He Had a Dream. This Wasn’t it.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr had a dream.

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t it.

This America, more fractured than ever.
This heart sickness, as insidious as its ever been.
This toxic enmity, still coursing through our veins.
This denial of humanity based on pigmentation.
This argument over the value of black lives.
This American President, the greatest of dividers.
These hateful men and women, applauding and amen-ing him and defending him.
These white children of immigrants, still somehow imaging this place their sole birthright.

These white Evangelicals, still wielding Bible and contempt for people of color simultaneously.
This American church, still the most segregated space in the nation.

The America that Dr King dreamed of is still a place off in the distance.
It is still only an aspiration; a great hope yet realized, a glorious reality not yet stepped into.
It is a beautiful dream still relegated to sleep and the yet to come.
And while these things remain true, we who believe in the dream can’t rest.
We cannot celebrate his life adequately without reminding this nation of (as he said), “the fierce urgency of now.”
This now is more fiercely urgent than its ever been.

White friends, it is a fine thing to contend that you celebrate the man today; to post memes and share quotes, but know that these things are easy.
There is no real cost to them and no investment of yourself in them.
They are the cheapest and safest form of activism.
Dr King’s dream was costly.
It was a pearl of greater price.
It was worth his life.
Is it worth ours?

There is much work we need to do today if we want to rightly begin to honor the man and the dream.

We cannot celebrate Martin Luther King’s Jr’s life without fully grieving.
We can’t do it without lamenting Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka and Jeff Sessions and Mitch McConnell.
We can’t do it while defending the expulsion of immigrants and the denial of refugees.
We can’t do it while waving Confederate flags and worshiping monuments to slavery’s legacy.
We can’t do it without mourning the young black men who still die without cause during traffic stops.
We can’t do it while funding border walls and voter ID laws and gerrymandering.
We can’t do it without confronting our racist uncles and xenophobic neighbors; our prejudiced pastors, bigoted bosses, and supremacist Presidents—and the blind spots of these things within ourselves that enable and unknowingly partner with them all.
We can’t do it without seeing the privilege we are both blessed and afflicted with; without fighting to craft something redemptive out of it, without leveraging it in the cause of the Dream, without fashioning it into a shield against the dream-killers.

And we can’t celebrate Martin Luther King Jr’s life without actively and loudly resisting this President.
We can’t do it without pushing back at the supremacy on display in his Cabinet.
We can’t do it while tolerating legislation that deports dreamers.
We can’t do it while excusing his remarks about shithole countries.
We can’t do it while normalizing the way he dehumanizes Muslims.
We can’t do it while letting him vilify kneeling black NFL players.
We can’t do it while he takes us backward to the days before Dr King and his dream were born.

White friends, this America is not the America Dr. King dreamed of; and until it is, we who share the dream need to steward that dream in such a way that it brings us conflict and discomfort and injury—because his dream requires such things from the privileged.
It requires a price greater than the seconds it takes to compose a Tweet on a day off from work.

Dr King’s dream and his life and so worth celebrating.
They are worth remembering.
They are worth pausing to honor.

But more than that, they are worth living and fighting and dying for.

May we who share his dream, steward it well until it is no longer a dream at all—but the glorious reality of our national daylight.

 

Order John’s book, ‘A Bigger Table’ here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good People Don’t Defend A Bad Man

At times in this life it can be a challenge to figure out who the bad people are, but sometimes they help you.

Sometimes they do the work for you.

Sometimes with their every vulgar, bitter word from their mouth, they testify to their personal malignancy and they make it easy to identify them.

Generally speaking, there are things that good people do and things good people don’t do.

Good people don’t refer to entire countries as “shitholes”—most notably countries that have given birth to our very humanity; ones that for hundreds of years have been colonized and poached and mined of their riches by powerful white men; countries whose people have been enslaved and sold and forced to come and build your country. 

Good people by any measurement we might use—simply don’t say such things.

Of course good people also don’t say they could grab women by the genitalia, either.
They don’t defend racists and nazis and call them “fine people,” days after murdering a young girl and terrorizing an American city.
They don’t brag about their penis size during debates, or suggest protestors at campaign rallies should be roughed up, or crack jokes about captured war heroes, or make fun of the physically disabled.
They don’t.

Good people don’t tweet anti-Muslim rhetoric in the moments immediately following a bombing in order to bolster a position.
They don’t leave American territories filled with brown skinned people without power for months upon months, after publicly ridiculing their public servants and questioning their people’s resolve.
They don’t erase protections for the water and the air, for the elderly, the terminally ill, the LGBTQ.
They don’t take away healthcare from the sick and the poor without an alternative.
They don’t gouge the working poor and shelter the wealthy.
They don’t abuse their unrivaled platform to Twitter-bait world leaders and to taunt private citizens.

Good people don’t prey upon the vulnerable, they don’t leverage their power to bully dissenters, and they don’t campaign for sexual predators.

But this President is simply not a good human being, and there’s simply no way around this truth.

He is the ugliest personification of the Ugly American, which is why, as long as he is here and as long as he represents this nation, we will be a fractured mess and a global embarrassment. He will be the ever lowering bar of our legacy in the world.

And what is painfully obvious in these moments, isn’t simply that the person alleging to lead this country is a terrible human being—it is that anyone left still defending him, applauding him, justifying him, amening him, probably is too.

At this point, the only reason left to support this President, is that he reflects your hateful heart;he shares your contempt of people of color, your hostility toward outsiders, your ignorant bigotry, your feeling of supremacy.

A white President calling countries filled with people of color shitholes, is so far beyond the pale, so beneath decency, and so blatantly racist that it shouldn’t merit conversation. It should be universally condemned. Humanity should be in agreement in abhorring it.

And yet today (like so many other seemingly rock bottom days in the past twelve months) they will be out there: white people claiming to be good people and Christian people, who will make excuses for him or debate his motives or diminish the damage.

They will dig their heels in to explain away or to defend, what at the end of the day is simply a bad human being saying the things that bad human beings say because their hearts harbor very bad things.

No, good people don’t call countries filled with beautiful, creative, loving men and women shitholes.

And good people don’t defend people who do.

You’re going to have to make a choice here.

 

Order John’s book, ‘A Bigger Table’ here.

 

 

The Transformative Act of Really Seeing People

In my book  ‘A Bigger Table,’ I tell the story of the day I met a teenage girl named Tracy and her older brother Caleb while serving as a youth pastor in Charlotte. It was the kickoff youth ministry event of the school season, and the first of my eventual eight-year tenure there at the church—my family and I having just arrived a couple of weeks earlier.

That September Sunday afternoon, our massive converted-storefront student center was packed with middle and high schoolers, parents, and volunteers; playing games, bouncing around the room, and generally creating the kind of frenetic chaos that only teenagers can.

I remember ping-ponging around the space; introducing myself to people, stopping to answer questions, and deftly working the room like a seasoned maître d’ during the dinner rush. In the middle of the dizzying bombast of the moment, I happened to catch a glimpse of Tracy and Caleb out of the corner of my eye. They were standing at the edge of the room, physically distanced from the crowd and both looking rather uncomfortable. 

I made my way over, introduced myself, and tried to engage them in some small talk but got little response beyond a couple of forced smiles.
I attempted a few of my go-to cheesy Youth Pastor jokes to disarm them. Nothing.
I talked about some fun stuff we had planned and let them know that I looked forward to getting to know them over the coming year. Barely a smile.
Sensing failure, I thanked them for coming and walked away—feeling a bit defeated and believing I’d made them feel more awkward than they appeared when I arrived.

A few days later though, I received an e-mail. It was from Tracy. She began by saying that I probably wouldn’t remember her (though I had), and she recounted her version of the conversation we’d had that Sunday. She talked about the difficulties she’d had in the past, some mistakes she’d made—and the coldness and judgment she’d received from pastors and students in their last church. These things had all left her feeling completely uncomfortable around religious people, and in fact that Sunday she and her brother been forced by their parents to be there as a sort of punishment.

Tracy said she wanted to thank me for the time I took to speak with her and her brother, and to let me know the difference it made:

“I wanted to thank you.” she said. “People usually don’t notice me,  don’t care, or they just pretend not to see me. You made me feel visible.”

I’ve never forgotten those words: “You made me feel visible.”

It’s amazing how easy it is to be a difference maker in the lives of people we cross paths with every day—and yet how regularly we blow it.

When we encounter people in this world, we come armed with our theology and our politics, with our preferences, prejudices, and plans—and we believe our most pressing need is to convert or convince or fix or save or change them—but it isn’t.

This isn’t what people most need. 

More than anything, they need to feel visible; to know that they are important and valuable and beautiful, that their presence here is noticed, that their stories matter, and that someone gives a damn. 

Knowing this, our most urgent task, our most sacred calling, our most life-giving contribution—is to see people, really see them. It is to endeavor to step into their space and try to be a source of simple compassion and kindness without any other agenda.

Seeing people is transformative.
It allows them to exhale in our presence.
They can lay aside the need to prove themselves or justify their pasts or defend their positions—or be anything other than exactly who they are at a given moment.

And since we’re all fairly exhausted from pretending, this is a priceless gift we all could use.

Tracy taught me a lesson that September Sunday that I hope I’ll never forget:

Stop trying to fix or change or convince or renovate people—but never stop trying to see them.

Make them feel visible.

 

 

 

 

Predatory Pastors and the Monsters Who Make Them

There are days when the monsters make themselves so visible that you can’t avoid seeing them, as much as you’d like to.

This past Sunday, Pastor Andy Savage received a standing ovation from his Memphis megachurch congregation, when from the stage he admitted a “sexual incident” with a high school student in his care in 1998—saying that he had “sinned.”

Savage claimed that he had told church leaders at the time, that he believed the issue had been “dealt with” and that he did not realize he still had “unfinished business” with his victim.

Sexual incident? It’s sexual assault, pastor. It’s rape.
Sinned? You committed a crime. 
Dealt with? You covered it up with the help of powerful men around you and hoped it would remain concealed while you profited from your position.
Unfinished business? It’s called accountability, paying for your crimes, and admitting the irreparable damage you’ve done to a human life

This is why people despise Christians.
This is why they don’t trust the Church.
This is why organized Christianity is hemorrhaging.
This is why so many predators feel emboldened.

This is why so many survivors of sexual assault don’t step forward.
This is why Alabama Senate Candidate Roy Moore received 650,000 votes.

This is why we have the President we have.

We see the sheer scale of the moral sickness laid out in front of us in Savage’s story:
A reckless misuse of the trust of a young person he was charged with caring for.
A leveraging of his power and position in order to silence her after violating that trust.
A local faith community of professed Christian leaders, more concerned with self-preservation than protecting children from predators on the payroll.
A Bible Belt Christian community now willing to look the other way from the most horrific behavior in order not to see its own ugliness.

Andy Savage’s criminal manipulation of a teenager, his deception in the wake of it, church leadership’s concealing of it, and his congregation’s current adoration in the face of it all—is the kind of cancerous sickness I and others like me have been pushing back against. It’s the worst bastardization of the message of Jesus and a complete perversion of pastoral care.

As a twenty-year student pastor, I grieve it all fully.

Power and trust are the minister’s most valuable currencies, and they can either be treated with reverence, allowing us to nurture young people through the most turbulent of days—or manipulated in ways that do irreparable damage.

Student pastors are given sacred proximity to young people who look up to us, who look for evidence of Jesus in us, who make themselves vulnerable because they believe themselves safe in that vulnerability. If we fail these teenagers in the way Savage did, we don’t only betray that trust, we destroy their sense of security, we alter their sense of identity—and we pervert their image of God by making God a co-conspirator in the violence we perpetrate against them.

Andy Savage’s crimes against this young woman are beyond defense or explanation, but some things are equally reprehensible:
The code language he wielded when speaking publicly about it all; the way he attempted to minimize it with antiseptic words that belie the depth of the filth and the reality of the violence.
The using of the moment to somehow fashion himself as the hero; the flawed, repentant man of God confessing his sins and to a quickly forgiving multitude.
A community of supposed followers of Jesus so willing to applaud it all, so ready to give him a pass, so seemingly lacking any compassion for a young woman and young people like her, who are violated in the places they should feel most secure.

I shudder to think how many Andy Savages there are out there leveraging the trust and power that come with their position in order to satisfy their sickness.
My heart breaks at the number of young people who find themselves secretly carrying the guilt and shame heaped upon their shoulders by leaders who would victimize them a second time by silencing them.
My blood boils at professed spiritual leaders, whose ol’ Jesus Boy’s Club still protects predators and deviants and calls it religion.
I grieve the number of men and women filling churches across this country, who will gladly erase two decades of violence and deception by their leaders—in exchange for what amounts to little more than a self-serving, sanctified Sunday morning photo-op prior to passing a collection plate.

God help the predatory pastors, and the monsters who allow them to do monstrous things to young people.

______________

A note to survivors of pastoral violence:

To the young people reading this who’ve been violated by those claiming to represent Jesus: I am so very sorry you’ve had to walk this road—and I’m equally sorry for the Christians who’ve further victimized you by excusing, concealing, and applauding them. I’m sorry for those who minimized your trauma or failed to believe you or failed to protect you. This was not your fault. It was their fault.

I can’t fix the things they’ve broken or undo the damage they’ve done or erase the memories you live with. I can’t help you make sense of it all because honestly it doesn’t make any sense.

I can only tell you that I grieve the pain you’ve endured, the fear and the shame you’ve been unfairly forced to carry. You don’t deserve these things. I would take them from you if I could.

It may not help, but I want you to know that there are pastors, ministers, priests, and youth leaders who are horrified by it all too; men and women who exist to be that place of safety and rest for people, who treasure the trust of those in their care, who feel sick knowing that you’ve been injured in this way.

There are faith communities out there who are fully disgusted by what you’ve had to endure; who would stand with you, cry with you, grieve alongside you.

But this has happened to you, and your trust was betrayed, and you have had to walk through this hell because of professed Christians—and so I know that doesn’t really matter.

More than anything, I just want you to know that you are far more than the terrible thing that was done to you; that you are beautiful and loved and deserving of good things in this life.

Please don’t carry your sadness in silence because it is too much for you to bear alone and you shouldn’t have to.

If you need a place to share the weight of this, please reach out here, or to the people below who are for you.

Be comforted and lifted and encouraged today.

RAINN
National Sexual Assault Hotline
EROC (End Rape on Campus)
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Safe Horizon
INCITE (For Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color)
On Eagle’s Wings Ministries
Human Rights Campaign (LGBTQ)
NCLR Nation Center for Lesbian Rights 
Not Alone
Safe Helpline (Victim support for members of Military)

 

Order John’s book, ‘A Bigger Table’ here.