Dual Identity Crisis

Having white skin and blond hair creates complications if you carry a Latino ethnic identity. That's my situation. And I've been thinking a lot about it during this Christmas season.

People I work with continue to forget that I'm Latino as well as white. There's zero malice there. It's just a challenge for them. I get strange looks and pushback whenever I point to my heritage or Latino perspective. I struggle to explain to others the complex sense of otherness I feel when I spend a lot of time in an all white group.

I feel like the Latino facet of my ethnic identity is being slowly smothered. I wonder if Jesus ever felt the same way with his dual identity: fully God and fully human.

Theologians seem engaged in a near constant tug-of-war over Jesus' dual identity. Some emphasize his humanity; others his divinity. Both sides overstate their case. And this is not a new problem.

Early church history is riddled with conflicting perspectives on Jesus' identity. Arius refused to see Jesus as fully God. Marion refused to see him as fully human. Irenaeus and Ignatius and Athanasius and Tertullian and that crowd pushed back against both of those refusals until we ended up with something that looks like today's Christian orthodoxy.

I find this conflict over the identity of Christ to come as no surprise. People with dual identities know how hard it is to pin them down, to explain them, to communicate them in all their nuance. I can't describe my own identity; how can I expect someone else to explain the complexities that spring into this world as a result of my background?

Multiethnic people (and multiethnic churches) give us a context to embrace both the reality and the mystery of a Christ who is fully human and fully divine.

Four ways ministries grow in ethnic diversity

When ministries grow in meaningful ethnic diversity, God's kingdom advances rapidly. A loving multiethnic community is the most powerful witness to the gospel's power. Our best evidence that Jesus' death and resurrection has made a difference in the world shines forth when people can see racial and ethnic barriers torn down.

Here are four ways I've seen ministries grow in ethnic diversity.

1. Visually

The easiest changes are the optical ones. Put a more diverse cast on your publicity. Use stock photos if you must. Pull a person who looks different from the majority of the group up on stage. At some point or another every ministry that wants to grow more diverse must make this jump.

I've wrestled with this step because so often it merely amounts to tokenism and window dressing. The brochures don't match the boardrooms. The appearance of diversity can actually serve as a roadblock to experiencing true diversity (and the reconciliation necessary to make that happen). But ministries that want to grow more diverse always have to take this step ... and often before they feel ready.

When I served with InterVarsity in South Florida we struggled to get white students involved in our ministries. We had lots of Haitian, Black, Latino and Asian students, but few white students involved. On some campuses, we were the only campus ministry present. And with our vision to reach every corner of campus, we knew we had to make an intentional effort to reach white students. Having white students on our marketing materials and at our events made a small but noticeable impact on our ability to reach an unreached corner of our campuses. But, I'll be honest, it felt uncomfortable to be so intentional about the pictures we used.

2. Culturally

Cultural expressions and artifacts can create space for people to connect across barriers and boundaries. I've argued elsewhere that culture is a gift from God that he can use to guide his people through the debris left by racial and ethnic barriers. Ministries that grow in ethnic diversity will find ways to share and enjoy a diverse set of cultural expressions: languages, musical styles, food, and dress are a few of the expressions I've seen used to help a ministry grow in diversity.

Multiculturalism almost always comes before multi-ethnicity.

I'll never forget the first time I heard musical worship in Spanish. The stadium at Acquire the Fire in Tampa softly sang: "Dame, dame, dame más de ti, bendito Señor" (listen here). I'd heard all kinds of Spanish language music in my house and at my relatives' homes, but I'd never heard anyone sing musical worship in Spanish in the mostly white churches that I went to as a child. This experience had a significant impact on my faith and its integration into my life. I shared something special on that day with my Christian friends from different ethnic backgrounds.

3. Temporarily

This is the most difficult truth about ministries growing in diversity. There's something in the world that pulls us toward homogeneity. As a ministry grows more diverse, people might get hurt and pull back. Other might feel newly excluded and pull away. Building a multiethnic ministry requires constant adjustment and will almost certainly involve seasons of failure.

When I joined InterVarsity at Duke the chapter had just started to grow in multi-ethnicity. My year had a balance of white and Asian-American students. The year that followed me had a few more Asian students than white students. Now, 15 years later, the chapter is almost all Asian and Asian-American. I've seen this pattern repeated time and time again: white flight, black flight, Latino flight ... they're real and really difficult to forestall.

Additionally, I've seen ministries gain momentum in diversity and then lose it. One ministry went from employing one to seven Latino staff in just 4 years. But a series of strategic decisions and some hard realities beyond the ministry's control broke the momentum. Three years late and that ministry now employs three Latino staff. Momentum matters and proves difficult to maintain.

4. Persistently

No ministry will experience long-term growth in ethnic diversity without persistence. 

Growing in ethnic diversity requires work at every level in an organization. Adjustments happen at the leadership level, in recruitment, in teaching and worship style, in marketing, in discipleship approach, in evangelistic communication ... the list could go on and on and on. A ministry must be deeply committed to multi-ethnicity for it to grow in ethnic diversity over the long haul.

This persistence only comes from a conviction that multi-ethnicity is essentially tied to the mission of the ministry. Individual leaders must be captured by the vision of a multi-ethnic community. They have to learn to articulate how diversity and mission are connected with each other. They have acquire stories of victories and failures, sacrifices and blessings, pain and joy.

What else do you see as essential for a ministry to grow in ethnic diversity?

Loving a moving target

Here's a marriage challenge for you: the person you marry will transform into a significantly different person over time.

They will age. Their interests will shift. They will mature, but not at a predictable rate. Life will smack them around a little bit and that will change them. Your love itself will transform them.

A healthy marriage requires people to re-connect and re-engage over and over again throughout their time together. And doing this while juggling work and children and the Sturm und Drang of life will always be a challenge.

But it's worth it!

Revelation and the Challenge of Coded Speech

I've been switching back and forth between reading the Christmas narrative (for work) and Revelation (for my personal study). I've been really struck by the difference between these two stories.

Both Matthew and Luke (the two Gospel accounts that tell the Christmas narrative) tell the story very directly. The characters have names and genealogies. The locations are pretty specific. Almost anyone can understand almost everything in the story.

Revelation, on the other hand, is a cypher. I've found it confusing ever since my first reading of it over 20 years ago. In today's reading, John writes about a woman being chased by a dragon. Is the woman Mary? The church? Israel? All of the above?

The church in the ancient Roman empire found itself persecuted in terrifying ways. Christians were dragged into the courts and into the Coliseum. They were lit on fire and fed to lions. Being caught in possession of the scriptures could have devastating consequences.

Disempowered people have long used coded speech to communicate. From the dog-whistles of modern politics to the code switching in ethnic minority communities, people will find a way to communicate what's most important to them no matter how closely supervised and restricted they may be.

Stumbling across coded speech that isn't meant for you can be extremely frustrating. Especially when it's in the Bible. We have to either do the hard work to understand the speech (ie. to learn the code) or skip it and hope that we're not missing something important.

What do you do when you don't understand the scripture's coded speech? Do you tend to dig or skip?

The Difference Between a Goal and a System

This article right here contains the most significant leadership insight I've learned in the last year: "Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead." by James Clear. (<--- You should really consider reading this article ... it's better than what I'm writing here).

From James Clear's excellent article (which you should read) - linked above

Throughout my adult life I've been a goal setter. And I've been a goal hitter. Except when I'm not.

In 2015, I wanted to get in shape so that when the twins were born I'd have the energy to keep up with them. In 2014, I wanted to write my Ethnicity Everywhere book. In 2013, I set a goal get my whole Staff team fully funded. In 2012, I was going to finish the Barbaro book with my dad. In 2011, well, you get the picture, right? I didn't hit any of these goals.

The common reason I failed to hit my goals is because I failed to develop meaningful systems.

If I had an exercise 20-minutes per day (and don't drink anything but water and black coffee) system, I'd hit my goal of being in shape in 2015. If I did daily writing (like I'm doing now), I'd have finished all of my books (Ethnicity Everywhere, Barbaro, The Discovery of the Ring, The Good Circle, Circle Theology, Idle Worship, etc ...). If I made one request for a donation per day, my team would have been funded.

There's a world of difference between a goal and a system.

A goal is the end zone; a system is the field. Where do you play the game?
A goal is the finish line; a system is the course. Where do you run the race?
A goal is the eulogy; a system is the daily grind. Where do you live your life?

As I round the corner of another year, my brain and my heart swing into goal mode: what did I accomplish this year? what do I want to do next year?

I wonder what would happen instead if I focused on my systems.

Do you have any great systems that you've developed to be healthy, write more, or lead better? I'd love to hear about them.

The Myth of Walking in Someone Else's Shoes

You can't actually walk in someone else's shoes. Ever.

I like the impulse. It reflects a desire to understand and connect. It reflects a desire to love. And that's great. But where does it lead?

I've seen so many people who have what I'd call "a false perception of understanding." We think we understand what someone else is going through or we think we know what it's like to be someone else. We then feel justified to speak for others or offer confident critiques. We stop listening and asking questions.

When you try to walk in my shoes you end up making them your own. My feet have their own shape and stink. My legs swing in their own particular way. I have particular paths that I walk. You can take my shoes, but you can't actually walk in them.

This is actually a warped application an idea from the ancient philosopher Heraclitus, who famously said that "You can never step into the same river twice." Both you and the river change continuously. I change every day. My shoes change every day. How can you walk in them?

Here's the thing: relationship can go where understanding can't.

I'm never going to fully understand you but I can know you. You'll never fully understand me but you can love me. We can't walk in each other's shoes, but we can walk together.

[Note: this idea has tremendous implications for our thinking about Christmas and the incarnation]

The Gift of Yourself

I had the opportunity today to speak at an All Pro Dad event at Will's school today. All Pro Dad was created by Tony Dungy and co. in the mid-90s to encourage fathers to be more engaged with their children. Our principal at Pittsboro Elementary hosts several of these events every year. Will and I have really enjoyed going to them together.

Here's a sense of what I shared today ...

The theme for this month was "Giving."

I started by thinking about the gifts Will has given me.

One memorable gift was a Superman t-shirt. He was really into superheroes and wanted me to be able to play with him. He knew that Superman was my favorite superhero, so he did the math and picked out a shirt for me. He built a bridge for me to connect with him.

Another memorable gift came this past summer when Will came home from art camp excited to tell me about these things called "Pokémon." We could catch them with my cell phone if I downloaded the game app. Hours of walking around our neighborhood, Pittsboro, and college campuses have ensued. Once again, he built a bridge for me to connect with him.

This pattern is repeated again and again in my relationship with my kids. In their own way, they create space for me to connect with them. They take initiative at this stage. What will I do with their bridges?

I'm so often exhausted by work and life. Playing superheroes or Pokémon takes energy that I struggle to find. But I do. I have to. I want to.

My kids build bridges so that I can give them the gift of myself: my presence, my attention, my love.

Of course, this places us right on the edge of the great and wonderful mystery of our relationship with God. He joyfully walks across the bridges we build and reaches down to us, joins our silly games, and cares for us.

One of the best gifts a dad can give his kids is the gift of himself.

When all things will be made right

My friend John passed away today. I felt pretty close to him. We took walks around the community college campus here in Pittsboro and talked about our families and our faith. We argued a lot about politics and theology. We disagreed a lot but always knew that our friendship would be secure, strengthened by honest and respectful disagreement.

He had this brilliant critical faculty. He could see problems from a mile away or across a table in a coffee shop. He spoke his mind. And he had great hope that God could bring transform nations, churches, and even people.

I'll miss him. And I believe I'll see him again, when "all things will be made right."

Here's an excerpt from his book, An Account of Hope:
In the end, the driving motivation of faith is not simply a desire to live but to live well, to live at peace with God and self ... Is it better to die young having lived life well before God (and with the hope of a better life) than just simply to live a long life? Faith is more than an expression of hope and trust in God for personal redemption. Although that is certainly part of it, personal redemption alone is too small. Faith is an expression of hope and trust in God for God's vision of life, that all things will be made right, life itself fulfilled.

Zig Zag Creativity

One of the ways I keep my well of creativity overflowing is through working the zig zag.

I write 5 devotional posts for the Connect Devotional every week. This past week I wrote 5 posts of just 5 verses. Every post needs to contains something slightly insightful and something slightly applicable. I've written over 600 of these posts in the last two years. My well of creativity would be completely exhausted if writing Connect Devotionals was my only creative work.

Ziging and zaging keeps me fresh.

Every week I do some small piece of graphic design. I edit or give feedback on someone else's creative work. I write fiction or poetry or blog posts write here. I write Bible studies for LaFe. I preach, teach, train and speak. Creating in other venues doesn't drain my creative energy. Surprisingly, creativity creates new energy for creativity.

This is the same reason I read theology books as well as fantasy/sci-fi (and business and self-help and history and memoirs and novels and cultural studies). I read old and new books. I read books by men and women and across racial and ethnic lines. This breadth of input keeps me ziging and zaging ... keeps me from getting bored.

Maybe that's the point: boredom kills creativity.

Generational differences vs. Peer pressure

I spent some time today with Chatham Drug Free, a county-wide coalition to help prevent alcohol, tobacco, and drug abuse among youth. I volunteered to sit on their data subcommittee and to help them analyze and communicate the results of a county-wide student survey they conduct every spring.

It's been kind of fun to flex some of my unused, Oxford-trained data sleuthing.

Today, I saw something that interested me. For each substance (tobacco, e-cigs, alcohol, prescription drugs, illicit drugs) students were asked these three questions about underage use (along with many more):

  • Do your peers think it's wrong?
  • Do your parents' think it's wrong?
  • Do you think it's wrong?
On just about every indicator the students' personal responses more strongly resembled their peers than their parents. 

At first I read this as peer pressure. That's such a brutal reality for middle and high school students. They pull away from their parents and lean in toward their peers. That's a normal, natural, stage-of-life thing. But that's probably not what this was.

The students actually recorded their peers as being more disapproving of risky behavior than they themselves felt. This surprised me. If 95% of parents felt heroin was a bad decision and 90% of peers shared that opinion, I'd expect the interview subjects to be somewhere in the middle - sharing the view of their family of origin but pulled downward by their peers. But the effect seemed to be working in the other direction. If parents were at 95% and peers were at 90% the subjects would invariably be around 87-88%.

Small artifacts like these in the data serve as clues that something interesting is happening.

My guess is that we're seeing a generational effect. Mom, dad, and all other Gen Xers believe one way about the use of these substances. The Millennials believe another way. The tribe isn't necessarily exerting pressure. The tribe is just the tribe.

This raises a new set of questions for me:
  • Does this generation believe differently about drug usage than the previous generation did at this stage of life?
  • What factors shaped the more conservative generation's belief about drug usage?
  • How does one shift a generation's thinking about drug usage?
In research, as in life, paying close attention to the data makes a big difference. Whole vistas will open up to you for brief moments if you're looking for them ... and will be gone in a breath if you aren't.

Mary hits the road

As I continue to study the Christmas narrative, I continue to discover threads in the story that I've never explored in previous readings. There's so much there!

This is one of the things I love most about the Bible. I keep reading it and reading it and keep noticing facets to the story I'd missed. There's enough in here for me to read for my entire life.

Today I noticed how often Mary hits the road. She travels with Joseph to Bethlehem and then Jerusalem and back to Bethlehem. Then she heads to Egypt as a refugee, Nazareth as a semi-exile, and Jerusalem as a soon-to-be-grieving mother. Legend has it that she spends her twilight years in Ephesus.

That's a lot of mileage for a peasant woman in that era.

But the trip that interested me the most is her first trip that's mentioned. When she finds out she's pregnant, the angel Gabriel also tells her that her relative Elizabeth - after a long struggle with infertility - has finally conceived a child and is pregnant. Mary hits the road and goes to the town in the hill country of Judea where Elizabeth is living in seclusion.

The story doesn't tell us whether Mary went by herself or not, but it noticeably doesn't include any fellow travelers for her (unlike every other travel narrative for her in the Bible).

The story doesn't tell us why Mary went. Did she want to verify the angel's story? Did she want to help Elizabeth? Did she want to commiserate with another miracle mama? We don't know.

What we do know is that Mary lived an unusually mobile life.  Her son would spend the majority of his ministry-time on the road. His roots didn't prevent him from going where the Spirit and his purpose led him. I wonder if that is part of the spiritual heritage he inherited from his mother.

I could write another whole post on that concept of the spiritual heritage we pick up from our families of origin, but that's another post for another time.

Curiouser and Curiouser

I had two great conversations today about curiosity.

The first conversation was with a friend who loves, loves, loves getting to know people. He asks great questions, listens well, and shares his own experience in healthy ways. He's curious about what other people believe. His curiosity creates space for friendship.

The second conversation was with a student who had tons of questions about her faith. She believes in Jesus, but wants to hear, know, and understand more. We talked about faith and science, dinosaurs in the Bible, imaginative readings of the Bible, leveraging experience for the sake of faith, and the need to ask good questions. Her curiosity creates space for deep conversation.

All to often people squash curiosity in the name of "protecting the faith." They withhold their curiosity in an attempt to maintain polite relational distance. This is a mistake.

Curiosity is like a muscle. The more we exercise it, the more it grows. And it's a gift from God. St. Anselm called it "fides quaerens intellectum" or "faith seeking understanding." All personal relationships require us to have faith that somewhere in the other person there's someone interesting to connect with, something interesting to learn, and someone worth loving. This is true in our friendships with other people and in our relationship with God.

My biggest challenge in this arena, personally, is to accept that I'm a worthy subject of curiosity. I can go days and day without anyone asking me a personal question. I'm so curious about other people that I don't give them a chance to be curious about me. And now I find myself feeling uncomfortable if someone asks too many questions about me. I've had so many negative experiences of people plying me with questions and then leveraging my answers to take advantage of me. It takes tremendous work to open up and I'm grateful to be blessed with friends who are caring enough, persistent enough, curious enough to keep asking questions.

Our Picture of Christmas Eve

This week's Saturday Night Live had a great sketch about Christmas Eve (watch it here). In the sketch they imagine what it would be like for a teenage Mary to give birth in a barn. It's silliness but it rattles the gilded image that we carry of Christmas Eve.

At one point in the sketch Mary (played by Emma Stone) says: "When I found out I was going to give birth to the Savior I guess I just assumed it was gonna be ... nicer."

The birth narratives in the Gospels are full of gritty detail. Over time we have compressed and cleaned the story to fit our cultural values and presuppositions. We look at the Christmas story and see ourselves reflected back in them.

  • Who was present at Jesus' birth?
  • How old were Mary and Joseph?
  • How many people were in their caravan to Bethlehem?
  • What role did poverty have in Joseph and Mary's Christmas experience?
  • What were Mary's parents and aunts/uncles doing when she went to visit Elizabeth or travelled with her fiancé to Bethlehem? 
  • Why don't the narratives in Matthew and Luke line up easily? Why don't Mark and John contain birth narratives?
  • How did Matthew and Luke get this information?
We don't have concrete biblical answers to any of these questions, but we answer them whenever we picture the Christmas story.

When a little bit of a good thing is actually a bad thing

A little bit of a bad thing can actually be a good thing. A little bit of a virus can give you an immunity. A little bit of loss can make you grateful for what you have. A little bit of chocolate can boost your heart health.

But the reverse isn't true. A little bit of a good thing can actually be a bad thing.

I've been thinking about this recently as I've thought about God, faith, and racial reconciliation. Research has shown that, for white evangelicals, having one black friend can actually make it harder for them to listen to the experiences of black people. That one friend either becomes the exception or the rule and gives the white person license to believe whatever they want to believe about race, racism, and reconciliation.

We've been talking about racial reconciliation a bit over the last year in InterVarsity and at the church where I work. Those conversations have been good. Hard. Painful. Thought-provoking. But one the whole, good.

What will happen if InterVarsity or Chatham Church pump the brakes on these conversations? Now that we've gone from zero to one we run the risk of losing all of our progress.

Here are possible conversations:

  • We tried and it didn't work.
  • We've already come a long way.
  • We've done all we can right now.
  • Look, we have a person of color in a significant position.
  • Let's wait until things are a little less hectic.
If you're going to pump the brakes, it would have been better to not even have started. Once you've started, you have to keep going. Slowly is fine. Subversively and behind the scenes is okay too. But we can't just give up.

I have significant concerns about both InterVarsity's and Chatham Church's ability to sustain the racial reconciliation conversation. But I also have tremendous faith and hope. The Lord is building a multiethnic kingdom to testify to the world that his good news is true, powerful, and meaningful. He will not let us give up without a fight. 

Blessed is the community that struggles and submits to the Lord.

We make time

I had a conversation tonight with a parent from the youth group whose daughter wanted to schedule a time to meet up to discuss questions she has about her faith. That parent said she knew how busy December can be for pastors (and she's right!), but still wondered if I could make time.

I'm reminded today of an old adage: we make time for what's important to us.

I made time today to go on a hike with Amy and the kids.
I made time today to pray.
I made time today to make macaroni and cheese.
I made time today to read.
I made time today to do a little work for both of my jobs.
I made time today to write.

What's important to me?

I find myself drifting into that dangerous mental place where I tell myself that I don't have time for what's most important to me ... as if some exterior power sets my schedule absolutamente.

I can't make time for everything. Some things keep continuously getting pushed to the back burner. But that just means they aren't as important to me in that moment.

Someday, perhaps, I won't feel like my schedule is bulging at the seams. I'll have a week or month when I'm bored. But until then I'll make time for what's important to me.

And that means I'm going to make time to get coffee with that student.

Unintended racial consequences

In our racialized society, even innocent decisions can have unintended racial consequences.

I saw this years ago when I was doing research on Latino college student enrollment in my part of the country. I discovered that there was about to be a huge wave of Latino students making the jump from high school to college. As a missionary to college students and someone excited about Latino student ministry this was ... well ... exciting.

But there was a catch.

These students were almost certainly going to enroll at college campuses where InterVarsity had no campus ministry presence. Not only did we not have a presence, we didn't have any intention of reaching out to these campuses. Why? There were all community colleges.

Community colleges have proven to be remarkably difficult places for campus ministry. Few if any residential students. High transfer rates. Low perceived status in the community. I've written extensively about this challenge elsewhere (here, here, and here for example).

No one has ever said to me: "I don't want to do ministry at a community college because it's full of Latino students." I don't believe that there's any racial animus driving the decision to avoid community college ministry. But staying away from community colleges has an unintended racial consequence: we aren't where the Latinos are.

This pattern is repeated over and over and over again. Where is the new church campus going to be located? Who will we hire? How do we fund our missionaries? All of the decisions made in response to these questions have racial consequences.

People of good will, people who abhor racism, people who get excited about multiethnic community ... even these people can make decisions that strengthen racial division and oppression. Side effects.

Have you ever noticed this?

The Joy of Jon Batiste

I'm not much of a music person. I work in silence a lot or with the buzz of a coffee shop in the background. But I've stumbled across an artist I really love and I wanted to share him with you.

Jon Batiste is the band leader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. That's how I bumped into his music. I've found myself feeling a tremendous uplift whenever the opening credits for the show come on and Jon Batiste and Stay Human play their song "Humanism." Is it wrong to love a show because you love the music in their opening credits?

In the last week or two I've been listening to "Christmas with Jon Batiste" on Amazon Prime. Some of the songs are jazzy renditions of Christmas standards: "Winter Wonderland" and "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." Others pick up more strongly on the spiritual reason for the season. Some of them are truly extraordinary.

I feel like Jon Batiste is pouring joy onto his piano and it's spilling over into my soul. I can't even describe how wonderful this album sounds.

You've got to experience it yourself.

If you have Amazon Prime, you can listen to it for free here.

Fitting in with the crowd

Last week I had the opportunity to lead a Large Group Bible study at Duke University's Asian InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Forty to fifty students showed up to dig in and look at what Jesus had to say about God's personal love for us.

The students had such fantastic insights into the passage. I could write a dozen posts springboarding off of their comments. We had fun together as we engaged with God's word. But today I wanted to pass along just one insight.

We were studying Luke 15:1-7. This section of the Gospel of Luke contains a series of parables by Jesus, culminating with the more-than-famous Parable of the Prodigal Son. But at Duke we focused on another parable ... The Parable of the Lost Sheep.

Here's my 30-second recap of the parable. A shepherd has 100 sheep and loses one. He leaves the 99 behind to go looking for the lost sheep. When he finds the lost sheep, he's thrilled. This has implications for how we live, love and lead. [For a challenging reflection on this parable, check out this post from my friend Joseph: The 99 and the Lost Shepherd]

In the middle of the study at Duke we were discussing what the experience of being in this parable would be like from the perspective of one of the 99 sheep who stayed behind. I'll be honest, I expected students to talk about feelings of frustration or fear or jealousy. But that wasn't where they went.

One of the students shared that he'd feel safe. Being part of the 99 would feel safe to him. As long as he was in the center of the flock - doing what he was supposed to be doing - he'd be fine. He comes from a culture that believes "The tallest blade of grass is the first to get cut." All his life he's been shown how to fit in. And this makes him (and students like him) incredibly warm, welcoming, and generous under the right conditions. And this creates challenges to mission and spiritual formation under other conditions.

How much of my reading of this parable is shaped by my ethnic heritage as a white, Latino man?

It has never once occurred to me that the 99 sheep would feel safe. My heritage encourages me to be bold and take risks. I come from a long line of exiles and immigrants ... from Cuba, from Spain, and from South Carolina (don't let anyone tell you that moving from SC to FL in the 40s didn't take a tremendous amount of courage). My people are much more likely to be the one sheep wandering away than the 99 sheep waiting obediently back home. The stories I heard growing up and the cultural values I heard extolled shaped the way I read Scripture.

Can you identify ways that your ethnic heritage shapes the way you read Scripture?

A 90-Day Bible Reading Challenge

This past week we challenged the students in our youth group to read through the New Testament in 90 days. If you read 3 chapters every day, you'll pull it off easily. In fact, in my Bible the New Testament is only 276 pages long.

So many Christians claim the Bible as a source of authority for their lives but have never read it. They know bits and pieces they've picked up along the way. But those bits and pieces don't represent the whole story and, what's more, they get pulled out of context and easily ignored.

For example, did you know Jesus said "Anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery"? I read that in Matthew 5 yesterday. You better believe the context matters. Pull that verse out of context and you can hurt someone with it or use it in the exact opposite way from Jesus' direction. (You'll have to look it up if you want to see what I'm talking about).

Reading the Bible is one of the most significant ways we can connect with God. When I sit down with my Bible, it seems like every day there's a relevant, challenging word for me. Yesterday, in Matthew 6:16, I heard a challenge from Jesus to quit flaunting my tiredness as we juggle the twins. In my frequent mentions of my tiredness hides a subtle hunger for praise, recognition, and affirmation that will consume me if unchecked.

Over the years, reading the Bible broadly has been a source of comfort and power for me and for the communities where I've served. My hope and prayer for my students is that God would meet them as they read.

Here's a link to the chart we gave students to us to keep track of their challenge

Would you consider joining us?

Race as Religion

Forgive me for being academic for a moment ...

I've recently been reading Redeeming Mulatto by Brian Bantum. In the first chapter of the book, he advances a startling proposal:
Race is a phenomenon of racial performance that form disciples. Race is not merely a form of social organization, but more significantly a form of religious expression and identity that shape who a person is. (p. 19)
He fleshes out his argument for "race as religion" in the chapter by showing points of connection between religious and racial systems:

  • legal structuring focused on purity (compare Leviticus to Jim Crow),
  • sacrificial punishment (consider the New Jim Crow, #BlackLivesMatter, and the symbolism around the immigration conversation), and
  • practices of initiation that require belief/faith/commitment (think about the emergence of racial identity in children and "the talk")
This marks my first encounter with the idea of race as religion. What if race as the way we understand it in the United States has emerged as an alternative religion, competing with and syncretizing with Christianity?

As I've reflected on Bantum's proposal, here are a few thoughts:
  • If race is a religion, then we should expect our allegiance with Christ to run us up against the religious powers behind race. We should expect tension, conflict and static when the claims of Christ counter the claims race makes upon us. And we should expect to be tempted to deny Christ once, twice or three times.
  • If race is a religion, then we should expect true conversion to Christianity to have "racial implications." What's more, we should expect the Christian's movement away from participation in racist systems to follow a pattern of conversion and discipleship ... complete with backsliding, spiritual disciplines and a meaningful role for community.
  • If race is a religion, then we should expect its adherents to cling tightly to it, despite shifting cultural mores. In other words, though racism is socially unpopular, we shouldn't expect that unpopularity to stamp out the religion. Folks who were raised in it don't know another way to live. The fish doesn't even notice the water in which is swims every day.
What do you think of this idea of "race as religion"? Have you ever encountered this idea before?

Four Leadership Tricks for Soccer Coaching (or anywhere you lead)

Leaders lead wherever they are. Folks who have been trained to be leaders carry a skill set with them that can be useful just about anywhere.

Last year, Will's soccer team didn't have a coach. Four weeks in another dad and I got tapped to coach the team. Donald and I had such a good time. We decided to coach again together this year.

Here are four quick things we try to do every week on our team (and these are actions that I think translate well beyond the soccer field):

1) Make a personal connection

For Donald and me, our personal connection starts by learning kids' names. We work hard to know the names of all the kids on the team after the first week. We use their names when we're guiding them and encouraging them. There's a huge difference between saying "Great shot!" and "Great shot, Dabney!"

High fives, fist bumps, taking a knee so we can look them in the eye ... all of these help us connect with these kids. And they have an impact on everyone's experience.

Connecting personally is a core value of Latino leadership and I think it reflects something special that God has given to the Latino community to bring to bear in the world. I've written more on this elsewhere because this is such a high value for me.

How are you making a personal connection with the people you want to lead?

2) Keep the tanks full

We spend the full hour on the field talking, shouting and yelling. We're constantly pouring encouragement into our players. We tell them how fast they are, how persistent they are, how great they're doing. We constantly look for things to praise (and it's not hard to find lots of stuff to say!).

Our team is rowdy, wild and fun. The kids stand a little taller when they step onto our field. They know we enjoy being with them. When we see them off the field (at school or at the grocery store), they're eager to come up and talk with us.

People are attracted to leaders who make them feel good about themselves. And is it any surprise? God's attractive word to us is one of love, affirmation and acceptance. The only reason he confronts us on our sin is because he cares so much about us. His compassion drives him. He keeps our tanks full. As leaders, we're wise when we do likewise.

How are you filling the tanks for the people you lead?

3) Build on the positive

As a coach, it can be tempting to hammer on the negative. Our kids are six and seven year-olds. Many of them have little soccer experience. They have a lot to learn. But we don't focus on that. We focus on what they're doing right and build on that.

Will hovers around the goal and loves to clear the ball to midfield. We can build on that. Aaron attacks the ball wherever it is. We can build on that. We'd be making a huge mistake if we tried to get Will to chase the ball all around the field or tried to sit Aaron in the defensive box. We might make a well-rounded player, but we'd kill their enjoyment of the game. They each bring different strengths to our team, strengths we can build on as we develop them as players.

As a leader, this is something I spend a lot of time trying to do. What are people good at? What do they seem to enjoy? It's a lot more fun (and more useful) to develop a strength than to focus on a weakness. The apostle Paul wrote a lot about spiritual gifts, how God graces each of us with a unique contribution to make to our community. Leaders who lean into this reality have a lot more fun.

Look at the people you're leading. What positive things are happening in and around them that you can build on?

4) Stay focused on the big picture

Why do we play soccer? We're out here to have fun. The kids want to know if we're winning or not (we get asked that after every goal). Donald and I always respond with: "Are we having fun?" The goal of soccer at this level is to have fun. If we start focusing on who scores more goals or who has the happiest parents or who is executing the most perfect plays, we'll miss out on what we're actually on the field to do.

Part of the work of leadership is to draw your team's attention back to the big picture. They won't do that themselves and that's not their fault. The big picture is always under attack. We settle for smaller and more achievable objectives, things that are easier to measure, things we can control. Folks who have decided to lend their leadership gifts to a community will have to constantly put the periscope up and make sure the focus isn't lost.

In the places where you're leading, what's the big picture? What are you hoping to accomplish and how are you keeping that big picture in focus for yourself and for your team?

A Guide to Fearful People

I went back and re-read The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen this morning. It's a short book, dated in some ways (he calls Gen-X "the Nuclear Man"), but intensely helpful. I'd write a more extensive summary of it, but I have to go and coach soccer in a few minutes.

One quote jumped off the page for me today, as it has every time I've read this book:
No minister can save anyone. He can only offer himself as a guide to fearful people.
So much of the work of ministry gets into the scrum and scruff of our broken world, painful relationships, and desperate situations. I frequently feel the tug to stop pointing to the Savior and to start being the Savior. I want to help. I want to solve problems. I want to heal.

There's only one Savior.

Accepting this truth gives us limits. It shapes our ministry. We do what we can with what we have, but the work of salvation is beyond us.

We need a Savior, but we also need guides. Guides help us press through our fear. Guides show us that help has come, help is here, and help is on the way. Guides enter into the loneliness of our journey and walk with us through it.

I keep circling back to Nouwen's quote because I keep being tempted to be a Savior. I keep circling back because I actually love being just a guide. I keep circling back because I need to remember that the ministers in my life make great guides and lousy Saviors.

Shame, fear, the false self and a Retreat Day

As part of my annual review for my work with the church last year, I was asked to take a monthly retreat day. I find this difficult to schedule, but wonderful when I do.

Today is my last working day of the month. I had the retreat day scheduled earlier in the month and bumped it, then bumped it again. There's never a convenient time to go off and reflect and read and pray.

Photo by Jeremy Cowart
During my reflection time, I wrote a little poem to capture some of the concepts I'm working through today. I thought it might be interesting to share:

Shame has leaped over the fence
She tramples the garden of my soul
Gunfire will scare her away
But my hands are empty 
Fear gives up on the garden
What good's a soul anyways?
Big block walls rise around the fence
Can we settle for safety? 
The false self paints the walls
"We meant to do this"
We pretend
How will I live, cut off from my soul?
The nudge to reflect on shame, fear and the false self came from Rob Liddell, a friend from my high school days, who recommended the book Scary Close by Donald Miller. Great stuff!

The banner over the season

My last season of ministry had a great big banner over it: COURAGE.

Every day required from me more courage than I thought I had. I needed courage to cross cultural barriers. I needed courage in the face of the police. I needed courage to ask for volunteers and commitment and lots and lots of money. I needed courage to follow Jesus.

Naturally, I'm wired for fear. Or, if not fear, caution. I could try to playfully blame it on my dad teasingly threatening to feed me to the gators in Alligator Alley or my mom hiding vegetables in my food, but I think this is just my disposition. Perhaps it's also the flip side of a God-given gift.

The same quirk in my personality that makes me cautious also makes me strategic. I ask "What could happen?" and discover opportunities and pathways to go forward. I also discover ways things could be painful or go wrong. But I don't think you can have one without the other.

Courage is a necessary character component for someone of my disposition. Without courage, I'll be crippled by fear. Developing courage didn't actually diminish my fear, it just helped me continue to move forward in the face of fear.

Courage continues to grow in me, but it no longer feels like the banner over this season.

I'm in a new season of life and ministry:

  • Although I'm still working for InterVarsity, I'm now doing it part-time: directing communications and resource development for LaFe, InterVarsity's Latino Fellowship.
  • I'm serving as an associate pastor: lots of responsibility but very little power or authority (just what I like!).
  • We added twins to our family last month (bringing our Total Tamayo Kid Count to 4).
  • We've moved from Florida to North Carolina, from the city to the country, from "the Capital of Latin America" to Pittsboro.
My season of life and ministry has changed. So, almost two years in, what's God doing now?

I have guesses. 

Maybe the banner over this season is HEALTH. I've developed several significant healthy practices over the last two years. I went to counseling. I'm spending good time with my family and learning to swing between work and rest. I've taken actual vacations. Maybe God is using this season to help me embrace my humanity.

Maybe the banner over this season is WRITING. I've always dreamed of writing books. I've almost finished my book proposal for my book on ethnicity in the Bible. I've written dozens of chapters in a fantasy novel. I've written hundreds of blog posts over the last two years (mostly over at the Connect Devotional). Maybe God is using this season to develop me as a writer.

Maybe the banner over this season is HUMILITY. In every corner of my life I have to answer to someone else. I have 11 bosses. I'm not in charge. I'm not the supervisor. I'm just a servant. On Sunday morning I'll be pushing tables with our set-up crew. On Friday afternoon I'll be filling out paperwork to get a new Bible study into InterVarsity's store. I do a tremendous amount of work so that other people can do terrific ministry. Maybe god is showing me the significance of small.

Whatever the "banner" over this season is, I'm excited to see what God will do in me and with me and around me. He's generous to include me in what he's doing in this corner of the world. And I'm grateful.