Keeping Awake After 2,000 Years

[this was originally written for The Beatitudes Society]

GOSPEL MATTHEW 24:36-44

36″But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

I had a seminary friend who wore a t-shirt that said, “Jesus is coming” on the front of it, and “Look busy!” on the back. I have to admit that too often sums up my feelings around this time of year.

Advent begins, and we open up our Scriptures to these ancient texts, telling us that no one knows the day or the hour, but we can’t sleep. We must stay awake! After all, there will be a time when the lion and the lamb lie down together, when we beat our swords into plowshares, and we will not learn war any more. But, I’ve been preaching these texts for a dozen years, and it’s been over two thousand years since these promises were made, and the violence continues. We have not made our swords into anything but more massive and fatal weapons. I’m not feeling so alert at this point.

Yet, God rarely comes in the way that we predict. Who anticipated that a teenaged single mom would bear God? Who expected that those kicks in her belly would incite her to dream of a day when the lowly would be lifted up and the hungry would be filled?

Perhaps, now, a couple thousand years later, we will never know the reign of God that is in and among us, until we wake up and become attune to those promises of peace and justice, until we can become alert to those things that are going on around us that remind us of God’s presence, until we walk away from the cynicism and despair that can sedate us and become busy, working for a world where the downtrodden will be buoyed and the ravaged will be made whole.

So, I ask you, where is God kicking about in and among you? Where have you seen these great promises taking place in your life and work?

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Diversity Still Matters

I was at a Presbytery meeting in South Louisiana, and a woman got up to the microphone. I shifted in my seat. I knew what she was going to say, because she always said it. She was going to bring up the fact that there was not enough diversity in our leadership. I have to admit. I rolled my eyes and thought, Here we go again.

I can’t tell you what happened between that meeting eleven years ago and now. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a dozen years watching my friends get passed over for jobs, book deals, speaking engagements, and board positions over and over again. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been told:

“You were invited to speak at that conference? You must be the token woman.”

“Male leadership attracts men, and female leadership doesn’t. That’s why we need more men in the pulpit.”

“Pastoring is becoming a pink-collared profession.”

“Since women were ordained, our denomination has been in decline.”

“You don’t have enough administrative experience for this job.” (Even though I was a business manager and oversaw 27 employees before I entered seminary.)

Never mind spending four years at Moody Bible Institute. I hear these things consistently in progressive circle, among people who claim to be committed to inclusion.

It seems like I have been in the midst of many discussions around diversity issues lately. The contexts have been different: in new church movements, denominational settings, academic discussions, conference planning, and pastoral hiring. The questions and resistance persist. In fact, maybe it’s me, but the resistance, even among my progressive friends, seems more prominent right now. And, many times, I have been shocked at the responses. I guess I want to attend to some things here.

(1) If I am a part of your conversation, whether it is around a movement, organization, institution, or conference planning, and there are great inequities, I will ask questions. Just expect it. I’m not trying to ruin your event, discount the work that you’ve done, or question your integrity. I know what it’s like to plan an event and have it turn out to be a white guy gathering. It’s frustrating. I’ve personally planned events where the diversity was not what I hoped. I know that sinking feeling when I’ve been called on it. But… we just have to keep each other accountable with this stuff, or it will never change.

(2) I have been told that it is racist or sexist to reserve certain positions for people of color or women. The logic goes that if there is a bias toward women/people of color then there is a bias against white men. And that is racist or sexist. I understand the logic, but I don’t agree with it.

If you look at the whole of religious positions, there are a tiny handful of positions with a bias toward hiring women and POCs. When an organization is looking for a woman or a POC, it is usually only to correct an overwhelming proclivity towards white males within the organization. If you’re a white guy who got passed over for a less qualified woman or POC, I sympathize with you. But I know the feeling because it’s what we face all the time. Most religious jobs are biased against women, and many are biased against POCs. Women often get better grades in seminary, they are outnumbering men at many seminaries, and they still make up a small fraction of Heads of Staff, conference leaders, and board leaders. We are usually relegated to second tier positions for our entire careers.

If you are a white male, and you were passed over for a job because it was given to a POC or woman, hold on to that feeling and outrage. Understand it. And realize that’s what we live with most of the time.

(3) I understand that I am in a position of great privilege. When talking about this stuff, people often look at me and say, “What the heck?” (Okay… so they use more colorful language than that….) “Who are you to talk? You’re a writer and a speaker. You have a great job in downtown D.C. Why are you whining about not having enough power?” I know that I’m a powerful person. And that’s the main reason I bring it up. You see… I would have never talked about this stuff if I were powerless, because I would have been afraid that people would think that I was trying to hone in on some position, job, or slot. Or, because I would have been afraid it would ruin my career. But now, I can speak out more on behalf of others. And I know how important it is for those of us with privilege to recognize our own power and do the same.

(4) I reject the notion that “organic” should be used as an excuse for leadership being all white men. This is used in emerging movements a lot. If “organic” means that only WM are stepping up, there’s a clear cultural bias that we’ll need to recognize and work to overcome. If we are working in a post-evangelical context, we are often laboring with a very strong and deep prejudice against women that we need to identify and name. Organic farmers spend a whole lot of time spreading manure, pulling weeds, and encouraging growth in certain areas. If we are claiming to be organic, then we need to do the same.

(5) I’ve left so many out… LGBTQs, those with disabilities, those in poverty. Sometimes the list seems overwhelming. And recognizing that makes me realize how we need to keep pushing….

Are things getting any better? Yes, I think they are. But it’s only because people like that woman in South Louisiana ignored my eye-rolling and kept speaking up. (In the subsequent year, I ended up in a prominent leadership position, thanks to her.) It is because all of the hard work of men and women who keep questioning, keep studying, and keep pushing on those stained glass ceilings.

Meeting at the Level of the Ashtray

Often when churches are reaching out to people in their twenties and thirties, there is a tendency to expect them to become someone they are not before they walk into the door. For instance, eighteen percent of college students have never attended church before in their lives, but we too easily expect they will know exactly what to do when they step over the threshold of our sanctuary. They are supposed to know the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. They need to know what words like the “narthex” mean. They have to know exactly how they are supposed to take communion, or if they are welcome to the table at all. And then they are supposed to know and interpret the many unwritten social cues to which our churches adhere. For instance, in many congregations, if you’re moved by a musical piece, you are not supposed to clap.

There are good reasons for many of these practices of worship, and I don’t wish to downplay or dismiss them. But, as we sat around a table at the recent FTE Calling Congregations Conference, talking about how to minister to and with adults in their 20s and 30s, I realized once again how we cannot simply expect people to change who they are in order for them to fit in with us. It’s important to meet people where they are.

“It’s like what Howard Thurman said, you have to meet people at the level of the ashtray,” one of the participants explained.

I smiled at the image and asked what he meant. He told me how Howard Thurman wrote about his relationship with his landlady. There was tension between them and Thurman wasn’t sure what to do about it. Then he noticed how his landlady dumped out the lobby ashtrays each time there was a butt in it. She was fastidious about it, and so Thurman began to pay attention to those ashtrays. When he walked through the apartment lobby, each time a wayward butt was left in a tray, he took a moment to dump the ashes. Because he took the time to notice something that the landlady cared about, because he began to work with her, their relationship mended and strengthened.

After hearing that story, it reminded me that so often we want people to enter our churches and begin caring about all of the traditions and cultural norms that concern us, but we don’t always take the time to meet them at the level of the ashtray. We neglect to find out what concerns them, what is important to them, and how we can work together.

What concerns the younger men and women in our congregations? There are a lot of things that we can point to—the environment, the economy, AIDS, human trafficking, homelessness, poverty, or food issues. Big corporations have figured out that a new generation has deep care for so many things, and so they have developed cause marketing in order to link their products to a greater good. They realize that people are so worried about how they can change the world that it will influence what sort of products they will buy.

There are general trends, but I don’t know what the concerns are in each of our churches. Each context is different, and those who walk into our sanctuaries often have different burdens that they carry around. Yet, it’s vitally important that we find out what those concerns are. Listen to what weighs heavily upon them. Learn to meet people at the level of the ashtray and engage in work with them.

This was cross-posted from the FTE blog.

GCR 3.3 John Dominic Crossan and Jennifer Warner: Who is Jesus?

It was wonderful talking to Dominic Crossan, especially after reading his work and hearing about him for so many years. He stretches me. I often walk away from his work (as I did from this conversation), challenged. I was also fascinated to hear about scholarship and it’s awkward relationship with popular culture.

And, of course, it’s always good to have an excuse to chat with Jenny and Landon!

Listen here.