On Planks & Specks

Planks and Specks

Last night, I returned home from an annual gathering of church planters called Exponential. My time there brought to mind a post I wrote (on my old blog) about last year’s experience, and it’s important enough to me that I wanted to share it again. I’ve made some minor edits to the original.

I have some things to say.

I suspect some of you will call me brave, and others may be more inclined to use words like stupid. I feel neither brave nor stupid; I feel frustrated and sad. And a little fed-up.

A few weeks ago, I attended an annual gathering of church planters called Exponential. This year’s theme, “Seek and Save,” was focused on evangelism. Much of the content was stellar. We were challenged to both announce and demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ. We had conversations about why fewer and fewer people are interested in attending church gatherings. We lamented the bad behavior of Christians and culture’s concomitant skepticism, cynicism, and hostility toward the Church. These were important, timely conversations.

Unfortunately, however, there was a nasty undercurrent I discovered in the first moments of the conference. It sounded something like this:

Our church has evangelism down pat! We’re converting prostitutes and drug dealers. And criminals. And homosexuals!

In many of my conference sessions, I was presented with a list of people who, presumably, are the most difficult types of people to convert and, apparently, I was supposed to feel impressed and inspired by that ministry’s evangelism efforts. I think my reaction was supposed to be, “Wow! If they’re able to reach those people, they must be doing this right! I mean, they’re even reaching the gays!”

Well . . . that wasn’t my response.  At all.

Instead, I found myself feeling irritated and annoyed and, eventually, angry. Righteously so. “Soooo, let me get this straight,” I wanted to say. “You’ve just listed some categories of ‘sinners’ and I’m supposed to be really impressed because you’re saving, like, really bad people?”

Herein lies the problem: We’re all, like, really bad people, but I didn’t hear anyone bragging (and that’s what it felt like) about sharing the Gospel with housewives and CEOs. I jotted down some sarcastic notes: “Key takeaways . . . A pimp’s salvation is worth more than a school teacher’s. And you get more points for a drug dealer than a middle schooler.”

And then there’s the stuff about same-sex relationships.

Twenty-ish years ago, I became friends with a gay man. Since that time, I’ve wrestled with the “Is homosexuality a sin?” question. I know many of you think there is no such question; you’re certain that Scripture clearly defines same-sex relationships as sinful. I’m not about to try to convince you otherwise. That’s a reasonable interpretation of Scripture. However, I have ridiculously bright, incredibly faithful, Christ-following friends—clergy friends*—who interpret Scripture differently. So, I wrestle.

But the is-it-or-isn’t-it debate really has no bearing on this particular conversation. What I’m so frustrated and sad about is this: For some reason, gay and lesbian persons seem to have become the poster children for The Worst Sin Ever. What upset me the most at Exponential was the implication that homosexual people represent the Ultimate Conversion. In nearly every list I heard, “homosexuality” seemed to be the punchline. The save-the-best-for-last. The ultimate score.

Not one Exponential speaker celebrated the number of overweight people they brought to Christ. No one talked about how successfully they’ve been reaching gossips. I heard no hushed “Wow”or “Amen” from an audience because a church baptized a slew of people who have a habit of saying, “Oh my God,” speak poorly of their parents, or express envy over their neighbor’s new boat.

Now, my goal as a Jesus-follower is to live the way He said I should. I’m not even close to fulfilling that goal. (“Love your enemy”? Mhm. Yeah, right. Whatever.) Since I don’t get to hang out with Jesus at Starbucks and ask him a bazillion questions, Scripture’s my go-to resource for how to be more Christ-like. If I were to ask Him about the Worst Sin Ever, I suspect he’d respond like this:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5, NIV)

Some of you just yelled at your screen (or at me), “But we’re supposed to hold each other accountable! If I don’t talk about the sinfulness of same-sex relationships, I’m condoning the behavior!” If that’s where you are, that’s fine. But sharing an inflammatory Facebook post isn’t exactly the best posture for those conversations. And I’m only suggesting we should be holding one another accountable, not just a particular group of people. And maybe—actually, definitely—we ought to begin with ourselves.

I was venting my frustrations with a dear friend yesterday. At one point she said, “I just don’t get it. It’s about love. We’re supposed to love people.”

Yes, Church:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength . . . and love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:30-31, NIV)

Love your neighbor. The fat one across the street. The divorced one around the corner. The gay one in the office down the hall. The trucker-mouthed one you see at QT most mornings. The one at work who never shuts up about how much she loves (or despises) President Obama. Love them. Right now. With no conditions. With no ulterior motives. And if you’re still hung up on the accountability thing, just keep in mind that accountability without love feels an awful lot like judgment.

Love people. And until we’re rid of our planks, that’s our only responsibility.

*For clarification, The Way (my employer) is a United Methodist Church, and the official position of our denomination is that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. I’ve had hours and hours of conversation with Pastor Jimmy about this issue. When I mentioned having “ridiculously bright, incredibly faithful, Christ-following friends–clergy friends–who interpret Scripture differently,” he’s one of the folks on the “it’s a sin” side.


The Bridge

He’s a young, African American—early 20s, I’m guessing. From where I’m standing, I can’t tell if he has dreads or braids under his bright red, Cardinals flat bill. He’s wearing aviator sunglasses, a gray zip-up hoodie over a plaid shirt, low slung jeans revealing blue boxers, and spotless high tops.

I’m at the front of the serving line, dishing up pork roast, cabbage, and potatoes. Emily’s next to me, adding watermelon and bread. T–, a Bridge guest, is helping behind the line tonight, capping off the trays with thick slices of donated pies and cakes.

Aviator is not happy with T–. Apparently, there’s some disagreement about whether he’s already been through the line once. Or maybe he’s angry on behalf of the woman in front of him, Miss S–, who seems to be hoping for seconds. I feel for T–, who’s just following the rules: No seconds until/unless the chef gives the okay.

It’s not going well down at the end of the line.

I’m trying not to eavesdrop. It’s none of my business. Except Emily is right there, so I’m listening for any indication that she needs to step away.

Aviator gives up and walks off. Miss S–, a sweet, 70-something with thin, gray dreadlocks and a deep compassion for the birds outside her apartment building, tells me that if her arthritis weren’t acting up, she’d give him a knuckle sandwich. I’m not sure to which “him” she’s referring, but I laugh, because it’s clearly what she’s expecting from me.

Aviator’s now pacing back and forth in front of the serving line, offering just barely audible commentary. Emily, who heard more of the original skirmish, assures me that whatever he’s saying, it’s not directed toward us.

“You’re supposed to be helping people. This is bullshit.”

“All you have to do is look me in the eye. I’m a person, too.”

And then, “Half of y’all are racist anyway.”

“Oh,” Emily says. “Maybe he is mad at us.”

I’m mortified. Racist? Did that guy just call me racist?

I start to walk toward him. To assure him I’m not racist. To ask him why he would say such a thing. To find out what I can do to prove that I’m a good person. But he is really agitated, and Emily pulls me back. “No, mom. Not a good idea.”

At the end of our shift, I’m surprised to see Aviator sweeping the dining room—because I’ve already decided he’s a jerk, and this is not jerkish behavior. “Where’d the dustpan go?” he yells across the dining room, and I hand him the one I had been using. I don’t know what I’m expecting. Maybe, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve obviously misjudged you. You are clearly not racist.” He says nothing.

And then it hits me: People have made all sorts of assumptions about me over the years—but not one of those assumptions has been based on the color of my skin. Aviator, though? My guess is he encounters this kind of thing daily. Daily. 

I’ve written before that we don’t love one another because we don’t know one another. This morning, it occurred to me that maybe we dislike one another because we think we do know one another—based on skin color and attire and taste in music and all sorts of ridiculous qualifiers that have absolutely nothing to do with what makes a human being worthy of love. We jump to conclusions. We don’t offer the benefit of the doubt. We see issues instead of people. I wonder if thinking we know people is actually more dangerous than not knowing them at all.

The next day, I’m back at The Bridge, hoping for a shot at redemption. Aviator’s there, too. He approaches the table where I’m counting guests as they come through the line. I tense up. I hate that I do, but I do.

“Hey, can I have a napkin, please? Or a paper towel or something?”

Here’s my chance! Racial reconciliation via paper products! (Yes, I know I’m ridiculous. Remember: It’s part of my charm.) And I cannot find a napkin. (It doesn’t occur to me that I have hundreds of napkins sitting right in front of me, wrapped around plastic sporks.) AGH! This is my moment! Seriously?! Where are the freaking napkins?

I give up. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know where they went.”

“Ah, no worries,” he says. “You’re good,” he says.

I don’t know about that, Aviator. But I’m trying.

I’m trying.

In the Drive-Thru

Coffee To Go

For seven months, when I was 41 years old, I was a Starbucks barista.

I spent a good amount of time in the drive-thru window–which, as you can imagine, grieved my introvert soul. Talk to people? Like, in person? People whom I don’t know? People who will be angry if I hand them a too-dry cappuccino or an overly foamy latte? Yes. And, actually, the expectations went far beyond mere talk; I was expected to “inspire and nurture the human spirit–one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” Yes, that’s Starbucks’ mission statement.

And you thought it was just a pricey coffee shop.

I took that mission statement seriously, and I did my best to inspire and nurture–which is reasonably difficult when customers continue their cell phone conversations while you’re trying to ask them questions about their order, when they refuse to look at you as they pay, when they forget to turn off their windshield wipers, when they ask–at the window, with eight cars stacked up behind them–to tack on six additional frappuccinos.

I overlooked rude ordering behavior: “Gimme a . . . Lemme have a . . . ” I attempted not to see people picking their nose at the speaker (yes, there’s a camera). I ignored the under-the-breath comments about how stupid I was for having to repeat back an order of a half-caff-quad-grande-no-whip-soy-extra-hot-three-pump-mocha-one-pump-raspberry-I-mean-three-pumps-raspberry-one-pump-white-mocha-in-a-venti-cup-and-make-sure-there’s-no-foam latte. (Only a slight exaggeration.)

Most of the time it was great fun, and I made it my personal challenge to cheer up the crankiest of customers. I succeeded more often than not–at least winning a half-smile. I once consoled a young woman with tears flooding her face because of a recent break-up. I asked after grandkids. I helped teenagers ask their crushes to homecoming. I remembered names and favorite beverages. Mostly, I made eye contact and smiled.

Which, it turns out, is a big, big deal.

I remember one gentleman in particular. He pulled to the window in a pristine, silver Honda. His suit was freshly pressed, his tie bright and stylish. His back seat held a couple of car seats, and in his passenger seat sat a stuffed, leather messenger bag. His wrist swam in a giant watchband, the same color as his cufflinks. Everything about him spoke success. Wealth. I asked about his day; he only nodded his head. I passed him his pastry, which he took without looking up. I was too green to be offended by his lack of acknowledgement, so I kept chattering on about nothing–nurture and inspire, you know. He kept his head down as he dug for exact change and passed it through his window to mine.  Finally, as I handed over his beverage, he looked up at me. Our eyes met, and I broke into a wide grin. I’m telling you, the look that washed over his face was overwhelming. It said, “Wait. Are you actually seeing me? Do I matter somehow?” He may’ve been successful, but he certainly seemed to feel insignificant.

A few days ago, I was helping to serve dinner at The Bridge when I experienced that same look. We were down to the last few people in a line of 175 when a young guy–early 30s maybe–came through. He was wearing a heavy coat, still zipped against the cold, and a black beanie. His hands were chapped. “Good evening, sir,” I tried. He sort of grunted, full of melancholy, and reached for his tray. And then, for whatever reason, he looked up just before he walked away. Our eyes met, and I beamed at him. His posture straightened, he held my gaze for a good three seconds, and then he smiled with his whole face before he walked away. Again, it was as though he couldn’t believe someone was seeing him. 

And then I went home, got in an argument about white privilege, and cried for an hour. But that’s a whole other Oprah.

Anyway, do me a favor:  See someone today. And risk being seen.

Climbing Out of the Briar Patch


Here’s the other reason we don’t love one another: It’s just too much work.

We get tolerance confused with love, but that’s actually apathyWe think simply ignoring jokes that marginalize people because of their race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic situation, or sexual orientation is love, but that’s actually cowardiceWe think who am I to judge is love, but that’s actually lazinessWe think writing blog posts and sermons about about how Jesus tells us to love people is love, but that’s actually just… well, it’s just not: “Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close” (Søren Kierkegaard).

In other words, we think we’re loving people, but in reality we’re doing not much of anything. At all.

And I can’t decide if I’m more frustrated at the Church when it’s finger-pointing and name-calling and happily telling “those people” how they’re wrong and where they’re going at as a result . . . or when it’s doing not much of anything at all.

Martin Luther King, Jr., had an opinion on that:

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.  . . . There was a time when the Church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. (Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963)

Here’s the in-my-face problem: “The Church” at which I’m frustrated—and in which MLK, Jr. was disappointed—isn’t an “it.” The Church is me.

I’ve been around, in, and about the Church for so long—and, as a result, have had so many disheartening experiences—that I all too easily slip into the briar of cynicism. Honestly, it’s been much more comfortable sitting among those thorns, leveling criticisms, than it is to fight my way out of them. But then Shane Claiborne had to go and smack me around a bit:

We decided to stop complaining about the church we saw, and we set our hearts on becoming the church we dreamed of.” (Irresistible Revolution, 2006)

The Church I dream of requires that we–I–love people: unapologetically, actively, immediately. That is just really stupid hard to do. Know why? Because love requires a willingness to be exposed, disliked, ridiculed, mocked; it requires a commitment of time, energy, emotion, resources; it requires a readiness to be wrong, to risk, to repent, to reconcile.

Well? Today, I’m willing, committed, and ready. 

Eh . . . maybe it’s more honest to say I want to be those things.

So, if you see me walking around bloody for a little while, it’s okay: I’m just climbing out of the briar patch, and I’m trying like crazy to become the church I’ve dreamed of.

Join me?

Why We Don’t Love One Another

Far From the Tree

When I’m in the car, I listen almost exclusively to NPR. To be perfectly honest, I began doing so because I felt super-hip saying, “Hey, did you hear that piece on NPR this morning?” What’s going on in my head in those moments is, “I listen to NPR, so I must be way-smart and cool, and so you must like me. Right? Please say I’m right. Please like me.” Over time, though, I began to actually, you know, learn stuff. And feel stuff. And wonder about stuff I’d never thought of before.

I was driving my little Honda Fit home from Columbia one afternoon when I heard a piece I just couldn’t shake. The gentleman being interviewed, Andrew Solomon, had a gravelly voice, and he so carefully constructed his phrases that I thought he was surely reading from a manuscript. He was talking about conversations he’d had with Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza—the young man who, before shooting himself, killed his mother, six teachers, and 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. I was heartbroken for Lanza, who confessed that although he loved his son, he wished he’d never been born.

I’d only heard part of the interview, so the moment I got home, I searched online for Solomon and discovered that he’d written a book called Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. So, I did what I do: I went immediately to Kelley’s Happy Place #2, Barnes and Noble, and bought it.

(This isn’t really a book review, I promise, so hang with me for a minute or two.)

Far From the Tree is a series of essays exploring the lives of children who are different from their parents in drastically different ways—children who are deaf or are dwarfs; children who have autism, schizophrenia, down syndrome, or disabilities; children who are prodigies; children who commit crimes, were conceived in rape, who are transgender. I spent nearly a year soaking in this book, and not only because it’s 702 pages long (962 if you count the notes, bibliography, and such). It took me so long getting through it because there’s just so much humanity in there that it was difficult to take in quickly.

The New York Times Book Review had this to say about Far From the Tree: “A book everyone should read, and there’s no one who wouldn’t be a more imaginative and understanding parent—or human being—for having done so.” Yes. Absolutely. Before I read it, I would’ve described myself as empathic—maybe even forward-thinking. This book cracked my head and my heart wide open. So much more than I could’ve imagined.

I’m sickened when people are treated as “less than.” Any person. In my past life, when I did counseling, I found myself extending compassion to a child who’d been molested by his father–and simultaneously extending grace to that father as he was being led out the door of his home by law enforcement. When I hear about rioters and looters, my first thought isn’t, “What is wrong with them?” It’s “What’s wrong with the world that this is the way people try to be heard?” When I hear the hateful language being spewed about people who are gay, lesbian, or transgender; women who’ve chosen to have an abortion; or people with a religious preference that differs from their own, I want to shake my fists and scream, “These are human beings you’re talking about. They’re not an issue or a debate to be had.”

I don’t think like this because I’m a saint (but you knew that) or because I’m one of those hippie-NPR-listening-tree-huggers (which may or may not be true). I think like this because I’ve been instructed to. We’re supposed to love one anotherThat’s not a polite suggestion. It’s not limited to people who look and think and act and talk just like we do. I’m not always good at this. I don’t always say nice things about ultra-conservative, evangelical Christians, for example. My sweet husband (whom I’m sure you’ll meet in a post at some point) accused me over the summer of being so open-minded that I’ve become close-minded. That observation broke me.

Here’s the bottom line: I think we don’t love one another because we don’t know one another. I said the other day that authenticity breeds kindness. So does listening—whether face-to-face or through a book like Far From the Tree. You’ll hear me say this a lot: I’m not suggesting that we all need to change our opinion on issues. I’m only suggesting that we need to change our opinion about people. 

I don’t know how else we’ll be able to love them.