When I stop being attached to my ideas or perceptions, that dissonance has space to transform into acceptance. Holding onto my thoughts, feelings, perceptions, or ideas white-knuckled often leaves me dissatisfied. But accepting things, situations, and people for who they are allows for both a deep connection as well as the freedom of self-differentiation. I get to stop having expectations of others, and they get to stop having expectations of me.
We all have fears, anxieties, insecurities. Most of us are scared to death of being alone. We all get angry, or sad, or confused. Simply put, we're all human, and that shared experience is worth remembering at all times, because when we forget it, that's when we go wrong. That's when we miss each other, stop listening, and resort to hurting each other deeply, violently, or maliciously.
Talking with a friend (and professor) the other day about grief, I realized that part of my own unfinished grief has to do with the remaining desire to be straight. To fall in love with a woman. To not cringe (or feel nauseated) at the idea of being intimate with her. I wonder what it would have been like had things turned out differently, but some questions never get answers. Some fantasies never become reality. Some hopes never stand a chance.
The fact is that to know yourself and to let your self be known by others is a gut-wrenching, vulnerable, nerve-wracking process. It often includes tension, drama, and conflict (all three of which I despise greatly). But rarely does this conflict come up, I think, because we inherently dislike or detest someone else. It surfaces because we see something in them that makes us feel something about ourselves. Yet when we refuse to be vulnerable, to "risk engagement," we put ourselves at risk for emotional atrophying and decay.
Vulnerability is an entirely different story. When the matador drops the muleta, he becomes vulnerable, a word whose origin actually means "woundable." Vulnerability, at its core, is risky. When you are vulnerable, you stand the chance of getting hurt, of becoming wounded. Whereas transparency lessens the emotional proximity of one party to another, vulnerability increases it. When you enter into the space created by vulnerability, you realize that vulnerable relationships are anything but sterile environments. They're messy and potentially painful. But without vulnerability, true community cannot thrive. It cannot be sustained.
Our job, first and foremost, is to love. No conditions. No agenda.
We love because people deserve it. We speak out in the face of injustice. We name power and the ways it is destructive. We tell, no, we show people just how amazing they are. We make them believe that they are truly and unconditionally God's beloved. And we do it until we're blue in the face. We do it until we have no physical, emotional, or spiritual energy left. We do it until the Kindom comes. That's our job. Nothing more. Nothing less.
...Conference is about being real, authentic, and vulnerable
It's about meeting people with whom one has much in common, finding solace in community, and being in a safe space where one can truly be oneself. This year I was able to do that more than I think I ever have been able to in previous, mostly because of my amazing roommates Ben, Bryan, and Kevin, as well as several other friends both old and new.
"You see, loving people isn't about what they can do to meet my needs; it's about what God has done in my own heart to enable me to see them as He sees them." Rudy Rasmus, Touch (p.73).
The first time I read Touch was in 2010 during my first year of seminary after attending the Christian Educators Fellowship Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Pastor Rudy was one of the keynote speakers at the conference, and later in the weekend I had a chance to sit down, hear a little more of his story, and share some of my own with him. My encounter with the braided-beard man compelled me to learn more of what he had to say about his understanding of ministry.
If there was one word I would use to describe Rudy's understanding of ministry, it would be vulnerable. Engaging a world that has experienced deep brokenness and suffered severe wounding takes risk and a willingness to encounter one's own brokenness and wounds more intimately. We cannot hope for a restored, redeemed world if we aren't willing to see just how much restoration and redemption the world needs, which includes understanding our own individual needs for restoration and redemption.
Throughout his book, Rudy places an emphasis on selflessness, on putting our own needs and desires aside for the sake of understanding the needs and desires of those whom we serve, but even more importantly, of learning and understanding how it is God wants us to be a part of meeting those needs and desires. In other words, how do we learn to put ourselves last and others first? This by far is Rudy's greatest challenge to me individually.
As an only child and only grandchild, well, egocentrism comes easy at times. I try to be aware of how I'm putting myself first and to tone that tendency down, but I don't always succeed. In reading Touch, I don't hear Rudy telling his readers that ministry is about burnout and complete self-denial. Instead, I hear him saying that doing effective ministry has to start with an internalized shift in paradigm and perception. We must move from seeing the world through our own eyes to seeing it through God's. This takes a certain level of self-denial, but not to the point where we become worthless; rather, by seeing the world through God's eyes, we learn to see ourselves through the same lens and to understand how our needs are similar to and different from those to whom we minister.
Rudy and I have both experienced our share of brokenness in this world, and I believe that we've learned some similar lessons from those shared experiences. Primarily, I believe we both understand how desperately the world needs to experience unconditional love, but not in a coercive manner. Humanity often thrives on the necessity of choice, and it can be no different with love. Just as I have a choice to love myself and accept the love of my Creator and others, so also must someone else have that same choice. In the same way I choose to touch, someone else must choose to embrace being touched.
"People who fight against racism but fail to connect it to the degradation of the earth are anti-ecological—whether they know it or not. People who struggle against environmental degradation but do not incorporate it in a disciplined and sustained fight against white supremacy are racists—whether they acknowledge it or not. The fight for justice cannot be segregated but must be integrated with the fight for life in all its forms." James H. Cone, Whose Earth Is It, Anyway (p.138)
Over the last couple of years, I've become more aware of my own white privilege and what I might call my human privilege. As a middle-class white male, whether I know it or not, I've played a part in the oppression and dehumanization of persons of color. As a human being, I've played a part in the ecological harm caused to the Earth. As a person aware of both forms of oppression and destruction, I am called to fight for justice for both.
In Whose Earth, Cone seeks to challenge both those engaged in the black freedom movement and those involved in the ecological movement to see themselves through the lens of the other. He believes that both movements have something to learn from and offer to each other. Personally, I agree with him. In fact, I would go farther and claim that any isolated justice movement that doesn't engage other similar justice movements is doing harm. If I fight for equal rights for LGBT persons but do not engage the battle against racism, then I am culpable for harm done on the basis of race, even if I am not the one actively doing that harm.
Most fights for justice, from my perspective, have a tendency to focus solely on one issue. Rarely do they tackle the intersections of oppression that we talk about in seminary. If we think about it, race connects with gender connects with class connects with ecology and so on and so forth. Segmenting ourselves into these little components denies the holistic message of the Gospel for complete restoration, not just of humankind but of the world entrusted to it. There is a larger fight to be fought, and it needs to find a way to bring all the pieces that go into being part of God's creation together.
Cone's greatest challenge to me is to be engaged in the holistic fight. As a single solitary young white gay male, nine times out of ten, when faced with the existence of yet another form of injustice, I feel helpless to do anything. I feel burned out by the fight before I even step into the ring. But that's the thing I have to realize about justice: one should never try to fight alone. Solidarity is a powerful tool for combatting injustice, one not to be ignored. I might not always be engaged in every single fight simultaneously, but even then, I can provide support, encouragement, and resources for those who are on different battlefronts than myself. I believe Whose Earth offers a great challenge for any person engaged in a fight for justice, a challenge I personally hope I can accept.