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.

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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.

Church Reopenings: The risks, the other risks, and one more that no one’s talking about

As some churches around the country begin to reopen worship services while others wait, I’ve been talking to several church leaders and members about the various things we need to be considering. We need to take into account a number of risks––both risks to opening and risks to staying closed. I write this to encourage church leaders to make decisions with all of these things in mind. And I write it to encourage church members to bear with us as we try to make good decisions when they aren’t easy or clear.

I’ve been impressed with the thoughtfulness and diligence of our church’s leadership and with the grace and patience of our congregation. Wherever you are, and whatever decisions you’re making, I hope you’re experiencing the same.

Health Risks

Disease Spread

Anyone talking about churches reopening has heard about the risks of disease spread. We bring a large crowd of people together––

  • people who love each other and haven’t seen each other in months;
  • people who, if they’re like me, never knew how much they valued singing together and want to sing;
  • people who all have different standards and awareness about things like physical distance and touch and masks and kids running around.

We bring these together and worry about becoming the next epicenter of infection.

As a pastor, I fear the news article that says, “75% of those in attendance that day have now tested positive, two have died, one is in critical condition. When we contacted the pastor, Teddy Ray, …” I don’t want to know how that line ends.

I’m concerned about the liability, the negative publicity, etc. But the much greater fear comes when I start to fill in the blanks with names and faces of people I dearly love. And I don’t even want to think about what it would mean if our congregation were to become an epicenter for a city-wide outbreak.

I don’t write this hypothetical to suggest it would be the likely outcome. I think it’s quite unlikely. Tens of thousands of churches are reopening. We’re hearing about the handful where these are the results. Nevertheless, it’s a possible outcome. And one that at least makes me take next steps with a healthy fear. Reopening of churches poses the risk of disease spread––both to our members, and then out into our community––however likely or remote that risk is. Churches must take that seriously.

Mental Health and Human Dignity

Then there are the other risks of quarantine to consider, those related to mental health and human dignity. These aren’t particular to the church, but they need to factor into our decisions. I admit that I’m frustrated by the ways some of these are being ignored or even scornfully dismissed. I’d love to see social workers and mental health experts standing alongside epidemiologists at press conferences and as key parts of advisory panels. Some of the major unintended consequences of quarantine have no reason to catch us by surprise.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been widely praised for his public handling of the situation in New York. And with good reason. He has been a model of class and measured response from most of what I’ve seen.[note]Some people have taken exception with this statement, especially citing Gov. Cuomo’s decisions regarding assisted care facilities. I wasn’t aware of those when I wrote this. I had seen many clips of his press conferences that impressed me and had seen general praise of his handling of the situation. Regardless, I’ll leave this in rather than editing after the fact. I hope one claim like this is neither the point of fixation nor enough to invalidate the rest of this article for reasonable people.[/note] But one of his most viewed moments was, in my opinion, his worst.

[Cuomo]: Economic hardship. Yes. Very bad. Not death. Emotional stress from being locked in a house. Very bad. Not death. Domestic violence on the increase. Very bad. Not death.

[Reporter, about people who aren’t receiving unemployment checks]: They can’t wait for the money. They’re out of money.

[Cuomo]: Yeah, we’re talking about a couple of days lagged on the unemployment insurance. And they will get the check from the date of unemployment. It does not cost them an extra penny.

April 22 Press Conference

It’s a privilege to be able to dismiss economic hardship, emotional stress, and domestic violence this easily. That kind of approach doesn’t recognize the personal hell these can represent. If someone has ever waited for a check to buy food, they won’t see it as just “a couple of days lagged,” something that “does not cost them an extra penny.” Critics of the pro-life movement have (rightly) contended that you can only call yourself pro-life if you care about someone’s quality of life while they’re living, not just whether they live or die in the womb. The same should apply here. It makes sense for disease spread to be the beginning of our conversations right now, but it can’t be the only part of our conversations.[note]An example of the tunnel-vision some of us have developed: I talked to a healthcare worker recently who was chastised for using PPE for a contact precaution patient because the patient didn’t have COVID-19. Even some people working in healthcare seem to have forgotten that other health concerns still matter.[/note]

For many of us, the unnatural way quarantine has us living is mere “disruption.” But for others, it’s devastating, at least verging on inhumane.

Here’s just one crushing example:

This isn’t an argument that we should be doing something different. But it’s an argument that we can’t dismiss things like this. We must ask questions not only about life and death, but about living and dying with dignity. The church should be on the forefront of asking those questions.

I live in a house with four impressively self-sufficient kids and a wonderful wife. I still have my job. I have daily human contact––both in-person conversation and physical touch. I imagine that my situation is about as easy as anyone’s right now. And even with all of this, I admit there are days when I’m just barely holding it together.

So I can’t imagine the challenge for anyone who is:

  • living in near- or total isolation,
  • responsible for young, not-at-all-self-sufficient kids,
  • going on months without a hug or human contact,
  • single parenting,
  • carrying deep anxieties about finances,
  • living in a home that’s physically or emotionally unsafe

    … to name just a few.

The church is the primary community and social support for a lot of people on that list. So long as we remain closed, we’re creating a barrier to much of that social support. Yes, we can do some things digitally and from a distance. But we can’t fool ourselves into believing they’re the same or even that they suffice. Staying closed does not come without risk to our people.

Spiritual Health

Some people have dismissed the importance of church gatherings, saying things like, “I think God will understand.” Yes, God understands. But we don’t gather for worship simply to appease God. We worship together because we’re made to worship.

God’s order to Pharaoh over and over in Exodus is, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” Of all the basic human rights denied the Israelites in Egypt, God identifies their ability to worship him as central. For any who would talk about “personal worship” or worshiping God “in our hearts,” any who contend that place and gathered community don’t matter, the treatment of worship throughout the Bible points us in a different direction.

If worship is really something we’re made for, it’s unsurprising to see that spiritual health has a significant relationship to both mental and physical health. This 2012 study is a helpful and interesting analysis of the best research on religion/spirituality and its connections to health. Here’s a summary table of its findings:

Church leaders who want to reopen churches aren’t just concerned about this for the survival of their organizations, as some have suggested. They’ve seen that their people’s spiritual health is related to their overall thriving, and they’re concerned, especially in a time of great adversity, for the well-being of their people.[note]To be sure, this is no suggestion that someone who suffers from depression or has a rocky marriage or is diagnosed with cancer must not have enough faith. This is no simple true/false relationship. But is a spiritually healthy person more likely to remain mentally, socially, and physically healthy? The research says yes.[/note]

Church Risks and Final Decision-Making

The Risks of Exclusion or Unwise Exposure

As we consider re-opening, we’ve begun to talk about all of the people who might be encouraged or required to stay home. We would encourage anyone in a high-risk group to make a careful assessment of the risk before coming. We would require anyone who poses a higher risk to others to stay home. That includes anyone who can’t follow the recommended social distancing precautions (masks, physical distance), anyone who has been in recent contact with someone who tested positive, or anyone displaying symptoms. Because of space requirements, we might even have to exclude people based on capacity issues.

I want to note here that this is not a new phenomenon. It’s just broader. Capacity issues and RSVP systems are unusual but not unheard of, even if the reasons for them now are different. We’ve always had at-risk people who would be wise to avoid large crowds at certain times. We’ve always had people who were excluded because they or their children posed a health risk to others. (I have a feeling churches from here forward will be much more direct about asking people with symptoms of illness to please stay home.) We’ve just not had so many who fell into these categories.

The risk of exclusion is real and much broader than it has been before. But it’s also not new. It’s something to grieve. It should cause us to look for as many creative solutions as possible. But I don’t believe we can choose to prevent everyone from worshiping because some, even many, may be temporarily and regrettably excluded. Kentucky’s governor, after noting that at-risk groups shouldn’t participate in social gatherings that he was opening to others, said, “That’s not fair, but the virus isn’t either.”

Leaders are also worried that some of our at-risk people might choose to come anyway. I don’t think we should prevent them or even actively discourage them in a way that would suggest they’re unwelcome. See all of the above. Our people’s physical health is a real concern. But so is their ability to live with dignity.

One other related risk here is that people will come because they think they should, out of a sense of duty or obligation, fearful that they might miss the grace of God, otherwise. The church’s worship and sacraments are real means of grace. We dare not say or communicate less. But we also, especially now, need to let people know clearly that we respect and support anyone’s decision to stay removed if it’s out of concern for their health or others’. Please don’t come out of any sense of obligation. Here’s where it might be appropriate to insert that “I think God will understand” line.

The Risk of Simplistic Decision-Making

“Would Jesus hide in fear instead of doing the work of God?” poses a slanted and simplistic question. So does “Would Jesus put people’s lives at risk just to do what he wanted?” You may not have heard these asked quite this simply, but many arguments about reopening churches go only about this far.

One side cites personal and religious liberty, deriding anything that seems like irrational fear. The other side cites the duty to be good citizens and care for others’ physical health by not going out, deriding anything else as selfish or uninformed.

Church leaders need to be sympathetic to both sides in this conversation. Preventing people from worshiping together is not a small deal, and we dare not treat it as such. Ignoring public health risks or public authorities (especially when their requests or mandates aren’t explicitly malicious), also no small deal.

The risk of making simplistic decisions is, after all, why I’ve written as much above as I have. Church leaders, I hope you’ll consider all of these together and not make a decision based on any simple slogan. Church members, I hope you’ll give your leaders grace and patience as they try to hold all of this in tension.

One Final Risk No One Is Talking About

Our national divisions about when and how to reopen are beginning to cut along partisan lines. Just-released survey results show Republicans more than twice as likely as Democrats to believe non-essential businesses in their states should be allowed to open (61% to 29%). A wide majority on both sides (about 80%) said they “feel strongly” about their position.

One of the poll designers noted, “What we have here is a very real partisan split that you don’t expect to find in a public health epidemic.” It really is unusual. A pandemic has become a divisive partisan issue.

As unusual as this is, it’s equally unsurprising. Partisan allegiances may have become the greatest idolatry of our nation. For a number of Americans, these allegiances have become a primary identity––the most likely association to determine what’s good and what’s evil, who’s friend and who’s foe, who we treat with charity and who we treat with hostility. They also determine the sources we trust for news and opinions. The news outlets that carry each party’s agenda feed it all.[note]In my first draft, I called them “false prophets of their political gods.” That sounds extreme, but I don’t take it back. I’ve moved it to a footnote because I still want to say it but don’t want it to distract from the body of my text.[/note] They’ve demonstrated much more interest in promoting their preferred political parties than giving us the full, verified truth. This runs from deception through silly and unnecessary distortions to promotion of unfounded conspiracy theories.

Whether for good or bad, churches have usually been able to avoid partisan politics if they chose to. Fox News and CNN viewers can sit side by side in the pews without either side getting too agitated. But now, reopening decisions may force all of us to inadvertently take a side.

Many churches are likely to have some members eager for reopening and indignant at any approach that seems slow or over-cautious. They’re likely to have other members firmly set against reopening soon, angry at any actions that could put public health at risk. Those divisions will probably fall along partisan lines. If we go several months with churches making different decisions on this, it could prompt a next-level partisan separation of our churches. I could see Republicans, frustrated with churches that open too slow, leaving for the ones down the street that opened early. I could see Democrats, ashamed of churches that opened too soon, leaving for the ones that have maintained a full #StayHome approach. This won’t likely happen if everyone makes the same decision over a month or two. But I could expect it if we go into the fall or longer without clarity.

What We’re Doing

So finally, here’s what my church is doing as we try to take these many things into consideration.

#1 – We’ve committed to following all guidance from our authorities––both government and denomination. We believe this is a Romans 13 “be subject to the governing authorities” moment, not a Revelation 13 “resist the beast” moment. We may or may not agree with our authorities’ full prescriptions, but we accept their authority and believe they’re trying to act in the best interest of the people.

#2 – My church community’s leaders don’t believe we can abide by the current guidelines and have meaningful, in-person public worship services. The current guidance prevents us from singing or celebrating Eucharist together. These have always been essential pieces of our worship. Without these pieces, we believe we’re able to facilitate better worship for our community online, where we can still sing and have even found a way within the current restrictions to continue celebrating Eucharist and distributing the elements. (To be sure – we are NOT encouraging virtual or online communion. Worship leaders are celebrating communion in the room, then we’re distributing the elements to those unwillingly absent––a long Christian tradition.)

#3 – Meanwhile, I’m advocating for a creative plan to follow our government’s guidance regarding other kinds of gatherings. Gatherings other than for worship services seem to be our best options right now, given the restrictions. Our leaders are talking about ways to hold Bible studies, prayer gatherings, simple outdoor social gatherings, and other things of the sort. Just last week, we were able to begin distributing communion elements at a local park again. It was so good to see people in the flesh, pray with them, and see them able to stand six feet apart and talk with each other. I hope to continue offering more of these opportunities in any creative ways we can find that adhere to governmental and denominational restrictions.

#4 – We’re not naming many plans in advance. Many changes in guidance have come with relatively short notice, and our church has done a good job of responding to change quickly. So we’re preferring to make quick decisions once we have all the necessary information, rather than trying to anticipate what will come next or when. As soon as enough restrictions lift that we can gather people for worship, I expect that we will do that quickly. I could see that involving the offer of several small gatherings in homes or outdoor gatherings.

#5 – We’re committed to streaming online worship services for the foreseeable future. We believe this is an important option to provide so long as anyone is unable or uncomfortable attending in-person.

#6 – As we begin holding in-person gatherings, we will communicate frequently that no one should feel pressure to come if they don’t feel comfortable. See above.

I’m interested to hear from other leaders what you’re doing and how you’re thinking about this, or to hear from you if you have questions or think I’ve missed anything here.

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Anxiety & Fear, Faithfulness & Delight

Last summer, I went through an exercise to consider life purpose, vision, goals, etc. You might have been part of one of these in the past. Or five. I’d been through several already, but the one last summer proved providential for a few reasons:

1 – Our facilitator focused on holistic questions rather than asking us to think only of our professional environment. He told stories about people whose life situations drastically changed, but whose reason for getting out of bed each day stayed constant.

2 – I had been reading through various catechisms at the time. Long before self-help gurus began asking us to create mission statements, the Church had been talking about our reason for existence. (See my longer, more theologically-detailed reflection on all of this in “Your Personal Mission & Vision: Chosen or Given?”)

3 – The exercise came six months before a pandemic sent our country into our greatest extended time of upheaval since … World War II?

This week, I pulled out my notes from that exercise. I was deep into a moment of “disorientation” as the chart below would call it––counting all the ways that my little world had changed, grieving those changes, and struggling for future direction.

Maybe you’ve experienced some disorientation in the past few weeks, too. For me, this has been like a deep grief, at times without a clear sense of exactly what I’m grieving––just an awareness that things aren’t as they should be, and they’re not likely to be set right soon. It’s an awareness that the future has just changed and a grief for the dreams that died in the process. (A recommendation for those times: Andrew Peterson’s “Is He Worthy?”. Especially good accompanied by a walk and cry through the park in the rain.)

This chart comes from this brief article and the more detailed PowerPoint linked at the bottom of the article. This was a helpful model for identifying some of what I’ve been experiencing. Like the stages of grief, my experience has been that my “stage” can change by the hour. It’s no simple linear progression.

It was at this point of disorientation that I went back to my purpose/vision/goals notes from last summer. Those provided a great middle-of-the-pandemic moment of clarity for me. Nothing from that exercise had changed. Not the purpose. Not the vision. Not the goals. The reason for getting out of bed hadn’t changed one bit.

The context has changed considerably. The future likely has, too. And those will require some serious adapting. But it’s good to be reminded, especially in challenging times, that our purpose is bigger than our context.

Your Purpose: Chosen or Given?

On our own, we might choose a life purpose defined by success. All of us want this––to be successful in one, if not several, areas of life. And if we’re not careful, we might convince ourselves that success is our reason for being.

It’s interesting to hear a number of people we’d call successful talk about how their anxieties and insecurities increased with greater success. The comparisons got worse, not better. The pressure to achieve and advance grew rather than subsiding. Imagine Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill and actually making it to the top … only to find a bigger hill ahead. Such seems to be much of our striving for success.

Others choose a more modest goal for our lives: survival. We would all, after all, like to survive. But when survival becomes our reason for being, our lives are governed by fear.

This is where the Church’s historical understanding of our purpose is helpful. It’s based in neither success nor survival, but instead in faithfulness and delight.

Our purpose

The church’s catechisms ask about the chief end of humanity and give one unwavering answer: We exist to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Said a bit differently, we exist to know and love God.

We didn’t choose these reasons for our existence. God did. They’re based in worship and delight, exactly opposite any notions of existence that would lead us to anxiety and fear.

A vision for the future

In a parable, Jesus provides a related vision of the future. To servants who were good stewards of all they received, their master says, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”[note]Matthew 25:21[/note] 

God’s intended future for us: To hear “well done,” to be given responsibility according to our faithfulness, to share our master’s happiness.

What if we don’t get to choose the purpose of our lives? What if God has already named it for us?

Anxiety & Fear, Faithfulness & Delight

Many people would reject this as God limiting their freedom, but I want to suggest to you that it’s actually the most freeing thing God could do for us. He has freed us from the anxiety that comes from our own striving and the fear that comes from potential failure. Our lives aren’t defined by the things beyond our control.

In a time when you may feel like you have lost a lot of control, what’s your reason for getting up in the morning? I think it’s the same as before. It’s to delight in God and any blessings God has put in your life. It’s to identify the few things God has entrusted you with and to be good and faithful with them.

This is, of course, why having the same life purposes doesn’t mean that we should all live the same lives. We’ve all been entrusted with different things. The good life, for each of us, is to be faithful with those things entrusted to us.

In a time of deep disorientation for many of us, a few important questions:

1 – What have you lost? Most of us have taken some losses in these past few weeks. We might anticipate more to come. It’s okay and good to grieve those.

2 – What are your blessings? Give thanks for them. Delight in them.

3 – What has God entrusted you with? And what does it mean to be faithful with those things? Perhaps our best goals are simply to be faithful with what we’ve been given. We can grieve what we’ve lost and hope for what we don’t have, but we can’t allow these to distract us from faithfulness with what we have now.

All of these would be great points of prayer since ultimately, God doesn’t invite us merely to delight in his gifts, but to delight in him. He doesn’t ask us merely to be faithful with what he gives us, but to share in his very happiness.

These are hard times for most of us. But they don’t strip us of our purpose or our dignity or our reason for getting out of bed each morning. Those are all given by God.


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.


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.


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.