This weekend I traveled to New York City to march with faith leaders. I’m an unlikely protestor and in the past, I’d be far more likely to be in NYC to catch a show on Broadway than to march down Broadway chanting “Black lives matter, brown lives matter, all lives matter.”

Peter NYC March

Several friends wondered why I would participate in a peaceful protest, and here is my simple response:

1. Martin Luther King once commented that one day, he would remember “not the words of his enemies, but the silence of his friends”. I stand in solidarity with friends. Even if I do not understand every intricate detail of each individual case, the one thing that I clearly understand is that my brothers and sisters are deeply hurting. I have heard friends in immense sorrow and tears, and know I am invited to “mourn with those who mourn.”

2. The issue of race is intimately personal to me. As a dad of both black and white children, I ache at the knowledge that my children will be treated differently. I long for the day when my children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This dream is not yet a reality.

3. I want to publically acknowledge that there is a serious problem. Growing up in the suburbs and working internationally, I’ve been largely insulated from the tangled issues of race in my own backyard. Today in America, men and women with darker skin are forced to play by a different set of rules. “Liberty and justice for all” simply isn’t delivering on its lofty promise. Bonhoeffer once commented that “The church’s responsibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.” I want to be a part of putting a spoke in the wheel.

4. I want to learn. Traveling to NYC allowed me time to engage in hard conversations about complex issues. The tangled roots to these issues run deep into our nation’s history, and there are no easy answers. I want to listen well, ask thoughtful questions, and try and understand what we can do. The world is broken our role is to bring healing and restoration —to enact God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven”. God has given each of us has a role to play in the healing of our wounded nation, and I desperately want to understand what mine is.

5. I passionately believe in the power of prayer. Walking from City Hall to the NYPD headquarters, we prayed for our nation. We interceded for the families impacted. We asked the Prince of Peace to reign in our hearts and in our world.

Some of my friends expressed concern that participating in a march would undermine the majority of police who are honest and hard-working. Unexpectedly, I had the immense privilege of walking side by side with several dozen police officers in uniform. Whether they were there to keep an eye on us, to offer protection, or to walk in solidarity was unclear. However, spending time with them afforded me the honor of being able to personally thank them for their service, and acknowledge the importance and difficulty of their jobs. Several responded with gracious words of thanks for our presence.

The march is over, and frankly a two hour walk down Broadway was the easy part. It is time to roll up our sleeves and begin the hard work of continuing to thoughtfully engage in a painful, hard conversation, and actively pursuing healing. If you are unsure of where to start, allow me to offer three simple suggestions:

1. Develop friendships. Many of us have carefully constructed walls around lives that are lived far too safely surrounded by people that look just like us. Jesus intends for the Gospel to tear down each of our walls. If you do not have deep and significant friendships with people of different races or colors, it’s time to make that happen.

2. Listen actively. Temporarily suspend judgment and be “swift to hear and slow to speak”– not in an attempt to form your counterpoint, but with an earnest desire to truly understand.

3. Be creative in your personal response. As one simple action, I’ve altered my “speaker request form” to include a question of whether or not the organization has intentionally had a diverse set of speakers. If the past, present, and future speaking lineup is all white males, then I will politely decline and make more room for other voices.

If you have other ideas of specific ways to meaningfully work for change, please let me know. We are in this together.

Watch Your Language

December 5, 2014 — 7 Comments

Increasingly, when I’ve been asked to share HOPE’s mission statement, it catches in my throat. Somehow, it has become harder and harder to choke out two small but incredibly significant words: “the poor.”

Poverty Photo

Our mission statement is, “To invest in the dreams of the poor in the world’s underserved communities as we proclaim and live the gospel.” So many of the things that I am deeply passionate about are encapsulated in that simple sentence. I love that we are investors in dreams. I love that we work in the underserved regions of the world. I love how unapologetic we are about our bold commitment to the Gospel.

My discomfort stems from labeling the people we serve as “the poor.” Here’s why.

1. It further entraps people in poverty.

By referring to people as “the poor” we are defining them by their current situation, and not by their potential. We dismiss their value. We reinforce their financial poverty, and miss the many things that they do have. Language matters, and defining people by their financial poverty traps them in their current condition and crushes the hope that life could get better. It kills dreams.

I never want to insinuate that someone’s identity is tied to their financial situation.

2. It reinforces a strictly financial definition of poverty.

When we ask North Americans “What is poverty?” they respond by talking about the material ramifications of poverty. Not enough food. No clean water. Living on less than $1 per day. These answers wildly differ from the results from a World Bank study of 60,000 people living in financial poverty around the world. When asked about poverty, instead of talking primarily about physical issues, individuals in financial poverty responded by highlighting the social and psychological effects of living on less than $1.25 a day. They talked about feeling an overwhelming sense of shame. They spoke of powerless, voiceless, and hopeless. They talked about fear and isolation.

“The poor” is a term that reduces poverty to a financial number, and yet people living under its crushing weight understand that poverty is about so much more than finances.

3. It makes us feel that we are not poor.

By calling other people “the poor”, we automatically imply that we are rich. Financially, this may be true. However, when using a broader [and I humbly submit, more accurate!] definition of poverty, we realize that it’s possible to be financially poor, but relationally rich. It’s also possible to be financially rich, but spiritually poor.

The more that I’ve listened to myself label the families we serve as “the poor,” the more I’ve begun to feel that we are actually part of the problem by defining the people we serve by what they lack. In so doing, we have been unwittingly reinforcing the very problem we are furiously working to solve. To label people as “the poor” dismisses precious men and women that bear the Imago Dei. It strips them of their dignity and makes them a statistic.

Similarly, I feel uncomfortable with words like “slaves” and “prostitutes.” I’d rather talk about “people who are enslaved” and “individuals who are caught in prostitution.” If you define yourself as a slave or a prostitute, you’ll start believing that is your identity. It will only become more difficult to break free. And as I define you as a slave or a prostitute, it will become difficult to see you as anything else. God forbid that any of us be defined by our problems.

The difference may sound subtle, but it signifies something incredibly significant. I don’t want to identify people by their current position. I want to identify them as who they really are, individuals with inherent worth, capacity, and dignity. Individuals deeply loved by their Creator and full of explosive potential. Individuals with a bright hope and a future.

I am determined to stop labeling people by their current reality. I certainly don’t want to be known for my present failures or struggles, but as one treasured and adopted into God’s family as a beloved son.

Last week, our Board unanimously voted to change our mission statement, and replace “the poor” with “families.” It’s a small step, and yet an important recognition that we do not want to define the people we serve by their problems.

So if we are having a future conversation and you hear me talk about “the poor,” please remind me of my own poverty and together, let’s watch our language.

On a quiet Monday evening, I shared this picture of two of my children holding hands on the front step of our house. Little did I know that with an innocent click of the “post” button, something strange was about to happen.

The next morning when I logged into Facebook, my eyes widened as I realized what had transpired while I’d been asleep. Overnight, my picture had gone viral. Over the next 3 days, it had over 18 million views, over 290,000 “likes,” and 29,000 “shares.” Perhaps even more intriguing were the 12,000 men and women who shared their (very candid) responses in the comments section.

Holding hands

I never could have imagined that a simple picture of my children might be controversial. But then, that was before I learned what an ugly place the internet can be.

The caption read, “This might look cute, brother and sister holding hands on the front step. But it’s actually our new punishment. Sibling fighting = time outside holding hands. Best consequence ever.” As people began to stumble across my picture, tempers started to flare. Without warning, a debate about parenting and discipline began to rage. Apparently, everyone had a deeply-rooted opinion that they fiercely held to. Peppered by colorful language, a hoard of self-proclaimed experts who believed me to be the Joseph Stalin of parenting began to tell me in no uncertain terms what a miserable excuse for a parent that I was.

Social media is a funny thing.

Here’s what I learned from my 15 minutes of internet notoriety:

  1. We need to learn how to disagree. As Chris Horst pointed out, the comment section is where civility and respect die a slow and painful death. We hide behind our screens and lob verbal grenades at others though a veil of anonymity. We emulate talk show hosts by combatively disagreeing and trample on the art of dialogue. If you truly believe that I am permanently damaging my children by three minutes of hand-holding, please let me know. But offensive language isn’t helpful and it makes your listener much less prone to hear what you have to say.
  2. Don’t read the comments or attempt to defend yourself. Jen Hatmaker, certainly a person well aware of how vicious the internet can be, graciously encouraged me to simply “close your laptop and walk away.” Good advice.
  3. Remember that behind every avatar is a real human being. In a society where almost everybody is “online”, we desperately need to remember that people aren’t profiles. Let’s refuse to interact with our online communities differently than we’d interact with our literal neighbors. As Glennon Doyle Melton once observed, “If you’re not kind on the internet, you’re not kind.” Together, let’s inject some humanity back into the internet.
  4. One real friend trumps 1 million “likes.” No amount of virtual connection will ever be a substitute for real, true human connection.
  5. People are passionate about their kids. There is more pent-up passion on the topic of children than virtually any other topic.
  6. You never know what will go viral. I post about my kids frequently, but for some reason, this one hit a nerve. You don’t get to choose what catches on—if I did, I would have chosen this video of Myles singing Amazing Grace or the release for the book my son and I recently wrote. Since the response is so unpredictable, I’m finding that I need to be totally certain any people in my posts are in favor of the content. My kids are at an age when we’ve had the conversation about what I post about them. (Also, I discovered it’s a good idea to make sure I ask Laurel first before posting pictures of her in high school during her “high hair” stage.)
  7. The “ban” button is a wonderful thing. For those people who are simply mean-spirited, use the ban button liberally.
  8. Like a bad case of dysentery, the attention passes quickly. After three days, my Facebook activity has returned to normal. Quickly come and quickly go.
  9. Social media has left us saturated in communication, but feeling lonelier than ever. As Dr. Sherry Turkle, author and a professor at MIT, described it, “We are tempted to think that our little ‘sips’ of online connection add up to a big pile of real conversation…Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying ‘I am thinking about you.’ Or even for saying, ‘I love you.’ But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another.” Friends, let’s never allow screens to replace faces.
  10. Being a real celebrity must be terrible. I had my 15 minutes of internet fame, and I was immensely relieved when it was over. Imagine what it must be like to be bombarded by this craziness each and every day. Ever wonder why child celebrity stories rarely end well? Perhaps part of it is the inescapable pressure coming from online insanity.

Most of all, though, I’ve been reminded that because of what Christ has done, we have something better than “likes.” We are fully known, and perfectly loved. There can be no better intimacy than that. So close the computer. Open up Scripture. And remember you are loved.

If you’ve walked through your own 15 minutes of internet fame, I hope that your experience was better than mine. However, much more than that, I hope that you regularly disconnect from social media so your conversations (and healthy disagreements) run long and deep. Those are the moments in life worth treasuring, and they can’t happen in 140 characters.

Here’s to more people and fewer profiles!

Disarming the Ugly American

November 7, 2014 — 4 Comments

Despite what Ann Coulter says, I am convinced that compassion is one of America’s greatest exports. I see evidence of it every summer, as droves of men and women—stirred by dreams of radical service and love—leave their sanitized, suburban lives behind and board planes bound for the ends of the earth. That desire is a hallmark of the Imago Dei, the God who left the splendor of heaven to come to us. It reflects the Creator to His beloved creation, and there is immense beauty in that.

plane window

While I celebrate the heart behind these short-term trips, I am also deeply convinced that we can do better.

If you want a serious treatment of how to help without hurting on short-term trips, you must read Brian Fikkert’s excellent new book, Helping without Hurting in Short-Term Missions. But if you want a very quick list of some things to ensure that you don’t perpetuate the well-deserved stereotype of the ugly American, here you go:

  1. Don’t be pejorative. On the plane on a recent trip, I overheard a man describing how he was going to work with “my refugees.” While he had sponsored a village, I think we can all agree that the refugees were not “his.” No pejorative ownership of people, people.
  2. Ask before taking pictures. It’s simple, but it’s common courtesy. How would you feel if a stranger began taking your picture? What if a stranger began taking pictures of your child? Your home? It would feel invasive at best, if not threatening and dangerous. We have a word for people who do this: stalkers. Let’s not be good-hearted stalkers and agree to extend the same courtesy that we would wish to be shown.
  3. Don’t go if you suffer from extreme Mysophobia. I’ve watched some people reflexively reach for their Costco-sized bottles of Purell after any sort of direct contact with the people they came to serve. When you reach for your hand-sanitizer immediately after shaking someone’s hand or sharing a meal, the message speaks clearly across cultures and continents: You are dirty. Friends, I’m all for Purell (indeed, I’ll probably use it after shaking YOUR hand!) but please be more discreet. If you feel you need a HAZMAT suit before going over “there,” then you probably shouldn’t go.
  4. This is not a zoo. Don’t throw candy or peanuts at people. It’s offensive. Seriously.
  5. Relax if things don’t immediately work. Breathe deeply and see what God might be trying to teach you in the moment. It might simply be a time to unclench your American fist from around the clock we all love so much, and detox from your own adrenaline.
  6. Don’t complain about cold showers. You have water! Be wildly grateful for that.
  7. Don’t  immediately go into problem-solving mode. First, become obsessed with simply trying to understand.
  8. Think about long-term relationships. A mission trip should never be a one-week stand. One of the most valuable outcomes of the trip is not the wall that you painted, but the people you worked alongside. Relationships and learning are the goal.
  9. Follow up. Don’t promise that you’ll do something if you won’t. There already is a well-worn path of unmet expectations. Don’t contribute to it.
  10. Don’t freak out if you are unable to get half-caf soy iced venti mocha latte. The trip that you’re on? The gift is that it’s not about you. And surprisingly, the majority of the world gets by beautifully without a Starbucks. Leave your expectations, routines, and creature comforts on the plane—a little flexibility goes a long way.

Again, please hear me—I LOVE the heart of compassion behind short-term trips, and I’ve personally been profoundly impacted by these experiences. With a few attitude adjustments, we can continue to see short-term trips provide significant impact on the friends who go and the friends who graciously receive us.