Open Letter of Apology From Adults to Teenagers

Dear teenagers,

On behalf of adults everywhere, I want to apologize.

We have made your lives too busy. We remember our high school experience and the experiences of all of our friends and family members. And we want you to live all of it. We want you to be involved in sports, theater, afterschool programs, volunteer projects, church groups, and get certified in CPR. We have pushed and pushed and pushed until your schedules are way too full. We have made you feel like failures when you cannot keep up. We have encouraged you to choose activities over your spiritual life. We think your commitment to your sports team is more important than your commitment to your spiritual development.

We have made you so busy, you are not sleeping well and you are not eating well. We encourage you to eat quickly so you microwave a dinner or grab a value meal from a fast food restaurant. If you eat at all. You are tired and unhealthy and we push you even harder. We are pushing too hard and we are sorry.

We are also sorry that we have cared more about test scores and college admission than we have about education. We have grown up and become teachers and administrators. We have looked for more bottom line results to show that we are doing an effective job. We have been emphasizing the importance of getting high scores on achievement tests, SATs, and ACTs. We have failed to realize how stressed out you are about taking these tests.

We are in the position of voting people in, campaigning for what is important, and being involved in your education. We have become lazy and done little more than complain. And as we have stood by you have been falling deeper and deeper into your anxiety. We are sorry.

We are sorry that we have underestimated you. You are intelligent, caring, and passionate for justice in the world. But we treat you like you are little more than wound up balls of hormones. Yes, you are struggling with temptation and yes, you are struggling with physical, mental, and emotional development. But you also know that you want people to be treated fairly. You want people to be treated with respect and equality.

You may face the temptation to look at pornography, but deep down you know how terrible it is for people, especially women, to be degraded that way. And you feel you cannot talk to us about it because we have hidden all of our struggles from you. We pretend we have it all together and we hold you to such unimaginably high expectations that we have left no space for you to feel like you can ask for help.

You have been fighting and fighting and fighting to do the right things, but we have not supported you the way we should have. Now, you are self-harming, using drugs, and being medicated for anxiety or depression in astronomical numbers.

And it is our fault.

We are sorry. We want to start listening. We want to start helping. So please keep talking. Please talk to us even when it seems like we aren’t listening. Because we probably aren’t. But we need to. So talk to us until we listen.

Tell us how tired you are. Tell us how committed you are to fighting for justice. Tell us how much you thirst for knowledge. Tell us how much you want to explore and question spirituality.

Tell us what we need to hear.

Tell us until we listen.

Because listening is the best way we can show you we are sorry.

Signed,

Adults

Exposing Our Hidden Rules (Book Review)

On the second Thursday of each month, I would like to share my thoughts about some of the books I have read recently that have impacted my life in meaningful ways. This week’s book is actually two books!  Bridges out of Poverty and What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty are both essential reading for people wanting to truly know how to work effectively in the lives of people living in generational poverty. You can purchase them here:

http://www.amazon.com/Bridges-Out-Poverty-Payne-ebook/dp/B008VHT0BO/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1394754684&sr=8-1&keywords=bridges+out+poverty

http://www.amazon.com/Every-Church-Member-Should-Poverty-ebook/dp/B008VHSX4E/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1394754714&sr=1-1&keywords=what+every+church+member+should+know+about+poverty

In order to work with people, we must build relationships. In order to build relationships, we must understand the context of one another’s lives. In order to do that, we must first learn the hidden rules that govern our lives.

In Bridges Out of Poverty, Ruby Payne, Philip DeVol, and Teri Dreussi Smith discuss information that professionals must have to effectively work with poverty populations. But what they share is valuable for everybody. In What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty, Bill Ehlig joins Payne and addresses much of the same information to churches that are struggling to include people from poverty populations.

The first step in working with people across class lines is to learn the invisible rules that govern each class. We often do not wish to acknowledge these rules exist, but they do. Each book (page 13 of Bridges, page 16 of Church Member) lists a chart of hidden rules and a quiz titled, “Can you survive in…” each social class.

Why is it important to know these rules? Because: “What may seem to be workable suggestions from a middle-class point of view may be virtually impossible given the resources available to someone who is in poverty” (Bridges, page 28). Many middle class members think those from poverty should be able to change their situations by doing the same things middle class people do. But that is not always possible.

In addition to a recognition of the hidden rules, each book deals with an awareness of the different types of language that are used and the different ways people tell and understand stories.

The context we live in affects our language (formal or informal, partner or parent). We must understand the language other people use. Just as we must work harder to communicate with someone who does not speak English, or who is deaf, we must always work hard to communicate with people who do not speak middle class language.

In churches, this is especially true. Ehlig and Payne write, “The gifted Christian who offers little to the poor in the community may well have lost sight of his/her true task and calling as a Christian. ‘Sight’ is the operative word here. Can we ‘see’ the path ahead as we embrace the poor? Probably not clearly, but we may find footing for the next step” (Church Member, page 110).

Not only do service work professionals need to know how to work with poverty populations, but churches need to know, as well. For too long, churches have been abandoning inner cities and poverty populations. In addition, churches have often been blind to the needs of people in poverty. Church services are not welcoming because Christians often assume everyone who walks through the door will understand all the language, rituals, and symbols.

Religion the Father accepts as pure and faultless is the kind that takes care of the poor and forgotten (James . Instead of fleeing to the suburbs and putting up more barriers, we must work to be present and inviting towards members of the lower socio-economic classes.

Ultimately, we must work on building relationships. Just as Bridges talks about building these relationships within the community, Church Member includes sections in most chapters on what churches should know and how they can act. These sections are important. The authors point out our inner cities are viewed as harvest fields for Islam, yet they are virtually vacated by Christians.

If you are interested in working with people in poverty or in a service profession (social work, therapy, etc.), Bridges is an essential resource (as is everything else by Payne and aha! Process, Inc.). For Christians and the church, Church Member is an essential resource.

The work may be difficult, but it is necessary. As Ehlig and Payne state: “Success will not often lie with those who only see the failures ahead. More often it will be with those who strain their vision to see what might work and who have the courage to try” (Church Member, page 106).

Stop Loving Your Ministry

Dr. Seuss is a genius. His story about an elephant who hears things is remarkable. When Horton proclaims, “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” he is making a profound statement of humanity. Everybody matters.

Last week, I read two articles that were important to me. One talked about the importance of reclaiming the pro-life movement (here). The other talked about the importance of showing our love for gay people with our actions (here).

Both stated a similar theme: people are people to be loved, not issues to be won.

For too long, we have spent so much time trying to be right that we have forgotten to be loving. All the animals in the forest knew that Horton was crazy because no one could live on the tip of a flower. They were so convinced they were right they were ready to cage Horton and boil the flower.

They were so convinced they were right. But they were wrong.

Dr. Seuss has given us a parable for how we interact with our communities today. Sometimes, we are in danger of focusing so much on doing everything right that we forget we are called to love, serve, and minister to people.

In other words, we need to quit loving our ministry and start loving people.

I first heard this idea at the National Urban Ministry Conference last month. NUMA president Jim Harbin said this as he addressed the conference attendees. Stop loving your ministry. Start loving people.

Falling in love with a ministry is akin to falling in love with an ideology. In politics, this leads to people being more loyal to their party than to their constituents. In business, this leads to people making decisions to improve the bottom line instead of employees’ lives.

In churches and para-church organizations, this leads to people tying their specific formula to the path to Heaven instead of following the call of Jesus to love people.

Stop being convinced of your right-ness to the detriment of your love to others.

We need to stop loving our ministry and start:

  • Giving people another chance
  • Developing job skills to make people more employable
  • Creating housing projects to give the homeless a home
  • Partnering with medical professionals to offer necessary care for those who cannot afford it
  • Working with other agencies who have greater resources than we do
  • Working with other churches regardless of denominational affiliation
  • Providing the appropriate 12 step programs to help people overcome addiction
  • Mentoring men and women of all ages to help them learn what it means to live responsible lives
  • Sharing lives with those we serve

We must remember that a person is a person, no matter how small. Or how poor. Or what ethnicity they are. Or gender. Or orientation. Or religion.

We are called to love and to serve. We do that by loving people, not our ministry.

When Jesus’ disciples started bragging about stopping a person from driving out demons in Jesus’ name because “he wasn’t one of us,” Jesus rebuked them. He said, “Anyone who offers another a cup of cold water in my name is doing the will of My Father.” The importance was the presence of love; not being included in a certain group.

In other words, Jesus was saying, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

Jesus was saying, “Stop loving your ministry and start loving people.”

Let us go love people.

Privileged and Jealous

Why do we have a problem with the term privileged?

Why do we have such visceral reactions to people in poverty?

Why are so frustrated with poor people?

Why do we despise efforts to aid those in need by putting them down as lazy?

Why do we feel the need to point out all that we have done and clamor for that which we deserve?

I think it is because we are jealous.

_________________________

I grew up the youngest of five boys. They are 4, 8, and 12 years older than I am. So they got to do a lot of things that I did not get to do.

Which was totally unfair.

Why should they get to go out and stay up late on school nights just because they were in high school? Certainly a snotty little first grader should be afforded the same rights and privileges as a 12th grader!

Interestingly enough, my brothers probably felt like I was able to do things at an earlier age. (This is an assumption, not a verified fact.) I do know that I had my own stereo in my room at a younger age than my brothers did. As the youngest, it is possible that I was able to get away with things that my older brothers were not able to get away with.

So while I was jealous of them, it is quite possible they were jealous of me, as well.

_________________________

I cannot drink alcohol. If I do, I will have a reaction that will cause me to keep drinking until all sorts of bad things happen. Other people, my wife included, can enjoy an alcoholic beverage from time to time. They can drink just one. In fact, they can even start one and not finish it! This is a completely foreign concept to me.

There are times that sitting in a restaurant or at a friend’s house in the presence of others can stir up feelings of jealousy within me. Not because I want to drink. I am jealous because I can’t drink. (If this does not make sense to you, please ask me to try and explain better.)

_________________________

Sometimes, our jealousy is not a feeling of, “I want to have what you have.” Instead, it is a feeling of, “I can’t have what you have, and I think that’s unfair.”

So we react negatively to being told about our privilege. We claim that we do not benefit from privilege, we are only reaping the benefits of the hard work we have put it. And while many of us have worked very hard, it is dishonest to not acknowledge the advantages many of us were born with.

So we react negatively to poor people. We are upset with their panhandling. We are upset with food stamps and other benefits. We are upset they are not working and we think they should just clean up and get a job.

We are jealous because we have responsibilities and it seems unfair to us that we have to go about our daily routines while those enduring poverty do not. (Never mind that we overlook how difficult it is to live in poverty, but that is another post for another day.)

_________________________

So what is the answer? How do we move past our jealousy, acknowledge our privilege, and then partner with those in our midst who are mired in generational poverty?

By partnering and serving.

Yesterday my preacher, Jonathan Storment, shared this quote from Tim Keller’s book Every Good Endeavor:

“In the Christian story the antagonist is not non-Christians but the reality of sin, which (as the gospel tells us) lies within us as well as within them. And so we are likely to be on firm footing if we make common ground with non-Christians to do work to serve the world. Christians’ work with others should be marked by both humble cooperation and respectful provocation.”

If sin is at the core of a person’s poverty (and in most cases it is not), then the solution is to battle the sin, not the person. If a broken system is at the core of a person’s poverty (and it most cases it is), then the solution is to battle the system, not the person.

Our call is to serve the world and the people who live in it. Instead of allowing jealousy to separate us from others, let us remember that we are all God’s children and we all have a common task. Humble cooperation and respectful provocation will do much more to bring about solutions to a broken system than jealousy ever could.

Dreaming for Justice Everywhere, Reflections on MLK Day

Last week, I wrote that community is intentional, reciprocal, and painful. Today is the day set aside to honor a man who understood that and lived that out much better than I have.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “Letter From the Birmingham Jail,” he penned a line that has become one of his most well-known:  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we know that one person is being mistreated, we should not rest until that improper, inhumane, immoral, and sinful behavior stop. We should not rest until everyone is treated as a child of God.

Yet the next few sentences following that great statement stick out to me (italics are mine):

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

When we say things like, “It’s not as bad as it used to be,” or, “Just be patient, it will get better eventually,” or, “Don’t rock the boat, it will work out in the end,” we are perpetuating injustice. Inaction allows the oppressors to continue inflicting evil and the victims to continue suffering.

Dr. King goes on to write, “I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”

Let us strive to learn what it means to be a part of the oppressed race. Let us listen without judgment, defensiveness, or rationalization. Let us strive for the vision that will lead to action to root out the injustices that still exist in our world today.

So what do we do? Get involved. Find out what is going on in your community. Find out who needs helps and offer it. Don’t be afraid to admit that your church, your company, your political party, or members of your ethnic group have perpetrated evil. Instead of running from the facts, act to change the facts. If your church has not been welcoming to others outside a certain ethnic or socio-economic group, start inviting more people. If your company has been finding ways to practice illegal hiring practices, report them. If your neighborhood lacks diversity, find ways to invite people in who come from different backgrounds.

The existence of oppressed people is nothing new. When Jesus began His ministry He said He came to preach to the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed. And He was quoting a scripture that was already hundreds of years old! The Law God gave to Moses included instructions for leaving food in the harvest fields so that hungry people could find something to eat.

We need to look around us. We also need to look beyond ourselves. As long as anyone is being mistreated, we must work to bring justice. Let us embrace our “inescapable network of mutuality.”

Let us continue living out the dream; and not just today.

But today is as good a day as any to start.