September 2, 2020 § Leave a comment
“And as he passed by…”
Have you ever noticed how some of Jesus’ most profound encounters happened along the way? His healings, teachings, confrontations, and encouragements occurred as he passed through towns and villages. Though not immune to exhaustion, he was remarkably accessible – along the way.
The picture in this post is from the summit at Waterrock Knob in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. I was amazed at how difficult the last half-mile of the climb was, and had to stop several times to catch my breath – and legs. However, as I ascended, this young couple bounded from behind, and whether out of pity, or just kindness, then made the rest of the climb with me. Atop the mountain, we learned one another’s stories, talked life, work, faith, God’s grace, and the beauty of our surroundings, then took pictures and exchanged information.
We were not put on the planet to live for ourselves. The most miserable people I know do. Unfortunately all of us fight this demon to some degree, and preachers are no exception! So, file this in the ‘take-it-from-one-who-knows’ category. We are naturally self-centered.
Six years ago I uploaded a video that within weeks was viewed nearly one-million times (made you look!). It was featured on the Jimmy Kimmel show! Hitting one million views became my not-so-secret obsession. I would text the YouTube address to close friends, knowing they would open it, and add to the much-coveted views. But YouTube added a demonic feature that enabled unwitting victims to get a sneak preview of what they received, and my self-serving scheme was dashed to pieces just 34,046 views short of one million (not that anyone was counting) – Curses!
Standing in contrast to a culture obsessed with clicks, self, and from-a-distance reality – is Jesus, who modeled the face-to-face, social construct-defying principle that we find our lives by giving them away in self-denial and servanthood, one person at a time.
Our ‘made-you-look’ society reflects our ugliest narcissistic tendencies, and in the process, robs us of life and love along the way.
But a world of opportunity is out there for those who escape themselves to enter the journey, and someone needs you along the way. Someone you likely haven’t yet met. Someone wondering if they should abandon the climb, walk away from it all, or just give up hope.
So, get moving. Trust me – you will get tired of you! And the world awaits!
After all, we live in the assurance of the gospel – that regardless of our own circumstances, it is not beyond the scope of a Savior who is constantly passing by, to enter, heal, and forgive, along the way. Jesus is no static concept. His cross and resurrection ensure that the possibility of his intervention in our lives is as real as it was when he bore flesh and walked the planet.
Friends, this is good news…
grace & peace.
August 26, 2020 § 1 Comment
“It is important to note that our resources are spiritual… When I say that the church’s resources are spiritual, I mean that her resources have to do with the power and work of the Spirit of God.”
Irwyn L. Ince Jr, The Beautiful Community
Normally my Wednesday post goes out some time before 9AM, but not today. Adding final touches felt wrong, and when a Staff reminded us to pray for all that is going on in Wisconsin, it was obvious that I needed to enter in – though I will do so in more general terms, because I’m no expert and frankly I am wearied by all of the ‘solutions’ out there.
As you probably know by now, there was another shooting of a black man, Jacob Blake, by police officers, this time in Kenosha. It appears that Blake was attempting to help decelerate a domestic dispute he was not involved in, when the officers came on the scene. I deliberately say, ‘it appears,’ because there is always more data out there.
So it seems to me that it is time for some things to take place…
It is time to banish Characterizations to Hell – Whether you believe it or not, you have been shaped by a lifetime of characterizations – we all have. These characterizations are based on whatever shaped those who raised us and whoever else we have intersected with throughout our lives. They turn young people into racists, who have never had a bad experience with a person of another race. These characterizations make the police the bad guys, even if they have never so much as written an individual a speeding ticket. I’m not saying that people haven’t done horrible things, or that cops haven’t acted unjustly, but that we will always see ‘everything’ through the wrong lens, and respond wrongly when we fail to recognize the assumptions we carry into every situation we are in.
It is time to stop allowing the Mainline News Outlets to shape the Narrative – The truth is that we don’t know everything – or even most of everything that happens in most situations. And sadly, the mainline news outlets have political biases, along with the desperate need to sell advertising. Whether Conservative or Liberal, if your source of information is a news outlet, or some online blogger who embraces a political philosophy, then your information is second hand at best. We have become so connected electronically, that we assume that what we learn online must be true, but it probably isn’t.
It is time to Neutralize Politicians in the Issue – It is impossible to completely eliminate politics from the moment, but I would argue that politicians have been the single-most damaging element in our current situation, regardless of what side of the aisle your politics falls on. If we, as individual citizens, continue to leave our social well-being in the hands of political spin-doctors and party lines, then we deserve what we have in this Nation. It is time to demand that people in DC – in Congress – in the White House, along with our Governors and Mayors – grow up, put their big-boy pants on, stop hiding behind their desperation for re-election, and do their jobs, to accomplish something constructive for once!
It is time to ask if Modern-day Police forces are Over-Militarized – From what I understand, the war on drugs from the 80s was a turning point when we shifted from traditional Law Enforcement – When equipment, training, tactics, and orientation changed with Police forces across the country. This, not to mention laws that allowed for previously unsanctioned home entries in the name of drug prevention. Here’s the problem that is nagging at me: When I speak with individual Cops, they agree on the same things. They didn’t change the rules, and try to faithfully abide by what is put before them. And the best cops I know love the communities they settle into for extended periods of time. They want to know the people they care for, and they want to serve them in the traditional sense.
It is time to demand a Full Accounting of all Parties behind these City Riots – I believe in the power of protest. Nearly everyone I know does. However, the testimony of any people I have encountered that live in communities where there have been over-the-top, destructive riots has with one voice been condemned, along with the repeated affirmation that it was outsiders doing the damage. I have never met someone who wants their own neighborhoods and businesses to be destroyed! I was struck by what Julia Jackson, mother of Jacob Blake, the shooting victim in Kenosha, said: “If Jacob knew what was going on as far as that goes, the violence and the destruction, he would be very unpleased.” If you don’t care about the individuals and businesses that are hurt in this, then your concern isn’t justice, and violence will only escalate, as it has in Kenosha.
It is time for People to Come Together – I don’t even know what this would look like but I have never experienced resolution of a problem from polarized positions. And so, I have to believe that this isn’t going away until we get people together to listen, talk, shout, cuss, weep, and strive until there is some understanding for the way forward. Cops, People of Color, White People, Community Leaders, Pastors – You name it! Call me optimistic, but I don’t see any other solutions out there! Do you? We spend so much time speaking out of our own social and political bullet points that we don’t hear one another. It isn’t that every Black person is right and every White person is wrong, or vice versa. And eliminating the Police force is as ludicrous as it is terrifying. Come on!
It is time for the Church to be the Church – For the Church to be the Church, it has to live out of its calling as salt and light – to season the world with the embodied message of God’s grace, and to be a beacon to His mercy, ready to love, and armed with the weapons of the Spirit. The over-politicization of the church is scandalous! We serve a Savior who loves Liberals and Conservatives, and to whom we sing, “Every color, every size, they are precious in his eyes…” It is our job to love this broken world, and enter into its brokenness, with hearts of justice and peace, and as servants in Christ’s name. This means that we will make enemies from all sides. I would argue that we are not very effective unless we do. Conservatives will accuse us of being soft, and Liberals of being narrow. Entering in is apolitical, and exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus, who has left his Spirit to empower us towards this end.
I don’t know about you, but I’m weary right now. The strife in our Nation is beating me down. It is hard to know who and what to believe. The noise is deafening. The violence, both in these shootings, and on city streets, is discouraging.
And I can’t see a solution apart from Jesus. He alone gives me hope…
grace & peace.
August 5, 2020 § 3 Comments
“Ah, but we want so much more–something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words–to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
We don’t hear enough about beauty in Christian circles. For church people immersed in mission and budgets, ultimate things, and immediate needs, the idea of beauty is often seen as extravagant, though not necessary. I would argue that it drives the Church’s best expressions.
“Vast, Unmeasured, Boundless, Free…”
lyrics to Oh, the Deep Deep Love of Jesus
Mark Ladd & Samuel T. Francis
Where better than in a Mountain Sunset are the layers of God’s lavish and unbounded love more beautifully put on display?
“The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”
Francis A. Schaeffer, Art & the Bible
What greater pallet to stimulate the imagination than an entire horizon, where earth and tree, sun and clouds, sky and mountain, colors and textures meet in perfect alignment and beauty?
“I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
Where else can we find the slightest sense of God’s glory, and the majesty, and beauty of Jesus, than when darkness is pierced and overcome by sunrise?
“And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.”
In some way, beauty is God’s promise of future joy in the way the rainbow accompanied God’s covenant with Noah. God doesn’t deal in junk. He restores and transforms broken things and people, “to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit…” (Isaiah 61:3a).
Ironically, for those who follow Jesus, the most hideous display in history stands as the most beautiful. In his gruesome crucifixion, sin was atoned for, and forgiveness assured. In the resurrection, death was crushed forever, and in his return, one day, all things will be made new.
Thanks for joining me!
grace & peace.
July 29, 2020 § Leave a comment
“A holy place is where we become aware that there’s more to life than meets the eye, and that the more is ‘other,’ Other. God, who is beyond us, is also at hand.”
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall
Not every sanctuary is built with human hands.
The photos in this post were taken from the Oconaluftee Islands Park in Cherokee, North Carolina. Once within its ‘walls’ the bamboo forest is transformed into a sanctuary of sorts. Curiously, this rapidly spreading growth is classified as grass. However, in maturity it manifests as a collective paneling of stalks that line paths and creates glorious corridors. Even more spectacular, this paneling allows light and splendor to infiltrate the enclosure it creates. And if that weren’t enough, the stalks of the bamboo are so tall that rather than grow endlessly in a straight line, at some point, they dovetail into one another, forming a magnificently arched ceiling – as though cognizant of Someone it was created to exalt.
Whenever we consider Jesus’ retreat to the mountains (Mark 6:46), our inclination is to put emphasis on prayer, because that is what he did. But I think there is more – that Jesus used that space of time to recapture his own sense of awe at the beauty of the very creation he sustains (Colossians 1:15-17).
We think of the ‘good’ pronouncements in the creation narrative as declarations of perfection – and they are. Nothing could ever supersede the unblemished handiwork of God – it was good because He is perfect. But is it possible that God was also thrilled with the beauty that He sculpted out of nothing?
Normally, this is the time of year that Katherine and I return to the beach we have enjoyed with our family for 20 years – To soak in the sun and get lost in the sound of crashing waves, where cell phones cannot be heard. But this year, with COVID-19, and our home state a hot spot for all the wrong reasons, we decided to hide in the mountains. With few exceptions, we stayed to ourselves and were reminded of the grandeur of God.
Though not a substitute for the gathering of God’s people in worship, it is difficult to stand on top of the world, so to speak, and not be filled with wonder. A breathtaking view completely redirects one’s attention from the immediate to the eternal. It is a holy interruption of the noise and chaos of daily routines.
Whenever we enter into sanctuary, we are transported and dwarfed by the majesty of God, whether a physical church locale, a walk by the bay at sunrise, or a mountain vista that swallows us in its grandeur.
This is a good thing.
Entering into sanctuary makes us no larger, and no more capable of managing the universe. It rescues us from the delusion that we can. And lifts our gaze from the immediate to the eternal, transforming our fear of lesser things, into renewed faith, in the eternal God who came near, and became immediate in His Son Jesus – for us.
Friends, this is our good news.
grace & peace.
June 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
“This moment contains all moments.”
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
To follow Jesus’ public ministry is to observe someone who was captured by every moment, the good and the bad. Every encounter. Every outing. Every criticism. Every conflict. Every town and village, community and neighborhood. Each presented opportunities that he exploited for good, in which he saw opportunities to teach, heal, serve, encourage, and inspire.
Jesus lived in the moment.
It wasn’t that he moved without vision or purpose. Jesus was a man on a mission. Luke 9:51 reveals his determination to go to Jerusalem – to die. His reason for being on the earth drove his moment-by-moment passion and actions.
There were no wasted moments. Each person represented an opportunity to put God’s Kingdom on display.
The healings. The feedings. The teachings. The casting out of demons. The rebukes. Every meal. Every confrontation. Every moment, from early morning hours, to evening fishing expeditions. Every blow of his executioners. Jesus capitalized on every moment to teach us the good news of the gospel.
I want my life to reflect this. But here’s what I think happens – Rather than see present moments as opportunities, we allow those that have come and gone to define us – especially the hard ones.
Here’s what Jesus is teaching me lately: That the best way to discard dreadful moments that are behind me, is to begin by letting go of past glories. Even referring to them as such is revealing, isn’t it?
There is wisdom in Paul’s words (Philippians 3:13b-14) – “…one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
It bears consideration that we tend to struggle to let go of past painful moments, because we are also fiercely determined to hold on to past glories, when in fact, both cause self-destructive patterns in the present.
Sure, we will say and do things that affect the rest of our lives, and therefore each action is to be measured carefully. And I would say that most of the sadness that I encounter in ministry, is due to regret over the past: Past sins, past decisions, past relationships, past struggles, you name it. I struggle with my own!
But the grace of God ensures that your darkest moments, even those due to regrettable decisions, will be recycled into gracious expressions that could only be forged in the kiln of forgiveness.
There is no turning back. What will you do with this moment?
Friend, if you follow Jesus, then you are not doing time! You belong to the Eternal One who stands above time! How else could he assure a dying thief that on that very day they would meet again – in Paradise?
Here is the Thing: Holding on will always be what holds us back. But in Jesus, then you can be assured that the moment – this moment – is crammed with opportunities to flourish, and to testify to the God who doesn’t hold our pasts against us, while inviting us into the wild adventure of His goodness and grace – right now.
What news could be better?
grace & peace.
June 17, 2020 § 2 Comments
Through the years, I have learned that if I don’t see the Christian Faith as a journey God is leading me on, then either it has grown stale, or there is something in my character that is resistant to the ongoing work of God’s Spirit within – often manifested in how I respond when my long-settled opinions and comforts are challenged. Defensiveness is usually an instant signal that the challenge is hitting home, and something needs to change.
We can’t simultaneously claim to follow Jesus, and then refuse to change, when it challenges our lifestyles, our vocations, or our long-held views.
If you follow Jesus, he will challenge your conventions.
He will take you to unexpected places.
He will confront your sin.
He will demand a willingness to live in the scrutiny of the gospel.
He will force you to see your views and commitments through his eyes, and then demand that you change when they are incompatible with his.
unfinished1 is meant to reflect my journey of faith, to put into words the working out of that faith; the struggles, the revelations, the insights, the weaknesses, the sins, the fears, the failures, the depths, the fresh discoveries, the immaturities, and the shallows, with hopes that as I wrestle with mine, that you will with yours. It will not always be what you assume, or want, or like, or hope, or expect it to be. Where would the challenge and joy of discovery and fresh thought be in that?
Right now there are a myriad of voices out there, attempting to shift the balance of opinion to their political or social views and biases regarding race. They are born of strong convictions and long held positions.
They represent friends on either side of the aisle – friends, past and present. They are family. They are Black and White, Cops and non-Law Enforcement. They are Conservative and Liberal, Democrat and Republican.
Somewhere, in between the spaces and lines, there are answers that only reside in the gospel. These answers transcend the choices we see and hear out there. Because Jesus isn’t Democrat or Republican. I have long said, in the pulpit, and in this blog that he is more liberal than liberalism, and more conservative than conservatism.
He certainly did not save you in order to preserve your opinions. He saved you in order to rescue you from yourself, including your opinions!
Right now, we are in a moment that the Church can’t pretend isn’t there. It has me wrestling through what it means for those of us who follow Jesus, regarding preconceived notions about race, poverty, affluence, crime, justice, and the Church itself, to name a few.
Is it possible for us to learn something new in all the madness?
I have to believe that it is!
Our society has become so volatile, and sadly, the Church seems to have been sucked in. If you question your own long held ideas, you are either sliding down the slippery slope of liberalism, or embedding too deeply in conservatism. These are the lies we believe when our faith is shaped by politics and social constructs, rather than the renewing power of the gospel (Colossians 3:10).
I think of Peter, who loved Jesus and followed him as one of the disciples. Peter had a blindspot in his view of people other than Jews. He was a racist. As a Jew he held to the purity of Israel, defined and protected by ceremonial rites that were intended as temporary gifts of God to serve as shadowy glimpses of Jesus, rather than unending requirements of law. Peter’s friends protected his position. And his religious zeal enabled him the convenience of feeling righteous about his disdain for non-Jews.
But he was wrong.
And he remained unchallenged in this posture, until the apostle Paul confronted him (Galatians 2:11-14), after which Peter could no longer live out of his settled paradigm.
When the Jerusalem Counsel met to discuss the merits of admitting non-Jewish Christ-followers into the Church, who did not observe the historic rites (circumcision) into the fellowship (Acts 15) it was Peter’s change of heart that stood out: “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [non-Jewish believers!] will” (verse 11).
My challenge to you is to resist letting your political position inform your faith, but to measure your settled convictions against the backdrop of the scriptures – because you follow Jesus. Forget party lines! Forget news cycles! Resist extreme views and theories! Resist sensational online articles that justify whichever posture one wants to argue from! Assume headlines and storylines to be misleading!
Live above all that! It will make the journey all the more adventurous, all the more meaningful, all the more beautiful, and all the more astonishing.
After all, Peter was right. It is God’s grace that saves us, God’s grace that claims us, and God’s grace that keeps us.
There is no better 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.
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)