By Dany Hernandez … I was born with a curse—the curse of being an includer. This is a curse I did not request and did not order. This curse was gifted to me! This curse keeps me from looking at the world from my own perspective and, instead, forces me, on a daily basis, to imagine what the world looks like from the eyes of others. This curse is the reason why in all my years of ministry, I have always migrated to the margins. The margin is where the inside ends. Whatever or whomever is contained within these boundaries begins to lose its identity the further it gets from the center. The margin is where the line, or lines, have been drawn by a company, organization, institution, or someone and is usually defined by a set of rules, traditions, expectations and creeds.
In “The Lion King” Simba finds himself at the elephant graveyard, a place he has been told to avoid, when Zazu interrupts his journey and says, “You are way beyond the borders of the Pride Land.” In other words, you’ve reached the margin . . . and you’ve crossed it. Those of us who have spent all of our lives inside the margins, can’t even imagine why anyone would even consider crossing that line. Because, at some point, the people inside the margins told everyone that the margins were dangerous, that outside was a bad place where evil things happen once you step across that border. So, in order to avoid evil, we surround ourselves with individuals who will provide accountability, encouragement, guilt and even, at times, shame to keep us from the margins. Unfortunately, our churches have forgotten that most people live in the margins. And this should not be a shock, but this also includes the people who appear to be right in the middle, away from the edge. Let’s face it, people are leaving “church” in droves, and we need to own it and admit it. We can get creative with all sorts of numbers, and justify our success, but the reality is, if we don’t do something drastically different, we will find ourselves protecting the castle alone.
This tweet from someone I follow on Twitter expresses the sentiment of so many people today. We must listen if we want to remain relevant.
“I’m not avoiding Church so I can live a life of debauchery. I’m avoiding church because I can’t make sense of the people outside the church being kinder and more understanding than those inside the church who gave me pat answers and shame with a side of victim blaming for 25 yrs.”
After reading this, probably the first instinct for you and me is to say, “You’ve just been at the wrong church.” Naturally, we want to defend the things we believe in and are a part of. But, by doing so, we often fall right back into “pat answers.” We are really good at those. Why? I’m glad you asked.
Avoiding the Questions
Hang with me for a minute. The theory of spiral dynamics attempts to understand human thinking, behavior, and development from not just a personal, but also a historical/cultural perspective. Spiral dynamics would say that the basic need for all humans and cultures moves from the need to survive to the need to believe in wizards, magic and gods. After that, we organize ourselves around an individual or strong figure until we disagree with that person and seek to move into a community with a certain creed that will be upheld no matter the leader. This is where religion and denominations come into the picture.
But something fascinating happens, eventually. Humans begin to ask questions about the creed or set of beliefs they’ve been a part of and in doing so, appear to many as heretics, backsliders, and dangerous to the community. In this next stage, humans ask “Why?” A lot and pat answers will automatically be dismissed. Humans see science as saying one thing and faith as saying another, and they attempt to make sense of those things and find that churches and faith communities feel as if those two are mutually exclusive. So, we avoid the questions. We encourage them to not lose their faith. We warn them about the dangers of doubt.
The harsh reality is that our country finds itself right now mostly split down the middle between those two stages. About one half of our country strongly holds to creeds and traditions without questions asked, and the other half is seeking something more. The other half isn’t necessarily seeking answers as much as the freedom to explore and ask questions. But the tension comes when a certain group feels they have all the answers and therefore questions are discouraged and seen as a lack of faith or commitment.
As churches, we have become very uncomfortable with saying, “I don’t have the answer to that question.” But, if we are going to bridge the gap between those at the margins and others who are way outside the margins, we need to embrace, “I don’t know.” Because guess what? Everyone can see through the lack of depth in pat answers.
Blame It On Google
At some point in history, the church and the preacher controlled the information. We shared our findings and backed up our ideas based on the sources we liked and agreed with. However, I hope we all realize the moment we say something in public, a large majority of individuals is Googling the thing you said to make sure you didn’t get that from some obscure and random source. The church is and will continue to be held accountable for the things we say and the things we do, and if those things do not align with love, justice, and mercy, we will continue to lose credibility and our relevance in society.
Dazzle Them With Jesus
Archimedes is credited with saying, “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” In other words, get to the point even if you don’t like the point. Don’t waste people’s time by trying to dazzle them with words. How about dazzle them with honesty and sincerity. Dazzle them with the fact you also have some questions and there’s a mystery to all this we are all in search of.
How about dazzle them with the truth of Jesus. Not all the theological stuff, but with the practical, because people could care less about theology unless they see that theology played out in a real, everyday manner. Dazzle them with forgiveness, inclusivity, compassion, kindness, and generosity. Dazzle them with the fact that Jesus lived on the edge, in the margins, and way outside the boundaries. Dazzle them with the fact that you, just like Jesus, are pure and simple about love, justice, and mercy.
My Two Cents
Here are some practical thoughts from someone who spends a lot of time with people in the margins.
Embrace and encourage difficult questions you might not have answers for.
Provide spaces for conversations about challenging topics such as racism, poverty, and the LGBTQ+ community, to name a few.
Make it obvious you are for the community, not against it.
Language has changed; use language people understand.
When in doubt, focus on Love, Justice and Mercy
Now, you don’t have to change anything if you’re only interested in preaching to the choir. If your main concern is keeping the 99 sheep safe, by all means, just shut yourself in the barn with them. They’ll be happy, you’ll be safe, and everyone in the choir will say “Amen.” Inclusivity, on the other hand, will cost you. It will be difficult. Now that I think about it, it’s not a curse.
–Dany Hernandez is lead chaplain at Littleton Adventist Hospital in Littleton, Colorado. Email him at: [email protected]