Revisiting Finding Nemo

The election is over and progressive Americans are in shock. This wasn’t their expected outcome. Now what? As a white, straight male I want people to know that I am not a racist, hater, Islamophobic, or misogynist. If you were to look at my social media feed there are lots of ways that people who look like me are trying to say, “I not who you think I am.”

This week my mind drifted back to one of my favorite Pixar movies, Finding Nemo. It tells the story of a father’s love for his ever maturing and adventurous child. One day in a fit of frustration with his father’s overprotective nature, Nemo ventures away from the reef to touch the bottom of a fishing boat. He is captured by a scuba diver and taken away. The rest of the movie tells the story of Marlin, Nemo’s father, and Dory, an unexpected friend, as they search for Nemo.

One of the first characters they meet is Bruce the shark. Marlin and Dory are immediately brought to an AA-type meeting for sharks. The gathering begins with a pledge “fish are friends not food.”

As I have been replaying this scene in my mind, one question keeps surfacing. When a great white shark tells a small fish that he has become a vegetarian (read – I didn’t vote for him), who has to have the faith that the relationship will work out? Bruce can change his convictions at any time and without any warning. What assurances do Marlin and Dory have that Bruce will stick to his new diet?

Since last Tuesday those of us who are white have been exposed. How do we demonstrate that we aren’t racist? I can no more quit being white than some of my staff can quit being people of color, women, or gay. I never asked to be born with the power and privilege that comes to me simply because of the color of my skin. But I still have it.  Is it possible that under all my best intentions there are still whiffs of unconscious racism and privilege?

Should I wear a safety pin? Maybe. Will that make you safe? Maybe.

In many ways to be white is much like being Bruce, a great white shark. When we reach out to others asking for forgiveness, seeking reconciliation, and honestly desiring relationship, it is critical to never forget who we are – sharks, people with access to power and privilege.

Just because I reach out to a person of color, a woman, or a GLBTQI person with an honest desire to be friends does not immediately mean that I have quit being scary. It is important to never forget that it takes a tremendous amount of faith to look past the teeth of a great white shark and see a potential friend.

A Civil Rights Tour and lesson in Leadership

My job requires me to spend a lot of time thinking about leadership. I oversee a ministry with programs, staff, and board members in five states. Keeping everyone one the same page while providing the space to be unique and creative is a constant challenge. Last week I was afforded an opportunity to join with a group of collogues on a Civil Rights tour through Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. I have spent the better part of the past two decades reading, reflecting on, and educating myself about diversity, race, and civil rights. This was my first time going to the locations where history was made in the 1950’s and 60’s.

We visited Kelly Ingram Park (formerly West Park) the staging ground for many demonstrations and catty corner from 16th Street Baptist Church the site of September 15, 1963 bombing where four young children were murdered. I walked through the Freedom Ride Museum and heard the stories of the riders, who prior to joining the ride, filled out their wills. They were riding for change and knew that the price might be their lives. In Montgomery I heard the story of Rosa Parks, a strong yet humble women whose single act of defiance, refusing to give up her seat to a white man, set in motion a set of events that would change the south (and north) forever.

In Selma we visited Brown Chapel and walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Later we heard firsthand accounts of the Bloody Sunday, the turnaround Tuesday, and the Selma to Montgomery marches.

In Mississippi Roscoe Jones sat with us and shared his story. In 1964 he was friends with James Chaney, one of three civil rights leaders who were murdered. Their story was retold in the movie Mississippi Burning. Roscoe was supposed to be the fourth person in the car. Events conspired in such a way that he was unable to join them. As a result Roscoe lived and his friends were brutally murdered by the KKK.

This tour shook my soul at many levels. Two things continue to stand out for me. The first was the age of the leaders and many of the protestors. They were young. Somewhere along my journey I began to assume that mature, wise, and prophetic leadership was something that only came with time. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and a host of other peers (foot-soldiers) were all in their 20’s and 30’s. They stepped up and led. They were not limited by their youth.

Second, these leaders were not part of the legitimized and elected power structures of the day. They had no access to these structures. Their legitimacy came from the grassroots. They prophetically spoke truth to power and in the end the official powers of the day began to make space for these young, brave, grassroots empowered leaders.

The work and mission of the Civil Rights leaders is far from over. This “ism’s” of prejudice and judgment are still alive and well.

There are lesson that need to be remembered. First, it is the youth who will lead the way. Those of us who are older need to find the humility to make way for leaders who are young and reckless. Second, change, real change, will always emerge from the bottom. Those of us who are in legitimized leadership positions would do well to remember this.

How to win a Christian argument

Have you ever found yourself passionately believing something to be true, but unable to convince others of your truth?  Frustrating, isn’t it?  I have found that the frustration level dramatically increases when talking about faith issues. Faith convictions and beliefs tend to be sacred.  Changing or adjusting these beliefs is often seen as back-sliding or drifting from the truth.  Encountering people of faith who hold different positions while at the same time claiming to be “Christian” can be stressful.  Why can’t they read the bible correctly?

Right now the denomination I am part of is in a fierce debate about ordaining gay and lesbian persons.  There are entire churches and conferences talking about leaving the denomination.  From their perspective a clearly discernable line of sin has been crossed.  There is scripture to back this all up.

Equally as fascinating is the other side.  The church is finally figuring out that all people should be included in the full life of the church.  For them a clear line has also been crossed.  Interestingly it is in the exact opposite direction, the church is moving from sin to righteousness.  Like the other side they have scripture to back up their position.

What I have discovered in the various debates, discussions, and arguments I have been part of is the first person to say something like “Scripture clearly says…” wins the debate. To my embarrassment I need to own that I have used this tactic myself.

I think we use this tactic because as people of faith we desperately want Scripture to speak clearly to the big issues of the day.  I am just old enough to remember when people of faith were convinced that rock ‘n’ roll was Satan’s music, or when drums in church, drinking, and smoking.  I live in Colorado; currently there is a whole lot of conversation about marijuana.  Believe it or not Jesus never addressed the subject of legal pot.  What was he thinking?

Framing theological arguments in such a way that those who don’t agree with us are wrong is probably something people of faith need to avoid.  It embarrasses me that church leaders so quickly move to absolute positions.

Learning to live with difference, even when that difference is seen as sin by some, might just be a sign of Christian maturity.

Greed and Fear

I am writing this blog at the end of what has been one of the most volatile weeks the stock market has experienced in a long time.  I am reasonably sure that my  retirement account has not done well. Last week over a lunch conversation a friend suggested that the primary forces driving the stock market are greed and fear.  Neither of us would claim to be financial experts, but greed and fear do seem to be motivators.  When things are going well it almost seems natural to want more and when things come apart fear influences everything.

Greed and fear influence much more than finances.  Think about our post 9-11 world.  As a nation we have made many fear-based decisions.  We have gone to war, declared entire nations to be our enemies, spied on our own people, and developed a quiet mistrust of people who fit a certain profile or worship differently.

There are those who would argue that all of this is a necessary evil.  To be honest there are times when I agree.  Who in their right mind thinks that terrorism should be normative?

As a Christian, I can’t help but wonder if the “Greed and Fear” pattern is unhealthy.  After all who in their right mind wants to live in a world controlled greed or fear?

There are other models.  In his book No Future without Forgiveness, Desmund Tutu lays out a strong case for a confront-and-forgive approach.  Can you imagine how our world would be different today if the leaders of our country had used this approach after 9-11?  Martin Luther King Jr. often spoke of the Beloved Community.  For King our mutual humanity transcended things like race, tribe, social class and nation.  King’s approach might be described as “speaking the truth yet non-violent.”  Can you imagine a world where this is the primary way to solve our disputes?

Greed and fear may be the primary motivators right now, but as followers of Jesus we are called to be transforming agents.

Unfinished

I like Jonah.  A grumpy Old Testament prophet – he was asked by God to speak to his enemy.  Jonah didn’t like the idea so he runs (sails) in the opposite direction.  God sends a storm and transportation (belly of a fish) back to Nineveh.  Jonah preaches a short sermon, the enemy responds, God forgives and Jonah is upset, mostly with God for being so forgiving. I like the messiness of this story.  The anger and frustration directed at God is almost comforting.  Jonah is 100% human.  He helps me to feel less guilty when I get mad at God.

The best part of this story is not “the miracle in the fish” but rather that it is an unfinished story.  We are never told what happens to Jonah.  Does he turn into a bitter grumpy prophet or does his heart soften?  Did Jonah and God make-up?

Like Jonah, we are also unfinished stories.  In this there is hope.  Tragedy is not a forgone conclusion; triumph is still possible.

Jonah helps us to understand what it means to be a Christian.  People who define themselves as Christian must respect the “unfinishedness” of other people.  As long as someone is unfinished there is the possibility for the story to end well.

There is a sense in which Christians are called to be eternal optimists.  Writing people off as too lost, evil or sinful cannot be a Christian option.  Yes, this has political implications.  When leaders use “enemy” as a way to define persons or countries they are acting in ways that are anti-Christian.

Jonah closes with a grumpy prophet sitting outside the gates of the city, waiting for God to finally understand that some people are so bad that they are beyond forgiveness.  I wonder who won that discussion?

Enemy

This week President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed.  I remember September 11, 2001 like it was yesterday.  It wasn’t a fun day.  I was in a plane, flying from Ft Lauderdale to Chicago, when the first tower was struck.  I still remember being ordered out of our plane and eventually out of O’Hare airport.  I was one of the lucky few who managed to rent a car.  The 18 hour drive from Chicago to Denver was filled with all kinds of emotions.  What if I had been on one of those planes? Before the end of the year I was diagnosed with shingles.  The doctor said it was stress related.

I cannot say that I was ready to throw a party when I heard the news, but I did not shed any tears either.

How should people of faith respond when those who wish to do us harm are harmed?

Martin Luther King Jr. had an important perspective, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate; violence multiplies violence and toughness multiples toughness in a descending spiral of destruction."

I think that there is much wisdom in his words.

Trust

Last Sunday the guest speaker at our church made an interesting statement, “Only someone you trust can betray you.”  I think he was right. So, how should this insight inform how I live?

There is the low risk option - choosing not to trust.  This would guarantee a life free of betrayal, heartache and meaningful relationships.  This would certainly be a “safe” way to live, but is doesn’t sound very fun or life-giving.

The price of safety? Living in isolation, both emotional and actual.

That leaves the high risk option – choosing to trust.  Taking a chance, opening your heart, risking.

Jesus calls us into trusting relationships, even though trusting others is dangerous business.

Was he off his rocker? Maybe.  But that doesn’t change the call.  The Christian faith has always included others, for example, there is the community of believers (you know the people we attend church with.)  Then to push things further Jesus called us to care about entire scope of humanity; read John 3:16.  Me and Jesus against the world may sound attractive, but it isn’t Christian.

Maybe this is why forgiveness plays such a central role in Christianity.  It creates space where trust can be reestablished.

Here is what I took away from church last Sunday:  forgive recklessly and unconditionally.  There are risks, but the alternative makes even less sense.

Failing

I have been reading Gregory Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart.  Boyle is a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries.  Their mission is both simple and visionary; they assist at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth to become positive and contributing members of society through job placement, training and education. Once again, it was a statement in the book’s introduction that stuck with me: “anything worth doing is worth failing at.”  I need to hear this, more than that I need to believe this.

It is really easy to believe that success emerges only from success.  In other words, to be successful I must make correct decisions.  The honest truth is that, for me, success tends to emerge from the ashes of failure, mistakes and lousy decisions.

I am the National Director of a ministry.  When I fail, others are impacted.  This is frustrating and humbling.  It means I have to own my failure and sometimes apologize for the hurt I have caused.

Failure has a painful downside.  That said it is failure that has made me and DOOR, the program I direct, what it is today.

Failure is simply a part of life.

It is how we respond to failure that dictates the role that failure will play in our lives and ministry.  Consider for a moment Judas and Peter.  Both of them failed in a significant way.  Peter denied Jesus and Judas betrayed Jesus.

Judas’ response – commit suicide.

Peter’s response – run to Jesus.

Peter owned his failure and found the courage to move on.  I do not wish failure on anyone, but I agree; anything worth doing is worth failing at.

Chaos Theory

The other day I came across an interesting article in Newsweek titled “Chaos Theory - new rules of management for people who hate rules.”  In the lower sidebar there were 10 rules:

  1. Avoid workaholics – they just use up time.
  2. Hire the better writer – clear writing equals clear thinking.
  3. Forget formal education – academia leads to bad habits.
  4. Drug dealers are on to something – sell a product that people keep coming back for more.
  5. Emulate chefs – share everything.
  6. Retire the term “entrepreneurs” – it sounds too exclusive.
  7. You need less than you think – why not office out of the garage?
  8. Pick a fight – see who rallies to your side.
  9. Build an audience – draw people in.
  10. Be a curator – take ownership of the growth and development of your product.

As I have thought about these rules, it seems to me that Jesus introduced a type of chaos theory during his time on earth.  He said things like, “The last will be first,” and, “Whoever humbles himself like a child is the greatest.”  Modern writers have referred to this as the upside-down kingdom.  With this in mind, I would like to propose ten rules of Christian Chaos Theory:

  1. Avoid religious-aholics - they will suck up all you time wanting to discuss their latest “concerns.”
  2. Let’s be clear - love God, love people - period.
  3. Worry less about formal education. Instead, hang out with the saints who have spent a lifetime getting to know Jesus.
  4. Those who come forward for the altar call are on to something. They know that their failures are not final – forgiveness and restoration is possible.
  5. Emulate Jesus – he tended to chose forgiveness over judgment.
  6. Retire the term “emergent” – it sounds too exclusive.
  7. Live and worship simply – you do not need all the extras.
  8. Stand up for the powerless. It’s what Jesus did.
  9. Live your faith – in words sometimes attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.”
  10. Be a lifelong disciple – take ownership of your faith walk and spiritual growth.  It is not the pastor’s fault if you are not maturing

What would you add to this list?

Changing History

I am writing this entry on Sunday. Our church service ended a few hours ago; it was one of those services I will remember for a while. Ron and Loretta Murray, members of our church, spoke about forgiveness.

It was a little over 1 year ago, December 9, 2007, when Ron and Loretta’s son, Matthew, went on a shooting rampage. He killed 2 young adults at the Youth with a Mission training center in Arvada, CO. A little more than 12 hours later he killed two sisters at New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Shortly after that his life was ended with a bullet.

This morning, April 26, the Murray’s shared about their journey of the past 16 months. They shared about meeting the parents and families of those whom their son had killed. There was nothing easy about these visits, emotions were raw, and the humiliation was unbearable.

During each of these encounters Ron and Loretta found the strength to ask for forgiveness. In each case forgiveness was offered.

As the service drew to a close, a final comment was made by the Murray’s. “Forgiveness has the power to change history.”

I had never thought of this before! As humans we are not created for revenge. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t heal the hurt. Forgiveness is the first step towards healing.

There is something in the human psyche that wants, even demands, revenge for the wrongs done to us. “If you are going to hurt me, then be prepared for shock and awe.” Getting even is important, some even think of this as a right.

Hearing about how Jesus forgives us is one thing, but having to forgive someone who has done my family or myself great harm is another matter completely. Yet this is the message I heard today. The Murray’s have been able to move forward because they asked for and received forgiveness for what their son had done.

Desmond Tutu talks about the need to forgive in his book, “No Future without Forgiveness:”

God does have a sense of humor. Who in their right minds could have ever imagined South Africa to be an example of anything but the most ghastly awfulness… (but) our experiment is going to succeed, not for our glory and aggrandizement but for the sake of God’s world. God wants to show that there is life after conflict and repression – that because of forgiveness there is a future.

I have a sneaking suspicion that that forgiveness is difficult both to give and to ask for because we are a proud people. Pride and forgiveness don’t often go hand in hand.

The offering of forgiveness wields a power that can change history. It was Jesus who died on a cross for the forgiveness of our sins. That event was a history changer.

When we forgive, history begins to bend in a better direction. Forgiveness creates a space for us to live together in spite of the pain and hurt we inflict on each other.