I’ve seen very few new movies this year but I suspect that even if I’d seen a bunch more I’d still think 12 Years A Slave was the year’s best. Here’s a short reflection provoked by the film that I wrote last week for our church newsletter.
“Daddy, are we getting close?” I won’t even try to guess how many times Eliot asked me some version of that question during our nine hour drive to (and from) Tennessee for Thanksgiving. Waiting is hard for active little boys.
Of course, much waiting is far harder – more painful – than a long card ride to visit people who love you. On Monday I was finally able to see 12 Years A Slave. Of the film’s many powerful themes I was especially struck by the pervasiveness of waiting, of enslaved and oppressed people who had little recourse but to wait. Their waiting was overseen by lying preachers, paternalistic plantation owners, and sadistic overseers. But more than the unimaginable waiting, what overwhelmed me was the presence of hope among many of the enslaved women and men. Despite the attempts by those who claimed ownership over their bodies to dehumanize them, these individuals anticipated an end to their suffering, to their waiting. A shared cup of water, a song sung in the field, a letter written in secret all pointed to an end beyond the waiting. In so many different ways they bore witness that the insufferable waiting would not have the last word, that their lives could never be defined or reduced by the so-called master.
Thanks be to God that we are not forced to wait in similar ways. The longings and anticipations most of us know are so far removed from those portrayed in 12 Years A Slave we could almost overlook the places of waiting in our own lives. That would be a mistake. Waiting is a trait of our cracked humanity within an unjust word. To ignore our longings for restoration, completion, and fulfillment would be to miss something essential about our lives… and our futures.
The Advent season is the reminder that we wait. The world portrayed in 12 Years A Slave may have changed, but suffering and injustices are as pervasive in our world now as they were then. On Christmas we celebrate the Messiah’s coming; during Advent we remember that we await His return. We remember that we live in the gap between how things are and how they will be one day. We remember that we are a waiting people and that our waiting has an end, that a day will come when waiting no longer has a place in our lives. Until that day, let us live as hopeful people whose lives – even during the waiting – are claimed and defined only by the God who who patiently waits for us.
On the way to the Orange County airport this morning the van driver, a member of the church that hosted the conference, asked what stood out to me about the Mosaix Multi-Ethnic Church Conference. I’m working on a short article recapping the conference for Leadership Journal so I’ll save most of my reflections but there was one theme that I found especially refreshing. I don’t go to many Christian or church leadership conferences but I’ve been to enough over the years to notice at least one commonality. These conferences tend to elevate certain models and systems that have worked (at least by someone’s definition of success) and offer them up as templates that others can apply to their ministry settings. This kind of thing drives me nuts as it almost completely ignores the many, many contextual factors that ought to be considered when deciding how to go about ministry.
The many speakers, preachers, and presenters at Mosaix 2013 mostly avoided this sort of one-size-fits-all approach to the ministries of our churches. Instead we heard good theology which underpins the multi-ethnic movement and good sociology and social science that illuminated some of the challenges facing those of us within multi-ethnic churches. I can’t tell you how refreshing this was! It’s as if most of us shared the assumption that our churches and ministries need to look different from each other- that cultures, neighborhoods, and history all matter. The franchising of American Christianity was hard to spot at Mosaix and it made me exceedingly hopeful.
This week I’ll be at the Mosaix 2013 conference in California. As the pastor of a multi church, there aren’t a lot of conferences where I can show up and assume that folks share my commitment to multi ethnic (racial, cultural) ministry. Mosaix 2013 will be that kind of a conference. I’ll be wearing a few different hats while at the conference. Primarily I’ll be there as a learner, looking for good theology and methodology that will benefit New Community Covenant Church. I will also be there in my role as Director of Church Planting for the Central Conference of my denomination. I’ll be paying attention to church planting trends and noticing the different ways church planters talk and think about diverse community. (We don’t all think the same way!) Finally, I get to spend some time representing my friends at Leadership Journal. I’ll write an article about the conference for them and connect with some of the speakers on their behalf.
There will be a lot of folks at the conference who have been long-distance teachers and mentors to me: Paul Louis Metzger, Christena Cleveland (whose blog you should follow and whose new book is quite good- I’ll post a review soon), Soong-Chan Rah, and many others. I’m glad for the chance to continuing learning from these women and men.
Will you be at the conference?
Last week brought disheartening news from white-evangelical-church-world. A well-publicized men’s conference was reported to have used both women and gay people as punchlines to jokes told from the stage. And, in An Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church, a group of influential Asian American Christians pointed out a bunch of instances of racial stereotyping by different evangelical conferences, publishing houses, and pastors. For those paying attention – and/or on the receiving end of these offensive and marginalizing stereotypes – it seems impossible that these things keep happening. How is it that many Christian leaders of the evangelical-ish variety are continuing with language, images, and assumptions that are so unloving? It’s crazy, right?
Well, yes, except that I get it. The white men who lead these conferences, publishing houses, and – yes – churches are steeped in privilege. This is the sort of privilege that comes when ones (my) race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status place a man at the top of the heap. And for these men (me) it’s almost impossible to imagine what it feels like to have something fundamental about yourself reduced to a punchline. Of course it is theoretically possible to stereotype white men, but there is no real sting in such stereotypes because the power differential remains unchanged. This is why a white man’s claim of being a victim of racism (or that mythical thing, reverse racism) rings hollow. Perhaps he has been prejudiced against, but racism requires that added element of power, something he still retains more of within our society.
Deeply ingrained, subconscious privilege makes it really hard to imagine what it’s like for something elemental about yourself to be co-opted and reduced for someone else’s purposes. I get it. So, from one white man to other white men here’s some unsolicited advice. Don’t do it. Don’t use someone’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender to serve your purposes, whether that’s getting laughs or selling a book. Just don’t. Here’s the thing: If your message is good enough (and if you’re a Christian leader than your message damn well better be more than good enough) than there is absolutely no reason to resort to stereotypes or marginalizing tropes. When you resort to these things you not only appear prejudiced and tone deaf, it also seems like you don’t trust the quality of your own message, as if it has to be propped up on someone’s disenfranchized back.
Another thing. We white men will say and do stupid things. We are, in so many ways, products of our privilege and despite our best intentions we will harm others with our words and assumptions. Time spent submitted to diverse community holds a lot of promise for our own spiritual formation, but we will still mess up. The point can never be for us (or, for that matter, any Christian) to always get it right. Impossible! The point is, however, to be quick to repent and ask for forgiveness when we do get it wrong. When we do hurt those we mean to love. And if the Gospel of Jesus is true for us, than we can really repent and really ask for forgiveness. None of this non-apology if-I-offended-anyone baloney. No, Christians are meant to be an always repenting and always forgiving people so we need not be devastated or evasive when confronted with our sin.
One last thing for my white, male comrades. It won’t be long before we see another well-known leader or pastor goof up in this area. It’s absolutely going to happen. When it does, if at all possible, we need to speak up. We’ve got to call this stuff out even while acknowledging our own blind spots. We can tell our diverse Christian family that we’re not OK with stereotypes and sanitized prejudices. We can contact the offending party and, gently but directly, point out the damage that has been done. And we can do all we can to make robust reconciliation an ever-increasing reality.
For the ten years I’ve been a pastor there’s been one priority most everyone I’ve worked with (pastors, lay people, and ministry authors alike) has agreed with: authenticity. This is interesting. For one thing, church folks don’t often agree on priorities yet this one has gone unopposed. For another, how is authenticity a thing that can be prioritized? In an earlier age we might have simply called this thing honesty or telling the truth but somewhere along the way churches were convinced that ours is an age of authenticity. To attract the young and cynical then, churches must wear their authenticity on websites, mission statements, and sermon illustrations.
I started thinking about this as I prepared a recent sermon about worship. I was considering some of the obstacles to corporate worship – a particularly live question in a multi-ethnic congregation like ours – when the priority of authenticity started to seem more of a liability than an asset. Authenticity, as I understand it, means being true to myself. Maybe it’s easier to state it negatively: authenticity is not being fake. I’m all for not faking, but for Christians there are at least two problems with authenticity.
First, though being authentic requires being true to myself, Christians claim that most of the time we barely know ourselves. What, exactly, is it that we are being true to? The prophet Jeremiah was blunt about this: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” If my decisions about how I participate in Christian worship and community are based on authenticity – my interpretation of my needs and desires – then I’m in for a fickle and shallow experience of the Christian life. Not only that but when my starting point is my authentic experience, no matter how altruistic I happen to be on a given day, I cannot help looking for an experience revolving around me.
There’s another problem. Historically Christians have assumed that our experience of Christ and his Kingdom involves a life-long catechesis. Our emotions, thoughts, and even beliefs at any given moment are a poor indicator of our place within the Kingdom and our identities as children of God. Rather, we have expected our desires to be schooled in the practices and habits of this upside down Kingdom. Submission to community, participation in corporate worship and Sabbath keeping, and practicing the spiritual disciplines have long been assumed to be the normal Christian habits necessary forming more trustworthy desires. Leading with authenticity may sound like smart strategy, but it’s hardly leading from our strength.
I’m pro-authenticity. I want to live an authentic life to the best of my limited ability. And I want to participate in a community of people who are learning to tell the truth about everything. As a value, authenticity is admirable and worth pursuing. But as a guide, we can surely do better. Much better.