Don't Waste Your Privilege ("Them" - Part 2)

This post is Part 2 in a series called Them

My family was one of the wealthier families in the town where I grew up. It feels weird to say it so bluntly—I always felt embarrassed by our affluence. I didn’t like it. I was extremely self-conscious about our big house, our nice cars, and the fact that we took regular family vacations. I was afraid that other kids didn’t like me because my family had things that they didn’t have.

At first, my embarrassment at my family’s relative wealth seems a bit strange, mostly because I had nothing to do with its existence. I didn’t do anything to earn the money that we had; my dad would have been successful whether or not I had been born. I guess that’s why I always felt embarrassed—I knew I had something that lots of people in my community did not have, but I didn’t deserve any of it. I was born in this family, and everything I possessed came from this one simple fact.

Now imagine that we live in a much larger version of my hometown—everybody has something that someone else does not have, whether they know it or not. The people did not earn what they have, they did not choose to have it, but it is theirs nonetheless. The word for this is privilege.

Over the past couple years, I’ve been exploring this concept (privilege), and I realize that this is exactly what I experienced during my youth. My family’s wealth and success made me feel guilty because most people did not have what we had.  

I’m writing this blog series (“Them”) on empathy and seeing the “other” in a more humane light, and one of the main concepts that keeps rising to the surface is this word: privilege.

I know some people prefer to deny the very existence of privilege because it makes us feel like we haven’t earned anything in our lives—as if every single thing has arbitrarily either been given to us or denied us and we simply live in a world that was pre-constructed without our consent. “I worked hard to get what I have,” we might say, which is a totally valid point.

I’m 35 years old, and my privilege has only gotten me so far:

My privilege got me into college, but it didn’t pass my classes for me.

My privilege got me my first job, but it didn’t make me good at it.

My privilege helped me buy a house, but it did not fill it with a loving family.

Privilege does not negate your hard work. Acknowledging the existence of privilege does not deny your contributions and your sacrifices—it merely recognizes that there are lots of people who were born with certain disadvantages that you were not.

If I am to feel empathy for someone else’s struggles, I first need to accept the fact that their life has not been the same as mine. Their relationships with their parents, jobs, finances, religion, doctors, the police, teachers, and countless other elements have been (at least somewhat) different from mine; their experiences are unlike my own. As a result, people who are different than I am are sure to have a slightly (if not dramatically) different interpretation of life than I do. In other words, empathy begins when I recognize that someone has struggled in ways that I will never understand—and my lack of struggle—in any form—is called privilege.

I should also say here the privilege, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. You can’t be blamed for what you cannot control. That said, you can be held responsible for what you do with it.

So how do I know if I have privilege? What criteria are we using to measure this somewhat nebulous concept? As it turns out, there are a lot:

If you are male

If you are white

If you do not have a physical or mental disability

If you were raised by both biological parents

If you have no immediate family members who have ever been incarcerated

If a parent stayed home with you during the day

If your parents regularly took you to the doctor and/or dentist

If a relative or family friend ever gave you a job

If you’ve ever flown on an airplane

If you ever had swim lessons

If you lived near a supermarket that sold fresh produce

If you participated in organized sports

If you have never been called a racial slur

If you never had to lie to your parents / your friends / your church about your sexuality

There are, of course, many others.

Here’s the point: You have at least some amount of privilege in your life. And just like me when I was a kid, you had nothing to do with the natural advantages that you were given—or at least, the absence of certain disadvantages. 

You aren’t wrong for having what you have, but you are responsible for what you do with it.

In the Bible, there is a passage in which a guy named Paul is writing to a young pastor named Timothy. At a certain point, Paul begins talking about how Timothy is to interact with the wealthier members of his community (read: people with the greatest amounts of privilege). This is what he says: 

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.  In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

What are the people in the early church told to do with their privilege? They aren’t told to ignore it or to deny its existence (and they certainly aren’t called to defend the fact that they earned it)—they are called to “do good” with it.

I couldn’t control my family’s wealth in our small town, but I could control how I treated people. I could share when it was in my power to share; I could give when it was in my power to give. I could recognize that some of my friends didn’t have as much as I did, and I could allow for the possibility that this fact made their lives—at least at certain times—a little harder than mine. 

Without this acknowledgement and a willingness to do good with our privilege, our empathy will always be shallow at best and nonexistent at worst.

I wonder how much more we could do for others in this world if we stopped living in denial about what we have and started using it as a tool to make the world a better place.

If you have a voice, you can use it to speak for someone who does not.

If you have resources, you can use them to ease someone else's burden.

If you have space, you can use to offer safety to someone who has been physically or emotionally displaced.

If you have love, you can offer it to someone who has never experienced love before.

May we acknowledge what we have and use it to do good for others.

"I Asked For Wonder"

“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”  -Abraham Joshua Heschel

I tend to overthink most things. I like facts and data and stories--which, according to Brene Brown, are just "data with a pulse." When I have a question and someone can offer a rational, well-researched answer, it scratches me right where I itch.

I like facts and research so much that I recently finished preaching the longest, most research-intensive sermon series I have ever done. It was a series on the book of Revelation, and my hope was that people could find a grounded story of real people in real places in a book that is way too weird and confusing for most people. So I attempted to use historical research and archaeological discovery as a way to give people a new sense of comfort with such a strange book.

But this coming Sunday (October 2), I'm going to start a series that is very different, and it's something that challenges me as much as it may challenge anybody else. The series is called I Asked For Wonder, which is a phrase that was borrowed from Abraham Joshua Heschel (the quote at the top of this post). 

So what is this sermon series going to be?

It will be an exploration of the things that we cannot explain or fully understand. This series will be an acknowledgment that, for all of the things that we can know and control, there are some things that are completely out of our grasp. The human intellect can only take us so far, and it is at that borderline between what we can know and what we could never know that we often encounter God.

It is at this place where our rational understanding begins to lose ground and all we have left is wonder.

It is wonder that makes us fully alive--that tunes us into the activity of the divine within the tangible world.

It is wonder that causes our eyes to go wide and remind us that we can still be amazed in this life and that God might still be able to surprise us in all kinds of unexpected ways.

So this series will be about the intangibles. It will be a sermon series about wonder.

Because sometimes we need answers and data and understanding because it helps us make sense of something that has troubled us for too long.

But sometimes we need to allow space for the unknown and the unknowable--we need to open ourselves up in ways that leave space for the divine surprises in this life.

In short, we are talking about wonder.

There Is Only 'Us' ("Them" - Part 1)

This post is PART 1 of a blog series called "Them."

Can I tell you a story about myself that I don’t love? As you read, please keep in mind that this story happened ten years ago when I was a twenty-five-year-old youth pastor, and I’d like to think that I’ve learned and grown a lot in that span of time.

So if we can all agree that this is a safe place, here’s the story.

I once caught a girl in my youth group in possession of illegal drugs at church camp. Obviously, this was a massive violation of the camp’s rules. So I called the girl’s mother and asked her to drive the two hours to the camp to pick up her daughter. The girl broke the rules, and now she had to go home.

That’s not the part I feel embarrassed about. That comes next. 

A few weeks later, our youth group was preparing to go on our annual summer mission trip, and I told the girl that because she brought drugs to camp, she was no longer allowed to come with us on the mission trip. She was upset, and she begged me to reconsider. I refused. Later that same evening, the girl’s mother called me at home and asked me to please let her daughter attend the mission trip. She assured me that the girl would not make the same mistake again. She also told me that her daughter had been struggling emotionally and socially throughout the past year, and a weeklong mission trip to serve other people would be exactly what she needed. I remained firm in my decision. Rules were rules, and that was that. The mother became angry, yelling at me over the phone and accusing me of being heartless and not caring about the students in my ministry. The more belligerent she became, the deeper I dug in my heels. By the time the phone call ended (she hung up on me), I was resolved that the girl would go on the mission trip over my dead body.

I stuck to my guns. The family left the church.

End of story.

It would be easy to tell this story and justify my response to this woman and her daughter by saying something like, “Of course I made the right choice. I couldn’t set a precedent for being lenient when kids bring drugs to camp. I had to send a message.” OR   “That woman had no right to call me and yell about my being heartless. She should have been more aware of what her daughter was up to.”

Sure. I could justify my response, vilifying the girl or her mother or championing the all-important rules above all else. But I know that’s just my brain trying to protect me from a more terrible truth, which is this: The girl’s mother was right about me; I was heartless. I had no sympathy for her daughter’s struggles or her pain as a mother. I offered no grace, and I felt no pain on their behalf.

If I were to look back on my sixteen years of ministry work and list my top five biggest failures and regrets, that moment would be on the list.

So what went wrong? Why was my posture so rigid? Why was I so uncaring when someone whose genuine struggles came into conflict with my need to be right?

As I look back, the answer seems terribly simple: I harbored no empathy for the girl or her mother. Their struggle was not my struggle, and their problems were not my problems.

If there is anything we can glean from the teachings and ministry of Jesus, it is a deep sense of empathy for other people.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells his followers about a time in the future when they will be praised for feeding him when he was hungry, clothing him when he was naked, visiting him when he was in prison. When his followers ask him when they did all those things, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). In other words, when we allow the problems of others to be our problems, we encounter God in that space. 

In another place, Jesus says to his followers, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

One of the early leaders in the Jesus movement—a guy named Paul—famously wrote, “Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

The New Testament—the teachings of Jesus as well as those of his earliest followers—is drenched in empathy. You could even argue that empathy is the great Christian mandate—to love others as we love ourselves (John 13:34-35). It’s pretty much indisputable that, if you are a follower of Jesus, empathy is a really big deal.

Which is why it is so regrettable that I blew it ten years ago with the girl and the mission trip—it’s the one part of my job (and the job of every Jesus follower) that is indispensable.

(You don’t have to point out the irony that I kicked somebody who needed help out of a mission trip when the whole point of a mission trip is to help people. I’ve already had that conversation with myself more than a few times.)

So what should I have done? I don’t know, but anything would have been better than what I did.

I could have listened a little more carefully, paying more attention to the pain and fear in the mother’s voice instead of the belligerence and anger that I heard.

I could have worked with the mother to create suitable compromise—perhaps she could come on the mission trip with us and spend time with her daughter in that environment.

I could have tried to see the situation through someone else’s eyes rather than just my own. 

I’ve been thinking about what might create a lack of empathy in a person—or a group of people—and I have a few potential culprits. Keep in mind that I’m not a psychologist, and there are probably people who could provide a much more well-informed analysis of this than I could. More than anything, this simply comes from what I have observed.

So here are some things that I have witnessed create a lack of empathy in the hearts of individuals:

1. Moral Superiority

This was certainly the case for me in the story above. My problem with the girl and her mother began when I felt annoyed that the girl brought drugs to camp. I mentally accused the girl of being careless and selfish and the mother of being a negligent enabler. Of course, I have no idea if these classifications were accurate—I never tried to learn enough to know. I made up my mind and moved on with my life.

When I have observed people lacking in empathy, a sense of moral superiority is typically where it seems to begin. People say things like, “Well if folks would just follow the rules, they wouldn’t have these troubles,” or “I’m so tired of people always asking for a handout.” I’m sure you could add your own examples, but the result is the same: When we feel morally superior to other people, it is impossible to feel empathy for them. 

2. Lack of Connection

This is linked with the first point—moral superiority and lack of connection both come from having little to no contact with the people we are observing. There is no nuance, no room for individual stories—we peddle in stereotypes and generalizations. It’s all we have time for.

Looking back at my own story, I had no idea what life was like at home for the girl and her mother. Truth be told, I had only met the mother one time, and it was at the pre-camp meeting where parents signed all of the permission slips and paid the camp fees. If she were standing in line behind me a Starbucks tomorrow, I wouldn’t know it. I had no connection with this family, and that’s how I treated them.

When I hear people making sweeping generalizations about people who are different from them—racially, religiously, sexually—my first assumption is that the person making the statement probably doesn’t know very many people who represent the group they are talking about.

Most homophobic people I know have very few—if any—LGBTQ family members.

Most people I’ve encountered who are afraid of Muslims don’t know any Muslims. 

Most people I know who claim that racism isn’t a problem in their world don’t know anyone who has been the victim of racism.

It’s easy to assume that something isn’t a problem when it’s never been a problem for you. 

I’ve never had a problem with drugs, so I didn’t bother to feel empathy for a young girl who did.

3. Fear of Culpability

I felt angry when the girl’s mother accused me of being heartless. She was trying to place some of the blame for the situation at my feet, and I resented it. But deep in my subconscious, I knew I felt angry because, as I said before, she was right about me. My heart was cold toward this family, but I did not want to admit it. I didn’t want to be responsible for someone else’s pain. Nobody made the girl bring drugs to camp, and I was not interested in carrying any of the blame for this situation. How dare this woman drag me into their family drama?

But I was responsible—I was responsible for my posture toward them. I had a certain amount of power, and I misused it.

When someone talks about social issues like racism or poverty, we often resist the discussion because, deep in our hearts, we don’t want to bear the blame for someone else’s struggles. If there is poverty, am I culpable because I am not poor? If there is racism, and I culpable because I am a member of the race that represents the majority (i.e., white)?

So those are the three things that seem to cause a lack of empathy, as far as I have observed.

This is all a big long way of saying that I’m starting a new blog series that I’m calling “Them.” I want to explore the different ways that we fail to empathize with people who are unlike us and then perhaps the ways we can seek to bridge those gaps. I’ve already written about this kind of thing in a couple of previous posts (“I Am Not the Gatekeeper” and “Tolerance is Weak”), but I’m hoping to take a deeper look at the whole thing. I’m not sure there will be any definitive solutions, but I would at least like to pose the questions and perhaps share a bit of what I’ve been learning.

Last week, blogger and founder of the Gay Christian Network Justin Lee tweeted this:

“Sometimes I think the hardest thing is to stand up for truth and justice without getting discouraged by some folks' lack of empathy.”

You realize he’s talking about Christians, right?

He’s talking about how Christians fail to see the needs and pains of other people because we often feel morally superior, lack connection with those who are suffering, and are attempting to avoid feeling culpable for their problems.

He’s talking about Christians who voice coldness or hostility toward people who are LGBTQ.

He’s talking about Christians who tell the victims of racism that they haven’t actually suffered.

He’s talking to Christians who seem far more interested in protecting their own way of life than in helping someone else improve theirs.

Essentially—as I read it—he seems to be talking about anyone who is more interested in protecting the “Us” than in serving the “Them.” 

But that’s not how Jesus operates, and it should not be how his followers operate, either.

For Jesus, there is no such thing as “Us and Them”—for Jesus, there has only ever been “Us.”

That’s what this blog series will be about—seeking to find “Us” where there was once only “Them.”

So in the meantime, may we hold empathy for those who feel the cold sting of otherness, especially within the faith communities that should be places of safety and warmth.

May we step down from the moral high ground and instead see people as they are—as beloved children of God who are probably trying their best.

May we learn about the people we do not understand, to see the world as they see it and learn what they love, fear, hope for, and dream about. May we find connection where there has only been alienation.

And may we forfeit our need to avoid culpability and own our place in the story, even if it is uncomfortable for us to do so. May we admit when we have been wrong and when we have benefited from the struggles of others.

And may the grace and peace of Jesus Christ be with us as we open our hearts to “Them” as they draw closer to being “Us.”

Book Review: Finding God in the Waves

I first encountered Mike McHargue when I was rethinking my own faith. It’s funny to think about now, but it is almost as if he dropped out of the sky to help me just when I needed it, like a sort of Batman for a person doubting his own faith. 

(I hope he enjoys my comparing him to Batman just now).

I was in Laguna Beach, California for a workshop led by Rob Bell. Toward the end of the first afternoon of the workshop, I raised my hand and confessed to Rob Bell—and to the other 100 people in the room—that, even though I was a teaching pastor at a large church in Texas, I had recently begun doubting my faith; I no longer felt confident that what I believed was true, and I was terrified that it would cost me not only my faith, but my livelihood as well.

Rob listened and offered some very kind words of wisdom, for which I am still grateful. But the truly memorable part of the afternoon happened after the session broke for dinner. As the people around me gathered their belongings, asking one another what they wanted for dinner, some guy came over to me and said, “Hey, my name is Mike. I heard what you were saying just now, and I wanted to tell you that I came to this same event a couple years ago, and I felt the same way. I was a Christian, I became an Atheist, and now I’m a follower of Jesus. I just wanted to see if you wanted to join me and my friends for dinner. I’d love to tell you my story and listen to yours.”

That was my introduction to Mike McHargue, who would a few months later become known across the Internet as “Science Mike.”

I did join Mike and his friends for dinner. We went across the street to a house that they were renting for the week and sat on the rooftop patio, sharing stories of faith and doubt, enjoying good food and beautiful Southern California weather. Mike graciously shared his own struggles, listened as I articulated my own, and helped me understand that my journey of faith was not over but was rather taking an unexpected turn that could be a healthy and necessary step toward personal growth. I left that rooftop patio feeling more hopeful than I had in a very long time. I would go so far as to say that Collective Church would likely not exist today if not for that conversation.

It is now three years later (to the day, actually), and Mike’s first book—Finding God in the Waveswas released last week by Convergent Books. In the book, Mike shares his story with readers—a story about journeying from a childhood faith, to Atheism, and back to Jesus through an encounter on that very same beach in Southern California where he and I first met. In fact, reading the book, I feel almost like I am back on that rooftop, being filled with a fresh word of hope while listening to an encouraging story of faith and rediscovery.

Finding God in the Waves is divided into two halves: the first half of the book is Mike’s story, the same story he shared with me on the Laguna rooftop, and the same story he’s shared on multiple podcasts (including You Made it Weird With Pete Holmes) and in multiple sermons around the country. It’s a moving, emotional story that lots of people—including more than a few pastors—will identify with and understand.

The book’s second half takes a more overtly cerebral posture, exploring the relationship between faith and skepticism—a sort of journey of “finding God in the cosmos,” if you will. He delivers on the promise set up by the Werner Heisenberg quote found on the book’s opening page:  “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

Both of the book’s halves are vital in understanding the power of the whole. This is one person’s story, but it is a much larger story as well—this journey is for anyone who has ever feared that they might need to leave their intellect behind on their journey toward authentic faith. The second half of the book requires more concentration, to be sure, but it’s worth it.

(At least it required more concentration for me. Lots of Mike’s readers are much smarter than I am. When I lost my faith, I hadn’t been reading Carl Sagan—I had been binge-watching Doctor Who on Netflix. So I think we can all agree that I’m not playing at the same level here. But anyway…)

It’s worth it because Mike offers the gift of rational thought paired with wide-eyed wonder at the unknown. There is a lot in the book that talks about brain chemistry, cosmology, astrophysics, and other science-y things (they don’t call him “Science Mike” for nothing), but there is also a lot of celebration of the great wide unknown—the idea that if God is real, the human mind can never fully understand or explain that God. So the true gift of Mike’s work—and there are several gifts to choose from—is that he creates space for both the deeply rational and the mysterious trans-rational all at the same time in the same place (the place, of course, being this book).

So if ever you have felt like your faith has hit a wall or you need new language to rediscover your own experiences with God, I highly recommend Finding God in the Waves. If you need to know that God can handle your questions, your doubts, and your curiosity, I would love for you to meet my friend Mike and hear his story. You might find that it reminds you of your own.