For the last couple of months, I have had a REALLY hard time finding the brand of dog food I feed my dog Max. He has special dietary needs so I can’t just grab anything off the shelf. And the stores where I used to be able to purchase the product now have empty shelves where the boxes of the food used to be.
As I was talking to a customer service representative about why it’s been so hard to track down the dog food, she said, “One of the reasons it’s hard to find is because of the effects of COVID.”
“Because of COVID?” I interrupted.
“Yes,” she said. “You see lots of workers for the companies who provide our ingredients are out sick with omicron. Their absence suppresses their company’s ability to provide the ingredients we need. Lots of those who transport our products are out sick as well. All of this means it is harder than ever to make the product and get it to the stores. Until the COVID infection rates go down, it will be a challenge to get our dog food on the shelves.”
The conversation a few days ago reminded me of why it is so difficult to solve problems. Many human beings like to think the problems facing us have simple, straight forward solutions. For instance, we like to think that the only threat COVID poses to us lies in its ability to kill us. Once the vaccines and masks were distributed, we started to think our problems were in the rear-view mirror. We got even more excited when we heard that the omicron variant wasn’t as life-threatening as earlier variants. We relaxed and let our guard down.
And just as we did, we saw new infections skyrocket; the number of sick days for workers soar; which depleted the amount of goods we had available to sell; which drove up the price; which contributed to the rise of inflation. Sadly, few people see the link between the rise of infections, the lost work days, and inflation. And because of that, they simply get mad at their elected official – never once stopping to consider how their reckless behavior might be contributing to the economic challenges we are facing.
Of course, it just isn’t in the arena of politics and economic matters where people tend to oversimplify – and ignore the complexity of the problems. Those of us in the church do it as well. Let me give you an example.
Those of us in the Progressive Church talk a lot about our goal to diversify our communities of faith. We are heading into a series of months with important designations, and we are gearing up to observe them. February, for instance, is Black History Month; March is Women’s History Month; May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month; June is Gay Pride Month; and September 15-October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month.
During these months, many of our worshipping communities will do things like sing more Spirituals in February; use more sermon illustrations involving women in March; use different prayer practices in May; read children’s stories involving different family structures in June; and sing songs in Spanish from September 15-October 15. At the end of each month, we will pat ourselves on the back – telling ourselves we have done our part to celebrate diversity.
What we fail to do is ask ourselves deeper, harder questions. We fail to ask ourselves, for instance, why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said (on the April 7, 1960 broadcast of Meet the Press), “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation – one of the shameful tragedies – that 11 o’clock on Sunday mornings is one of the most segregated hours – if not THE most segregated hours in Christian America.”
His observation was true in 1960. And in most local churches, sadly it’s true in 2022 as well.
If we ever want to truly change things, we will have to dig deep to understand why it is still so hard to achieve real diversity in many of our worshipping communities. Instead of throwing in a few new songs or sermon illustrations, for instance, we will have to examine the ways our church constitutions and bylaws have created and perpetuated communities that are based primarily on Western European and corporate models. We’ll have to consider ways that we might re-organize ourselves – and our decision-making processes – year-round so they invite members of historically marginalized groups into our midst and show that we truly value their participation. We’ll have to examine the liturgies we have used in worship for decades (centuries, really) and ask ourselves, “Do these words, songs, and prayers truly reflect the experience of ALL people – or just some?” And instead of trying to capture pictures of a few diverse people for pictures on our church brochures or websites, we’ll have to push ourselves and ask, “How might we need to change our existing programming in order to speak to those from different social locations?”
Asking ourselves those questions will, of course, be hard. It will force us to admit that our existing structures and practices make it nearly impossible to diversify. Even harder will be the presence of those in our communities who will offer over-simplified solutions that will tempt us to overlook the real obstacles to transformation and simply “shift the chairs on the deck of the Titanic” rather than name and confront the iceberg of systemic bias that threatens to sink the ship.
I share these thoughts today to invite all of us to look at the world with new eyes. It would be good to ask ourselves, “Is there a problem facing my family/neighborhood/community/planet that I have oversimplified? Is there some piece of life where it is time to take a deep breath and begin looking at with the bigger picture in mind?”