A Great Divide: Challenge or Impasse?

There is a lot of arguing going on lately. We feel deeply and find offense quickly. The thing is, most of us know which side of an argument we will stand pretty early on, and that rarely changes no matter what evidence we hear. And yet we keep trying to convince others to join our side, our cause, our “right side of history”. Instead of seeing change, all we seem to do is stoke the fires of our own side and further the divide from those who disagree.

I have little tolerance for an impasse. I don’t mean a challenge; I love a challenge. A challenge is when the road from where one is to where one wants to be is difficult, or is non existent and needs to be built. An impasse is when every inch of progress is countered with destruction. It takes time to determine whether one is experiencing a challenge or an impasse. But eventually that impasse becomes clear. Most successful individuals will tell you that learning to recognize failure is essential to success. Remaining in the impasse is guaranteed to be continued failure. Most of us, with our views and convictions, remain at an impasse.

As I read and watch the latest divide, the #TakeAKnee/NFL/National Anthem controversy, I find myself tired. Not of the issues I believe in, but in the engagement with others over those issues. I am tired of trying to find meaningful dialogue. I am tired of the nasty dismissals of differing thoughts and ideas. I am tired of everyone talking and no one listening. I am tired of the ignorance, the lack of respect and love, the self-preservation. I am tired of being those things and I am tired of encountering those things. I am tired of the divide that seems to deepen and widen in this country.

This morning I took my coffee to my back porch. It is a beautiful fall morning, significantly different from yesterday’s nearly 90 degrees and very humid weather. The birds sang and the sound of leaves from the breeze blowing soothed my tired soul. How does one move from impasse to progress? As I sipped my coffee, I began to think about how my mind has been changed over the years. It wasn’t solid arguments or clever soundbites that I thought of. It was some of the people I have gotten to know and their stories I have heard. That is what has changed my mind, my opinions, my beliefs time and time again.

I thought of Dana, my friend with metastatic breast cancer (MBC). Through her journey, I have learned how little has been spent on stage 4 research. We celebrate the progress we have made with treating breast cancer. But there is significant and serious work we aren’t doing enough of. The progress we have made has been largely in the shallow end of the pool, so to speak. We have much work to do in the deep end of the pool and can’t claim victory until we navigate those deeper waters. Those with MBC are dying in the deep end. The pink ribbon campaign isn’t venturing out there enough yet gets most of our attention and funding. I now give differently because of Dana.

I thought of my friend Terry. As he shared the story of teaching his son to drive, which included how to safely be pulled over by the police (my friend is black), a bubble that I was living in burst. I had recently taught my son to drive and never once did I worry for his safety if pulled over by the police. Terry was one of the kindest men I knew. If he experienced injustice because of the color of his skin (and he did often) then I knew the world wasn’t quite as evolved as I thought it had become. I now see my privilege because of Terry.

I thought of John, a pastor and friend I knew years ago. When he told me he was gay, I expressed love for him and gently reiterated my position that I didn’t agree with his “lifestyle”. I didn’t hesitate in wanting to continue my friendship with him. And I felt it was my responsibility to be clear about where I stood on the issue of homosexuality. A few weeks later I received a letter from him. In it he said, “Do you think a moment goes by that I am not aware of what most Christians think of my being gay?” Navigating different convictions is difficult. Making someone feel loved shouldn’t be. What we do with our convictions is as important as the convictions themselves. I now see my self-righteousness because of John.

I thought of Kim, Jocelyn and Angie, women I went to seminary with who are lesbians. They are serious about their Christian faith. They challenged my views of homosexuality simply by living out their faith meaningfully. I had been taught homosexuality was a sin. These women (and many more friends since) taught me that their being gay is as much a part of who they are as being christians. And I wouldn’t want them to be anything other than who they are. I now see my ignorance because of Kim, Jocelyn and Angie.

I could go on. So many examples of people I got to know who by their being who they are challenged my ideas and perceptions. This is how we move from the impasse. We get to know people who are different from ourselves. If I have made any kind of impact in this world, it hasn’t been through my blog or Facebook status update or Instagram photo. Hashtags don’t change lives. If I have had the ability to make any kind of difference, it is because I am a better person having learned what I have learned along the way and am interacting meaningfully with others who differ from me.

I love to engage in conversations with diverse opinions being expressed. The point in doing so isn’t to convince others to see things my way. My hope is that each of us participating leave that conversation having taught something and having learned something, not with that as an agenda but with that as the outcome. But that is a choice we must make. And that is how we bridge the divide. When was the last time you learned something that surprised you? When was the last time a conviction changed, even slightly? These questions will help to determine whether you are up for the challenge these days require, or are part of the impasse that is getting us nowhere.

 

Foot Pins and Ultimatums

Three and a half years ago, I had foot surgery which left me with some hardware in that foot. For the past several months, I have had increased pain in that same foot, specifically in my big toe joint. Today I learned why: the pin in my big toe has come loose and is protruding from my toe joint. I could either live with the periodic pain and exchange all my shoes for large-toe-box varieties. Or I could have the pin removed.  Surgery isn’t to be underplayed. There are always risks. It won’t be inexpensive. I will miss some work. “It’s not going to get better?” I asked the doctor. “No,” she said. “So I am looking at 40+ years (I’m being optimistic of my lifespan) of babying this foot with what shoes I wear and avoiding contact where that pin is protruding?” “Yes,” she responded. I don’t know about you, but the answer seems pretty clear to me. I’m going to do the work, get the pin removed, and get this resolved.

While the decision is easy, it is not without sacrifice. I didn’t budget for the surgery. I’ve got a list of things to do that will take time in the midst of my very busy life. But the ultimatum is crystal clear. If I don’t have this surgery, I may as well give away at least half of my shoes. I will have to watch my activity level. I will continue to experience pain. And I might never be able to enjoy a Frye’s shoe sale again. I am 48 years old. I am too young to live with the side effects of a protruding pin.

This got me thinking about how much of our lives are filled with protruding pins. It happens slowly. We have adjusted due to the discomfort. We even settle for something less. If we took the time to identify that protruding pin and determine what it would take to have it removed, we would be freed from the handicap the pin created. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had someone in our lives to help diagnose our pins? Wouldn’t it be helpful if we increased our self-awareness? Doesn’t it make sense to listen to those we love and trust in order to better see ourselves? Wouldn’t it be wise to pay attention to the patterns in our lives regarding our work, quality of relationships, and the way we manage our ups and downs? Why don’t we take several steps back to look at the whole of our lives to see what is working and more importantly, what isn’t working?

Instead we change our shoes. We walk differently. We medicate to lessen the symptoms. We ice to numb the pain. In essence we fuss all around the protruding pin without ever dealing with the pin itself. We baby the pin while we live a life that is less than what it could be. If only it was as simple as scheduling an appointment and having someone identify the problem and then discuss what options we have. Or maybe it is, and we are not interested in learning what really ails us. Perhaps what we want to do is nothing at all.

 

Trump or Love? You Decide

Remember that good looking guy in high school who seemed to have everything going for him – cool car, star athlete, rich parents – and he also happened to be an asshole? At first, you look past it because he’s sooooooo cool and you really want to be friends. You tell yourself he is just having a bad day. Or maybe he’s got a lot on his mind. But after awhile you don’t care how cool he seems, you know he’s a jerk because he keeps acting like one. And yet he always manages to have his pick of girlfriends, a group of followers who loyally put up with his behavior, and adults who seem to be living vicariously through him. That’s what I’ve been continually reminded of with Trump’s presidential candidacy.

Trump seems to have the goods that have made a whole lot of people envious and willing to set aside convictions of faith and common sense. Too many of us seem to be that girlfriend of the jerk who thinks, “I know it’ll be different with me.” We are jumping in the sack with Trump, hoping that he will deliver all what he promised: love and respect. Or maybe it’s wealth and power.

I have friends who seem to live with a lot of fear lately. These friends are white, Christian, middle class, and working. I’m not quite sure WHAT they’re afraid of, but they are. In the past, I have seen Christians jump on plenty of bandwagons. But seeing them jump on one being driven by a bigoted, racist, sexist narcissist who owns a strip club defies explanation. The only conclusion I can make is that Christianity has moved very far away from the person of Jesus.

Jesus talked a lot about love. Love God, he said. And love your neighbor too. And later following the gospels in this little book called 1 John, the writer says this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear… We love because God first loved us.” Trump fosters fear. Trump counters love. Trump is dangerous. Not only do I worry for the people he will target and exploit, I fear that he will do significant damage because of his lack of diplomacy and sound judgment. He has proven throughout his career that he will do whatever he wants for his gain at the expense of others. This is not simply an ideological difference. Trump is unfit to serve as president.

I can only hope Trump’s numbers continue to decline, and before long he’ll be like that fading high school star who still wears his old football jersey even though it is two sizes too small, while everyone else has moved on and built a life beyond high school. God help us if we don’t leave Trump behind.

Dear Coasting Christians

I realize there are many reasons you stay on the periphery of your faith community. You are burned out but don’t want to stop going completely. You try to be hopeful that maybe someday church will be relevant again. You keep your toe in the water where you are, while you periodically dip your toe into other pools nearby just in case the next one is a bit more to your liking. You stay because of your friends. You stay because you are members. You stay because that place has been part of your identity for so long that you decide it is better to be on its periphery than not there at all.

I understand these reasons because I have been where you are. I reached the point in my community of faith where it no longer stirred me or challenged me or inspired me, but I stayed anyway.

Eventually I did realize the need to move on. Staying, but only on the periphery, was giving me a false sense of engagement. While I might show up, I risked nothing. I offered little. I expected even less. I wasn’t really part of a faith community. I was merely pretending to be. And so I left and went to seminary because I knew what had led me to my church’s periphery is what I needed to better understand. My interest in God and faith hadn’t diminished. But the church where I attended, and many that were just like it, were increasingly unable to adequately and appropriately facilitate an exploration worthy of the 21st century.

The reason I write to you today is to let you know how much you are needed. There are many of us attempting to bring the church beyond it’s defined walls. It is in this space that so many wander. Paradox, honesty, complexity and wholeness dwell here in this space. But the space is not an easy one to navigate. It requires commitment and courage, companionship and endurance. We need you not because you have the answers but because you believe in the work to be done. You know that while faith can be difficult, it is also rewarding. We need you to be willing to be challenged and encouraged so that others who are just beginning to learn the value of community can be accompanied on this journey of faith. We need those of you who already believe in a God of grace to be bearers of that grace. We need you so that the church doesn’t merely survive but thrives. We need you. I need you.

And I think you need us too. I think your soul is tired of the periphery and hungers to reengage in a way that matters, that makes this world better, and you better too in the process.

Find a church – a community that will both love you and challenge you. Pick a place where you will give generously and maybe even sacrificially. We are meant to be in community with one another, and we need a community that will intentionally connect us with God too. It isn’t the savvy services, polished leaders or right programming that feed our souls. It is being known and loved, and doing the knowing and the loving of others. And once you find it, go for it.

With love,

Jen

Killing God with Routine

A friend recently came across a study that showed routine significantly ages a person. The more one settles into routine, the less engaged the brain is. The less engaged the brain is, the slower the brain becomes. Sounds a lot like muscles. If you don’t use them, you lose them. The takeaway of the study was to continually seek ways to learn and grow. Step outside your comfort zone. Challenge yourself. These steps will help the brain not only stay engaged but continue to develop.

Religion is full of routine. We are told what to believe so we believe it. We are told what to do so we do it. We are told whom to love and whom to hate so we love and hate accordingly. This isn’t to say that routine is bad. Routine can provide an infrastructure to keep us plugged in. But when routine becomes the point, when we are no longer being challenged, when we can’t remember the last time our view of God changed, our faith has become solely routine.

The bible is full of movement. The movement is of God pursuing people, and people pursuing God. Sometimes movement is stillness. Sometimes movement is silence. Sometimes movement feels good. Sometimes movement hurts. But it is all movement nonetheless when it is about pursuing what is good, right, and true. The reason movement is critical to the process is because God cannot be contained in one mind, or in a set of creeds, or even in one religion. Truth is bigger than the construct of people because God is.

One can operate under the belief that it is up to him or her to make God real. Or one can operate under the belief that it is up to him or her to not get in God’s way. I used to fall in the first camp, believing I knew God well. But as I learned and listened and experienced more of God through my own pursuit and through the pursuits of others, my dogma became more of a rudder than my parameters. What I believe to be true helps me navigate, but it doesn’t prevent me from seeing God beyond what I think I know. In other words, I went from walking ahead of God to following God.

Yesterday I thought I was going to lose my dog. The belief could have caused me to act towards that end, bringing her to the vet to be euthanized. Or I could have ignored the possibility and just gone on with my day’s obligations. Instead I stayed home from work to be with her. I brought her water. I carried her outside to relieve herself. I laid next to her and shared my favorite memories with her. I wasn’t waiting for her to die. I just wanted to make sure that no matter what occurred, I was there by her side giving her whatever she needed. It was a difficult day but a good day. Thankfully she is still with us, lying by my side as I write.

When we think we know who or what God is, when we become stagnant in our pursuit of God and simply judge those who see God differently, we tend to act towards the outcome we expect. We might euthanize an opportunity prematurely, or miss the opportunity altogether. As a pastor of a church that values diversity of thought versus a shared statement of faith, I am sometimes questioned about my depth of faith. But as I journey with people, my experience continues to be seeing more of God and God at work among those who regularly step outside of their comfort, understanding, perspectives, than I do among those who have settled into a routine of faith. Maybe that will change when I get older.

Questions, Questions, Questions

I love questions. I love thinking them up. I love talking them through. I love hearing them. I love asking them. Even the silly questions small children ask can be fun. Not that I don’t periodically feign having something to do so that I can walk away. But I try to do so without letting on that I am bored because I would never want to quash a questioner.

To me, it is the figurative experience of poking and prodding to see how stable or sturdy something is. It reveals strength or lack of it. Some might think I am specifically looking for a weak position or that I relish tearing something down through the course of my questioning. But that is not true. I love to learn. And it helps that I have a sort of detached relationship with knowledge. When something does not hold up, I would rather know so that I can reconstruct. Rarely do I abandon the entire structure that makes up what I think or believe. Rather questioning is the way to discover what needs to be reconsidered. And ultimately the work makes those thoughts and beliefs better. It’s like finding a leak in the roof and fixing it before a big storm comes.

Questions about religion, faith, God… those can be big, complicated, difficult questions. My religious landscape is like a great outdoor expanse. I construct very little, spending most of my time exploring the possibilities. People looking for certainty aren’t going to find my answers particularly comforting. And so I try to discern when it is best to listen and say little, and when it is best to answer honestly. It helps to recognize when a question is genuinely being asked and different perspectives are welcomed, versus a question that seeks affirmation. It’s the proverbial “Does this make me look fat?” question. You know what you have to say. Nothing good comes from the answer, “maybe just a little” when the person only wants to hear, “No! You look great!”

What I find essential with any serious question is conversation. Conversation allows for differing opinions. Conversation recognizes the limitations each of us brings. Conversation proves to be more about learning from each other than convincing the other. And yet we don’t do conversation well. Just look at what happens with most “conversations” about religion or politics. It resorts, often very quickly, to discrediting the other voice. A narrow perspective makes one live a very small life in a very small world. That is why we need more meaningful conversation and with people who think and see things differently.

This kind of conversation is difficult. We become vulnerable as we expose our thoughts and ideas to others, and can feel threatened by thoughts and ideas that challenge our own. And yet I believe many of us crave conversations that bring us together in spite of our differences. For those of us who want to be part of reconciliation, we know we have to do this better. These are my rules for meaningful conversation:

  1. Listen. Sounds easy, but rarely is done well. Often the “listener” starts working on a response before the talker has finished making his/her point.
  2. Be honest. Defensiveness and anger are typically masked hurts. Be real with yourself and others about what you are feeling rather. This takes time and patience with self and others.
  3. Be respectful regardless of how much you disagree.
  4. Always looks for what you can learn, rather than what you can teach.
  5. Recognize that no matter how smart you are, you don’t know it all.
  6. Don’t be afraid to walk away. Sometimes you don’t know until you’ve begun that a reasonable conversation isn’t going to happen.
  7. Don’t be an asshole.

While social media is a terrible place for meaningful conversation, it can be a good place to start it. Send me your questions. Message me or post it in the comments section. Let’s explore some of our big questions together.  And when a question deeply stirs you, I hope you will find someone to talk with in person, or better yet find a few people. That is where the magic really happens. It also takes more work. I am convinced that to have a few people in your life to whom you can say anything makes all the difference in feeling loved, supported, and connected. And that’s something we all need. No question about  it.