Confessions of a would-be woke person

Confessions of a would-be woke person

I have a confession to make: I used to think that white supremacy was passé. Yes, I knew that racism was still rampant in our country – I could probably even have held my own in a discussion on the effects of systemic racism on public education and incarceration rates. But I genuinely thought that the era of public, socially acceptable racism had ended with Jim Crow, or soon after. I, unlike so many Americans who knew better, was surprised at Donald Trump’s political success because I thought that the KKK and other white supremacist groups had become fringe movements with no real support, deserving of derision and little else.

I’m sorry. That was evidence of my privilege – I benefit from the luxury of not having to pay attention and recognize the problem. After Charlottesville, I no longer have that excuse.

As a white person, I don’t enjoy talking about privilege. In fact, I hate everything about it – I despise being associated in any way with the legacy of slavery, racism, or injustice of any kind, and acknowledging it makes me very uncomfortable. But I can’t escape it. Privilege is as fundamental to my existence as… well, the color of my skin. It doesn’t matter whether my ancestors owned slaves or farmed potatoes in Ireland; I still benefit, have always benefitted, from the systems put in place to privilege people who look like me.

White privilege means that until now, I got to assume that my “wokeness” could be implicit; that I could skate by on nodding in agreement with the right people and sharing other people’s writing on my Facebook page; that occasionally objecting to problematic policy issues, such as the Muslim ban, was enough to do my civic duty of speaking truth to whoever was willing to read it; even the fact that I study Arabic and postcolonial studies seemed to contribute to my general public acknowledgement of or even a stance on the issues at stake. I was aware of the problem. I wasn’t racist. I thought I was “woke.” But I never felt the need to say much explicitly. It was never going to affect me even if I didn’t.

I’m sorry. That is also evidence of my privilege – I benefit from the choice of whether or not to enter into the discussion at all. And too often, I have chosen not to.

White privilege takes away what moral high ground I might have once thought I had. I belong to a group of people known for their history of exploitation and perpetuating injustice, whether I like it or not, and I follow a God who is determinedly and unequivocally on the side of the oppressed even while he wants to save the oppressor. No one likes seeing themselves on the side of the oppressor, but we would be wise to remember that there is no value in gaining a world of social and economic and political advantage if it costs us our very souls. And it will, if it makes us forget our own brokenness and keeps us from doing justice, and loving mercy, and walking humbly.

The thing is, the fact that I don’t like my privilege will not make it go away. There are a lot of unpleasant truths that I have had to come to terms with (that God somehow allows evil to exist, that vegetables are good for me and I should eat them more, that my French thesis will not write itself), and this is one more: I possess (will always possess) white privilege, and it’s not fair. Confession: Most days, I am overwhelmed by the knowledge that I possess this privilege and I have no idea what to do with it. I am paralyzed.

So, just in case anyone was in doubt of where I stand, I’m going to quote Stephen Colbert: “Nazis are bad. The KKK? I’m not a fan.” I’m so proud of my church for this statement, which I’ve excerpted below, issued this past Sunday in response to the events in Charlottesville (and I’m not even just biased because my dad wrote most of it):

As a church we denounce and condemn racism and white nationalism. We call them what they are: sin! Claims of racial superiority are an assault on God’s glory and the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are responsible for great crimes against his creation and have no place in his church.

And we have to confess that all too often, people who hold these views claim a place in the church, and even if we don’t agree with them, many of us have taken the easy path of remaining silent. We fail to call it sin, and our inaction adds still more weight to the burdens of people who have to wonder every day if they are even welcome here. We need to repent of that, and call it sin, and acknowledge our own sin for not standing against it.

We know that in Christ there is no distinction, that every nation, tribe, people, and language will one day be together before the throne, because we are all one in Christ Jesus.

Racism, white supremacy, white nationalism, Nazism – this multifaceted movement is evil. To elevate one kind of person over another is nothing short of an assault on the image of God and inherent dignity existing in every single human being, and an affront to the character and purposes of the God who literally died to redeem his people. I am not going to let it slide again.

Here’s a confession (you thought the title was just a gimmick, didn’t you?): I still sometimes think racist thoughts.

Here’s another: Sometimes I start to view “wokeness” as a level to be reached on my liberal sticker chart, or some kind of absolution for my whiteness, as much as a true desire for justice. Sometimes I’d rather have the woke designation than actually fight the good fight for its own sake or for the love of my brothers and sisters of color. Would I keep fighting even if no one ever acknowledged how woke I was?

And another: With every step I take towards social awareness and allyship in this unjust world and privilege-ridden landscape, I look up and see anew how much farther I still have to go. I often wonder if I will ever arrive, and if it’s still worth the effort if I never do. Or maybe “wokeness” isn’t a destination so much as an active hope to be better. But I can’t let that become an excuse not to try.

Quilting advice from Nietzsche

Quilting advice from Nietzsche

I made my first quilt when I was eight. I say I made; I did make quite a bit of it, but it was something of a training-wheels quilt, made with a lot of help from my mom and Sue, the family friend I’ve more or less adopted as grandma. I still remember the excitement of going to the neighborhood Joann’s or, even better, a local quilt shop to pick out block patterns and patterned fabric for what became a twin-sized sampler quilt.

Even then, I was a glutton for punishment – some of the block patterns I chose to make had bucketloads of tiny triangles and squares that my unskilled fingers eventually had to pass off to Mom to sew together. And in the end, when all of the pieces were sewn into blocks and the blocks were sewn into strips and the strips were joined together to form the quilt top, we still had to quilt the whole thing. Surprisingly, it wasn’t my first time quilting by hand, having already lent my justifiably timid fingers to another quilting project at church, but thankfully I had two more-experienced quilters both supervising and contributing. It got done, and lived on my bed through high school.

My second complete quilt project was a bright, oversized bedspread that now graces the dim atmosphere of my basement-level apartment bedroom, and I had the brilliant idea of quilting the whole thing, by hand, all on my own (still a glutton for punishment, years later). That sort of thing is best to do in cold weather, because sitting under the weight of a thick quilt bent over an embroidery hoop for hours on end gets really, really warm. While quilting, I periodically plead for neck massages from my dad and watch listen to the A&E Pride and Prejudice (5 hours, 27 min) or The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition trilogy (11 hours, 22 min), usually more than once per quilt.

Hand-quilting is one of those things that never gets faster, no matter how good you think you are (or maybe I’m still just not very good yet). Every time I think I’m doing really well, I look down and realize my thread is all knotted, or it breaks off, or I flip to the backside and see stitches that could pass for sutures on Frankenstein’s monster. My basically-grandma Sue says that if you can’t see the mistake from the back of a galloping horse, then it’s probably fine, but some of my stitches you could probably see from the Space Station in orbit. What is there to do, but rip them out and redo it?

Otherwise, I might get done faster, but the end result will not be what I wanted. No one sets out to sew a crappy quilt any more than a follower of Jesus sets out to be a bad disciple, but you know what they say about good intentions as paving material. The difference is not in intent, but in how faithful we are in the minute, seemingly insignificant details. On a quilt, it takes matching corners and placing stitches with almost anal-retentive care to do a beautiful pattern justice. In my life, it means following through on my commitment to follow Jesus in every area, even in those that don’t seem important.

How can I cultivate a relationship with God if I’m not doing what it takes to spend time with him, whatever that looks like? I’ve never been much of a runner, except for this one misguided high school cross-country season, but I’m always impressed by the faithfulness and discipline of people who do get up and make time to go for a run on a regular basis. I can’t say I always manage the same level of discipline when it comes to prayer, or reading God’s word, or worshiping on my own or with my community. It’s something I will never be finished learning how to do, and it’s not going to happen without intent and purpose.

This applies in a lot of other areas, too. For example, this summer I have been realizing that no matter how much I want to be good at Arabic grammar, I will probably not memorize vocabulary and verb forms and case endings by accident. I have to put in the hours of studying and practice that are necessary to retain those things even after I’ve taken my last exam and gone home. Stitch by agonizing stitch.

Similarly, I am not going to accidentally become a person of integrity; it will happen in the moments when I choose not to cheat on an exam, when I choose to come clean with a friend and apologize for wronging her, when I own up to my mistakes day to day and make a good faith effort not to repeat them. Sacrificial love is not a habit that one develops easily – it requires a daily determination to seek the good of those around me, sometimes in unconventional ways. And I won’t become a good youth group leader simply by showing up at my church and saying, “I’m going to be a good youth group leader today.” It might take me years of learning to listen well in the moment when it’s needed, and practice encouraging my students to follow Jesus and practice loving them anyway when they don’t. Stitch by bloodletting stitch.

As Eugene Peterson wrote in his 1996 book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:

This [pastoral work] turned out to be slow work. From time to time, impatient with the slowness, I would try out ways of going about my work that promised quicker results. But after a while it always seemed to be more like meddling in these people’s lives than helping them attend to God. More often than not I found myself getting in the way of what the Holy Spirit had been doing long before I arrived on the scene.

One of the earliest verses I remember learning from my mom when I was a kid is Luke 16:10: “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” I’ve always thought that this meant economies of scale, as in, “If you’re faithful to do the small thing well, then you’ll do the big thing well, too, and vice versa.” “If you’re good at being a governor, then you’ll be good at being the president.” Et cetera.

But I’m beginning to think that there’s another way to look at it: If you’re faithful to match your corners and stitch in the ditch, then the whole quilt will end up looking better. In other words, the little will always add up to the much in the long run, and there is no much without all of the little components.

Peterson again, from A Long Obedience: “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.” This “long apprenticeship” of becoming more like Christ is a lifelong one, and it’s worth devoting faithful attention to the moments and details along the way. The title of Peterson’s book comes from, of all people, Friedrich Nietzsche, whose quote is included in the epigraph:

The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is . . . that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.

This is not just a Christian thing. It’s not just a quilting thing, either. Investing time and attention in the most important and usually un-glamorous things each day is what yields the results we’re looking for, every time, and the rewards of that patience are greater than we imagine – that which makes life worth living.

On tribbles and doubts

On tribbles and doubts

I am learning not to be ashamed of my doubts. That’s not yet an easy statement for me to make – after all, for most of my life Doubt was a sinister shadow lurking on the edge of my nightmares. What if I wake up someday and don’t believe all this anymore? I wondered. Will I still be saved? Will God stop loving me? But for a good church kid known for having a strong faith, a loss of faith meant more than potential salvation problems in the future; it meant a complete identity crisis in the here and now, too. Not just “I’m not sure I believe this anymore,” but also “I am not the person I used to be, or the person everyone else thinks I am.”

My first encounter with doubt was as a teenager, which seems to me like a long time ago but really wasn’t. I remember feeling discouraged because I couldn’t seem to muster up the correct level of emotion in response to God, and I couldn’t hear his voice in the way I felt I was supposed to. I had questions, and he wasn’t answering them. (You’ll soon find that this is a pattern for me.) At the lowest moment of my sophomore year of high school, I stopped believing completely. Or, as I put it at the time, I tried on atheism – but, as you may have guessed, it didn’t last long. My faith was rooted too deeply for it to wither away so quickly, and I didn’t stay in that low place. But it was the first time I’d ever run into questions and doubts to any significant degree, and I didn’t know how to handle it. No one had ever taught me how.

Doubt has a way of creeping in, unbidden, and when ignored, spawns silent unanswered queries that eat away at your faith from the inside out until one otherwise insignificant question sends the whole thing crashing to the ground. If you make a habit of sweeping your doubts under the rug, pretty soon all you’ll be left with is the brittle, threadbare skeleton of the faith you once had, and a lumpy rug of doubts that grow and multiply like tribbles on the Enterprise.tribbles

One thing leads to another, until you’re sitting in a therapist’s office getting angrier and angrier at the patent simplicity of her answers that no longer seem to hold water. How dare you try to meet my questions with certainty, as if my questions weren’t really worth wrestling with. As if all I had to do to be free of the Doubt-monster was believe harder. (How I got to the therapist’s office in the first place is a much longer story, and I quit going soon after that visit anyway.) If the simplistic answers rehearsed by Sunday School teachers each week were enough to answer my questions, I would never have had to ask them in the first place. I knew those answers already; I had weighed and measured them, and found them wanting.

On the other hand, the best way I’ve found to engage with those doubts, the answers I no longer believe, is to talk about them. On more than one occasion, verbalizing my secret fears and illicit doubts has had a similar effect to poking a pin into the base of a balloon – deflating it, with a violent wail and a bit of flailing about the room before falling from the air. Okay, maybe not so dramatically as that, but the image still works: slowly removing its power and shape simply by speaking it aloud. Half of my problem with doubts is my own fear that they might be right, and when I speak, I become less afraid.

I think my favorite author in the Bible is David, the writer of most of the best psalms. Time and time again, David allows for those doubts to surface even as he trusts once more in God. My favorite is Psalm 13:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

David does not shy away from asking arguably impertinent questions of the Creator of the universe. (David and I have that in common.) But in the midst of all of the questions, he continues to trust in God’s steadfast love. Another favorite of mine is the beginning of Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
    and by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy,
    enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
    they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
    in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

Somehow, in spite of everything, David still has faith. The knowledge that even someone as admirable as David could have moments (and more than just moments) of doubt means that I have someone to keep me company in this space of question after question with no resolution. And little by little, I am learning to rejoice when God answers me, and accept when he chooses not to. But I need to ask anyway. I probably always will.

To put it in more contemporary terms: Lately, it seems that the most radical thing you can do in the evangelical sphere (or the corner in which I find myself) is agree with Rob Bell on literally anything. The former Mars Hill pastor became something of an evangelical black sheep after writing a book that questioned the existence of hell (Love Wins), and recently stoked the flames of dissension with his new book, What Is the Bible? While I don’t necessarily agree with him on a variety of topics, he provides an interesting case study in what it means to doubt well.

If nothing else, I trust the strength of Rob Bell’s faith more than another pastor who has always toed the theological line, because he has engaged with his questions instead of silencing them. Agree with him or disagree, I must recognize and admire the basic honesty of his faith journey as he has shared it with the world. He does not pretend to believe as he “ought.” He does not submit to what has always been assumed to be true in his circles of influence. If nothing else, I will always admire him for that, though I realize saying so aloud puts me in an ideological minority in my own community.

The courage it takes to publicly change one’s mind will always be remarkable, especially in the realm of theology where humility of conviction is too often seen as anathema to strong faith. I’ve come to the conclusion that it takes a stronger faith to change one’s mind than it does to hold fast to what you have always believed, because the latter rests on individual certainty and not on the sovereignty of God in the midst of it all. It’s the courage to risk being wrong in pursuit of truth, and trust that God will still be faithful anyway.

God is the author and inventor of truth, and the honest pursuit of that truth is a form of worship that is still worthy when we come up short. He is honored in the seeking.

‘What can you do without the rain?’

‘What can you do without the rain?’

The Great Commandment is one of the most-quoted passages of Scripture in the church: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). This commandment is very closely associated with the popular “Golden Rule”: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

This commandment is also often seen as the core of the Christian faith, but conversely is also cited as evidence that “all religions are essentially the same.” For example, ReligiousTolerance.org lists versions of the Golden Rule found in a variety of different religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, the Bahá’í Faith, Confucianism, even an ancient Inca religion. So what is it that actually sets Christianity apart? Not the Great Commandment but a different one, found tucked away in the most famous sermon ever preached: the Sermon on the Mount.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).

Arguably, this is the commandment that rests at the heart of the Christian faith. After all, as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8). The operative factor of our salvation, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, occurred not because of our righteousness but in spite of our lack thereof. Paul goes on to explicitly refer to us as enemies of God – so I guess you could say that Jesus practiced what he preached.

You know what that means? We can’t be surprised when Christians turn out to be terrible people, or when terrible people become Christians. The church, writes Abigail Van Buren, “is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” Christians have become more known for our holier-than-thou posturing than for our grace and mercy, but this shouldn’t be a surprise, either. We are not saints. Our very self-righteousness betrays us. Without the grace of God at work, we are only whitewashed instead of cleansed. Charles Spurgeon once said, “You may break the clods, you may sow your seeds, but what can you do without the rain? As absolutely needful is the divine blessing.” None of our labor has any merit absent grace.

The kind of righteousness that Jesus promoted lies not in works well done, but in the humility it takes to throw oneself at his feet. In the Gospel of Luke, we find this account of Jesus:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

But (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) grace doesn’t stop there. “Love your enemies” takes on an entirely different flavor when you consider the reach of its implications, and I sometimes come away from my own faith with a bitter taste in my mouth. The secular world thinks “love your neighbor” is great; it’s at the core of what it means to be a bleeding-heart liberal. But love your enemies? Love those people who shoot up elementary schools and cops who murder unarmed teenagers? Pray for ISIS? Love my racist relatives, and church leaders who tell me I deserve less of a voice in the church because I’m a woman? Love the old men in MAGA hats? The fact that I don’t like what Jesus says does not make it any less true.

The long and short of it is, who is the one person (or group of people) that you find easiest to hate? Jesus would have you love them. Those of us who follow Jesus do not have the luxury of hatred. Such a response is not an option for someone saved by grace. Otherwise, we would be guilty of withholding from others the very grace from which we benefit every day. Loving our enemies doesn’t mean condoning or tolerating their actions, and it doesn’t mean neglecting the pursuit of justice ­– but it does mean recognizing that no one (and I do mean NO ONE) is beyond the reach of redemption, and treating them accordingly.

We Christians like to say that “all sin is equal in the eyes of God,” but most of us don’t actually believe it. No one wants to think themselves on the same level as a murderer, not when our sins are as innocuous as gossip or pride and are much easier to whitewash than others. But more importantly, recognizing that no sin is qualitatively more or less sinful than another forces us to admit that Christianity is not the mere safe ride to heaven that was preached to us before the altar call. Rather, Christianity is a call to die to ourselves and give up everything in response to the grace that saved us even though we were enemies of God… and extend that grace to anyone and everyone who needs it. When we approach the throne of grace, we are in poor company, which is sort of the point.

I’m not naïve or blind to the evil that exists in this world: The most painful lesson I’ve ever had to learn is that grace wouldn’t be grace if it weren’t as available to the child molester from my church or my best friend’s rapist as it is to me. As available to the cop as it is to the teenager she murdered. As available to the terrorist as it is to the hundreds of victims he gunned down. As available to my president as it is to the Syrian civilians who became “collateral damage” as a result of his military campaign. God wouldn’t be God if his love did not extend beyond the limitations of what I deem palatable degrees of sin. It’s a lesson I’m still learning, every day.

The offense of the gospel of Jesus Christ is this: that he died to save sinners. As one-time slave trader (and author of “Amazing Grace”) John Newton wrote near the end of his life, “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” Of all the tenets of Christianity I’ve learned throughout my twenty-one years, this one is the hill I choose to die on.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

Kingdom in monochrome

Kingdom in monochrome

It’s been forty-nine years since Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.”

In an article called “Is God Colorblind or Colorful?” Miriam Adeney takes a favorable view of ethnic churches in response to Dr. King’s words. She writes, “Separate congregations are not bad. What is bad is a lack of love.” She goes on to say that “ethnic churches have great value. Like a mosaic, like a kaleidoscope, the whole spectrum of cultures—and ethnic churches—enriches God’s world. Just as strong, healthy families are the building blocks for strong healthy communities, so strong ethnic churches can be the building blocks for strong multicultural fellowships. It is when we learn commitment and cooperation at home that we are prepared to practice those skills at large.”

While I wholeheartedly agree with her initial diagnosis (the problem is a lack of love), I could not disagree more with the vision of the church she describes. Or rather, I love the vision she describes, of a mosaic or kaleidoscope of cultures; I just think it belongs in the context of one congregation, rather than promoting a separate church for every ethnic identity that achieves a critical mass of congregants. Perhaps we should teach commitment and cooperation across cultural lines from the get-go, instead of nurturing them in a monochromatic environment. As Christena Cleveland writes, “People can meet God within their cultural context, but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the Incarnation and on the cross. Discipleship is cross-cultural.”

One of the things that has been most valuable for me in my growth as a Christian has been a bi-weekly Bible study that meets in a friend’s living room, filled mostly with international students. The only language we all have in common is English, so we use it, but not because the Americans are in charge. Sometimes we sing in Swahili, and I’m pretty sure there’s a song in Yoruba in the songbook we use; I’ve lost track of the number of African countries that have been represented in this gathering. Every Thanksgiving, the community expands to welcome in even more international students from all over the world (I’ve started to associate Ethiopian injera with Thanksgiving food). This is the place where I have learned to love the church, despite its many faults and our many disputes. And my brothers and sisters in Christ here do not look like me (except for my parents, who also attend, who do very much look like me).

Spotted in the songbook

The Apostle Paul traveled all around Asia Minor, planting churches in a variety of cities filled with people from a variety of backgrounds. As evidenced by his letters to churches dealing with intra-church culture wars, he didn’t start one church for the Jewish believers and another for the Gentiles. He didn’t tell the Gentiles to adopt Jewish customs, or vice versa. (In fact, he spends a lot of time explaining why they don’t have to do just that.) They worshiped together. They worshiped differently. And that was okay. It was hard, but it was okay. He writes to the Corinthians:

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Paul succinctly presents here not only the contrast between the wisdom of God and that of humans, but also how that wisdom must be communicated differently to different groups of people. Jewish believers first understood Jesus in terms of signs and wonders he performed that proved he was the promised Messiah. Gentile believers first understood Jesus based on the wisdom found in his teachings. These are not two different gospels, but two vital aspects of the single gospel that first reach the ears of their respective hearers.

One of the things I’ve observed about Scripture is that its writers never tell us to do anything that we would already be doing on our own. If we were, they wouldn’t have to tell us. Things like “love your enemy” and “sell all your possessions and give to the poor” are not things that we would just come up with on our own. Likewise, if first-century Christians had no trouble at all navigating the differences between Jewish and Gentile constituencies, Paul would not have had to write them letters about it.

One of the straight-up dangerous things about separate congregations is not the mere fact that they are separate, but the results that come about when church members only know how to worship with people who look and think and talk like them. What happens is tribalism — harsh divisions within the body of Christ that should not be there. We begin to conflate our culturally-specific worldview and beliefs with the Word of God, attaching outsized importance to things that are really not that important.

Don’t believe me? Try being anything short of a vehement Republican in a Midwestern church. Try shouting “Amen!” during a Reformed sermon. Try genuflecting around literally any Protestants ever. Watch for the side-eye and the turned-up nose from the people around you. Those people are probably praying for your soul. As Adeney says, the problem is a lack of love, not separate congregations, but separate congregations easily produce a lack of love.

I just sat in on a meeting of parents involved in a ministry at my church – my beautiful, messy, messed-up, Jesus-loving church – and it was an amazing sight. I sat with one parent, speaking French softly in the background to help clarify what the speaker was saying. Behind us, a woman was quietly interpreting his talk in Spanish. Across the rows and aisles were people of color alongside white people, at least three different languages, wealthy people and not-so-wealthy people, families from east and west, north and south neighborhoods throughout the city. You couldn’t get a more varied mixture if you tried. And it was beautiful. Can it sometimes be a mess? You’d better believe it.

But the church is not supposed to be sterile, even when everyone is the same color/speaks the same language/shops at the same grocery store. The church is a lot like my family: vibrant and lively, and also a total mess if our bad moods coincide; a place where the phrase “I always love you but today I don’t really like you” has come out of our mouths numerous times; a place where authority is flouted too often and people forget to take out the trash and sometimes forget to call home more than once a week. And we also support each other even and especially when things get tough, and continue to forgive each other’s repeat offenses. Family is family. So is church.

“The gospel is not safe in any culture without a witness within that culture from beyond itself,” writes Dr. Kenneth Bailey. “Because we have come to terms with our own society, the total word of God has to be declared to us by another.” What could possibly get lost in translation from a first-century Palestinian itinerant rabbi’s teachings to a twenty-first century church in Iowa? I know. Shocking. There are things about Jesus and about our own Scriptures that we might not even realize we don’t understand. Dr. Bailey wrote an entire book called Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes about that very thing. In the same way, different cultures have a way of catching things that we miss, and vice versa.

The very nature of sin is something that is, surprisingly for some, culturally-bound. In an American church, I would be most likely to hear sin described as a kind of “breaking the rules.” God said not to do this, and I did it, so that’s sin. However, someone from a very different culture might understand sin to be a matter of rebellion against God’s authority. Yet another might see it as the shame that results from being a human attempting to usurp God’s position of honor. And the Bible supports all of these different understandings – but a monocultural church is likely to only preach one, missing all of the nuance of how sin affects our lives and communities. Unless we have the whole Scripture, we are missing the whole gospel. The total word of God has to be declared to us by another.

I am a better follower of Jesus than I would have been otherwise as a result of worshipping across cultural lines. I am a better Christian for my exposure to difference and variations in worldview. Any church or ministry is less effective and less like the Kingdom than it could be when all of its members look and talk and think the same. It’s not about segregation and integration, not necessarily. It’s about seeing the full breadth of the gospel and the character of God. No culture has a monopoly on Truth, and difference helps us to see more of its planes and angles. This isn’t diversity for diversity’s sake; it’s diversity because when only one culture is present, a thousand facets of the character of God are missing from our worship, and everyone loses.

 

Holy Saturday forecast

Holy Saturday forecast

It smells like the rain and half-drowned earthworms
At my front door, sickly sweet blossoms meet
the juniper that makes me sneeze
Tires spit on wet pavement
and splash on my toes
My forest-yellow-green hymnal
(the one with the fraying corners)
looks at home in this threadbare chapel
where my voice echoes from narthex to altar
picking out a lonely minor key
against an orchestra of roofbound raindrops and thunder
and radiator vents and creaky pews
Familiar strains of piano and harmony
wrap me in warm benediction and memory
Gray water meets gray skies, but
peeking rays of reluctant sunlight
foretell what comes tomorrow
Did it rain that Sabbath day when
they all forgot what you said,
convinced you’d stay dead?
It seems appropriate for heaven to weep God-sized tears
and cloud over his skies to suit
God is dead, and we killed him
It’s not like they could check the forecast and say
“we’re due for a resurrection at dawn”

Jesus poems

Jesus poems

[Palm Sunday]

That donkey colt munches on bruised blessings
while his owner pretends he never met you
Hastily hidden fronds fray and crumble in pockets
while hymns and hosannas descend into murmurs
A hush fell over the courtyard after your one-man riot
and they mutter That’s not what we meant
when we called you messiah

[Holy Wednesday]

Thirty silver coins, the price of my absolution
For walking too readily with sinners and frauds
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t hoped it were true
but what kind of a God welcomes lepers and sluts?
Thirty silver coins, the cost of my righteousness
And a moment of doubt when he kneels at my feet
his knowing nod a different kind of pardon

[Maundy Thursday]

Vague silhouettes of deity ripple the curtains
that hide your face behind threads of glass
Have we walked with you so long and not known you?
Veiled majesty scrubbed horse shit from under my toenails
and laughed at my wrinkled nose when you said Do likewise

[Good Friday]

I abandon my sandals and dig my toes into holy ground
You bleed splintered wood and color-blind plasma
– this crucifix groans like spirit and weeps like flesh –
whispers of “thirsty” and “finished” are ghosts on your breath:

my halfhearted cries for deliverance fall on deaf ears
or if, my God, you be not deaf,
rest unanswered in anguished silence

I reach through frayed curtain threads to run my fingertips
through a sanctifying and intoxicating mixture
and you walk over coals to open cell doors
just in time for a strangled “hallelujah” at sunrise

[Holy Saturday]

Huddled upstairs, quivering at your thundering silence
can’t help but stare at the place you’re not sitting
Four walls close in; you’d have to dig through compact roof-earth
shift solid stone – if only.

[Easter Sunday]

I awake in cold sweat at the sound of a rooster
With a word from a woman we take off running
I lose the footrace, left in the dust
but maybe I’d have run faster if
I hadn’t been afraid it might be true
that I’d find, like she said, a vacant seat
and a real live lord who last saw
me turn my face away
What angel dares tell me not to fear

[Disciple]

You can breathe upon man and watch him dissipate
but I last heard your breath say It’s done
And yet, you rise.
You can gather the waters but they drip right through
the stinging palms of my Lord and my God
I see. I believe.

[Ascension]

I’ve heard mountains have a memory longer than elephants
Though the stones that once touched you are ground into sand
When we tried to build tents for dead prophets you laughed
because we couldn’t see you
as if both word and flesh could abide under canvas
When we wanted to see kingdom come now you sighed
and said It’s right in front of you
as if Now and Not Yet could be one and the same
On a mountain that remembers the touch of your toes
long after the elephants have forgotten.