September 23, 2020 § Leave a comment
“At times I am tempted to lose heart. But my good Shepherd is leading me toward life, not death…”
David Pawlison, Safe and Sound: Standing Firm in Spiritual Battles
Several of us were saddened the other day to learn that a pastor friend’s next-door neighbor had taken his own life. He didn’t know why, other than the fact that earlier this year his marriage ended in divorce. I can’t help but think that our current pandemic has figured into such narratives. Statistically, depression and anxiety are rising, as people have to process the uncertainty of work, isolation, family care, and daily life, in a time of COVID-19.
As believers, we are not immune to human frailty. Jesus said that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike (Matthew 5:45). The world is broken, and whenever it suffers, we suffer with it. We are part of it.
What the scriptures teach is that we share a hope that takes us beyond the pathos of the moment – or even a lifetime.
It reveals that misplaced hopes will end in disappointment, even tragedy. And that making lesser things everything cheapens the undiminished hope of the gospel.
This is why, for me, and others in ministry, it is difficult to stomach health-and-wealth ministers that promise material abundance and miraculous healing, often as they exploit the weak, while padding their bank accounts.
Growing up, our neighbor contracted Leukemia. She went to a famous faith healer’s revival meeting, and came home convinced that she no longer had the disease. But she did, and eventually it took her life.
Did it ever occur to you that every person Jesus healed has since passed away? Obviously those healings were intended for a purpose other than lives that would never be interrupted by death or disappointment.
And they were – They served as snapshots of something far more visionary, beautiful, lasting, and hopeful than one’s lifespan.
The quote above is taken from the last chapter of a book that David Pawlison wrote as he was dying of pancreatic cancer. At the time, he was serving as the President of CCEF, the Counseling Center out of Glendale, PA, that has most imprinted our church’s Life Counseling Center.
In the chapter he writes…
“Now more than four decades later [since trusting Jesus], I am staring death in the face. Instead of my faith failing, the promise of a new heart holds true. God is still shining into the darkness of my heart to give me the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
In the chapter he cites a passage in 2 Corinthians 4 that I memorized one summer during a personal crisis:
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (vss. 16-18)
The promise of the gospel is not that we can escape this world’s troubles. That would be far too short-sighted of God for His people, and would only carry them until the next heartache or disappointment.
No. We have been promised that when all is said and done, and we close our eyes in death, through Jesus, and in the power of his resurrection, the morning comes, with unending joy.
this is our good news…
grace & peace.
September 16, 2020 § Leave a comment
“God, then, does not speak through empty abstractions or endless circumlocutions. Rather, in every instance, God’s word was enacted and enacted in a particular place and time in history. In all, presence and place mattered decisively. Nowhere is this more evident than in the incarnation.”
James Davison Hunter, To Change the World
Some years ago, while living in Miami, Katherine and I created a small hideaway under a tree that lined the garden at the entryway of our home. Tiny white Christmas strings of lights rested in the tree that canopied a small bench we shared, alongside a peaceful water fountain I set up for her birthday one year. You could say that we hid in plain sight at the end of each day. That space was sacred. When it was cooler, we would sit with cups of hot chocolate, and watch cars drive by in the dark. Though we knew our neighbors, and in spite of the fact that church members lived nearby, no one ever stopped – because they couldn’t see us. We wanted it that way. Regardless of how difficult or anxious the day may have been, in the evening, we would be there to decompress, relax, unwind, talk and pray.
We have since created a similar space in the little courtyard of our home, between the garage and the house itself. Rather than rest in a tree, the lights now connect the structures, and the fountain is now a fire pit. But it is no less sacred, in fact, as much as we loved that space in Miami, we love this one even more. Through the muscle and know-how of friends, extra time during my sabbatical, and a lot of hard work, it has become our hideaway, our place. Only now, neighbors see us as they walk by – And we welcome them, whether to join us and talk, or to feel free to stop in when they smell the chicken barbecuing or the burgers sizzling.
Everyone needs a place.
In the book quoted above, James Davison Hunter argues that the internet has done a certain amount of damage to what he describes as the gravitational pull that once drew people together in order for them to be present with one another.
Everyone needs to belong.
I always loved the Motel 6 commercial that ended with the words, “We’ll leave the light on for you.”
Throughout history there have been moments, in the midst of horror, when Christians were the source of safe passage for the afflicted. In her book, Making Room, Christine Pohl writes of the village of Le Chambon, a “small community of French Protestants” who, during World War II saved thousands of Jews by hiding them from the Nazis, in houses and schools.
The purpose of this post is not to address the problems our Nation is facing now, but it will not be surprising to one day learn how substantially belonging, or lack thereof, fit into the narrative. We tend to reduce belonging to laws and historical moments, but society has a way of communicating the opposite when it wants to – and people feel it.
So, I take heart that in sympathizing with the weaknesses and limitations of a fallen human race, that Jesus chose to experience homelessness, the sensation of having nowhere to belong. He said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man [his favorite self-designation] has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).
And it is no wonder to me that his most reassuring words to his friends on the night of his arrest, involved the home he was preparing for them – in his Father’s house. They would deny, betray, and abandon him that evening, but after his resurrection, they would be restored to the friend in whom they found true belonging.
what good news…
grace & peace.
September 2, 2020 § Leave a comment
“And as he passed by…”
Have you ever noticed how some of Jesus’ most profound encounters happened along the way? His healings, teachings, confrontations, and encouragements occurred as he passed through towns and villages. Though not immune to exhaustion, he was remarkably accessible – along the way.
The picture in this post is from the summit at Waterrock Knob in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. I was amazed at how difficult the last half-mile of the climb was, and had to stop several times to catch my breath – and legs. However, as I ascended, this young couple bounded from behind, and whether out of pity, or just kindness, then made the rest of the climb with me. Atop the mountain, we learned one another’s stories, talked life, work, faith, God’s grace, and the beauty of our surroundings, then took pictures and exchanged information.
We were not put on the planet to live for ourselves. The most miserable people I know do. Unfortunately all of us fight this demon to some degree, and preachers are no exception! So, file this in the ‘take-it-from-one-who-knows’ category. We are naturally self-centered.
Six years ago I uploaded a video that within weeks was viewed nearly one-million times (made you look!). It was featured on the Jimmy Kimmel show! Hitting one million views became my not-so-secret obsession. I would text the YouTube address to close friends, knowing they would open it, and add to the much-coveted views. But YouTube added a demonic feature that enabled unwitting victims to get a sneak preview of what they received, and my self-serving scheme was dashed to pieces just 34,046 views short of one million (not that anyone was counting) – Curses!
Standing in contrast to a culture obsessed with clicks, self, and from-a-distance reality – is Jesus, who modeled the face-to-face, social construct-defying principle that we find our lives by giving them away in self-denial and servanthood, one person at a time.
Our ‘made-you-look’ society reflects our ugliest narcissistic tendencies, and in the process, robs us of life and love along the way.
But a world of opportunity is out there for those who escape themselves to enter the journey, and someone needs you along the way. Someone you likely haven’t yet met. Someone wondering if they should abandon the climb, walk away from it all, or just give up hope.
So, get moving. Trust me – you will get tired of you! And the world awaits!
After all, we live in the assurance of the gospel – that regardless of our own circumstances, it is not beyond the scope of a Savior who is constantly passing by, to enter, heal, and forgive, along the way. Jesus is no static concept. His cross and resurrection ensure that the possibility of his intervention in our lives is as real as it was when he bore flesh and walked the planet.
Friends, this is good news…
grace & peace.
July 29, 2020 § Leave a comment
“A holy place is where we become aware that there’s more to life than meets the eye, and that the more is ‘other,’ Other. God, who is beyond us, is also at hand.”
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall
Not every sanctuary is built with human hands.
The photos in this post were taken from the Oconaluftee Islands Park in Cherokee, North Carolina. Once within its ‘walls’ the bamboo forest is transformed into a sanctuary of sorts. Curiously, this rapidly spreading growth is classified as grass. However, in maturity it manifests as a collective paneling of stalks that line paths and creates glorious corridors. Even more spectacular, this paneling allows light and splendor to infiltrate the enclosure it creates. And if that weren’t enough, the stalks of the bamboo are so tall that rather than grow endlessly in a straight line, at some point, they dovetail into one another, forming a magnificently arched ceiling – as though cognizant of Someone it was created to exalt.
Whenever we consider Jesus’ retreat to the mountains (Mark 6:46), our inclination is to put emphasis on prayer, because that is what he did. But I think there is more – that Jesus used that space of time to recapture his own sense of awe at the beauty of the very creation he sustains (Colossians 1:15-17).
We think of the ‘good’ pronouncements in the creation narrative as declarations of perfection – and they are. Nothing could ever supersede the unblemished handiwork of God – it was good because He is perfect. But is it possible that God was also thrilled with the beauty that He sculpted out of nothing?
Normally, this is the time of year that Katherine and I return to the beach we have enjoyed with our family for 20 years – To soak in the sun and get lost in the sound of crashing waves, where cell phones cannot be heard. But this year, with COVID-19, and our home state a hot spot for all the wrong reasons, we decided to hide in the mountains. With few exceptions, we stayed to ourselves and were reminded of the grandeur of God.
Though not a substitute for the gathering of God’s people in worship, it is difficult to stand on top of the world, so to speak, and not be filled with wonder. A breathtaking view completely redirects one’s attention from the immediate to the eternal. It is a holy interruption of the noise and chaos of daily routines.
Whenever we enter into sanctuary, we are transported and dwarfed by the majesty of God, whether a physical church locale, a walk by the bay at sunrise, or a mountain vista that swallows us in its grandeur.
This is a good thing.
Entering into sanctuary makes us no larger, and no more capable of managing the universe. It rescues us from the delusion that we can. And lifts our gaze from the immediate to the eternal, transforming our fear of lesser things, into renewed faith, in the eternal God who came near, and became immediate in His Son Jesus – for us.
Friends, this is our good news.
grace & peace.
July 2, 2020 § Leave a comment
“What you thought mattered – what you thought was truest to the real you – often turns out to be empty and dishonest. You have to keep asking and keep looking; no wonder we hate it and find every excuse for not getting on with it.”
Rowan Williams, Where God Happens
A few years ago, as we returned to the Orlando airport with our rental car, we decided to play chicken. We had prepaid for a full-tank so we wouldn’t have to fill up at the last second, and we took full advantage of that prepayment. The only problem was that the car was running on fumes and threatened to stall within miles of our destination!
Strangely, we laughed with every passing mile, wondering how far I would eventually have to push the car should we run out of gas.
Early yesterday morning, after my walk and early coffee, I admitted to Katherine that I had nothing – no blog post and no ideas – zero! We are slated for some time off in the coming weeks and it seemed as though the tank hit ’empty’ just a few miles short of the rental facility.
On most weeks, the post is already largely written by Wednesday morning, awaiting refinement before being made public – but not yesterday. As Monday turned to Tuesday (when the idea normally crystalizes), nothing came. And since Seinfeld already used the idea of a “show about nothing,” even that was off the table!
I had all but surrendered to the idea of not posting, by the time that Wednesday (yesterday) came. But it turned out to be a ministry-intensive day, and, I was reminded that when it comes to people, brokenness has many faces, and that we in ministry have the privilege of speaking into hopelessness, because God intends for life to be something!
This is the marvel of Creation. In the beginning, God called everything into existence by His spoken word. The, “Let there be…” passages in the Genesis 1 narrative could not be more dramatic, because they represent what theologians refer to as ex nihilo – “out of nothing.”
It is impossible for us to wrap our brains around this, because we have never truly seen the nothing-ness of nothing! Even an empty room has the substance of oxygen!
Hebrews 11:3 reveals that this cannot be arrived at by sheer intellect – “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”
Those who follow Jesus find it hopeful that the universe is the handiwork of a personal Creator, and therefore meant for something. Every firefly and all the fish of the sea were handcrafted with intentionality, as were we.
For those who agonize over loved ones and friends that display not one ounce of interest in things of faith, they are encouraged by the fact that God can intervene and speak something into the nothingness of their spiritual appetites – even as He has done ours. And it relieves the arrogance of the notion that we can force-feed, guilt, or shame Jesus into hearts.
By contrast, every intersection with sin and sorrow is an attempt by the evil one to squeeze out the sense of meaning, joy, and value – the something-ness – we were created to embody.
Which brings us full-circle to my having nothing to offer yesterday. I could recite all kinds of reasons it didn’t happen (COVID-19 is always convenient!), but at the end of the day, whenever I am running on empty, it has less to do with workload and exhaustion, and more with how I mismanage the affairs of my heart and the priorities of my life before the Throne.
In fact, a bird’s eye view would probably reveal no difference in activity. But, deeper inspection would uncover the need for retreat into God’s grace, beyond the routine – having forgotten, on the most subtle and practical of levels – that this God is here.
And that’s not nothing!
What good news…
grace & peace.
June 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
“This moment contains all moments.”
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
To follow Jesus’ public ministry is to observe someone who was captured by every moment, the good and the bad. Every encounter. Every outing. Every criticism. Every conflict. Every town and village, community and neighborhood. Each presented opportunities that he exploited for good, in which he saw opportunities to teach, heal, serve, encourage, and inspire.
Jesus lived in the moment.
It wasn’t that he moved without vision or purpose. Jesus was a man on a mission. Luke 9:51 reveals his determination to go to Jerusalem – to die. His reason for being on the earth drove his moment-by-moment passion and actions.
There were no wasted moments. Each person represented an opportunity to put God’s Kingdom on display.
The healings. The feedings. The teachings. The casting out of demons. The rebukes. Every meal. Every confrontation. Every moment, from early morning hours, to evening fishing expeditions. Every blow of his executioners. Jesus capitalized on every moment to teach us the good news of the gospel.
I want my life to reflect this. But here’s what I think happens – Rather than see present moments as opportunities, we allow those that have come and gone to define us – especially the hard ones.
Here’s what Jesus is teaching me lately: That the best way to discard dreadful moments that are behind me, is to begin by letting go of past glories. Even referring to them as such is revealing, isn’t it?
There is wisdom in Paul’s words (Philippians 3:13b-14) – “…one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
It bears consideration that we tend to struggle to let go of past painful moments, because we are also fiercely determined to hold on to past glories, when in fact, both cause self-destructive patterns in the present.
Sure, we will say and do things that affect the rest of our lives, and therefore each action is to be measured carefully. And I would say that most of the sadness that I encounter in ministry, is due to regret over the past: Past sins, past decisions, past relationships, past struggles, you name it. I struggle with my own!
But the grace of God ensures that your darkest moments, even those due to regrettable decisions, will be recycled into gracious expressions that could only be forged in the kiln of forgiveness.
There is no turning back. What will you do with this moment?
Friend, if you follow Jesus, then you are not doing time! You belong to the Eternal One who stands above time! How else could he assure a dying thief that on that very day they would meet again – in Paradise?
Here is the Thing: Holding on will always be what holds us back. But in Jesus, then you can be assured that the moment – this moment – is crammed with opportunities to flourish, and to testify to the God who doesn’t hold our pasts against us, while inviting us into the wild adventure of His goodness and grace – right now.
What news could be better?
grace & peace.
June 10, 2020 § 1 Comment
“He who feels that he is not loved feels that he does not count.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Strength to Love
As is often the case, George Floyd’s story was told after his public execution. Sadly, it is rarely the other way around. A young man, jogging through a Georgia neighborhood (Ahmaud Arbery), a young EMT (Breonna Taylor) executed by police in her Kentucky home in a “botched” operation.
The stories seem to always follow the tragedy – all too late. There are reasons for hashtags such as #saytheirnames and #BlackLivesMatter – They put humanity to statistics, faces with smiles to cold incidence reports. Which is exactly why Emmett Till’s mother Mamie chose an open casket at the burial of her 14-year-old son, who was lynched in Mississippi, for offending a white woman. She wanted the world to see that in spite of his grotesquely beaten and shot-up face, that there was a human being behind the brutality he endured.
Decades too late, Till’s accuser admitted (in court) that she fabricated the story that got him killed.
And far too late, after the deathbed confession of a white man, George Stinney, a 13-year old African-American who was falsely accused of murdering a girl he helped search for when she was missing, was executed in South Carolina by electrocution, for a crime he never confessed. The 14-year-old was so small that the restraints of the electric chair slipped off, and when officials stepped in to tighten them, Stinney’s tears were seen by all who witnessed his unjust death. Just a little boy. A story too late.
Meet Ulunda Baker, a Christ-follower. Ulunda and my sister Venus are dear friends in the Charlotte area. She constantly threatens that they will drive to Maryland one Sunday, to attend one of our services – a sweet day that will be! Last week she posted part of her story, and permitted me to share it.
“Sitting here this morning staring in the mirror criticizing myself about the dark blemishes on my face. All of a sudden I remember my first experience of racism at 13. I was walking to the corner store and a pickup truck with confederate flags flying rode by and yelled, “Fat black N girl.” That’s hard to write but truth is that was the first time it dawned on me I’m a FAT BLACK girl in America and that bothered somebody enough to stop and remind me.
But, I did not get killed. I lived and she doesn’t….. [referencing Breonna Taylor]
The truth is that I don’t know the plight or the struggles of being a person of color in America. Which is partly why I posted Russ Whitfield’s (@whitness7) chapter from Heal Us Emmanuel last week.
I don’t know what it is like for parents like new friend Dre Wells, who served our Nation with three war tours in the Army, and his wife, to explain to their tearful daughters that their story is soaked in the blood and yoke of slavery, a story barely touched upon in schools, and often minimized in society.
You see, I don’t know these things.
Something most in my world were not raised to understand or even care about is powerlessness over a span of generations, even centuries. The conditions of our upbringings were generally healthy or hidden, therefore we can’t conceive of how horribly defenseless one feels when they don’t have the ability or infrastructure to change their circumstances, particularly when the historical narrative skews against them.
And because we don’t understand, it is difficult to comprehend the level of intensity and anger that drive reactions to repeated injustices. And it is this ignorance, this cold indifference that drove my harsh questions that were aimed at fighting another’s pain, and born more of my own deeply embedded racism.
It is true, not all reactions are ‘righteous’ or helpful. But it is also unfair that those scattered unrighteous reactions become the baseline for throwing the entire cause of justice out the window, wouldn’t you say?
Last week I did something I have never before done in my 62 years. I walked in a peace march. It was just that – peaceful. A couple thousand showed up in our little corner of the universe. They carried signs, chanted, and marched resolutely. Very few signs were offensive. Those marching were black, white, young and old.
The march took place under the protective watch of local county police officers who assisted individuals, answered questions, directed traffic, enabled marchers to safely cross streets, all while remaining undaunted by the few offensive signs aimed at them.
On duty that day was my friend Jared Dean, a county officer, and a Member of our church. Years before he took me on a ‘drive-along’ one evening. Throughout the evening he made any number of stops; people with pot, the apprehension of a bike thief, crashing an area where drugs were being sold.
One stop in particular left an impression on me. As Jared turned into an apartment complex in a low-income area, a household of children ran out to greet him with their single mom in tow. You would think it was Christmas. When Jared comes by, they get to safely play outside until he leaves. They love him as though he is family.
Sure, there are bad cops. But, as with many friends I’ve known throughout my life, most consider what they do as a calling. Their work is often thankless. They grieve whenever their brothers and sisters are killed, and they are appalled at what happened in Minneapolis, like friend Jason Kindel, a Howard County Police Officer, whose love for Christ has given him love for all in our current narrative, even as he laments fallen officers and their grieving families.
Whenever such tragedies strike, it is natural to buy into the narratives presented by the mainline media outlets, politicians, even at times, spokespeople for law enforcement. But when it is brought down to feet-on-the-ground, face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball interaction, it is human beings with stories, intersecting with other human beings with stories. And when the noise and spin and lights are dimmed, there is hope for something sweeter because stories embrace. Humanity reemerges in simple interactions. Cops kneel with protesters. Protesters reject inciters of violence. Cameras capture expressions of love.
And beautifully, the scriptures teach of an even lovelier embrace, where, as the Psalmist writes, “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.”
This embrace is supernatural, because none of the players on the world stage have enough love in them to pull it off beyond the moment. None are faithful. None righteous. And every moment of peace is more like the eye of a raging hurricane that brings greater damage after it passes.
No. It is not the embrace of protesters and cops, black and white, nation and nation. It is the unlikely, impossible-to-attain, embrace, made possible by Jesus Christ, who bore on himself the rage, sin and anger of a hopelessly fallen human race, to become a holy Peace Offering for the sake of the world, hanging in the breach between a holy God and cursed, corrupted humanity, between heaven and earth, and in that space where the war that rages within every individual’s own heart takes place.
Jesus invites us into this embrace, only to find that in him, every other is made possible, imperfect and unfinished as they may be, until heaven and earth are one, and together we are one, at the Feast in God’s new world.
Friends, what good, hopeful news.
grace & peace.
June 3, 2020 § 18 Comments
The following article was written by my friend, and brother in ministry, Russ Whitfield (@whitness7 on Twitter). Russ pastors Grace Mosaic Church in NE Washington, DC. We have known one another for roughly 10 years. He is wise beyond his youth, and my life is richer because of him.
This is long, but informative, compelling, and a beautiful read from Russ’s entry in Heal Us Emmanuel, a book we were both privileged to contribute articles to. It places our current struggle into context with the big story of the gospel. I hope you’ll take the time to work through it as I have.
You may be having a difficult time understanding the reactions of many people of color (and White allies) to the news of Black people dying at the hands of law enforcement. Maybe you are even a little bit frustrated with the emotional response and the cries of injustice against “the system.”
Perhaps, you’re on the other side of these events. You are angry, heartbroken, and feeling hopeless because you can’t help but see injustice every time one of these all-too-familiar scenarios appears in news headlines. Either way, if you identify as a Christian, you have been called to be a reconciler, a peacemaker, and a light in this current darkness. It is imperative that you work through this distinctly Christian calling with wisdom, courage, and a mind to new obedience. The love of God constrains you. The grace of God teaches you. The Spirit of God empowers you to live an altogether different kind of life in light of the new age that has dawned in the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.
The issues at hand deeply affect the lives of real people within your local church and real people outside of your local church whom you have been called to love faithfully. This is to say that our engagement or disengagement with these issues will shape the dynamics of our life together, along with our missionary encounter with the world. On these issues, our local churches will either testify to the glory of the risen Christ through mutual love and humble repentance, or we will obscure the glory of the risen Christ through hardness of heart and indifference.
One thing, however, must be made absolutely clear: passivity has never been a viable Christian response to divisive and destructive social dynamics, especially within the church. Most of us are already convinced of this. But we feel like we’re stuck. We’re unsure of how to participate in bringing the healing that is needed.
STORY AS GUIDE
So how might we begin to proactively engage these issues? How can we begin to chart a course forward? I would invite you to consider the theme of story as a guiding paradigm for progress. All sides in this racial struggle tend to live within their own separate stories. These cultural narratives predetermine who our friends should be, who we can trust, and how we should relate to the world. These cultural narratives encourage us to find our deepest identities and alliances within our own ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups. However, I would propose that if we are to move forward together, then we must situate these tensions, our community, and our very lives within the same story—the story of God. No matter what truths may be found within these smaller cultural stories, we must give the greatest weight and the final say in our lives to God’s story. To put it another way, the story of God must be our “true north,” our greatest orienting factor. The story of God must dispel the cultural myths in which we have been living for far too long.
I’m intentionally resisting the typical “to-do” list, for real problems are rarely solved by checking the boxes. Rather, I’m proposing what I think will be a fruitful trajectory of thought as we try to move forward in mutual love and understanding. Admittedly, it takes much prayerful, humble, and communal reflection to figure out what this might look like in your context. The specifics will take different shape in different places. However, I would propose that if we are to be built up together in love (Eph. 4:16), then we must stay attuned to God’s macro-level narrative for perspective.
Let’s start with some important ideas. Each tragic, racialized event tends to take on a life that is much bigger than itself. Each of these events tap into a broader, more tragic, and more painful story for people of color. If this does not register for you, then the effect of all your preaching, Scripture quoting, and #praying tweets will be muted, at best. Please understand that every act of racial injustice, every episode of racism and race-based mistreatment takes on a symbolic status that brings to mind an entire network of historic injustices, sufferings, and the dehumanization of African Americans and other people of color. In the minds of many Black people, each racialized event serves as a heart-rending cipher for chattel slavery, Jim Crow, historic church bombings, Klan terrorism, redlining, and many other wounds received personally, and by living family members of former generations. Each event reads like another chapter in America’s running commentary on my Blackness—my worth, my status, my place in society—and it’s not a hopeful picture.
At one time, I did ministry in an affluent area in another part of the country, and I was often invited to large parties that were held in the beautiful homes of friends and church members. I was usually the only person of color in the place, except for “the help,” of course. On more than one occasion, a fellow party-goer would come up to me and put their trash or empty glass on my plate, assuming I was “the help.” I was clearly not expected to be in attendance as an equal or a friend. On another occasion, as I stood at the front of the house chatting with a friend and taking in the beautiful weather, a fellow party-goer tossed their car keys to me upon their arrival, assuming that I was the valet. Why did he toss the keys to me rather than my White friend? On each of these occasions, I heard America’s commentary clearly: “We’ve already assigned a social role for people who look like you, and that role is beneath us.”
Based on your current life situation, these events can carry slightly different, but equally painful messages. If I’m a Black achiever, I get the message that no matter how many letters I have behind my name (MDiv, PhD, JD), no matter how much money I have in the bank, no matter what gifts, talents, or job titles I hold, I will forever and always be subservient, even expendable. The dark clouds of stereotype, racialization, and essentialism will never lift.
I will never be able to walk through the world with the freedom and security of my White counterparts. The media stereotypes, fear-filled glances of passersby, and constant pressures to prove my virtue, decency, and value are a regular reminder that I don’t get the benefit of the doubt so I must work that much harder to diffuse the doubts and fears. In certain situations, it could mean the difference between life and death. Each tragic episode tells me that I will be on the social treadmill indefinitely: The reality of motion with the illusion of progress.
If I’m a Black non-achiever, I get the message that if I ever entertained even the smallest notion of rising from my current situation, I should probably just forget about it. It’s not worth the effort. I’m stuck and might as well stay put. If I try to rise, anyone with cultural power can put me back in my place of subjugation without any repercussions. Each racialized incident sounds like a ringing confirmation of the nihilistic chorus of voices that continually dance in my head. Sadly, many succumb to this bleak outlook.
If at this point you want to say, “Well just follow the law, and you don’t have to worry about these things happening. You can take responsibility for your actions—look at Barack Obama!” I understand how this makes sense to you, and it is true that personal responsibility must be taken, but try to consider the countless Emmett Tills of America (and if you don’t know who Emmett Till is—Google him!) For every Barack Obama, there have been thousands of Emmett Tills in American history. In addition, each incident is a reminder of the flood of personal experiences of racism and injustice that the particular individual has endured. Like that time when I was called a racial slur and that time when people expressed shock at my ability to speak “the king’s English.” Add in that day when my college friends suggested that I was granted acceptance because of “affirmative action” rather than personal merit (because I could not possibly have earned it…being Black and all). We could easily produce dozens of these microaggressions that have rubbed our souls raw through repeated abrasion.
None of these incidents that I or anyone go through happen in an emotional or historical vacuum. God made us as emotive, storied people, it’s a fact of our anthropological hardwiring. So, often, when Black people experience America’s commentary, it is an experience similar to the real, lived pain of seeing a mangled car on the roadside after having lost a dear loved one in an auto accident. Viewing that singular image on the side of the road instantly creates a tidal wave of emotions. Then, after this wave hits you, the rip tide of grief carries you out into the sea of anguish. You remember first hearing the news of the loss. You remember watching your surrounding loved ones burst into tears. You remember the black suits and dresses at the wake. You remember the roses being thrown on the coffin as the undertaker prepared to lower your loved one six feet into the ground.
In a similar way, African Americans are reintroduced to a grief, pain, and sense of loss every time one of these tragedies occurs, and inasmuch as you refuse to acknowledge this and mourn with the mourner (Rom. 12:15), you exacerbate the pain and alienation. You stall healing and, sometimes, inflict deeper wounds.
We must realize that the optics of these events matter. Regardless of the particulars, the overriding truth, the loudest voice heard by African Americans is that another Black person’s life has been extinguished because Black lives are invested with less value.
If you are always down in the weeds arguing “the facts,” you will likely be harsh and insensitive. The worst part about this is that you may be “right” with regard to technicalities, but you will not be right with regard to Christian love. You may need to consider holding your tongue in certain moments. Many of the things that we think in our minds are not beneficial for public consumption (beware your Facebook and Twitter rants).
The question is not so simple as to ask, “Do the details of this particular case harmonize with the American justice system?” The bigger question is, “Does the American justice system harmonize with the true justice of God in this particular situation?” To conflate the American justice system with the true justice of God is naive and misguided. We have to acknowledge that the American justice system is failing Black people, brown people, White people, and law enforcement officers at any point where the American justice system departs from the principles of eternal justice. I’m not suggesting that we could or should pursue a theocracy in America. But what I am suggesting is that there must be an acknowledgment of the fallibility of our system and, at the very least, a fight to rid the American justice system of its glaring inadequacies, insofar as we are able to participate in this labor.
But it is also important for us to remember a number of other important facts as we aim to move forward.
First, there is a beautiful history of White people entering into solidarity and seeking justice for all. They have used their social, educational, and financial privileges to work for justice. People of color should encourage them and receive them as family and allies in this worthy struggle.
Second, there are many genuine, kind-hearted, White people who are doing their best to make sense of things. They do not see any injustice or why these incidents would warrant such strong reactions. They are honestly trying to work through it all. Let grace and the Golden Rule be your guide in dialogue. Try to give the same space and grace that you would need to see things from their angle, given their life experiences. If they ask you questions and the answers seem painfully obvious to you, don’t assume or project malicious intent, lest you be guilty of the same kind of thinking that contributed to these tragedies in the first place.
Third, there will always be people who see emotional responses of pain and frustration in such situations as “race-baiting,” “excuses,” or “playing the race card.” There will be trolls on the comment sections of digital newspapers and blogs that spew unspeakably awful, hateful things. I would simply encourage you to spend your emotional energies on your local context with real people, building real relationships of trust and honesty. Staying at the national level to the neglect of the local level will likely tend toward hopelessness and despair. Conversely, the small victories that happen around the kitchen table and in the neighborhood, born of prayer, love, and perseverance, will bless you more than you know. Celebrate this good fruit.
What’s even more important than these practical pieces of advice is the more central need that we have to share the same overarching narrative. This is the truth: We need each other if we are going to break out of the dehumanizing narratives under which we each live. If there is any truth to the notion that we are deeply affected by the narratives under which we live, then we are confronted with a question: What does a narrative of untimely death, violence, criminalization, racialization, and inferiority do to a people group? When this historical narrative of subhumanity and expendability seems to be confirmed time and again, what happens to its beleaguered characters?
It has been said before that racism and the racialization of American culture is bad, not just for people of color, but for White people as well. It is not true nor healthy for people of color to live under the narrative of inferiority and dehumanization. In the same way, it is not true nor healthy for White people to live under the narrative of superiority and suprahumanization. You are in a dangerous and unhealthy position when your race, ethnicity, biology, and overall way of life is canonized and made to be anthropological holy writ. Adherence to this social orthodoxy will cloud your mind with a soul-stifling pride, which God opposes (James 4:6). No one people group should be so cast down below the rest, and no one people group should be so exalted above the rest—neither of these outlooks is a healthy way to be human. The conflicts we are witnessing result from the ways in which we have all lived out of these lesser narratives, allowing these mythologies to govern our lives and ruin our relationships.
However, there is a way in which all people can simultaneously acknowledge their lowliness, fallibility, and the vulnerability of their situation—but also the beauty, glory, and hope for their situation. This is the story of the Gospel, and it is this story that we must share together if we are to make progress in mutual love and understanding.
According to God’s story, every human being was designed for glory and dignity in connection with God and the people around him or her. Every human being surrendered his or her glory in walking away from God. But the hope that God gives is that his story is all about affirming these twin truths: You and I are simultaneously sinners, yet accepted in the Beloved by grace alone through faith alone. We are ruined but rescued, awful but adopted, devious but delivered. God’s story tells us that brokenness is not the sole proprietorship of any one ethnic group, and by God’s grace, glory is not the sole inheritance of any one ethnic group. This is God’s commentary on our shared identity in Christ; and it’s infinitely better than America’s commentary.
This story alone sets the stage for fruitful, healthy, restorative dialogue and true progress. This story tells me that my identity rests, not on being right, but on being loved. I am free to be wrong, to learn, and to change as I live in community with the other. I am free to acknowledge that my mind needs to be renewed, and that this renewal is possible. If what the Bible says about me is anywhere near the truth, then humility, teachability, and grace must govern the way I move forward.
Don’t politicize this issue, gospelize it. The Gospel is the only story big enough to swallow up the grief of a ruined humanity, overcoming that ruin with the glory of a renewed humanity. Build this into your local church through every means available—pulpit, programming, community groups, and neighborhood gatherings. Explore the implications of God’s story for the current racial conflicts that we are facing. In what ways do you need to embrace difficult changes personally and corporately? How does God’s story encourage me to drop my defenses? Who should I be inviting to my dinner table in light of God’s story? How should we rethink the power-dynamics of our church or organization in light of a glorious God who humbles himself in love in order to lift the other?
The story of God answers these questions and many more with life-giving and life-changing direction. But one thing is for sure, if you bury your head in the sand on important issues like these, your witness will be blunted and your missionary encounter with the world will ebb over time as America grows more diverse.
You have an opportunity to speak dignity over the disenfranchised—did not Christ do this for you (1 Pet. 2:9)? You have an opportunity to proclaim words that invite humility and gracious acceptance—did not Christ proclaim these words over you (1 Pet. 5:5)? You have an opportunity to participate in the formation of a cross-cultural community—is this not the community that God has already determined to bring to completion (Rev. 7:9)? In God’s story, the poor are made rich because the rich One was made poor (2 Cor. 8–9). In God’s story, the weak are made strong because the Almighty was pleased to enter into our weakness (Rom. 5:6, Phil. 2:5ff).
In God’s story, there is hope for the hopeless, joy for the joyless, and power for the powerless. Christ, the King, will not suffer the status quo injustice and tragedy of this world to remain in place forever. But my question for you is this: Are you going to embrace your role as a participant in God’s story of renewal? In Christ, we have an entire treasury of resources for living up into this bigger, more meaningful, and more beautiful story. I would invite you to reimagine your relationships in light of this story. Reimagine the final chapter of this story, allowing that vision to shape your life and relationships in the present. If you do, the mile markers on the side of the road will reveal that you are actually making progress in the journey toward racial healing and social flourishing. This story, shared among us, is our hopeful way forward.
 Peggy McIntosh. “White privilege.” Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology, (1998): 94–105.
May 27, 2020 § Leave a comment
“…I will praise him in the midst of the throng. For he stands at the right hand of the needy one…”
The two photographs below are from South Africa. In the foreground of the first is the most decrepit neighborhood Katherine and I have ever seen. In the distance is an elementary school designated for this neighborhood, where amazingly, among the ruins and disrepair, there is hope.
In one regard, the current COVID-19 pandemic has leveled the playing field. Neither those in plenty, or those in need are exempt from the reach of the virus. Rich and poor, and regardless of faith, skin-color, or ethnicity, all stand in the same line outside the same grocery store, waiting for the indoor count to allow entry.
Initially, the virus seems weighted towards the poor. A March 11 Time Magazine article relates that the Coronavirus may disproportionately hurt the poor (embedded in that article’s title). Among this segment are those with low-income jobs that, in many cases are not accompanied by medical benefits, including sick leave. Many in this category live in close quarters in greater populated areas. A cardiologist friend recently related to me that over-crowded homes, poor ventilation, and unfiltered water among the poor, contribute to the problem.
However, any who work high-trafficked areas of business put all at risk, because they can’t afford to take days off. This means that those who come into contact with them; co-workers, customers, clients, are all compromised.
In a way that could not have been anticipated, this pandemic has brought together the haves and have-nots.
If you want to find God, look for the needy. That is where He stands. Jesus referred to the least of these in describing the oft-neglected segments of society. He teaches that when we care for the least of these, we do so for him.
He doesn’t even qualify it with words like ‘as though you were doing it for me,’ but adamantly asserts that any effort to care for the weak is an expression of care for him, in the way he told Saul (later Paul) that his assault on Christians was actually a personal attack on him (Jesus).
It isn’t that God loves the poor, weak and needy more, but that society regards them as less, and often ignores them as though they don’t count. But to God, they do.
At Westlake Elementary, missionaries surprisingly gained permission from the state to train the children in life and faith, while a young couple ministers in the neighborhood, where the wife grew up in unspeakably abusive conditions.
At some point in the woman’s life, through the kindness of others, God changed her heart. Then he compelled her to forgive those who so violently treated her, and to return to her neighborhood. Then he sent her husband.
Then he sent them – to minister in Westlake, alongside their missionary friends at the elementary school.
In a time when everything affects everyone, the Church has an opportunity to enter in, and embody the heart of God, with the Christian message that reveals a Redeemer who left his comforts for our chaos, his riches for our poverty, his throne for our weakness, and then, to hang in payment for sins we should bear.
The news doesn’t get any better than that, friends…
grace & peace.
May 20, 2020 § Leave a comment
“Whatever the news, I wanted him to hear it from someone who cared about him.”
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
The above quote is part of Bryan Stevenson’s recollection of the execution of a Vietnam veteran whom he was called to defend, eleven years after he was incompetently represented by a court-appointed attorney, and only three weeks before his scheduled execution. By the time Stevenson came on the picture it was too late. His desperate last-minute attempts to secure a stay of execution failed, and this finds him awaiting word.
When he first contacted Stevenson, the man was desperate and frenzied, but in the moments before his execution, he was at peace, and to Stevenson’s surprise, he expressed gratitude to his last-second attorney, simply because he cared.
Has it ever occurred to you that more than anything else, God just wants you to be there? In the Christian universe it is easy to measure success by the wrong metrics. We think that our efforts are worth it, only if the payoff is a net gain: a conversion, an admission, a changed life. But in the currency of the gospel, it is the storyline of grace that wins the day.
For this reason, I love the Psalmist’s description of Moses, when God was breathing fire after Israel had once again forsaken Him.
“Therefore he said he would destroy them – had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.” (Psalm 106:23)
It is important to see that God’s relief was temporary. Israel would repeatedly rebel, until ultimately they became an exiled people. But was it all a waste?
The answer is no. Moses serves as a reminder that it is not temporary relief that the world needs, but Jesus, who not only stood in the breach (on the Cross), but died there, to do the very thing Moses could never secure for eternity – to turn the wrath of God from an otherwise hopelessly rebellious humanity.
The key is that Moses was God’s chosen one. He could stand in the breach, because he was safe, not from harm, but judgment. Only those who enjoy intimacy with the Almighty can brave the enormity of His holy presence, and live.
More often than not, to my shame, what I get so wrong, is that the intimacy I enjoy with God, through Jesus, is the testimony that those wrestling with the uncertainties, doubts, struggles, and sorrows of this world, most need – and long for.
They may not be able to articulate it, but they know it when they see it. And when it isn’t attached to some artificial agenda, it is deeply desirable.
Getting this wrong leads to all kinds of self-protection, self-righteousness, misguided guilt, and artificial pressure, and creates barriers in trust with those I have been called to love.
Because for those who know Jesus, the Christian testimony isn’t a strategy, but a transparent life of repentance and faith that accompanies any who enjoy intimacy with God.
Live the Faith, and the message will be heard!
We can’t change hearts, and only God is in the transformation business. But we have Jesus, and in his Name, we can stand in the breach, because he has stood once and for all – for us.
Friends, this is our good news.
grace & peace.