June 3, 2020 § 16 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 13, 2020 § Leave a comment
“[Sabbath] is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”
Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance
If this moment we find ourselves in has done anything, it has forced us to consider who we are in light of great uncertainty. Economic instability and job security are heavy on hearts and minds. High School and College Seniors wonder if the next level awaits them, and what it will look like when they get there. Their inability to walk the aisle is symbolic of how our world has come to a stop of sorts. Weddings have been put on hold. Funerals are limited to small graveside gatherings.
One of the byproducts of this moment is work from home. For those of us who are accustomed to driving to the office, it is an adjustment. Our dining room table has become my office desk. Katherine is teaching elementary music at her keyboard in our basement. Zoom is family (who else wishes they had stock in this company?!)
With others who have observed the same, we have found that we are working more, not less.
For this, God has mandated Sabbath, or rest.
Since this isn’t an exhaustive theological treatise, suffice it to say that God has built rest into the ecosystem of human well-being. We cannot be fully human if we cannot stop and lay aside agendas that dominate our minds and emotions at the expense of our reliance on God, our true Source of all care.
I have to confess that this is perhaps the most difficult thing for me to do. The work is always there: deadlines, sermons, studies, teaching, meetings, conferences, counseling. The rhythm of work, rest and recreation has been wrecked in my universe. The temptation is to think that rest is optional, but Jesus says otherwise.
Interestingly, the New Testament reveals Sabbath as something we enter into, as much as what we do. And it begins with Jesus who invites us to himself: “Come unto me… and I will give you rest…” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Rest and worship are radical acts of faith, in which we acknowledge, as individuals and in community, that we are more than the sum total of our stuff, our failures, our ambitions, and our experiences, and that true value and care, are found in our Creator, who made all that is… and then rested, and then made us His.
Sabbath is the reminder of what fear constantly attempts to make me forget – and always at the expense of those I love most.
Throughout the narrative of God’s people, the seventh day, the seventh year, the Year of Jubilee – all are intended to aim towards understanding that in Jesus the ‘It is good’ of creation, and the ‘It is finished’ of the Cross converge in him.
In Jesus, the work is completed, the debt is paid, and true rest has begun, until fully realized when he makes all things new.
Rest assured friends, this is our good news…
grace & peace.
November 7, 2015 § 3 Comments
“As the body of Christ, the church is called to live for the peace, love and joy of God’s reign.”
Mark Gornik, To Live in Peace
This weekend my home church, the Old Cutler Presbyterian Church, in Miami, Florida, celebrates her 50th birthday (they have appropriately named the weekend, ‘Jubilee’). Those of us who are familiar with this extraordinary church know that it has a rich history of blessing, growth, hardship and renewal.
I would say that’s a long time, but since I’m older than 50, we’ll keep it at, ‘What an accomplishment!’ And how sweet is it that in Bill and Carol Richards, Old Cutler still has two of its Charter Members, which means that they have been there since day one.
As with the church I am privileged to pastor today (Chapelgate Presbyterian Church), through the years OCPC has groomed pastors, sent countless people to the mission field, cared for thousands, ministered to Miami during hard times, loved the marginalized and broken, and served as a cultural center to the community.
Many of us had the privilege of sitting under the ministry of a pastor named Bob Davis. During his nearly-14 years in the pulpit, the church grew and flourished into the ministry it is today. Bob wasn’t a polished preacher, but he was an amazing pastor – my role model for ministry. He instilled in us that churches are meant to be local communities where Jesus is loved, lifted up and shared. On more than one occasion he said that when the church stops proclaiming Jesus, it should be razed and turned into a cornfield (he was a big old country boy).
Whenever a church grows to the size of an Old Cutler, it is often mischaracterized by the observing world. Those who look from the outside in sometimes assume it to be a cold impersonal corporate ‘machine.’ But to those who have experienced being part of the OCPC story, it is what it always has been – a holy community where babies are baptized, vows are exchanged, graduates receive their diplomas, loved ones are buried, tragedies are shared, hearts are broken, crises are endured, all at a crossroads where love and sorrow meet, as life is lived together, because of Jesus.
I can honestly say that God used Old Cutler shape my life and faith. And I could not be more thankful that He wove me into her story, and hers into mine.
God gave my family a church home for nearly all of those 50 years – Just within our family, weddings, funerals and baptisms all occurred – truly we have been ‘cradle to the grave.’
He gave me a pastor who treated me like a son and taught me the ministry (Through my college and seminary years he wrote fatherly, pastoral letters that I cherish to this day).
He gave Katherine and me friends for a lifetime, some still there.
He demonstrated the way He circuitously unfolds our stories into His magnificent plan – At OCPC I had the joy and privilege of serving as a volunteer, a summer Intern, a Youth Pastor, and then, amazingly for a decade, as the Sr. Pastor – Wowzer! (with this I can’t help but celebrate Mike Campbell, who once served as a Member who turned Elder, and then, as I was, was ordained into the ministry there, before returning as her new Sr. Pastor – how cool is that?).
I guess the storyline here is that at the end of the day, the lovelier and more meaningful things in life and faith – are local. The very dynamic that many attempt to eradicate when they ‘globalize’ the Faith out of some spiritualized dissatisfaction with flawed local expressions, is actually what robs them of the sweet joy that only comes through the very real, ‘on the ground’ human involvement in that imperfect, messy, often inconvenient, and never-having-arrived community called the local church.
For us, however, by God’s grace and in His goodness, in OCPC we have in our experiences and hearts, a church home that will always remind us that the Father loves and uses imperfect vessels, and that through His Son, He makes what is broken and eminently flawed, ravishingly beautiful.
what good news…
Happy Birthday, Old Cutler!
Happy Birthday, Family.
(Pictured below is one of two massive stained glass windows in the Sanctuary, constructed by a 5th Grade Math Teacher & OCPC Member, who has since made it ‘Home’, Roy Aldridge)
September 19, 2015 § 1 Comment
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
I thought it good to reenter into the blogosphere by way of confession, so pardon the meandering – there really is a point.
First the ridiculous. You need to know that I have this propensity to find what I like and then hold on to it – like forever, whether a pair of shoes, a style of pants, or a shirt (our Congregation will tell you that I only wear one shirt on Sunday mornings!). My guess is that it is born of tons of insecurity, control and pride, but it is the way it is. For instance, I have worn the same style of top siders for about ten years, and normally I have a backup pair – in the box for when the initial pair ‘dies.’ When that backup is gone and there is no other and the shoes are unattainable (because in a sane universe things go out of style), it unnerves me and sends me on a twisted journey to find its replacement (which I would prefer not to have to do – thus the backup!).
Hey, I warned you. Ridiculous, right?
When we moved to the Baltimore region nearly ten years ago I thought my life was over. It wasn’t because the people we left hated us or the people we came to were other than welcoming. It was because I held on to the idea of living in my hometown for life (yes, idolatry). But somewhere in that delusion, God stirred our hearts to move. How could He do this and still love me? It was the most disruptive, confusing and dislodging time of my life, and our lives. But the Father’s leading was unmistakable. He wanted us here. And we have since discovered that it was out of love that He did.
Baltimore has become home and we are blessed.
If you read Joseph’s story, you will find that ‘the Lord was with Him,’ and prospered him in Egypt, even when as slave, and later when imprisoned on false charges (chapter 39). He continued to thrive and care for people.
I have come to realize that most of us live out of unholy trajectories for how our lives should unfold. If we become slaves to these trajectories, then well, we are just that – slaves. In this pattern regret becomes torturous, forgiveness seems impossible, and the present, intolerably joyless.
But we were redeemed to flourish, and if we buy into the fact that we have a Father who loves us, who sent His only Son on the most dangerous, yet redemptive journey of all – for us – then we have discovered something. We have discovered that our true trajectory is heaven and everything between now and there – is good.
Friends, the gospel is an adventure to be embraced…
June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
“…there is something beautiful and concrete and well-proportioned about tending that size of a garden.” David Brooks, The Small, Happy Life
Yesterday a mural mosaic was dedicated in a barely-conspicuous outdoor neighborhood service. The mural is visible to all who walk by the New Song Academy. It was constructed by the children of the Academy, under the guidance of a group called, Art with a Heart, a group that works in the City of Baltimore and teaches vulnerable children and adults through creativity. What makes the mosaic special is that the Academy resides in Sandtown, the neighborhood that was the flashpoint for the Baltimore riots in April. I have written about it here.
In a NYT OP-ED piece, David Brooks reported surprise at how many people responded to a survey, with the desire for what he termed, ‘the small, happy life,’ as opposed to what might seem to be more ambitious pursuits.
When I was in sixth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Hill, became weary with a group of us troublemakers. We happened to live in an area that was booming in development, and so she decided to take us around the community collecting tile for the purpose of making a mosaic for our elementary school, which we did. Over a period of months we stayed after school as she brilliantly channeled our energy into creativity. Eventually the completed project was erected at Coral Reef Elementary, like the one at New Song Academy.
One day, in response to His disciples’ request to increase their faith (because they were thinking big!), Jesus replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (Luke 17:6). Contrary to the claims of train wreck preachers who promise the moon and deliver disappointment, Jesus was simply saying, ‘Start small, because that is where we are.’ Put another way, ‘Start where you are, and offer what you have rather than what you don’t have.’
A cursory study of history will bear this out, whether with those who harbored Jews during the Holocaust, or others who have accomplished amazing feats of bravery, rescue, influence and impact. And there is always that ‘small step’ and ‘giant leap’ for mankind. Never do you hear braggadocio. Time and again we are introduced to humble people who merely did what they could in the moment. In the moment, the small was enormous.
Way back in 1960-something I learned that a mosaic is nothing more than a well-orchestrated outlay of broken tiles. It doesn’t take much for those seemingly worthless, jagged and often-dirty shards to become something wildly beautiful – like a scene from the coral reef, or a vision of a healed city. Every piece matters, and no tile is too damaged, in the same way that one simple mosaic on one part of one wall on one building in one neighborhood in a broken community can be that tiny piece that offers hope for something lovelier.
And it is for this reason that in Jesus God became small. Because we are small. Yet because we are adored by the Father, we are not insignificant.
What good news…
May 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Letter From Birmingham Jail
If you live in or around Baltimore then you know firsthand how painful this past week has been. One cannot have lived here and not be affected. My heart goes out to friends near and far who are from Baltimore – their sadness is palpable.
I offer these words as a white guy who has lived in relative safety all his life, and knowing that those I have loved and known these five decades may disagree, and possibly even be angry. I also offer this knowing that I bring my own prejudices, predispositions and fears to the table.
It would be tempting to opine on the dynamics of the inner city, injustice and the future, but we who live in relative safety, are better served to keep our mouths shut and listen. We don’t have the answers. Wonks, politicians, news organizations and bloggers think they have the answers, but unless they have lived in the City, they don’t. At night we go home to our safe neighborhoods. We sleep in the assurance that when we awaken, our world will be as ordered and secure as it was when we went to bed. We aren’t there on the ground. We don’t know how good it is or how bad. We don’t know the desperation and the vicious, endless and often violent cycle of poverty, firsthand. We make assumptions and most of those assumptions are wrong.
It seems to me that answers from afar, criticism and finger pointing, are false versions of ‘care.’ They create within us the artificial self-assurance that we have connected, but that isn’t real at all. And we can postulate all we want on ‘fatherless America,’ and responsibility and the ‘American Way,’ but this helps nothing. It does exactly what those who spout these things want them to do – it keeps me away from you and ‘us’ from ‘them.’
So it is better to listen and observe. This past week some of us had the privilege of spending time with old and new friends in Sandtown. Sandtown is ‘ground zero’ for last week’s riots. You have read about this neighborhood in this blog. It is among the poorest in the country, but also one of the most beautiful. In spite of what you may assume or have read online or heard in the news, the residents of Sandtown are among the proudest of any neighborhood I have ever met. They love their community, and no amount of national sorrow can match the sadness they feel collectively when it suffers.
The picture above was taken at lunch after a morning of clean up (most had been done by the Sandtown residents when we arrived the morning after the riots). It is of two guys, one black and the other white – no distinction – work boots and jeans – people who locked arms for the sake of a healed neighborhood. ‘A cord of three strands is not quickly broken’ (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
Years ago I learned from a friend who led Miami’s rebuilding effort after Hurricane Andrew decimated it, that one can either sit around and point fingers and complain about problems and perpetrators, or they can see possibilities and the beauty of a healed City, and then work together towards that vision.
The scriptures are strewn with examples of people who lived in the hope of future joy. After all, isn’t this who we are? We are a people who live in the promise of what will one day be. And we serve a King who came and on our behalf saw that same future (Hebrews 12:1-2). He personally entered into places where weakness, oppression and sorrow prevailed, and by His care bore evidence of hope for a city of delight, and human flourishing.
Friends, beyond our advantages, fears and differences, it is not what we have, but whose we are and what will one day be ours…
This is our good news and the gospel’s sweet new song…
April 25, 2015 § 6 Comments
Last week I posted about my Armenian heritage. Though my parents were Protestants and raised us in Christ, we ate the food, gathered with other olive-skinned Armenian-Americans, played the ‘Tavlou’ (backgammon), and shared that same peculiar ‘ian’ identifying suffix to our names. As I mentioned on Facebook, you don’t even want to know the names our grandparents, aunts and uncles had!
Our grandparents were born in what they referred to as ‘the old country.’ But in their teens they were ordered to leave home by the next day, or face death. It was part of the attempt by the Ottoman Turks to extinguish every Armenian from the region. To this day politicians and Turkish officials, in spite of the overwhelming body of evidence, avoid using the term ‘genocide’ – sad.
However as an Armenian-American, I have no bitterness towards our historical oppressors from that dark epoch. We are Christ-followers, we belong to a new community, a new race, and ‘better country’ (Hebrews 11:16). We too are a forgiven people.
I do find it sad however, that our government refuses to acknowledge the genocide, when in fact nearly 1.6 Million Armenians were killed in an attempt at this human ‘cleansing.’ It isn’t that I want validation from a President (or Kim Kardashian!). My identity is found in Jesus, Lord and King of all that is. No, my sadness is that such a refusal reduces the value of human life to political advantage, rather than in the integrity of compassion for the ‘least of these,’ a foundational characteristic of true justice.
And yet, as a Christ-follower I can see that even this horrible moment in history was part of a larger narrative in which our Sovereign God loved, pursued and found my parents, and many other Armenians, through Jesus.
My grandparents on Dad’s side emigrated through Egypt, where an uncle and two aunts were born, until they arrived years later in NYC, and settled in Brooklyn where Dad and his younger sister were born. Later Dad would meet Jesus in faith at a Billy Graham crusade in Madison Square Garden in 1957.
Mom’s parents came to the US via Iran, where they were detained for a time in an Iranian refugee camp before immigrating to Atlanta, Georgia, where Mom and her siblings would be born. But it was in that camp that they met a missionary named J. Christy Wilson, a man who would later become an influential Professor at Gordon-Conwell Seminary outside of Boston (I was privileged to meet him many years later). Wilson told my grandparents about Jesus, and there, in that Iranian refugee camp they met Christ in faith.
So while this will always be a sad epoch in history, the Father knows who we are, and in the gospel everything sad will one day be eclipsed by what Jesus has accomplished for us, and in what He will one day do when He makes heaven and earth one. Because in Jesus our winding stories, with their sadnesses, tragedies, celebrations, twists, turns and unexpected diversions, are all part of God’s hand in leading us Home, to ‘a better country.’
Friends, what good news…
February 21, 2015 § 2 Comments
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall
If you know anything about my work habits, you know that my sermon prep is a crazy time of prayer, solitude, music, study, distraction, desperation, and more prayer. It begins in my office on Thursday, and ends there early Sunday morning, with hours at ‘my’ Starbucks in between. This is my groove.
And when it is interrupted my world tips off its axis.
All of which leads to early last Thursday morning, when our daughter Emily called. She had a flat tire on a major highway leading into and out of Baltimore. Long story short, I ended up spending most of Thursday in a Firestone with a manager who reminded me of Newman on Seinfeld, in a community known as Reisterstown, just beyond the city. The store was situated on a loud, busy road. So there I was – no books, no office, no playlists, no groove!
Instead I was confined to a crowded room with strangers – you know, the people types. One lady was a night guard who worked the night shift. Another loudly cursed into her phone, enraged with a family member, while simultaneously giving us the play-by-play. Another changed her baby’s diaper on the chairs in front of the television beside the coffee maker that smelled as though it had been brewing for weeks. Game shows gave way to talk shows, and finally soap operas.
Somewhere around Noon I was expected on a conference call, and for an hour I walked around the store, in and among people, tires and furniture, and sometimes outside, in 14-degree weather. At meeting’s end, the leader asked me to pray. So, there in the Firestone, I got into a corner (pictured above), and prayed.
And when I opened my eyes, I was in a sanctuary.
Eugene Peterson writes of God’s people and how simple elements like rocks and animals, water, fire and hills were employed in worship when gathering and temples were not options. I think of Jesus, who worshiped early in the Temple, on a mountain in the morning, at the banquet of His betrayal, in the garden, and even on the Cross. It was never about perfect circumstances, and always about the very present God.
It turned out that I needed that place and those people and our daughter’s crisis more than I needed my office. The Father was at Firestone and He wanted me there.
It was in that Sanctuary that retail chairs transformed into pews, garage workers served as priests, customers became fellow worshippers, the seating arrangement, our confessional, our stories the liturgy, and the smell of new rubber combined with burnt coffee, the incense of our shared need.
Free from the ordinary, the world appeared a little clearer, and my sermon a bit less daunting. A letter I intended for a friend took shape, and heart. Texts with my wife, sermon notes, and thoughts of God’s protection over our daughter, songs of thanksgiving and praise.
Friends, find your sanctuary.
And discover once again, that it is the Father who has found you.
What good news…
January 17, 2015 § Leave a comment
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall
One thing that I’ve always loved in the scriptures is that God addresses people such as Moses and Abraham, as friends. And then Jesus does the same thing with His disciples (and us). In some way He gives us what every person can have in a fallen world where marriages sometimes fail and love often disappoints.
The fact is that we were not meant to walk through life alone. Even in the garden, when creation was perfect and he lacked for nothing, and before sin ever entered into the story, it still was ‘not good’ for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18). This relational piece was built into the human psyche. What we learn in the scriptures is that God Himself lives in community – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are relational beings, designed as such by our relational Creator.
The proliferation of online dating sites bears this out. The yearning to love and be loved, to touch and be touched is deeply embedded within every heart. Even when pain, past hurts and relational disappointments ice us over and leave us feeling cold to the idea of ever trusting anyone else, we still can’t expunge the desire to be loved. In fact, those who most stridently reject the need for love are often those most wounded by it, and secretly desirous that their defenses would be crashed through. The prospect of living and dying alone is more than any soul can bear.
The problem is never the longing – actually this is healthy and natural. But whenever the solutions begin with an idea of trust and intimacy that can only be satisfied by another person, then there will always be disappointment and heartbreak. I know you don’t need me to write this, but it is true that those we love are every bit as flawed as we are.
I’ll never forget when one of my dearest friends deeply wounded me. When I got honest, I realized that it had as much to do with my expectations as his actions. The actions weren’t the end of the world, but the expectations were ridiculous. Working through it brought real friendship. No relationship of any value can thrive in a vacuum. The ‘mess’ we bring to our relationships is like the needed bacteria we have in our own bodies – none of us are perfect, and if one of us were, love would be impossible.
Here is the thing, friends. Jesus is that ‘friend who sticks closer than a brother’ (Proverbs 18:24), the only one who will ever love completely.
Because He lived sinlessly and loves perfectly He is the first relationship, the watermark for all others. And this means that for all the times we fail those we love, and in every disappointment we experience, He will still be there, speaking the Father’s care into our lives, ‘face to face, as a man speaks with his friend’ (Exodus 33:11).
What good news…
December 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
When blossoms flower e’er ‘mid the snows,
Upon a winter night,
Was born the child, the christmas rose,
The king of love and light.
The angels sang, the shepherds sang,
The grateful earth rejoiced;
And at his blessed birth the stars
Their exultation voiced.
O come let us adore him
O come let us adore him
O come let us adore him
Christ the lord.
Gesu Bambino, Pietro Yon, 1917
It is Christmas Morning. The coffee is brewed and the tree lights on. Katherine is making her Christmas breakfast casserole. Within a few hours gifts will be opened, and some time today we will go to our traditional Christmas movie. By tomorrow the entire family will be gathered. We are blessed. Each Christmas brings its own joy.
I am not deluded to think that everyone is experiencing joy, and in spite of my utterly latent immature perspective, I know that the point of Christmas isn’t my own happiness, or anyone else’s for that matter.
But Jesus has come. His humble entrance and sacrificial life bear evidence to the fact that He is doing much more with the world He created to be good, than to ‘fix’ the moment.
So come to Jesus, friends. The rhythms of life are crazy, aren’t they? Our hope is in who Pietro Yon refers to as, ‘the King of Love and Light’ – Jesus. Tears fill my eyes as I type these words. It is that beautiful and He is that precious.
What good, sweet news of great joy…
“Adeste fidelis. Come and behold him, born the king of angels. Speak to him or be silent before him. In whatever way seems right to you and at whatever time, come to him with your empty hands. The great promise is that to come to him who was born at Bethlehem is to find coming to birth within ourselves something stronger and braver, gladder and kinder and holier, than ever we knew before or than ever we could have known without him.”
Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark
(with thanks to Steve Dallwig for this photo from our Candlelight Service last evening)