Exploiting The Pain

divided1-300x225After reflecting on the Ferguson story that once again has arrested the attention of our nation, or at least the 24-hour news cycle this week, I have some thoughts, some deeply felt thoughts.

On Tuesday, I was riding home from the class I teach at Life Pacific College. On my ride, I like catching up on the news of the day, at least the news that KNX, the am radio wing of CBS which broadcasts pretty straight down the middle news has to say. What would the news be on this day? Well, a lot of coverage of the Ferguson story, or the boiling protests and bubbling anger within the black community.

What made me more than a little frustrated was not a sense of reporting, but a sense of exploiting I picked up from the news. And this is not the sensationalistic, splashy, frenzied Fox News or MSNBC. No, this is the straight-laced, professional, broadcast news. They had multiple reporters on the scene covering the several hundred protesters marching around South Los Angeles through much of the city. On Monday, these protesters marched for three hours.  On Tuesday, they were prepared for the same thing.

But our attention spans are so limited, we don’t have time to have our news actually listen to both sides and have a conversation. We don’t have time to listen to the concerns of what people are feeling. We get sound bites. We get the most loud, bombastic, and impassioned people to talk for a moment. We don’t get the news asking the black families what has them so scared, angry and disenfranchised. Why is this case in Ferguson creating a spark that spreads from Time Square to Martin Luther King Jr. boulevard in LA? Why is a nationwide movement taking place. Nope, we don’t have time to ask those questions or to connect the dots. But we do have time to be on the scene in case things go south. We’ll be there for the big story, the ratings, the gossip.

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We get the news in there to play their part in drawing out the extremes on both ends. The extreme finger pointing on both ends. The most divisive on both ends. We have the news ready to report when the story gets juicy enough, but not there to give us the back story, to share the depth of pain that people feel over this story which is just one more in a long line of injustice, or at least perceived injustice. And perception is reality.

But we have the news on the scene.

These reporters kept talking about how polite the protesters were, how civil. It was almost disappointing to the reporters as if they were hoping for a better story, more drama, something that would bring ratings.

This quickly made me relate in my mind the awful nature of our news which is more about ratings—if it bleeds, it leads. We are an exploitive society. And that saddens me. It was like we had cameras and microphones as close to these hurting people simply waiting for a match to be lit and a firestorm to start. I thought of the humanitarian organizations that take pictures of children in slum communities to raise money for the organization. The poor children get splashed across the internet, social media, and into fund-raising newsletters in order to bring in more money.

To me this smells of one word. Exploit.

And all we are doing is perpetuating a problem. The black community feels not only hopeless and stuck, but without a voice into the process. They are not simply poor, but have little power to affect change. They feel like they are getting the short end of the stick once again. They have so much pain and frustration, and yet all we can do as journalists is to escalate a difficult situation into a worse story. We as the American media racing to keep up with so many channels and an oversaturated sense of content and information to tell a bigger and more dramatic story. Yet, the powerless and hurting people in the inner-city continue to be disenfranchised and have the faces played across our television sets.

At the same time, those that have not walked in their shoes shake their heads with disbelief. They ask, what is the big deal? Why are there so many angry black people?

I was talking to one of my friends, who pastors a church in the inner city. He said, he just doesn’t understand why people don’t get what they don’t get.

This makes me sad. We have a segment of our society that doesn’t get it and another that is simply hurting and wishing they could make it clear. Now, we end up having a lot of seething, white hot anger over this situation. We can get camera’s onto the most outspoken on either side to show how divided, how far apart we are from solutions. It simply saddens me.

We have a tragic story, a story that should not have happened. And now what is lost in the middle is the actual truth. No one will accept a real story. Now, we have perceptions, misperceptions, and lots of emotion. Rather than truly being heartbroken as a nation over a tragic story, a loss of life, a precious life no matter what is said. We as Christians should know that more than anyone. Every life matters to God, and his redemptive nature is always working to make something beautiful out of our story.

But rather than a nation moved to tears, we are moved to anger.

If you have a friend who comes from the black community, simply listen to their story. Ask them what they hear from all this noise. Ask them what they see. Listen. Cry with them.

I know I am, and my heart breaks for a community that has been looked at with prejudice for far too long. I pray that we do not simply keep an endless cycle of sensational stories that remind us of the divide. I pray that the next time something tragic happens, we can find healing in the waters of misunderstandings. I pray that we can be proactive and go across racial and socio-economic lines to befriend one another. I pray that rather than extending the divide with story after story, we can find ways to reconcile.

For me, I will start by listening more? I want to know what they see, what they feel, what hurts them? I want to feel their pain more. I want to empathize. I want to see the humanity in their story, their life.

I feel hopeless at times, but I know there is hope. I know we can do better.

What are some of your thoughts from this overly public story?

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Learning A Language Is More Than Words

Language learning is more than verbal. It is more than knowing how to say words and put them in the right order. Language ability allows one capacity to function inside of a culture. It is knowing the rhythms and cadences in which to speak. In language, it is the little things that make a big difference in showing that one is grasping the language. More than anything, the little things speak volumes to the local people. Some of those little things are the paraverbal such as sighs, grunts, moans and the like.At its heart, language learning is an act of love. When one says, I will learn your language in order to communicate to you, they are saying I love and serve you. And it is exciting when the local people see you getting the nuances of their language. For us, learning Thai helped us connect in a deeper way as we served the Thai people. One way that we knew we connected came when Thai people would say that we were Thai; conveying that we were authentic in the language and culture—not perfect but flowing in the rhythm naturally. Recently, we were at a Thai restaurant with my family in the Chicago area. For many in the group, it was their first time at a Thai restaurant, so we got excited to introduce them to Thai food. For us it was exciting to speak Thai and get a flavor of what was our home for the past six years. We began making acquaintances with the owner and her family in Thai. We found out she was from a neighborhood in Bangkok near where we lived. The owner then excitedly introduced us to her other friends at the shop saying that we lived in Thailand. At one point, I made one of those natural sounds of agreement. The sound is something between a sigh and a grunt, and it means we are on the same page. It is like the sound of the light bulb going off in your head saying that you get what they are saying or are in full agreement.  When I made that sound, the two Thai ladies mimicked it and said, he is truly Thai.  My heart beamed on the inside, and I quickly returned to my wife to pass on the story. I love the fact we could communicate with Thai people at a heart level. Now, this applies to people in our own country. When we can communicate in the vernacular of any subculture, we can communicate love more clearly. What are the little things in language learning that help you know you get it?

It’s Better If We Keep The Façade.

I like this church, but…

Recently I heard a story on why a visitor did not return to the new church in town.  This could be anyone in Anytown, America.  And I believe this describes a fundamental flaw in our Christianity.  When asked why they didn’t come to the church again, the woman responded that she did not agree with women being permitted to preach.  That’s because she came to visit when one of the women on staff gave the message.  I know, I know. It is kinda funny for a woman to not like women preachers. But I guess the prejudice goes across gender lines.  But when she was pressed a little more, she said she didn’t like how transparent the person speaking was. The lady didn’t like how raw and open the speaker was in sharing her personal story of God’s work in her life.  Now, as I transition back to life in the US, I am becoming acutely aware of the American culture, especially, the American, Christian culture.  And the happy plastic smiles that accompany people to church as they pretend everything is okay just don’t cut it for me anymore.  Where did we get the notion that having it altogether shows that we are better Christians? That a visitor didn’t like the message being so raw with personal trials shows a disconnect from what God is really trying to do in us. Aren’t we all works in progress?  I am not sure where it started, but somewhere in our “can do” culture, we have equated struggle with weakness. Yet scripture says that struggle is what leads us to maturity (James 1:2). We feel that if we are suffering that God has abandoned us.  We feel that if we are broken, that the enemy is winning.  We are conquerors.  No, we are more than conquerors.  So why should we have to deal with pain? These are all great questions, but pretending that pain and suffering don’t exist only perpetuates the hypocrisy deep in the American culture.  I don’t know.  Maybe I am plane weird, but I thought authenticity should be a hallmark of Christianity.  I like reading the stories of the Bible and seeing that the great heroes of our faith were flawed like me.  And more than that, I think one of the beautiful things about the Christian faith is that we can be broken.  Our faith is not about being perfect but being redeemed.  We worship a God that finds us in the mire and pulls us out.  He picks us up and sets our feet on the rock (Psalms 40).  He takes a heap of brokenness and turns us into something beautiful.  His grace shines through our humble brokenness.  When we act like we have it altogether, we are conveying a message that we can save ourselves through enough pure determination. But when we talk about our true struggle, we show how only God can transform us.

broken-manOn the same note, I was recently at a meeting where George Barna detailed his latest in depth research on transformation (The importance of Brokenness) . He pretty much has found few Christians make it along the journey to transformation. He has found that brokenness is a key step in the process to our lives becoming what God wants them to be.  If we neglect or avoid this process, we will only be superficial Christians. We will lack the power and ability to impact this world.  Barna said we need to die to sin, self and society.  I think the woman above typifies many who think that we don’t die, but we live victorious. We don’t need to let people see our flaws.  Maybe if we did, the church could see what God wanted, a redeemed and restored people.  Let’s work on becoming more open rather than less.  What do you think prevents us from being more transparent, especially as Christian leaders ?

Public Worship: Worship as Mission 2

The edict went out via courier with great haste. The riders carried the new law to all corners of the empire. Soon everyone would be clued into the king’s grand new aim for worship.

See the king of this vast land set up a 90-foot image of gold on the plain of Shiner. The edict now decreed that all inhabitants of the empire would bow down to this idol when the music began to play. The king even offered strong incentives to insure all the people would participate in his new ritual.

The incentive was that the people got to keep their life if they worshipped in the way the king now prescribed. That is if they didn’t, they would be thrown into a fiery furnace.

We know this famous story from Daniel 3 as the one in which three young Hebrew leaders in scripted into the service of a pagan, conquering king of Babylon stood up to the king. Shadrach, Meshac, and Abednego refused to bow down to any god other than the almighty God, the one with a capitol G.

It is not just in this story that people worship in broad view, in the public eye. No matter whether we are talking about traditional religions at a tribal level, or modern day faiths, I do not see the people of the world being as private as we have become. I think of walking through the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand, aka the temple of the emerald Buddha, only to watch person after person show honor and worship to the image of the Buddha. They aren’t being showy with their faith, well, most of them aren’t. But they aren’t worrying about others as they come forward to burn incense, offer coins in the donation box, or place food in front of their spirit house.

Should worship be a private matter?

Communication Learning from a Toddler

Often, we find communicating across cultural barriers crippling. Fear, hesitation, or simple uncomfortability paralyzes us. Most of us have the desire but lack the boldness to communicate the story of God’s love to strangers, especially strangers who are different than us. Will they understand, will I be clear, will they think I am weird, or will I even make sense to them are simple questions we have that prevent us from stepping out and sharing Jesus with someone. This someone can live across the world in another culture altogether like what we experienced by living in Thailand for six years. Or this person can live across the street as an increasing immigration population moves into the US. How do we help people draw near to Jesus?

My observations come from parenting a toddler. As a blind father, I worry how she will communicate with me her wants and desires. Her words are few at two-years-old. She uses nonverbal communication to the best of her ability to let us know what she needs or to explain what happened.

My daughter learned that gestures don’t work the same with me. When she was younger, she tried to show me she was hungry and point to the food she wanted. Now, she takes me by the hand to the refrigerator. Then I ask her if she wants milk. She says, no. I point to another food, she says no. I point to the Goldfish. She says, yeah!! With pure excitement. She is thrilled that her daddy figured out what she was saying.

When she gets a new toy, she loves to come and take my hand, so she can lead me to the toy. She puts my hand on the toy. She loves when I get to enjoy her toys in my own way.

Still another example comes when she hears one of her favorite songs come onto the Itunes playlist. She grabs me by the hand and runs to the middle of the room. She starts moving my hand to say she wants to dance.

When she really wants to get her point across, she knows exactly what to do. As she is held in my arms, she will put both hands on my cheeks to turn my face to hers. She wants me to look her in the eye, so to speak. This way, she knows I am listening straight to her plea for ice cream, playing games, watching a movie, going to Nana’s house, or whatever she determinedly lets me know she wants.

When we want to communicate God’s love across cultural lines, our best approach is to be humble and find people where they are. Come to them, ask about their story, and start to learn their culture. We can show them Jesus better when we approach them in humble love, than if we expect them to come to where we are. My daughter doesn’t keep using nonverbal gestures to me hoping one day I will figure it out. No, she finds what way best communicates to me as quickly and naturally as possible. This is what we must do with our neighbors. What speaks to them? What can we do to build friendships, and thus create space for us to share about Jesus?

What do you find difficult in communicating with people from another culture?

Waiting for Others

“Let’s go, Ellie. We are ready to go to the next attraction now. You wanted to go before, but now you don’t?” That’s what we were saying to our daughter as we wandered around the Littleton Historical Museum (best part, it’s free).

We thought she was losing focus, but really she hadn’t at all. Our little girl knew exactly what she was doing. We soon realized that Ellie had seen another little girl a few months older than her and her family. She wanted to wait while they finished looking at the school house before going with them to the next site. We traveled around with the family for the next 15 minutes, all the while they didn’t know why we kept so close to them. In Thailand, where Ellie was born and spent her first two plus years, she learned life in a collective culture. In a collective culture, people wait for each other and travel together. The collective works on shaping the individual, while in America, we are quite the opposite. The individual works on shaping the collective. Secondly, time is totally different in Asia. They have no problem waiting for the group. While we are wrestling through issues of reentry, but Ellie is learning to live in a new culture.

In America waiting goes against our nature, right. We go when we want to go, and wait when we want to wait, but our individualistic society rarely has us waiting for others. We just thought Ellie was being a burgeoning individual.

But in fact, she was being the collectivist she was brought up as in Thailand. She learned we do things in groups. We share memories together. We live life together. When she spied out a new friend and family to join on our fun day out, she took them on as her own.

At one point, the family even told her that she didn’t have to wait for them. Ellie would have none of that. She went ahead only when they caught up to her. Sometimes she lagged behind as she got distracted with history, but she ran to keep up with the group.

Processing culture happens for us all at a different pace. It is fun watching how our little girl processes life at her young and impressionable age.

How do you do in waiting for others? What is hard or easy about it?

Reentry and Friends

Returning from cross cultural work brings so many emotions and culture to process. As I muse on one aspect of change, I love one analogy that helps us figure this deal out about reentry. It goes like this. You leave from a Green culture to live in a Yellow culture. When you return you are blue. After working to fit into another culture, you don’t realize how much you have changed no matter that you won’t fully become like your host culture.

When we returned after six years, it is hard to anticipate the changes, mostly in us. But let’s not diminish the fact American culture changes too. Many people do not realize the way culture changes. It is like when you visit a relative or long distance friend’s child you haven’t seen in years. You notice the change much more drastically than the family does.

For us, all of our friends in America became long distance friends for six years. As we landed back in the States, we wondered what it would be like to reconnect with friends. Friends who have continued maturing and growing in the path they walked while at the same time, our life was completely changed through our experiences and development in another culture. For me, I started thinking of some of my best friends and peers in ministry; I started to realize how they moved on. The realization struck me as Christina and I were walking around LA. We started talking through the friends we looked forward to reconnecting with as we noted how many moved to a new part of the country. We had more than a few of my friends move out of the area. We look forward to redeveloping friendships from a new foundation. We have time as we process who we are and how we fit in this place. We are taking time to make our move process slowly.

I am also so glad to see how God is orchestrating the taking of acquaintances to deeper friends.