Dear American Church

Jesus wasn't white: he was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew ...

I gave this message in spoken form at my local church yesterday, but I’m resurrecting my dusty blog account to include the written text here.

It’s been a deeply disturbing couple of weeks. I have had that steady feeling like someone punched me in the gut, knocked the wind out of me, and I haven’t gotten back a full breath. Watching George Floyd lose his breath has made it hard for me to breathe as well. I’m very troubled:

Firstly, by the pain of black people in America, whose story in this nation began and has progressed very differently than mine as a white person. This is not a new injustice. Our nation is just beginning to take in the seriousness of the wound. As Will Smith has been quoted saying, “Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” I think a grown man, pinned to the ground and unable to breathe, crying out for his momma is probably a deeper metaphor for many black people’s journey than we realize.

But I’m also troubled by our inability to respond in such a way that we are not offending someone. I feel for black Americans. I also feel for the thousands of good and courageous police officers whose reputations are being tainted and whose motives are being questioned. I feel for the public servants trying to govern in an effective manner. I don’t want to add to anyone’s pain.

You know what my consolation is?

Jesus. Offending people was not an unusual experience for Jesus.

The sobering part is that the people he angered were people like you and me. Church folk. Pharisees. The older brother of the prodigal son. People like Saul before he became Paul – a man who kept the 10 commandments flawlessly but simultaneously promoted racism – despising Gentiles and violently killing Christians.

But then he met Jesus. And that’s when everything changed.

All of this is why I’ve primarily just raised my voice in prayer, lamenting and clinging to the safety of the throne of God as the one place I know I can feel confused and confident at the same time.

And yet, while we know there is a place to be hidden in Christ, the transformation that occurs in His presence means we are also compelled to venture out of the prayer room and into the world as His hands and feet and likeness. To raise our voice and speak with that throne-centered conviction. Consider the words of MLK as he wrote in a Letter from Birmingham Jail:

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.

It’s in this letter that he also confessed his struggle to sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happening in Birmingham, just as we can’t sit idly by in Wasilla, Alaska and not worry about what happened in Minneapolis, and across the nation, and around the world. As you’ve probably heard, it was out of this context that Dr. King famously wrote one of our favorite MLK Day Instagram quotes: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Or as the Apostle Paul said: if one part suffers, every part suffers with it. There is no us vs them right now… there is just one big multi-colored us.

We love MLK for his non-violent efforts. Do we also love him for the way he challenges and chastises the church? As I imagine our modern American capital “C” Church reading the excerpt above, my worry for many of us is less about how convicted we would be by Dr. King’s strong tone and more about how likely his words are to be interpreted along the lines of various political frameworks.

It’s amazing how quickly the pain of African Americans is overwhelmed by our political allegiances, and how quickly it reveals our emphasis on the kingdoms of men over our hope in a kingdom that Jesus said was not of this world.

“This world…” looks at the current racial tensions and picks a side of any given event: defund the police, or look at the looters destroying our cities, or Donald Trump is heartless, or Joe Biden is clueless. But the church is called to cut through the politics and put the attention on the suffering of the oppressed, the injustice that breaks the heart of God, and the hope of Jesus our peace, who has destroyed every dividing wall.

Like many of you, in my lament and in my personal repentance, there have also been moments of great encouragement as I feel our national conscience awaken and watch people begin to lean into traditionally avoided, difficult, but crucial conversations. It’s also given me room to reflect on my own experiences within the bigger story we are all a part of.

Growing up in Alaska, having black friends was no easy accomplishment – less because of any personal bias and more because there were only twelve such people in the State (give or take). When Marisa and I moved to Kansas City, we lived with some friends on the East side of Troost, a street that historically served as a clear racial dividing line and presently serves as a not-quite-but-largely-the-same racial dividing line, as is the case in so many cities across America. Suddenly finding white faces was no easy accomplishment in my neighborhood.

And I began to learn: one of the most transformational experiences we can have when it comes to combating racism is to simply live alongside people who do not look like us or have the same life experience we do. To follow the natural growth of empathy.

When we moved to Boston, I studied education while working as a teacher in a school that was extremely diverse – made up primarily of students of color. We did home visits for every student in the school before the first day of class, meeting each family in their own space, and I began to see the layers of the hardships my students faced long before they opened a textbook.

I learned about the achievement gap, which refers to the significant difference of academic performance between kids in low income communities and those from more affluent communities. I soon learned that it was less of an achievement gap and more of an opportunity gap. It was less about these kids’ intelligence and much more about their access to a decent education that could develop that intelligence.

I began to realize that this is what systemic racism looks like. You don’t have to dig very deep into our history to understand why this is the case. Let me temporarily veer from my personal story to our national one.

More than 12 million Africans of all ages, shackled in the bottom of ships, were sold into a lifetime of forced labor defined by nonstop violence and strategic dehumanization. It was written into the fundamental law of the land that slaves would count as three-fifths a person. Once slavery was finally made illegal, we went through Jim Crow laws – this notion of “separate but equal” – which, as we know, was anything BUT equal. Many black citizens didn’t even have the right to vote until 1965, which for many who will read this, occurred in your lifetime.

Our nation has made progress in eliminating some of these institutional forms of racism, which needs to be remembered and celebrated. However, these are significant wounds that our nation was built upon, and the fallout continues to influence society today. I know everyone has their own statistics they like the use, and everything else is fake news, but let me give you just a few numbers, and then you can go find other sources to combat them if you’d like:

    • In the United States, the median wealth for white households is nearly 7x greater than for black households.
    • The black unemployment rate has been consistently twice that of whites over the past 60 years.
    • Even though black people make up 13% of the population, they represent about 40% of the prison population.
    • And none of these even touch on the more implicit, more controversial statistics around racial profiling.

The problem is, while these may be accidental consequences, this was not an accidental system. It was a structure that was intentionally created to oppress one race for the economic benefit of another. And as a dear friend of mine in South Africa has said, when something is constructed so intentionally, it must be confronted, deconstructed, and rebuilt with the same intention.

When we moved to Lebanon, I met regularly with a friend who was a Syrian refugee. He wanted to learn English and I wanted to learn Arabic, so a couple times a week we had coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts (yes, you read that right) and conversed about all things life.

One week I was particularly annoyed by the visa issues we were having, realizing that we may need to go on a trip and reenter the country just so we weren’t overstaying our required limit. I complained for a good while to my patiently-listening friend before realizing how horribly the complaints coming out of my mouth compared to his current circumstances. He had been told to take up arms against his countrymen in a war he doesn’t believe in, fled across the border to another country where he has no legal benefit, and was now a stranger on the earth, unable to find any place to call home.

It was the quintessential example of #firstworldproblems.

But what I was feeling at that moment wasn’t just guilt. I worked hard to get where I was. I sacrificed a lot. Probably a lot of us feel that way about some of the complaints we hear people make about the notion of “privilege.”

No, it’s not about guilt. In that moment, it was simply me being made conscious of the fact that as a middle class, white, American male, I have advantages my Syrian friend simply doesn’t. I have protections and opportunities that he doesn’t. And how I steward that wealth is vitally important.

Furthermore, as a middle class, white American male that follows Jesus, the way I steward my riches matters even more. This is why Paul, writing from a prison cell much like MLK, boasts in his weakness and is loud about his internal wealth and the need to properly spend it. This is why James wrote that teachers would be judged more severely than their students. This is why Jesus himself explained, “to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

If this makes you uncomfortable, know that it makes me uncomfortable too. But one of the core tenants of privilege is the ability to opt out of the pain when it gets uncomfortable. That is not an option that black Americans have right now, and one of the most dynamic responses we can make is to stay in the pain with them. After all, we’re imitating the Jesus who paused at Lazurus’ tomb to weep. To mourn with those who mourn. To empathize without providing a quick explanation or a dismissive answer.

So let’s bring it back to that Jesus.

 Does the world know that the Church, as the representation of Jesus, cares about stopping racial injustice?

In the words of one black person’s recent commentary, it’s a matter of how we use our words:

  • You keep saying: “it’s horrible that an innocent black man was killed, but destroying property has to stop.”
  • Try saying: “it’s horrible that property is being destroyed, but killing innocent black men has to stop.”

It’s a matter of our emphasis. Our priority. The stress of our words on people instead of property.

You may think this just is the ridiculousness of having to be politically correct. I would argue that it is more about our ability to see human beings made in the image of God rather than vague issues deserving of our personal political or sociological bents.

Andy Stanley, a well-known pastor out of Georgia, challenges us that it is not good enough to not be racist right now. We must be anti-racist. He compares it to how we address child abuse. You don’t see someone abuse a child and think, “well I’m not a child abuser.” No, you’re going to be anti-child abuse. You’re going to confront it. You’re going to oppose it. You’re going to evaluate the system that allowed it to happen, tear it down, and rebuild a more just system.

I fear that the Church – remember, that’s us – thinks it is a healer of the national divisions when it has often served as the creator of even greater divisions. I fear that the Church’s voice in this nation is much more known for its political alliances than its likeness to Christ, His kingdom values, or His love and commitment to the marginalized.

A few years back, some friends and I completed what is called a 360 evaluation of one another. We had a list of character traits like humility, courage, kindness, etc., and we rated each other on each of these traits. (I understand that this idea sounds delightful to some and horrific to others.)

In the 360 evaluation, I remember one of my friends rating me very low in the character trait of servanthood. It shocked me. After all, I’m a phenomenal servant. Probably the best servant there is. I serve extremely well.

Regardless, the point wasn’t even about whether or not it was true of me. The point was that it was true of the way my friend experienced me.

Initially, I was hurt by the feedback. I wanted to defend myself, and I had a list of reasons to prove why my friend was wrong about me. But as I showed a willingness to listen, and my friend showed a willingness to help me understand, we gutted it out and talked it through, and it became a moment of great significance in building a more trusting friendship.

We embraced the tension as a creative force rather than something to be afraid of.

The point is, there is a difference between how we see ourselves and how other people experience us.

So how does the world experience the Church?

What does our voice sound like to the world?

Again, with all the caveats of “fake news” and with all the freedom to go find conflicting statistics, here is some research on how Christians are currently perceived in America.

  • In a survey completed by the Barna Group, the church is seen by society primarily from a political lens. Everyone agrees on that. The problem with that is that the gospel does not fit neatly into any political platform.
  • The greatest disparity is between evangelicals who see themselves as caring, hopeful, friendly, encouraging, and generous (hovering around 60%) and non-Christians, who see evangelicals demonstrate many of these same traits at a rate of less than 10%.
  • Or how about the 0% of evangelicals who view themselves as racist, versus what we are demonstrating to non-Christians, 1 out of every 5 who sees us as racist?

Are you ready to get more uncomfortable?

  • In another Barna Group survey completed in 2016, Evangelicals were found to be more likely than Liberals, Conservatives, and people of no faith to say that racism is mostly a problem of the past, not the present. Given the current state of our nation, does this concern us?
  • When asked whether people of color are often put at a social disadvantage because of their race, Evangelicals as a group were more likely to say “No” than either Democrats or Republicans. My friends, this should not be.
  • When asked whether churches were part of the problem when it comes to racism, black people were nearly twice as likely to say “yes” than were white people. What are we demonstrating as a church that makes others feel this way about us?
  • When asked in 2018 about the growing number of newcomers from other countries, 53% of white evangelicals called them a threat to American values while 53% of black evangelicals called them a strength to American society. Why is there such a wide disparity among the opinions of white and black Christians?

I know many of you have an immediate political explanation for these statistics, to which I would simply say: I don’t think that is okay.

When our instinct is to focus on a political answer rather than a Kingdom answer, our priorities are in the wrong place. When our intrinsic response is one of defense rather than compassion, we have lost our way. Our Jesus is drifting from the center of the Gospel to the fringes of our personal preferences.

Again, I’m not saying these insights are a perfectly accurate depiction of who we are, but might they be an accurate depiction of how we are coming across? Might they be an accurate depiction of what we sound like to the world?

I don’t think the answer is found in a self-obsession with how other people view us. We’re the church. We’re always going to be weird. Paul said the cross that looks like the power of God to us looks like foolishness to other people.

Nevertheless, we should be obsessed with how accurately we are representing Jesus to the world.

Just yesterday morning I read these words from Beth Moore:

The current state of American Evangelicalism is what we get when the gospel is reduced to an entrance exam instead of a whole way of living, serving, loving & self-giving. The point of discipleship & Bible study is to grow in relationship with Christ and in resemblance to Christ.

American Evangelicalism needs to file a missing person’s report. We have lost Jesus.

That we have somehow managed in the middle of a global pandemic and a worldwide outcry for justice in America to consume ourselves with theological armchair debates over critical race theory and the like is a testimony of how far we have shifted from Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

Is it possible for us to unwed ourselves from political allegiances and get back to our true calling? I want to believe that it is. And while I think a compelling, biblical case can be made for a Republican OR a Democratic platform (as well as just about any other), frankly, I’m tired of that discussion, and based on the Jesus I read about in the Gospels, I think He probably is too.

Hear me out: I am under no pretense that this is straightforward. Issues of social justice, such as how to effectively combat racism, are complicated, and outworking actual solutions rather than just criticizing from a distance is even more complex.

What is not complex are the fundamental tenets of Jesus, which he stated in great clarity: Love God and love your neighbor. Everything else about our faith hangs on these two pegs.

Let’s make sure the world hears the same emphasis from those of us to claim and aim to represent Jesus on the earth.

I defer once again to the words of Dr. King:

The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will.

 

Dear Youhana

I’m leaving you, but not because I don’t love you. It’s complicated.

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But complicated is your middle name, so I know somehow you get it. I honestly don’t know if I’ll be seeing you soon or just reminiscing about you from a distance. Ours has been a contentious relationship, but I think I’ve finally accepted the fact that this is just how you treat people. You seem to be quite comfortable with the paradoxes of this world.

I walk down the corniche staring at a shimmering Mediterranean Sea, distracted only by the glint of snow-capped peaks in the distance. Can it possibly be ski season when all these joggers around me are in shorts and tank tops? As long as I keep my eyes fixed on the long-view, I can avoid the piles of trash that are washing up against the rocky shore.

There are scantily-clad supermodels posing in front of a proud collection of yachts while a fully covered woman casually looks on from the only visible part of her own body. Appearance isn’t everything to you, but it certainly is something. You are adorned with post-surgery bandages on your nose, and who knows exactly where else…?

My normal clothes make me feel severely under-dressed as I walk through Zaytouna Bay, but within 15 minutes by foot, I can feel embarrassingly overdressed next to other people staring at me from their make-shift tent.

Why do you so love to stare? I work hard to always stare in response, but I can never outlast you. I just walk on.

Then again, it’s a toss up if it’s safer to drive or walk. After all, the life of a pedestrian here is not an easy one. Sidewalks are an extra place to park and freeways are merely an opportunity to see how quickly daredevils can sprint and dodge oncoming traffic. As a driver, I count it a great accomplishment that I have not severed any limbs in my two years on the road (even if I have bruised a few fellow cars). It’s another victory that I was never hit by one of the packs of Ferraris weaving in and out of the four lanes – or was it three lanes – or one – or seven? What’s the purpose of those lines on the road again?

I can’t decide if you are the absolute worst or best drivers in the world. Every time I’ve ended up on the opposite side of a douwar I pause to consider the miracle I just witnessed. Perhaps my greatest win as a driver is simply that I am not still not stuck in the bottle-kneck traffic of Jounieh.

I will have to work hard to remember the rules for my children’s car seats when I leave you. Last time I brought one into a service, the driver briefly studied it in confusion, shrugged his shoulders, and tossed it in the trunk. I’ve ridden in way too many Bus Fours to recall whether or not it’s odd to be able to see the road underneath my feet while we’re speeding along to the sound of honking horns.

So much noise. At such volume. I can never tell if that’s gunfire or fireworks or just the sound of some sh3b’s overzealous exhaust pipe. You play “Happy Birthday” way too loudly, and your candles are always in danger of lighting the restaurant ceiling on fire. You do everything with everything you are… there is no middle ground. 

You wear your emotions on your sleeve. There are still times I can’t tell if you’re angry or confessing your adoration, as both are done with such a full heart and such flamboyant hand motion.

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Why do you charge so much money for everything? And always in cash! You are a living economic miracle. I have no idea how you have persisted, but against all odds, you have, you do, and you will. There is a new building under construction everywhere I turn. Who is buying these places? Who can afford you? This Lira seems like Monopoly money to me… 2000 of something feels like it should earn me a lot more than a loaf of bread.

Too much bread. My gut is bulging for the first time in my life, and I blame it completely on the convenience and deliciousness of man2ouche. You have the most savory food on the planet, and it has ruined me, I’m telling you. I may need to change the size of my pants for the first time in twenty years.

You fill empty space, and not just in my belly. In the narrow streets. In casual conversation. In anything that requires some form of organization. I once almost missed my flight to Cyprus as the supposed “line” gradually ballooned into a cone-shaped collection of bodies clamoring for their turn through customs.

But how I can defend myself in these situations? Two years of learning Arabic and I still receive most of my replies in English or French or just a raising of your eye-brows. You are truly your own code-switching collision of “bonjouraks” and “merci kteers.” You smile respectfully at we foreigners’ obvious accents while weaving in and out of three languages with effortless proficiency. Then you go and make an entirely new language for the sake of texting, merging numbers and letters… whatever, you invented the alphabet, so you have a right to flaunt your linguistic prowess. Let’s be honest, I’ve spent most of my effort just trying to learn your vast array of hand and eye signals, to say nothing of the proper timing to offer a kiss or shake a hand or just avoid physical contact all together. 

Most days I feel like I’m just beginning to get to know you. But I kind of think everyone who meets you, even those who claim to know you best, are in a similar condition. For much of our relationship I’ve simply gone with the flow, trying to follow the motions of the person in front of me like I’m the final shakhis in the twisting chain of some grand Dabke. I’ve been tempted more than once to just break free, thrust my hips to whatever Fayrouz tune is playing, and flick my wrists in order to blend in while sticking out. I’m never sure if you’re about to smile at me or scold me.

You shamelessly berate me with “harams” when my children aren’t wearing six layers and the breeze is gently blowing. I love and hate the audacity you freely show by involuntarily teaching me to properly care for my kids. But children are indeed adored. And elders are indeed respected, despite – and perhaps because of – their quirks.

The most endearing of khityarin are often found driving down a side street honking their horns and beckoning me into their cars (not to make it sound creepy or anything). Even if the self-proclaimed service driver doesn’t make enough money in a day to pay for his own gas, at least he has the power to half-heartedly glance up from his foam throne and turn away the poor soul that has stooped down to humbly request a ride in his chariot.

There is a family loyalty known nowhere else on the planet, even when you are outspoken of how crazy your own family is. I have never so badly wanted to have a village to call my own, nor a Teta to cook me a traditional Sunday brunch. The characters in my own imaginary Lebanese family are as quintessential as a Saturday night at Em Nazih. 

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You gifted me with two of my three children, but awarded none of us the grand perks of Lebanese citizenship (by which I mostly mean that cool passport with the cedar on it). Being in my early dad years meant that I rarely saw the side of you that emerges after dark, which feels like perhaps 95% of who you are. Do we even know each other at all? I once accidentally found myself awake past midnight in Mar Mikhael and wondered if I was dreaming. How do you do it? How do you stay awake? 

Ah yes. Coffee. Even Dunkin’ Donuts couldn’t stay away from you… how could I? I once stopped at a dukan to try and purchase a caffeine boost and the old man behind the counter insisted I sit with him and ponder life over a cup of his homemade Joe. Ahlan wa Sahlan ‘til I die. 

And I need a lot of coffee in the morning since there’s no need for me to leave my house with your endless delivery options. It’s not like that fancy restaurant doesn’t have to deal with the same power outages I do here, so why would I ever leave my building? Why would I ever leave you? Well, I guess there are more Lebanese in Brazil and more cedars in Britain. Undoubtedly the Lebanese diaspora will continue, and you will sprinkle your presence across the earth, if nothing else than to provide the rest of humanity with a little flavor.

My high school students unanimously wave their hands in the air when I ask who feels proud to be Lebanese, but only a few sparse hands remain after I ask who plans to stay. Is this the ongoing consequence of war on a new generation that has never fully known it themselves?

 I’m reminded of the Christmas Tree lighting ceremony taking place under the shadow of the Grand Mosque on one side and the watchful eye an infant messiah in the nativity scene to its opposite. Perhaps you are less concerned with the religious divides of former wars than you are with one’s loyalty to Barca or Real Madrid (although on your finer days you know you prefer Messi’s genius over Ronaldo’s good looks).

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When people ask me to describe you, “resilient” is the first word that comes to mind. I still haven’t found the right translation for it in Arabic, but perhaps that’s the telling part… perhaps your resilience is so core to who you are that it need not be named. I don’t know anyone that has taken so many beatings and dealt with so much heartache but still stands so confident and proud.

There is a great age difference between us, but you’ve never made it a big deal. I was born in 1982 when your southern border was opening to uninvited guests. It wasn’t the first time, and certainly not the last. You’ve played host to unwelcome guests for most of your existence, and your existence is about as old as existence gets. I question now if you actually ever invited me… but regardless, welcome me you did.

You have given and given, with so little given in return. You are literally littered from top to bottom, and I fear we have all taken advantage of you – taken you a bit for granted. The temples of your ancient days whisper of a time you were revered at the center of the planet. Modern voices gave you pet names like Switzerland and Paris to link you to other noble places on the earth. But you are your own personality. You always will be incomparable.  

Jesus of Nazareth was once in casual conversation with you before you overwhelmed him with that unparalleled wit of yours. He said you had the kind of faith that meant you will get whatever you wish for. Well my wish for you is that you would have that kind of faith once again… the kind that fights for a seat at the table and defends your own dignity. I hope I’ve been a small part of that becoming real in you. 

Yes, it’s true, I’m leaving you, but not because I don’t love you. It’s complicated.

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The Refugee Ban & Jesus' Commands

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Headlines have been dominated by the recent executive order made by President Trump, and our little corner of the world has definitely been caught up in the fray. We are routinely asked by friends here for an explanation, and it has been challenging trying to try and give them one. The day after Trump’s decision, I was teaching my English class in a nearby neighborhood composed fully of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. I was brought to tears by their questions, fears, and uncertainties regarding the current situation; many tears would follow in secret prayer as I wrestled through my own confusion.

I am always hesitant to add the commentary on this stuff, largely because at some point it all begins to run together as noise. Yet at the same time, I know we currently have a unique vantage point on this particular situation, given the place we live and the work we are giving ourselves to. It’s not that we have any brilliant authority to talk about international immigration or American politics, but we have spent a lot of time listening to and learning about the stories of those most directly affected by Trump’s decision. They are not just headlines or statistics. They are innocent victims of unthinkable atrocities, and everywhere they turn, they are turned away. While we passionately toss out our various arguments or contend with the media’s interpretation of events, these refugees continue to quietly battle their daily realities: Where will I get food? Is my brother still alive? How do I keep my children warm another wintery night in this tent?

In light of all this, I’d like to offer a few points of consideration (everybody loves a good list). Feel free to take them or leave them or – absolutely – to challenge them. If you’re reading this right now, there’s a good chance it is because we ultimately want the same conclusion to this Grand Story.

1) Make Jesus Central
In moments like this, when I see people I respect passionately saying very different things from one another, I find it helpful to remember that no one has a corner on the kingdom of God. In my own journey with Jesus, I aim to always find the sweet spot of growing in knowledge, conviction, and authority while remaining childlike, teachable, and humble. When the opinions fly freely and bury a sense of clarity, I return to the core of Jesus’ life and message, which he said summarizes the whole of the Story: Love God… and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22.40).

2) Don’t contribute to the inhumane categorization of people
This is so hard. We need categories in order to talk about issues on a large scale, but in the process it becomes very easy for those generalizations to minimize actual human lives. Compassion must be core to our conversations, not tossed in as an afterthought. There is nothing that builds more divisive momentum than employing an “us” versus “them” approach. Be very wary of talking about “Muslims” or “Conservatives” or “Evangelicals” or “Liberal Elites” on the whole without spending more time listening – actually listening – to their individual hearts and stories.

3) Embrace tension as a creative force, not something to be afraid of. (Props to Joe Steinke)

You can disagree with someone and still treat them with respect. You don’t have to choose between caring about yourself and caring about others. Protecting borders and protecting oppressed people are not mutually exclusive ideas. Jesus called his disciples to anything but a safe life… this could mean stepping out onto the water, or standing between the accusers and the accused, or laying down your life for your friends. Places of tension are usually uncomfortable, but they are also usually the places where Jesus calls us to be.

4) Get involved in solution-oriented ways

  • There are organization all over America and all over the world that serve refugees. Long before we worked primarily with refugees here in Lebanon, we volunteered at centers in Kansas City and Boston (here’s a great description of one in Anchorage too, for you Alaskan folk). It is incredibly easy and unbelievably fulfilling to serve the most vulnerable of people who are living around us, wherever we currently call home.
  • If you don’t know a Muslim or someone from an Arab country, now would be a great time to try and get to know one. I promise they will legitimately compete with America’s famous Southern hospitality, although their interpretation of sweet tea is slightly different. Make it personal.
  • Pray. Drown out the news you have been reading with the perspective of heaven. Silence your fears by pressing into the love of God. Ask Him to show you how you can represent His heart and be a part of the solution wherever you are.

Adding to the Noise

It’s been some 24 hours since we’ve elected a new president to lead and guide the U.S. of A. Looking in on the decision from across the world has me feeling particularly reflective in my current insider/outsider status. I am actually encouraged to see my Facebook feed full of such contradictory opinions, because it gives me hope that the grand American experiment, which has long-held opposing ideologies in successful tension, will continue to do so. (After all, my FB feed is a great place to draw assurances about historical events…)

I grew up in a conservative Christian family, and I am very thankful for my foundations. Although I have had to unlearn a lot of empty religion associated with those years, I still count it my greatest honor in life to be identified with the likes of Jesus. Foundational to this identification is learning to love my neighbor as myself. Since leaving Alaska, my neighbors have ranged from African-Americans across the racial divide in Kansas City, Latin-American immigrants in East Boston, and most recently, scores of Syrian refugees here in Lebanon. These neighbors have all taught me to listen. They’ve taught me that issues are complicated. They’ve taught me the dangers of categorizing and stereotyping people groups, and the joys of getting to know individual, amazing, made-in-the-image-of-God people.

I like to follow MLK in the way he followed Jesus, and one of the wonderful encouragements he held regarding politics was this: “Look objectively at both parties and be the conscience of both – not the servant or master of either.” So this morning, as the sun rises across Beirut and sets over Los Angeles, I feel the need to speak my conscience and remind us all that we are people, not peoples.

If you’re having trouble understanding why people are hopeful about this new chapter in the American experiment…

This outcome is exciting because many have disagreed greatly with Obama’s policies for eight years, and for the first time in almost a decade, they feel like they have a chance to make their voices heard. I genuinely believe these people did not vote in agreement with the divisive language that marked much of President-Elect-Trump’s campaign. No, their vote was about their desires for policies that more clearly reflect their own values. They wanted someone who was the opposite of a professional-politician, someone with business experience and insight, someone who came into the game from a completely new viewpoint. They see a health care system that is unhealthy. An economy that is broken. Many of them voted with a desperate desire to defend the rights of the unborn.

Not all of the people celebrating the outcome of this election feel like this, but perhaps some, with all their nuances and unique reasoning from their own life experience, do. You may disagree with their politics or their interpretation of the Constitution, but you cannot judge their motives. They voted with genuine concern and conviction… they want the best for their country, their community, and their kids, even if their way of showing it looks strange to you.

If you’re having trouble understanding why people are upset about this new chapter in the American experiment…

This outcome is painful because their president elect ran a campaign that made them feel marginalized or afraid based on something that is core to their existence. It got very personal. There are women who still shiver with memories of sexual assault, and they fear their incumbent president minimizes their pain. There are Muslim-Americans who are afraid of being forced back to the countries they fled for their own safety. There are Hispanic children coming home from school in tears because their friends are telling them that their parents are not allowed to live in the country. Watching a black man rise to the position that Obama did gave many people of color assurance that times were changing for the better – that there was hope for them despite the color of their skin, but now they fear that times are reverting. There are many who worry for America’s relationship with countries across the earth, not to mention the earth itself.

You may disagree with their politics or their interpretation of the Constitution, but you cannot judge their motives. They voted with genuine concern and conviction… they want the best for their country, their community, and their kids, even if their way of showing it looks strange to you.

The Jesus I read about in the gospels confounded the wisdom of the elites of his day. He saw and spoke to people’s hearts. He skirted around the political drama of the Roman empire and operated according to a different framework. At the core of his life and teaching: love your neighbor (including your enemy) as yourself.

As a teacher, I worked hard to give my students core values like empathy and respect for the opinions of others. I have interacted with a wide variety of kids from a wide variety of backgrounds. Sometimes their parents seem engaged and encouraging, and sometimes they seem checked out and clueless. But as I learned to take the time to listen and consider their own journey, especially now that I’m a dad myself, I began to realize that they are all trying as best they know how.

You may disagree with their approach or their interpretation of morality, but you cannot judge their motives. They parent with genuine concern and conviction… they want the best for their kids, even if their way of showing it looks strange to you.

May we have eyes today to see those who don’t see like us. May we love our neighbors (and our enemies!) like we love ourselves.

“We are a contemplative order. First we meditate on Jesus, and then we go out and look for him in disguise.” – Mother Teresa

Blessed or Blessing or Both

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Last week I visited a friend of mine named Mhanna in a refugee camp where he lives with his family. There were two new young faces in the tent that night, and so I asked Mhanna who they were. He introduced them as his younger brothers, aged 10 and 12, and explained how they had come from Syria two nights earlier. The bombs had been increasing in their village and they were forced to flee, but since the border to Lebanon has been closed due to the massive number of refugees already here, Mhanna used all his money to have them smuggled over the mountains in the night and into his camp.

I looked thoughtfully at each of the boys, exchanging pleasantries in basic Arabic and laughing with them as they laughed at my poor pronunciation. I reflected on what I was doing the summer I turned 11.

…I had played on my first competitive soccer team. Spent the night at my friend Garon’s house on a regular basis, where he taught me the art of adding chocolate sauce on my pancakes. I anticipated the thrill of starting my first year at Colony Middle School…

I looked again at the boys across the tent and was struck with the chasm of difference between their childhood and mine. And I wondered why.

Why was I born to such privilege and them to such destitution?
Why was I born (in the misguided opinion of many) to a nation of “good guys” and them to a nation of “bad guys”?
Why was I born into such opportunity and them into such tragedy?

I don’t reflect on these questions to make myself (or you) feel guilty. We don’t get a whole lot of say in how or when we’re born. However, I do reflect on them with genuine conviction, compassion, and a deep sense of responsibility: what is my “ability” to “respond?”

Though we can’t know why we were born into such blessing, we can ask the natural questions that follow: how do we steward the blessing we have received? How do we seek the best for those who have the worst, while also enjoying what we’ve been given?

I often think of Jesus savoring a long meal and – I imagine – laughing with his best friends after an even longer day of “work” and “ministry.” I like to imagine the Apostle Paul enjoying the view of the wine dark Mediterranean Sea in between shipwrecks and stonings and visiting young communities of friends learning how to follow the Way. I know Marisa and I were grateful to wake up one recent morning after we’d been in the camps and relax over a couple of cappuccinos from a popular modern cafe (yes, these people have an ancient and severe love of caffeine).

We tend to swing to one side of the equation, as most of us do with most things in life. There are those who see a need in the world and spend every ounce of their life and energy to becoming the solution; sadly, such people often lose sight of their own dignity and sanity along the way. On the other side are those who can’t or don’t want to cope with the gravity of extreme poverty or illness or depravity, and they respond with equal extremism of indifference or self-preservation.

As I read in a recent article about the influx of refugees in Europe, “…the fact is, we can’t care all the time. Our survival instinct compartmentalizes that stuff in a clever way that means we can keep functioning despite being aware of horrible suffering. But nor can we stop caring completely.”

unnamed (1)There is a balance. There must be! I just still haven’t comfortably settled into it myself (tips much appreciated). Yet perhaps that is the very point. Maybe the tension, the wrestle, the “striving to enter rest,” and the ache to see all things made new is the very place we’re meant to live from. One of my fathers in the faith taught us long ago that running away from tensions like the one I felt in that refugee camp last week means we actually miss the plot.

What if we didn’t rush past the questions and onto the simple answers?
What if we didn’t pretend everything is perfectly black and white and void of mystery?
What if we embraced tension as a creative force to actually effectively build the world we want to see?

The older I get, the less comfortable God seems to be inside my boxes and the more comfortable I get in letting Him outside of them (He must find it entertaining that I offer Him this permission).

I dream of those 11 year old boys, who have recently joined millions of other children as refugees, knowing the God that I know: one that is not distant but near; mournful but always in a perfectly good mood; one that holds in His heart and his authorship a story that brings my personal drama and those boys’ lives together in glorious tension.

I don’t know why, but I’ve been blessed something fierce. And in the spirit of my father Abraham, I like to think I’ve been blessed so that I can be a blessing.

Live Love Look Like Jesus

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These days there seems to be a great division between two camps of thinkers, particularly in the Western world. Side one argues that Islam is a religion of peace, and we should welcome oppressed foreigners in our midst regardless of religion. The other side claims that many Muslims are terrorists and we need to protect ourselves from their overbearing influence and potential danger to our way of life. I take issue with both of these perspectives for different reasons, but let me take a slightly more personal detour to make a central point:

I love being associated with Christ. Jesus is, to me, the most fascinating, wonderful, brilliant, person to ever walk the earth. Everything in me wants to be as much like him as possible. Unfortunately, all too often, my life does not look like His. In fact, in many ways, the entire religion of Christianity has ventured from His likeness. Some of that is out of willful disobedience and some is due to the simple fact that it’s hard to sustain a movement like the one Jesus started without eventually boxing it into one particular form or size or structure. We often fail to accurately represent Jesus to the world.

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Gandhi said “I like Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
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John Lennon said, “Jesus was alright, but His disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
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All this to say, while there are many things about the organization of Christianity that make me proud to be found among its ranks, there are also a lot of things “our people” say and do that make me want to separate myself from the institution. I know there are many people who reach a similar conclusion, although they may journey there in a very different way than I do.What I’m getting at is that I don’t want to be judged by my association with a religion. I want to be judged by my likeness to Jesus. (And I’ll be the first to admit, as I already have, that I have a long way to go in reaching that reality.)Today, all across the world, Islam is on the rise. A couple weeks ago I read an article that said if current trends continue, by 2050 the number of Muslims will equal the number of Christians on the planet. All of us, and particularly those of us who are followers of Jesus, need to determine how we are going to approach the topic. Here is my genius suggestion: stop approaching it like a topic and start treating Muslims like people.

In the same way that I don’t care to be lumped into whatever stereotypes people hold about Christianity, I don’t think it’s fair to talk about Muslims as one complete, uniformed entity. We can evaluate Islam as a religion, just as we can evaluate Christianity as a religion. But in the same way that there are many Christians who do not look like Christ (I’m on the journey myself), there are many Muslims who do not hold to the fundamental tenants of Islam.

Many of the Muslims we currently live amongst are, like all of us, products of their cultural environment, and their ties to Islam are about as close as many American country singers’ ties are to Christianity. My neighbors are peace loving, generous, hospitable people. I feel safer walking the streets of downtown Beirut at night than I did in any of the American cities we have previously lived in. I had never been asked by the owner of a convenience store to come inside and sit down for a cup of coffee until I moved to the Arab world.So how do we respond to Muslims? The same way we respond to any human being made in the image of God: with love. With sincerity. With concern for their physical and spiritual needs. Not just with words to speak, but also with ears to hear. I’d say the Pope did a good job upholding these ideals in his recent exchange with a group of migrants in Europe.

Nabell Qureshi was born in Pakistan to Muslim parents, but as he grew up he explored the claims of Christ and ultimately became His follower. He currently works with author and apologist Ravi Zacharias. In one recent article,he says this:

If we want to know how to respond, if we want to understand what the security risk is, both internal and external in the United States… we need to understand what Islam is versus who Muslims are, otherwise we’ll just get caught up in this rhetoric.

Let’s not get caught up in the rhetoric. Let’s not add to the noise. Let’s love like Jesus.

Song Stories From the Edge: Track 13 – Leave

In the spring of 2006 some dear childhood friends of ours, Casey & Shayle DenBleyker, were moving from Kansas City and heading toward the pacific northwest to chase a vague dream associated with better views
and finer coffee. (Or so I like to think.) Their journey was prefacing our own relocation to Boston, causing us all to collide with joint sobriety and excitement. Leaving will do that to you.

donA few days before their departure, we drove together up to Parkville, just north of the city, and sat along the banks of the Missouri River, a winding, muddy body of water that has long served as a metaphor of desire for myself, Mark Twain, Lewis & Clark, and many others along the way. I opened to the first pages of a book by Donald Miller called Through Painted Deserts, which wonderfully chronicles his road trip from “old” home in Dallas, Texas to “new” home in Portland, Oregon. Miller’s words captured me enough that I think it’s worth including a longer portion of them here.

“And so my prayer is that your story will have involved some leaving and some coming home, some summer and some winter, some roses blooming out like children in a play. My hope is your story will be about changing, about getting something beautiful born inside of you about learning to love a woman or a man, about learning to love a child, about moving yourself around water, around mountains, around friends, about learning to love others more than we love ourselves, about learning oneness as a way of understanding God. We get one story, you and I, and one story alone. God has established the elements, the setting and the climax and the resolution. It would be a crime not to venture out, wouldn’t it?

It might be time for you to go. It might be time to change, to shine out.

I want to repeat one word for you: Leave.

Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry.
Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.”

― Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road

Tonight I write on the eve of our departure to Beirut, Lebanon. Marisa and I have been carrying the dream of this move for almost 15 years, so tomorrow is a true fulfillment. However, a few hours ago, as I was hugging my niece and nephew who were crying the type of tears you would quite literally do anything to stop, the cost came into full view. Not just Marisa’s cost, or Lincoln’s cost, but the cost for the family that remains – grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings… As we drove out, I remembered what Jesus said about these type of moments: “Anyone who sacrifices home, family, fields, whatever – because of me will get it all back a hundred times over.” There is some true consolation in that, but it doesn’t in any way lift the weight of what it means to go.

Leaving is exciting and full of possibility, but it’s also risky. More than that, it can be downright hard, particularly if you genuinely like the place you are setting off from. I sat on the couch across from my brother-in-law tonight who was confessing how normal our closing moments were feeling even though it seems they should be so much more epic. That seems to often be the case in monumental chapters of life (I recall being particularly let down by the normalcy of my high school graduation). But that’s no reason to stop chasing those dreams that only exist out there in the cloudy, foggy, grey unknown. After all, who wants to be boring or predictable?

It doesn’t have to be a geographical move, though it could be. It’s often simply a repositioning of your heart and soul.

There is a quote by Victor Hugo that stares down from the south side of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. It reads, “The soul has greater need of the ideal than the real. For by the real we exist; by the ideal we (truly) live.” I will spend my life clinging to the ideal while enjoying the way it shows up in the real. I will keep leaving, whatever that looks like, however near or far, however slight of an adjustment or major an upheaval. I really do believe that the best is yet to come, and while contentment in the present is a wonderful, necessary grounding place, maybe the most orderly, normal existence, as exemplified by the God-created universe itself, is to risk. To change. To expand.

Perhaps it’s time for you too… to “lose all the life (you’ve) been storing…”

…and leave.

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Song Stories From the Edge: Track 12 – Everyone's Waiting

I feel inclined to leave this song open to a freer interpretation, as several conversations I’ve had about it have gone various directions, and I’d like to keep it that way. Thus, I’ll keep the commentary simple.

Manage-Stress-Get-Creative-C1I read a highly recommended book last year called The War of Art, and in it author Steven Pressfield challenges artists and creatives of all kinds to face the “Resistence” between who they are and who they could be… and to overcome it without excuse. He explains, “We are not born with unlimited choices… Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal that we imagine we ought to be, but to find
out who we already are and become it.” That process reads very romantically but lives out very sacrificially, doesn’t it?

I hesitate to call myself an artist.

Maybe it’s because of the stereotypes that come with it. Maybe it’s because I don’t give myself to that artistic expression on a full-time vocational basis, and somewhere inside me I think I should. Most likely, it’s simply because if I call myself an artist, I embrace the inherent pressure to create and be creative… and that accountability is some high pressure stuff (that’s right, I said “stuff,” lay off me).

Maybe it’s just to fuel my momentum against Resistance, but I like to imagine everyone in the world waiting for some of the songs and stories inside of me to emerge. We spend so much effort trying to perfect our voice before we make it heard, but perhaps instead we should raise our voice and find it in the process. There is a war to making art of any kind, and I would argue that if you are holding back on the creative expression inside of yourself, you’re limiting God’s own creative expression in the earth. What if He deposited the next “Blowing In the Wind” or To Kill A Mockingbird or poverty-eliminating business idea inside of you, but your own insecurity – your constant complicating – your self-imposed distraction –  is keeping it buried inside?

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Everyone’s here, and they’re waiting… Start acting like a son and sing.