I’m not a racist!

“I’m not a racist.”

I’ve heard or read multiple variations of this phrase recently. One meme stood out to me; it read, “We have some racists, but 99% of the people you meet are color blind and don’t have a racist bone in their body.” Even in that one sentence, there is a lot to unpack, though that is not my purpose today. What has been stirring for me has been pondering the impact of saying, “I’m not racist.”

Before I get to my thoughts, I want to say I understand. None of us wants to admit that we have biases and presuppositions, some of which are based upon race and some of which are negative. Racism is an ugly word because racism is ugly. If you are like me, hearing the word racist conjures up grainy images from generations past and we think to ourselves, I am nothing like those people. I was raised to treat everyone the same. A person’s color does not affect how I see them or treat them. I believe all lives matter. Therefore, I am not a racist.

But here’s the thing: Insisting that you are not a racist communicates several things. First, it communicates an unwillingness to listen to others and hear their stories. In every generation, people of color have been trying to reveal their pain and tell us their stories. They are saying to us, “Please listen! Even though slavery was abolished in the 1860s and the civil rights movement reached its peak in the 1960s, racism still exists. Let us tell you our stories.” Friends, when we say, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” what we are communicating is that we don’t need to listen. “I’m just fine and I love everybody, thankyouverymuch.” Let me suggest that is much more loving to say, “Tell me your story. Tell me about your pain” than it is to retreat to clichéd phrases that shut down conversations leaving people unheard.

Second, it shuts down dialog. I believe one of the greatest tragedies during my lifetime has been the increased polarization between groups of people. Perhaps we have always been this polarized and it only seems to me that it has been worse. Civility has been replaced with name calling, listening with assuming, and unity with division. We talk about those who think differently than we do rather than talking with them. We start with the assumption that the problem is other people, which short circuits respectful, fruitful conversation from the start.

Third, it communicates an unwillingness to examine our own hearts. We Americans, and perhaps especially those of us who are Christians, are great pretenders. We assume that because we believe in God, no darkness remains within us. I have been in the church long enough to know that our public image rarely matches the state of our hearts. It is not just our nation that is divided, our hearts are divided as well. In Matthew 23, Jesus confronted the Pharisees telling them that they were experts in washing the outside of the cup, but that their insides were full of death. In other words, their external appearance did not match their inner life. One day, the divisions both within and between us will be reconciled (Rev. 5:9), but we aren’t there yet. We still have a lot of heart work to do.

Jesus’s brother James encouraged us to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19). Friends, can we seek to listen? Are we willing to face the shadow that lurks within each of us? It is only in facing our shadow selves that we can begin to heal our divided hearts and the divisions between us.

Unencumbered

you began your life
unencumbered
breaking into the world
naked and needy
fully dependent

as you grew
you developed a curious mix
of freedom and dependence
you welcomed
creativity and exploration
emotions too
young children express
feelings unmasked

eventually
someone gave you a suitcase
you radiated excitement
because you felt
grown up

they told you
there was plenty of space
to put your anger
your shame
your curiosity
your creativity
so you began packing

as you grew
you kept your case with you
filling it with
dashed hopes
and relational wounds

year by year
your suitcase grew so heavy
that a child could no more move it
than she could lift a boulder
but over time you adapted
because that is what grown ups do

perhaps you will be one of the lucky few
who finally recognizes
that your suitcase
was not an invitation
to greater freedom
but a millstone
shackling you

toss it into the ocean
and step once again
into yourself

Rehumanizing

I have a hard time seeing anything good in some people. If you were granted a window into my private thoughts and even some of my private conversations, you would learn how judgmental I can be. In my desire to be an advocate for goodness, truth, and beauty, I sometimes fail to distinguish between a person and their behavior, and that gets to be a slippery slope. I’m fairly certain I am not the only one.

Every day, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with anger, name calling, and general dehumanization. It seems there are no segments of society that are excepted from dehumanizing others–politics, media, religion. We too easily choose sides and go to war. Our chosen weapons disintegrate and dehumanize others.

When we read about the kingdom of God that Jesus told us about, it is a rehumanizing kingdom. When Jesus healed, he not only healed physical maladies, he rehumanized people, reminding them who they were. How can you and I carry that same message into the world?

Let me offer a few thoughts:

  1. Start with prayer. When you find yourself stirred and upset, pray for the one who upset you, asking God to bless them. Confess your self-righteousness, asking God to forgive as you also forgive (Matthew 6:12).
  2. If you choose to engage, take a page from Francis Schaeffer’s book and seek to deal with ideas rather than people, or even groups of people. For example, it can be good to discuss ideas such as injustice, deception, or media bias, but seek to do so without allowing yourself to devolve into name calling. Every person you meet is loved by God. Every politician, every media personality, every celebrity, every person on Twitter and Facebook bears the image of God. Start there.
  3. Develop sacred curiosity. Be willing to inquire where people have come up with their ideas. Ask them what stirs in their souls. What are their hopes or fears. Recognize that every one of us longs for truth, goodness, and beauty even if we get lost along the way. Seek truth not as enemies but as companions on the journey.
  4. Actively look for the humanity in others. Keep looking until you find it, praying that God would open your eyes to see others as he sees them.

I believe that God is in the process of reintegrating all that has been broken and damaged by evil. He invites us to join him as advocates of a better way, the way of agape love. Each day, we will have hundreds of opportunities to choose the way of reconciliation or disintegration, dehumanizing or rehumanizing.

Which will be choose?

The Unselfing of America

Why are the nations so angry?
Why do they waste their time with futile plans?–Psalm 2:1

Eugene Peterson published Earth and Altar: The Community of Prayer in a Self-Bound Society in 1985, which as far as I can tell is now out of print. Peterson’s core message in this book is that America was a “self-bound society” in need of unselfing. Its message is as relevant today as it ever has been. His prescription–prayer–also seems as relevant as ever.

In the book, he presented eleven psalms as frameworks for prayer, encouraging his readers to gather together eleven times to pray for the “unselfing of America.” Although we cannot now gather as we once did, I would like to invite as many of you as are willing to commit to praying each of the psalms at least once per day for a week. Each weekend, I will share a link to the Psalm in the New Living Translation, but feel free to choose whatever one you might like or, each day, pick a new translation. Read it slowly, meditatively, and prayerfully.

I will also include chapter highlights that might help with understanding Peterson’s thoughts on the Psalm and, for the particularly adventurous, I will include a link to the audio of the chapter read by yours truly.

The first is Psalm 2, which you can access here.

Some thoughts from Chapter 1 (here is the chapter audio):

  • America is in conspicuous need of unselfing. Concerned citizens using the diagnostic disciplines of psychology, sociology, economics, and theology lay the blame for the deterioration of our public life and the disintegration of our personal lives at the door of the self: we have a self-problem and that problem is responsible for everything else that is going wrong (p. 13).
  • The only way to escape from self-annihilating and society destroying egotism and into self-enhancing community is through prayer (p. 15).
  • The self is only itself, healthy and whole, when it is in relationship, and that relationship is always dual, with God and with other human beings (p. 16).
  • Prayer is a repair and a healing of the interconnections (p. 23).

If we are to correct our abuses of each other and of our land, and if our effort to correct these abuses is to be more than a political fad that will in the long run be only another form of abuse, then we are going to have to go far beyond public protest and political action. We are going to have to rebuild the substance and integrity of better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities.

Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony

Birdsong

I leave my window open
just a crack
just enough to hear
the birds singing in the day.

Their chorus begins in the dark.
Like me,
the sun loves their song
and rises to listen.

Too soon, their melodies
will be silenced
by discordant tones
as the rest of the world gets up
beginning not in song,
but getting their daily briefing
on what to be mad about
who to fear and
who’s to blame.

The birds’ midday silence
makes me sad.
It seems they know my sadness;
they feel it too.

At dusk, as another day closes
the gay melodies
that woke the sun
are quiet.
I hear only
a lone dove mourning
yet another day
when fear and hate prevailed.

Tomorrow
Tomorrow we will do it again,
for we choose not to live
as those who have no hope.

Instruments of Peace

I was pondering this wonderful prayer often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. May it be the prayer of all of us.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy

O Divine Master, grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
And it’s in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to Eternal Life
Amen

It’s getting so close. Only two tabs missing—Acts and 2 Timothy, which will probably take a couple of months. And then editing. #amwriting #bible #relationaltheology

Our Soul Pandemic

Our country is in the midst of a pandemic, a plague that is crippling both citizens and society. I am not talking about COVID-19. The virus that I am thinking of has a much wider reach, but it is not our bodies that are getting sick, but our souls.

In light of COVID-19, our world has drastically changed. Nearly everything that we do has been touched by the virus–our economy, our social lives, our religious observances, our mental health. As the weeks pass, our fragmentation becomes more obvious. As stresses build, those dark parts of us rise to the surface and they play out not only in our homes, but across social media which, it seems, is now our principle form of connection.

This pandemic of divisiveness and hatred dwarfs COVID-19 in both its effects and its reach. Although many of us may not get COVID-19, if my Facebook and Twitter feeds are any indication, many of us have been showing symptoms of hatred and division, more and more each day. Unfortunately, we are a whole lot better at seeing these things in others than in ourselves. We are much more capable of justifying our anger and name calling in the name of justice. When we have no doubt that we are correct, everything is permitted.

Just in the last few days, I’ve seen people I love calling Governor Evers an idiot or, alternatively, President Trump. I wish I were immune. I’ve seen boatloads of misinformation disseminated, but we believe these “facts” because they come from “our side’s” media outlets and experts. We use this misinformation to justify our righteous indignation. Suddenly, it seems that all of us are experts in virology, epidemiology, economics, and constitutional law.

Friends, this hatred, animosity, and division is killing us. Anger can make us feel alive, but too often it is stoked by toxicity. Many of us are thoughtful about the food we consume, trying to keep our bodies healthy, but we allow these viral thoughts to take hold and our souls get sicker and sicker. I pray we begin to wake up to the effects this soul pandemic is having.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Galatians 5 recently, which is one place where Saint Paul contrasts flesh and spirit. In each of us, there is this battle between flesh and spirit and they do not lead us to the same outcome. Starting in verse 19, Paul identified a number of “works of the flesh,” which are opposed to a Spirit-filled life. I won’t mention all of them, but I was struck by “enmity, strife, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions.” Sadly, this list seems to characterize so much of what I read every single day. Paul is clear that these things do not represent the Kingdom of God. But he also said that when we are walking by the Spirit, there are different evidences in our lives. A Spirit-led person shows love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, not perfectly, but I believe in increasing measure.

I invite each of us, myself chiefly, to regularly ask ourselves, “Who am I? Are my thoughts and actions characterized by fits of anger and division, or am I increasingly gentle and peaceful?” This soul pandemic has a cure, love.

God,
The evidences of fragmentation and division are growing day by day,
both without and within.
You call us to peace, but we are in turmoil;
you call us to grace, but we are full of judgment;
you call us to love, but hatred consumes us.

We are a double-minded people.
How can we be for peace when this war rages within?
We do spiritual violence to others and ourselves
when this plague of strife takes hold.

We are afraid.
We are angry.
We are confused.
Too often, we let our flesh lead,
forgetting both who you are
and who we are.

Forgive us.
Heal our hearts.
Make us whole.

Are you self-controlled?

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control–Galatians 5:22-23

Lately, I have been thinking about Paul’s last descriptor of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives, self-control. I don’t really like that one. Maybe it is because it sometimes seems out of place with regard to the rest of the descriptors. More than likely, however, it is the character trait that seems most underdeveloped in my life. Perhaps those who know me well would suggest that all of them are equally underdeveloped. Part of the reason I don’t like the notion of self-control, at least as I have historically understood it is that, more than the other descriptors, I have come to believe that self-control is entirely dependent upon me. The way I have interpreted Paul’s words is that self-control is developed through sheer force of will. At face value, “self” means me and “control” means the ability to follow through on my intention. More crudely, I have interpreted this as “Jason, get your @#@!! together!” Maybe you have had the same struggle.

But I have found myself asking, what if I am starting from the wrong premise? What if self-control is not about trying to force my will into compliance? What if God is not waiting for me to stop sinning? What if instead, Paul was saying that my true identity in the Spirit already encompasses all of these things? In fact, in the context of the whole letter, I believe that is exactly what Paul was saying. Paul reminds us that we were already set free and we were called to lives of freedom. When you are gritting your teeth and trying to will yourself to behave, do you feel free? I know that I don’t.

What would change if instead of looking at Paul’s descriptors of a fruitful life as a list of dos and don’ts, we began to understand that those traits are already present and growing in us? How would we live differently if we began to think about being self-controlled as living from our true selves, from our core identity as God’s beloved children? I know that for me, when the message that I am already fully loved by God penetrates my heart, I am more able to relax into my true self. And from that place, those things like patience, love, and gentleness begin to emerge, not only toward others, but toward myself as well.

Developing a “with” mindset

In 1980, Isaac Asimov wrote, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” Remarkably, he said this before the onset of social media. His quote is perhaps truer today than ever. Every day, outlets such as Facebook and Twitter are seemingly overrun with examples of misinformation and rampant, ungrounded opinions. If one has a feeling about the way something is, they are free to express their opinion freely and loudly. Indeed, with billions of interconnected voices on the planet, we can even provide support for our opinions by citing experts whose viewpoints reflect our own, even when the overwhelming majority of experts disagree.

Assuredly, the advent of the 24 hour news cycle, which coincidentally began in 1980 with CNN, has also fostered a culture wherein opinions are widespread and facts often get lost in the chaos. In a similar way to the availability of supposed expert opinions, we now have numerous options for getting our “news,” which has sadly become less about the reporting of facts than about propaganda.

In addition to the nearly complete penetrance of social media and the unrelenting cacophony of propaganda presented as news, some of the shifts in education have not served us well. The self-esteem movement, for all of the good it has done, has also gone wrong in many ways. It has moved beyond helping people to understand their unique value to overvaluing of one’s own opinions. I recall reading in D.A. Carson’s The Intolerance of Tolerance that this elevation of opinion was even finding its way into math classes where students were not corrected for making mistakes even in simple calculations.

These seeds take root. We learn from an early age that every person’s opinion is as valid as everyone else’s, but then we confuse opinion with fact. Social media then provides a platform for every person who wishes to share whatever they want and, because of the proliferation of the 24 hour news cycle and self-professed experts who conflate opinion and fact, anyone can provide evidences for their pet positions. This ends up providing fertile ground for animosity and division.

So what then is the answer? Let me suggest a few things. First, I think we as a nation would benefit from a large infusion of humility. Unfortunately, we don’t have many visible models for humility because our society does not value it and truly humble people are often in the background. Listen, it is perfectly okay to admit that we do not possess all of the answers on everything. Not only do we not need to be “experts” on everything, in humility, we are free to acknowledge that we actually are not experts. There are experts out there, but in most cases, it isn’t you or me. I have frequently encouraged people and myself foremost, to ask “Is it possible I am wrong?” Let’s not start from a position that asks is it possible if the other person is wrong, but begin with ourselves. Another unfortunate trend in the last several decades has been a lack of training in logic and critical thinking. We are unable to look at information critically and accurately, assessing strengths and weaknesses of the arguments that are presented. Too often, we accept as true the loudest opinions, not the ones that are the most well reasoned. Routinely, we overvalue our own perceived reasoning abilities, believing we are immune from manipulation. But here’s the thing: You are not immune to propaganda. Neither am I. The multi-billion dollar advertising industry counts on it.

Second, before you click “share” on something, ask yourself “is it true?” Many of the provocative memes and “news stories” that make the rounds on Facebook have no basis in truth, but again, with flashy words and tantalizing pictures, we believe them. If you feel compelled to share something, do a little leg work first. But let’s not stop with the question “is it true?” Let us also ask is it good and beautiful. Too many of the things we are exposed to every day and too many of the things we share add to the ugliness. Each of us has the opportunity to be light bringers. Let’s not spread darkness.

Third, develop humble curiosity. Become a listener. Seek to understand the viewpoints of others. Too often our interactions, and especially those that happen online, are characterized by an against mindset. We view those who hold alternative viewpoints as our enemies though we may not use that word. As a nation, it seems we are increasingly divided. We do not seek to understand; we look for people to blame, a perspective that has increasingly characterized our major influencers–news agencies, politicians, public figures, and even pastors. Sadly, these models give us implicit permission to be divisive. When we constantly hear accusatory messages, we come to believe that a) there is definitely someone to blame and, b) it isn’t us. What would change if there was a movement to develop a with mindset instead? From a with mindset, we do not view others as our enemies, but as fellow citizens of the planet. Larry Crabb wrote, “we are people of radical worth and largely unrevealed beauty.” Every one of us. Do our interactions, even with those with whom we disagree seek to reveal beauty and worth? Let’s stop looking for people to fight and instead look for people to love. Sometimes, I think that we forget that our battle isn’t against people, but against evil and divisiveness (see Ephesians 6:12). When there is continued misunderstanding, perhaps ongoing dialog is appropriate, but I think it would be beneficial to engage in “mutual inquiry” and not “debate,” a suggestion I heard from the late Dallas Willard. The difference in language may seem subtle, but I think it does change perspective. Admittedly, social media is rarely the place for such truth seeking, but sometimes, we can dialog together respectfully, patiently, and lovingly. Otherwise, it may be best to offer our peace and disengage with grace.

Let us seek to replace pride with humility, haste with patience, certainty with curiosity, divisiveness with peace, and hatred with love.