of their heritage or beliefs? We must.

Because we value curiosity, we cannot assume our thoughts and opinions are always right. Just as there are countless people in our midst who are fearful for the future, there are countless people who have spent the week rejoicing. We do not understand where they are coming from, but if we are true to our values, then we must be curious and attempt to understand the source of their joy and the pain which has been relieved. This will result in a lot of hard conversations, hours of listening, and likely a great deal of consternation. To tell you the truth, this will be hard for us and it will be hard on you because we won't always have answers to give you.

Your mother and I can’t live into the values we have agreed upon unless we do these things. If we do these things, it means we will be working to build a world that is less advantageous for you. We can’t be people of integrity if we don’t these things. We can't genuinely value people. We can't be generous or curious if we don't try. You’ll have to learn to live with this fact. It’s my wish that you’ll understand.

We want you to have every opportunity that is available to you. We’ll teach you the value of hard work, discipline, and determination. We’ll teach you these things because in the world we’ve committed to rebuilding, you’ll need them more than we have.

There is, however, more good news for you and for all of us. We value optimism. We are hopeful for a brighter future. We are hopeful that through making the playing field level for everyone, it will actually make everyone's life better even if there's pain in the short term for you. We believe that the arc of the universe bends toward justice, and we’re aware that we might still be ascending that arc and, therefore, are unable to see the final destination.

You also need to understand the source of our hope. Our hope is not bound up in one person. It is not grounded in one another. Our hope is in the truth of the love Jesus teaches. By the time you’ll understand this you’ll probably also tire of having heard me talk about Will Campbell. Deal with it. Brother Will tells us that we often confuse what we wish for with what we hope in. We wish for a better world. We wish for equity. We wish for peace and an end to pain. Our hope, however, is in the Lord.

In these days where understanding is hard to find, we must cling to this sense of hope. We must not put our hope in the wrong place. We must keep striving for things we wish to happen for as another wise man once said, You can hitch your wagon to the stars, but you can't haul corn or hay in it if its wheels aren't on the ground.” 

We must keep ourselves grounded in the reality facing our friends and neighbors. We must keep ourselves in tune with the pain and anguish and genuine fear they have endured. We must find ways to heal the pain, quench the anguish, and eliminate the fear. We must search for common ground so that the joy that covers only some one day covers us all. If our society has any chance to accomplish these tasks, we much do our part. We must start with our family and move to our neighborhood and then to our schools and on to our town, our county, our state, our nation.

We must start and we must not lose sight of our hope.

I love you,

Sunday, July 31, 2016

An Arc is not a Straight Line

You’ve no doubt heard the notion that the arc of history bends toward justice, whether it be from Martin Luther King, Jr. who proclaimed the ideal throughout his public ministry or Theodore Parker, the abolitionist who first coined the idea in 19th Century. The idea here is that no matter where we find ourselves and regardless of the situation in which are placed, our trajectory is one that leads us toward ultimate reconciliation and understanding of one another. The beauty in the phrasing is not in its sweeping distillation of our human story, but in the geometry and physics of its imagery: an arc.

An arc is not a straight line. It has two endpoints and, therefore, can be traced from beginning to end. While its beginning and end may lie at the same longitude or latitude, to follow the arc’s course requires moving into other elevations with different coordinates. No amount of methodical plodding in one direction will lead to the end. To trace an arc requires a compass. To figure its length requires calculation and some knowledge of the mathematical constant π. A simple mark of the ruler cannot offer the length or shape of the arc.

An arc may be a portion of a circle, but it must not be confused with the circle itself. In a circle there is no beginning and end. To draw a circle is to start at one point and return home. The purpose of a circle is to be complete, to make beginning and end indistinguishable from one another, to fully enclose. An arc, however, remains open and ensures that beginning and end remain distinct from one another. Following an arc’s path will not take one back to the starting point. It will end up in an entirely different location.

It is also not a winding path. Winding paths, like the courses of rivers, flow wherever the path is easiest. Some paths require switchbacks to make their route palatable while others take travelers far off course in order to avoid obstacles. An arc does not go anywhere it pleases. It goes where the constants that define it lead, regardless of any impediments or inconveniences.

It is fascinating to me, then, that Parker and King use the imagery of the arc. There seems to be a conscious choice in this imagery – one that rings true decades after their introducing the idea to us. If we believe that this point in time that we find ourselves in one within the trajectory of an arc bent toward justice, then there are several things that we can affirm:

1) There must be a constant which guides our path. Our grasp of that constant helps us determine the trajectory of our path and our propensity to ignore that constant fools us into thinking we’re in travelling upon something that is not an arc – a straight line, perhaps.

2) Where we started will not be where we end up. We cannot look backwards to find out where me might end up. Tracing where we’ve been will only leads to where we’ve been before. It will not take us toward our new destination. We can, however, look back to see where we’ve been and use that information to guide us on our way, but in order to do so, again, we must have some understanding of the constant in our midst.

3) We are, and will continue to be, unable to avoid the obstacles in our path. The constant that guides our trajectory will takes us directly through whatever is in front of us no matter our efforts to stray. We may want believe we’re on a winding path that will help us avoid the conflicts in our way, but if we’re truly on an arc we must face them directly.

At any point on the arc, if we are to stop and look straight ahead, we will not see the end. We may see a great deal as we look out, but what we gaze upon now is not the end. If we turn around and look straight behind us, we also cannot see the beginning. If we do not remember where we were, when we look back we can see only the things that are tangential to our path.

From this vantage point on the arc, the view may be bleak. We can feel separated from where we’ve been and the journey we made thus far. It can feel as though we’ve made no progress. The view may also be uncertain. We may be able to hear around the bend, but we may not be able to make out the sounds. From where we are the sounds may seem terrifying only later to learn that those sounds were the sounds of band welcoming us with open arms. They may also be a siren’s song calling us away from our destination.

We are where we are supposed to be. The obstacles in our midst must be dealt with in order to move forward. They may make us feel uncomfortable. They may make us feel disoriented, longing for a previous life. They may seem like ones we’ve already faced and should have dealt with by now, but they are not. They are new and they are the result of our having come further down the arc. Knowledge and experience can make us feel uncomfortable. They can force us to reconsider what we thought we understood to be true. They can also prepare us for the obstacles that lie ahead in the arc of our lives.

Are we where we want to be? No. Do we see the obstacles in front us that block our path toward this destination? Yes. They are standing right in front of us. We may long to go back down the path to a time which we now know and understand in hindsight because it feels safe, but going backward will not help us reach our destination. Neither does going full circle. Both will take us far away from justice, the ultimate end of this arc of our story.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Mayonnaise, Steeples, and Umbrellas

The experiences that make up our lives make us who we are. Children who are abused are more likely to grow up to be abusers themselves. Those who are raised in a faith tradition tend to adhere to that tradition throughout their lives or, at least, gravitate back toward it later in life if they left it in early adulthood. Republicans beget Republicans. Democrats beget Democrats. Cubs fans spawn Cubs fans who spawn Cubs fans - no streaks or curses can stop it. Some families swear by Hellman’s mayonnaise while others will shun you if you use any spread other than Duke’s. It’s who we are. I’m not surprised when my son parrots the words I use - good and bad alike. The environments in which we are raised are, in many ways, ones we seek to emulate as we grow up, either consciously or subconsciously.
    Why, then, are we surprised when our elected leaders - many of whom were reared in (and often now are lay leaders in) religious institutions that perpetuate sexism, bigotry, division, and (perhaps worst) ambivalence toward social issues - draft and pass legislation that upholds the tenets of the institutions that formed their faith?
    If you’re looking for answers to why our elected leaders find value in certain bills and not in others or why issues of substance often seem secondary to issues of convenience, you need to look no further than, to borrow a phrase from Will Campbell, the steeples on many street corners in towns big and small across our country. If you want to blame someone for HB2 in North Carolina or HB1523 in Mississippi, blame the institutions that that reared the people we’ve elected to serve us in our capitols. Blame the institutions that nominate and elect these same people to serve as their deacons, elders, and committee chairs. You could blame the churches that reared many in the Georgia Legislature too, but Governor Nathan Deal gave witness to another fact about American Christianity: money matters more than anything. Even personal conviction.
    I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who are men and women of the cloth. For the most part they are wonderful people. Many are better, more caring, more devout people than I can claim to be myself. They may take umbrage with my shoveling blame at their institutions’ doorsteps. That’s fine. We’re entitled to our opinions and I’ve been wrong before. I’ll be the first to admit it. I am not blaming them individually for HB2, HB1523, or any other hateful pieces of legislation. I blame the Church for failing to live out its calling and, therefore, for creating environments that nurture the mindsets necessary to believe that such legislation is somehow consistent with the teachings of Jesus.
    A lot of faith leaders have come out to condemn the latest pieces of “religious freedom” legislation. This is good news. My question, however, is: Where were these voices when the people who drafted these bills were learning about the teachings of Jesus, the prophets, the formation of the early church? What were we preaching about as these people grew up in our congregations? How were we responding (or not) to their questions in Sunday school classes or bible studies? As someone who has taught innumerable Sunday school classes preached dozens of sermons in small churches, I have to say it wears on my conscience that I probably allowed some people in these churches to get by without asking hard questions or to feel validated in their more naive interpretations of scripture because I was afraid to question them.
    So then, the question for me turns to why. Why was I afraid? Why are we afraid to stand up when we first hear the rumblings of insensitivity or intolerance in those who claim the good news of Jesus Christ? Why do we remain silent when they keep coming up? I was sitting in a meeting the other day when someone reminded us that the way we ask questions matters because people’s first inclination is to be nice, not to be honest. We would rather not hurt someone feelings than tell them the truth. All I could say in response was a muffled, “Jesus,” because it was so accurate and timely.
    I think we’re also afraid for the same reasons Governor Deal was afraid: our wallets. It goes without saying, but institutions require management. Movements do not. Some refer to the beginnings of the Church as the Jesus Movement, but as the Church grew and gained prestige and power it moved from a movement into an institution. This large institution has split and split and split over two millennia becoming many large and small institutions that have all required management. Management begets maintenance. When you have to manage and maintain, there is inherently less energy or capacity to move. Inertia sets in and transforms a movement into an institution.
    When niceness mixes with maintaining a system or structure, the result is neutrality. To put it another way, that’s how we develop the status quo. We do only what we have to do to keep things where they are. Nothing more, nothing less. When we become neutral, we fool ourselves into believing we can be for something without be against anything. Myles Horton reminds us, ”You have to take sides and know why you're taking sides. There can be no such thing as neutrality.  It's a code word for the existing system,” (We Make the Road by Walking). If there’s one thing Jesus was against, it was the existing system.
    The American Church is really good at being neutral. Sure, some Protestant denominations have taken strides in recent years to get off the fence on issues regarding sexual identity and orientation, but these strides have come after years of silent neutrality not unlike that which led Dr. King to write a letter from a jail cell to white moderate ministers and their approach to the civil rights movement. The Church has tried too long to be for the causes of those seeking to be seen and heard while not being against those who seek to silence and ignore the same people. Why this is, I don’t know. The optimist in me tries to convince me that the hope is for a unified church while the cynic in me reminds me the people who pay the bills and the salaries often have the deepest pockets. Somewhere I remember someone say that no one can serve two masters. I wish I could remember who it was.
    The thing, is the cynic keeps winning. A former teacher of mine once told me that the greatest failure of the Church is its inability to educate its members in age appropriate ways. I thought he was right for a long time. I’ve recently come to believe that its greatest failure is trying to be all things to all people at all times. In trying to accommodate everyone under the guise of an open door policy, the Church has tried to be for a lot of issues without being against much at all.
     Look at the slogs its taken for some Protestant denominations to fully accept and embrace the LGBT community, and to be honest none of them really have. Once proud of their connectional nature, many have opted for local decision making instead so that churches don’t feel forced to do something that would make them feel uncomfortable or, God forbid, drive certain deep pockets away to another church where comfort can be found. We want to be a big umbrella where all voices are welcome, they say. Well, that’s not really consistent with the gospel either and if you’re under an umbrella, chances are you’re against getting wet, so you’ve already made a choice. It just so happens to be a choice that remains harmful and inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus.
    Being for and not against is a logical impossibility that laid the groundwork for the logical fallacies that make up the latest round of hateful legislation in our country. Our legislators want to hide behind the veil of sincerely held religious beliefs, so if you want to lay blame, lay it at the foot of the steeples where the sincerely held religious beliefs were developed. That’s where those beliefs are nurtured. That’s where they’ve verbally or silently been upheld. Until they aren’t nurtured anymore, until the Church starts being for the love and grace it waxes so eloquently about, we can all expect more of the same from the people whom we elected and the Church will continue to be a place for gathering instead of transformation.