How to Grow our Compassion

In a way, our hearts are like boats in the sea. Boats attract barnacles, without even trying. If you are a boat in the sea, barnacles are looking for you. Can you remove the barnacles from your boat by getting a long pool cleaner brush and rubbing it alongside the hull while it is docked? No, you have to pull the boat out of the water, get out your putty knife, and get to work. article-2161405-13AC92FE000005DC-310_964x558And what happens if you do not clean off the barnacles? Your boat slows down. Lots of drag. It does not perform up to capacity. Boats are built to glide smoothly through the water.

My friend, Paul Gibson, uses this imagery to describe our hearts as well. Often without knowing it, we pick up barnacles on our hearts. Through media, through experiences, through pain, through other people’s stories, we form lots of opinions about other people. We form snap judgements, often having no idea we have even done this.

Paul recently led a group of us on a “compassion exercise” to help us see ourselves and others more clearly. He handed everyone a blank 3×5 card and a pen. He said, “I am about to show you six photos of six different people. On a scale of 1 to 10, write down how much compassion you feel toward this person.”

First he showed us a very malnourished child from Africa, with a sad expression on his face. He followed with a middle eastern man, then a middle eastern woman. Next was George W. Bush. Then MLK Jr. Last came a Latino man with tattoos all over his face and neck. Each time we had about 5 seconds to look at the photo, and write down our reaction.

In small groups, we shared our responses, our grading system. Everyone graded differently. One guy said, “I don’t like people in authority. I have the least compassion for authority figures.” They next person said the opposite, “I trust authority. I felt the most compassion for them.” A third person added, “I based my compassion on choices. Did they choose this situation, or was it chosen for them. The child did not choose to live in a famine, so I had most compassion on him. But the guy with tats did choose that life, so no compassion on him.” Each of us responded differently, but each of us did respond out of a grid, a system of evaluating who deserves our compassion. People saw their bias. They paid attention to the “barnacles” on their hearts, and felt the need to invite Jesus into their barriers to compassion.

Then we prayed, quoting Hebrews 7:25: “…Jesus lives to make intercession for us.” How is Jesus interceding for each of these people? Listen to what he puts on your heart this time. First we saw people through our lenses and grids. Then we tried to see people through Jesus’ eyes.

It reminds me of God’s work in Peter’s life in Acts. In Acts 10, God wanted to help Peter see the “barnacles” on his heart, what held him back from compabarnaclesssion. For Peter, God went to extraordinary lengths to “pull his boat out of the water” and transform him. God called Peter to take a very long walk to Cornelius’ house. As he walked, Peter became much more aware of his fears, his assumptions, and his partiality toward Roman soldiers.

We too need space to “pull our boat” out of the water, examine ourselves in the safety of God’s love, allowing him to transform cold places into warm places of God’s love for everyone.

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Using the Book of Acts to get a White Church Talking About Race, Part 2

How do you get a mostly white church to grow in our willingness to cross cultures in the name of Jesus? We decided to use the book of Acts, and emphasize God’s missional call. We framed it with something we can all agree on, Acts 1:8, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” In order to do this job and be on this mission it was going to require that Jesus’s disciples break through barriers that had separated people from God and from each other for centuries.

We believe as a church that we’re participating in this same mission: to be his witnesses to our entire community.

Baby Steps: The 001 Series Outline

Week 1: Learn to Listen (Acts 6)
Week 2: Be Like Cornelius. Get off your Moving Walkway (Acts 10)
Week 3: Be Like Peter. Repentance is a Good Word (Acts 10, pt 2)
Week 4: Let’s Lean into our Antioch future (Acts 11)
Week 1: Acts 6—Listen

The key take-home here: when there was a complaint along racial and ethnic lines, the (Jewish) apostles did not ignore it or rationalize it or push it away. They listened.

Without listening to people who are different from us we will never break through the barriers that divide us. The importance of being a listener became the refrain for the whole series.

And here’s a good example of the discipline of doing an “001 Series” kicked in: in this passage there are so many great, important application points about power dynamics, race, and authority that we did not talk much about at all. It was week one of an 001 series, we just wanted to invite folks to have a listening posture.

Week 2: Acts 10—The Moving Walkway

We did two weeks in Acts 10—week one we looked at it from Cornelius’s perspective. Our culture operates with moving walkways that will divide and separate us along these same fault lines of race, class, nationality, all we have to do is stand still and we’ll be herded by our racialized society.

The only way break-through happens is if we’re intentional about getting off of the moving walkway and going in the opposite direction.

Cornelius as a Roman centurion does this by sending for Peter and submitting to him, even though Peter’s a measly conquered Jew and Cornelius is a man of authority and power.

This message was about passive racism. I never used that phrase, just wanted people to start to see that we didn’t have to be hood-wearing KKK members to be participating in and cooperating with a racially dysfunctional system.

Week 3: Acts 10—The Hardest Part of Breaking Through

The Greek word for repentances is “metanoia” which literally means to change your mind. In the Acts 10 passage, Peter goes through a massive ‘mind changing’ experience from the unclean “picnic” offered to him in his prayer-trance to standing in Cornelius’s house declaring “I now see that God does not show favoritism” between Jew and Gentile.

This week, I pushed a little bit harder to invite us to recognize that racism wasn’t just “out there” in the culture but in our own hearts as well. The hardest part of breaking through racial barriers for many of us is acknowledging and repenting of the racism that’s within us. That message set up a very powerful communion experience of recognizing our need for the cross.

Week 4: Acts 11—Antioch: A Community that Breaks Through

Here we talked about the combination of human intentionality and the unpredictable, uncontrollable work of the Spirit that is always much more interested in reconciliation and breaking through barriers than we ever will be.

Four weeks, that was it. Near-zero push-back. Lots of great conversations started. If you’re an over-achiever, you can check out the Breaking Through sermon series here.

And as an aside, during the course of the series we had three new ethnic minority families start coming to our church. Not because they knew anything about the series. I think the Lord just said to us, “Alex, now I can trust you with these my children whom I love.”

Amen, may it be so.

How do you talk about Racial Healing in a white Church? Part 1

How do you get a conversation started about race relations and God’s power if you are a white leader in a mostly white church? After 3 years as their pastor, I recently decided it was high time for me to do just that.

Discliamer: After a measley four-week preaching series from Acts, in no way do I fancy myself an expert. But as a friend of mine pointed out, given that most white pastors have absolutely zero experience in talking about this from the pulpit, I’m happy to share my recent experiment, to get the conversation going.

Baby Steps

This series was not supposed to be racial reconciliation 101. It was going to be crossing-cultures 001. We decided to meet our congregation right where they were, as best as we could. Our goal was to start a conversation, not beat them up with how little they knew.

Framing this “Crucial Conversation”

Once I realized that our goal was an 001-level conversation starter series, I decided to steal a page from the book Crucial Conversations: I wanted to start by “establishing mutual purpose.”

My goal in the first few minutes of every message was to build trust and agreement around what we could all agree was broken in the world. That helped us to look at the problem of barriers between people groups as a shared problem that we all wanted to do something about.

Every week I introduced and re-introduced the series with some combination of these key phrases:

We’re talking in this series about God’s power to break through barriers of race, class, ethnicity, culture, and nationality, but especially around what we commonly call race.

In every culture and in every country all throughout history, people have been divided by these same set of barriers

For 5,000 years of human history, there is not one culture, not one people who group that has not had tremendous barriers between people along some of these fault lines

And these barriers have caused untold misery and destruction and pain for people in every culture ever

This is, quite frankly, one of the single greatest, constant, intractable problems for all humanity for all time

Unfortunately, we struggle to have this important conversation in the church.

Scroll through your Facebook news feed and on any given day we can see examples of how much tension and pain and anger and mis-understanding and frustration there is around these issues

But what if the church became that place where we could finally have a good, constructive conversation?

Together, what we’re going to do in these next couple weeks is see if we can start to solve a problem that millions of people before us have been unable to solve. No big deal, right? You up for that?

By framing this up as a global, historical problem it took some of the defensiveness and edge out of the room. This was a problem we were going to tackle and start to solve together. This helped them understand the conversation and “agree” to enter into a difficult topic with me.

God’s Cross Cultural Gospel

The church I serve is a wonderfully action-oriented church that very much desires to be outward-facing.

So when I was running the idea for series by a much wiser man than myself (thanks, Doug Schaupp), he suggested that I frame the series as God’s culture-crossing Gospel, with a clearly missional focus. I knew that would resonate with my action-oriented, outward-facing community.

Over the course of four weeks, we walked through three different passages in Acts but each week we started by putting Jesus’s final command to his disciples in front of us: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”-Acts 1:8

In order to do this job and be on this mission it was going to require that Jesus’s disciples break through barriers that had separated people from God and from each other for centuries.

We believe as a church that we’re participating in this same mission: to be his witnesses to our entire community.

And I played off our church vision and even our name: in order for us to BE Chatham COMMUNITY Church, a church for the whole community, and not just one slice of our community, we’re going to have to break down the same walls that those first disciples had to break through.

By entering through the missional door, they could see and agree that this is an important four-week series, even if it would push them out of their comfort zone.

How do you feel about giving white Christians baby steps, or a 001 warm-up to this important conversation?

On vacation, or, the role of sabbath in racial justice

My spouse and I are going on vacation, driving to the mountains and then on to New Orleans. Now sure, I still like to learn. When we travel, one thing we love when we travel is to check out the cultures, races and history of the place. There are almost always museums, or tours or art installations… in different ways, local folks telling their story. We learn a lot. And we delight in God’s people.

But a sabbath spirit is simply a spirit of curiosity. It’s different time than work time. No plans, no goals… I let myself be amazed by the diversity and beauty that God has created.

Vacation, or weekly sabbath, is a significant broader part of any prophetic journey towards justice. Activism without sabbath eventually leads to burn out, because it demands a lot of our own emotions, efforts and energy without restoring them. When you and I let God lead us into the death and pain and chaos of our world, it will lead to prayer. Prayer is not primarily asking God to fix things. Of course prayer includes that, but primarily it’s a conversation with God, with Jesus, an opening of our lives and ourself to God’s presence and patterns of work in the world. One of God’s patterns is rest.

Sabbath is the Judeo-Christian practice of taking one day a week, to simply rest. It’s rooted in the earliest origin story, that God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day, God rested. Even God… rested, and said His or Her work was good. Jesus kept sabbath, and went to synagogue on the appointed day. So I keep sabbath. Because I’m a pastor, I have to pick another day than Sunday. But I know that on sabbath, my purpose is to do nothing. There is no work. No ‘to do’ lists. I ignore chores. I ignore computers and cell phones and social media. I rest.

I may read or garden or listen to my favorite music. I may go for slow walks and do yoga. I look at clouds and trees and flowers. I sit around. I take naps. I eat dinner and talk with my spouse, but I don’t cook or do dishes afterwards.

On the one hand, sabbath keeping (and vacations) are simply restorative. We human beings are limited and need to take a break. Cross-cultural relationships are hard work and tiring. Race and racism challenge us. But I also believe there are actually spiritual powers and prinicipalities, forces God set up for good, underpin these vast systems of inequity. All this is bigger than we are. My sabbath keeping, my vacations, have actually stretched my capacity to trust that God is still at work, when I am not.

However, even on the topic of race, sabbath has a lot of space for delight. In so many ways God’s creation and human cultures are amazing: the food, the music, the art, the beauty of all God’s people. In sabbath time, or vacation time, I turn away from the pain and brokenness of the world, trusting that God holds it, and I get to rest from my limited attempts to repair and comfort. I turn away, and I turn towards delighting in the world as God has created it.

The mountains and New Orleans, I think, will be the perfect places for that.

Time Out, Part 2: Space to Process Our Conflicting Feelings

Calling a Time Out helps slow down a potentially confusing or hurtful cross cultural conflict. Calling a Time Out also allows us white people (and everyone) to process our jumbled feelings.

Back to the story of me hosting the multiethnic group of Christian leaders. The next day I began with a second “Time Out,” but this one was to process and learn from our various reactions.

I began with, Let’s brainstorm a list of possible feelings that someone might have had last night. When you experience cross cultural conflict, what feelings might people have? (I chose a question that was a step removed, so that they did not have to own their feelings just yet, but rather could say what other people might have been feeling. I thought this would be a little bit safer way to get everyone to enter the conversation.)

You can see from the photo, our list was quite varied. (Forgive my bad handwriting, but I figured you might like to see the real list we created.) Paula pointed out to me that the list is mostly negative feelings, and I reminded her that the context was conflict and misunderstanding.

How is it possible to have several conflicting feelings at the same time? I quoted Mark 9…when the father confessed to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief.” I related to the father. Often I have belief mixed with unbelief. I am a jumbled set of sometimes contradictory feelings. That is okay. I just need space to call a Time Out and process the jumbled mess inside me.

Now, please pick 3 feelings from the list that you personally were experiencing. Or 3 others that did not make our list. Share with your neighbor.

Okay, let’s invite God into the feelings. It is not enough to just name the feelings. We want to interact with God amidst the feelings.

I confessed to them that my 3 instant feelings in the midst of the conflict the previous night were anxiety, awkwardness, and fear that the conversation would morph into a shame or blame dynamic. By naming my fears to myself in the moment, I was able to not be paralyzed by them. I find that we white people are not very good at naming the feelings we are having in the moment. So we tend to analyze the content of what is being said and try to have a rational conversation, maybe we try to win the argument, or get defensive. We are being highly influenced by our feelings, but we tell ourselves that we are just working out the ramifications of the disagreement.

Or if we know better than to be argumentative or defensive, we are silent. We white people seldom have safe places where we can process our multiethnic confusion and where we can bravely name our jumbled and conflicting feelings.

Paula and I have been the kind of white friends where we can process safely and wisely our white experiences (but we are careful not to turn our conversations into racist gripe sessions where we complain about these people and those people).

Try calling a Time Out on yourself the next time you find yourself having a reaction to a news article about racial conflict (or if you find yourself having no emotions at all…numbness or indifference or apathy are equally important to name and invite God into.) Or if you are an extrovert like me, ask a wise friend of whatever ethnicity, Can you be a safe place for me to process cross-cultural confusion from time to time? Is it okay if I call you, and you could play the role of a peer mentor for me? That way they expect you to call and process with them.

When White People Should Call a Time Out, Part 1

Time Outs are crucial in sports. And in the past few decades, parenting has picked up on the “Time Out” trend. Time Outs can calm things down. For both the parent and the child.

Time Outs can also transform a confusing cross-cultural mess into a transformational, healing conversation, where God moves deeper in the lives of everyone participating.

Here is a recent one for me. I was hosting a multiethnic gathering of Christian leaders, so we all could learn about multiethnic complexity and Christian witness.


For a discussion topic, I presented them with a tension-filled case study of a ministry conflict of multiethnic confusion. In the case study, there are 8 Latino leaders who want to proceed with their plans for a multiethnic outreach, featuring Jesus the Reconciler, from Mark 11:15-18. They also wanted to wear Black Lives Matter t-shirts during the outreach, to show solidarity with their African-American sisters and brothers. But the 15 African-American leaders on the team felt uncomfortable with this idea because they as a community had never discussed what it means to wear Black Lives Matter t-shirts. It is hard to do an outreach on a theme that had not been worked through among the leadership team themselves.

A white woman in the case study team took a risk, confessing out loud, “I feel ignorant.” An African American woman immediately pointed at her and declared, “THAT is why we are not doing this outreach next week. See…she IS ignorant!”


What would you do, if you were leading this meeting?

A good case study gets your blood pumping. It helps you feel the moment. It drops you in the midst of real-life tensions, and makes you find a wise way forward, navigating the difficulties. I invited all of the Christians I was hosting to “enter” this story and try to find a way forward.

So I offered, “If I had been leading in this scenario, I would have called a ‘Time Out.’ I would have slowed things down. I would have declared, ‘In Christian community, we speak the truth in love to each other…’”

A Latino leader piped in. “When multiethnic conversations start getting a little crazy, that is my time to jump in and preach a little bit. I would have said, ‘Because of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, we are a new family in Christ. It is not according to our old definitions, our old lines of insider/outsider. Despite this current mess created by White Supremacy, Jesus is stronger.’”

I liked what he said. I listened and nodded.

Another white person said, “Um…I don’t know how to say this…I feel really awkward….[voice quivering] but I can’t just sit here when you blame me for not just being racist, but being a supremacist.”

The tension in the room was palpable. So I took my own advice. I formed a “T” with my hands, and I said, “Time Out.”

“We’re having a moment. It’s awkward. Let’s name the tension we’re having.”

I took a deep breath. I said, “There are two totally different definitions of white supremacy being used in the room right now. Ironically, my friend Paula Harris and I had this very same conversation just last month. We went to Wikipedia and looked up this term. In the first two paragraphs, we find a definition that is more typical of hate groups. But in the third paragraph, there is a very different definition. It is an academic term, a whole field of academic study, called Critical Race Theory. The professors who teach on this all over the country are not skin heads, but run-of-the-mill professors who use this terminology as a synonym for ‘white privilege.’ I believe one of you is using the definition from the third paragraph, and the other is feeling accused of being in a hate group.” They both nodded. A good conversation followed, with good understanding on many sides.

It was late at night, and the meeting had already gone long. So I wrapped us up. But I returned to this conversation the next day. I wanted to create a little more space to learn about ourselves, to process our reactions, and to redeem this tense interaction. More on that next week.

When was the last time you were in a complex or tense multiethnic conversation…could you have called a Time Out? Would it have helped? Think through different settings or interactions or friendships where this might be helpful in the future.

German School and changing white culture

I’ve been thinking about white culture.  Joe Ho helped us with his observations about white culture, and communicating effectively within white culture on campus.  If you still doubt white people have a specific culture, why not go see My Big Fat Greek Wedding again just to think about the two families coming together, or remember about all the assumptions white people have together around how we do Thanksgiving, or how we do Christmas, or other major cultural events. Everybody has a culture, including white Americans.

Certainly, Doug and I both think that white culture has aspects which are positive and powerful. One of the core values of this blog is to be appreciative, looking for positive aspects to build on. White people tend to have a “can do” spirit, a sense of our own agency, a belief that things can change for the better, for example.

But white culture also has toxic, racist aspects. Black students at the university in my home city are speaking out about our negative effect on them, and their wellbeing. I share this “Being Black at UW” video to bear witness to the toxic aspects of white culture in my hometown.  Please spend two minutes watching it.

So because of this, and other situations like it, we need to change white culture. We need to learn to notice how the Holy Spirit is active in changing culture, and participate with what God is already doing. We can be in our own culture, be prayerful, be connected to white people, and call our friends and family and colleagues to a higher, better, more Godly standard.

How on earth do I change my culture? you might ask.

Here’s an example of this going badly. In Wisconsin, where I live, a hundred years ago there were publicly funded German language and dual language (German-English) schools. We had whole towns that spoke only German.   Our Wisconsin white American culture changed, because of the influence of English American immigrants, and the xenophobia between the two world wars. We burned German language books and closed schools.  So we all changed, in Wisconsin, a lot because of the hatred and fear of Germans between the two wars. Now most of our books and newspapers and blogs and schools are English based, and Muller brewery in Milwaukee has become Miller.  (My computer won’t let me put the umlaut over the “u” in Muller.) Sadly, part of the reason some white people are not aware of our own culture is because of these kinds of losses. My own paternal grandmother, who was German, never spoke German to me or in my presence. She and her sister erased most of my connection with German American culture.

But culture change can be redemptive as well. Last week, two guys came to visit me at church. They are in charge of a German language school and they were looking for a place to hold classes. Come to find out, they teach German language and culture to adults and kids of all ages. They are attempting to recover German culture in Wisconsin – in our last census, 44% of Wisconsinites reported German heritage and we have a lot of fun German traditions.  Culture changes, both for the negative and the positive. Culture is a real but fluid phenomenon.

In Germany itself, culture was intentionally changed in an attempt to become less anti-semitic, and heal from the Holocaust. After World War 11, the German people completely overhauled their education system in a concerted attempt to de-nazify and change their culture.

So the question remains, what will we do, to identity, confront and change the toxic effects of white culture? Here are seven simple ideas for adults and children:

  1. educate yourself and your children … find out who you are
  2. guard your own tongue (against hate speech and microagressions)… say kind, good things
  3. speak up against hate speech and unjust situations (be a witness, not a bystander)
  4. don’t take over (we white people, and especially white men, like to solve problems)… let’s avoid fixing and learn to be partners.
  5. leave space for the victim (of racism) to find his or her own voice, and validate it… this may mean, join the protest
  6. when the law comes (police, lawyers, teachers, principals)… stay.
  7. be present, be a witness, be a friend