September 23, 2020 § Leave a comment
“At times I am tempted to lose heart. But my good Shepherd is leading me toward life, not death…”
David Pawlison, Safe and Sound: Standing Firm in Spiritual Battles
Several of us were saddened the other day to learn that a pastor friend’s next-door neighbor had taken his own life. He didn’t know why, other than the fact that earlier this year his marriage ended in divorce. I can’t help but think that our current pandemic has figured into such narratives. Statistically, depression and anxiety are rising, as people have to process the uncertainty of work, isolation, family care, and daily life, in a time of COVID-19.
As believers, we are not immune to human frailty. Jesus said that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike (Matthew 5:45). The world is broken, and whenever it suffers, we suffer with it. We are part of it.
What the scriptures teach is that we share a hope that takes us beyond the pathos of the moment – or even a lifetime.
It reveals that misplaced hopes will end in disappointment, even tragedy. And that making lesser things everything cheapens the undiminished hope of the gospel.
This is why, for me, and others in ministry, it is difficult to stomach health-and-wealth ministers that promise material abundance and miraculous healing, often as they exploit the weak, while padding their bank accounts.
Growing up, our neighbor contracted Leukemia. She went to a famous faith healer’s revival meeting, and came home convinced that she no longer had the disease. But she did, and eventually it took her life.
Did it ever occur to you that every person Jesus healed has since passed away? Obviously those healings were intended for a purpose other than lives that would never be interrupted by death or disappointment.
And they were – They served as snapshots of something far more visionary, beautiful, lasting, and hopeful than one’s lifespan.
The quote above is taken from the last chapter of a book that David Pawlison wrote as he was dying of pancreatic cancer. At the time, he was serving as the President of CCEF, the Counseling Center out of Glendale, PA, that has most imprinted our church’s Life Counseling Center.
In the chapter he writes…
“Now more than four decades later [since trusting Jesus], I am staring death in the face. Instead of my faith failing, the promise of a new heart holds true. God is still shining into the darkness of my heart to give me the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
In the chapter he cites a passage in 2 Corinthians 4 that I memorized one summer during a personal crisis:
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (vss. 16-18)
The promise of the gospel is not that we can escape this world’s troubles. That would be far too short-sighted of God for His people, and would only carry them until the next heartache or disappointment.
No. We have been promised that when all is said and done, and we close our eyes in death, through Jesus, and in the power of his resurrection, the morning comes, with unending joy.
this is our good news…
grace & peace.
September 16, 2020 § Leave a comment
“God, then, does not speak through empty abstractions or endless circumlocutions. Rather, in every instance, God’s word was enacted and enacted in a particular place and time in history. In all, presence and place mattered decisively. Nowhere is this more evident than in the incarnation.”
James Davison Hunter, To Change the World
Some years ago, while living in Miami, Katherine and I created a small hideaway under a tree that lined the garden at the entryway of our home. Tiny white Christmas strings of lights rested in the tree that canopied a small bench we shared, alongside a peaceful water fountain I set up for her birthday one year. You could say that we hid in plain sight at the end of each day. That space was sacred. When it was cooler, we would sit with cups of hot chocolate, and watch cars drive by in the dark. Though we knew our neighbors, and in spite of the fact that church members lived nearby, no one ever stopped – because they couldn’t see us. We wanted it that way. Regardless of how difficult or anxious the day may have been, in the evening, we would be there to decompress, relax, unwind, talk and pray.
We have since created a similar space in the little courtyard of our home, between the garage and the house itself. Rather than rest in a tree, the lights now connect the structures, and the fountain is now a fire pit. But it is no less sacred, in fact, as much as we loved that space in Miami, we love this one even more. Through the muscle and know-how of friends, extra time during my sabbatical, and a lot of hard work, it has become our hideaway, our place. Only now, neighbors see us as they walk by – And we welcome them, whether to join us and talk, or to feel free to stop in when they smell the chicken barbecuing or the burgers sizzling.
Everyone needs a place.
In the book quoted above, James Davison Hunter argues that the internet has done a certain amount of damage to what he describes as the gravitational pull that once drew people together in order for them to be present with one another.
Everyone needs to belong.
I always loved the Motel 6 commercial that ended with the words, “We’ll leave the light on for you.”
Throughout history there have been moments, in the midst of horror, when Christians were the source of safe passage for the afflicted. In her book, Making Room, Christine Pohl writes of the village of Le Chambon, a “small community of French Protestants” who, during World War II saved thousands of Jews by hiding them from the Nazis, in houses and schools.
The purpose of this post is not to address the problems our Nation is facing now, but it will not be surprising to one day learn how substantially belonging, or lack thereof, fit into the narrative. We tend to reduce belonging to laws and historical moments, but society has a way of communicating the opposite when it wants to – and people feel it.
So, I take heart that in sympathizing with the weaknesses and limitations of a fallen human race, that Jesus chose to experience homelessness, the sensation of having nowhere to belong. He said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man [his favorite self-designation] has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).
And it is no wonder to me that his most reassuring words to his friends on the night of his arrest, involved the home he was preparing for them – in his Father’s house. They would deny, betray, and abandon him that evening, but after his resurrection, they would be restored to the friend in whom they found true belonging.
what good news…
grace & peace.
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 19, 2020 § 2 Comments
“God’s design for human flourishing cannot be satisfied in isolation.”
James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom
Reunion has been on my mind lately. Our church returned to in-person worship last Sunday, after nearly half-a-year in isolation. It was more than we hoped for. We met outdoors and were greeted with beautiful weather. The music and the atmosphere were electric. But it was the people coming together, masked-face-to-masked-face – people who had not seen one another in months, that made the evening what it was.
Whenever I think of reunion, I am taken to the Allman Brothers Band’s song Revival. It was used one year in a Publix commercial as the backdrop for a family reunion because the song carries that sense of joy. The video is posted below – Don’t listen to the theology – just turn up the volume, sit back, and enjoy the music. Publix is a growing Florida-based grocery chain.
On Sunday evening I reminded our church community that isolation is a byproduct of the fall. Like our God who lives within the mysterious community that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we were designed to live in relationship with one another. When Adam and Eve sinned, humankind was thrown into a world of isolation that societies, governments, nations, and individuals have never been able to break through with sustained success. The Cross is God’s answer to the world’s isolation, reconciling a fallen humanity to Himself, through the sacrifice of Jesus, who endured the isolation of hell’s torment in order to break the curse of Eden.
This busts open the doors to forgiveness, healing, and reconciled relationships, and represents the triumph of God’s grace, where everything we cannot reconcile in this life, will be healed and brought to closure in eternity, all the fruit of God’s unfailing love.
The fact is that as wonderful as last Sunday was for our church, it wasn’t all it could have been. Many among our church community could not attend due to the health risk. We are not whole until we are wholly reunited.
Through years, God seasons our lives with dear relationships that help shape us. These relationships are only separated by geography or death.
However great joy awaits all who belong to Jesus, when together we are Reunited with “a great multitude that no one could number” (Revelation 7:9), when heaven and earth are one in God’s new world.
How sweet that will be…
grace & peace.
July 29, 2020 § Leave a comment
“A holy place is where we become aware that there’s more to life than meets the eye, and that the more is ‘other,’ Other. God, who is beyond us, is also at hand.”
Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over A Wall
Not every sanctuary is built with human hands.
The photos in this post were taken from the Oconaluftee Islands Park in Cherokee, North Carolina. Once within its ‘walls’ the bamboo forest is transformed into a sanctuary of sorts. Curiously, this rapidly spreading growth is classified as grass. However, in maturity it manifests as a collective paneling of stalks that line paths and creates glorious corridors. Even more spectacular, this paneling allows light and splendor to infiltrate the enclosure it creates. And if that weren’t enough, the stalks of the bamboo are so tall that rather than grow endlessly in a straight line, at some point, they dovetail into one another, forming a magnificently arched ceiling – as though cognizant of Someone it was created to exalt.
Whenever we consider Jesus’ retreat to the mountains (Mark 6:46), our inclination is to put emphasis on prayer, because that is what he did. But I think there is more – that Jesus used that space of time to recapture his own sense of awe at the beauty of the very creation he sustains (Colossians 1:15-17).
We think of the ‘good’ pronouncements in the creation narrative as declarations of perfection – and they are. Nothing could ever supersede the unblemished handiwork of God – it was good because He is perfect. But is it possible that God was also thrilled with the beauty that He sculpted out of nothing?
Normally, this is the time of year that Katherine and I return to the beach we have enjoyed with our family for 20 years – To soak in the sun and get lost in the sound of crashing waves, where cell phones cannot be heard. But this year, with COVID-19, and our home state a hot spot for all the wrong reasons, we decided to hide in the mountains. With few exceptions, we stayed to ourselves and were reminded of the grandeur of God.
Though not a substitute for the gathering of God’s people in worship, it is difficult to stand on top of the world, so to speak, and not be filled with wonder. A breathtaking view completely redirects one’s attention from the immediate to the eternal. It is a holy interruption of the noise and chaos of daily routines.
Whenever we enter into sanctuary, we are transported and dwarfed by the majesty of God, whether a physical church locale, a walk by the bay at sunrise, or a mountain vista that swallows us in its grandeur.
This is a good thing.
Entering into sanctuary makes us no larger, and no more capable of managing the universe. It rescues us from the delusion that we can. And lifts our gaze from the immediate to the eternal, transforming our fear of lesser things, into renewed faith, in the eternal God who came near, and became immediate in His Son Jesus – for us.
Friends, this is our good news.
grace & peace.
July 2, 2020 § Leave a comment
“What you thought mattered – what you thought was truest to the real you – often turns out to be empty and dishonest. You have to keep asking and keep looking; no wonder we hate it and find every excuse for not getting on with it.”
Rowan Williams, Where God Happens
A few years ago, as we returned to the Orlando airport with our rental car, we decided to play chicken. We had prepaid for a full-tank so we wouldn’t have to fill up at the last second, and we took full advantage of that prepayment. The only problem was that the car was running on fumes and threatened to stall within miles of our destination!
Strangely, we laughed with every passing mile, wondering how far I would eventually have to push the car should we run out of gas.
Early yesterday morning, after my walk and early coffee, I admitted to Katherine that I had nothing – no blog post and no ideas – zero! We are slated for some time off in the coming weeks and it seemed as though the tank hit ’empty’ just a few miles short of the rental facility.
On most weeks, the post is already largely written by Wednesday morning, awaiting refinement before being made public – but not yesterday. As Monday turned to Tuesday (when the idea normally crystalizes), nothing came. And since Seinfeld already used the idea of a “show about nothing,” even that was off the table!
I had all but surrendered to the idea of not posting, by the time that Wednesday (yesterday) came. But it turned out to be a ministry-intensive day, and, I was reminded that when it comes to people, brokenness has many faces, and that we in ministry have the privilege of speaking into hopelessness, because God intends for life to be something!
This is the marvel of Creation. In the beginning, God called everything into existence by His spoken word. The, “Let there be…” passages in the Genesis 1 narrative could not be more dramatic, because they represent what theologians refer to as ex nihilo – “out of nothing.”
It is impossible for us to wrap our brains around this, because we have never truly seen the nothing-ness of nothing! Even an empty room has the substance of oxygen!
Hebrews 11:3 reveals that this cannot be arrived at by sheer intellect – “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”
Those who follow Jesus find it hopeful that the universe is the handiwork of a personal Creator, and therefore meant for something. Every firefly and all the fish of the sea were handcrafted with intentionality, as were we.
For those who agonize over loved ones and friends that display not one ounce of interest in things of faith, they are encouraged by the fact that God can intervene and speak something into the nothingness of their spiritual appetites – even as He has done ours. And it relieves the arrogance of the notion that we can force-feed, guilt, or shame Jesus into hearts.
By contrast, every intersection with sin and sorrow is an attempt by the evil one to squeeze out the sense of meaning, joy, and value – the something-ness – we were created to embody.
Which brings us full-circle to my having nothing to offer yesterday. I could recite all kinds of reasons it didn’t happen (COVID-19 is always convenient!), but at the end of the day, whenever I am running on empty, it has less to do with workload and exhaustion, and more with how I mismanage the affairs of my heart and the priorities of my life before the Throne.
In fact, a bird’s eye view would probably reveal no difference in activity. But, deeper inspection would uncover the need for retreat into God’s grace, beyond the routine – having forgotten, on the most subtle and practical of levels – that this God is here.
And that’s not nothing!
What good news…
grace & peace.
June 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
“This moment contains all moments.”
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
To follow Jesus’ public ministry is to observe someone who was captured by every moment, the good and the bad. Every encounter. Every outing. Every criticism. Every conflict. Every town and village, community and neighborhood. Each presented opportunities that he exploited for good, in which he saw opportunities to teach, heal, serve, encourage, and inspire.
Jesus lived in the moment.
It wasn’t that he moved without vision or purpose. Jesus was a man on a mission. Luke 9:51 reveals his determination to go to Jerusalem – to die. His reason for being on the earth drove his moment-by-moment passion and actions.
There were no wasted moments. Each person represented an opportunity to put God’s Kingdom on display.
The healings. The feedings. The teachings. The casting out of demons. The rebukes. Every meal. Every confrontation. Every moment, from early morning hours, to evening fishing expeditions. Every blow of his executioners. Jesus capitalized on every moment to teach us the good news of the gospel.
I want my life to reflect this. But here’s what I think happens – Rather than see present moments as opportunities, we allow those that have come and gone to define us – especially the hard ones.
Here’s what Jesus is teaching me lately: That the best way to discard dreadful moments that are behind me, is to begin by letting go of past glories. Even referring to them as such is revealing, isn’t it?
There is wisdom in Paul’s words (Philippians 3:13b-14) – “…one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
It bears consideration that we tend to struggle to let go of past painful moments, because we are also fiercely determined to hold on to past glories, when in fact, both cause self-destructive patterns in the present.
Sure, we will say and do things that affect the rest of our lives, and therefore each action is to be measured carefully. And I would say that most of the sadness that I encounter in ministry, is due to regret over the past: Past sins, past decisions, past relationships, past struggles, you name it. I struggle with my own!
But the grace of God ensures that your darkest moments, even those due to regrettable decisions, will be recycled into gracious expressions that could only be forged in the kiln of forgiveness.
There is no turning back. What will you do with this moment?
Friend, if you follow Jesus, then you are not doing time! You belong to the Eternal One who stands above time! How else could he assure a dying thief that on that very day they would meet again – in Paradise?
Here is the Thing: Holding on will always be what holds us back. But in Jesus, then you can be assured that the moment – this moment – is crammed with opportunities to flourish, and to testify to the God who doesn’t hold our pasts against us, while inviting us into the wild adventure of His goodness and grace – right now.
What news could be better?
grace & peace.
June 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 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.