Monday, September 18, 2017


Privilege: a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.  

Now, this is the standard definition of privilege that most folks agree upon.  It is the standard to which we adhere to in normal conversation.  When someone says, "You have privilege," we immediately think, "I have an advantage over someone else."

But according to those who like to redefine things, privilege has a different connotation.  

So, privilege is not a special right or advantage, but is instead the idea that you do not have a particular life experience and cannot understand what another is going through.  And, of course, you will "likely" underestimate just how bad the problem really is because, since you haven't gone through it, you really, really just don't get it.

If this is the case, then "privilege" ideology is simply a reiteration of placing one's experience as the highest form of knowledge possible.  Same song.  Another, tiring verse.

There are two problems with this approach that I can see.  

First, every, single, bloody person has different problems.  No one shares every single experience alike.  Therefore, it logically follows, given the proposed definition, that EVERYONE has privilege.  How?  Well, given my particular situation: if you are not a white, male, heterosexual, rural, Lutheran, pastor who is married to a vertically-challenged, Italian, heterosexual female Spanish teacher who, together have two adopted, bi-racial daughters, and then a naturally born son--with all the trials and problems that such dynamics create, then when you address me about things I am going through, then you are a person of privilege.  You can't possibly know share this experience with me.  You can't possibly share the problems that I have.  You don't have that experience.  You have privilege!!!

Taken to its logical conclusions, the definition is quite meaningless!

But that perhaps is not the worst of the problem.  For by essentially limiting authority to personal experience, it is also quite possible that one exaggerates ones problems beyond the scope of reality.  Saying that should get me in a bit of trouble, but frankly, I don't care.   It's simply the truth.  (Caveat: there are obviously some problems that are tremendous.  When you are diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, that is a gigantic problem.)  For instance, as the father of a "tween" daughter, at least once a week, I hear the dreaded words, "You just don't get it!"

Well, in a way, my daughter is right.  I don't fully get the "tween" angst problems of today.  There weren't cell phones and the technology of today during my time.  Athletics wasn't quite the booming business that it is today.  Her school is a bigger school than I went to.  And, of course, she is a she.  I am a he.  And she is bi-racial and I am white.   I don't get it--on one level.  

But taking a step back and looking at a bigger picture, I darn sure do get it.  I darn sure can see what is going on, and I can tell my daughter with conviction that these problems that she is experiencing are minor.  They aren't life-threatening.  They are not a threat to her person and being.  There is a much larger world that she will experience, and the trials and tribulations she is experiencing now will seem like minuscule things in the future.  Learning to cope with these small things will give her confidence to deal with the bigger things later.  Learning to put things in proper perspective now will help her put things in proper perspective later.  Learning to look at the big picture now will help her get away from myopia in the future.  Although she might think that her world is crashing down around her and that all hope is lost, it is my job to remind her that there is a very big world out there and that what is happening to her right now will only have as much bearing on her future as she allows.  Allowing her to dwell in her limited experience will only harm her.

Allowing anyone to dwell in his or her limited experience will only harm him or her.  For experience is not the be all and end all of knowledge.  There is a vast array of knowledge that does not come from experience, and oftentimes that knowledge is much more reliable than our limited experience.  

If you want to talk about privilege, then let's do so under the standard definition.  We can easily talk about how some folks have advantages that others do not.  We can easily talk about ways to improve the lot for those who indeed are disadvantaged.  But let's not go changing definitions to suit our own purposes.  You don't have that privilege.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Amazing (In)Capability of Interpretation

I find myself in the unenviable position of defending someone whose theology I simply cannot stand.

Just down the road from the congregation that I serve stands the United State's largest church: Lakewood Church pastored by Joel Osteen.

Joel is a preacher of the prosperity gospel.  It is not the Gospel--it is a very warped version of what you will find in the Bible and in the New Testament.  In my estimation, this "gospel" does much more harm than good.

But that is a topic for another discussion.  What I would like to speak to at this moment is the response first given by Lakewood Church in regards to the severe flooding experienced in Houston during Hurricane Harvey.

During the heaviest flooding, Lakewood released the following statement, "Dear Houstonians! Lakewood Church is inaccessible due to severe flooding. We want to help make sure you are safe. Please see the list below for safe shelters around our city, and please share this with those in need!"

The post went on to list numerous for people to gather.

Of course, in the internet, multi-media, instant communication world we live in, someone went to "fact-check" Lakewood's statement.  Pictures were posted showing that the facility itself was accessible.  

Lakewood then took severe heat for failing to open its doors as a shelter.  Intense heat.  In the eyes of many, their reputation is now damaged irreparably.  

However, not all the facts were known.  Here is why Lakewood Church's statement is accurate, although not as clear as it could have been.

In his sermon this past Sunday, Joel Osteen laid out several more facts:

1. The facility had been flooded back in 2001 and had five feet of water in it.  Therefore, the church installed flood gates to prevent such a thing from happening again.

2. During the severe flooding, the water had risen to within a foot of the top of those flood gates.  At the time, no one knew whether or not the water would rise any higher.  (...due to severe flooding.)

3. Rather than take a chance and have people start moving in only to be flooded out by the water breaching the flood gates, the church decided to play it safe rather than sorry.  (Lakewood Church is inaccessible...)

4. As soon as the water began receding, the church opened its doors.

Now, interestingly enough, one must ask--which interpretation is correct?  Those who "fact-checked" by posting photos from outdoors?  The interpretation that I just set forward?

Well, honestly, they both are--depending what you mean by inaccessible.  If you mean getting to the facility, then those photos from the outdoors showing that you could get to the parking lot are correct.  If you mean by inaccessible that the church can't be used as a shelter until safety is ensured, then the church's statement is correct.

There is no doubt that the church's statement regarding inaccessibility could have been more clearly worded.  There is no doubt that more explanation could have been included in that statement that might have prevented the social media backlash that ensued.

However, I also think that there are those who used this as a "gotcha" moment for Lakewood and Joel Osteen.  I think there was some intentional desire to paint Joel and the church in a bad light, and given whatever particular bias you have, you were going to have that bias influence how you viewed the situation.

As more of the facts have been presented, I think how the church handled itself is exactly how I would have handled it.  Given how high the water was rising and the inability to know how high it would rise, I wouldn't have wanted to bring people in unless I knew whether or no the flood gates would be breached.  

But would I have chosen the same words to inform?  Would I have worded things differently?  

I don't know.  Sometimes what looks like an innocuous statement turns friends into enemies, and when we don't agree on the definitions of words, the likelihood of such things happening rises.  When we refuse to give people the benefit of the doubt, firestorms arise.  When our biases creep up, it's easy to fan the flames (do you know how hard it is for me to actually defend Lakewood Church???).  

What I do know is this--sometimes we benefit by waiting.  Sometimes we benefit by listening.  Sometimes we need to see how facts emerge before offering our own critiques or criticisms.  We are limited in that we will never know all the facts, but that is no excuse for jumping in and offering our own interpretations before more information is on the table.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Lakewood, Joel Osteen, and Hurricane Harvey

I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about the social media backlash against Lakewood Community Church and its unwillingness to open its doors to displaced people due to the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.  And, believe it or not, I have no desire to bash Lakewood in the least.  I am well aware of Jesus' statement: take care of the log in your own eye before you try to pluck out the speck in your neighbor's eye.  For all the disagreement I have with Joel Osteen's theology, I want to see no church harmed.

And this is why I want to write this post.

It's because I believe that what happened at Lakewood can teach the church an invaluable lesson, and it's not simply about opening your doors during a disaster.

For you see, Lakewood is a church of nearly 40,000 members.  I would be willing to bet a substantial portion of my paycheck that thousands of those members, even the vast majority of those members were not idle during the events of Harvey.  I would be willing to bet--even though I cannot substantiate it--that thousands of those members were helping neighbors, were donating food, were making sure folks were rescued, and now are giving to relief efforts, joining in clean up crews, and working to care for their flooded neighbors.

But, little of that will matter in the public perception.  Lakewood will be remembered as the giant church that refused to open its doors to its neighbors until it was shamed into doing so.


Because, a church is not simply judged by what its members do, but a church is also judged by what it does as a whole.

It doesn't matter if you think it's right or wrong; just or unjust--every congregation has its own personality; its own range of actions; its own public perception, and it is judged as a whole by the surrounding society.

Individual members might be the nicest folks in the community, but if someone worships on a Sunday morning and does not feel welcomed, the church will be judged as unfriendly.

Individual members might be involved in all sorts of ministries outside the life of the congregation, but if the church isn't reaching out into its community, it will be seen as uncaring.

Individual members might be giving to all sorts of charities outside the congregation, but if folks aren't giving to the congregation and the congregation is not giving of its monies, the congregation will be seen as stingy.

Individual members might be reading all sorts of devotionals and educational materials outside the congregation, but if very few attend Bible studies within the church, the congregation will be seen as refusing to grow spiritually.

This is the lesson the church must learn from Lakewood.  Not only does it matter what individual members involve themselves in.  It also matters what kind of public witness we offer as a whole.

An internet meme made its way around after this whole fiasco that said, "God didn't ask you what Joel Osteen did.  He asked you what you did."  And that's is most certainly true.  But God isn't the only one watching.  The rest of society is, and they are watching what kind of witness our churches and congregations as a whole are offering.