Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues

What I wish we’d remember a little louder on 9/11

I’m usually fairly quiet on 9/11 as it’s a day that holds a lot of memories. We lived 5 minutes from the Pentagon at the time and the plane crash shook the windows of our small apartment right along with my personal sense of stability. A family member worked in the WTC and we spent the entire morning awaiting his phone call. Thankfully, it came and we breathed deep sighs of relief.

Over the years, 9/11 has become a day where we honor the ones who ran toward rather than running away. When all of human instinct screams to protect itself, those brave souls did not. They were heroes in the truest sense of the world, and none of us will ever forget their sacrifice.  I hear a lot of references to this idea that Fred Rogers encapsulates so well:

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 9.12.35 PM

While so much of me resonates with these words and the value they place on so many who sacrificed that day, I also find myself feeling a lingering hole in the dialog about who matters when 9/11 rolls around.

“My dad says that all Muslims are bad,” a boy in my son’s third grade class shared this week. It’s become a norm – this alienating story of the West vs. the Middle East. Media stereotypes from both sides have flown for over a decade, and now, as I honor the heroes, I also mourn the victims that have been born from the political rubble of 9/11.

As a kid from the 80s, I saw the exact same story play out with the Russians. I remember distinctly thinking that Russians were evil, dangerous, and scary and that Nancy Reagan was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen (which of course meant that Reagan’s policies had to be right…).

Like so many today, I missed the critical reality that people are distinct from political agendas. In his song, Russians, Sting captures the hole I feel every 9/11:

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me, and you
Is if the Russians love their children too*

In my heart today, I hold all of those mothers on the other side – Russian, Iraqi, Saudi, Afghani – who love their children too, who hold them in their arms at night, tears brimming over what the world has come to. I picture the fathers tickling little ones, teaching them simplicities of daily life and the hope for a better world. I remember stories of widows like Susan Retik and Patty Quigley – women who lost their husbands that day and now fight for the plight of Afghan widows.

They are heroes, too, all the ones who love their children. May our remembrance of them honor the hope they offer to the world.

swirl *Listen to the whole song here:


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Spiritual Formation

Survival tactics for truth-tellers, hole-pokers, and skeptics

survival tactics

Tired and grumpy, I got a bit harsh with my slightly lazy eight-year-old son about his messy-room-that-never-seems-to-actually-get-cleaned the other night.  As the words came out, I knew instinctively that I’d crossed the mean-mama line, so I returned awhile later to apologize for my tone, “I’m sorry I snipped at you about your room, buddy.”

His grinning response didn’t miss a beat, “Snipped?!?  You didn’t snip at me – you lashed me – with whips and chains!”

He’s a truth-teller, that kid . . . and there’s nothing like being reminded that the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.  Some days, I’m a bit of a truth-teller myself, and I’ve learned it’s not always the most popular trait in a person.  Truth-tellers are wired to poke holes, ask questions, point out inconsistencies, question accepted norms – often for the value of the greater-good, but usually at the cost of keeping-the-peace.

I have an on-going internal conversation about the value of being a truth-teller, of saying the things that everyone thinks but no one says out loud.  On one hand, there’s an internal sigh of relief when somebody finally comments that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes but on the other hand, people don’t always take kindly to the reality that they’ve been playing along with a lie.  It’s a tricky line to walk, one I haven’t always known how to balance along well. While it’s easy to communicate dissent in angry, frustrated and polarizing ways, it’s not always the most effective manner of helping the truth actually be listened to and considered.

Thankfully, the years are slowly teaching me how to straddle the tensions of being a truth-teller, and through the gifts of the spiritual disciplines and faithful friends, I’ve developed a few guidelines for better managing this innate part of myself.

Be gentle.  Sometimes provocative statements are useful to highlight a hard truth, but only when used sparingly.  Even though I personally enjoy people who tell it like it is, even I begin to dismiss a person who makes frequent inciting statements because it seems like all they care about is stirring the pot instead of letting the flavors simmer together so they actually taste good.  When I write about divisive issues, I often sit on potentially controversial phrases for a while to evaluate whether they’re helpful or harmful for the larger conversation at hand.  My go-to question is often, “How can I tell the truth boldly and gently?”

Check ulterior motives.  It’s easy to subconsciously enjoy the attention that comes with telling the truth.  Sometimes such boldness brings a silent pause, focusing the attention for a moment on the giver.  Being a teacher and a writer means that I’m accustomed to a good measure of attention focused on me, so it’s always wise for me to consider if my motives are self-seeking or truly a voice for greater good. If I can’t determine my motives, it’s likely a sign I need to remain quiet.

Speak slowly.  James’ words say it well: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”  While this is much easier said than done, there are no exemptions given.  Sadly, some use this passage to stifle truth-tellers completely, but it’s still important to remember that some who see themselves as truth-tellers speak and grow angry far too quickly.  Quite frankly, this is counter-productive and harmful to the conversations in which we participate.  If we can’t speak the truth slowly and patiently (sometimes over years), we need to spend time pondering if we should even be speaking at all.

Remember the human.  In sharp disagreement, it’s easy to turn people into ideas. When a person ceases to exist, we tend to hear only their words and not their hearts.  My mom used to say that occasionally when they struggled to love someone in their world, they’d invite them for dinner to hear their stories.  She found that it’s a whole lot harder to see someone solely as an ideology when you know their personal story. In all of our worlds – work, church, family, friends, online – we must first remember the people we speak of and with are humans worthy of respect simply because they are created in the image of Christ.

Learn from those with opposite strengths.  Being a former skeptic, faith is not one of my stronger spiritual gifts.  However, I once heard a friend share her story of struggle, and it was laced with a fierce type of faith I had never known myself.  While the skeptic in me wanted to dismiss what I didn’t understand, I instead allowed myself to admire something in her that I didn’t see in myself and to be grateful for it.  It was astonishingly freeing to allow myself the luxury to learn from someone different than me, instead of mentally critiquing them.

Step away.  Because I write about the controversial topic of race, every so often I’ll get a cutting tweet or comment.  While I can rationally tell myself that these comments come from just a few people who may-or-may-not-be-sane, I still find myself distracted by them on occasion.  When their words grow too loud in my head, I know I need to step away for a bit, sit with the Lord, and give myself some space to remember why I speak and who I speak for.  Angry conversations rarely prove to be productive, and if my purpose is to foster productive conversations about difficult topics, I’m not helping matters if I can’t stay calm and focused on bringing light, not heat, to the issues at hand.

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Society desperately needs truth-tellers who have the boldness, wisdom and maturity to use their gifts responsibly for the greater good – not to wield power for their own gain.  While the faith-gifted folks may get a better wrap, without the truth-tellers there would be no Dietrich Bonhoffers or Mother Teresas or Cornel Wests to guide us toward a better way of living together.  Whatever your gifts, may you lean into them with courage, faithfulness and humility so that together we might all learn to walk alongside one another in a better way.

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Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

Remembering the human in the age of digital mud-slinging

remember the human

“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” – Albus Dumbledore

I knew a man once who grew up watching his alcoholic father beat the life out of his mother.  A friend whispered to me that, as a little boy, he would run to her house in tears to hide, afraid of his own home.  Over the years, the violence hardened him.  By the time I knew him, he was no different than his father, filled only with rage and alcohol. Sadly, I watched his children repeat his boyhood story of hiding their tears in neighbors’ homes.

Before I learned about the pain of his childhood, it was easy to label this man idiot and asshole and abuser.  While his rage scared me, I also knew different.  Though he appeared a violent and ruthless man, I could not help but also see a teary, scared little boy hiding from his father in a neighbor’s house.  This one fact changed the way I thought about, prayed for, and responded to him.

Sometimes, I muse that there are corners of the North American church that reflect the life of an alcoholic like this man.  We come from so many places and perspectives and experiences.  We have different needs and hurts and hopes and dreams that shape how we understand The Story God left for us.  For some, the Bible has proved no better than an abusive father, having been used to beat us down and send us hiding in neighbor’s houses, tears streaming down our hearts.  For others, it has been the authority of life, a testament to be revered,  followed-to-a-T and never challenged.  Still for others, it has been a life-changing, restorative and hope-filled new way.

As I participate in the conversation emerging in our digitized world, I’ve observed that social media has become a great venue for our alcoholic traits to rear their ugly heads.  From the safety of our computer screens, we rant and rage, accuse and deny, promise and fail, stereotype and namecall.

Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 1 haunt me every time I smugly disdain or praise the public voices who I find either ridiculous or brilliant.  We might as well just substitute new names for our Big Fight: “One of you says, “I follow John Piper”; another, “I follow Rob Bell”; another, “I follow Joyce Meyer”; still another, “I follow Jesus.”

His words haunt me primarily because I do this very thing. Paul is talking about me.

[Gulp.]

I recover quickly from my conviction because, let’s face it, folks: some people are wrong.

There are racist people out there, people who are prejudiced and mean-spirited and divisive, all in the name of Jesus.  There are people who preach that following Jesus will make you rich.  There are people who put on a good show just for the money and the fame, using Jesus like a trick-or-treat costume to reach the ranks of the kid-with-the-most-candy.  There are people who preach a beautiful grace from the pulpit but can’t manage to apply an ounce of it to one single person in their life.

I judge them, flinging my mental rants at them because I don’t want them messing up the life-giving message of the gospel that Jesus came to save us at our worst.

The very-sticky-problem is that the very people I deem ‘wrong’ may well think the same of me.  So we polarize, mudsling, stake our ground, call for schisms, and tweet and post our disagreements with furor.  It is perhaps one of the most complexly sad sights of the American protestant church today.

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One of the most potent lessons that living between worlds has taught me is that people have many sides.  As I’ve lived among both rural and urban poor,  wealthy coastal elites, perseverant immigrants, powerful politicians, awe-inspiring performers, stodgy academics, consumeristic metropolitans, shallow surbanites and simple minded small-town folk, I’ve rarely seen any of them live up completely to the stereotype their namecallers hold them to.  The media shouts that red-states-hate-blue states and vice versa, but the story that we’re slower to remember is that everyone – regardless of ideology – loves, wants to love or be loved.

In the age of opinions becoming digital sound bytes, it has become far too easy to fling our anger at each other and forget that we are humans, not screens.  “The person-who-disagrees-with-me deserves my wrath because he is WRONG,” we chant.

I get it.  I’ve been on the receiving end of threatening phone calls, of bigoted teenagers in pick-up-trucks, of name-calling and assumption making.  It wounds.  It infuriates. It keeps me awake at night.  It sends me running to my neighbor’s house in tears. But as much as my gut reacts otherwise, it is not the way of Jesus, even when “they” are wrong.  

Father, forgive them, he said as they took his very life.  Seventy times seven, he’d told his followers.

Turn the other cheek.

If someone wants your shirt, give him your coat as well.

I nearly walked away from Jesus once, but one of the primary things that drew me back was learning more about the ‘other way’ of which Jesus speaks.

Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.  

Don’t do your righteous acts for others to see.

If possible, live peaceably with all men.  

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Whenever I hear people from one region of the country disparage the ‘crazies’ in another region, I find myself getting strangely defensive regarding traits that drive me equally crazy, You don’t understand, I want to explain. They’re more than just red and blue, conservative and liberal.  They’re humans, just like you. In the words of my witty Grandpa John, “Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time.”

We are one in the spirit, we like to sing but struggle to live.  I recently heard Michelle Bloom, a singer-songwriter, point out how we often overlook the words at the end of the second verse, We will work with each other, we will work side by side. And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride.

As we navigate this topsy turvy path of our new digital world, let’s practice a new way of talking to and about each other as we stumble along the path toward unity.  When we remember the human behind the screen, we echo the very words of Jesus as we seek to protect every man’s dignity.  While this does not mean we will all come to the same conclusions, it does mean that we commit to walk alongside one another in our humanity with respect for the God-given dignity of all our fellow sojourners, not just the ones with whom we agree.

Further Reading