Unconscious bias

If you had asked me a day or two ago, I would have said “No, I am not prejudiced, nor do I have any biases.” But I discovered that is not true.

The specifics of the situation are not particularly important…except that I was being introduced to someone who was a manager. There were two individuals present, and as the manager was introduced by name, I looked to one specific person. It did not take very long in the conversation, however, for me to realize that I had made a mistake.

It was an easily corrected mistake–and I don’t think it was a noticeable one.

I didn’t even think anything about it until later that evening…when I got to looking back and realized that of the two individuals who were there, I had immediately (and unconsciously) assumed the Caucasian individual as the manager…even though the African-American individual had responded to the introductions.

I was shocked at myself…and surprised at how easy it was to make an unwarranted assumption.

And it reminds me that I (and all of us) would do well to pay attention to our responses. Unconscious biases are present in each of us. They are not necessarily bad–but they can cause us to act in ways that have the potential of building walls rather than bringing us together.

While I was saddened to recognize that in myself, I am also glad that I was able to recognize it…because it’s only in the recognition of it that I can also have the ability to change it.

 

What about Mary?

This is the time of year when we hear the story of the birth of Jesus…the appearance of the shepherds…the magi…and sometimes on into the flight into Egypt. But what if we heard the story of the nativity from the perspective of Mary? What would it sound like? What would it look like?

What would it have felt like to ride on a donkey for 90 miles while 9 months pregnant? With the last couple of days feeling the twinges of early labor…and wondering when and where you were going to give birth?

Mary was separated from the circle of women she might have expected to be around her to support her in the birthing process…to assure her that things were going properly. Instead, she was surrounded by strangers–and in many ways, even her husband was still a stranger to her.

Most of the paintings and illustrations we see show her calm and serene, clean and with every hair in place, holding the baby right after the birth. But that’s not how it is. Any mother can tell you that’s not how it works! You’re exhausted…weepy…sweaty…and exhilarated. But you’re certainly not feeling or looking your best…

Nor are you ready for visitors…especially not strangers, dirty, unkempt. Strangers who come with a story of a visit by angels telling them to come find your child. Who are they? and what do they want?

I imagine that all Mary really wanted to do was to lie back and try to get the new baby to nurse…and then to sleep.

I wonder what she felt like when Joseph came to her later and told her that they had to leave quickly and flee into a different country because an angel had told him that the child was in danger? She had just gotten used to being in a strange place–and now they had to leave again?

So what if we saw a real nativity scene? What if we saw Mary as a real person? What if we saw Mary and Joseph as a real couple…who undoubtedly had some arguments about what they needed to do…about how to raise this child…who were doing their best but who probably still didn’t understand how this was all going to turn out.

What if we saw the baby as a real baby…who nursed…and pooped…and cried…and drove his parents crazy at times?

Would that change anything?

I wonder…

 

What’s it all about, anyway?

The Birth of Jesus - Luke 2:1-20

JESUS MAFA. The birth of Jesus with shepherds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

A number of years ago, there was a popular song that said “What’s it all about, Alfie?” That question seems appropriate at this time of year. What’s it all about, anyway?

I struggle sometimes with what to post…especially now. It’s a time of year when everyone wants to feel good…to enjoy the season.

But not everyone gets to do that.

And I’m not really sure the season is all about making us feel good.

After all, the child whose birth we celebrate came to shake the world up…to turn the existing expectations on their heads.

We’ve tended to sanitize that…to romanticize it. And so when someone posts a picture that makes us uncomfortable, we tend to want to immediately ignore it…or cry “foul!”

But what if we could all step back a minute…perhaps step into our time machines…and think about what was going on then? What would we see?

We would see a young pregnant woman, making a difficult journey with her fiancé to meet the demands of an occupying government. We would find them in the middle of a chaotic situation, desperately trying to find a place to stay…a quiet and at least somewhat secluded place where she could give birth.

We would see shepherds…unclean, unkempt. While the Bible positively acknowledges the shepherding background of some of the more famous individuals, shepherds didn’t have a good reputation generally. They were often considered to be thieves…and at the least were on the low end of society. And yet they were the ones the angels appeared to.

Later we would see magi–students of the heavens–coming and asking about this child, not knowing that their questions would trigger the deaths of innocent children by a frightened king.

We would see a family fleeing across borders, desperately trying to find a safe place to raise their child.

It’s not necessarily a feel-good story.

And so I think that some of the contemporary nativity scenes that we see–the ones that make us really uncomfortable…and maybe even angry…are appropriate for this time of year. They are what the story is all about…questions of dealing with “the other”…desperate families seeking safety for their children…genocide…

It’s not just something that happened approximately 2000 years ago. It happens today.

And the story…ultimately a story of hope for a new world…is all about what it means to live in this world…in this time…and a challenge to us. Who are we in the story? And how will we let it impact us?

What’s it all about anyway?

Holy Family in cages

Being Bethlehem…

Last night I sat in sacred space in Independence, Missouri (USA) and through the miracle of technology shared in an Advent worship with friends in

  • Oregon, USA
  • Australia
  • Zambia
  • Honduras
  • Germany
  • Philippines
  • French Polynesia
  • Canada
  • Dominican Republic

I heard prayers, music, and scripture read and sung in

  • English
  • Bembe
  • French
  • Spanish
  • German

And I was challenged with the questions of “How far is it to Bethlehem for me this Advent season?” and “How will I–and the place(s) I worship–be Bethlehem, the birthplace of Messiah, this Advent season?”

“Bethlehem” translates as “place of bread” or “place of meat”…a place where one is fed and nourished. If I choose to be Bethlehem this Advent season, that calls me to be a place where individuals can be fed and nourished–not just physically (although that is important), but also to feed their souls and spirits.

To be Bethlehem calls me to recognize the worth of those who look different from me…who worship in ways that are not necessarily my way…to see them as brothers and sisters.

It is not always easy. In fact, most of the time it is difficult. But if–as in last night–I can share in worship with others in different cultures through the miracle of technology, then I can also use that miracle to learn more about them…to find the ways in which we are alike…and to work with them to create a world that can be Bethlehem–a place of bread or meat–for all people.

Peace on earth…?

As Christians celebrate Advent–the time of preparation for Christmas–I am reminded of the song that the angels sang to the shepherds…”Peace on earth…”

Whose peace?

What do I mean by that?

Peace has a number of different definitions: (1) the absence of war, (2) calmness, (3) tranquility, (4) a state of security provided by law, (5) a treaty to end hostilities… It’s often a passive word–it happens to us; we don’t do much to cause it.

But I don’t think that’s the kind of peace the angels meant.

I think they were talking about shalom, which is much more than the definitions above. It’s broader…and active. It encompasses wholeness…soundness…right relationships…an overflowing sense of tranquility and health that causes one to pass it on or to repay.

It’s God’s peace–and that is so very different from our limited understanding!

We cannot bring about that kind of peace on our own. Yes, we can do our part to help bring about the cessation of conflict, but for the world to experience the kind of peace the angels sang about, we have to be willing to surrender. Surrender our own demands for “right,”…our thirst for “more and more”…our conviction that we know exactly what the Divine wants for everyone…

We have to be willing to listen…to look with new eyes…to travel new roads where we may not see more than a step or two ahead…to walk with new companions we might not be completely comfortable with.

Only then will the song be complete…”Peace on earth…shalom…”

angelappearingtoshepherds