Keeping the Conversation Alive

Keeping the Coversation Alive

These are frightening times in our increasingly dichotomous America. Having aligned itself on one side of the divide, the evangelical church is not doing much to bring us together. In this most recent election, 81 percent of evangelicals voted for the Republican presidential candidate. According to a Pew Research study released last week, 76 percent are supportive of the president’s executive order banning immigration from seven primarily Muslim nations. Evangelicals have shifted to the right.

I attend a church with an ethos of tolerance. “Conservative or liberal here, we’ve all got to give a little here,” is one of the lines of the Highlands ethos, which we read every Sunday.  Just a few weeks ago one of our co-pastors preached a sermon some saw as leaning politically left. While I did not agree with that assessment, I was impressed with how our leaders responded. Just two weeks later our founding pastor shared the pulpit with a member who was unhappy with the previous sermon. While their joint message was not itself without controversy, I was pleased our co-pastors were willing to enter troubled waters in an attempt to live out our ethos. Mistaking uniformity for unity, most evangelical churches never present both sides of an issue.

Without a full-throated loyal opposition, how can iron sharpen iron? How can we be sure our theology is not so inbred that new perspectives never see the light of day? If our church is all white, how can we understand the lives of people of color? Those from the majority culture often say, “I don’t have a prejudiced bone in my body!”  They do not think they are prejudiced because they rarely place themselves in an environment in which anyone challenges their perspective.

I believe the evangelical church has gotten itself into this monochromatic mess by its long history of domination by men, specifically white men. When that male control arises from what is believed to be a biblical endorsement, it creates an arrogance that is pernicious. God’s supposed preference for male leadership has allowed untold prejudice to thrive without challenge. The result is an evangelical world tone deaf to the voices of women and minorities.

I am truly embarrassed I did not see how complicit I was in enabling such a slanted worldview. But I was too comfortable in my privileged position. There is no excuse for not making more of an effort to understand what life is like “on the other side.”

Understanding the other side is one of the most important tasks of any privileged culture. That is one of the reasons I now find it important to understand those who voted differently than I did in the election. One of my biggest lessons is the realization that I do not know America. If I am not going to add fuel to a fire already burning too hot, I must get to know this nation anew.

My first act was to buy a copy of Hillbilly Elegy, the book by J.D. Vance about growing up in poor white Scots-Irish Appalachia. His stories resonate because I grew up in Scots-Irish Appalachcia. These were the teens who voted me Most Likely to Succeed in my senior year of high school. They are also the people who strongly suggested, after I became Paula, that I not attend my high school reunion. They are not fickle, just resistant to change.

I want to understand the anger and frustration of those who feel left behind and are disadvantaged through no real fault of their own. At one time I was one with these fellow citizens. Now I am other. I am socio-economically other, professionally other, and other-gendered. I am a threat to their tribe. I am an outsider, and outsiders are to be feared. It is important for me to understand that fear and not increase it unnecessarily.

I say unnecessarily because I do believe the truth matters, and there are times when one must speak. Much of the fear I see in today’s evangelicalism is not based on fact. In this age of multiple news outlets, there are many who do not hold truth in high regard. Infowars is a site with over eight million unique viewers and 1.8 billion page views. It is also the program that denied the reality of the Sandy Hook school shootings and claimed 9/11 was an “inside job.” In other words, Infowars is apparently more interested in conspiracy theories than it is in the truth. What they report is verifiably not the truth. I have a friend who once was a teacher in Sandy Hook. She taught the parents of some of the students who were killed. Try telling her that Sandy Hook never happened.

When it comes to big government or small government, there is plenty of room for differences of opinion. But when it comes to the facts, there is not much room for discussion. The truth matters. Speaking the truth is essential. The spirit in which one speaks truth is also critical. Does it open doors or slam them shut?

I will keep reading and listening and doing my best to be a part of the solution to the rift that divides our nation. I will speak up for the truth, and what I believe to be my responsibility to rightly interpret scripture as it applies to today’s salient issues. When I disagree, I hope I remain focused on topics and not personalities. These are trying times, and now, more than ever, we must unite on the knowledge that the truth sets us free.

And so it goes.

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All About Me

All About Me

I spoke to an appreciative audience at a respected national conference. I received a standing ovation and heard the accolades of hundreds. I listened as attendees, eyes filled with tears, thanked me for speaking a word on their behalf. You’d think that would be enough to fill the fuel tanks of my ego, right? Yeah, think again.

The day after my keynote speech I was talking with two other main speakers. I thanked one for her authenticity and the integrity of her message. I thanked another for the trail he blazed for all of us who live among the publicly vilified. As the delightful conversation unfolded, I found an old discomfort creeping into the pit of my stomach. It was not joy or gratitude. No, it was disappointment that one of the two speakers had not affirmed my message.

Later in the conversation the speaker did say, “Your message was terrific!” but by then I was feeling too guilty to take in the compliment. I wanted to stand outside my own self, point and say, “I’m not with her. She’s a bottomless pit of need for affirmation. Keep your distance. She could suck your soul dry.”

How could a 52-year-old woman (yeah 52 – that’s what the computer typed so I’m stickin’ with it) who had just received the most extraordinary response of her career, stand in need of more affirmation?

Richard Rohr says in the second half of life we finally come to the place in which we find our deepest sense of satisfaction from deep within our own soul, not from the affirmation of others. So, uh, am I not yet in the second half of life? I’m well into the second half of my life yet here I stand, still hoping my Nielson ratings are holding. I feel like the narcissist who says, “Well, enough about me. What do you think about me?”

In our deep spaces we all want to be adored. If only we could truly grasp the truth that we already are. But alas, we have a difficult time seeing beyond the frosted lenses of our own wounded eyes.

The public platform is a vulnerable place to stand. Americans consistently say their greatest fear is speaking in public. On your better days you find the courage to place yourself there because you believe you have a word that must be spoken. On your lesser days you realize you are standing there because you have an ego in need of affirmation.  Better days and lesser days will always be with us.

I shall speak again, and of one thing I can be certain. Should Jesus himself come up afterwards and say, “Paula, my dear child, I love you!” my response will likely be, “Yeah, but did you like my message?”

And so it goes.

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They Make Beautiful Worlds Out of Nothing

They Make Beautiful Worlds Out of Nothing

Our family didn’t come together until the days after Christmas, which is pretty typical for a ministry family.  Cathy and I were alone for a relaxing Christmas Day.  During the afternoon I began reading Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior, and finished it a little after midnight.

Glennon wrote about having been taught the word for woman in Genesis was a word meaning “helper.”  She was surprised to learn the word actually meant strong and benevolent.  It profoundly shifted her perspective.  The most striking paragraph in the book appears shortly thereafter:

While those around them fall away, the women hold the sick and nurse the weak, put food on the table, carry their families’ sadness and anger and love and hope.  They keep showing up for their lives and their people with the odds stacked against them and the weight of the world on their shoulders.  They never stop singing songs of truth, love, and redemption in the face of hopelessness.  They are inexhaustible, ferocious, relentless co-creators with God, and they make beautiful worlds out of nothing.”

The passage made me think of several of my friends and family, though not of my self.  There are aspects of womanhood not assignable to me.  I have not spent decades as a female, taking in all of the subtle and not so subtle signals about acceptable behavior.  I have not given birth, nor have I been the primary caretaker of children.  However, now that more of my time is spent with mothers, I am beginning to understand the overwhelming truth of her paragraph.

As I have said many times, there is no way an educated white American male can know how much the culture is tilted in his favor.  He cannot know because it is all he has known.  I got a job as a radio station disc jockey at 16.  I thought everyone had those kinds of opportunities.  It did not occur to me that none of the girls in my school were offered similar jobs.  I was offered a university scholarship in broadcasting.  No female classmates were offered a broadcasting scholarship.  I had done precious little to earn my privilege other than having been born a white male, into a family of relative privilege.

Recently I watched the movie Hidden Figures, about three brilliant African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s.  The three were critical to the success of America’s earliest manned space flights.  In this powerful film you catch a tiny glimpse of how difficult life was for women in the 1960s, especially women of color.  I thought about how much things have changed, but lamented how much they remain the same.

After we watched the movie, my daughter-in-law, who is Indian, talked about how often she must fight for her rights as a woman of color.  Until a few years ago I would have had no frame of reference to understand her struggle.  Even today I can only understand in small measure what she has experienced on a daily basis.  The same is true of Jael, the daughter Cathy and I adopted from India when she was two months of age.  I am only beginning to understand how difficult her life was in the very white world we inhabited.

I cried when the protagonist in the movie is helped by a white man of power.  If it had not been for the kindness of one straight white male, Mark Tidd, I question if I ever would have preached again.  I understand the difference an ally can make, especially when that ally comes from the world of the empowered.

Limited as it is, I am grateful for my newfound understanding.  I am grateful I can now see a little bit of what women have gone through for millennia.  I can better appreciate the description of mothers provided by Glennon Doyle Melton.

As someone no longer in a position of cultural power, I do not know how much I can do to elevate the status and influence of women in our culture, but I will try.  These are perilous times for women and minorities.  We were so close to placing a mother in the most powerful position on earth – so close.  But as that goal fades from our immediate view, we must work as never before to challenge the grip of misogyny that still holds America, and replace it with the kind of understanding so beautifully worded in the pages of Love Warrior.

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