On leaving ministry

This June, I won’t be receiving reappointment to my church. It will mark the end of twenty years in pastoral ministry. I just shared the news with our church this morning. I wrote the narrative and reflection below as a way of understanding and clarifying some of the process for myself as I prepared to share with others.

A little more than a year ago, I had a restlessness I’ve never had before. I was hardly sleeping. I was more emotional than I’ve ever been. Emily (my wife) saw me cry more in the first few months of 2020 than in the first twenty years of our relationship. I sat with Todd (my boss/pastor/15-years ministry partner) in a coffee shop and was barely able to hold myself together as we talked about the future. Things were actually going well. I was enjoying life and ministry as much as ever. It was an odd time to be over-emotional, especially as someone who’s rarely emotional at all. Yet I had a nagging sense that something was off.

At that point, our family was planning to go to Spain for the next year. We had already arranged for me to come back to my position at the church on the other end of that time. But part of my restlessness was a feeling that I wouldn’t or shouldn’t actually be coming back at the other end.

That was not an exciting thought to me. I’ve loved the work of ministry and particularly the church and community where I’ve gotten to lead. I’ve told people often that I didn’t expect to leave until they carried me out (in a box, not on their shoulders, hopefully not with pitchforks). So the strong emotions weren’t because of dissatisfaction about what I was doing. They were more about grief that I felt like it might be coming to an end.

That all came before the pandemic. The pandemic obviously changed our plans for Spain, but it also brought some relief––or at least distraction––from any notion that I wouldn’t continue in ministry. But sometime near the end of summer, the questions about what I was doing returned, and they only grew from there.

I’ve talked and written quite a bit about calling. I’ve done that in part to try to understand it myself. The idea of calling to a particular place or task or role is, in some ways, still a mystery to me. I said for years that I wasn’t sure I was “called” to ministry, only that the work I was doing seemed good and right, and so long as others would let me do it, I’d take it as a path God had made available.

When we came back from Spain in 2014, I thought for a moment that I wasn’t going to come back to pastoral ministry. In fact, I rather actively tried not to. That was the last time I had the kind of restlessness I experienced over this past year. Then, it was a nagging sense that I was making the wrong decision if I didn’t come back to this. Now, it has been a sense that I would be making the wrong decision if I stayed.

Maybe this is all so mysterious to me because I tend to make decisions based on reason and spreadsheets, not on feelings and senses. And yet, while most of my daily life decisions are rational and pragmatic, the biggest decisions haven’t been. Our sabbatical year, coming back into ministry in 2014, leaving it now in 2021, none of those have been rational, spreadsheet, pros and cons decisions. They all came with a sense that I needed to choose a certain direction, that to do anything else would be to choose the wrong way.

Some people speak freely and often about God’s leading as they make decisions. Though I certainly believe God leads, directs, and calls, I’m hesitant to label particular decisions this way. It has a tendency to shut down any other conversation. Once you’ve played the “God card,” no one has permission to question your decision. I don’t want to play that card in that way. And yet, God’s leading is the best way I can describe the process behind some of these big decisions. God hasn’t spoken any of these plans in a voice from the heavens, and I can’t with certainty call it something as strong as the clear will of God. But for lack of any better understanding, I’ve taken these decisions as following the leading of God. I hope that’s what it is.

The final few steps in this direction came through the fall and winter. If you read this blog regularly, you might have noticed that I began writing reflections on my first twenty years in ministry last fall. Part of my motivation was to take some extra time to reflect on calling and ministry and just how good this work is. Ministry during pandemic has been … mostly miserable. But a lot of things have been miserable during this time, and the pandemic will end. As I started to ask questions again about the future, I wanted to be sure I was doing that while reflecting on calling and the goodness of ministry, not to be misled by the temporary frustrations of pandemic-era ministry.

A fast was the last major step. At the start of 2020, I had invited several people to participate in a 10-day fast during the UMC General Conference. When the pandemic canceled the conference, I canceled the fast. In December, I decided to observe that fast as a time for prayer and discernment about the future. That time and some important conversations in the first weeks of 2021 gave me final confirmation that it was time to make a change.

The decision to leave comes with a lot of grief. Pastoral ministry has been so good. I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time with people celebrating their most important moments, grieving with them in the hardest times, and offering a word of support or direction or prayer in the times when they needed it most. I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time studying Scripture in preparation for preaching and teaching. And I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time giving other people opportunities to lead and watching them grow. What a gift to have called this my job for twenty years. Already I have some hope that maybe that sense of calling back to this work will return one day. But for now, I get the sense that it’s not my work to do anymore. At least not in this way.

What’s Next?

I’ve heard many people advise never to leave one thing until you’re drawn to the next. I think I needed something nearly the opposite. I had never given much attention to what I would do if it weren’t pastoral ministry. I never expected to do anything else as my primary focus, except perhaps to teach theology and be a pastor on the side.[note]Even in that brief time in Spain when I had said I wasn’t coming back, there wasn’t much space to consider what I’d do instead. That was all filled with a sinking feeling that I was making the wrong decision.[/note] The sense of calling away from ministry allowed me to recognize new interests that had been growing over the past several years, ones I hadn’t even been able to recognize as such until I had some release from continuing in my current role.

I’ve had increasing chances in recent years to interact with other people working in public service across the city and state. The work they’re doing has been compelling to me. I’ve become fascinated with the law and the way it creates an ecosystem for us all to live within. I’ve seen how it can make it easier or more difficult for local businesses to start and grow, how it affects people’s ability to get and keep housing and jobs, and how it can help or hinder children from having the resources they need to thrive. By this summer, I was reading full majority and dissenting opinions that came out from the Supreme Court. Sometime around then, I began saying, “If I were ten years younger, I think I might go to law school.”

In November, as Emily and I drove back from a trip for my 40th birthday, I sat in the passenger seat taking career assessments on my phone. I had at least arrived at the point that I knew I needed to start thinking about what I would do if I weren’t in ministry much longer. Someone had said that people considering a midlife career shift should take one of these assessments, since they probably hadn’t taken one since college and were likely different people by now. Every assessment I took ranked multiple legal careers in the top ten. Again: “If I were ten years younger, I think I’d go to law school.” At some point, Emily notified me that I was not ten years younger, and I wasn’t going to be. But it might not be too late.

In December and January, I set a goal of talking to one person each day in the legal field. They ranged from private practice to government to public interest to academics. Those conversations confirmed even more my interest in the law and particularly work in government law.

I ended up applying to a small handful of law schools at the very end of January. I also met with Todd, my boss and ministry partner nearly from the start, to tell him I thought I should finish my time in ministry this June. Some jobs I think you can do while you wait to move on to something else, but I don’t believe ministry is one of those. Once you know it’s not your long-term future, it seems best to start working toward an exit. Regardless of whether any of the school applications worked out, I knew we needed to name an ending date in the church. We talked to church leadership and began preparing for transition.

About two weeks ago, I received an acceptance call from Yale. From the beginning, Yale was the dream, but I had never let myself believe it could be reality. Even a few weeks after the acceptance call, we’re still somewhat in disbelief.

In that acceptance call, the Dean said, “I know you didn’t say it in your application, but I got a sense that this involved a deep religious discernment process. I have a colleague who says, ‘The law shouldn’t just be a job, it should be a calling.’ I got a sense from reading your application that this was about calling.” Those may have been the most affirming and hopeful words I’ve heard in this process. Though I still can’t quite get a full grasp on the mystery that is calling, I believe in it. And it gives me hope that the future isn’t just our own making, but God’s guiding.

I formally accepted the Yale offer on Thursday. Our family has begun packing. There will be a lot of grief as we go. Nearly all of our lives are wrapped up in Kentucky, and a lot of my identity and greatest joys are wrapped up in ministry here at Offerings and First UMC. But we go with trust that something good is ahead, too.

Diversity Statement

Part of the law school application is a diversity statement. It’s an opportunity to provide a 1-page statement of any way you may bring diverse perspectives or backgrounds to your class and legal work. I wrote about my time in ministry. Here it is.

The first funeral I presided over was for a childhood friend. He had been hit by a truck cycling to work. His distraught mom remembered that I’d gone into ministry and called to ask if I would do the funeral. I never told her it was my first. Though I was scared and didn’t know what I was doing, as I sat with a grieving family to prepare a funeral, I was overwhelmed at the honor of being invited into their home and lives right then. It’s a rare privilege to be with people during some of their greatest times of confusion or heartache or fear. I still marvel that I get to be with so many people during those times.

Many people go into ministry because they love people and empathize well with them. I didn’t. When I started, the people close to me would have characterized me as highly rational, hardly emotional. My wife didn’t see me cry until we had been married five years. That wasn’t because I hid the emotion; I was just never overcome by it. When I started in ministry, I would have happily avoided those times sitting with families as they grieved or the times in pastoral counseling talking about the intimate parts of people’s lives, but I couldn’t. And as much as I was supposed to be helping others, those moments changed me. I saw the common pattern of shame from men who lowered their voices to a whisper in my office to tell me they were addicted to pornography. I counseled highly successful people who still sought their parents’ approval and felt like frauds. I wept with a young, new father whose wife had just died of cancer. The opportunities I’ve had to be part of others’ lives have changed me for the better, and I’m profoundly grateful for them.

I expect to see legal work differently because of my ministry work. My company was sued twice last year. Both felt like predatory lawsuits—people who knew they could force a settlement. In each case, my partners and I were afraid and confused as we sat with lawyers who calmly guided us. I recognized in those moments several similarities to the conversations I’ve been having for the past twenty years.

When I first considered going into law, I was worried I was too late. From what I’ve seen, applicants in their 30s are rare, those in their 40s almost non-existent. Though I come late, I believe these years have been invaluable preparation for me. I’ve spent nearly two decades meeting with people as they shared some of the most difficult and intimate parts of their lives. I hope that will help me bring to my class and my work a particular awareness of how people feel and behave in some of the hardest times.

———

The White Struggle With the Word “Racist”

I want to begin with all kinds of disclaimers, mainly in an attempt to absolve myself of any unintended offenses below. But it’s probably best for me to resist that urge and instead (1) invite your correction and (2) caution you that I have no expertise here. So accordingly, feel free to be quick with any correctives where I miss the mark and be cautious in reading the below as anything more than a personal reflection. I’m writing this primarily to other white friends who might relate and find something helpful here for taking a few steps forward.

If you had me list five words I hoped no one would ever call me, “racist” would undoubtedly make the list. Everything that word has meant to me for most of my life is directly opposed to who I want to be, and even more, if I’m honest, to how I want to be perceived.

“Racist” for most of my life has carried the kind of moral revulsion that “swindler” or “sexual predator” would carry. An accusation of racism would be the kind of thing that, if proven true, would be devastating. It would disqualify me from public leadership and, for many people, any kind of respect or friendship.

That’s the main way I heard “racist” used throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. A New York Times editorial that summer was titled, “Is Donald Trump a Racist?” Its opening lines: “Has the party of Lincoln just nominated a racist to be president? We shouldn’t toss around such accusations lightly.” The article concluded that Trump, indeed, was a racist. It suggested what many others claimed outright: because he is a racist, Trump should not become President. A Washington Post article that same summer was headlined, “For Evangelicals, the Question Has Become: Which Is a Worse Sin, Abortion or Racism?” The article suggested that the choice was between a racist (Trump) or a strong supporter of abortion (Clinton).

A new understanding of “racist” (for me)

It’s only in more recent years that I’ve become familiar with a different understanding of racism. This one doesn’t ask whether I’m racist; it assumes it. It starts by asserting that white people are characteristically, almost inevitably, racist.

Here’s what this understanding of “racist” suggests, as I understand it: Racism is no binary––something you have or don’t have. It’s a full pattern of assumptions about the world. It’s baked into the systems we live in. These can go from something as simple as what “flesh-colored” means on something like a Band-Aid, to various scenarios where black people live with a real and legitimate fear for their lives and white people do not.

This is also where “racist” defines something more than “prejudiced.” Racism is the combination of prejudice with power. With this understanding, it applies particularly to structures that have been established and protected––at times intentionally, at times unwittingly––primarily by the white people who benefit from them. People of any race can be racially prejudiced, and that’s an evil we should all beware of. But racism is particular to the race that has been in power.

In this context, it would make sense for someone to say that our society has ingrained racist patterns, ones that I may be unaware of even while I benefit from them. And because I live in this society as a member of the race that has held the most power, I almost certainly have racist assumptions, even if my intentions are good.

Racism as a vice

A friend and brilliant philosopher, Dr. Claire Peterson, recently suggested to me that it might help to re-frame the way we connect racism to morality. We’re more likely to acknowledge that we struggle with other vices. Though it may not be pleasant, we’re probably quicker to admit a tendency toward pride or anger or greed or envy. We might concede that our impatience or lack of self-discipline are problems, even character flaws. These are things that we can talk about “working on,” areas for “personal growth.” We might even go so far as to call them “sinful patterns” in our lives.

Several years ago, I read a brilliant book on the seven deadly sins, Glittering Vices. As I got to each new chapter (each covered a different vice), I thought, “Finally! This is the one I don’t struggle with. This will be a nice read about someone else.” By the end of each chapter, I was deeply implicated. It turned out I wasn’t free of any of these. As disappointing as that was, that new awareness was also freeing. It helped me recognize blind spots and begin praying and working toward growth. The book didn’t tell me I was a miserable excuse for a human being. It told me, though, that I was living in a world that would naturally lead me down paths of lust and gluttony and greed, and I needed to be armed with awareness and grace if I wanted to combat these.

The claim that I might be racist was jarring to me when I first encountered it. It was unlike the claims from Glittering Vices that I might struggle with vanity or sloth or envy. When you’ve always associated “racist” with moral revulsion, some of the worst kinds of evils, and then someone suggests that you’re racist, what do you do? The knee-jerk reaction: “I’m not a racist!” Probably to follow with proof––anything from that time you did a kind thing for a person of color to the fact that you’re married to a person of color.

If we were to think of racism in terms similar to the other vices, it may not require such strong knee-jerk reactions when we’re implicated. It might allow us instead to become aware of our blind spots and to talk in terms of growth and awareness and grace. It might also allow us to speak honestly about how racism is sinful, but how that sinfulness should be a prompt for growth, not shame. This understanding of “racist” wouldn’t disqualify someone from respect or friendship or public leadership. But it also wouldn’t let it go unexamined or uncorrected.

If we speak and think of racism in similar ways as we do the other vices, we also might be able to better address systemic problems. Just as you can identify the policies, patterns, and messaging in our society that promote greed or lust, you can begin to identify the ones that promote and sustain racial inequalities.

The strategic problem with “racist”

We run into a strategic problem when we use the word “racist” in this new (to many of us) way. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it’s an inaccurate word to use or an unfair word to use. I’m only suggesting one of the reasons I think it may have been at times ineffective, even though accurate and fair.

Here’s why …

Good people / Bad people

A word becomes defined by its usage. And the primary way many (most?) white people have heard “racist” used is to suggest that someone who is racist is immoral and uncultured––ignorant, bigoted, prejudiced, and mean-spirited. “Within this paradigm,” writes Robin DiAngelo, “to suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow––a kind of character assassination.”

When people were asking “Is Donald Trump a Racist?” in the lead-up to the 2016 election, they weren’t asking whether he struggled with a vice like lust or greed or anger. They were suggesting that he was morally compromised in such a profound way that he should not be elected, in a way that Hillary Clinton was, by comparison, not. Examples like this have trained us to see any suggestion of racism as the “deep moral blow” DiAngelo talks about.

“Racist” has so frequently been used to separate “good” people from “bad” ones that it has blinded us to racism’s more subtle realities. To borrow from Solzhenitsyn: If only there were racist people somewhere insidiously committing racist deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing racist and not cuts through the heart of every white person. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

This is why DiAngelo (who identifies as a white progressive) says, “I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the ‘choir,’ or already ‘gets it.’1 White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice.”

Because the word “racist” has been so morally weighted in our usage, DiAngelo suggests that those who see it as abhorrent will spend more time virtue signaling to absolve themselves, more time trying to implicate others “worse” than themselves, and not nearly enough time continuing to listen and do the things that are most helpful.

Noun or adjective

Another problem we run into with “racist” is that it’s an adjective that also functions as a noun. You can have racist tendencies, but you can also simply be a racist. We do this with other adjectives––rich, famous, poor, homeless. (Think “Lifestyles of the rich and famous.”) When they become nouns, they become not one descriptor but the defining characteristic of those we speak about.

Most of the other vices I’ve mentioned don’t do this. We don’t speak of someone as a lust or an anger or a pride. These are things we struggle with, not things we are.2 And notice how it changes when we move these from struggles to defining characteristics. Someone might admit to struggling with lust but will probably not take kindly to being called a pervert or sexual deviant. They might admit to prideful tendencies but take offense if you call them a narcissist. We can (sometimes) handle acknowledging our vices. But nearly all of us react negatively when they’re used as our defining characteristics. Because “racist” can occupy the same space in our speech as “pervert” or “narcissist,” it’s liable to the same offense and knee-jerk rejections as those words.

Robin DiAngelo, whom I’ve quoted a few times above, writes about white fragility––this knee-jerk reaction of white people against any suggestions that they could have racist tendencies. I wonder if the move from adjective to noun contributes to that fragility. We can talk about struggling with a vice. But when the vice becomes our defining characteristic, we fight back.

Getting people to listen

I’m convinced of this––we need to deal with our racism more directly. Our nation does. Individuals do. I do.

I’m also convinced that our different understandings of the word “racist” and its implications are preventing a lot of people from dealing with these things seriously. I know it was the case for me. I needed to come to a different understanding of the word before I could come to a better understanding of the problem.

Strategically, if we had a different word for the problem, I wonder if we could deal with the problem more quickly. Some words are worth abandoning when they’ve lost the meaning we need them to have. Some are worth redeeming –– at nearly any cost. I’m not in any position to say which is true here. I just wish that we could deal with the serious vice of racism in ourselves and in our culture, and I worry that the word itself has prevented many people from giving the problem proper consideration.

Regardless of all this, “racist” is the word we have, and I don’t intend to propose a new one. For anyone (like me) who has had a knee-jerk reaction to this word and its implications in the past, I’m proposing that you give it a new hearing––not as something that calls you a moral monster or that is only about other people, but as something that needs careful attention from all of us.

Some next steps

If we take racism to be similar to other vices, we can understand the recent claims that being “not racist” isn’t enough. That’s because this kind of racism has been ingrained in our society for centuries. And being “not racist” is at once both unrealistic and insufficient. This is why you might be seeing calls for people instead to be anti-racist.

“Not racist” seeks easy absolution. Anti-racist names it as a constant problem to fight back, both personally and societally. “Not racist” overlooks important areas of needed growth––the same way I had overlooked some of the ways I struggled with other vices until I read that book. Anti-racist seeks to identify these things and work toward rooting them out. “Not racist” is passive and concerned about maintaining personal reputation. Anti-racist is active and concerned about changing personal and public realities.

As I’ve understood it, you can actually be both racist and anti-racist. Racist because those ingrained assumptions and behaviors still exist. Anti-racist because you’re actively working toward identifying and removing them.

My goal here isn’t to provide you with specific next steps. See my opening disclaimer: I’m far from any expertise in this. My goal instead is to help a few other people identify why they’ve had such a knee-jerk response to the word “racist,” if their experience is like mine, and then to move from that to something more positive and productive. If we get that far, there are plenty of expert resources available to do what DiAngelo suggested is necessary: “engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice.”

[A later addition: I’m thankful for a lot of good conversation from this post. There are many things I should probably add––especially a stronger emphasis on the corporate nature of racism, some more about vice, and another word on white fragility. I won’t add these to the body of the post but add them here so you can see some of the progress from these conversations.]

On the corporate nature of racism. I’ve noted in several places above that racism is not just a personal vice but a systemic evil, ingrained in our society for centuries. But most of my discussion above focused on the personal. This would be a better and more balanced piece if it gave equal weight to the societal/systemic evil of racism. This is not only about people’s individual sinfulness but long-established sinful structures. This is one of the reasons why it seems “anti-racist” is far better than “not a racist,” which I noted is at once both unrealistic and insufficient.

On vice. I think some perceptions of vice, along with the primary way I’ve treated it here, could suggest that I’m advocating an understanding of racism that is (1) more personal than societal, and (2) softer and less evil. This is my fault for not giving enough weight to the societal and deeply evil nature of the vices. To consider racism alongside other vices shouldn’t diminish its severity or its systemic/structural implications. I could and should have done more to address those here. One difference that does remain is that racism is a particular sin of the race that has long held power while the other vices are more universal in scope. I don’t know that this is reason enough to remove it from the category of vice, but it is a significant difference from all the others.

On white fragility. Some have pointed out that the kind of softening of our understanding of “racist” that I discuss above is a reflection of white fragility. I think they’re right. I think most humans have a fragility regarding how we speak about sin, in general. That’s not to let white people off the hook. It is to suggest that sin is, for all humanity, a touchy subject. And racism, as a particular category of sin for white people, has become particularly touchy for us. And at least strategically, I think I have a better chance of gaining a hearing with sinners if I talk to them about sin as a vice––one that is doing deep damage to them and the society around them––rather than labeling them with that sin as their defining characteristic. The former approach tends to focus on people’s guilt and complicity and looks toward change, the latter approach has a tendency to focus people on shame and is more likely to shut down the conversation before it begins.

This is where, pastorally, I think we may do better and get further if we acknowledge people’s fragility about sin and work strategically to root it out. If we instead tell them to get over their fragility, we more often lose them from the conversation at the start. White people have a unique fragility about racism. I’m not concerned about easing white suffering about this, but about engaging white people in the conversation in the first place.

Two problems with my approach here: (1) Some have argued that it could do nothing more than diminish the severity of racism and keep people from confronting its evils and their complicity. I think that’s a legitimate argument. I hope it wouldn’t be the case, but I can see where it could be. (2) Even this suggestion comes from a position of privilege. I’m able to begin with this admittedly softer approach in part because I haven’t suffered the negative effects of racism. I should be careful not to suggest this as the approach others take in how they speak about racism. I intend to suggest it more as a re-framing for people who have been unable or unwilling to think about it in a way that implicates them and could lead to change and growth. I understand why some people think even that strategic approach is too much of a power play at changing word meanings.


Like it? Click here to subscribe for blog updates.

Think it would be helpful for others or want to discuss with them? Most people find this blog because you share it. Thank you! Hit a sharing button below or copy and paste the link to share with others.

Footnotes

1 A white progressive who read an early draft of this article told me she totally disagrees with this definition of “white progressive.” Perhaps white progressives are hearing and listening to enough voices like this that they’re changing and no longer properly fit this definition. I don’t know whether DiAngelo would agree with that or call the refusal to accept this definition as an indicator of the “white fragility” she writes about. Whatever the case, I’ll leave it here as DiAngelo’s definition and let others choose whether they agree with it or not.

2 Gluttony here is the near-exception, since we can call someone a glutton. I wonder if this could have any relation to why gluttony may be the vice we’re least likely to address head-on today.

Charity, Assumptions, a “Sinful Woman,” and COVID-19

Strange times bring great opportunities for learning.

You’ve probably learned a lot in the past couple of weeks about disease spread and prevention.

You’ve probably learned how to wash your hands. (We’re all just now learning how to wash our hands. What a wonder! So many songs you can sing while you wash. My kids have chosen “Baby Shark.” Lord, in your mercy …)

We’re learning to stay home when we’re sick. (Just imagine if some of these new habits stick …)

We’re learning new ways to interact. Italians are singing from their windows and terraces. Churches are working out live streaming.

We’re learning to adapt, sometimes with humility. Many church leaders started last week with the bold claim that we never cancel worship services and ended the week … canceling worship services.

It has been a brutal week for anyone responsible for bringing groups of people together in any way.

Many of these pieces of learning we couldn’t avoid. At least not if we wanted to be responsible citizens.

We also have other opportunities for learning––ones that involve others’ decisions instead of our own. Those opportunities begin with choosing charity and curiosity before we choose assumptions and blame.

Let’s be honest about this. In recent times, as a whole, our nation has not done well with charity and curiosity before assumptions and blame.

A comparison to a time long ago: The last time we had such wide-spread concern and significant cancellations was after the 9/11 attacks. Our President’s approval rating then skyrocketed to 92%. Just 10 months earlier, the majority of our nation had voted against him. It’s difficult to imagine any scenario in which a President’s approval rating could hit 92% in today’s atmosphere.[note]That’s not with just this President. It’s with any President you could imagine us having. But also … it’s especially unfathomable with this President.[/note] Many more than 8% of us––on all political sides––default to assumption and blame.

I’ve learned about myself that I tend to misjudge situations that aren’t my own. From the outside, I tend to assume the situation is what I see on the surface. But when I talk to the people involved, without fail, they introduce complexities I hadn’t considered and sometimes entirely change my view of the situation.

A “Sinful Woman”

A good example of charity and assumptions comes from last Sunday’s lectionary gospel text. In John 4, we read about Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well. Jesus has supernatural insight about her life: “You have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.”

Throughout my life, I’ve had and heard one interpretation of this text––this is a “sinful woman.” She jumps from one man to the next. Five marriages. She hasn’t even bothered to marry the current one. She really should be living differently. How awkward to be confronted on this by someone who claims to be Messiah.

We celebrate Jesus’ charity in choosing to speak with a woman like this.

• She’s a Samaritan. That should be enough to prevent him speaking to her. Jews and Samaritans don’t speak. The resentment runs about as strong as any ethnic resentments you might think of today.

• She’s a woman. That also should be enough to prevent the conversation. Strike two.

• And she’s an adulteress. Major strike three.

No wonder she comes at high noon to the well, a time when she won’t encounter other women. Any good Jewish man, certainly a Jewish Rabbi, would keep his distance. But Jesus doesn’t.

Despite Jesus’ example, I wonder if we’ve been assuming the worst of this woman ever since. We assume she should be living differently, but a woman in this day would have very little choice about a divorce. Why has she had five husbands? It’s likely that leaving these relationships wasn’t her decision––the husbands would have made that call. Or they died. The decision to be with each next man? Maybe a decision for survival, maybe a decision she didn’t control as much as we assume. Whatever it is, the fact that this woman has had five husbands is almost certainly a point of deep shame or sorrow.

We hear this text according to our values and norms and we call this woman a “sinful woman.” But if we hear it according to the values and norms of her culture, we might see her as someone we’d pity, someone who has lived a hard life, someone avoiding the others in her society because of her shame. Could she be a “sinful woman” who has made several bad choices? Yes. But we know far too little to say.

Charity, Assumptions, COVID-19

The current national and global crisis gives us a lot of opportunity to learn about others. With every new conversation I have, I learn about a new complexity someone is dealing with as normal life is disrupted.

I’m especially involved in a lot of conversations with small business owners and pastors. Here are the challenges I’ve watched those groups face over the past week.

Small business owners

The #1 concern from every one I’ve talked to is how to keep the business afloat and also take care of the employees. On Friday, I talked to the owner of a business with 25 employees––a business that I wrongly thought wouldn’t see too much impact. Already, he was agonizing over layoffs. “If I quit paying these people, most of them are in immediate financial trouble. If I keep paying them, I don’t know how long our business can survive.”

Most people have responded with an encouraging amount of charity. Some have responded with shoulds. The businesses should quit being greedy and keep paying their employees. Those have been the exceptions. We’ve seen far more charity than shoulds, at least at this level.

The should chain will keep moving upstream, though. There will be calls for utilities companies, landlords, and banks to provide relief by suspending billing. Ultimately, people will call on the federal government to provide the relief. Every step of the way, the next group called upon will have to balance others’ needs with their own health. The utilities and landlords and banks need to stay afloat, too. And the government can’t print money forever.

If we approach this with charity and curiosity, we can expect that most people are trying to do the right thing––not only for themselves, but for the people they feel some kind of responsibility toward. We’ll be slow with the shoulds and quick to understand the delicate balance people are trying to manage. A group of Lexington small business owners had a conference call with our congressman yesterday. His concern and desire to help were evident. But so were the limits to what he’s likely able to do.

Pastors

Last week many of us agonized over whether to cancel our standard worship services. This week, most of us seem to have accepted that we’ll be cancelling for a while. For some, there was a quick and easy rush to online options. Others went kicking and screaming.

Some of those who went quickly were criticized for giving in to fear, not heeding that passage in Hebrews that tells us to “not give up meeting together.” Some who went kicking and screaming were called selfish––more concerned for themselves than for public health. But I don’t think many of the pastors making these choices were driven by fear or selfishness. Most were making difficult decisions as they tried to manage the balance between being responsible citizens and responsible caretakers.

We believe that the church at worship is the greatest locus of hope in our world. We believe that in the Lord’s Supper we truly encounter Christ, and in that encounter we’re nourished and sustained. We believe that Christ is our hope in times of uncertainty and our solace in times of grief. And we call two things the very Body of Christ in our world––the church[note]Read this as the gathered community of believers, not a building.[/note] and the elements at Eucharist.

So our concern is no mere selfish desire to keep our event going. It’s a concern for the spiritual and emotional care of our people, especially in a time of uncertainty and grief. I’ve talked with several pastors who have a great concern for people’s mental health through this period. Grief + isolation is a dangerous combination. We may be preserving people’s physical health, but we fear the mental health repercussions.

We also believe that bodies matter. We have a responsibility to preserve and protect both our bodies and those around us from unnecessary harm. This is the reason for canceling. We need to. For the sake of our bodies and others’. But it’s also why canceling is so difficult. A move to online worship and prayer gatherings is not the same thing. People continue to gather in the body because it matters.

Charity

I’ve shared above about groups I’m connected to and understand best. I’m blessed by the community around me. It’s an incredibly charitable community. Almost no blame, no shoulds without a lot of preceding charity and curiosity.

But I’ve seen others agonize in the past week about what they should do, and agonize even more because of the assumptions and shoulds they’ve heard from the outside. I’m guessing that many of you, in entirely different ways, are dealing with the same. I can’t imagine what it would be like to make decisions right now about a funeral or a wedding scheduled for May. I can’t imagine the difficulty of conversations about schools and childcare as decision-makers consider the risks posed by canceling and the risks posed by not.

We are likely not near the end of this. That will mean a lot of hard decisions for most people. Be charitable. Be curious. Be quick to listen. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the people around us and the many important values they’re trying to balance. Their situation may not be what we’ve assumed it to be.

——

After Polarization: Lines in the Sand and Catholic Spirit

A friend dropped out of a project team this week because of a line in the sand. We actually agree on the issue, just not on where the lines go. He arrived at the point that he could no longer participate in good conscience.

Across the United Methodist Church now, I’m seeing a similar thing happen. People who had been united on a particular issue are dividing on how to handle it. When the question changes from “What do you believe about this issue?” to “What should we fight for and how?” the lines no longer cut so clean. Same for questions like “With whom will you associate and when?”

It would be easy to shake your head at new divisions––proof that settling one dispute only gives birth to three more. But it might get us further to acknowledge that we all have lines in the sand. All of us have some instance when we would say we can’t go along. We all have a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak. But what time is it? That’s often hard to know and a new opportunity for conflict. 

Polarization has made it easier for us to avoid these next questions. We align with our side and reject the other. This is why it’s so easy to put an (R) or (D) behind a name and assume we know everything we need to know. In the UMC, the letters behind the names could be (Prog) or (Trad). With these simple notations, we can identify allies and adversaries quickly.

But when we get to the other conversations, it turns out that you may be at odds with someone you thought was an ally. Sometimes in a surprising and personal way. That’s usually because they’re willing to tolerate less or more difference than you are. This is the even more challenging aftermath of polarization and division.

This kind of next-level division is likely to happen across the Methodist landscape in the coming years. Some people will have a high tolerance for working across the lines of division. Some will have almost no tolerance for it. Already, I’m aware of the potential to lose allies, partners, perhaps even friends—on one side because my lines in the sand are too far and on the other side because they’re not far enough.

After polarization, I expect some of our divisions to become more surprising, more nuanced, and more painful. The first round asked one question of us: “What do you believe about _______?” The next round will ask many. And that will force people still reeling from the first round to try to engage in new battles before the last wounds have even begun to heal.

As I watched that friend walk away this week from something that we had all believed in, I realized that at some point in the coming years, I’ll probably end up in the same position: having to separate from a dearly loved friend or respected partner because we can’t see a way forward together. I resolved that I want my primary stance through those difficult times to be one of grace and respect. Grace, rather than blame or disbelief, when a friend has to take a different course than I do. Respect, rather than scorn, when someone’s chosen path is one I can’t follow.

At some point, I’m likely to make the wrong choice in how I handle one of the many questions to come. I should expect others will, too. And it may take years or decades (if ever) before it comes clear to us what was good and wise. So I want to extend others the same grace and respect that I hope they’ll extend me as we try to make our way through an uncertain time.

John Wesley urged his people to have a “catholic spirit.” This is sometimes mistreated as indifference––tolerate all things and hold no firm beliefs or opinions. That’s nothing to do with what Wesley meant. (He took a lot of time in his “Catholic Spirit” sermon to say so.) What does a person with a “catholic spirit” look like, then? Wesley: “His heart is enlarged toward all mankind, those he knows and those he does not; he embraces with strong and cordial affection neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies. This is catholic or universal love. And he that has this is of a catholic spirit.”

The person with a catholic spirit may not be able to partner with all people at all times. But (s)he will extend grace and love to all people at all times. Though a time may come when we need to part ways, even with people we’ve long called friends or allies, I hope we can maintain this kind of catholic spirit. It may be after the polarization when that spirit is most needed.