Shift the Lens

When you feel unsuited for the earth,

And question your own sacred worth,

Look past the loneliness and fear.

Your difference is why you’re here.

Politics & Religion

Much better this whole world would be

If everyone were just like me!

Why can’t the scattered masses see

That I alone possess the key?

It cannot be that there is space

That there is peace, that there is grace

Enough for all just as they are

For everybody, near and far

I must be right, it must be true

If it’s for me, then it’s for you

For if we all can coexist

I can’t on my own way insist

That’s why I can’t let difference go

Truth be told, it scares me so.

Putting a Face on It

By the end of high school, I was a lot of things. Anti-abortion, pro-death penalty (ironic?), anti-gay, pro-gun, creationist, pretty much fitting right in with the Republican state in which I spent my teen years. Now, however, I am none of these things, much to the chagrin of certain family members and friends.

So what the hell happened?

Well, I went to college.

I don’t mean that in a liberal, “holier than thou, educate yourself” kind of way. To be honest, my professors had very little to do with my change of heart. I actually changed so much because I met different people and grew to genuinely care for them, on top of being free to think for myself.

I met gay people who were kinder and more compassionate than most Bible-thumpers I knew.

I met and grew to love nonreligious people and people of non-Christian faith backgrounds.

There were faithful scientists who believed in evolution and God.

There were women who had abortions or who had been raped and didn’t seem evil for wanting to not start a family with their rapist’s baby.

I realized I didn’t really agree with what I had always thought I was supposed to believe. The idea of my classmates carrying guns into class made me feel less safe and more likely to be shot if someone decided to go on a rampage. I realized that I would never want to force a woman to have a baby she didn’t want. I found that my faith didn’t have to be challenged by science, and even if it was, it’s okay to think things through. I found the idea of killing someone to show killing is wrong made no sense to me. Finally, I could never believe that God would be so petty as to cast good people into hell because of who they loved or what they believed when they were some of the best people I had ever met.

All of this change happened not because college is a “hotbed for liberal indoctrination,” but because I met and loved people who challenged my perceptions.

I think our world would benefit greatly from “putting a face” to what we believe. We should meet and get to know the people who are affected by our decisions and ideas, and we should grow closer to those who think differently from us. Only in such a context can our beliefs truly be tested and reduced to what is kind, honorable, and just.

Do I think you have to agree with my points to be kind, honorable, and just?

No!

What I mean is that kindness, honor, and justice are only possible when we are driven by concern for others. Therefore, we can’t go on supporting ideas just because they keep us comfortable.

Even as my newer, more liberal self, I live my life surrounded by conservatives. I don’t see these people as hateful, backward racists and you shouldn’t either. The reason I can say that is because I’ve spent time talking with them and listening to their concerns, fears, and values. I see the faces of people I love when I consider these ideals that run counter to mine. Honestly, we all have a lot more in common than you might think.

So whatever you think or believe, test it. Challenge it. Look into the eyes of that death row inmate. Put yourself in the shoes of a gay couple trying to live life together. Try telling a woman to her face that you would force her to have an unwanted child. Listen to the stories of those who bust their asses every day for an “American dream” they’ll never afford.

But also…

Have coffee with that supposedly backward uncle that still supports only “traditional” marriage. Listen to the fears and insecurities of someone who looked up and saw a world they couldn’t recognize. Get to know the family who lost a loved one in a brutal capital murder by an unrepentant killer, or the proud gun owner who never did a thing wrong in his life.

Difference is not the enemy. Indifference is. Being challenged is not evil. Complacency is. Having strong beliefs is not a problem, but a problem arises when we fail to think or care about the ones who are affected by those strong beliefs.

We have to stop drawing battle lines and start crossing them. Only then can we see ourselves in our “enemies” and love them as we wish to be loved. It’s only when that happens that we can expect to see a desperately needed shift in how our world currently works.

Peace be with you!

When You Don’t “Fit”

Exile though I am on earth, do not hide your commandments from me. — Psalm 119:19, JB

It’s hard when we feel we don’t belong. Humans are wired for connection and community, yet many of us feel ourselves to be outsiders, even among our closest friends and family members. In my case, I often feel ill-suited for this world. I have no real career aspirations, the issues that have people frothing at the mouth hardly affect me, and my idealism kicks things up a notch as I am looked at disapprovingly for holding values and expressing ideas that many believe to be simply unrealistic.

To feel like you’re just floating through existence without a solid “anchor” can be uncomfortable, even painful. It’s difficult to watch other people settle into their lives, hopes and dreams in hand, at least knowing where they want to go. But what about the rest of us?

Something that I feel I’ve been given to say by the Light is that it’s okay to “not belong.” I spent so much of my life lamenting that I wasn’t like everyone else, but my most meaningful relationships were made possible precisely because I was different. My ideas, goals, and perceptions actually provided something for certain people, and I found myself connected to others who felt like I did.

I found that I wasn’t alone, and the truth is that you aren’t either.

There are many of us who feel like “exiles” in this life; as though we were made to belong somewhere else. The truth is, however, that those who don’t feel “at home” here are supposed to feel that way. Our world needs people who can see things differently, who aspire to different goals, and who live outside the accepted norms of thought and behavior. It’s been my experience that God works best through those who are open to a different way of doing things, as there is less comfort and conformity standing in the way. We were born to be the monkey wrench that stops the machine of homogeneity from running rampant, and we are meant to be the exception that keeps everyone from “having it all figured out.”

Seeing myself and others this way has opened my mind and my heart up much more, as I am realizing that everyone has a part of themselves that feels like it just doesn’t belong. Many of us press this bothersome little attribute down, hoping no one will see, but the reality is that our differences are what can lead to powerful transformations in our lives and in the lives of others. Embracing and loving ourselves and our other-ness enables us to extend that love to others, and such affection is Godly, spiritual, and powerful. It can build bridges, demolish walls, and shatter the fragile myths of uniformity that drive the current state of affairs.

Instead of letting my difference become isolation, I choose to treat it as a gift. No, I don’t feel like I belong here, but it’s neither a curse nor some delusion of grandeur that I am above anyone. I’m just different, and so are you. Everyone has a uniqueness, a gift that when embraced, stands to enhance our understanding of life and of one another. So let your “freak flag” fly, refuse to fit the mold, know that you are an exile by design, and we need you now more than ever.

Peace be with you!

“Stand Your Ground” Law: Why I Stopped Killing Spiders

I used to kill spiders, often on command. Spiders or insects of various kinds would enter our dwelling and someone would yell, “Kill it!” I’d do it, usually with no thought at all.

After all, people I love are scared of those things. I have been scared of them. Therefore, I am justified in taking life from them, right?

Our country even defends this behavior with humans. The Zimmerman and Martin case in Florida is a good example. It turns out you can pick a fight with someone, lose that fight, and shoot that someone because you made a stupid decision.

Totally makes sense, yes?

In pre-historic times, sure. Killing things that seemed threatening kept our species alive. The problem is that civilization doesn’t function well under those parameters. That’s A LOT of death when you take into account how often we tend to fear or hate difference. Yet many states are totally fine with validating our fears to the point of violence.

I get the idea. We want people to legally be able to defend themselves, which is great until you factor in prejudice (in the form of unequal threat association based on race or appearance) and a set of lawyers out to manipulate juries for a win. Also, humans get scared of a lot of things, and that fear is subjective, which is not a sound basis for law. Juries are supposed to consider evidence precisely because empathy can interfere with justice because of shared prejudice.

After all, if we legally excuse people based on their mindset at the time, NO ONE would pay for their crimes. There is ALWAYS justification available. We humans can rationalize anything.

When we justify violence based on fear, we set ourselves up for more violence, not less. This works against what I would say is the goal of laws against murder, manslaughter, assault, etc.

But what is the alternative?

Well.

What if we cared more about life (all life) than possessions or our own illusion of safety? What if we as individuals decided ahead of time to act with love and kindness toward others, no matter how others might act toward us? What if we as a society recognized the inherent value of all living creatures as part of this interconnected natural world?

There is inherent risk to this idea. It’s a scary, idealistic approach to complex, dark, and real issues. However, things can’t change if we keep responding “in kind.” You can’t kill your way to peace. It takes an entirely different response to affect change, and I think we can all agree that change is something we need.

So I stopped killing wasps, spiders, roaches, all of it. I catch them, and I move them. I take precautions, but those precautions are selected with love and appreciation in mind, not fear. It’s a small thing, but perhaps we as a society would benefit from finding such a “third way” for how we deal with each other.

Peace be with you!

My Relationship to Islam

Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. — Romans 14:4, NRSV

My relationships with and appreciation for Muslims has always been rather controversial. This is a world in which battle lines are not supposed to be crossed, and the battle lines between Muslims and non-Muslims have been drawn deeply for a long time here in the United States. Obviously, the events of September 11, 2001 have a lot to do with that (despite the fact that Muslims died in those towers as civilians and first responders), but so do the various campaigns overseas (in which many Muslim-Americans have fought) that have left far too many people dead and wounded. Since the forces American troops are facing over there are Muslim (at least in name), many choose to center their opinion of Islam in general on the experiences of the religion’s most violent and fanatical adherents.

I get it. Kinda.

What I don’t get is how my relationships with Muslim people make me a traitor or misinformed liberal. I certainly am not a supporter of terrorism, as others have said. Oh, I have also been told that I am “condoning the wholesale slaughter of thousands of innocent people.” That was a neat conversation.

Oddly enough, I don’t get asked questions as to why I have the stances and relationships I do, regardless of the topic. I suppose that is an indication that those I am speaking with don’t really care about my reasons or logic, but they just want to fight and tell me I am wrong. So thanks for that.

Even more troubling is that all of these reactions have come from rather proud, self-described Christian people. Those who claim to have received and been transformed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ as undeserving sinners have always been rather quick to pour forth condemnation from their lips toward various people in various times, but I think now is a good time for explaining why I can’t get on the anti-Muslim train… And there are biblical reasons for this.

I met Ekram through the interfaith program at Perkins School of Theology. I was just starting my World Religious course, and part of that course was spending time in weekly dialogue with members of another religious tradition. I was assigned to meet with a group of Muslims at the Islamic Association of North Texas.

Throughout the course of our meetings, Ekram and I were found to share similar views and goals for interfaith work. Though we both acknowledged that we are from different traditions that cannot be reconciled, we also knew that we could help bring people together for the greater good of society by resisting the popular narratives and facilitating the building of bridges between people, rather than broadening the chasm. So we planned an event.

Ekram came to the church I was serving at the time and led a presentation on Islam. This included general facts, misconceptions, and a question/answer session that got quite tense when parents got involved. But overall, many came away with a different view and a more curious perspective. The next event was at Ekram’s mosque, when I led a presentation over Christianity to the youth at that location, and the results were similar.

While this was happening, Ekram and I became friends. He and his wife invited us over for loud, delicious, and filling dinners with them, their children, and grandchildren. We shared life stories, talked politics, religion, and the inconvenience of supermarkets always leaving just two lanes open.

As time went on, we did more events, continued sharing life together, and even led a counter-protest when armed protesters showed up outside the Islamic Association of North Texas to stomp on copies of the Qur’an and shout obscenities while Muslim mothers and children came for afternoon prayer. We are close friends and co-authors, as Ekram asked me to write the forward for his latest book, and we are currently planning an interfaith devotional that we will put together in the near future.

This all constitutes the first reason why I cannot take on the anti-Muslim character that has become fashionable in many circles. I know Muslims. I am friends with several, have met many more, and I love Ekram and his family. They are good, faithful people, just trying to make life work, not unlike everyone else.

I don’t deny the experience of our troops overseas, nor do I discount the violence of fanatical Islam, but I also can’t deny what I have experienced personally. I have found that those who espouse “Islamophobia” don’t really know any Muslim people. They wonder why Muslims “don’t say something” about terrorism, yet they don’t have any way of knowing what is said. They have no real relationship to the religion or its adherents. I suppose it is easier to hate or distrust something unfamiliar, but that is a chosen, subjective path, not a fact of life.

The second reason is that I cannot justify a sweeping, negative attitude and treatment toward a religion based on its most violent actions. Why? Because Christianity has a horrific, violent history. Yes, Christians were persecuted by Jews and Romans early on in their history… But the tables soon turned with a vengeance. Over the last two thousand years, Christianity has done great things and horrible things. Conquests, forced conversion, slavery, witch hunts, anti-intellectualism, the anti-civil rights movement, white supremacy, homophobia, and acts of terrorism can all be laid at the feet of those who subscribe to extreme Christian ideology.

But we don’t want to be judged based off of what violent adherents to our faith have done. So… why do it to someone else? Because they are newer? Christ teaches, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Further, He says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged…For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (7:1-2). If we want to be seen in light of the best our faith has to offer, shouldn’t we look to do the same for others?

Finally, on a related note, I know that I am not the Judge. God is. Paul asks the Roman church, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall” (Romans 14:4). In this context, he is talking about Christians judging Christians for their choices on food and holy days, so he says “The Lord is able to make them stand” (14:4). But his teaching stands alone and is applicable in this case.

I am answerable to God only for what I decide to do. I disagree theologically with much of Islam, and Ekram is aware of this. Likewise, I am aware of what he finds problematic with Christianity. At the end of the day, though, being fair, open-minded, and loving toward each other is not based on our agreement. Rather, God will ask us both what we did when faced with the choice to love or hate, judge or show mercy, and we want to be able to answer correctly. If Ekram or I are wrong, God will correct us. But as Paul and Jesus imply, judgment on others is not a task to which we are called.

So there you have it. You may not agree with me. This might have just made you like me less. I don’t really care either way. My goal with this post was to explain why my relationship with Islam is what it is. My hope is that my personal testimony will at least move some hearts to get out and explore personally what they might fear or hate, no matter what it is. The life of faith is not a call to fear and mistrust, but love and reliance on God as final Judge and authority.

My prayer is that those of us who struggle with a narrowed perspective rooted in fear might cry out to God that His Spirit would fill our hearts with the faith and love of Jesus. Hatred, fear, and judgment are not the call of the Christian. We are to love God and our neighbor (including perceived enemies) in a self-sacrificial way, as God has shown His love for us in Christ. Whether it’s based on religion, race, economic class, or social status, prejudice is something the faith is designed to heal, not encourage. May we all lean on the One who is our comfort and strength, and may we all reach across boundaries to make for a better world.

Peace be with you!

Mercy Not About Us, Justice Not About Others

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… — Matthew 5:44, NRSV

We love mercy and we love justice… As long as they benefit us. Don’t get me wrong, we like people who are merciful and just. We admire them and appeal to their example in certain situations. But when it comes to imitating such people (Jesus, for example), that’s when things get a lot more interesting.

As humans, we don’t like being held accountable for our actions. We value forgiveness most when we would prefer to be receiving it. On the other side of the coin, justice is our friend when it comes to those people getting what they deserve.

Jesus has every reason to leave us in the dust and move on. Throughout His entire ministry of healing, teaching, and releasing us from the powers of darkness, He met resistance. He was crucified by those who He came to guide into the way of peace. His followers were persecuted to a frightening degree, and then, once they gained power, the institution that became known as “the Church” embarked on thousands of years filled with good and holy things that were also marred by endless scandal, violence, and abuse.

Even before the Church was established, humans proved to be greedy, violent, and cruel. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This is grace, and it is this merciful grace that is offered to us all still by the One who loved us first.

But it is offered to us all, and we don’t like that. We like when mercy is offered to us, but we deny mercy and forgiveness to those we feel do not deserve it. For example, many of the Christian faith harbor and express hatred for those who follow other faiths (Islam, for example). We feel this way about those who hold different political views or who lead a lifestyle we consider to be inappropriate. Our mercy runs out when it comes to convicted felons, accused persons, and the “lazy” poor who beg for money on street corners. I mean, they’ll just buy drugs with it, right?

All of this judgment is going on in and among people who claim to have experienced the transformative grace and mercy of Jesus Christ… See the disconnect?

If Jesus is our master, and if the God who raised Him from the dead is the One we worship, shouldn’t we embrace their way in our daily lives? Instead of reserving judgment for others, shouldn’t we show mercy as we have been shown mercy, judging ourselves first that we may not come under condemnation?

That’s the way Scripture tells it.

Jesus let’s us know that God is merciful to all, and that is how we ought to be. God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” and so we should “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:45, 48). This doesn’t mean we will not mess up, but it does mean that, in the end, we choose to act and speak with love, even to those we feel don’t deserve it. It doesn’t mean liking them or condoning their behavior with which we disagree, but it does mean we are opting to show love and forgiveness rather than condemnation.

Paul and Peter carry this teaching forward in their epistles. Paul encourages us to “not repay anyone evil for evil” and to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17,21). Further, Paul asks us a haunting question later in 14:4. “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Judgment is the work of God, for only He can do so justly.

Peter also exhorts his listeners to “not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). This is in line with Jesus’ teaching that mercy and forgiveness not be restricted to the “chosen few,” but it is even for our worst enemies. After all, if we, who so often act as enemies of God, are eligible for mercy, who are we to deny that for others?

It is my prayer that we who are the people of God (yes, I include myself in this) will find our way onto the path of Christ. This is a path that is uncomfortable by nature, and it takes practice. We will be growing into our new, eternal life until we depart this life, but the journey itself will be a source of powerful transformation. If we can learn to choose something different, we will experience something different, and I think we can all agree that “different” is something we could use.

Peace be with you!