In a society marked by hyper-individuality, a lack of real connection that leaves us lonely, and what feels like insurmountable division, we need Shannan’s words. Through her storytelling, she paints a picture of what our lives together as communities and a society can be. And through her practical wisdom, she gives us a path for how we can move in that direction. (One way she does that is by ending each chapter with “One Simple Way to Move toward Each Other.”)
She ends with “A Neighbor’s Blessing.” If any part of this blessing resonates with you, then this book is for you:
“May you go out into this bewildering world warmed by the fire of possibility. May you come to see walking shoes, soup spoons, minivans, and wrinkled hands as worthy tools for connection. May your heart stay tender, your hands stay open, and your door stay easy on its hinges. May you find comfort in the moon, art in the clouds, and goodness in the faces around you. May you gather, listen, and hope relentlessly. And May you never give up on the living light if belonging, right where you are. Grace and peace and gumption be with you.”
One more thing about this book stands out: In addition to people who resemble herself as a white woman, Shannan Martin gleans wisdom from diverse voices—including men and women who are Black, Asian, Latine, and Indigenous. This book is a demonstration of how learning from diverse voices makes our lived theology more robust.
A few weeks ago I started something on Instagram called, “Good Conversations.” The goal is to pursue good. Not easy answers, not destruction, not an echo chamber. And even when we talk about hard things and the conversation gets messy, it’s so we can pursue good.
Also, I want the name “Good Conversations” to define our rules of engagement. These aren’t debates with winners and losers. We’re in this together. And this is a space where we treat others—even those with whom we disagree—with love, respect, empathy, compassion, etc. In other words, this is a space where we practice goodness. The feeling I have after a good conversation—the feeling of being seen, heard, loved, encouraged, energized, challenged in a good way—that’s what I want this to be for everyone.
If you’re on Instagram, you can participate in these conversations simply by responding to my weekly polls and questions. (To follow me, click here.) I’ll be saving each conversation in a highlight reel. For those who aren’t on Instagram, I’ll share some of these conversations here on my blog.
The topic of the first Good Conversation was a big one—our feelings about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade (which became official just a few days before this conversation). Here it is:
I went out for sushi with a friend. She’s the kind of friend I love talking with and who always leaves me feeling encouraged. During this particular conversation, I noticed something interesting:
Whenever she’d say, “I know I should…,” what followed would sound spiritual and “Christian”—like things I grew up hearing at church. But strangely, it wouldn’t sound like anything I’ve read about Jesus’ life in the Gospels. And when she’d apologetically say, “But I decided to…,” I’d be reminded of passages throughout Scripture and I’d see parallels between her life choices and the life Jesus modeled for us.
My friend is following Jesus. And in order to do that, she has to reject the patterns of this world—including ways the Church has adopted and spiritualized these patterns.
Isn’t that weird? At least, shouldn’t it be? And shouldn’t this be cause for alarm?
We’re followers / disciples / apprentices of Jesus. Whatever terminology you like to use, we’re to strive to look more and more like Him. But sometimes we confuse the way of Jesus with church culture. Church culture doesn’t always look and sound like Jesus. In fact, sometimes it’s conforming to church culture that prevents us from becoming more like Jesus. (What a brilliant way for the enemy to keep the Church from actually living like the Body of Christ! “Make it sound spiritual and put Jesus’ name on it, then they’ll accept it without question!”)
I want my heart to be aligned with Jesus’ heart, to look and sound like Him, to reflect Him every way I can. Unfortunately, that means there are times when I must make choices that go against the culture of the Church (or at least the American Church). And that means people who know church culture better than actual Jesus will accuse me of things that sound a lot like the things Jesus was accused of.
• What if we accepted Jesus’ invitation to learn from Him, diving deep into Scripture with humility in the fact that we don’t always get everything right and we still have more to learn?
• What if we investigated whether or not each supposed truth we label “biblical” is actually in the Bible and in alignment with the heart of God?
• What if we chose to follow Jesus—actually follow the words He spoke and the way He lived as it’s revealed in Scripture rather than what some people or our church culture tells us is “biblical”?
So here’s my challenge to you: The next time you find yourself thinking, “I feel like as a Christian I should…,” ask these two questions:
1. Does this thing I feel I should believe/think/do/be resemble what Jesus lived and taught? (If you can’t find it in Jesus’ life and teachings or anywhere else in Scripture, that’s a big red flag. So be specific. Where is it in Scripture? And if you find a verse, zoom out and look at the context of the chapter, book, and whole of Scripture. Is that really what that passage is saying? Or has it been misunderstood or taken out of context?)
2. What is the Spirit saying to me? Could it be that what the Spirit is saying to me contradicts something I’ve been taught but is actually in alignment with the way of Jesus as revealed in Scripture?
One more thing: Live this out in community. Find people who will ask these questions with you, lovingly call you out when you don’t live them, and aggressively encourage you when you do.
A couple weeks ago, I received an email from one of the pastors in my local church. He asked if I could lead a prayer at our upcoming evening worship and prayer service. (We have one of these every month.) The area he asked me to pray for is one I’m passionate about: the racial issues in our country. I was honored to be asked. But the overwhelming feeling I had when I responded with my “yes” was fear and dread. Our church is predominantly white; the demographics of our congregation reflects the demographics of our city (which is statistically one of the whitest cities in America). Let me be clear: I LOVE my church! It’s a great church with wonderful people. But what was being asked of me was still terrifying. I voiced my fears to my husband:
“How on earth am I supposed to lead a congregation to pray as one about something in which we’re so divided?”
“How do I—a woman of color in a predominantly white space—lead a prayer about racial issues in a way that won’t get labeled ‘divisive,’ but is still honest and genuine?”
“What happens if this doesn’t go well?” (This was my biggest question/worry. Did I mention that my husband’s on pastoral staff at this church?)
I labored over the words I’d pray, crafting the words while whispering again and again, “God, I can’t do this. Please help me!” He gave me words. And I prayed them on my own each day leading up to the service. Alone in my living room, I felt the weight of the words. This is not a safe prayer, I thought. I felt something else, too. Something beautiful was happening.
Last night, as I walked up the steps of the platform to lead our congregation in prayer, my heart raced and I unsuccessfully fought to stop shaking. In my fear—yes, I did it scared!—I kept my head down and my eyes on my iPad. As I prayed, I heard something I hoped for but didn’t expect: voices rising in agreement. There were only a couple times when I felt the crowd get quiet. My husband prepared me for this: “There will be moments when they’ll get quiet because they don’t know yet how to pray about some of these things. They’ll get quiet so they can listen and learn. It’s a good thing. Just keep going.” I remembered his words and kept going all the way to the “amen.” Something indeed happened last night. It felt as though something hard that needed to be broken was beginning to break. This is just a beginning. I wrote in my journal after I got home, “I feel it—really feel it. Hope.”
After the service, a number of people asked if I could send them a copy of what I prayed. This morning, I got more messages with the same request. So here it is. What follows are the words I spoke and prayed (including a couple notes to myself to breathe) at Central Assembly in Springfield, Missouri on the evening of Sunday, February 6, 2022. May we continue to pray these words. And as we do, may we learn to live them.
We’re going to pray about the racial issues in our country. [Take a breath.] And I know that as soon as I said those words, every single one of us felt something and our minds got loud with ideas and beliefs. And the range of thoughts is so wide that it can seem too insurmountable for us to be able to pray as one.
So here’s what we’re going to do:
Everyone, hold out your hands in front of you, and clench your fists. (No hitting! We’re not about to fight each other!) Prayerfully imagine that in your fists are all the things you think and feel when you hear the words, “racial issues”…because we’re not going to be able to pray as a unified voice until we deal with what we’re holding in our fists.
As I begin, I want you to pray, “God, here’s all my stuff. I want to give You access to all of it.” And when You’re ready, I invite you to open your hands in surrender to Jesus. If you need more time before you’re ready, that’s okay. The important thing is that we all move a little closer to God in this moment.
God, we’re symbolically holding in our fists
ways we believe we’re right and others are wrong,
ways we’ve allowed ideologies to hinder us from loving well,
maybe feelings of apathy or annoyance,
or a desire for things to be better and exhaustion by the weight of it all,
maybe disillusionment, anger, or disappointment in our brothers and sisters in Christ,
maybe pain or even trauma.
Some of the things we’re holding are right in Your eyes and some are not. For most, what we’re holding is complicated. And all of it needs to be surrendered to You—whether for repentance, or so You can sanctify it to be used for Your glory, or so You can do Your miraculous healing work.
So God, here’s all our stuff. Help us surrender it all to You.
If you feel ready, go ahead and open your hands and pray with me:
Jesus, we surrender it all to You. We give You access to all of it. Align our hearts to Yours and let Your will be done in and through us.
So now we lift up our church, our community, and our nation.
God, we lift up the Black community.
We lift up the Native American community.
We lift up the Latino community.
We lift up the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
We lift up everyone who’s part of the majority culture.
The needs are many.
We pray for demonic strongholds to be destroyed. Break the strongholds of racism and white supremacy in our country and even our churches. Disturb what needs to be disturbed and change hearts.
We pray for repentance to continue and to be thorough. We’ve come a long way, but still have far to go. Help us to repent and bear fruit in keeping with repentance. As Daniel, Nehemiah, and others repented for the communal sins of Israel, we repent of our nation’s sins as well as our own.
In commenting on MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” Mrs. Coretta King said: “At that moment it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared. But it only lasted for a moment.” God, there was a moment when it felt like we were on the brink of racial healing, but it only lasted for a moment, and too many returned to business as usual.
We repent of our prejudices, the ways we’ve wrongly judged, painted groups of people with broad strokes, or turned people into demeaning caricatures. We repent of the actions and inaction that flowed from these ways of thinking.
We repent of disobeying your command to care for the foreigner and the ways we’ve treated ethnic minorities like they are “other” and do not belong.
We repent of the ways we’ve upheld or been complicit with unjust systems.
We repent of choosing to be colorblind when the dream of Your Kingdom is not one of ethnic erasure but one that envisions every nation, tribe, and language worshiping together before Your throne. Give us eyes to be color brave, to see the beauty of our ethnicities and the ways they reflect the image of God.
We repent of choosing comfort over bravery.
We repent of participating in racial jokes or degrading comments, whether we were the one speaking the words or were complicit with our laughter or silence.
We repent of being silent when we should have spoken up in either correction or encouragement.
We repent of getting so caught up in ideologies and partisan talking points that we’ve allowed ourselves to treat people—fellow bearers of the image of God—as though they’re the enemy.
We repent of getting so caught up in debate that we fail to listen, show empathy, compassion, and love.
We repent of treating racial issues as though they’re problems “out there” and neglecting to care for those among us who are hurting.
We repent of the times we’ve prayed without action and the times we’ve acted without prayer.
I pray for us to not settle for superficial peace, but to be agents of healing and justice.
Give our lawmakers the wisdom to correct unjust laws and systems.
Raise up more Christians like Bryan Stevenson to advocate for the victims of our unjust laws and systems and work towards equity.
I pray for the violence against Black and brown bodies to stop. Oh, God, we denounce violence in all its forms. We denounce violence that’s inflicted on anyone. This week, with the start of Black History Month, at least 13 Historically Black Colleges and Universities were forced to close due to bomb threats. Oh God, we cry out for true peace in our land. As we often pray for a shield of protection when we travel, we pray for a shield of protection around ethnic minorities.
In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King lamented, “So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.” Oh God, may we be a headlight leading people to higher levels of justice! Give Your Church—here at Central and throughout our country—the wisdom and anointing to be brave in calling out unjust attitudes and systems, to be brave in doing the work of racial reconciliation, and to be brave in praying for and working towards shalom in our land. Holy Spirit, lead us and help us lead the way.
[Take a breath.]
Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a drastic rise in Anti-Asian violence. Asian Americans have been bombarded with videos of people who look like us and our parents being attacked and murdered. A couple months ago, there was news of an Asian man who was shot multiple times. He was about my father’s age and was killed in Chicago’s Chinatown, a place my father frequents. So when I saw the news headline, without thinking, I instinctually looked up the details of the story to make sure it wasn’t my father. This is a glimpse of what racial trauma looks like.
Jesus, we lift up those who are hurting and suffering racial trauma.
We’re hurting. And sometimes the pain is too heavy and hope feels impossible. Oh Jesus, You understand wounds. So we welcome You into our pain and we bring You our lament. We bring You all our anger and frustration, all our why-s and how longs.
We pray for every BIPOC person who is carrying trauma in their bodies and their spirit. God of all comfort, I beg You to heal us.
Help us as we absorb yet another insensitive comment, dirty look, or hurtful action. Keep our hearts soft and our armors strong. May we forgive and, at the same time, not internalize the racism we experience.
Help us when the news of another assault or murder triggers our trauma and fear.
Our Father, there’s so much brokenness. But You are the Lord of righteousness and justice, God of miracles and infinite possibility. Heal our land. Amen.
On September 10, 2021, I spoke at an event at Central Assembly in Springfield, MO. These are the words I shared that day.
I’m going talk to you about something that’s a lot bigger than what I can give you in 10 minutes. So I want to whet your appetite and stir in you a holy curiosity that I pray will shift the way you read the Bible and interact with God, the way you see yourselves, and the way you love others.
Sometime ago, I was watching a Netflix documentary about American Christianity. In it, someone said, “In our essence, we are sinful.” That sounds spiritual, but is it true? Is our essence, who we are at our core, our sinfulness? Is that how God sees us? And as Christians, is that how God wants us to see ourselves and others?
To answer that, let’s go to the Bible. And let’s start at the beginning.
Genesis 1:1, the opening line of Scripture, says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Right away, we meet the main character of the Bible, the hero of the story: God. And this chapter proceeds to tell us how God created everything in the cosmos. Light, land and sky, day and night, sun and moon, seasons and years, the plant and animal kingdoms—He spoke it all into being. And as He created, He declared His creation good.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
With these verses, we read the beginning of our story. And the very first thing that’s said about humanity is that we’re created in the image of God. God didn’t speak humanity into being. He formed the first human from dust and breathed life into Him.
If you ask a lot of Christians about their theology, what they believe, many would begin in chapter 3 with the fall of man. This is how many of us were taught to share the Gospel. But when we do this, we miss out on the theological richness in the first two chapters of Genesis where we’re introduced to threads that are woven throughout the entire Bible, threads that are important for understanding who God is and who we are. And one of those threads is the idea of the imago Dei, the image of God.
What is the imago Dei? What does it mean to be “created in the image of God”?
When we read the story of creation, God creates a lot of amazing, awe-inspiring things that reflect God’s glory. But not everything is created in God’s likeness. God chose humankind to be the bearers of His image.
The idea of the imago Dei flies in the face of a culture that gives people worth based on things like appearance, platform, productivity, and status. Dr. Jemar Tisby wrote, “…the Christian doctrine of the image of God teaches that all people have inherent worth and dignity simply because they are God’s creation.”
So what are ways we see the image of God in us?
We see it in our capacity…
to think and reason,
to forge relationships and emotionally connect with God and others,
to have authority and responsibility over the earth through our vocation, care for our health and wellness, and stewardship of our resources,
to become more and more like Jesus until we meet Him face to face. (from Christian Spiritual Formation, by Diane Chandler)
Every single one of us is a bearer of the imago Dei, created in the image of God. THAT is our essence. We reflect God’s image in the ways we’re similar and also in the ways we’re different. Our different stories and backgrounds, the different generations we were born to be part of, our different gifts and passions, even our different races, ethnicities, and nationalities—they all come together to make a beautiful mosaic that reflects God.
At this point, you may be thinking, But what about original sin? In Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, sin entered the world. Did that change our essence? Did sin erase the image of God in us?
Well, what does the Bible have to say about the imago Dei after the fall?
Genesis 5:1 says, “This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them.”
When talking about why murder is wrong, in Genesis 9:6, God said, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans his blood will be shed, for God made humans in his image.”
In the New Testament, when talking about how difficult it is to control the tongue, James 3:9 says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.”
Sin fractured our identities, marred the imago Dei in us, but it did not erase it. Even in our brokenness, we still bear the image of God!
This is the tension we live with: In our essence, we are bearers of the image of God. And at the same time, we live in a fallen world, impacted by sin. And because of that, Romans 3:23 says “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” We don’t live up to our potential as image bearers.
But God has not given up on us. He invites us to follow Him and partner with the Holy Spirit in His transformative work in our lives.
And like a masterpiece painting that has become cracked, weathered, and faded, we’re still a masterpiece. And God, the master Creator and artist who loves His creation deeply, can restore what has been marred to once again look like the image He created us to bear.
Before I continue, I’d like to speak from my heart. The past 18 months have been difficult for all of us. In many ways we deeply feel the pain of living in a fallen world. One way is in the racial divisions that have been brought into the light. Some of you in this room may feel like your dignity and worth or the dignity and worth of your children have been torn down. Maybe you’re carrying the wounds of trauma and you feel emotionally exhausted this evening. If that’s you, I invite you to find me later—or message me—and I’d like to personally take the time to give space for what you’re experiencing.
And for all of us in this room—or everyone reading this blog—I exhort you: Let us practice and model to a hurting and broken world what it looks like to see and value the imago Dei in ourselves and in others.
Now, let’s talk about Jesus.
There is only one person in all the world and history who has ever completely and perfectly borne the image of God. His name is Jesus.
Diane Chandler wrote, “…Jesus is the perfect image that humankind lost during the fall but through whom humankind now is alive with potential for restoration through redemption and is capable of holistic growth into the image of Christ.” (from Christian Spiritual Formation)
Romans 8:29 talks about how we’re to be “conformed to the image of [God’s] son.”
And 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory…”
In other words, what’s the goal? To look more and more like Jesus!
And how do we do that? Through Jesus!
Let’s take this one step further: On this road of spiritual formation, we need Jesus…and we need each other.
God’s character and nature, His personality, His passions, the way He expresses Himself and interacts with His creation and with us—He’s so much bigger than what any one of us can reflect. So it’s vital that on the road of spiritual formation, we not try to do it all on our own, but that we do it together in community. And that means it might get a little messy because people are messy. But even in the messiness, and many times, through the messiness, God’s transformative work happens and we begin to look more like Jesus and better reflect the imago Dei, both individually and corporately.
So I’ve made a decision: I’m not hiding anymore. What does that mean? Honestly, I’m not completely sure. I’m just going to let this journey take me where it will. Here’s what I do know: I bear the image of God and I’m not going to be a part of tearing down the imago Dei in me anymore.
What follows is a continuation of this journey of reclaiming my identity and an invitation for you to do the same.
When I was in high school, my history teacher talked about the Filipino “savages” that came at Magellan the explorer with their clubs shouting, “Ooga, Ooga!” I will never forget my humiliation as my classmates turned and looked at me. In that moment, I felt ashamed to be a Filipina, and even more shame for feeling ashamed. So when I stumbled on a collection of poems by Justine Ramos, a Filipina American author, with a piece called, “Ferdinand Magellan,” I knew I had found something special. In sharing her own Magellan story, I could feel the tension in her body and the wrestling with her identity as the other students in the class stared at her. And in reading her story, I was also reading mine.
Telling our stories is important. And something powerful happens when we see ourselves in the stories of others.
But what happens when we’ve mostly been erased from the stories that are told, when the only time we make it into the narrative, we’re villains and “savages”?
Both of my parents immigrated to the States from the Philippines, so I’m second generation American. I grew up in the Chicagoland where many of my closest friends were also second generation Fil-Ams (Filipino Americans). We weren’t related, but they were my sisters and brothers and their parents were my titas and titos. Our parents spoke to us in Tagalog; we answered in English (with some Taglish thrown in). We lived in America, but we were tethered to the Motherland.
Now I live in Springfield, MO, one of the whitest cities in America. I’ve code switched—hidden my Filipinaness and acted more white in order to blend into white spaces—for so long that I feel disconnected from an important part of my identity. I miss Tagalog, sitting down at a table where patis (fish sauce) is one of the condiments, and being greeted with the words, “Kain na!”–”Let’s eat!” I miss eating with my kamay (hands). I miss fancy events where men wear barongs, women wear dresses with big sleeves, and people dance the Tinikling. But most of all, I miss feeling at home in my Filipinaness.
So now, months before I turn forty years old, I’m reclaiming my ethnic identity. It isn’t easy. (I have one Fil-Am friend where I live. One. Two if you count her four-year-old daughter.) I’ve been listening to podcasts to learn Tagalog grammar so I can finally be able to formulate my own sentences aside from the ones I know only because I heard them a million times growing up. I’m reading books that tell stories and details that have been left out of American textbooks. (How old were you when you learned about the Philippine-American War or that the Philippines was colonized by Spain and then the United States?) And I’m exploring art, movies, music, and poetry where I see reflections of my ancestors, culture, and myself.
It’s time to reclaim my story. It’s time for all of us to reclaim our stories.
A BOOK FOR ALL ETHNICITIES:
Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections Across Cultures, by Michelle Ami Reyes
If you want to understand the importance of all of our ethnic and cultural heritages in a theologically robust way, this book is a goldmine! Here are a couple of my favorite excerpts:
“No matter your ethnicity, skin color, or cultural values, you have been made as a bearer of God’s image with dignity and worth equal to every other person. If you don’t value your cultural identity, you are not valuing a vital aspect of the image of God within you. If you don’t value the cultural identity of another person, you are not valuing the image of God within him or her.”
“The words of Scripture challenge us to step into other people’s histories and stories, to see through their eyes, to mourn for their pain, and to build better futures for one another. Justice is not a distraction from the gospel. It is a core message of the gospel. The life of Jesus declares this to be true, and if you want to prioritize the gospel in your life, then the pursuit of justice on behalf of others must be an essential component of your faith. Like Paul, become the weak. See the world through their eyes. Only then will people truly begin to see Christ in you.”
A COUPLE BOOKS FOR THE FILIPINX DIASPORA:
Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of expletives and I typically don’t recommend books that contain language I wouldn’t use. However, there are some exceptions and these books are among them. The expletives and strong language in the following books are minimal. And they serve the purpose of historical accuracy (such as quotations from historical figures) or expressions of intense emotion. But if you have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to strong language, these books may not be for you.
A History of the Philippines: From Indio Bravos to Filipinos, by Luis H. Francia
This book dives into the history of the Philippines from pre-colonial days to the present. Though this is an amazing resource for a Filipinx wanting to learn about their ethnic heritage, this is a book for everyone. By including perspectives and parts of stories that were left out of our history textbooks in the US, it challenges the way we view European and American history and adds insight to discussions about racism, colonialism, militarism, and even missiology.
Halo-Halo: A poetic mix of culture, history, identity, revelation, and revolution, by Justine Ramos
This is the book I mentioned earlier with the poem called, “Ferdinand Magellan.” In a podcast, I heard Ramos talk about how publishers told her that her themes were for “too specific of an audience” and that she should try to write for a wider, more general audience. I’m so glad she didn’t diminish the power of her words by diluting her creativity! This book is a work of art. Through her slam-style poetry, Ramos gives insight into the experiences and psyche of the Filipinx diaspora. At times, her words feel like lament. Other times, like revolutionary anthems. This book was like a healing balm to my soul.
In the Author’s Note, she wrote:
“My poetry is dedicated to all the textbooks that left my country and culture out of the narrative. My poetry is devoted to anyone who has ever uttered “Hirap Buhay ‘Merica” [“Life’s Hard in America] under their breath…As you turn the page, you’ll read snippets of frustrations and reflections. You’ll read flashes of my childhood, a peek into the crevices of my heart and memory. You’ll hear outrage, hope, and a desperate call for advocacy and awareness. These pages contain the tears of those who have lost a sense of themselves, those who have let the world define who they are, and the strength of those who, like me, are on the journey of finding themselves again.”
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
Are you on a journey of reclaiming your identity? What are you doing to reclaim the pieces of your story and culture you have lost, forgotten, or never had? I’d love to hear from you! (You can share in the comments.)
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
~Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986
As a woman of color navigating all the ways this past year has brought my racial pain and trauma to the surface, there are words I need to hear from the people in my life:
“I see you.”
“I’m here for you.”
“I’ve got your back.”
For those of you who are leaders, I need to hear the same from the leadership of the organizations and institutions I’m part of:
“We see you.”
“We’re here for you.”
“We’ve got your back.”
Why is this so important? Because, as Elie Wiesel states, “Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented.” For me personally, when the people in my life or the organizations I’m part of offer silence in response to racial pain, what I hear is NOT compassion or empathy. What I hear is:
They do not see me.
They are not here for me.
They do not have my back.
My journal is a place where I feel freedom to express all the things I’m too timid or scared to say out loud. Over the past year, I’ve written in my journal, “I wish they would try. But in order to try, they’d first have to care. And I don’t know anymore if I believe they care.”
So if you care, please don’t believe the lie that silence is the best option. At the least, it can be hurtful (or even feel like betrayal) to those who are hurting. At most, it can embolden those who have deep racism in their hearts and desire to harm racial minorities. Say something!
I know that some of you are reading this and thinking, “I’ve wanted to say something to my friends (or the people I lead) who’ve been hurting during this season, but I haven’t been able to find the words.” I get that. It can be scary to want to say something but to also be afraid of saying the wrong thing. If coming up with the “right” words has felt like an overwhelming and impossible task for you, or if you read the three sentences I shared earlier and thought, “That’s what I’ve been trying to say but I didn’t know how!”—you’re welcome to use them! It doesn’t have to be word-for-word exactly what I wrote. There are so many ways you can express these messages! The important thing is to express them and mean them!
Let’s take a closer look at these three sentences:
“I see you.”
This is the bare minimum. This shouldn’t be controversial. Yet, unfortunately, I know that for some, it is. If you love someone, these words should be easy. The other two sentences are dependent on this one. “I see you” can sound like:
“I see your pain. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
“I see the image of God in you.”
“I see your uniqueness. I see your beautiful personality, your giftings, what you bring into a room, the ways you make me better.”
Note: In addition to silence, there are many ways to convey, “I don’t see you.” Some of those ways include arguing instead of listening, gaslighting, defensiveness or making it about yourself when people are sharing their stories of pain with you.
“I’m here for you.”
This one takes a little bit of time, effort, and compassion. This looks like sitting with someone’s pain—even if it’s uncomfortable. “I’m here for you” can sound like:
“If you need to cry or vent, I’m here.“
“Can I give you a hug?”…when it’s safe to do so.
“Can I bring you coffee or a meal?”
“I’ve got your back.”
This one takes some courage. You might get some pushback from those who haven’t taken the time to examine their negative racial biases. But know this: The dignity and worth of BIPOC are worth it! In addition to using your voice to speak up, “I’ve got your back” can sound like:
“I want to be your ally.”
“I want to grow in this area so I can do better.”
“I want to protect you. I will come to your defense if someone tries to harm you.” (These words need to be backed up by action if the opportunity arises!)
“Can I sit with you at church?” Or, “Can I come with you when you go to [insert place where they may need an ally to help them feel safe]?”
“I want to give action to my words. I don’t just want to say things need to be better; I want to do concrete things to help bring change.”
“We need your voice! I’m going to amplify your voice any way I can!”
If you’re in a position of leadership: “How can we do better?” and “How can we come alongside you?”
One more thing: If you can’t mean these words, please don’t say them. I don’t mean that as a slam. It takes repentance and work over time to be able to say each of these things. It’s also a progression: You can’t have someone’s back when you’ve never been (or aren’t at least willing to be) there for them. And you can’t be there for them if you don’t see them (which includes seeing their pain). So if these are words you’ve never said to someone experiencing racial pain or trauma, start by prayerfully examining yourself and asking God, “Since words are the overflow of the heart, what in my heart (and mind) needs to change so I can say these words?” If you can say, “I see you,” but you don’t think you can honestly say, “I’m here for you,” or “I’ve got your back,” bring that to God and be honest about why you feel that way. And then let God shine a light on everything in your heart that wants to hide. Will it be easy? No. But will it be worth it? Yes!
The following is a message I shared in a Drury University chapel service this week. This semester, the theme many of the speakers are exploring is “One Another.” And for anyone reading this who has taken a homiletics class (or four), yes, I realize this message isn’t “balanced” in that it’s extremely heavy on application. On the other end of the spectrum, I hate that I ended up with three points! (I typically go for a more story-like structure that takes you from point A to point B.) Moral of the story: Say the thing God wants you to say through whatever structure communicates it best!
There’s a phrase we often use when we talk about what being a Christian is: “personal relationship with Jesus.” But what does that really mean?
It means we can know Jesus—not just know about Jesus, but we can know Him—personally. We don’t need someone to mediate for us. He’s not distant. He is the God who is with us. One of Jesus’ last words to the disciples before He ascended to Heaven is, “Behold, I am with you, even to the end of the age.” He’s not just with us in an ethereal sense; we have the freedom to approach Him and talk to Him whenever we want. The idea that we can have a personal relationship with God is a distinctive of Christianity.
The problem with the phrase, “personal relationship with Jesus,” is that we live in an individualist and consumerist culture. And it becomes easy for us to look at our personal relationship with Jesus with me-centered eyes.
Being a follower of Jesus is bigger than “me and Jesus.” Being a follower of Jesus means being part of something bigger than ourselves.
So here are a couple questions I’d like you to consider: Do people know you have a personal relationship with Jesus? And if they do, how do they know?
Because you told them you’re a Christian?
Because you post Christian things on social media?
Because you go to church or pray before you eat a meal?
Or because when they think of you, they think of someone who loves well?
In John 13:34-35, Jesus said:
I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
In Matthew 22: 35-40, Jesus articulated the two greatest commandments:
…an expert in the law, asked a question to test him: “Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
Isn’t it interesting that these two commands that all of God’s other commands depend on are both relational and social?
In Matthew 5:43-45, Jesus went so far as to say:
You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
Later, in Galatians 5:22, Paul described the fruit of the Spirit—one fruit with nine qualities. And what’s the first quality of the fruit of the Spirit? Love.
What marks us as Christians isn’t our piety, how often we go to church, or even our spiritual disciplines. Those things are important and have their place, but they’re not what marks us as Christians. The mark of being a follower of Jesus is love.
And as followers of Jesus, love is the thing out of which everything we do flows.
So I want to spend the rest of this time exploring this question: What does loving one another look like?
This isn’t going to be exhaustive, but I hope to give you a glimpse of what loving one another can look like and to challenge you to love others more deeply.
Loving one another looks like empathy and presence.
The Bible uses a lot of metaphors to describe the Church and one of them is the concept of family. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He taught them to open with the words, “Our Father.” He could have taught them to say, “My Father,” but a personal relationship with God isn’t just, “Me and God.” Like I said earlier, having a personal relationship with God means that we can know God personally, but it means more than that. It means that we are members of God’s family.
This past month, my husband and I were in Alabama to mourn the loss of my father-in-law. Because Alabama is farther along in the vaccine rollout, we were able to hold a service that people were actually able to attend. And it was beautiful to see what kind of people came.
There were people who lived locally whom my mother-in-law hadn’t seen in decades—people who had worked with my father-in-law at the first company he worked at after college. They showed their love just by being there.
And then there was one of my husband’s cousins. To give you some context, my father-in-law was one of twelve, so my husband has a LOT of cousins! We’ve been married for almost 18 years and I still can’t keep them all straight. In fact, there are cousins I haven’t even met yet! Of the cousins my husband actually has a relationship with, there were a number of them we expected to see because they live in the area. But there were a couple that came that were a complete surprise because they had to travel (in a pandemic!) to be there. As we spoke with one of them, he told us what compelled him to make the trip to be there: “These are the cousins I know.” I met this same cousin when Daniel and I got married. He had to travel a far distance to come to that, too. So he has both celebrated with us and mourned with us.
Loving one another means seeing people where they’re at and choosing to be with them, rejoicing with them when they rejoice and mourning with them when they mourn. Loving one another looks like empathy and presence.
Loving one another looks like living for something bigger than ourselves.
How do we do that? Through our choices.
The choices we make aren’t just about us. There’s no, “I’m making this choice for me.” Our choices impact those around us.
Are there choices we make that don’t matter? Sure! A few weeks ago I bought a purse and had to choose whether I wanted the brown one or the black one. Neither one of those choices make a difference in how well I love.
Now I will say, there was another purse I’d been eyeing for months—stay with me here—but it was way out of my budget. So if I would have bought that other purse, it would have meant less money in the bank. The purse I ended up buying was almost exactly the same as the one I was eyeing except it was a different color and it was 75% off, so I could make it work within our budget. And why does it matter that I made a choice to work within our budget? Because I’ve been wanting to live more generously. And staying within our budget gives us more room to be generous and to love others better.
A completely unspiritual choice can open up possibilities for spiritual things!
Our choices—even some that we think don’t really matter—impact those around us.
Last Friday, I got my second vaccine shot. As I was getting it, I started tearing up and said to the nurse, “I’m getting emotional!” And she said, “That’s understandable! You’ve never lived through anything like this before.” And then she said something that made me tear up even more: “Just think about the difference you’re making!”
As we’ve navigated the pandemic over the past year, we’ve seen a lot of opinions about wearing masks, whether or not we should get the vaccine, and a gajillion other things. I’m not here to make a partisan argument. Science is important. The Constitution is important. And it’s okay if we have convictions about those things. It’s okay for science or the Constitution to be a reason why you advocate for something. But as Christians, the thing that should be our primary, core motivation, the motivation that trumps all others, the thing that most compels our actions…is love.
You see, if we advocate for science but without love, or if we advocate for the Constitution but without love, we can cause a lot of destruction.
If you study history, it doesn’t take long to see ways that both science and the Constitution have produced some bad fruit and have been used (and at times, manipulated) to justify some awful things, from slavery to the use of atomic bombs.
But when our core motivation is love:
instead of destruction, we create;
instead of despair, we bring hope;
and in a world that is broken, we bring healing.
Loving one another looks like empathy and presence. It looks like living for something bigger than ourselves. And…
Loving one another looks like allowing God to transform us when it’s hard to love.
Our world is divided. And one of the things that has broken my heart over the past year is to see all the ways that the Church is divided, too.
There’s so much fear, anger, and hate. And I’m gonna to be honest: as a woman of color, it has been a struggle to love. People I disagree with who aren’t Christian? I can love them—easy. But Christians who post racist or misogynistic things on social media, people who marginalize me within Christian spaces and force me to defend the dignity and worth of myself and others who look like me, people for whom I think, “They’re Christians! They should know better and do better!” Not easy.
I don’t know who you struggle to love, but know that your struggle doesn’t make you a bad Christian—it makes you human. Opening our hearts to love people also means opening our hearts to be hurt by people. And unfortunately, some people do a lot of damage and never repent, never try to be better, never try to fix what they broke, never even say sorry.
So what do we do about people who are hard to love? We can’t will ourselves to love better! We can’t love our enemies or the people who’ve hurt us without God’s help.
Start by bringing your honest, unfiltered feelings to God. Don’t hold anything back from Him. If you want to learn how to do that, the Psalms are a great place to start. There’s no human emotion that isn’t expressed somewhere in the pages of the Psalms. God gave space for celebration, joy, and hopefulness. But He also gave space for lament, sadness, discouragement, depression, anger. And if God gave space for those emotions in the Bible, we can know that God gives space for those emotions in us as well. Our emotions—even the dark ones we try to hide from other people—are safe with God. Sometimes we think, “I don’t want to have this emotion, so I’m going to ignore it and pretend it’s not there.” But there’s a better way. You don’t have to hide those things from God.
When you give God access to those parts of yourself, you also give space for Him to heal and transform you—not with a neat and tidy bandaid, but with true healing. And when we experience God’s healing and transformation, we can truly love.
So what does this look like? We can pray, “God, I really wish this person or these people would [insert all the dark stuff you don’t want to wish on them but deep down you really do].” And feel safe in the knowledge that God won’t be surprised by any of those thoughts or feelings because He already knows you have them! It’s not about telling God so He can see them. It’s about telling God so you can give Him access to every single part of your heart. And when you’ve laid it all before God, ask Him to do His work in and through those painful thoughts and emotions.
As you pray for people who are hard to love, you might need to start by praying for God to help you to be able to pray for them!
And then over time, you can try praying for God to change their heart—for them to see the harm they’ve caused and to come to a place of repentance. And maybe one day, you can even come to a place where you can pray for their well-being and flourishing wherever they are.
And even if they never change, you want God to have access to heal and transform the part of your heart that was hurt by them—not to excuse what they’ve done, but so the hurt they caused doesn’t hold you back from being able to love others and to also be able to receive love from others.
Because love is our purpose and calling as followers of Jesus. It’s even our birthright as children of God because we’re not just meant to give it but to also receive it.
Let’s love one another with empathy and presence.
Let’s love one another by living for something bigger than ourselves.
And let’s even allow God to transform us when it’s hard to love.