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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Put this Mud in Your Eyes... Rinse... Repeat

I had this sort of humorous, kind of ironic moment, last week, when I wrote the wrong commentary!  However, it was the right commentary for today, so there's that...  John 9...


We all struggle with the problem of evil—particularly in light of pain and suffering, perhaps most visibly when the pain and suffering are unmerited.  We want answers.  When we read about “a man blind from birth,”[i] we want to know why.  But we’re not looking for medical explanations.  The question is not how did this happen but, instead, why does the world have to be this way.

Historically, the religious community had it all figured out.  Pain and suffering were the result of sin.  Even today, many religious communities offer the same answer.  Pain and suffering are consequences of the fall.  Humanity somehow deserves this anguish.  Suck it up and realize that this is the way the world works.  Admittedly, sometimes this makes sense.

But in this case?  When we’re presented with a man who was blind before he took his first breath?  What could he have possibly done to deserve such a lot?  Did he sin?  Was it his parents?  The disciples are working from a cut-and-dried, cause-and-effect philosophy.  It certainly affects their theodicy, which in turn affects their theology.  Lucky for them, God incarnate is standing in their midst.  Perhaps Jesus can clear this up, since he’s right there.   

Jesus immediately offers some incredibly upside-down teaching.  The Pharisees, and even the disciples, assume that the blind man is steeped in sin from birth, or at the very least his parents have caused this great calamity, because this is all they’ve ever known.  But Jesus sees this altogether differently.  In fact, as this passage comes to a close, Jesus declares, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”[ii] Well, that surely throws a wrench in things…

Jesus takes a severe deficit and turns it into an asset.  Being born blind is not the problem.  Jesus can work with that: Jesus can even squeeze something good out of it (and he does).  As the disciples seek the rationale behind this tragedy, Jesus redirects their attention to the ways in which, “the works of God might be displayed…”[iii]  

I got a little caught up in verses 3-5… and I didn’t originally write about this in the commentary, but I think it’s something worth talking about.

We have these words, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”[iv]

And then Jesus goes on with the miraculous healing.

I read in another commentary that in verse three, there may be an ellipsis, and I use ellipses ad nauseam in my writing, so this struck a chord.  If that’s the case, instead of, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him,” we might have, “but this happened (dot… dot… dot… ellipsis… appropriate pause, wait for it…) Jesus takes a deep breath and continues, “so… that the works of God might be displayed in him…” and then the rest.

It’s not necessarily a cause and effect statement.  Instead, this may be Jesus giving voice to the fact that genuine evil, suffering, and pain are present in the world, but this is not orchestrated by God.  Instead, these things exist outside of what God actually wants, but God is still somehow able to bring some good out of them.

The man is blind.  OK.  God can heal that.  Here’s some dirt and some spit (perhaps reminiscent of God’s creative work in the beginning).  Go wash yourself (oh, that I had time to consider how this might relate to baptism and initiation into the people of God).  Sight…  Restoration… Redemption…  It’s all there.  But, of course, this is not the end of the story.  The trouble has just begun… 

In truth, on the heels of this beautiful account of renewal, the rest of John 9 is at least a little bit exasperating!

The fact that the Pharisees don’t believe the previously blind man’s story is par for the course, albeit frustrating.  This is the way of the Pharisees, who are often portrayed as attempting to catch people in their words, to manipulate the narrative.  It should come as no great surprise to us when the Pharisees question the man about Jesus and determine this miraculous act must not be ascribed to God.  We should expect the Pharisees to attempt to discredit the man and his story, his very identity.    

But neighbors who have presumably known this blind beggar for his entire life are suddenly unsure whether or not it is him, at all!  It’s somehow easier to believe he might be a completely different person than to accept a miraculous account.  And the previously blind man’s own parents?  We are told that they are afraid.[v]  Undoubtedly, they have already lost much, because the Jewish community has likely blamed their son’s affliction on the sins of the parents.  They can’t risk being kicked out of the Synagogue, altogether.  The people (the blind man’s people!) go silent.    

The man who has been healed, however, takes the chance.  His experience with Jesus speaks to the truth of who Jesus is, which is, ironically, exactly what the Pharisees ask for when they assert that he must, “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” (δὸς δόξαν τῷ Θεῷ).[vi]  In the Greek language used here, the Pharisees are not looking for praise or adoration of God but for a factual account, a truthful testimony.  Later, Jesus will allude to the issue of spiritual blindness, but as I re-read this passage I stopped to wonder whether the problem might be more directly linked to ears than eyes.  The Pharisees refuse to listen to the report for which they asked.  Although it is difficult to argue with first hand encounters, it is not impossible.  They can claim that the man lied.  They can claim that the work of Jesus is outside the scope of what may be acceptably accomplished on the Sabbath.  But they cannot take the man’s newfound sight.  His sight is worth alienation from those who blamed him for his own suffering.  In the end, he is rejected, but having lived his whole life as a blind beggar, this is nothing new.  He can see!  The Pharisaical religious community has nothing to offer him that trumps this new reality.

The man’s final words to the Pharisees speak volumes regarding who now has the upper hand:     
            Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he 
            opened my eyes.  We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to 
            the godly person who does his will.  Nobody has ever heard of opening the 
            eyes of a man born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could do 

The Pharisees have lost their power in this man’s life.  Even though they subsequently insult him, judge him, and kick him out; it hardly matters.  When Jesus hears about the man’s rejection, he finds him.  Jesus cares about his story.  Jesus has already made a remarkable difference in the man’s life.  The Pharisees didn’t listen to him, but God did.  Their claims are void.    

So, back to the problem of evil…

We don’t partner with God to alleviate the pain and suffering in the world when we neglect to listen to the other; to attentively discern who is speaking, what he or she has experienced, what great needs exist, and what we might learn from their narratives.  In this passage, Jesus offers us the ultimate example of how to work redemptively in the world.  Perhaps the next time we are tempted to ask, “Why does the world have to be this way,” we should consider an alternative. 

Perhaps we are the answer… not the cause, but the solution—God’s agents of change, working together to realize the inbreaking Kingdom. 


[i] John 9:1 (NIV)
[ii] John 9:41 (emphasis mine)
[iii] John 9:3
[iv] John 9:3-5
[v] See John 9:22
[vi] John 9:24
[vii] John 9:31-33

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Who May Drink from this Well?

Rather than re-post, here's the link to my commentary on the gospel passage for this week, found at "A Plain Account":

John 4:5-42

Also, I had the opportunity to discuss this with Ben and Danny at "A Plain Account," last week.  The YouTube video can be found here:

APA, Episode 58


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Constructive Criticism

I recently had the privilege of presenting a paper at the Wesleyan Philosophical Society meeting at Asbury Theological Seminary.  When I received the message that informed me my paper had been accepted, I vacillated between ridiculous levels of excitement and being quite sure I was going to vomit.  There’s some history to that.  As an introvert, I do pretty well when I have a platform, and this was surely a platform.  It’s been a long time since I would describe myself as ‘shy,’ but every single time I speak publicly; I do remember what it felt like to drop out of high school speech class and to take my college speech requirement online!  Public speaking used to be painstakingly difficult for me.  I’m used to it now, but it can still be daunting in specific circumstances.

I am also sort of ‘slow to warm.’  I may have written a little bit about this in a post about the last conference I attended.  It doesn’t take me an inappropriately vast amount of time to get comfortable with my surroundings, but it can take several hours or maybe even an entire day.  If I’m referring to a place or event or group of people with which/whom there will be an ongoing relationship; a few hours is no big deal.  Conferences are weird, though.  They only last so long. The faster I can get comfortable, the better, especially if I’m going to take the stage on day 1!

I had several petty concerns (note to self, wearing false nails and pants that are covered in glitter might be something to reconsider in the future) and one significantly important one (note to self, if PowerPoint matters, it’s time to get an Apple device, because no one has adapters for PC!).  But, all of that worked out alright.  What seemed, perhaps, insurmountable was the fact that the papers before mine were incredibly academic in nature.  I’m not sure what I expected, but the more I think about it; I simply did not know what to expect.  It was my first academic conference.  I got the distinct impression that most people do not present at their first academic conference.  It was an honor.  And it was OK that I had no idea what I was doing!

All of the feedback I received was positive. 

“You did a great job.” 

“You hit it out of the park.”  Really?

“Your paper resonated… was enjoyable… etc…”

“It’s obvious that you’ve done a lot of public speaking.” (Cue choking on my drink.)

“Thanks for your paper.”  (Wait… maybe that’s the line you say when there is nothing else to say…  I heard it once…)

For the most part, I replied with, “Thank you,” but I did select a few key people with whom to lean toward self deprecation (because I knew, for sure, my paper was less than academic!).  I did this, because as much as I appreciate compliments, I am also always looking for constructive criticism that will help me to do better… to be better… next time.

So, upon proclaiming, “Thank you, but next time I’ll know to write something more academic, use more sources, etc.,” I did notice a slight shift in our conversations.

Let me reiterate, it was slight.

Now I heard things like, “Sure… but it was great for a first paper.”

“Yes… but it’s great that you got to present your first time here!”

“Actually, it was kind of refreshing.”  (Undoubtedly, that was my favorite one!)

Asking people whom I love and trust to speak truthfully about not only the positive aspects but the negative ones, as well, will undoubtedly make me a better scholar in the future.  And this, of course, got me thinking…

We can only speak this kind of truth into the lives of people who welcome it.

I’m a realist, so I am probably never going to say nice things simply for the sake of making people feel good.  I do, however, look for the legitimate good in things, and I have found that there is almost always something nice to say.  If I’m speaking with someone I don’t know; I’ll leave it at that.  A complete stranger legitimately does not care about what I think he or she might be doing better in his or her life.  That’s the easy part.

It gets trickier with the people we know and love.  We do, indeed, have a responsibility to be honest with them, to help them become the best people they can be in any given moment.  And I think the hardest part of all of that is discerning which people will welcome that kind of truth and which people are not yet ready, because sometimes even the people who ask for it do not really want it!  There’s probably an entire post about false humility in that… often found in the negative statements people make about themselves or their work when they actually just want you to refute what they’ve said with a repeated positive, an endorsement, or continued external affirmation.  That is so exhausting!

Constructive criticism used to be much harder for me than it is now.  Don’t misunderstand, it’s not as if I love hearing about my faults, but I do appreciate honesty, especially if it helps to shape and form me into someone better.


Also… a couple of people have asked for a transcript of the paper, so here it is in its original form, although I did diverge slightly while presenting… at least once to confess that I had dropped a note card and once to indicate that I was relieved that Eric Severson was not sitting in the room, just in case I really messed up in regard to citing his book (which is one of my favorites)!

Consequences of White Privilege
L Michaels
WPS Meeting, 2017

            For decades, the topic of racism has been largely ignored by the philosophical community, while minority groups continue to suffer injustices at the hands of frightened and narcissistic bigots who lack understanding regarding the importance of diversity and the significance of human worth.  Somehow, many people have embraced whiteprivilege without stopping to consider the consequences.  If being white means that we have the right to safety and security and the pursuit of our own happiness, even at the expense of others, then the problem here is two-fold
            The first and most pressing issue is oppression.  Prejudice and fear, created by a lack of relationship and cultural understanding, often prevent people who are part of minority groups from being empowered, educated, or even loved in the ways they deserve, as people created Imago Dei, just like the people who look more like us!  Clearly, this kind of segregation and separation leads to a disparity in opportunity, and this may stunt human development in those who are discriminated against. 
            But, because this is a systemic problem, we must also focus on the often overlooked underlying issue wherein racism and segregation also stunt human development in those who are prejudiced and fearful, because they do not grow in love and virtue, as they were intended to.  The result is a cyclical generational pattern that grows worse as these characteristics are further embedded within the culture and become the cultural norms, because people only recognize issues from within, if they haven’t become generally acceptable standards.
            To be fair, there is a large segment of the white population who simply do not understand that racism is a problem.  We all know that the familiar is comfortable.  It’s not difficult to sit down in a room full of people who look exactly like you, who believe everything you believe, and who hold to all the same traditions and rhythms of life.  These are not platforms for tense and awkward debate, and those of us who dislike conflict find ourselves heaving huge sighs of relief when we don’t have to engage in it.  But these are also not situations in which any real learning takes place, and the danger is that when we only enter into relationship with people who are just like us; we allow group thoughts, ideas, opinions, philosophies, and theologies to grow, even when we’re wrong!  Ignorance is no excuse, but, rather, it is an opportunity to educate people who might care deeply about this issue, if they were aware.  As humans, we tend to be unaware of problems that don’t directly impact our everyday lives—at least not in tangible ways.  This is one good reason for sharing our stories and listening intently to the narratives of others.  I can remember being a young, idealistic adult and proclaiming, “Racism is dead!”  But I spent many of my formative years in an all white community, so I didn’t have the context I needed to make such a statement.
            Actually, I am a product of the Detroit ‘whiteflight’ movement that occurred in the early 1980s.  I’m not proud of it, but I was seven years old, so I also didn’t have any power to do anything about it at the time.  After an afternoon of playing in the front yard with my new neighbors, who happened to have darker skin than I have, I can remember my dad declaring that we were moving before any more of ‘those people’ came into the neighborhood, apparently making it an unsafe environment in which to raise a child.  Shortly thereafter, he put his childhood home up for sale, and we made our way to the country—an idyllic small town America setting, very literally a few minutes’ drive from the home of the grand dragon of the KKK.  We had acres and acres of land and only white people with whom to associate.  For a child who had begun her life in a culturally rich area, it was devastating.  It was as if we had traded in the theater sized, full color, surround sound life system for some bunny ears and static on a black and white… but mostly white… 12 inch screen.  It bothered me for awhile, but over the next decade, I grew desensitized to my monochromatic world.  I don’t remember ever feeling as if I was better than someone else because of the color of my skin or as if I was somehow entitled to a better life.  In fact, I would have voiced just the opposite.  But whitepriveledge does, indeed, make us feel differently. Even the very best of us, even the most inclusive, are viewing social action and advocacy from a skewed lens.
            I have often observed a ‘super hero mentality’ among individuals from majority groups.  Those of us who claim that we desire diversity often hold authority over those of different races by using language that is patronizing.  We’re going to be the ones who step in and enable people of various ethnicities and races to secure jobs that are almost as good as ours.  We’re going to be their employers. We’re going to enable them to pursue higher education.  Well, first of all, I don’t know anyone who wants to be enabled.  As a female pastor, this hit close to home when a male colleague of mine began talking about what a great enabler he was of women in ministry.  If you take a cursory glance at the definition of enable, it sounds nice: to make able; to give power, means, competence, or ability to; to authorize.  But all of this assumes that we are the gatekeepers, and if we’re really nice, wonderful people, we will permit others do something of significance.  It indicates that there is some sort of deficiency that must be overcome.  This assumes that the other needs our consent, because they are incapable and incompetent without our approval.  Of course, these are only lies we tell ourselves, perhaps to maintain control, to keep hold of our perceived power.  My temptation, even today, is to declare that there is no ‘us and them.’  But because we have created an ‘us and them’ mentality and lived into this reality for so long, there is much work to be done to become a people who wholeheartedly embrace the concept of inclusivity. 
            The very best among us seem to have this picture in our minds where we go out into the world beyond our safe and secure zones, and we rescue people.  Let me be the first to admit my guilt.  We might even be such incredible human beings that we listen to them.  We might provide resources.  And all of this—it’s good.  But what happens more often than not is that when we’re presented with a platform, we mount the steps.  The spotlight falls on us.  And I feel as if I can just hear the booming microphone as we declare,
            “Now, I…  the great, white… champion… will tell your story.”
            We think we’ve got it down.  And we are so proud.
           But the truth is, it’s easier to tell a sterilized version of someone else’s story—particularly if it makes us look good in the process—than it is to just get vulnerable and share our own, admitting that we might not be the heroes, in fact, we might be the villains.
            I recently read the following quote from Parker Palmer’s book, the Courage to Teach: "When we reject that with which we cannot become intimate, our lives are diminished."[i] 
            There’s so much beauty in this statement, and I think it is essentially true, but I’d like to make one alteration.  I tend to be fairly adamant about pushing back when anyone tells me that something is impossible, or that I cannot do something, so I think our ability to intimately relate with others is only limited by how far we are willing to go.  I would propose that when we reject that with which we are unwilling to become intimate, our lives are diminished.  When we intentionally seek safety and power for ourselves as opposed to solidarity within community, we miss out on what a full life should look like.  In the church world, we seem to have mistaken materialistic success for blessing, at the expense of relationships.
            Now, I highly doubt that the vast majority of people who care enough about this issue to read (or listen to) this paper are in any way directly culpable for the oppression of other human beings.  And in fact, when I’ve taken the time to listen to those who legitimately believe that all things are equal for all people, a common defensive statement that I’ve heard is, “I’m not responsible for what happened in the past… for what my ancestors did… for slavery… for segregation…” The list goes on and on.  I’ve also heard things like, “We have to take care of our own, first,” or, “They should pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” or, “Everyone has the same opportunities for success here, they should pave their own way.”
            Are we even Wesleyan?  We need to be responsible! 
         A book that changed my perspective, and subsequently the way I live, was Scandalous Obligation, by Eric Severson.  He writes, “There is a strange brand of comfort afforded by cynicism, which justifies inaction by identifying the potential perils of every action.”[ii]  From a Wesleyan perspective, we are a ‘doing’ people.  Therefore, these common excuses that may be offered to justify discrimination are inadequate.  We don’t get to say things that place the focus on our own inconvenience as opposed to the genuine suffering of others. Wesley was passionate about ministering to the least of these and creating community.  In many ways, the racial segregation in our culture has created a place for people who aren’t white as the least of these, even when they are often as capable, or more capable, than we are!  By oppressing them, we have limited the ability for healing and growth, offering fewer opportunities to minority groups, and we have also deprived ourselves, and the world at large, of their contributions.  Justice and empathy must be present to be fully Wesleyan.  The church must embrace everyone, equally, because morality is about community and seeing beyond ourselves to the needs of others.  Without this, we are not the people we claim to be.  I propose that we are required to live in such a way that we may achieve intimacy with those who are different than us, and that we are responsible for the pain and healing of our neighbors, even if not directly culpable.
            But how do we bridge the gap between races?  We could begin by living in commonality with others, entering into relationships in order to understand the struggle and suffering and to bring about justice, growth, and healing.
            This sounds good, but it is problematic, because, again, from Severson, “We live away from, and drive around, the parts of the world where suffering and poverty go hand in hand.  The things we eat, play with, wear, and enjoy are isolated from their histories.  We like it that way.”[iii]
            And everyone says, “Of course we do!”  Even if a segregated result was not our intention, time and time again we have seen churches move out of the city, move out of the ‘rough neighborhoods,’ move away from the people who have no means to follow.  This pattern is also evident in good schools.  It’s whiteflight all over again. 
            Any of us, who have lived our lives with any kind of privilege, at all, know that it would be crazy to choose suffering and poverty.  It makes no sense from the intellectual perspective of a culture that encourages us to get everything we can and to give only what we absolutely must.  But sometimes doing what is right is not the same thing as doing what the culture dictates.  Unless or until we become willing to fully empathize (not just minimally sympathize) with the oppression of our diverse brothers and sisters, we will never become intimate enough to make any real change in the world, for the sake of the Kingdom.  And with that, one more quote from Scandalous Obligation, “To care and to love is to be vulnerable.”[iv] Popular or not, we can choose vulnerability.
            Just as we should make the shift between cannot and will not, we should also make the shift between enabling and empowering.
            To empower is to relinquish our authority, often in an official or even legal capacity.  By employing strategies of empowerment as opposed to enabling; the white, Christian community can say to our brothers and sisters of other races, “I recognize that you are already competent and capable: I recognize that as a human being, you may already be better at things than I am.  I don’t need to make you better.  I certainly don’t need to make you like me (as if that’s better).  I just need to recognize your already extraordinary worth.”  It puts the burden on those of us who have experienced privilege as opposed to those who have not.  We are culpable, and we need to take a step back without requiring credit or accolades for our great responsibility.  We need to extend shared leadership where it is appropriate, and we need to abdicate leadership, altogether, if someone else (regardless of race, sex, national origin… gosh, I’m starting to sound like an application waiver—but, really, if anyone else) is more qualified. 
            If you’ve ever engaged in any kind of ministry, and I think the percentage of people in this room that have done so and are doing so is probably close to 100%, you know there are advantages for both the minister and those to whom we minister.  Diverse relationships work much in the same way, and, at least from my perspective, it’s not even a huge stretch to decide we are going to advocate for our brothers and sisters who have different skin tones.  It’s the kind of thing that legitimately shouldn’t be an issue anymore, but it is, because we have allowed it to stay so by refusing to recognize their struggle and by refusing to let them speak into our lives.  When we push people down in such a way that they can only say the things we approve of, that they can only share perspectives that we understand or culture that we already embrace; everybody loses.
            So let’s be very clear, we are not somehow creating space for people of lesser intelligence, ability, or worth to sort of ‘make it.’  We’re just getting out of the way, because we’ve been in the spotlight too long, and we’re all missing out on the beauty of diverse cultural traditions and rhythms, because these things have been allocated to a dark corner somewhere, as taboo.  It’s time to not only speak unifying truth from the platforms we’re given.  It’s time to relinquish those platforms, entirely, and to recognize that this is not a sacrifice on our part.  Everyone benefits, as we become better able to realize the universal Kingdom of God, here and now. 

[i]Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 91.
[ii]Eric R. Severson, Scandalous Obligation: Rethinking Christian Responsibility (Kansas City: Beacon Hill of Kansas City, 2011), 24. Print. 
[iii]Severson, 36.
[iv]Severson, 155.