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.