Words of encouragement from a visitor to Madison

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I’m not an expert on Madison, but I visited your city for four days in August 2017 with as much open openness and honesty I could muster – I’m an introvert, you see, and a rural one at that – and our days were exhausting! It was a great experience and I’m thankful for the hospitality we experienced.

Our seminary – University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa – sent us, nine Gospel in Context: Urban students and our fearless professor, to practice “exegeting a community.”

We talked to dozens of locals, including city and ministry leaders, people experiencing homelessness, vendors and those in the marketplace, and more. We walked around neighborhoods, visited churches, celebrated worship with five different congregations, and ate at several great restaurants – my favorite was the Weary Traveler Freehouse on Williamson.

When asked if I’d be interested in writing a reflection for Selfless Ambition, I said yes right away, because I appreciate your faith community. Not because you’ve done everything right, but because I sense you’re trying to be honest.

From what we saw and heard, many times over in our few days, a primary issue being experienced by Madison centers around racial disparity. More specifically, I saw a Christian Community reeling from disillusionment around the issues identified in both The Race to Equity Report and Dr. Gee’s Justified Anger editorial and movement.

How can it be that we, progressive, loving Madisonians can be in the midst of the worst racial disparity in the nation? Indeed, how can it be? My mind echoed the same question.

Our group asked questions, both of the many people we met and of one another. How does a community that values, lobbies, and preaches equality, hospitality, and love have segments of population – that’s real people: men, women, and children – that have so little right beside those who have so much?

Certainly this isn’t an issue just for Madison, but thank you, Madison, for taking blinders off and beginning to be honest enough to seek answers.

I don’t have answers, but I have reflections, and thankfully that’s all I’ve been asked to provide.

Big issues don’t scare Jesus

Racial disparity doesn’t have an easy fix. The Why? has many root causes. The Who? are diverse, of course, even within the same ethnicity. The When? has as many origins as the diverse people who have been hurt and those who have gained. You’ve got a start on The What?, with more statistics than we were able to fully wrap our heads around, and I’m sure you’ve already discovered more of the issue without yet coming to its end.

With no easy answer, how does Madison move forward? With Jesus.

Big issues don’t scare Jesus. He touched the unclean and healed the sick, he confronted systems of injustice and reinterpreted the law, he brought back life from death and forgave sin. The sin of all humanity, including that at the heart of racial disparity, and all of its accompanying shame and despair, didn’t scare Jesus on the cross and it doesn’t scare Jesus now. He died living his call in the face of really big problems.

That’s good news, and there’s more: the same Spirit empowers us. Be bold in the power of the Spirit; Madison’s issues don’t scare Jesus.

Be your words; don’t just say them

How does faith influence your life? I mean really, do you live differently because you’re a Christian? In other words, how does what you think theologically align with what you experience, and how does what you say align with what you do?

From our discussions in Madison, I wonder if Madisonians are experiencing misalignment. In a city personified in opposition to the politically conservative occupants of the State House and surrounding rural communities, is it just a given that a relevant urbanite must be progressive? It seems like being progressive is cool, so much so, that sounding progressive comes naturally to Madison’s residents.

Yet aligning voice to action isn’t so natural.

We saw hundreds of people pay a fair price for organic produce at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. I was one of them. Just across the street from the market were several experiencing homelessness, and perhaps hungry. Is organic produce, a part of a healthy life, only for those who can afford it in Madison?

If you say you care about the those experiencing homelessness, does your experience align with what you say? Do you care enough to know the circumstances of any individual experiencing life without a place to sleep, to bathe, to make a call or check email? If you think something doesn’t make sense, or something isn’t right, what do you do about it?

I, for one, found some of my assumptions tested in Madison. I didn’t necessarily like it, but it was good. That’s part of the intention of the class we are taking, of course, to help us interrogate our own theology. When our thoughts don’t line up with what we observe and experience, we need to change our thoughts. When our actions don’t line up, we need to change what we do.

Keep in mind, though, that experience is richest and most honest when it is collective human experience rather than my experience. If you find yourself in an echo chamber of similar thoughts, similar experiences, similar actions, get outside and experience more of God’s beloved creation.

Here’s a warning: it’s hard work! When you leave your own echo chamber – and most people have one, probably even you – you will be vulnerable. Suddenly, everyone doesn’t agree with you. Suddenly, your foolproof logic might come up short. Suddenly, your idea of God may be too small. And when that happens, you will feel exposed.

It’s a lot easier to stay in your protective trenches with your own people who repeat your ideas and share your experiences. When you’re ready to move outside your own comfort zone, I have two suggestions: one for your attitude and then one for your behavior.

First, hold the goal of hearing much higher than the goal of being heard. Listen more than you speak. We’ve all heard that said before, but really we rarely do it because it is hard – ask God for a quiet and longing heart to hear.

Then, an action: truly be lovingly honest. Sadly, the norm in our culture, including in the church, is to dig in with those of like minds. O God, how we need ears to hear others, hearts to love, eyes to see the sacred worth in every person, voices that express what we really feel, and arms that embrace and serve.

How does a community get there? We must take up our true identity.

Your true identity

Madison Christian community, your real identity isn’t a political ideology. It isn’t your radical hospitality, or lack thereof. It isn’t being Sanctuary, or winning the Race to Equity. No, your identity is more. Your identity is Christ’s Church in Madison. You are part of God’s Beloved!

Perhaps you look at yourself and see the ways you’ve failed. You have failed at times; all communities have. But, you’re still the church and God uses you. Live into your true identity. Clothe yourself with Christ.

To be truly vulnerable before one another, first requires being vulnerable before God. You know how to do this: confess, receive forgiveness, and walk in the light of Christ.

No more do you need to wallow in the way you’ve been; live in who you are!

Neither do you need to act like you’re better than you are; be vulnerable, expose your weaknesses, ask for help, listen to ALL the voices – which means seek out voices that are often silent, and continue to move forward!

You’ve already got a great start, because your start began In the Beginning, a long time ago, and your end will be fulfillment.

Continue to be honest with yourselves, Madison Christian community.

Seek the heart of God and do God’s work.

As individuals, cultivate your spiritual lives.

As a diverse group, discern God’s voice.

Be vulnerable and willing to change.

I have great hope for the Madison Christian Community because the Holy Spirit is at work within you. May abundant peace follow abundant grace within your hearts, among your congregations, and throughout the whole Madison community. My prayers are with you.