Charleston: A Painful Call to Change the Conversation

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not in any way reflect the official policy or position of anyone my institution, its affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. They are mine, and mine alone. Disagree? Feel free to contact me! (ONLY me)

It’s time for a conversation. Not more talk, but a conversation.

There is a massive gap between these two related items. “Talk” is plentiful and abundant. It is the stuff of comment sections and social media and message boards. It is about convincing others of how right I am and how wrong they are. It often deteriorates into bitterness and rage.

While talk is something we do at each other, conversation is something we engage with each other. Listening is critical to a conversation, perhaps more so than talking. It allows us to get to know the other, to engage and gather more information about the other’s point of view rather than just trumpeting our own.

It’s well beyond time that we have this conversation around the issue of race. And it is time for the church to take a leading role in it. When I use the term “church” here, I am talking about the individuals who make up the Body of Christ as well as the institution.

Several issues keep us from even getting to the starting line for this conversation. Even churches and pastors who desire to engage the difficult topic of racism are crippled because they do not know where to begin. Then there is the issue of creating space for a balanced conversation. Church is still a largely segregated entity, so how do we create a starting point that includes a variety of perspectives?

As a minister and a teacher, I have to confess my own sin here. I have avoided numerous opportunities to have, lead, or create these essential conversations. This sometimes came from fear of offending others, or losing friends, or even losing my job. But more often than not, I just could not find the starting line, and was unsure of how to create one.

In reflecting on the events in Charleston over the last week, I am still not sure where to start. But it is clear that we are well past the time of need for it, and we have to find the starting line as soon as possible.

This is a chance to shift the narrative, and to engage issues that we have long avoided. The shooting at Emanuel AME Church, and certainly the church’s response to it, can provide us with a starting point for a new conversation.

While the magnificent show of solidarity on the Ravenel Bridge also helps to create the starting line, much more preparation needs to begin before we truly begin to move in a deeper and more meaningful direction. It is a long race, and we can do several things to help us get off to a good start.

We can begin this preparation by dropping the “We vs. They” language. In regard to race issues, I too often hear people refer to “they” and “those people” and “their kind.” Worst of all is this sentence: “Well I don’t have any problem with black people, but those are just n——.”

And yes, the actual term is used.

The problem is that the call to discipleship is the call to look at what I/we need to do, not what you/they need to do. How can I, as a white person, speak to what any black person should think or feel or do when I have rarely had any meaningful conversation on the issue of race with a black person?

Christ calls us to fellowship and unity that allows us to know Him—and ourselves—much better by understanding others. The conversation cannot start by saying what “those people” should be doing. Why not begin by creating space to better understand and empathize with “those people,” because they are first and foremost God’s people?

At the same time, we would do well to drop our “What about them?” mentality when we get to the starting line. Have you ever tried to walk or run or drive a car while looking sideways? You usually do not get very far with that technique.

We cannot begin this journey by looking sideways. Pointing out the flaws of others is accusation, not conversation. This is a long and difficult path that requires us to look directly at ourselves. We cannot relieve our own responsibility by trying to point out the racism that we see in someone else.

Finally, we must begin this journey with a posture of confession. Racism is real, racism exists, and that includes churches and Christians. I have personally witnessed it. We cannot be a prophetic voice on the issue by denying it.

I have also witnessed many Christians and churches that are willing to take on this issue. This began when people started a listening conversation that led to dialogue, and dialogue that led to thoughtful and well-designed action.

It is easy for us to sit back and say that this is “not the time” to have a discussion about race or flags or social justice. I fear that is the same attitude that will keep us away from the starting line of a meaningful conversation. This is the perfect time to have those conversations, as a path to better understanding those who live a far different experience than I have ever endured.

The Christian world cannot avoid these hard conversations in the name of peace and unity among believers. What kind of “unity” have we achieved if it comes at the expense of taking on the challenges of our society? Can we claim any type of prophetic voice in the world if we avoid the hard conversations for the sake of ourselves?

If peace must come at the expense of sober judgment that can create change in our own collective life together, then we lose the ability to be a voice for goodness and justice anywhere else.

Let us begin a conversation that forces us to look more deeply at the root of the problem—and lead us to confess and repent when we find those roots growing around our own hearts.

With that in mind, I welcome your responses: Comments, emails, phone calls etc. But I ask you to keep in mind the parameters that I suggest as we engage.

 

 

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5 Things I’ve Learned in 5 Weeks Out of Church

Consider this official. I am issuing an apology to every member of every church that I have served over the last 20+ years.

This past Sunday ended a personal record that I never thought I would reach. We hit five. We had missed church for 5 straight Sundays until this week. Somewhat in our defense, we have been out of town for three of those, after rarely having a weekend off in our 24 years of marriage. But for a couple of them, we just stayed home.

In my entire life, I don’t think that I’ve ever missed church more than two weeks in a row. I certainly didn’t as a child, not even in college. I started working in the church as a volunteer or staff person when I was 17. Besides that, mom wouldn’t let me come home for Sunday Lunch ‘n Laundry if I didn’t go to church.

I hope my parents don’t actually read this blog, because I’m in for a phone call and a lecture if they do. Well, I might be in for that anyway, but maybe it won’t be the “Go to church!” lecture.

I’m taking some solace in the people that say the family was due for a “sabbatical”, and maybe that was true. I’ve never worked a job outside of the church, nor did my father. In essence, I’ve been to church almost every Sunday for 43+ years and the break–I’m a little ashamed to say–is doing me some good. Once in a while, we need to step away from something for a time in order to truly appreciate it. At this point, I am beginning to feel a loss of fellowship, community, camaraderie, servitude, reflective conversations…all the things that make church worth it. While those may not be the Spiritually Correct things to miss, they are what I long for the most in this absence because they are the things that bring home the reality of the Living Christ. At least to me.

But this Sunday Sabbatical has also illustrated some things to me, particularly now that I am working a 9-to-5 (or, more like 7-to-6) day. Honestly, I’ve never had a real job before, one that occupied a truly specific time slot and required a very specific and demanding schedule. Yes, church work is intense, but the one perk is the flexibility that it often has.

I actually think that every pastor needs a season of the workaday world, as it would benefit both the leader and the led. It is amazing how much can be learned by living in the same mode as the people to whom you are called to minister. Here are a few of them:

1. Getting up for church is hard:

At times, I’ve been very judgmental of people who would not get up for Sunday School or showed up late to church or just attended once in a while. Perhaps it’s unfair, but part of a pastor’s job is to try and get people to show up. And I was one of those pastors that assumed something was wrong if people didn’t come to church.

How different it is on the other side.

Maybe all pastors need to work a regular job, if they haven’t done so in a while. When someone is putting in 40+ a week, plus commute time and the daily demands of life/family, it’s tough to choose to give up one of the few days that you have free in order to take on another responsibility. Even if it is a deep-seeded spiritual responsibility, it’s still something else added to the schedule.

 

2. Family Matters

Churches can be notoriously insensitive to family time. We must have one more meeting, event, dinner, Bible study or gathering on the calendar, because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We hold events and studies and conferences centered around family issues, while failing to recognize that we are contributing to an overwhelming, oppressive issue in family life:  Time.

I can hardly think of a time when a church says, “Why don’t we schedule a little less, so that we put less pressure on our families?” Maybe we could contribute to the spirituality of church members by slowing things down a little rather than speeding them up.

I also understand a lot more about why people choose to go to church with their extended families. It’s that much easier to stay engaged if you’re able to cover two bases at once. It also makes me glad that mom forced me to attend church as a prerequisite to Sunday lunch when I was in college…because I kind of miss that family time now.

 

3. Yes, It’s okay to attend church where your children want to go

It used to make me nuts when parents would look to change churches because their children decided they wanted to. Now that we’re church-hunting with a 15-year old daughter, we are absolutely listening to what she has to say on the matter.

I am not a fan of making a move every six months because the youth minister said something that your child does not like, or because your child’s friends told them about how much better their church is. Once you pick a lane, you need to stay with it. But as children get older, it is absolutely crucial to listen to their ideas and perceptions about church.

 

4. A Sunday off is not a damnable offense

It always used to puzzle me that church members felt I needed a lengthy explanation when they missed a Sunday. As a pastor, it is a fine line between pressuring people to attend and showing interest when they do not. But I always tended to take it a little personally when people missed a Sunday, and I think that showed (even when I tried to cover the emotion).

It probably was not personal at all. Sometimes, people just need a break. While I would never encourage people to take five weeks off, it is okay to step away; in fact, a Sunday or two away (or even visiting another congregation) can help to freshen your perspective on your church home.

 

5. Meaningful relationships are much better motivators than guilt

So for our first trip back to church, we went for a visit to our old church (where I pastored for a little less than three years). Just to make the contrast in experience complete, we sat on the back row–which is a totally different perspective in and of itself!

We were a little concerned that there would be weirdness, and it certainly felt strange to walk in as spectators rather than leaders. But then came the handshakes and hugs and high fives from people with whom we had worked hand in hand during our short tenure. And it was all a reminder that those things are much better motivators than guilt trips. It was a reminder of all that is good and right about church, even in the midst of the hardships and struggles that occur with any organization (even a religious one).

What we didn’t get was a lot of “‘Bout time you showed up!” or “Well where have ya’ll been?” or “Yeah, thanks a lot for leaving us!” (Okay, we did get one or two of those last ones, but generally in good fun). My guess is that when we say those things to people who have not attended in a while, it’s not much of a motivator for them to return on a regular basis. The handshake or high five or hug is probably a much more pleasant reminder of what is missed, and I’m sure it’s a much greater incentive to return than the healthy plateful of guilt we tend to dish out.

 

When I was a pastor/church staffer, I felt it was my personal and professional responsibility to get as many people to come to church as possible. In many ways, I was right. But I fear that I never had a true understanding of church from the other side, until I stepped away from it. After just five short weeks, I can already see some things that I wish I had known 25 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in the church, still believe it’s important to attend. But what I value in it has changed, and my understanding is much different from the outside, looking in, and sitting on the back pew.

So to all those former church members, if I bothered/guilt-tripped/harassed you for not attending church:  I’m sorry! I was doing my job and I really didn’t see it from your perspective.

But even greater than that, to those who faithfully attended, participated, led, sang, met, “committeed”, “deaconed”, taught, prayed, practiced, and prepared:  Thank you! A THOUSAND TIMES, thank you! I appreciate your commitment a thousand times more than I ever did–and should have–when I was a pastor. Unfortunately, it took this most recent life change to make me appreciate and value you the way that I should have all along.

I hope some pastors will read this, and learn the lesson a little sooner than I did.