Truth Be Told

Signed copies of the book I co-authored with Soong-Chan Rah, "Unsettling Truths - The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery" are available from my website:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Lessons from a Donkey

Noise. It surrounds us every day: car horns honking, sirens wailing, people talking, children crying, dogs barking, phones ringing, televisions blaring, donkeys braying, and the list goes on and on. Even when things seem to quiet down, after a few minutes our ears become attuned to the hum of electricity, the dull sound of traffic in the distance, the buzz of an airplane flying overhead, the elevator music playing in the background or even the constant ticking of a clock.

And then there is the silent noise that bombards us on a daily basis. Our eyes are strangely drawn to the billboards we pass on the city streets. We cannot help but read the sensational tabloid headlines stacked by the grocery store checkout lines. And then of course there are the text messages, Twitter feeds and Facebook posts that constantly stream through our phones and computers and into our lives. Everywhere we turn someone or something is blaring noise and demanding our attention.

Since moving to the Navajo Reservation nearly seven years ago my mind has been filled with many thoughts and my heart has been burdened with many questions: What does it look like to be racially reconciled within the United States of America? What does it mean for the Christian Church to be multi-ethnic and diverse when the underlying value for our country is assimilation? How can we raise up and empower Native American leaders for business, government and churches when the road to college degrees and ordination requires students to leave the reservation and assimilate to the Western culture, language and educational system? What can it look like for the indigenous hosts of this land to take their place in national debates on issues like Immigration Reform? How can the Native American community have a voice in the Electoral College?

I do not want to claim to be an authority on any of these questions. But I also want to acknowledge that I have spent much time praying, reflecting, struggling and conversing over each of them, as well as many others that I did not mention, and I would like very much to join the conversation where it is present and initiate dialogue where there is none.

But how is one heard? How does someone with a message rise above the noise to captivate the public’s attention and solicit their response? What does it look like to engage our churches, denominations and even our government in this type of public discourse?

There are many examples that I could follow that many people, organizations and institutions have employed in an effort to rise above the noise and be heard. I could seek out controversial stories, graphic images or misleading headlines like so many talk shows and news agencies do. Or I could use images of sex and violence, promises of wealth or guarantees of happiness like so many advertisers do. Or I could try and make my message ever present by injecting it into every possible context. Like a television or radio playing quietly in the background -- always on, yet never obtrusive -- my message would take on the subtle visibility of a well executed product campaign.

Each of these methods has been used very effectively, but, in the end, they are all adding to the same problem that each is trying rise above. I would also add that the goal of most of these methods is not to cause us to think, reflect or even converse. Instead the goal is to get us to react, jump to a conclusion, or even more simplistically, make a purchase.

In the mornings my daughter and I wake up early and walk to the top of a hill near us in order to watch the sun rise. As we walk up the hill we talk together but in the background we can often hear birds singing, dogs barking and occasionally cars passing by. But the most distinct and yet infrequent noise that we hear is that of a donkey braying. We don’t hear it every day, or even every week. It is infrequent and unpredictable, yet surprisingly consistent. But every morning we listen for it and each time we hear it my daughter exclaims, “Daddy! I hear my favorite donkey!!!”

If you have ever heard a donkey’s bray you know that it can be an extremely loud sound that quickly becomes annoying. It usually goes on for several seconds and sounds about as pleasant as an untrained performer with laryngitis who is attempting to sing opera. Yet as my daughter and I watch the sunrise we pray and frequently her prayer includes the words, “...and Jesus I thank you that I can hear my favorite donkey.”

My daughter knows this donkey. She listens for his bray, and she is filled with joy every time she hears it. Now if we owned a herd of donkeys and every morning they sounded as loudly as this one donkey, then I do not think my daughter would receive his braying with such glee. Rather she might pray that Jesus would shut those donkeys up so she could get some sleep. But the infrequent and yet consistent braying of this single donkey is welcomed by our entire family, and every time we hear it we listen and even celebrate.

For some time now, I have been considering how I can engage a larger audience with the topics that I listed above and which the Creator has placed on my heart. Several years ago I started a blog, but my posts were extremely infrequent and resembled a collection of published articles more than a blog. I was not engaging in a conversation as much as I was publishing my finished thoughts. So then a few years ago I opened a Facebook account, and I probably update my status between 2 and 5 times a day! I frequently have people comment on or ‘LIKE’ my status updates, but I assume that there are just as many of my ‘friends’ who have hidden, or at least learned to tune out my constant blabber about Starbucks coffee, Chipotle burritos, sunrises and even my own children.

Neither of those attempts to communicate more broadly has come close to satisfying my desire to engage my community, our churches, the country and our leaders in a constructive dialogue. So I am going to try once again. But this time I think I will pay attention to some of the lessons that can be learned from this donkey that my daughter loves so much.

First, I want to have a distinct, clear and recognizable voice. As far as I can tell, there is only one donkey residing on our hill while there are many dogs, cows, cats and birds. One reason the braying is so welcomed is because it is different and not easily mistaken for the sounds from the other animals that we hear all of the time.

Second, I want to have a short and understandable message. The donkey does not make a beautiful sound and if it were to go on for longer than a few seconds it would very quickly become irritating. But I have learned to trust that the brays will be short and therefore welcome them as I am reminded that our hill is larger and more diverse than what I see on a daily basis.

Third, when I do speak (or write) I want to be loud enough to be heard, even from a distance. My daughter rarely sees this donkey that she loves so much. The primary reason she know he exists is because his bray breaks through the serene silence that typically accompanies the sunrises that we watch. Because he is far off, he is not as loud as the cars that occasionally drive in front of us or the dogs that sometimes bark at us, and we do need to cease our talking in order to hear him. But when we do, his voice is easily heard.

It is my hope, that if I do these three things well, then I will not need to entice people to listen by exploiting controversial topics, flashing violent images or making empty promises. Instead I want keep the conversation going and my audience interested, engaged and hungry for more by the infrequent, yet surprisingly consistent, sound of my voice. I aspire to be like this donkey, who, at least for my daughter, has redefined the loud, annoying and obnoxious noise of his bray into a sweet, familiar and cherished sound.
(A version of this blog post was also published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.)