Let’s Talk, church: Labels

Eric Garner
Mike Brown
Sandra  Bland

Sometimes we live blocks away and worlds apart.  Our churches are no different.  Depending on the church you attend, those names above could mean everything or they could mean nothing.  If you attend a predominantly black church, you have heard those names more than once.  Not just in post-service conversations, but from the pulpit.  You’ve heard calls for justice and liberation, and you’ve probably heard calls of “Come, Lord Jesus!”  If your church is racially diverse, you have likely heard laments over the injustice and started some conversations about what can be done.  And then, likely, you’ve moved on.  If you attend a predominantly white church, you might have to google those names to understand the rest of this.
Sometimes we live blocks away and worlds apart.
I live with this internal disharmony in more ways than one.  If I walk two blocks to the east, there is a good chance I could find a foreclosed house for sale surrounded by unkempt rental properties.  If I walk three blocks to the west, there is a good chance that I will find a house I will barely be able to afford even if I win the lottery.  But wait, there’s more.  I’m white.  Inescapably white.  The community where I grew up is all white, meaning that my school and church and neighbors all had pretty similar experiences to me.
But not so for my sons.  No matter my whiteness nor how light-skinned they may appear, they are black.  In the eyes of the world, they are black.  This past week I’ve had two different people stumble across my photos on Facebook and respond, “Your kids are mixed?!”
Yes.  It’s not that hard to see.
Why does this matter?  Or why does it matter to you what happened to Eric Garner?  Or Mike Brown?  Sandra Bland?  My sons?  Should it matter?
That depends on how you label them.
We have a tremendous propensity to label our experiences.  Even more so, we label people.  When Eric Garner died in a chokehold, many labeled him as a criminal.  He was, after all, known for selling cigarettes illegally.  Mike Brown, upon his death, was portrayed by many as an accused criminal.  And, due to his size, some even said he was a weapon all by himself.  Sandra Bland died in her jail cell.  Some call it a suicide and point to the marijuana in her system and her “combative” behavior.  Others see a murder and a cover-up.  Our words – our labels – matter.
Your skin color alone will not determine how you see them.  Your labels will.  Would you like to know one of the most powerful labels that you possess?
THEM.
The moment that my oldest son was born, part of me could no longer label all black people as “them.”  I tried.  I really did.  My sons were an image of me, and I’m white.  So couldn’t they be white as well?  Yes, but not fully.  That is not the whole of them.  And the problem with labels is that it keeps us from seeing the whole of someone.  This should matter in your church.  Did a white person recently join your church?  Or a black person?  Or maybe a Puerto Rican joined and you told someone that you had a Mexican come to your church?  Let’s just be honest:  we label, and we often get it wrong.
Let me tell you briefly about my ongoing struggle with this.  It’s not only race that causes us to label.  It’s not only behavior.  Sometimes it comes from our status.  I worked for a Christian social services agency for years.  I started working there while I was in college.  Even though I looked no older than the young men I helped to care for, feed, discipline, and physically manage, I learned how important it was to have labels.  They were “delinquents.”  They were “ADD” or “depressed” and required medication.  They were their levels within the program.  They were clients and I was a staff.  They were a them.
In reality they were young men removed from their families – not by their own doing – and had a story.  But I wasn’t listening.  By God’s grace and many conversations, I started to see beyond the labels.  They wanted the same thing that I wanted: to be known and yet still loved.
One Friday before Spring Break in 2012 I had a lengthy conversation with a young lady in a program who had just discovered that her drug test had returned dirty.  It wasn’t news to her, but now that the staff knew of it, everything would change.  How should I label her?  I had been her case manager.  I was a chaplain.  I had heard her stories of abuse.  I had been there when she found out that she could no longer have any legal contact with her younger biological twin sisters.  But who was she now?
I drove home later than normal that Friday.  I had listened.  I had heard her story.  And I had run out of words.  Before I made it to the first stop sign I uttered this simple prayer: “God, help me to love more deeply.”
He did.  Be careful with those prayers.
I had a date that same night.  I purposely left my phone in the car in order to avoid any distractions.  When I returned to my car, two different people had left me a message that the young lady had run away.  So now what?  Depends on the label I use.  A client?  A runner?  A drug user?  If she is any of those, I simply go home like I had so many times before.  I might say a prayer and wait to see if she’s found.  If I am bound my labels and policies, I had better believe that every policy is in line with the will of God.
But if it’s not about how well I can sleep at night, and if her labels are not the whole of her, I had better do something about what I know.  I had a very good idea of where she would go because we had previously found her written plans should she run away.  Was I supposed to do nothing with that?  I knew the family at the location, but I had never been there.  So late on a Friday night I knocked on a door that said “Do NOT use this door!” just to see if she was there.  I had no plan.  I had no script.  I had no labels.
The young lady wasn’t there.  I left my number in case she would show up and I drove around the corner.
That’s where I saw her.  And she saw me.  She and another young lady with her began to run.  They had escaped from what felt like a prison to them and they did not want me to return them there.  I stopped my car in the street and ran also.  I did not catch up with them.
Later I laughed at how comical, and even frightening, it must have looked for a white man in his thirties to be chasing two young black girls in the dark.  I guess it depends on how you label it.  It looked pretty strange for the father to run out to the prodigal son also.  But love runs.  Labels watch.
Later that night, the lady at the house where I knocked made a phone call to me.  She told me the girls were there, but she was very certain they would not turn themselves in.  I understood.  I went to sleep.  By God’s grace, three days later the young lady called to say she would return.  It wasn’t home, bu she would come back to the program.
I’m reminded almost daily of what happened to me in this process.  I was eventually dismissed from my position and I have documents that announce how I clearly violated acceptable client-patient protocols.  Hallelujah!  No one is born a client.  It’s just a label.  So is “professional.”  Neither one of those matter in the end.
Shane Claiborne has written a marvelous book titled The Irresistible Revolution.  In it, he makes the assertion that no one is truly fatherless; they just haven’t met Him yet.
What are we doing about that, church?  Are we looking at names like Sandra Bland and saying, “Well, that’s not me?”  Are we looking at those who don’t fit in and labeling them as “sinners,” “unchurched,” or “out-of-place”?  We have a lot of the older brother in us, church.  We see the younger brother or sister  – the prodigal – and feel they are stepping in on our grace.  Not so, church.  Not so.
Let’s try to be more like the Father, church.  God doesn’t see “THEM,” He sees “MINE.”  Let’s learn to run.  Learn to see the us in them.

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Let’s Talk, church: Identity

I think it’s time for us to take a good hard look at our identity.
Let’s talk about our identity as a church.  Not the global Church – the united global body of Christ-followers.  But let’s talk about the local church, the place where you go and the place that you name when you are talking with others.  How strongly do you identify with your church?  And are you making decisions based on your allegiance there, or based on your allegiance and identity in Christ?
Here’s why I ask.
In the past few weeks I have been aware of some harmful words coming from the church.  Words we need to reconsider.  Let’s start with the recent Supreme Court ruling.  The Court ruled that a man can legally marry a man and a woman can marry a woman.  No doubt this decision made most of you in the church very uncomfortable.  Maybe even upset.  Concerned for your country.  I understand.
But what you may not have considered is that there is a very good chance that you know someone who identifies as a homosexual.  You just don’t know it.  By and large, people who feel unaccepted are not going to expose something that could lead to rejection.  And as you well know, the church does not open its arms to openly gay individuals.  It just doesn’t.  You don’t.  I haven’t.
Why?
Well, they’re not playing by the same rules you are following, right?  The don’t-smoke, don’t-drink, don’t-cuss kind of rules.  You see, at some point, your thoughts start to blur between whether or not you are saved by grace through faith or if you are saved because you’re obedient.  Far too often we treat grace as a VIP invitation to the club of salvation, and then we want to turn around and decide who can cross the velvet rope.
Wrong.
I’ve seen comments about about the need to maintain “traditional values.”  To that I ask, whose tradition?  When did it start?  Or the common poster that points out that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.  Clever.  Hurtful.  I’m not arguing against God’s design; I believe that is remarkably clear.  I am simply wondering what God is asking of you at this time.
Once you stop reposting or sharing someone else’s thoughts, I encourage you to dig back into the Bible.  Take a look at how and where Jesus spent his time.  Pay careful attention to how Jesus responded to those of religious fervor.  What did he say to those who felt they were following all of the rules?  What did he say to the church of his time?  And could that be what he says to you?
Here’s why it matters.  Because, in the end, the church you are attending is not your golden ticket.  Right now it may be a safety net.  Maybe the reason you identify with your church is that it gives you a sense of belonging.  The reason your church might not be so welcoming could have something to do with the bottom line.  Because if the church is like a club, it will want to let in those who can fit within the identity.  And if the church you attend began to make concerted efforts to welcome homosexuals, would you keep attending and giving your money to the “gay church”?  Or, to protect your own sense of identity, would you find a church that fits better?  And what church is willing to take that risk?
And this is just one example.  Recently Franklin Graham, son of renowned evangelist Billy Graham, stated he wants the United States to stop allowing Muslims into the country.  This was a statement made after five people were killed in Chattanooga.  What an incredibly flawed and hurtful thing for someon in his position to say.  This stance quickly forgets that people came into this country for the freedom from a national church.  It also ignores that there are Muslims who convert to Christianity and flee to this country for safety.  And it makes the horrible mistake of branding any Muslim to be the same as the person who killed those five people.  Because no one has ever killed someone in the name of Christianity, right?
Strange, because I don’t remember Franklin Graham making a broad statement about Dylan Roof.  I even gave him the courtesy of looking for one.  Roof is the white male who killed nine black parishoners at a prayer service.  Nor has Graham said anything about the string of black churches being burned in the South.  This silence tells me something very important about Franklin Graham: his identity is found in being white, American, and male.  It is not found in Christ.
This is not necessarily surprising.  I am a white American male.  And let me tell you the message that I picked up – caught, if you will – throughout my life:  being white = American, being American = Christian.  There was no distinction.  But if I only find my identity there, I’m in trouble.  To find my identity in Christ is a far different thing altogether.
I’m asking you to give it some thought, church.  And that means you, the reader.  Don’t ask those who already agree with you.  That’s easy.  Wrestle with God.  Listen to the Holy Spirit.  Find your identity in Christ.
I know the risk.  I had a nice title at a respected Christian organization.  But something was unsettling.  What was expected of me and what the Holy Spirit said were in conflict.  There were those who needed help and being bound by man-made policy served only one purpose.  It was protecting an identity I no longer wanted.  My silence was insufficient.  So I extended myself to those in need.  I told others what I was doing.  And suddenly the Christian organization no longer wanted me in the club.  I was a liability.  A risk.  A rule-breaker.  The things that were said of me made no logical sense except that others wanted a reason to distance themselves.  And to tighten up the rope around their circle.  For one of the first times in my life, I was an outcast.
I knew that.
But who do I have to answer to?
And where is my identity found?
What about you?
If your church isn’t growing, maybe it’s not a church.  Maybe it’s a club.  And maybe you’re the one holding the velvet rope by what you say and what you do.  This is not your club.  These are not your rules.  If you find yourself holding a rope telling people they can’t come in, you might want to look around and see if the person of Christ is standing there with you.
Because if not, you better drop that rope and find Him.