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There are a handful of conversations that stick to me as much as with me. When I look back, I can pick out comments or conversations that have permanently shaped how I think about myself in the world. One of these came from Brent, a seminary intern at my church who I met my first year in the high school youth group. We were having lunch at a $5.54, all you can eat Chinese buffet near the church, and I was explaining why I had left the church to attend another youth group.

To simplify an hour’s conversation into one sentence, I wasn’t happy with people in the youth group or the church. I felt excluded. The church wasn’t taking care of the outsiders to the group (me), and it sucked. And Brent didn’t disagree with me, but he also didn’t just validate my feelings and apologize for how mistreated I had been. Instead, he observed an “ability” to see the flaws in groups— in the church and in the youth group. He then asked, “how are you using that gift?”

I’ve thought a lot about that question, and two things stick out. First, the problems weren’t marginalized. As one of only a few kids who didn’t go to a public or private school, I had no natural connection to the other kids. And rather than recognize their head start in the social circle called ‘youth group,’ the kids simply went about their routine, talking to friends, relating to each other in a way that I couldn’t join in. There wasn’t any awareness for the excluded kid, and Brent validated me in seeing that.

However, the response to the problem was antagonized. What I didn’t recognize at the time, and what Brent’s comment helped me see, was that knowledge of a problem didn’t change anything. Complaining about the problem didn’t help either. The only way my perception could turn into something positive was if I stayed in community with those who hurt me.

Now why is this important? Because for a system (be it a youth group, a church, or a nation) to work properly, its participants have to be willing to move together into closer proximity. That requires us to have lightly malleable identities and an awareness of those around us. If my identity is unchangeable, then I will only look for those who are exactly like me to form a group. I will, knowingly or unknowingly, cut others out; I will see them as the horrific other; I will be much quicker to think of them as my enemies.

The system also requires us to be willing to create rather than merely criticize. I said at the last restart of my blog that I want this blog to be something different than the world around me. I don’t think I can help you if I’m just criticizing you. I don’t think I can even know who you are if all I do is complain about you. And complaints and criticism from people who hardly know me always feels unfair and hurtful. I don’t want to feed that back into the system if at all possible.

I wish I could delve deeper into this last point, but I’m out of space. To be brutally brief: I’m thankful for Brent, and for the others that I believe God put in my life to force me to think differently. I’m thankful for their patience at a slow learner, for their generous mercy in allowing me to mess up. More than just appreciating Brent’s comment, more than just being thankful for the little dose of life he poured into me, I’m grateful by striving to not just see the problem anymore.