Would You Let Your Children #EatTheSkittles?

bowlIf you haven’t seen the #EatTheSkittles post that went viral on Facebook, never fear…The Dallas Morning News even published (a cleaned up version) of the story on their Opinions page. The post was a pointed response to Jr. Trump’s tasteless metaphor comparing Syrian refugees to a bowl of Skittles. If 3 of those Skittles were poisoned, the meme asks, would you eat one? Eli Bosnik’s reply was, basically, yes.

There are plenty reasons to reject the metaphor, (even from our own history) but the primary reason he gave to #EatTheSkittles is that the Skittles in this (tragic, xenophobic, statistically inaccurate, reality-free) metaphor represent people who have suffered greatly…and “eating” them represents caring for and potentially saving their lives.

A couple days ago I came across the following comments in response to the post:

“But would you give the Skittles to your children?”

“…But children are not ready for battle yet and should be protected.”

The argument is a simplistic …[cough]… trump card, typically used to shut down the conversation – similar in mindset to the original meme. It suggests that we’re being selfish and reckless if we chance saving men, women, and children because in doing so we would threaten the lives of our own children.

I’ve thought about those statements a lot, and though they weren’t directed at me, I’m going to respond anyway.

“Would you let your children #EatThe Skittles?”


Even in the context of the metaphor and #EatTheSkittles response, I hope (and believe) that my boys would choose to #EatTheSkittles. Because here’s the thing, even if there are poisoned Skittles “out there” (an assumption that is so riddled with logical fallacies and false information that it is almost as ridiculous as the idea to compare people to Skittles in the first place), THAT poison is considerably less dangerous and toxic than NOT eating the Skittles.

To rephrase without the metaphor: The risk posed to our children by extending compassion to people in the midst of incredible crisis does not come close to the risks posed to our children by turning those people away.

Though it is wholly misguided, I certainly understand that people are afraid. Even more so, I can appreciate the deep desire to protect my children (even if I bristle at the disingenuous way that “our children” can be used as a scapegoat for inaction.) But these concerns, along with all the reasons shared in Bosnick’s post, are precisely why we cannot stand idly by.

These “Skittles” are not poisoned candy. They are people. And the impact (for the refugee, for you and I, and most certainly for the kids that are watching us) of standing off to the side in fear while people suffer and die is a much more immediate, widespread, and appreciable threat to our health.

As for the other comment, “Children are not ready for battle yet and should be protected,” …well, they better get ready, because unfortunately they entered this battle the moment they were born.

At the same time that this meme was circulating, the Governor of Texas stated his intention to withdraw our state from participation in the Refugee Resettlement Program and important Early Childhood Intervention services were once again about to be denied to those of “our children” who need them the most. I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony that apparently we can’t help others because it will endanger our children …but WE can endanger our children because helping them is too expensive.

Meanwhile, protests and clashes with law enforcement were mounting in Charlotte, NC after the deaths of Terrance Crutcher in Tulsa, and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte (names that have now been added to the list alongside Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and so many others.)

…But my children were still coming home from school with tales about students and at least one teacher complaining about Colin Kaepernick’s disrespect and lack of patriotism.

I am the middle-class white father of three middle-class white boys, in an absurdly wealthy nation. I’ve never been forced to seek asylum in a foreign country because of the terrors in my own. I’ve also never had to sit my children down and talk with them about how to safely navigate the experience of being profiled and harassed, or how to avoid being shot in the street because of their skin color.

And I won’t lie: I’m grateful for that… just as I am ashamed and saddened that the story is so very different in many households across this country.

But that doesn’t mean my boys and I don’t face a very real threat as we leave the house. Every time we go through that door, we enter a world that constantly tries to poison us with complacency and apathy; to slowly dissolve our humanity through the nearly odorless and invisible toxins of privilege derived from countless subconscious affirmations of inherent superiority…and when it isn’t about being “better than,” it’s about assuming that our experience is “normal.”

If I have something to truly fear, it is how quickly our souls can atrophy when lulled into a false sense of normalcy. …How easily we can become tacit supporters of oppression by distancing ourselves from the experiences of others.

Even if I tried to shelter my boys from the world, the world never agreed to that ceasefire. We don’t get to avoid these issues, we only get to choose whether we confront them or become conformed to them. My boys and I live with a subliminal narration, in addition to overt vocal ones that say, “Look around you. Things are fine here. The people who keep complaining must either be trying to take advantage of you, or they’re the ones causing their own problems. Its disrespectful. You don’t deserve this. You’re the victim here.”

The more I succumb to the fear-based obsession with my own safety and security, the more I guarantee my own destruction and that of my children. You’re damn right I want to protect my boys. I will fight for them with everything I have, and I will sacrifice everything, up to and including my own life, if that’s what it takes. But a large part of that actual day-to-day fight involves helping them recognize and reject the forces that tempt them into apathy, complacency, and the false senses of security and normalcy.

Because those forces would destroy my children long before they ever reached some magical age of “being ready to battle.” (…we do live in the same town that introduced the world to “affluenza” and Ethan Couch, after all.)

That is precisely why we begin every day by reminding one another of Four Things:

Today, I will pay attention.

Today, I will be Jesus.

Today, I will see Jesus.

Today, I will mess up.


It’s also why we often issue one another specific challenges to put the Four Things into practice, and why we have had so many conversations about how these Four Things played out in reality during the day.

..Because we don’t need platitudes, and we don’t need a mantra.

We need reminders, and we need a call to action.

My boys have never had any reason to question if their lives matter. I will do everything I can to make sure that they recognize that blessing as a calling to care for others; to stand against those who suggest others’ lives do not matter, and stand with those who fear that their lives do not.

Because, yes, All Lives Matter. …But only if that “all” includes black lives. And refugee lives. And poor lives. Otherwise, in our context, “All Lives” is functionally defined as “White, Middle-Class American Lives.”

And that definition represents an actual, toxic, and immediate risk to my children.

Want a common sense meme? Try this: What if I told you that the “poisoned Skittles” scenario isn’t just a terrible and inaccurate metaphor, but is something much worse? What if every time we refuse the Skittles out of fear, we’re actually refusing to take a portion of the antidote to the real poison we’re breathing in the air every day?

Would you take a handful? Would you let your kids?

Welcoming refugees is not only about potentially saving their lives…it is also about saving our own.

Review: The Chronicles of C.S. Lewis

Like so many before me, I was a young adolescent when I first encountered (and became an instant fan of) C.S. Lewis, Narnia, and of course, Turkish Delight (which sounded just as magical and mysterious as a world filled with talking animals.) By the time I graduated high school, I’d read around 15 of Lewis’ books…and I read another 15 or so before finishing college and grad school. Most of those have been reread multiple times over the years, and I’ve picked up a few more here and there.

So of course I was excited about Shawn Small’s The Chronicles of C.S. Lewis…a project born from the decision to read all of Lewis’ works in chronological order. Shawn is a wonderful storyteller (as evidenced in his previous works, The Via Crucis and The Via Advent) and is the perfect person to serve as tour guide and docent on a journey through Lewis’ collected works.

I even thought I would take up Small’s challenge and reread each of the books (or at least skim through for a refresher) as I progressed through The Chronicles of C.S. Lewis.

I figured I had nearly all of the books on my shelf anyway. Then I began reading the introduction to The Chronicles and discovered that Lewis wrote 74 books.

74 books, you say?  Ah…well, in that case it would seem “nearly all” isn’t completely accurate. Apparently, I meant to say, “about half.”

I’ve been stumbling around for decades as a self-proclaimed C.S. Lewis fan…completely oblivious about just how little of his work I’ve actually read. (Granted, many of those were collections of essays, lectures, or poems that were compiled and published after his death…but still.)

On the upside, from my perspective, Lewis recently published a lot of new books.

Though the subject matter and tone are certainly different, those who have read The Via Crucis and The Via Advent will immediately recognize a similar writing style and flow in The Chronicles of C.S. Lewis.

In each of these works, the chapters consist of simple, concise reflections. The minimalist style doesn’t forego story-telling…it just tells that story one panel at a time, with plenty of room built in for the reader to reflect and mentally add their own elements to the scene.

The use of brief vignettes and snippets can be frustrating at times – I regularly found myself wanting to know more and wishing Small had written more. However, in the midst of one such moment, the near staccato feel and abrupt ending to a chapter took on a deeper significance. After having been introduced, in a most unsatisfyingly brief manner, to several collections of essays and poetry, I found myself creating and filling an Amazon wish list with new-to-me works by Lewis.

Small’s storytelling is frustratingly incomplete… and compelling. Therein lies one of this book’s most brilliant contributions. Often the contextual “glimpse behind the curtain” in relation to a favorite text sent me scrambling to the bookshelf, rereading familiar words with new eyes. Meanwhile, as I sampled tiny, tasty morsels of introduction to previously unknown texts, I kept thinking, “How have I never read this?” – and I was motivated to remedy that lack.

The Chronicles of C.S. Lewis provided just enough of a taste that I will remain unsatisfied until I have read each of these works for myself. Yes, I think I would have enjoyed a more detailed discussion, but it might not have driven me back to the source material. As it stands, I suspect that years from now I’ll point to this book as the catalyst for my second great discovery of C.S. Lewis.

Well played Shawn Small, well played.

Just as the reader is compelled to pursue the rest of the story, the style also provides an invitation to wait for it: to process and reflect on both what’s been said, and what remains unsaid.

In The Chronicles, perhaps more so than in either of his previous works, Shawn subtly and effectively invites the reader to become a co-creator in the story-telling process. The book is entertaining and accessible enough to be read in one sitting. The ongoing narrative of Lewis’ development as a thinker/writer offers a consistent thread from beginning to end.

And yet, when paired with your favorite journal and coffee mug, the chapters seem equally suited to be processed one at a time. They are brief enough to serve as a journaling prompt, and substantial / insightful enough to function as a daily devotional.

Or perhaps you will choose (as I plan to do in a subsequent reading) to approach The Chronicles as a travel guide as you read or re-read through Lewis’ books. Each chapter would serve to introduce and provide context, background, and a starting point for reading in dialog.

Regardless of your particular reading preferences, if you are a C.S. Lewis fan …or have ever wondered if you might be, I highly recommend The Chronicles of C.S. Lewis.

Jamberry Fundraiser

Rachel came to the Missional Wisdom Foundation‘s monthly meeting today. She told everybody a little about how the Jamberry Fundraiser idea came about, how the product works, and then…

We’ve already had several orders placed. Have you been to Rachel’s website to check it out for yourself?

Come on folks, she’s giving away her entire commission here! Buy someone a Christmas present and make a donation to something truly significant at the same time!!

Surprisingly, this post is for men too.

**UPDATE: Check out the application demonstration video here

I support my wife – without question or equivocation. Wholeheartedly. Period.

I’m on her side, I trust her, and I believe in her.

That being said… I can’t say I anticipated that support leading to me willingly hosting a Jamberry Nails party.

But, I am, and strangely…it makes perfect sense. If you haven’t heard about Jamberry nails, they’re vinyl wraps for fingernails and toenails…all the fanciness of manicures and pedicures with a few added perks and at a fraction of the cost.

Yeah, I know, it seems weird that Rachel would even want me to do anything with a Jamberry party… I don’t exactly represent the typical demographic or target audience. Except that, in this case, I do.

Here’s the deal. If you’re a guy, listen up, because you’re going to love this. If you’re interested in the work of the Missional Wisdom Foundation, listen up, because you’re going to love this. If you’re looking for a way to support an important cause this holiday season, listen up, because… you’re going to love this.

MEN: Believe it or not, this Jamberry party thing DOES apply to you too. Over the next couple weeks, you can get fantastic gifts and stocking stuffers – including a last minute option (literally) if needed. Jamberry is perfect for your wife, girlfriend, daughters, nieces, mother, …or whoever.** (And Rachel can help you decide what to get…I know you see the benefit there.)

But this is about more than getting gifts – it is also a way to support an important project that I believe is going to bring about significant change in people’s lives. Those who order Jamberry through my party have the opportunity to partner with the Missional Wisdom Foundation in supporting the creation, incubation, and cultivation of The Julian Way. (I’ll say a little more about that in the video below. I’m also going to give more detail in an upcoming post, and you can find out more at TheJulianWay.org – which includes this video introduction by Justin and Lisa Hancock.)

Check out this video for a little more detail on the concept:

So, in summary:

  • Great Christmas gifts from $15 – $50
  • Supports Missional Wisdom Foundation and The Julian Way
  • Jamberry is a great option for many people who would love to have their nails done, but are living with disabilities that make nail polish impractical or nearly impossible to apply.
  • 30% of every sale, Rachel’s entire commission, goes to the project.
  • See all the options at RachelWells.JamberryNails.net – choose “Missional Wisdom Fundraiser” at checkout
  • If you have questions, need help, or don’t know what to buy, you can email Rachel, connect on her Facebook Jamberry page, or leave a comment here on the blog.

I’ll be posting more about this fundraiser and the work Justin and Lisa are doing over the next couple weeks.

In the meantime, you have some shopping to do.

**The management would like to point out that we’re not suggesting only men need to buy gifts for female loved-ones… or for that matter, that only females would want Jamberry. But, let’s be realistic, guys aren’t likely to see the connection to themselves here unless it is made explicit. To be clear, yes, Jamberry products are a good gift idea for anyone of any gender buying for gifts for themselves or anyone of any gender who gets their nails done…or who would if they could!🙂

Tales of 4th Grade Awesomeness

Like many (…most?…all?) parents, I often find myself wondering whether my kids listen to me at all. I’m fully expecting my mother to leave a comment to the effect of, “That’s payback kid; good old-fashioned justice.”

And while I’m relatively certain that there are, in fact, plenty instances of “not-listening,” over the past couple weeks I’ve watched something truly amazing unfold with Conner, my first-born son. We decided to let him participate in LTC (Leadership Training for Christ) this year. For my non-Church of Christ friends who may not know, LTC is a pretty big deal for a lot of CofC kids in 3rd-12th grade. Students can enter a wide-range of individual and group events associated with various aspects of Christian leadership and discipleship. Many of these are related to things that take place in a worship service, Sunday school, or other formal religious gathering – such as chorus, drama, puppets, speech, Bible reading, and song leading. Part of the idea here is to give kids a chance to learn how to participate in such things with confidence and competence.

Conner decided to do Bible Reading and Speech. The kids actually lead The Gathering’s worship liturgy each week, so Bible Reading (as in, reading Scripture aloud during a worship service) wasn’t really a new concept to Conner…but he certainly doesn’t have much experience giving a speech to a room filled with both family and strangers!

Each year LTC focuses on a certain book of the Bible. This year the study was on Exodus, with the theme of “Called Out.” It just so happens that for several months, The Gathering has been reading from Exodus and Matthew – paying special attention to the gospel writer’s literary technique of paralleling the Exodus narrative in how Jesus’ story unfolds. As Conner and I started working together on his reading and speech, we did a quick recap of what we’ve learned from our study. We talked about how the “Called Out” theme fit really well with so much of what we say and do together – as a family and as a faith community. I mentioned that this theme was one that is present from beginning to end in the Bible – and that much of it had direct connections to the story of deliverance (and calling) in Exodus. He asked for examples and I mentioned a pair of my own favorites – Isaiah 61 and Luke 4. After we looked at them he was done thinking – he said, “Yes, I’m using these.” So, that evening I told him more about the context, setting, and implication of those two passages.4pages

Conner selected part of Isaiah 61 for his Bible Reading, and then started working on speech ideas from Luke 4. We did this together, and I focused most of my energy on teaching him how to go about thinking through, outlining, and writing a speech. Actually, I taught him a couple simple and effective sermon prep techniques – I rarely preach formal “sermons” these days (its mostly dialog in our community) and when I do, I use a very different style, but this is a solid starting point. (For my preacher friends: my 4th grade son would make Tom Long proud with his use of focus and function statements, and he now has a pretty good grasp of Paul Scott Wilson’s “4 Pages” tool.)

When it came time to start writing, I helped a little, but I really wanted him to be able to call this speech his own. We assigned time frames to each of his 4 sections and he wrote each in turn…and that was when I started getting chills.

As he switched back and forth from hand-writing and dictating to me while I typed, there were statements, sentences, and even whole paragraphs that sounded just like what I would have said…like things I often DO say…like the things I say when I’m wondering if he’s hearing any of it.

I am very committed to encouraging each of my boys to develop their own voice; to think for themselves and even to question my beliefs…but I’m not going to pretend that, as a father, I didn’t have to fight back tears when my son chose these words at this moment…and I won’t pretend that I’m not blinking through them even now as I type this post.

So…that’s enough of my rambling. Here is my son, 10 year-old Conner Wells, (with a couple moments of background audio support from the other intrepid Wellsbrothers, Micah and Josiah.)

…yes, that was awesomeness.

The Choices We Make

I saw something great today… though it definitely didn’t start out so well. A teenager, not realizing that the T intersection in front of our house was still icy, tried to make the turn too quickly, lost control, and smashed his truck into the water runoff drain. He wasn’t going that fast…just too fast to turn on ice.

The boys and I were outside playing in the snow with my neighbor, Chris, and his two kids. I don’t know about the other kids, but this was the first time my boys have actually seen a wreck as it was happening.

As auto accidents go, this wasn’t a bad one (thankfully). My 10 year old, however, was nearly in tears – “Dad, that was a car wreck, aren’t you going to call 911?”

He was fine once I explained that no one was hurt, but the 5 year-old was unconvinced. There was no “nearly,” for this one. With full-on tears, he said, “But that truck is hurt. Don’t we have to call 911 for the truck?” He was very upset about the truck…

Though the front wheel was down the sloped entrance to the drainage, I initially hoped we could pull him out with my own vehicle. But he was right in the middle of the ice – I didn’t have any ropes or chains long enough to reach the dry pavement. As Chris and I were trying to figure out how we were going to get the truck out of the street, a Ford F-250 passed us and then stopped on the dry section of the street. Without any hesitation, a young man (maybe mid-twenties) got out, pulled two, long towropes from his toolbox, and asked where the truck needed to go.

The front-end of the kid’s truck was totally jacked – he couldn’t even turn the wheels. Thankfully, the ice helped us “steer,” but it still took all of us working together to get it moved somewhere safe. (Which we were eventually able to do…it’s parked out there right now.)

After the initial fear of having seen “a truck get hurt” wore off, the kids had all gone back to laughing and throwing “snowballs” at each other. (Translation: nearly murdering each other with chunks of ice and sleet…) Meanwhile, in the backseat of the Ford, the young man’s two daughters had opened the back window and were pelting their dad with snowballs of their own, gleaned from the top of his toolbox. All of this definitely helped lighten the mood as I talked to the teenager about getting his truck fixed – or the more likely scenario that the repair estimates would be more than the truck is worth.

Before our Good Samaritan drove away he gave the kid his phone number and said that his company has a wrecker they’d be happy to bring by and get his truck to a repair shop – just call when he’s ready. It turns out that this guy’s parents live just down the street from us. His company works on oil rigs – and apparently they’re limited in what they can do until the ice melts. So for the past couple days, he and several of his coworkers have been driving around town doing exactly what he stopped and did today.

As I sat down at my computer later in the evening I saw a video posted on Facebook where University of Oregon students stopped a car driving through campus, pelted it with snowballs, and then stood in front of it while others covered the entire car with tubs of snow. Several of the comments were lamenting (or venting) about “young people these days.”

Yeah, the kids in the video were acting like jerks…and I’d bet that the driver of the car was pretty angry. I know I would be. But I hope that he (and the rest of us by extension) won’t let that event define our view of “young people.”

Today, in front of my house, we had many of the same ingredients present in the Oregon video:

  • Young people spending their day out in the snow
  • A motorist whose drive in inclement weather took a sudden turn for the worse
  • …We even had snowballs (well, sorta…work with me, this is Texas).

However, in our case it was the weather, not the young people or snowballs that caused the motorist’s distress. If anything, the snowballs thrown by the youngest people were a distraction from the distress. And this other “young person,” close to the same age as those in the video, chose to spend his day in the snow helping people he encountered along the way.

The choices we make impact those around us. And all of us, regardless of age, socio-economics, education, location, etc., etc., are going to make some bad choices as well as some good ones. Sometimes we (including “young people these days”) will even make great choices.

So don’t believe the hype – just because videos of the bad choices are more likely to go viral, or get reported on the news, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t amazing things happening right now in the street outside your house.

And to further illustrate my point: I didn’t get a video of this young man’s choice… but my wife did happen to have her video going in time to record this not so good choice of mine.

… wait for it…

Boom goes the dynamite.


A More Nuanced Approach to Ministry with the Poor.

So by now, you’ve probably seen the 20 Things list that was posted on daveramsey.com. Many, including myself, first learned of this post by reading Rachel Held Evan’s article “What Dave Ramsey Gets Wrong About Poverty.” You’ve probably seen – and perhaps even participated on one side or the other – in the ensuing backlash and defense battle in social media land.

If you’ve seen those, then I’m sure you’re aware that a number of counter-lists have already popped up. Such as this one by Andrew Jones, and this one by Ben Irwin (and then this follow-up post).

And then there was the ironic “commentary” that Dave Ramsey added as a postscript to the original post. I almost decided to dedicate an entire post of my own to responding to the response to the responses to the post…but then I said that out loud and decided to just mention a couple things and move on.

In his postscript, Ramsey’s criticism of how others communicate strikes me as an ironic self-indictment. Communication is not confined to transmission – it hasn’t actually occurred until it has been received. (Thus the old question, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around…”) We cannot ultimately control what others will do with our words. However, a seasoned communicator such as Ramsey should know there is no such thing as a “simple list,” and that by saying nothing initially, he said a lot.

His entire ministry is built on teaching people about practices that lead to debt and poverty, and practices that lead to wealth. If he didn’t want people to read an implied causative relationship in this comparison of “what the rich do every day that the poor don’t,” he should have stated that explicitly.

Sadly this list could be somewhat helpful – if properly contextualized, nuanced, and unpacked. But it wasn’t. This was sloppy communication, plain and simple. And it just went downhill from there.

Defining the good and bad habits of “rich people” is a contextual process. The same need for contextual awareness applies to the habits of “poor people.” Those contexts are not the same, so comparing their habits is as useless as comparing…well, any two sets of unrelated things.

The truth is that yes, making better choices is important. And even the painfully awkward, “I’m no Max Lucado,” paragraph has a valid concept underneath – our attitude does directly impact our situation, how we deal with it, and whether or not we will let it define us.

Unfortunately, those messages – assuming they were intended – are very difficult to hear over the noise of poor communication and suspicious indications that Ramsey’s awareness of the landscape stops with the middle class. This list of habits, as a means of assigning a general “cause and effect” relationship between poverty/wealth and the specific activities is remarkably flawed. But the way in which this self-described “mature teacher” responded is worse – and, at least from my limited perspective, caused noticeably more damage.

Apparently some people have accused this post, and Ramsey’s ministry, of “hating the poor.” I haven’t seen those comments, but encountering overstated responses online isn’t a unique phenomenon. That isn’t to defend inappropriate statements – I do not.

On the other hand, misrepresenting millions of people’s situation in a way that makes them look inferior to “the rich” in matters of basic self-care is deeply insulting – in addition to being totally misleading. That some people would see this as more hateful than loving is one more aspect that should not have come as a surprise. Calling them immature for doing so is a failure to accept responsibility for poor communication (at best).

However, in the midst of various Facebook discussions, I’ve seen a several versions of the same question come up repeatedly. The paraphrased version is, “If the 20 Things post represents an overly narrow and simplistic understanding of poverty, what would a more nuanced approach look like?”

That’s a great question, because it recognizes the insufficiency of defining your position by what you reject.

Even beyond the present issue, I have a number of problems with Ramsey’s material – most of it having to do with how it is presented. And yet, I do believe that people struggling with debt, uncontrolled spending, and other financial difficulties associated particularly with the middle class context in America would do well to attend a Financial Peace University class and implement the practical tools it offers. I use the “debt snowball” principle on a regular basis in my work as a coach and teacher/trainer – there are a lot of solid principles in this material.

So an important step toward a nuanced approach would be to acknowledge how critiquing one aspect (or several) of something doesn’t require wholesale rejection of the entire project. We don’t have to develop an all or nothing approach. Likewise, supporting one or more aspects should not lead to blind support of the project either.

It seems that things change somewhat if we understand Ramsey’s use of the word “poor” as relating most directly to “the struggling middle class.” That context is still way too broad, but many people in that socio-economic bracket are educated, have / have had / have access to dependable and financially viable jobs, and also have the relational networks (other friends and family in relatively stable financial situations) to benefit most directly from Ramsey’s strategies. And for that group of people, I am glad there are practical programs like this available.

Next, I would say, if you want a nuanced approach to working with the poor, you need to actually know and be in relationship with people living in poverty. Talk to them…but, more than that, listen to them. Start in your own community – be aware of the places of marginalization in your own back yard.

As you become aware of these places, find a way to simply be present in that space. Whether it’s a park, a library, a coffee shop, a laundromat/washateria (depending on what part of the country you’re from), the deli counter and lunch area at the grocery store, or walking down the street – just pay attention. When you have the opportunity to engage in conversation, do so with genuine curiosity and listen to what people have to say.

That’s where the nuanced approach begins…by replacing our mental concept of the faceless “poor,” with the names, faces, and stories of actual people living in poverty.

You could also try talking with people who already live, serve, and work with and alongside the poor.

Some potential resources:

Christian Community Development Association – a well-established national organization with a phenomenal track record.

– For folks in my state, there is Texas Christian Community Development Network, the hub of which is in Waco – where you can also find Mission Waco. TxCCDN operates an annual conference – No Need Among You – that can help provide both broader awareness of issues and practical ways to get involved.

– The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is home to an amazing resource in CitySquare.

– I’d be happy to connect you with residents in our (Missional Wisdom Foundation) Epworth houses. These folks are engaged with the issues present in the lives of people in their actual neighborhood – homelessness, adapting to American culture as a refugee from a war-torn country, under-resourced minority communities in a city that has been charged with influencing racial segregation and actively blocking opportunities for the poor to make those “better choices” we’ve been hearing about.

Maybe you’re not ready to get into a long conversation. I get it. This 6 minute video can shed a lot of light on the nature of poverty…and why it isn’t really about money.

Wayne Gordon & John Perkins of the CCDA, along with a list of participant contributors, have written a fantastic – and brief – book about community development, working among the poor, and the various cultural issues that come into play. Making Neighborhoods Whole is an accessible but content rich primer.

One of my favorite lines from this book is, “We are finally beginning to realize that programs do not fix communities. Only neighbors can do that” (50).

For a description of how a lack of nuanced awareness can cause harm – and a recommendation for focusing on the assets, rather than shortcomings, of the poor -pick up a copy of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself. By Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

And then for a completely different take on the “propensity to build wealth” in the way of Jesus, I strongly recommend God’s Economy: Redefining the Health and Wealth Gospel, by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.

Finally, for a description of why things are not as simple as Corley’s list and Ramsey’s response seem to insinuate, check out No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future, by Joerg Rieger.

So, spend time among the poor… and listen to their stories. Talk with people who already work alongside the poor…and listen to their stories. Pick up some resources on the theology, theory, and practice of both ministry with the poor and the broader issue of community development…and listen to the stories from these various perspectives.

And as you listen, notice the points of connection with your own passions, gifts, and callings. Once you’ve made that connection; once you gotten to know the names, faces, and stories of people in your own community, I suspect you’ll discover that their dreams for a preferred future, and the most pressing obstacles to those dreams, are no longer foreign to you.

Of course, all of this merely points us in the direction of HOW to develop a nuanced approach – but I think you could do worse than using “listen to people” as your approach.

Missional Monks Videocast, Episode 2

How Methodists Could Become More Missional

circuitriderA few days ago, Steve Knight, curator of the Missional Shift blog, reposted part of my blog entry, The Great Missional Misunderstanding under the headline, Maybe Methodists Are Not So Missional After All.

We’re not. But we do have the capacity, the heritage, and the personnel to be missional. John Wesley was nothing if not the ultimate missional pastor. At the very beginning, the Methodist movement was a living, breathing example of what a sent people looks like. The Methodists were missional monks, transforming their neighborhoods, discipling folks in small groups, and going on to the perfection of entire sanctification. Many elements of our current polity originally arose out of a missional paradigm, such as itineracy, lay preachers, and holy conferencing.

In other words, we have missional DNA. It’s deep in there, way down.

But something happened in the first half of the nineteenth century in American Methodism. It’s all summed up in the image of the itinerant, circuit riding preacher getting off his horse, and becoming “located.” This happened across America as the frontier stopped expanding; preachers decided they wanted to stay home, raise families, and build churches. This was an understandable shift, but it completely changed the modus operandi of Methodism.

I believe that the itineracy is the very place where United Methodists could once again, and immediately, start living out of a missional paradigm.

We could start making truly missional appointments.

In Methodist-speak, an appointment is what a bishop of a geographic region, known as an annual conference, gives to each ordained pastor. Each appointment is officially made for the duration of only one year at a time, and it is made at the discretion of the bishop.

Most pastoral appointments are made to existing local churches. Every year in our conference, a few appointments are made to new church starts. Pastors who feel called to serve outside of a local church may request appointment to “extension ministry.” Common examples of extension ministry appointments include seminary or university faculty positions, conference administrative positions, or chaplancies.

But the vast majority of appointments are to an already-existing congregation, every one of which are heavily invested in attractional ministry and maintenance of a campus. Over time, the best and brightest pastors get sucked into these traditional church settings where they inevitably end up serving the status quo.

A very simple way to change this dynamic would be to create missional appointments, in which pastors are charged with creative assignments, or are tasked to serve a very unique people group.

Let me throw out a few possibilities, using my own conference as an example:

What if we appointed someone to the night life in Deep Ellum? A few city blocks on the east edge of Dallas contain a thriving night scene, including tattoo shops, metal clubs, coffee shops, and artist lofts. But maybe only one church. Where is the reign of God breaking out in Deep Ellum? We have no idea, because none of us are there.

What if we appointed someone to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport? Not only do hundreds of thousands of people fly in, out, and through the airport, but thousands of people are employed at the airport. Could we imagine the airport as a vast mission field, with unique needs, problems, and pastoral care opportunities?

What if pastors were appointed, not to local churches, but to zip codes or neighborhoods? And what if they had no other responsibilities but to live in the neighborhood, spend lots of time in the coffee shop and grocery store, and hang out with people?

What if we appointed someone to a public justice issue, such as the death penalty? Imagine a clergy person spending all her time researching the impact of capital punishment in her city and state, speaking out and educating people in churches about the issue, and making public acts of witness.

What if we appointed someone to be a missionary to refugees? Every year, close to 2,000 refugees are resettled in the Dallas area. They come from Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, and Congo, among other forsaken places. They arrive here with their entire worldly possessions in their hands, and are forced to adjust to life in the States in a very short amount of time.

The possibilities are truly endless. I have heard and seen such appointments happening in various conferences around the country, but they don’t happen often enough. Lorenza Andrade Smith, whom I have written about before, is appointed to the homeless of San Antonio, and actually lives on the street with them! I can’t imagine a more creative appointment!

In the North Texas Conference, back in the 1990s, there were a series of creative 3-year appointments like this, thanks to grant money from the General Board of Global Ministries. My friend, Diana Holbert, was appointed to work with the creative, artistic community of downtown Dallas; another friend, Marcia McFee, became the worship consultant for the conference.

Now the reason why appointments like these don’t happen often is very simple — money.

Pastor salaries are paid by the local churches where they serve. Leaving aside the contentious issue of pay equity among clergy, we should note that this means that there is little to no money normally available to fund new missional appointments. Our conference does fund new church starts, often at quite large sums, but the assumption is that these churches will become self-sustaining in three years. Missional work may not ever be “self-sustaining” in the traditional sense. Thus, conferences frown on such work.

In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to be appointed as missionary to refugees in our conference. It’s what I feel called to do. I’ve started a nonprofit refugee ministry called Daraja, which takes up most of my time.  My official appointment is to the Missional Wisdom Foundation, which initially helped pay part of my salary. However, now the funding has run out,  and I find myself in the position of raising my own salary support, an unusual new job skill which I am learning on the fly. (Not doing it particularly well, yet, so if you feel so inclined, here’s where you can make a monthly pledge!)

Yes, I’d love it if the conference could pay me a base salary, ensuring that I can pay my mortgage and bills, but since working with refugees is not a particularly lucrative business, nor is it ever going to be “self-sustaining,” then they will be wary of this move. I will have to rely on good old-fashioned fundraising.

My point is that our Methodist connection actually does provide us with a network of like-minded, followers of Jesus who could, if they dreamed and dared, find ways to fund, resource, mobilize, and send pastors into unique places for missional purposes. It could happen, and as I said before, does happen from time to time.

But there’s room for more.

Pro-Death Penalty = Anti-Shalom

execute justiceIn his excellent blog post last week on the travesty that is called the “Timely Justice Act,” which still sits on the desk of Florida Governor Rick Scott, my partner-monk Bret wisely rips apart the argument that justice has anything to do with the bill, which would speed the execution process. In fact, as he shows by the words of those who support the bill, justice is actually beside the point! What matters is a swift process, not an accurate one.

But this skirts a fundamentally more important issue, one which has a lot to do with the life and calling of a missional monk. That issue has to do with a right understanding of justice.

What exactly do we mean we talk about justice? In current popular usage, justice refers simply to the process by which those who are accused of a crime are tried, and either absolved or convicted and punished. The popularity of shows like “CSI,” “Law and Order,” and “NCIS,” as well as superhero movies, proves that we like to watch bad guys get caught, and we like to see them get what’s coming to them.

In contemporary Christian lingo, justice tends to take one of two predominant meanings. It could refer to a trait of God, which is unyielding and stubborn, and finally exercised by Jesus on a white throne at the end of time. Of course, God’s justice is tempered by God’s mercy, but it is never obliterated or removed. This justice is a divine necessity.

A second meaning is used, either perjoratively or complimentary, of Christians who are concerned with social issues, such as climate change, poverty, environmental destruction, and war. Usually the word “social” is tacked on in front of the word “justice.” Often, churches are depicted as focusing either on personal piety or social justice; this dichotomy has infiltrated most churches in North America.

I think we ought to abandon these notions of justice, and start over with something that is more concrete, as well as more scriptural.

First of all, we must reclaim justice as an integral part of our identity as followers of Jesus. It is not a separate sphere of action; it is not a call to which only certain people and prophets must pursue; it does not stand in contradistinction with piety, spiritual disciplines, or worship.

When we follow Jesus, we are pursuing lives of justice, which orients us to all areas of human activity.

In scripture, there are two Hebrew words for justice: tzedekah and mishpat. These words get alternatively translated as “justice” and “righteousness,” and are shown to have roughly the same meaning. And in fact, in the Greek New Testament, there is simply one word used interchangeably for both.

The best scriptural definition for justice, then, is righteousness, which means simply “to be in right relation with.” Justice is a relational word! When justice is done, then right relationships exist between individuals, communities, cities, and nations. Things are set right, things become what they were meant to be in relation to each other.

Justice is never an abstract concept; it can be seen concretely when people treat each other with dignity and respect, or as Jesus would put it, with love.

This is why every part of our lives is a justice issue. The things we teach our children orient them to a certain relationship with others and the world; the prayers we pray strengthen our relationship with God; the worship we engage in impacts our relationship with fellow members in the pews. Everything is about justice, because human existence is a dense network of relationships.

In his book, Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, Bryant L. Myers argues that the nature of poverty is essentially relational: “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.”

By introducing the word shalom into the conversation, Myers brings a different scriptural word into play, one which I believe could transform the conversation. Shalom is a beautifully rich Hebrew word which encompasses everything we could possibly want to say about justice. It is translated peace, wholeness, fullness, and wellbeing. It is used, to this day, as a greeting as well as a benediction. Shalom is both the goal of all life and the promised future, as well as the kind of life which we, as followers of Christ, have access to right now. Shalom is, essentially, the kingdom of God, which is both now and not yet.

Shalom is being in right relationship — with everything and everyone!

Myers illustrates the idea of shalom with a simple chart that depicts the self in relationship with five other spheres: the self, God, others, community, and the environment. Shalom is the state of being in right relations with all of these spheres. Thus, one must have a healthy self-awareness and identity, must have a living relationship with God, must have healthy relationships with family and friends, must be a responsible and participating member of the community, and must be a conscious and careful citizen of the planet. Only when all of those relationships are in order, can it be said that true justice, or true shalom, is present.

What makes this state of affairs difficult to achieve is that everything is overlaid with the unseen, invisible forces of systems — economic, social, political, global, and even religious — which conspire to thwart, twist, and corrupt any attempts at making relationships sound. These systems include patterns of thought, unspoken assumptions, prejudices and hatreds.

When seen in this framework, then, bills like the “Timely Justice Act” are seen as what they truly are — pitiful and painful attempts to make things right by removing the relational aspect from the picture.

In fact, the death penalty itself fails to achieve anything like “justice” for this very reason.

If justice means to restore even the remote possibility of a right relationship, then killing someone is out of the question. To take someone else’s life means to destroy all possibility that something new and hopeful might replace the well-worn conflicts and abuses that have existed before.

This is why so much is being made today of the difference between retributive and restorative justice. Retributive justice pays back and punishes; it makes a judgment that someone must be harmed in retaliation for what he or she has done. This retaliation usually results in destroyed relationships.

But restorative justice believes that a person can be redeemed and can have his or her relationships with others restored. Hope remains, because the possibility of a new relationship is kept open, even if only slightly, with family, friends, and even the victim and victim’s family.

The death penalty is the ultimate anti-shalom measure. It breaks and crushes the possibilty that a murderer might be able to find forgiveness, receive a word of grace, or even speak a word of grace to someone else. It continues the spiral of destruction which a murderer began, often because of the lack of shalom in his own life.

If we want true justice, which is always timely, by the way, then it begins with the relationships closest to us. Down the hall, across the street, on the other end of a phone.

Do justice. Make shalom.

And please, Gov. Scott — kill that bill.

%d bloggers like this: