Of Course. Always.

I wrote this reflection for Circle of Hope’s recent At-Home Sunday Meeting, and wanted to share it here. I’m wrestling with how we can know God’s will, and more importantly, how we might come to God when we’re unsure what to do. The text is below, and if you click play in the video above you can hear me read it.

He pulled up at his parents’ house around 9 on Sunday morning. He knew the coffee pot would have just shut off after two hours of being on, and his mom would have just turned it back on to keep it warm a little longer.

His parents liked to linger in bed on Sundays, reading the paper and drinking their coffee. He longed to linger in their unhurried approach to the day.

He was stopping by because a big decision weighed heavily on him, and he was hoping they could lighten the load. He helped himself to some of the remaining coffee as they joined him at the kitchen table. His folks knew why he was there, but they didn’t press him. They talked about the weather and some of their ailments as they aged.

Had he heard about his high school’s robotics team and how they were doing this year? They knew how much he enjoyed being on the team during his high school career.

They talked about the news a little and asked him what he’d been reading lately. When the small talk seemed about as done as the coffee, they decided to take a walk together with the dog, just like old times. The old boy was slowing down, but seemed to keep pace with his parents just fine, maybe because they were slowing down a little too.

They walked in silence for a while, enjoying the crisp fall air and the colorful leaves. He wanted to ask them what he should do about this big decision of his, but there was something about the rhythm of their steps together, something about the feel of the dog’s leash in his hand where it had rested so many times, something about the sight of his parents’ hands comfortably clasped together with well-worn grooves where they had come together so often, that all gave him pause.

He looked at his parents and smiled, and they responded with loving nods of affirmation, and in that moment he realized that the weight of trying to figure out what he should do had lessened. It wasn’t gone, but he remembered that whatever he did, he wouldn’t be alone.

And then it struck him that underneath the big decision he had to come to terms with, were some more basic questions, like “Do you love me?” and “Are you with me?” His parents’ eyes said it all:

“Of course. Always.”

They rounded the bend toward home and his parents asked if he could stay for lunch. “Of course,” he said, “always.”  

Inclusion is a Power Play I Repent of So That I Can Be Included

To the Victors Go Narrative Control

One of my pastors and friends, Ben White, keeps reminding me of something I’ve been saying recently. It has to do with the fact that especially in my case as a cisgender heterosexual male of European descent living in the U.S., I usually find myself centered in most of the power structures in society. The history books that have been adopted and used for generations in schools across America, for example, were largely written by people that look like me, for people that look like me, centering us as the heroes in the story of America and thereby justifying our privileged status in society. The furor over critical race theory currently is a desperate attempt to maintain this control over the narrative about our country, because if the full truth were told, the story gets a lot more complicated and the privilege and power that people like myself enjoy must be seen for what it is- unearned, unjust, and unjustifiable.

Some of us are waking up to this reality, and I’m glad. But that old truth just gets even more true here, that “the more you learn, (the more you realize that) the less you know.” As my consciousness has been awakened to the terrible reality of systemic racism and the ongoing oppression I continue to benefit from, I’ve been glad to have opportunity to dedicate myself to the work of anti-racism, and even better, the creation of beloved community and, for Jesus-followers, a more full expression of the new humanity that Jesus calls us to. However, I’m learning more and more every day that anti-racism is just the tip of the iceberg. The powers that be have solidified their hold on society not only through the violence of racism, but through many intersecting forms of violence including LGBTQIA2S+ hate, patriarchy and sexism, colonialism and imperialism, and through extractive and exploitative capitalism that commodifies the bounty of God’s good earth, changing the climate in ways that only intensify the harm of the other oppressions just named.

I Can’t See Where I Don’t Look

There’s something missing from that laundry list of systems of oppression I just named, however, and it’s telling. Of course the list wasn’t meant to be exhaustive, but a story comes to mind here. My church, Circle of Hope, has been working hard to meet the moment we’re all in during this ongoing pandemic. We believe that we’re called to move with what the Spirit is doing next. We say that “Like any healthy organism, we grow. So we are always preparing to birth a new cell, plant the next congregation and generate the next venture of compassionate service.” As we re-plant the whole church (our “content”) in the new soil of a world changed and still changing due to COVID-19 (our next “container”), we’re reimagining our network of cell groups and congregations across the greater Philadelphia region. Like so many churches, businesses, and civic institutions as the pandemic started, we pivoted to offer as much as we could online. I’ve talked about this before. This pivot enabled our life together to go on when in-person meetings were no longer safe. As we keep saying, our church, with Jesus at the heart of us and cell groups serving as the primary expression of that heart, was really made for such a time as this. We have buildings and use them well to serve our body and the communities around us, but we don’t need them. The church is a people, not a place after all. So as cells met through Zoom and other means and as our At-Home Sunday Meeting became our public face for a while, our church remained remarkably stable over the past year-and-a-half and even grew in unexpected ways.

People like myself and my family, for example, who no longer live in Philly, were suddenly able to be once again included in the life of our body. We also made new friends from all over the country who were able to be included in cells meeting online and in our At-Home Sunday Meeting, and some of them have also become integral parts of our body. What we also discovered was that we had simply been missing an unseen part of our body and members of our community, some of whom had been part of our church for a long time. This was not a malicious omission, but its effect was devastating nonetheless. We simply didn’t have “eyes to see” this before, but I’m so grateful that now we do, or at least we’re starting to. This unseen part of our body is directly tied to the system of oppression I failed to name in my laundry list of them above. That oppressive system is, of course, ableism, and the missing members of our community that we didn’t “see” in the way we needed to before is the disabled community. Our friend Dani is disabled, and a member of my cell is too. Truth be told, the mental health diagnoses I carry as a result of childhood trauma might technically qualify me as disabled too if I wanted to purse that route. I disclose this as an acknowledgment that the disabled community is very diverse and because I don’t want to “other” anyone who is part of this community.

I mention Dani because we’re part of Circle of Hope together and because she is a vocal advocate for disability rights and inclusion. You can hear a great interview with her in the recent Resist and Restore podcast episode, and I was privileged to also interview her for my employer as part of our anti-racism work during Disability Pride Month. In both conversations, Dani said something that was devastating for its poignancy and what it revealed. She said that she and other disabled individuals have been asking for years to be included by being able to work from home, to have widespread telehealth options, and to have opportunities to connect with a faith community through online means. She said they were always told that it’s too expensive or not technologically viable and were given other excuses. She then adds, “As soon as able-bodied people had to stay home for two weeks due to the pandemic, suddenly all those things that she and her friends have been pleading for were available.” She told another story during my interview with her that was revelatory for me. She mentioned that when she’s in her wheelchair in a public space like a grocery store, people seem to respond in two ways. A small number of people will see and approach her and begin asking invasive and unwelcome questions about her disability. More often, though, people will simply fail to notice her so badly that they sometimes bump into her and then are surprised that she’s there. I thought about this as we were talking and realized that it has to do with where we look. If I’m walking around a store, my gaze is usually held at my eye level. This is a decorating “rule” too, that we hang pictures at eye level so that we can “see” them.

Generous Eyes Have an Expanded Gaze

I think the lesson here is that we need to expand our gaze. My privilege enables me to look only where it’s most convenient for me to do so. The world is built for me not only as a middle-class, cishet male of European descent, but also as a relatively able-bodied individual too. If the world is my “house,” all the pictures are hung where I can most naturally see them, even if this places them out of sight for others. Likewise, those others who aren’t like me remain out of sight to me if I do not repent and change my ways by expanding my gaze. I’ve come over time to really appreciate the Sermon on the Mount, seeing it as a “canon within the canon,” the heart of Jesus’ teaching about how we can best follow him. I do it poorly myself, incidentally, but my posture is toward Jesus as I see him leading me in this teaching. So I come back again and again to this part of it in Matthew 6:

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[c] your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy,[d] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

As I’ve noted before, those footnotes for “healthy” and “unhealthy” in verses 22 and 23 reveal that those words imply “generous” and “stingy.” So if your eyes are generous, your whole body will be full of light. If your eyes are stingy, your whole body will be full of darkness, and how great will that darkness be! I think part of having generous eyes must mean having a generous, expansive gaze, seeing people for who they really are, where they really are. We can’t just keep looking in all the places we’re used to. When we do, we miss beloved siblings in Christ and our humanity is diminished, remaining old and untransformed.

We Want to be Included in the New Humanity that Jesus is Creating, not Just Include Others in the Worldly and Fallen Systems That We Control.

This gets me back to what one of my pastors, Ben, keeps reminding me that I’ve said. It has to do with inclusion. When I choose to include others, I’m inviting them into a space that I am centered in and retain control of. How could it be otherwise? It’s like being neighborly in my home. I can be as intentional and inviting toward others that aren’t like me as could possibly be imagined, but they’re still coming into my space that is made for me, that caters to me, etc. This kind of thinking infects our theological imagination too. Our intentions may be good, but I think the logic often goes something like, “God is good and loving toward all. The church has historically been complicit in oppression of marginalized groups, and we do better when we seek to include them because we believe that God already does.” But if God already does, this thinking is revealed to be fairly backwards. God is creating a new humanity whether we choose to willingly participate in it or not. In this new humanity, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile…male nor female,” etc. We are one in Christ. This does not erase our other identities, it unites them. After all, if everything and everyone is the same, unity is unnecessary. If, on the other hand, we are all unique expressions of God’s boundless creativity and are woven together into the beautiful tapestry of the body of Christ, then we become a powerful witness to the love of Christ that we share.

So inclusion ought not be about me bringing others into a space that’s made for me and which I control. God has already included everyone in God’s family. We are all God’s children, all beloved, and are all being saved from the power of sin and death. When we really come to understand this, I think we learn that the only choice we have to make in terms of inclusion is whether or not we will include ourselves in this wonderful community that God is making. I cannot exclude anyone from their own belovedness, nor from their status as children of God. I can only keep myself out, really, and there are many ways no doubt in which I have been doing this very thing. So I must pray:

God, help me to repent. Help me to expand my gaze. Give me generous eyes to see all your children where they are, not where I prefer to look. You’re building beloved community and creating a new humanity, and you’ll do it with or without me. Thank you for always inviting me, though, and help me to lay down whatever power I think I have and step out of the spaces that I control so that I can join in the work of cultivating awareness of the belovedness of all. Amen.

Life Itself Is One Whole Cloth. In America, It’s a Racist Outfit.

If this image offends you, you might be missing the point.

We Need to Talk

This opinion piece by Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Jennifer Brooks really got me thinking the other morning. I suppose that was the point, so good on her for keeping the dialogue going. What follows is my contribution to it. First off, I should say that generally I agree with her, and even specifically I agree with her regarding probably most of the points I hear her wanting to make. I do think that:

We need to talk about Derek Chauvin.

We need to talk about the life he stole and the people he terrorized and the institutions that trained him and armed him and sent him out on our streets.

We need to talk about Black Lives Matter. About Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirits. About Minneapolis children gunned down as they bounce on trampolines or ride to grandma’s house. We need to talk about the bigots who punch elderly Asian Americans on the sidewalks and the lawmakers who bully transgender kids in the middle of Pride month.

I think Brooks is spot on here. Police brutality, institutional racism, gun violence, and homophobia are not just worthy topics of discussion though. They’re not mere “issues,” either.

European-Americans Must Not Trade in Abstractions About Others’ Lived Experience of Suffering

For the victims of police brutality, the conversation about it is about lives lost, funerals to plan, and empty bedrooms.

For non-“white” Americans, the conversation about BLM is about living in a country whose institutions continue to act as if their lives don’t matter. The truth of this is indisputable to those who truly care to pay attention.

For indigenous Americans, the conversation about their missing and murdered women, girls, and two-spirits is likewise a heartbreaking one about dinner tables with empty chairs, about lost potential and an aching lack of closure.

The conversation about gun violence is arguably the hardest one to have of all, because it has to do all too often with the lives of children cut short, with parents left forever to wonder if they could have done something more to protect their children, and who all too often are left to spend the remainder of their lives tirelessly working to reform and redeem a culture gone mad for its actual, dumbfounding love of guns.

The conversation about anti-Asian violence and hate is often about proud Americans who contribute in disproportionate ways to the common good of this country, while receiving disproportionate exclusion, vitriol, and oppression in return.

Likewise, the conversation about homophobia and transphobia is one that in many ways many of us are just beginning to have, and none too early, but like the others, for LGBTQIA2S+ Americans, it’s a conversation about the many ways they are hated, feared, excluded, and oppressed.

Missing from Brooks’ laundry list of whole swaths of American society that are oppressed by whiteness are Hispanic Americans and Middle Eastern Americans, among others, I’m sure. Our neighbors to the global south have long been exploited for their labor and scapegoated when it suited the “white” majority in the U.S., and our neighbors from the Middle East are usually vilified by many Americans who misread and misunderstand the Bible and use it as a tool to support not only the legacy of colonialism in North America, but its continued expression in Zionist Israel.

So, while all these conversations desperately need to be had, we must always remember that what we’re talking about are people’s lives. Likewise, we must bear in mind the privilege and power differential of the conversation partners. When “white” people, people like me, engage in any of these conversations what we usually have at stake is our wealth and privilege and the ways in which we’re centered by society. To put it bluntly, as Bob Dylan sang, “you gotta serve somebody,” and society’s institutions are meant to serve European-Americans, especially cishet European-Americans like myself. So what’s at stake for people like me in conversations about the marginalization and oppression of others is the fearsome possibility of being treated like everyone else, of not being centered and served by society as a matter of course. It’s a terrible thing to confess.

Notice that difference, though. Again in conversations about marginalization and oppression, regardless of where my heart and my intentions might be, my social location places me on the side of the oppressor and among those that force others to the margins. For everyone else, the conversation is about education and opportunity, about livelihoods, about health and mental health outcomes, about life and death itself. In other words, conversations about such matters for people like me are often about abstractions based on the lived experience of others. Because of such a great power differential, one cannot in good faith argue that there are two sides to be considered equally. As Brooks writes:

Sometimes there’s no neutral ground. You stand with your neighbors or you stand against them. The opposite of Black Lives Matter isn’t “all lives matter” — it’s Black Lives Don’t Matter.

Or, as I keep saying, when we say “Black lives matter,” we mean they matter too. We mean society’s institutions so preference and center “white” male cisgender heterosexual lives it’s as if no other lives matter. So we must take a side, and if we stand with Jesus, we stand with the marginalized and oppressed. My pastor Jonny has something to say about this. He writes:

…Paul consistently undoes the patterns of this world in his ordering of Christian households. How he talks about Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free people showcases a New Humanity and a new way of doing things. Our church’s work of antiracism isn’t a movement following the world, we are following the spirit. We are renewing our minds, transforming our hearts, resisting conforming to the patterns of this world. We are motivated to find our oneness and identity in Christ. That doesn’t mean we merely transcend the worldly racial order that has separated us and oppressed people of color. We are called to repent of how it has infected us and change our behavior. There is no such thing as an identity in Christ without divestment of worldly power. An identity in Christ that is not antiracist is a white Christian Nationalist identity that is a perversion of the Gospel. It is a false teaching led by false prophets (italics added).

I Cannot Get to the Whole Cloth of Life in Christ Without Removing the Wholly Racist Clothes I Grew Up In

This reminds me of one of our Circle of Hope proverbs. These are sayings of our church, wisdom we’ve collected over the years that help us continue the dialogue about who we are in Christ. The one I’m thinking of, as I’m paraphrasing it here, goes: “Life in Christ is one whole cloth…Jesus is lord of all, so we have repented of separating ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’.” I see this saying as a response to the ways in which European-American Christians have crafted a so-called Christianity in which they could worship God on Sunday, occasionally even in the presence of BIPOC and other marginalized people, sometimes even sharing a common cup of communion, and then turn around the next day and continue actively participating in the oppression and marginalization of their so-called siblings in Christ. In a recent Resist and Restore podcast episode, Melissa Florer-Bixler talks about her upcoming book, How to Have An Enemy, and suggests that such disingenuous and really anti-Christ actions might be grounds for withholding such table fellowship. Again as a cishet European-American male who so often is placed in positions of power and is able to deny others entry to privileged spaces, I’m hesitant to support any further exclusionary act, but I do think Melissa is probably right.

So when we say that “life in Christ is one whole cloth,” we mean that following Jesus is something we do with our whole selves, with our whole lives. Florer-Bixler gives an example of hearing about a church that proudly proclaimed it had ICE agents and undocumented immigrants in their congregation, extolling some sort of false “unity.” If life in Christ is one whole cloth, you cannot worship God with someone one day and then kidnap them from their family and deport them the next. Following Jesus may require that you follow him right out of your job. The same probably applies to Wall Street bankers and others, if I may be so bold. Again, we must choose sides.

I might also say that declaring that life in Christ is one whole cloth as a response to racist, oppressive compartmentalization of faith leads to the realization that life itself is simply one whole cloth. I think this is probably just common sense, when we really think about it. And this, then, leads to a further realization. As Jonny said, “…find(ing) our oneness and identity in Christ…doesn’t mean we merely transcend the worldly racial order that has separated us and oppressed people of color. We are called to repent of how it has infected us and change our behavior.” If life itself is one whole cloth just as life in Christ is, European-Americans have grown up wearing racist clothes. The racist rot in American society goes to the core. America is a bad tree, and we risk living as bad fruit if we do not repent and put on our new selves in Christ, if you don’t mind the mixed metaphor.

Galatians 3 speaks to this:

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

A depiction of King Hezekiah repenting, clothed in sackloth

Churches like the one Florer-Bixler spoke of that celebrate the intermingling of oppressors and oppressed in their midst like to rush to their supposed oneness in Christ without doing the work of clothing themselves with Christ. Such dressing necessarily leads to repentance and the changed behavior Jonny spoke of. For those living a life in the whole cloth of Christ, racism leads to antiracism or we have discarded our holy garb. My church, Circle of Hope, is undergoing a painful moment in which we reckon with the ways we have yet to fully put on Christ, with ways in which we continue to work at removing our worldly racist garb. We want to put on Christ and we are, but we must not rush it. Some sackloth and ashes are probably in order for a while as we repent of the ways we have often unwittingly but sometimes wittingly, no doubt, participated in the racism that is all around us. We must change our ways, and I have hope that we will.

I must change my ways, and I cling to the hope that I will. I know, of course, that I cannot do it alone though. I did not get into the mess of white supremacy culture by myself, and I will not get out of it that way either. BIPOC members of our church have expressed that they view their participation in our community as being missional. In other words, we European-Americans make up a mission field that the love of Christ compels them to minister to. We need to be saved in more ways than one, and they’re here to help. Let us humbly receive the good news they have brought, that life does not revolve around us, that we can feel loved, affirmed, and valued for who we are without the crutch of false hierarchies, and that there is enough for all if we share with all freely and equitably. Now that’s a gospel word if ever there was one.