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 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.
May 6, 2020 § Leave a comment
“Little is large if God is in it.”
Leonard Sweet & Frank Viola, Jesus, A Theography
I was recently made aware of how on Sunday mornings, a woman in our church, a widow, phones her friend, also a widow, who does not have internet service, in order that they can worship together as our service streams, she on her computer, and her friend as she listens through her phone.
Such a small, but beautiful expression.
And the picture in this post was taken by a young woman in our church, a nurse on the frontline, who recently received this care package from a couple (members of our congregation) that quietly left it at her front door.
Smallness and small beginnings comprise a theme that is woven throughout the gospel’s redemptive story. From the moment God created everything out of nothing, the big stories in the scriptures demonstrate God’s greatness with the obscure and unknown.
We can be glad for this. In spite of our own relative smallness, God invites us to collaborate with Him in the daily course of His grand care of the world, not by shows of strength or displays of greatness, but within the boundaries of our own limitations.
Zechariah prophesied that in time, “whoever despised the day of small things shall rejoice…” (4:10a). He foresaw when those who deemed the small things as meaningless, would be given a new perspective. Have you considered that the small things you offer might be received as life-giving in big, unexpected ways?
My guess is that when all is said and done with this current crisis, we will look back and remember that to some extent we were sustained by the power of seemingly tiny gestures, like a boy offering Jesus his lunch, who in turn fed thousands with it.
It is the simple kindnesses, the meager offerings, the encouraging phone calls, the anonymous prayers, the neighborly acts, the invisible sacrifices – people caring for others in quiet ways that will likely not be detailed on the evening news, but that are also not lost on the Father.
After all, isn’t this what endears us to the gospel? That in God we have a Father who wrapped His Son in obscurity, in the smallness of a newborn – for the sake of His spectacular design for making us His?
Isn’t this our good news?
grace & peace.
April 29, 2020 § Leave a comment
“indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable”
Last Sunday I recounted a day my father lay unconscious on a gurney, awaiting examination, in an Emergency Room hallway. For roughly an hour he had been unresponsive – to our mom, to me, and then to the EMTs. While in that hallway, it occurred to me to sing to him, and somehow the words and notes made their way through whatever layers of resistance that held dad in unconsciousness – and he revived – first with faintly moving lips and no sound, but then, after a few moments, audibly, as we made discordantly beautiful music together.
Afterwards, I was surprised and delighted to receive texts and e-mails from people who shared similar stories of situations where love pierced through the sadness of the moment.
Suffice it to say that your story matters.
During his public ministry Jesus was many things: teacher, leader, healer, and rabbi. But he was also a master storyteller. A redemptive theme runs throughout his parables (stories), with plots of forgiveness, restoration, love, even judgment. The characters are real, so real that we can see ourselves in their lives – which of course is the point.
Jesus understood that a good story draws one deep into the drama, before they recognize parts of their own lives they may not have otherwise had visited.
If the storyline of The Man Who Invented Christmas is true, then Charles Dickens could not complete A Christmas Carol until he was forced to revisit his painful childhood years. Only when he acknowledged that those years drove the Scrooge-like fear and anger that boiled deep within him, was he freed to envision – and then write – a redemptive conclusion to his book.
In John 5:39-40, Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
All along, Jesus was telling his own story, one we have been invited into – through faith.
One day, we will tell the story of a time when the world stopped, as a virus spread round the globe. We will share what we learned, and remember who we lost. We will recount the good as well as the ugly things it revealed about our character and faith. It will serve as one chapter among many that we will look back on.
It will inspire elation and shame, repentance and rejoicing. And we will have grown. Most importantly, we will remember how Jesus relentlessly pursued us, and stepped into the dark places that threaten to deceive our hearts into losing hope, and forgetting the magnificent end of the story we have been written into because of him.
Which is why your story matters, unvarnished and unedited. In it, the Storyteller himself – Jesus, speaks the possibility of hopeful endings for all who hear.
what good news…
grace & peace.
April 22, 2020 § 1 Comment
“In his mercy, our God has given us a form of language that bends his ear and pulls his heart.”
Will Walker & Kendal Haug, Journey to the Cross
I have always been compelled by Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper. As he blessed the bread he said, “I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God” (Luke 22:16), and then the cup, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:17-18).
Until now, I never associated lament with these statements. It had not occurred to me that Jesus was expressing a holy longing that he willingly bears until reunited with his friends. In this regard, this current crisis we find ourselves in has been instructive.
Jesus was no stranger to lament. He wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35), and then, as he approached Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 19:41-44), he lost it. He grieved with the grieving, and pitied the hurting.
Unfortunately, I always saw lament as an emotional speed bump to move beyond, and power through to happier, more productive things.
However, lament is a gift the Father has bestowed on his children. It is not self-pity, but a longing that enables us to enter into the world’s pain – as we feel our own – believing that God will one day redeem it.
So, go ahead! Accomplish much while secluded in the confinement of your home! Paint that wall, complete that puzzle, read that book, rearrange that room, clean out that closet, bathe that dog – all noble goals that life rarely offers time for.
But as you devise strategies to combat the insanity of isolation, and the uncertainties associated with constantly-changing timetables for our return to public life, take time for the sadness too.
Take the time to feel the moment. Feel the chaos of a world in disarray. Feel the displacement of communities, families and churches. Feel the loss of jobs and opportunities. Feel the heartache of those who are alone, and those who have lost loved ones in death.
I pray that God will allow this moment of frustrating isolation to challenge me to practice what I have spent an entire lifetime devising strategies to avoid. Because I never heard the holy longing in Jesus’ voice – until now.
He longs for us.
In the saddest, but sweetest of ways, this is our good news…
grace & peace.
April 8, 2020 § 1 Comment
“the act of trust is an utterly ruthless act”
While sheltered in place, the Church worldwide celebrates Holy Week, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, was celebrated, betrayed, arrested, and crucified – and then resurrected.
Maundy Thursday is the night he met with the disciples and instituted the Lord’s Supper. It was in that Upper Room that Jesus gave his friends the new command, to love one another (John 13:34).
On Friday we are sobered – and blessed – by the crucifixion of Jesus. We call that day Good because it is. On the Cross, Jesus died in payment for the sins of the world. Our atonement was secured at Calvary. Jesus died as our Substitute.
Saturday is quiet. Along with Easter Egg hunts, the Church remembers it as the day Jesus lay in the grave. The grave would be where Jesus would leave our guilt, shame and sin.
And then, Sunday. Easter, when music and message are all aimed at the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, and the hope we have in his conquest over sin and death. It is the celebration of celebrations.
Each day is dramatic and packed with meaning. But just 24-hours before events unfolded, the disciples moved through another day, oblivious to what was before them. I’m going to call it Clueless Wednesday, because that is what it was.
The fact is that we don’t know what God is doing with the world – with our worlds – in any given moment. We are clueless. I would argue that this is a good thing, because it is a childlike cluelessness. Even now, while we shelter in place, children delight in the moment, with danger as the furthest thing from their minds.
In hindsight we see events as they unfolded. Our past tense vision is 20/20, with the advantage of the whole picture. But until things happen, we have no idea what lies before. Like the disciples we move through the week, tending to responsibilities, enjoying friendships, caring for family, wrestling with life, temptation, weakness, and ambitions.
To know what lies before us in the immediate future is always tantalizing, but in reality, it would be disastrous, because the complexities of God’s unfolding redemptive plan would horrify us.
So, God never gives us more than what he is doing now. And, while for us we are clueless to the full meaning of the details of the immediate future, what matters is that Jesus knows what he is doing with the world – and with us.
What good news…
grace & peace.
December 5, 2015 § 2 Comments
“The Advent tension is a way of learning again that God is God: that between even our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God is a gap which only grace can cross; otherwise we are alone again, incommunicado, our signals and symbols bounced back to us off the glassy walls of the universe.”
Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness
The other night Katherine and I saw Creed, the latest installment of the forty-year Rocky series. Without spoiling the story, it turned out to be arguably one of the top three of the series (but it would take a huge for-Rocky-fans-only conversation to explain). As we watched, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion throughout, and it dawned on me that it was because Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) is getting old, and he has been part of my entire adult life. Don’t laugh. In 1976 four of us were on a double date. We ate at a local favorite called LUMS on US-1 in Miami. LUMS was where I had my first beer with high school friend, Chris, after turning 18 (I can’t speak for Chris). On this night we planned on seeing King Kong, but dinner took too long and we ended up going to an unknown film (Rocky). And thus began the shared journey with this very down-to-earth boxer – until last night.
Okay the Christmas Tree thing. Two weeks ago I posted a pic of this year’s
tree. Another lifelong friend, Cookie, posted a comment that it was the same as last year. I was puzzled until I looked, and amazingly she was right! We basically decorated the tree exactly as we had a year ago.
And then there is Advent. Advent is about arrival, and it is accompanied by waiting and longing. We celebrate that Jesus has come, while longing for Him to return. Because the world isn’t right – all one has to do is read the headlines. The world is in torment and the fall is reflected in every violent, tragic and broken expression. So while we celebrate that Jesus has inaugurated God’s Kingdom by coming and has conquered the curse of the fall with His death, resurrection and ascension, we also anticipate that one day all Creation will be healed and heaven and earth be one.
Which leads to putting the three together…
In some sense, Advent too is always the same thing. Just as with our tree, each Christmas season is adorned with the same longing and decorated with the same songs of hope. It is supposed to be this way. As our storylines unfold the big story remains the same – and we need this. I need this. I need something that I can look to and find that it has not changed or the deep, unchanging consistency of God in my life – we all do.
So back to Rocky. You have to know that in the story he is old. Some say that Stallone should get an Academy Award for his performance (I’ve been screaming this for 40 years!). In nuanced ways, Creed, though a very unique movie, is beautifully and hauntingly similar to the first Rocky movie. And I think this is why I was emotional. Rocky got old. But the story didn’t.
So in a few weeks the ornaments will come down and get packed away until next year, one day after Thanksgiving when they are unpacked and put on a fresh tree for the new season.
It will be beautiful.
All over again.
And the story we have been invited into, though accented with fresh twists and turns, will still be about Jesus, who came and who is coming.
And this is good news, friends…
PS Friends, check out the Chapelgate website for a daily Advent Blog: https://cpcadvent.wordpress.com
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)