lent 2018: the kingdom of God is like....

The presence of Lent in the church calendar—40 full days of preparation for Easter—reminds me that it is wise to prepare.  When we ponder where we are headed and think about what is coming, we sometimes find ourselves strangely more engaged in the present as well.  In the Biblical record, God uses the number 40 as a measure of time for his people (It rained on Noah for 40 days, the Israelites wondered for 40 years before entering the Promised Land, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before publically launching His ministry).  God used this time to bring His children closer to Himself: to increase their desperation for God, to remind them of His power and provision in their daily lives, to encourage and pour into them before a hard season ahead. 

 In the Catholic Church I visit every Ash Wednesday, the priest reminds us that Lent is experienced most fully in three ways:

1)   We sacrifice something in order to remind ourselves of thirst, of hungering after God, or to disrupt patterns that diminish our flourishing in Christ.

2)   We willfully use this experience of disruption to push us toward Christ, placing Him in the front of our minds, or at the top of our day.

3)   We turn our eyes from ourselves and toward others as we intentionally live more generously toward those in need during Lent.

For these 40 days, I pray you would be mindful of these 3 ideas, and maybe use them to orient yourself toward God. 

 His coming sacrifice and resurrection are our only hope for living well with ourselves and others.  Allow yourself to know this during Lent.  Allow yourself to recognize the abundance in your life, and to lean in to the lean placesJ.  Allow yourself to think about people who live with very little, and know that they often hunger for and understand God in ways that may be hard for us to understand.  Allow yourself to hear God’s words in these 40 days, to begin to understand what He cares about, and then think about how you can emulate Him by pouring your life out for others. 

This year I am starting our readings each week with the Beatitudes.  In the last year I have come to see all the ways that I have diminished the power of God in my life because I have cared about protecting and expanding my own power and security instead.  I have decided God’s Kingdom works just like mine, so that the hardest workers, the kindest, the most intentional people win. The Beatitudes remind us that God doesn’t value what I value. He promises to be present, generous and available to those who have no power, to those near the margins, to those who align themselves with the overlooked and against self-interest alone.  This Lenten season I am reminded that if I want to prepare myself for Christ’s coming kingdom, I would do well spend 40 days marinating in the words He used to describe it.  (One other note: all of the selections are poetry.  While we love to be instructed by scripture, W. Brueggemann recently reminded me that the very nature of God is mysterious, wonderful, and creative.  Poetry—instead of a helpful outline—is a fabulous medium to usher us into the presence of God.) 

When the priest at the Catholic Church places ashes on my forehead in the shape of a cross, he murmurs, “Turn away from your sin and believe the Gospel.” I pray that as we read these verses of God we would think about what it means to simply “Believe the Gospel” in the living of our lives.                   

Poetry from the Word of God

14-Feb Matthew 5:1-12                  11-Mar Matthew 5:1-12

15-Feb  Proverbs 2:1-15                 12-Mar  Ps 106:1-8

16-Feb Ps 94:12-22                        13-Mar Eccles 3:1-8; Ps 13

17-Feb  Micah 6:6-8                       14-Mar  Ps 101:1-6; 119:9-20

18-Feb  Matthew 5:1-12                  15-Mar  Micah 4:6-7; Luke 6:20-27

19-Feb  Ps 90:12-17; 91:1-2             16-Mar  Ps 22:1-11; 24-31

20-Feb  Ps 95:1-8                          17-Mar  Prov 3:1-12

21-Feb  Ps 120:1-2; 121:1-4              18-Mar  Matthew 5:1-12

22-Feb  Zeph 3:14-18                     19-Mar  Song of Sol 8:6-7; Isai 41:3-13

23-Feb  Ps 107:1-9, 19-31               20-Mar  Ps 116:1-9; Ps 127:1-2

24-Feb  Daniel 6:25-28                 21-Mar  Ps 9:7-14; 17:6-11

25-Feb  Matthew 5:1-12                 22-Mar  Ps 3:1-5; 21:3

26-Feb  Ecclesiastes 7:5-14          23-Mar  Micah 7:18-20

27-Feb  Ps 130                              24-Mar  Ps 28:1-2; 40:1-11

28-Feb  Job 42:1-3                       25-Mar  Matthew 5:1-12

1-Mar  Isaiah 40:21-31                   26-Mar  Ps 102:1-4

2-Mar  Ps 142                                27-Mar  Isaiah 54:1-8

3-Mar  Hosea 5:15-6:3                  28-Mar  Ps 18:25-36; 20

4-Mar Matthew 5:1-12                   29-Mar  Isaiah 55:1-12

5-Mar  Ps 143:5-10                        30-Mar  Ps 32:1-5; 38:1-11, 15-18

6-Mar  Ps 25:4-18; 19:7-14             31-Mar  Isaiah 61:1-11

7-Mar  Ps 103; 131                          1-Apr  Matthew 5:1-12

8-Mar  Isaiah 43:1-7

9-Mar  Ps 1:1-3; 23

10-Mar  Habb 3:17-19


the destruction of defensiveness: listening is hard

If you haven’t had the privilege of being around fighting kids in a while, allow me to reassure you: They still do, usually for ridiculous reasons. Another fun fact: Kids are wildly hypocritical. And so are we.

For instance, one of my kids is fond of calling his brothers “tattle tales.” It makes him furious when he gets outed for being less than awesome.  In his mind, no sin of his is even remotely as egregious as the act of exposing said sin to a nearby adult. He can’t deal, and it makes him not only blind to his original sin, but fuels his righteous indignation at the poor kid who reported him.  He gets mad at the conversation instead of the act that caused the conversation.  Even worse, despite his firm stance against others disclosing his bad acts, he is known to throw a brother under the bus. In other words, he who hates a tattle tale is, in fact, a tattle tale.

While defensiveness is common, it is lazy, destructive, and selfish; we have to do better. 

Thank God we have outgrown such childish ways, right? Not so fast, my friends.  We know that defensiveness destroys collaboration; indeed, we see how destructive it is in others.  A friend snaps at another friend, but explodes when she is called on it instead of saying, “yep. My bad.”  A subordinate at work fails at an assignment, and rather than admit it and learn, he makes excuses.  A leader who is interviewed gets the inevitable question, “Any regrets?”, and responds with deflection, doubling down on bad choices as “the right choice at the time.”  It is easy to see how ridiculous others are when they fail to listen and then reflect on how they might become healthier.  In someone else, it is easy to see the willful ignorance required to deny a bad outcome or one’s own role in it.  It is much harder to avoid defensiveness when our own relationships (or sense of right-ness) are on the line.

In the last year, voices deemed hysterical or whiny or angry by those in the American majority have been elevated.  By some miracle that I don’t fully understand, many Americans now listen to women who claim #metoo, and are wondering what can change to ensure men do not treat women as objects to be assessed, groped or raped.  Many Americans now listen to those who are pleading for black lives, and are wondering what can change to ensure black lives do, in fact, matter.  Many Americans now listen to rural voices who have lost jobs and respect, and are wondering what can change to ensure we don’t ignore voices outside the city center in planning for our future.  Many Americans now listen to the voices that claim Confederate statues actively erase important parts of our history, and are wondering what can change to ensure we recognize and hear our whole history.

But many others feel attacked when those voices utter a word.  When we hear the story of another as a personal attack on ourselves, we don’t hear those voices.  Defensiveness and listening are mutually exclusive activities. A few weeks ago I wrote about Generation Bruh, and how my white son’s response to reading about Emmett Til’s murder was disgusted outrage.  Importantly though, his outrage was laced with defensiveness.  As a white male reading about horrible violence committed by other white males, he felt attacked.  I was dismayed by his defensive response to Til’s murder, and yet it reveals the destructive and pervasive reality of defensiveness in our American momentIf a person lives in the majority, is served well by the status quo, and has experienced a merit-based fairness in the systems of society, it is very easy to feel defensive when confronted with evidence that suggests injustice abounds. This feeling of defensiveness is heightened when the reality sets in that the people who often benefit from this abuse of power look like you. 

Defensiveness and listening are mutually exclusive activities.

The jump from recognizing injustice to feeling blamed for injustice is a short one for many of us.  We live in a largely segregated (and gender coded) society, and such divisions have kept us not only from having authentic relationships with each other, but also from understanding different versions of ‘reality.’  I assume that my understanding of history is the THE way to understand history, and I have no need to hear about the experience of another (especially one who might discount my understanding).  Defensive responses stem from feeling attacked, and are clear indications that many of us have one-sided historical understandings.  When confronted with diverse realities, our own perception of America is disproved as perhaps incomplete, and it is easier to react defensively than face the injustices pointed out by others.

It is quite hard to be an informed person in the United States and not know that our history, systems, institutions and laws favor white, wealthy, increasingly urban, males.  The fact that defensiveness is a leading response to this reality is absurd to me, but it also makes sense.  The weight of historical and current injustice is SO overwhelming that many of us cannot bear it.  We resort to a defensive posture out of self-protection.  Something deep within us wants to cover our eyes and ears and cry, “It’s not my fault! It can’t be true! What do you want me to do about it?”

Whether we feel overwhelmed or personally attacked, defensiveness is a privileged response.  It ruins relationships, prevents honest reflection and hurts our chances to collaborate or improve.  Rather than listening to understand the perspective of another, we end communication, absolving us from reflection, abolishing our potential need to make amends, and delegitimizing the initial problem.  As long as I respond defensively—like a child yelling, “tattle tale!”—I do not have to engage in the revealed pain of another.  I do not have to confront the histories or inequities I have erased or ignore.

I want to posit that while defensiveness is a common approach, it is lazy, destructive, and selfish; we have to do better.  My teenager is learning to make sense of the world, and I hope defensiveness is only one step in a long journey toward an awakening into his place in the world.  If we hope to offer Generation Bruh help or wisdom, we must confront our own delusions, legacies and defensiveness.  Whose histories have we erased? When do we feel attacked or overwhelmed? Whose experiences do we diminish? How do we respond to the pain of others? 

the destruction of defensiveness: the dodge ad

During Sunday’s Super Bowl, viewed by nearly a third of all Americans, Dodge aired an advertisement found wildly offensive to millions of Americans.  The ad was a mashup of quintessential “American” scenes shown while the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr spoke passionately about the virtue of serving others.  Dodge produced the ad in order to bring awareness to a campaign—called Ram Nation—that is meant to advocate for and celebrate volunteerism in local communities.  In the ad, King reminds us that the desire to be great, to lead, and even to do good are wonderful instincts, but that “he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.”  

Today King is a man largely misremembered by largely delusional people.

The excerpt was taken from a speech King gave at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, a few months before his death, and is called, “The Drum Major Instinct.”  In it, he discusses the human need to feel superior, and forcefully argues that in individuals this need leads to violent and unjust notions of white supremacy, while at the national level, “the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy,” and that America won’t stop “because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.”  The content of King’s speech makes it very clear that he is presenting a new way to find meaning in life, and that new way is accessed when we use our power in order to serve those overlooked by powerful people.  He goes out of his way to reject the idea that abject power and the accumulation of “stuff” (like a Dodge pickup truck, for instance) could ever hope to bring peace.  I’m not here to defend or condemn the ad; instead, I think our response to it offers an excellent showcase of our tendency to get defensive when we encounter points of view that are different than our own.

Defensiveness destroys conversation. 

I understand the instinct.  For many white folks, at times it can feel as if we walk through a field of land mines when it comes to race and history, as if any misstep will cause an explosion.  For many black folks, the constant demand to justify experience, to legitimize a point of view, is diminishing and exhausting.  These common experiences can make everyone feel like their opinions are offensive, or as if they are only safe with “their kind.”  This preference for similarity, combined with countless experiences of being misunderstood or even accused, can make us all defensive instead of patient and engaged when we encounter others. 

I personally found the ad to be an attempt to appropriate a black cultural icon for the profit of a business.  I thought it was in bad taste, as it commodified the words of King in order to sell a brand.  Regardless of my perspective, I am fascinated as I watch the debate unfold.  Friends who live and breathe the work of justice, who see America as King did—a mixed bag of courageous, democratic idealism and hypocritical, oppressive systems—are frustrated by the idea that a company could try to use King to make a profit.  It smacks of a history laden with powerful folks using black labor and creativity to make profits.  On the other hand, I have seen sincere folks begin by saying they were moved by the ad, only to feel attacked, and then react defensively by saying something like, “Am I not allowed to have an opinion? Everytime I even try to talk about Dr. King I end up getting yelled at for doing it wrong!”

Our country experienced the same ad in vastly different ways, and our responses not only reveal the toxicity of quick defensiveness, they also reveal the deep divide over how we view Dr. King and what he stood for.

While millions of people—black and white—have condemned the ad, millions more thought it was a moving tribute to King.  Because defensiveness destroys conversation, we cannot have a productive discussion about why we might (dis)approve of it. Twitter rants about black sensitivity and white appropriation of King abound from every possible angle.

It goes something like this…

Tweeter A: What a moving ad, spot on. Thankful the words of Dr. King are being celebrated and remembered.

Tweeter B:  Only white privilege could make you think that honors Dr. King in any way.

[Tweeter A either explodes with name-calling and defensiveness or withdraws in shame, unsure of why it is bad to celebrate Dr. King.]

Or like this….

Tweeter X: Of course a giant company thinks it’s okay to appropriate Dr. King to help them sell cars, they love black culture but won’t speak up for black lives.

Tweeter Y: You are impossible to please. Only you would complain that Dr. King’s words are being celebrated.

[Tweeter X either explodes with name-calling and defensiveness or withdraws in frustration, feeling unheard and misunderstood.]

Can't we do better than this? It strikes me that this particular ad, and our reactions to it, offer us a fabulous chance to LISTEN to the perspectives of others.  Our country experienced the same ad in vastly different ways, and our responses not only reveal the toxicity of quick defensiveness, they also reveal the deep divide over how we view Dr. King and what he stood for. We love him for his soaring oratory, for dreams he painted in our hearts, for his vision of collaborative respect, his insistence on the power of light, and above all, the centrality of love in the way forward.  We struggle, however, to celebrate the part of him who argued majority culture was “more devoted to order than to justice”; we bristle at his critique of the man who “paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom”; we feel exposed by the man who said the church is in danger of being “dismissed as an irrelevant social club”; we take issue with the leader who proclaimed “we have no alternative but to protest.” 

Our love of Dr. King rises over a society that has escaped what he called the “inescapable network of mutuality”, a society that struggles to hear and honor the hurt experienced by many people, a society so steeped in delusion that we actively work against our pledge to act “with liberty, and justice, for all.”  Our response to the Dodge ad reveals the truth that King is a man largely misremembered by largely delusional people.  Perhaps we would do well to listen to all of his words, and to reflect on our own defensive postures when we encounter disagreement.  As this debate fades from the public sphere, notice how you listen, how you react, and how you appreciate the experience of others before defensively aborting the conversation.