Skip to content

Month: January 2015

Discussing race with grace

th0N86DEBTWriting or talking about race relations is something I strive to avoid. Great passion and real emotion surround the topic, and I’m deathly afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, however unintentionally. I absolutely don’t want to “go there” – so I deliberately keep quiet.

This self-protective strategy of silence may cause some to think I’m apathetic or that I don’t care. That’s not true; I do care. But in my view, it’s far better to speak little and be wrongly labeled as apathetic, than to speak clumsily and somehow get wrongly labeled as racist. Because the latter charge, no matter how undeserved it may be, is a death sentence; all you have to do is throw that label at someone one time, even if it’s baseless, and it sticks for life. Their reputation never recovers.

So, to avoid the horror of possibly being misunderstood or mislabeled, my game plan has always been to stick my head in the sand.

Not the most noble response, I know.

Yet here I am, “going there” – joining the discussion.

Why am I choosing to do this now? This time I was forced into it: My church is doing a sermon series in which several different speakers are addressing the topic, and I am the facilitator for my home community’s post-sermon discussions. So sitting quietly was not an option.

Further, I knew God was pushing me into it. When I considered asking someone else to lead the discussion, I felt certain it was the wrong thing to do (after all, passive avoiding is one thing, but proactive dodging is another). So after each sermon I replayed the podcast several times, trying to hear what God might be saying through each speaker.

And it was stressful. Very stressful. “Sleepless nights” stressful.

Not because I rejected the material, but because I knew I would have to lead some tough dialogs, and I was terrified I’d mess up.

For me, the question of race relations, especially racial injustice, is a hard thing to get my mind around, like a pulsating blob of ambiguous definitions, unsolvable problems, fiery rhetoric, and equal levels of passion, pain, guilt, and shame. As I approach this scary blob and try to pull off pieces small enough to examine, honest questions arise that I have been too afraid to ask out loud.

As the sermon series has progressed, many of these questions have been raised and discussed (not debated—there is a difference!) among my home community members, and I am grateful to them for bringing grace into this overheated area. But one thing that has not come out of the discussions is a cure-all. Race relations simply cannot be solved with a simple three-point plan.

Instead, throughout the series, the only thing I have felt sure of is the need for more discussion. Real discussion. Even for an avoider like me.

Beyond that, I’ve become aware of a few helpful things to keep in mind in discussions about racial issues. If you are involved in such discussions (and I hope you are), maybe these points will help you too…

  • First, create a safe place. A one-sided discussion is no discussion at all – it’s a monologue. Everyone must commit to allow all viewpoints to be shared. Everyone must have the freedom to talk, listen, and learn without censure or shame, and even to make some mistakes. I have been fortunate enough to be able to do all of that in a close, caring home community of love and grace.
  • Second, hear each other. Listen—really listen—to each other’s stories. Hear the pain behind the passion. A friend raised this point recently, and I know she nailed it. People’s hurts and needs are too complex to reduce to simple arguments. The goal is not to win debates, but to heal hearts. The only way to do that is to step alongside and carry each other’s burdens. And the only way to do that is to hear each other.
  • Third, seek truth along with justice. To me, this is critical. If the facts of a case are in debate, then people start quibbling over those and stop listening to each other. Let’s work for justice, based on truth that has been verified. In the 1960s, the effects of segregation and Jim Crow laws were still very real in the South and Rosa Parks already had been arrested, but people far away hadn’t actually seen or experienced those events. Then images from Selma were published and televised, and everyone saw the police dogs, the water cannons, the tear gas, the beatings. It was horrible, but because the facts were documented, the truth was verified and the nation collectively agreed: “That’s not right.” And changes came. Justice must be based on truth.
  • Finally, approach the issue with a spirit of grace. In any truly honest discussion, someone will put their foot in their mouth; someone will say the wrong thing. But nothing freezes a dialog faster than a look or a word that conveys disapproval or condemnation. Under grace, everyone is free to stumble through difficult issues to a place of deeper understanding. That is the goal – but it is possible only if we love each other before, during, and after every conversation.

anti-racismI know God’s heart breaks whenever anyone suffers under the burden of injustice. And I know it breaks when his children show animosity and bigotry toward each other. (Even worse are attempts to justify such sins with Scripture!) The church should be the perfect avenue for real discussion and mutual understanding. I don’t claim to have solutions, but the graciousness of my home community has created a small circle where a few people feel less hesitant to talk. I’d like to see that circle grow, one conversation at a time.

The most important thing is how we come to the table. Our approach makes a big difference in whether people feel welcome to enter the discussion – and perhaps even to help lift the burden.

Leave a Comment

Facing down fear with faith

4f0115cde03fb27ee24be46deda8454fThe holidays are over, and the new year is here. Traditionally, the masses welcome it by drinking champagne, singing “Auld Lang Syne,” watching the ball drop in Times Square, and kissing or getting kissed by total strangers. There’s a sense of relief in having made it through the old year, and a sense of hope in anticipating the new one.

As for me—well, I am usually in bed by 9:00 p.m.

It’s the classic head-in-the-sand approach: if I can’t see something coming, it’s not really there.

While I absolutely love the Advent season, I always seem to face the new year with apprehension. What I am trying to understand is why. Actually, I am pretty sure I already know why, though I am reluctant to admit it: I think the reason is fear. And part of that fear is not having any choice, any control—because I don’t have any choice or control over the new year; I must go forward into the future, even if I’d rather not.

To me, the unknown new year is a wide, gaping chasm, and I have no other option but to step into it. I feel like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, standing before an abyss, with his father’s notes telling him he must “leap.” But the void is too wide to leap across, even with a running start, a good pair of Air Jordans, and a pole vault. Indy has no choice: the only way forward is to step off the cliff, into thin air.

Yeah—it’s like that.

I can’t help but wonder as I face this year: What surprises might be in store? What catastrophes might befall? When the phone rings unexpectedly, will it bring news that is happy, or horrific? And at this time next year, what will life look like?]

Just like every other year, I know this one will include both tears and laughter, gains and losses, but I don’t know how or when.

And that is what scares me—the unknown.

I fear it.

It’s the fear of a roller-coaster ride in pitch blackness—when you can’t see the track in front of you.

The Israelites faced a similarly unknown future at the edge of the Promised Land. They had sent twelve spies to scope out the land, to see how fruitful it was and to assess the military strength of its inhabitants. And the results were positive, at least regarding the land’s fruitfulness. But the inhabitants were, you might say, a big issue. Ten of the twelve spies reported: “All the people we saw there are of great size….We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them” (Numbers 13:33).

And their words struck fear into the whole nation of Israel.

But two spies, Joshua and Caleb, disagreed:

‘Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” (Num. 13:30)

I can see it now – ten spies, rushing wide-eyed back to camp with the terrifying report: “You won’t believe these guys. They are GI-NORMOUS! They’ll smoosh us like bugs.”

Then the minority has the guts to step up and say, “We can take ’em.”

Fortunately Joshua, the Israelites’ future leader, listened to faith, not fear. Later, when he commanded the people to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land, the thought of smooshed grasshoppers littering the desert was probably still in their minds. But just before they crossed, God gave Joshua this assurance:

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9)

And based on Joshua’s faith and God’s promise, they did cross over.

So how can we move from fear to faith? There is only one way: like Indiana Jones and the Israelites, we must close our eyes and step into the void, acknowledging that anything—anything—could happen. This year could be the greatest year ever, or just another average rotation around the sun, or an absolute disaster. It’s a roll of the dice.

Well, correct that. It’s not up to the dice. It’s up to God. With each new year, and each new day, we must consciously remind ourselves to place our lives yet again into his hands—no matter what happens, good, bad, or ugly—and proclaim: “God is good.”

Simply put, the only way to move from fear to faith is to obey his command and absorb his promise:

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”


Leave a Comment