Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The grief of singleness

My church, which thankfully is more sensitive than many toward diverse populations, is holding an adult singles’ focus weekend the week after next. In advance of that, we singles were asked what leadership can do to minister to us properly.

It hit me for the first time on Sunday that, at least in the church, people need to know that singles are often dealing perpetually with grief — that because we’re unpartnered in a family-centric culture we often feel “less than.” Entering and leaving a church service solo when most people have spouses and especially children can be alienating.

It's easy to tell us that we really don't need a spouse and that we should concentrate on "spiritual" matters. While that's true in one sense, we humans are built, by God, to belong to something or someone, and when you don’t you really feel something missing — as we're reminded on a consistent basis. No amount of spiritual discipline or ministry activities can really make up for or address that; if anything, they can only hide the hole in our collective heart.

Of course, all three groups — widowed, divorced and never-married — have different issues. For the widowed, that loss is obvious; from what I understand, the death of a spouse, especially if the marriage was good, really does mean losing a part of yourself. DivorcĂ©es, in addition to the loss of a spouse, likely spend a lot of time second-guessing themselves, addressing either or both of "What could I have done better?" or "Why did I choose this partner?"

The never-married — where I fall on the spectrum — can, and usually do, fall into the self-pity trap of "Will anyone want me?" Most of us have been in relationships before and are, like those who have been divorced, crushed when one fails. It's especially difficult when friends around you are tying the knot; in 1987 I played for my then-pen-pal's wedding in Wisconsin but with a heavy heart because right around that time I had come to realize that I would not get the woman I wanted. Men have it harder, I believe, because there are fewer of us than women in the church, and even at my age (nearly 54) asking a woman on a date is still nerve-wracking.

Oh, sure, we have things to do, and the majority of single Christian adults that I know do live life on life's terms. Speaking for myself, in my 30s I took the time to finish college and find a job in my field and after that embark on a parallel music career; more recently, I got into social dance. So I'm a very busy guy — but one who's more than willing to make the time for a special lady.

Hear what we're not saying, however: For the most part, we don't believe that merely having a partner will solve all our problems; some will be addressed, of course, but in the process others will be created. We understand this, which is why we're usually deliberate; because we've been burned we want the right person, not just anyone who comes our way. In other words, we're trying not to be desperate because we understand that's a turnoff.

I would say this: Please don't make any glib statements or give us advice, and be very, very careful about setting us up on blind dates (only one ever worked out for me). If anything, we need whatever support you can give us in our journey, although we can't tell you exactly what until we're there. All we ask for is your acknowledgement and presence; that would mean the world to us.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

In defense of ‘male privilege’ in the church

It's been a truism in evangelical circles that leadership is in some cases "too male" and that so-called male privilege needs to end for the benefit of its female members. I don't share that view.

So what would happen if women received the very same power in the church as the men, without any distinctions? Simple — there will be fewer men in the church than there are now. There are reasons for this.

First, under egalitarian leadership only certain types of men will be belong to, let alone lead, a church or fellowship.

They will be only the type of men who were reared in the church and go along with the prevailing church culture. They will be "safe," attractive and non-offensive and know how to operate; in other words, a man has to fit a certain image. Guys who don't fit the profile will be shut down and thus shut out.

This is especially the case in black churches, whose membership is, by numerous accounts, 75 percent female; in the case of one of the black Methodist denominations that was meeting in Pittsburgh a few years ago, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that number jumped to 84 percent.

In one fellowship like that where I attended in my 20s, I was once told that a number of the women felt “intimidated” by me. That may have been a fair charge, but I never got any specifics — who felt that way and what specifically I was doing. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, I left, and the group, shrinking anyway due to a change of leadership, eventually collapsed.

Second, and more to the point, for reasons I've already mentioned, women cannot really reach out to men. Nor should they.

I'm aware of the Rev. Mark Driscoll, the embattled former pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Because I don't know the specifics, I'm not prepared to comment on what same people called his unbiblical theology and abusive leadership style.

But he did reach young men. (And, frankly, women flock to such churches when they want to be partnered with strong men.) In fact, the singles ministry at my complementarian church was a pretty big draw, especially back in the 1980s, for that reason. On top of that, we have a large number of reforming drug addicts and alcoholics, the type of people, mostly men, that good “church folks” often run away from.)

It was these men who may have been "rough around the edges" that the Apostle Paul reached out to, and his writings reflected that.

And here's something most people don't consider: How many major Christian movements were led by women, and how many mega-churches have they started? None I can think of.

I think this is a case where the issue of "power" has superseded the church's mission. We say we want good men in the church but then don't give them any reason to stay.

The ‘green’ party — a taste of its own medicine

Last week, at the end of his State of the Union speech, President Obama made the comment "I've run my last campaign," at which some Republicans in the audience applauded derisively.

And then this shot from the president: "I know because I won both of them."

Of course, GOP politicians went off on him as a result.

Now, you can argue that Obama was rubbing their nose in it, but was it necessary for them to applaud what will likely be the end of the political career of someone they deeply despise?

Let’s be honest as to what this is about: Envy. And we’ve seen this before, with Bill Clinton, who was hammered mercilessly with propaganda and gossip simply because he belonged to the wrong party. If anyone believed that things would change over time, he or she simply hadn’t been paying attention. I mean, opposing policies is one thing; sabotaging the office is another.

You might say, Well, the other side is doing it too! Prove that. And even if that were the case, does that make it right?

I get the feeling that some people would rather fight than work together to solve the nation’s problems, focusing on defeating enemies rather than considering that their worldview — or perhaps more accurately, that of the people who elected them — is the heart, not just part, of the problem.

Reality should tell you that not everyone is going to agree, and disagreement shouldn’t be a capital offense.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The difficulty with reconciliation

One of my favorite movies is “Cry Freedom,” which was based on a true story of the relationship between a white South African newspaper editor and a banned black activist whom he had savaged in print. At the behest of the activist’s mistress, the editor decided to pay a visit to the activist and experience his world. What the editor found was that he didn’t know what he was talking about.

Eventually, the two men became friends and the editor became an activist in his own right, using the paper as a weapon against the unjust system of apartheid. The activist died in police custody, and when the editor decided to take his crusade to the world the South African government promptly banned him. The movie ended with the editor and his family managing to slip out of South Africa on a plane so that a book he could publish a book.

I bring this up because I don’t think we appreciate just how hard the work of reconciliation is. And much of that has to do with the unwillingness to consider life from another's point of view.

The incidents with Michael Brown and Eric Garner last year and Trayvon Martin the year before that should make that clear. (I don't need to go through the particulars, so I won't.) What bugged me the most was that activist Al Sharpton, who went to Missouri and Florida to organize, ended up being savaged for being, among other things, a "race-baiter" without considering his real mission. (By the way, Martin Luther King Jr. was denounced in the same way over 50 years ago.) What are people supposed to do — simply ignore the issue?

People need to be heard in their grief, and telling them simply to "get over it" is probably even more cruel than the act itself.

You see, to work on reconciliation you have to admit and come to terms with the fact that there's a breach that needs to be addressed for which you share the responsibility. "Well, I don't see one," you might say. Exactly, and that's the point.

That especially works on a spiritual plane as well. One reason why "evangelism" is so difficult in this country is because much of the church doesn't have a bead on its own separation from God — that is, the one that formerly existed. A second reason is that if often doesn't get the breach that exists between its members, sometimes based on race, class, culture and other things that divide. What's worse is that if you address these issues you're often labeled as "divisive." Though I recognize and thank God for the civil-rights and anti-apartheid movements, I mourn the reality that both pitted one set of Christians against another set of Christians.

So what do with do? Talk, listen and be willing enter another's world. Hard to do now, but we'll be blessed if we do.

When the editor and his wife were visiting with the activist’s widow after his death, she asked them, “You will come to the funeral?”

“Will we be welcome?” he asked, humbly.

“Yes," she responded. "You and [your wife] are our brother and sister” — a strong statement in that culture.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Why it’s not enough to say ‘I’m not a racist’


While I was interviewing for a roommate about 30 years ago a Chinese student asked me, “What is your opinion of Asian people?” I told him in all honesty that I didn’t have one — nor could have I developed one since I knew, and still know to this day, very few Asians of any nationality and thus would be speaking out of utter ignorance.

I wish that were the rule for others.

I understand that a lot of people believe that race relations have supposedly worsened since Barack Obama became president in 2009. To a certain extent I agree with that — but not for the reasons some believe. Rather, I think that they resent that a worldview that they passionately oppose and wish to squelch now has a voice at the highest levels of political power.

That is to say, some say, “Can we not talk about race?” No, we cannot, at least not now.

For us African-Americans, the race issue is never far from us, although I personally don’t think about it much. When you consider that recent encounters with police that have left black males dead are seen generally from a prism of oppression by authority, you can thus understand the suspicion that we have.

But many choose not to understand. They say that if those folks simply had behaved properly they wouldn’t have gotten into trouble or even might still be alive.

The truth be told, they don’t really know if that’s truly the case — no, they really don’t. They don’t understand what it’s like to be stopped by cops for being in the “wrong” neighborhood. They also don’t understand what it’s like to be followed around a store by staff because of the assumption that you might steal something. They don’t understand what it’s like to be awarded a job or promotion on the suspicion of “affirmative action.”

Which is why rants that begin “I’m not a racist, but … ” get little traction from us.

And if you really, really desire racial harmony, it’s not possible to be passive about it. We need to talk and listen to each other, non-defensively, about each other’s perceptions, and not assume that the other person is whining. I also appreciate that many whites who aren’t affected directly are identifying with the “underdogs” — that will do more to combat racism than anything else.

When I was a child a group called Think recorded a song with the recurring refrain “Things get a little easier / Once you understand.” The song comprised a number of strained conversations between old and young where the people involved were merely talking past each other, and it ended when the cops called one man to inform him that his son died of a drug overdose, and the man began weeping. Perhaps he realized that his intransigence cost him his son.

Let’s try to avoid such situations.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Dathans in our midst

Many of you remember the character of Dathan, a “chief Hebrew overseer” played by Edward G. Robinson in the movie “The Ten Commandments.” One Egyptian official mentioned that he was “willing to sell [his] own mother” to remain in power, as he was assigned to find a prophesied deliverer among the Hebrews in order to keep them in bondage to the Egyptians. Of course he correctly identified Moses as such, and Moses ended up being banished.

And when Moses actually came back demanding the release of the Hebrews, guess who opposed him to the end? Dathan — even though he left with them during the Exodus.

I bring this up because folks are wondering why blacks aren’t rejoicing in the election of Tim Scott and Mia Love, the first black Republican U.S. Senator elected since Reconstruction and the first black Republican woman to get elected to the lower chamber of Congress respectively. They understand that the political right that runs the party and that both subscribe to today has always opposed their progress, so they really don’t care. Moreover, Love has said that, when she gets to Washington, she intends to undermine the Congressional Black Caucus.

Good luck with that, Mia.

One thing that shouldn’t need to be, but apparently must be, said: The first African-American to achieve high office has always — always — been politically liberal. So by the time a black conservative gets anywhere the novelty has worn off. Moreover, when an African-American gets to such a lofty place it's assumed that things will change, that the halls of power will be more accessible to people of color.

So what does this have to do with Dathan? Well, consider that black conservatives often make a lot of noise about challenging the black establishment, which is probably how they get attention in the first place. But they prove ineffective because blacks don't put up with them for a second, not to mention that if they even try to engage other African-Americans they would be chewed up and spat out.

So what does the ascension of Love and Scott mean? Nothing, whether short- or long-term.

Friday, November 28, 2014

No Republicans in my family

I spend most holidays with my mother, my brother and his family and occasionally with his in-laws (my sister-in-law is one of seven children). Things can get loud, with all their children, and occasionally you’ll hear debate among the men on college and professional sports. We come from all walks of life, whether coming from the ‘hood or having gone to college and attained professional positions. Most of us attend church somewhere.

However, if you attend one of our family gatherings you’ll never, ever hear any debate on politics, and when the subject does come up we’re pretty much on the same page. To make a long story short, we all maintain a healthy contempt for the right-wing worldview.

In other words, there are no Republicans in the family.

Does that sound strange? Well, consider that we’re all African-American except for one white man who also married into that family (and even he’s with us). And if you understand the history of the black man in America, you’d understand why modern conservatism is so extremely radioactive.

For openers, we tend to be a cynical lot, rarely taking anything at face value — in other words, we assume that people are trying to do a snow job on us. Yes, we pretty much recognize propaganda when we see it, and as a consequence our trust has to be earned over time. We need to be engaged, to learn how a particular issue would benefit or hurt us. (Just like anyone else, the truth be told.)

We are very suspicious toward people who would try to remove power from us because historically we haven’t had all that much, if any at all. It’s why we react so strongly when groups try to keep us from voting, especially when they know they won’t get our votes.

When folks denounce black leaders as “stirring up racial trouble for the sake of feathering their own nests,” we roll our eyes; that empty charge is as old as the hills because it represents a distraction from the reality that they don’t want or intend to deal with us on equal terms. (By the way, that charge was also directed toward the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., especially during the campaign to desegregate Birmingham, Ala. in 1963.)

We no longer routinely call people racists just because they disagree with us, but when they promote policies that harm us down the road our collective antennae go up.

When people hear us complain about being victimized by police, keep in mind that we have a history of such; many of us have been stopped for no good reason except “suspicion.” Rapper Ice-T did the controversial song “Cop Killer” — including the line “I’ll get you before you get me” — in response to the abuse of Rodney King by Los Angeles officers. Although I’m not justifying rioting, that’s the kind of thing that often happens when, as Dr. King once said, people “are not being heard.”

When black conservatives are touted as potential Messiahs, we shake our heads because we suspect they’re being paid. (In 1997, I learned that to be true.) When folks try to insist that the Republican Party fought for civil rights and the Democratic Party opposed them or that Dr. King was a Republican, we scorn those tidbits of misleading revisionist history.

When people arrogantly say that we overwhelmingly voted for Obama in 2008 and ’12 just because of his color, we look at them cockeyed, as if to say, with apologies to John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious.” Were Obama white and his opponents black we still would have supported him.

We can forgive but are not about to forget these things, for as the late philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Not for nothing do the Jewish people say — justifiably — “Never again” in response to the Holocaust.

Most people probably don’t understand what I just wrote, but only because they haven’t spent much or any time with us. They don’t know our history or perspective, which we will gladly share if they would sit down and talk with us. We wish that people would get to know us as individuals within our cultural framework and understand that there are certain things that we cannot and will not accept. Perhaps they need to join us for one of those gatherings and really connect with us.

Although I can’t tell you just where we’re holding Christmas dinner.