Gratitude of Inclusion

So I moved back to Detroit a month ago and started three new jobs, which has put any blogging I’d normally do on hold. I’m planning on picking this back up soon (I promise that whole “Welcome Generation” series really will feature more than one person), but until I do, I’ll take the easy way out and feature quotes and links that I appreciate. 

Today’s quote comes from Sher Sheets, the subject of my most recent post:

“Gratitude of inclusion is not the same as gratitude for service…  Service that is oriented on those with, giving to those without, while maintaining their power and comfort is a type of service that lacks hospitality.  The service of hospitality is by nature vulnerable and humble – in fact, the service of hospitality looks a lot like the incarnation – God forcing himself into the form of a baby, exiting the frame of a young woman, and growing into a man who had little to cling to as He modeled the fullness of hospitality – welcoming children, women, lepers, the poor, prostitutes, uneducated and untamed men – etc. The incarnation is about God contextualizing Divinity and limiting Himself so that He could be with us – eventually giving up his very life for the fullness of his presence to dwell among us.

Hospitality is about limiting ourselves – about risking and giving up and sacrificing our rights and entitlements in order to be with others.”

For the rest of Sher’s post, click here.

Advertisements

The Welcome Generation: Sher the Footwasher

Image

This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting stories of millennials who embody God’s hospitality. For more about the motivation behind this series, as well as a list of all the stories so far, click here. 

“Your feet are looking a lot better, Leon!” A young woman in a hoodie sits across from an older African man, his bare feet atop towels on her lap. “See—this is what happens when you come back every month!”

Leon smiles and sighs contentedly. He’d immigrated from Ghana in the 70’s, planning on moving to New York via Chicago. “I never made it to New York,” he tells me in a rich West African accent. “The voices wouldn’t let me.” The voices have also kept Leon homeless for over a quarter century.

Homelessness can take quite a toll on a person’s feet, I learned, especially in a climate as inhospitable as Chicago’s. “Thanks to our cold, wet winters and hot, humid summers,” I overheard one volunteer explain to another, “moisture is trapped in the same shoes and socks for weeks. It’s incredible what that constant dampness can do to skin.” I remembered something I’d learned about trench foot in history class, but my thoughts were interrupted by an announcement: “Let’s set up six stations, and then meet in the lobby to talk about why we do all this before we begin.”

The announcement came from Sher Sheets, the aforementioned hoodied woman who will later wash and lotion Leon’s tired feet. She’s been hosting this monthly foot clinic for two and a half years now, borrowing the space from an old church down the street from her house. As we set up the foot-care stations—a stool, some towels, assorted lotions and soaps, and a soaking bucket—Sher describes the process for us newbies.

“We’ll greet our guests at the door, give them a name tag, muffins, and some coffee, and then invite them to sit and let their feet soak. After about fifteen minutes, wash your guests’ feet; look out for build-ups, injuries, or other things that might need special attention. Offer to trim their toenails—please be gentle!—and then dry their feet and add lotion. And that’s about it I think! Let’s head out to the lobby”

Pictured: Julie, not Sher. Well, except the feet; those are Sher’s.
(Click the photo to read the Sher’s story of getting her feet washed)

As we sit around a table and begin munching on homemade muffins, Sher fills us in on the history of the neighborhood (“Uptown used to be where all the movie stars lived in the 20’s, before Hollywood—now it’s home to dozens of shelters, psychiatric facilities, under-funded nursing homes”), the church (once home to over 4,000 worshipers every Sunday, membership has dwindled to a few dozen), and the foot clinic (“A lady from Atlanta started something like this down there, and when she heard what I was doing in Uptown, she convinced me to start one here too”). The content of this mini-history lesson is interesting, but secondary to the tone in Sher’s voice; even through her why-do-we-do-this-so-early-on-a-Saturday grogginess, it’s obvious that she absolutely adores her neighborhood.

But I knew that already. It’s why she moved here back in 2010. It’s why she hosts dozens of parties for her neighbors each year. It’s why she started JUSTembrace, a little grassroots organization focused on “equipping people to live inclusively, generosly, and hospitably.” And it’s why she seems to know every single person that walks through the door to have their feet washed.

Sher and a neighbor at the JUSTembrace Easter party.

What I didn’t know was how this specific act connected to Sher’s Christian identity. I thought I knew; when she asked our group, “When you think of washing feet, do any stories of Jesus come to mind?”, I was proud to have guessed both of the passages she had in mind—Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and the “sinful woman” washing Jesus’ feet.  So when she asked “Why did Jesus wash his disciples’ feet?”, my instinct was to answer like this:

Jesus washed their feet—something usually done by a servant—to illustrate the humility and self-sacrifice central to the gospel. Likewise, we’re gathered here to embody that same humility, participating in the mission of God by washing the feet of those often seen as less valuable than ourselves. It’s a holy, sacramental moment. When we wash the feet of the poor, we’ll discover—like the harlot at the Pharisee’s house—that we’re washing the feet of our Savior. In the words of St. Francis, “When you kiss the lips of a leper, they become the lips of Christ.”

Fortunately, Sher answered her own question before I got the chance to make a jerk of myself. “Jesus washed his disciples’ feet,” she said flatly, “because they were dirty. Somebody had to do it. Jesus wasn’t doing something super spiritual; he was doing what needed to be done.”

“Don’t think of what we’re doing as some sexy, spiritual moment. It’s an intimate, vulnerable act—feet are funny like that—but it’s not so special. It’s just a small part of a bigger thing we’re a part of every day: treating our neighbors like family.”

That, I think, is the most hospitable thing about Sher. Despite the sacrifices she makes every day for her neighbors and the counter-cultural life decisions she’s made, she doesn’t see this kind of stuff as terribly unique or exclusively for people like her. As she states on the home page of JUSTembrace’s website, “Be encouraged by the stories we tell – but don’t for a second think you can’t do what we do – you CAN! In fact, you were MADE to!  And we want to help!”

True, deep hospitability not only welcomes everyone just as they are, but invites everyone to welcome, just as they are. I’m sincerely convinced that Sher doesn’t think she’s doing anything special, anything that the rest of us couldn’t do just as well. And I’m starting to believe her. You could do this. Maybe even I could.

For information about JUSTembrace, including Sher’s blog, click here. Read her stories; get to know her and her neighbors a little better. If you’re local, come visit or volunteer some time. If you’re not local, donate some money to help out—they never seem to ask for it, but they really need the support. But most importantly, find ways to practice inclusion, generosity, and hospitality in your neighborhood. It’s really nothing special, but it is the kind of thing that Jesus does.


The Welcome Generation

Fill in the following blanks however you see fit:

____________ people are lazy.

____________ people are self-centered.

____________ people are shallow.

____________ people are unemployed moochers.

____________ people live with their parents way after they become adults.

How did you fill in those blanks? Did you answer Black, White, Asian, or Hispanic for any? What about Rich, Poor, Old, Middle-Aged, Fat, Skinny, Disabled, Male, Female, Gay, Straight, Republican, Democrat, Country, City, Suburban, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Agnostic, Single, Married, or Foreign?

No? Of course not. Because, clearly, that would be bigotry.

Making harsh or derogatory comments about a person or group of people—simply because of the time, place, family, or culture they were born into—is wrong. It’s harmful. It’s inhospitable. And it’s ignorant.

I thought we knew this by now.

And yet, this article still made the cover of this week’s Time magazine.

To be fair, this article is not entirely negative in its portrayal of millennials; Stein eventually has some nicer things to say about 15-35 year olds in the final pages. He also cites stats and studies to back up his criticisms—this isn’t just one guy ranting about “kids these days” with no research to back up his observations.

But data and compliments don’t undo the damage done by bigoted language. If I said, “But polls show that old people really are more racist!” or “Asians may be bad drivers, but they’re great at math!”, I’d still deserve a slap in the face.

So why would someone think it’s ok to label an entire people group as lazy narcissists entirely based on their date of birth?  At the risk of sounding defensive, that sure seems like hate speech disguised as sociology/journalism.

I don’t want to single out Stein’s article though. The fact that this article could be published by a magazine as prominent as Time points to the wider reality that denigrating the young is still somewhat acceptable.  Time’s cover story is only the latest in a long line of similar articles.

This bothers me. And not just because they’re talkin’ ‘bout my generation (although, I do feel the need to ask: does any generation really have the monopoly on narcissism?).

The real reason I’m concerned enough to write a response is because so much of my job and calling centers on developing intergenerational friendships between millennials and older adults. A generation isolated from all others is likely to lose its way, to forget why we’re here in the first place. In short, my generation needs older people to welcome us into adulthood.

But when our parents and grandparents are taught to despise, pity, or fear us, they’re less likely to welcome us as individuals created in the image of God. That’s what ageism (and racism, sexism, and all those other isms) does—it covers up the image of God with hurtful stereotypes, replacing people with caricatures.

This is why I’ll be using my blog over the next few weeks to highlight stories of millennials who embody God’s hospitality. I hope that, by offering redemptive examples of young people exchanging selfishness for the welcome of God, I might add some more robust images of my generation. We’re broken, for sure—but we’re being transformed, just like everyone else.

I have a short list of people I’d like to feature in this upcoming series, but I need more suggestions. Do you know anyone under 35 who’s especially gifted at welcoming others in Jesus’ name?  Mention them in the comments, and I’ll make sure to highlight them a future post!

Image

Mark Love: “Homogeneous congregations should be suspicious that they haven’t learned to welcome others in the way of Christ.”

One of my friends/mentors, Mark Love, has begun highlighting what he calls “signs that your congregation is growing in their participation in the life and mission of God.”

So far, it’s all brilliant.

In his first post, Dr. Love (yes, really) claims that a healthy, missional church will be typified by hospitality and diversity. Every word is worth reading, but in case you’re not going to take the time to read it all here, here’s a little snippet to get you thinking:

“Does your congregation do a good job of welcoming and involving a diverse range of individuals? You are participating in the new creation of God if you are living into Paul’s exhortation, ‘welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you for the glory of God.’ The key here is ‘as Christ has welcomed you.’ The welcome of Christ creates a community where there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.

Homogeneous congregations should be suspicious that they haven’t learned to welcome others in the way of Christ.

What do you think? Have you been a part of Christian community whose embodiment of God’s hospitality resulted in a multi-ethnic, mixed-income, and/or inter-generational family? If so, what did they do to cultivate that sort of welcome?

I’m guessing it took more than smiley people shaking hands at the door…

What I Got Wrong in my post about Women in the Church

Last week, I posted “Nerf Wars and Women in the Church,” in which I claimed that the church who fails to welcome women’s voices is like a person pretending half their body doesn’t exist, a self-sabotaging body that “can limp, at best, but will never run.”

Far more people read that post than I expected, and a number of women with whom it resonated reposted it (thanks Vicky and Sarah!). However, a few of my male friends disagreed with my perspective, causing me to rethink some of the things I said, and ultimately decide that I was  wrong.

I know I can’t take back what I said in that post, and there’s a lot that I wouldn’t want to take back. I still think that a church that cannot hear women cannot move effectively in God’s mission. I still think that acting like half the body of Christ doesn’t exist is shameful and absurd.  I still think that this is all vitally important and that if we ignore women, we ignore many of our clearest examples of the hospitality that created and recreated the world.

But, I do think one central element of my argument was clearly wrong: the Church is not actually like a guy pretending to have lost his limbs in a Nerf war. This metaphor suggests a level of intention and willful oppression that simply is not reflected in the average Christian male. Very few men purposely stifle the voices of their mothers, sisters, and daughters; although there are clear exceptions, most churches aren’t trying to drown out half of their membership.

When I was 16 and got up in front of my youth group and preached a sermon about why girlfriends should submit to their boyfriends, I wasn’t intentionally pushing teenage girls into unhealthy relationships with immature boys; I was simply trying to accurately apply my understanding of the Bible to my cultural context.

When I was in Jr. High and repeatedly told the skinny girl sitting next to me at lunch how fat she was looking, I didn’t mean to destroy her body image; I was just bad at flirting and hoped she’d give me her dessert.

When I was in college and said/watched things that objectified women, I wasn’t trying to empower the culture that sustains a thriving sex-trafficking industry; I was just “being a guy.”

Despite all the ways I’ve abused, oppressed, and ignored women throughout my life, I’ve never done it on purpose. And I sincerely believe–perhaps naively–that very few churches have either.

So the Nerf war metaphor doesn’t really fit. The Church isn’t purposely pretending half of its body doesn’t exist; it’s just… happening. The body of Christ isn’t playing pretend; it’s suffering from a severe neurological disease.

In particular, I think the church has developed hemiplegia, a rare condition that cuts off the signals leading to and from one half of a person’s body. Simply put, hemiplegics cannot move half of their body (think right or left, not top or bottom) because–neurologically speaking–the rest of their body just doesn’t recognize that the paralysed half exists. Individuals with this disease face extreme challenges when it comes to a variety of otherwise simple functions. But lack of mobility isn’t the only issue hemiplegics have to deal with; they are also uniquely vulnerable to certain dangers. When you cannot feel half of your body, your whole body is susceptible to harm.

And this is why I’m convinced that the body of Christ is suffering from this specific condition, because it’s increasingly obvious that many churches–Christian men in particular–really struggle to feel the pain many women experience. We’re just numb to it. That’s the only explanation I can muster for why well-intentioned, Jesus-loving communities can be so ambivalent to the plight of women in the world and in their pews.

That’s the other thing my previous post got wrong. By emphasizing the limited mobility of a church with no female voices, I’m afraid I neglected an even more urgent problem: a church that cannot feel the pain of its women will be powerless to stop that pain. And when half of a body suffers, the whole body suffers.

And the body of Christ is clearly suffering; we’re sick and in desperate need of healing.

Although I’m still hesitant to make any claims as to how this this healing happens, how our communities can regain both feeling and mobility in our entire body, it seems to me that God’s healing is always clothed in hospitality. When we extend God’s welcome to women–by asking to hear their stories, by eagerly seeking their advice, by refusing to lightly dismiss their pain, and by valuing their gifts and expertise–we’ll find ourselves recovering sensations long-forgotten and movement for which we’d given up hope.

John the Baptist is Dead

I’m not the kind of blogger who writes about my personal life and feelings–it’s too messy, too vulnerable, too fickle to publish as a static blog post. That’s why I like retelling stories from the Bible; they’ve been the same for a long time. 

So here’s a story from Matthew 14, the result of reading this passage with some friends yesterday. If some days it overlaps and intersects with my own story, or yours, that’s fine with me. After all, we’re all welcome in God’s Story; it’s our story too. 

John the Baptist is dead. And I want to cry.

But I can’t. Because I’m with Jesus, which means there are people everywhere around me. And I’m a man, which means I don’t cry in public.

But this news hurts. Tangibly, literally hurts. John offered me my first glimpse of the kingdom of heaven; before I was Jesus’ disciple, I was John’s. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be standing here next to Jesus, listening as rattles off parables to the uncomprehending crowd.

Jesus looks pretty messed up right now too, which makes sense; John is his cousin, his partner, his best friend. They were a team since they were born–even before they were born. And now John’s dead, his body buried without a head.

I can tell Jesus wants to cry too, but like me, he can’t. Not yet.

He asks me to get my boat ready, which I’m eager to do; I’m desperate to get away from this crowd. Soon, the twelve of us and Jesus are on the lake, headed for nowhere. We all just want a place to be alone, to grieve, to pray.

John the Baptist is dead. And I want to cry.

But I can’t. Because the crowd is still following us–on foot–along the shore. And it’s obvious they can tell where we’re going. And they’re growing, picking up friends and relatives along the way.

I’ve never felt such disdain for a group of people in my life.

By the time we reach the shore of this supposedly solitary beach, there’s a mob of thousands waiting for us.

No, not for us. For Jesus, in our boat.

I look at Jesus and he looks heavy, like the weight of the crowd just dropped on top of the weight his dead cousin’s body draped across his shoulders. He’s too compassionate for his own good.

I want to tell him that, but it’s obviously no use. He’s already out of the boat, surrounded by people looking for a miracle. So we hop out and do our thing. Line them up, bring the sick to Jesus, and watch them be made well. It’s remarkable. World-changing. And I don’t care.

John the Baptist is dead. And I want to cry.

But I can’t. Because it’s my job to bring people to Jesus, and there are still so many people left. Ordinary miracles fill the afternoon with a numb sort of irony.

My mind wanders back to John. I wonder if his execution is just a preview of mine. I mean, if he’s been preparing the way for Jesus, we’re all likely to share the same fate. I help a cripple hobble over to Jesus and wonder what I’ve gotten myself into.

Eventually, the sun begins to set and relief finally seems imminent. I approach Jesus, “It’s getting late, and we’re in the middle of nowhere. Send the crowd away, so they can go back home and eat.”

Jesus must want this as much as I do–a valid reason to finally get some space. But he doesn’t go for it. “They don’t have to leave,” he says, turning to me, “You feed them.”

I’ve never thought to yell at Jesus before, until now. I want to scream, to laugh in his face. You want me to feed them?! With what? I have almost nothing left to offer. We don’t even have enough to feed ourselves! I try to bite my tongue, but my response is still drenched with frustration, “We only have five loaves and two fish.”

“Bring them here,” Jesus replies.

So I give Jesus our dinner, he sits everyone down, says a little prayer, and starts breaking off pieces of food for us to hand out to the crowd. And, because he’s Jesus, the bread and fish keep coming. Every time I go back, there’s more.

My mind should be boggled. I should be in awe. But I hardly even notice; because the same thought is still reverberating in my brain.

John the Baptist is dead. And I still just want to cry.

But I can’t. Because I have to pass out Jesus’ miracle bread, and it won’t stop coming.

Nerf Wars and Women in the Church

When I was 21 and a senior in college, my friends and I got together regularly to shoot each other with Nerf guns.

There’s no way to phrase that opening sentence that makes us sound respectable. We were grown men–with beards and everything–running around campus with toy guns. Our plastic pistols were modified to shoot through cardboard boxes, but everything else about our Nerf Wars was just the same as when we were seven years old.

The few rules were both specific and intuitive: shots to the head and torso were fatal, but shots to the arm or leg just disabled that particular appendage. So, if I got shot in the leg, I’d have to hop around on one leg as I ducked for cover. These rules–which, assuming you ever played guns as a kid, I shouldn’t even need to explain–often led to some pretty ridiculous moments.

One night, a particularly chaotic firefight resulted in my “losing” both my left leg and my left arm. Diving around the corner to avoid the flurry of foam darts, I found myself unable to stand up on my one remaining leg without dropping my gun. Further complicating the situation, my Nerf pistol required two hands to load. Refusing to give up the fight, I put part of the gun in my mouth and tried to load it with my surviving hand.

At that exact moment, a campus security guard entered the building to find me–an adult with 105 completed credit hours of college education–writhing around on the floor of an empty hallway with a toy gun in my mouth and my left limbs flopping limply at my side.

Suddenly, a reality that made perfect sense in one world became embarrassingly nonsensical in the presence of someone from another world (aka the real world). In the fantasy of our isolated Nerf War moment, it was perfectly acceptable to pretend that half of my body–which was clearly still connected and fully functional–didn’t exist. In fact, it was a requirement.

But the entrance of a stranger from outside our private little reality necessitated a change of rules. It would have been both shameful and absurd to go on ignoring the existence of my left side in the context of the real world.

Sometimes, I wonder if this is exactly how the “rest of the world” sees the Church, particularly regarding our posture towards women.

Women make up at least half of the body of Christ, and yet it’s not uncommon to attend a Christian gathering and never once hear a woman’s voice. We have our reasons, specific intuitive rules we’ve been playing by since we were kids. But I can’t help wondering if, to an outside observer, we look like a body writhing around on the ground with clearly functional limbs flopping limply at our side.

Now I know I’m talking about some rules which are based on passages in the Bible, passages that should be/have been carefully discussed in detail in other contexts. And I realize the Church shouldn’t adjust our practices simply to avoid embarrassment; in fact, identifying with the story of Jesus inevitably leads to behaviors that seem crazy to others.

But that same story is one in which women are repeatedly met with hospitality beyond–and often in defiance of–the social norms of their day. When women meet Jesus in the Gospels, they are welcomed in a way that gives them back their voice. They’re invited to sit at Jesus’ feet as disciples.  They’re sent back to their towns as evangelists. They’re embraced as prophets, pray-ers, and apostles. (All of this in the midst of a wider culture that understood women to be more akin to property than to people!)

It’s as if God’s entrance into our little word necessitated a change of rules. The fantasy of our isolated system, the rules that were once both acceptable and required, suddenly became embarrassingly nonsensical in the presence of someone from another world.

To be blunt–and a bit repetitive– it would be both shameful and absurd to go on ignoring half of the body of Christ in the context of God’s new world.

Silencing the messages of one half of the body is disastrous for the whole body. How can the left leg function properly if it remains unrecognized by the rest of the body? And how can the right leg do its thing if it’s never heard from the left? A church in which a woman’s voice is not welcomed is a church with incredibly limited mobility in the kingdom of God. It can limp, at best, but it will never run.

I wish I could say exactly how a church body should go about rediscovering its other half, but it seems to be a process that varies from one community to the next. In most contexts, it will not happen overnight. I’d like to think that at the moment Jesus walks in and finds us wriggling around on the floor, we’d stop acting like kids and stand up on both of our feet. But some rules are hard to shake off, especially if you’ve been playing the same game your whole life.

I do believe, however, that this process is central to the gospel of Jesus, because hospitality is central to the gospel of Jesus. A community that is inhospitable to women will find itself severely limited in its participation in God’s mission, largely because it has silenced many of its strongest examples of hospitality.

I’m eager to hear how this process is playing itself out in your community. If you’re a part of a church, in what ways has it been rediscovering its other half? How has the absence of women’s perspectives limited your church’s participation in God’s mission?

For my follow up to this post, see “What I Got Wrong in my post on Women in the Church.”