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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Story of Your Life ...

Yes, I know it is September 19, 2017.  However, today, I am working on Ephesians for this Sunday at HillSong Church.  I came across this message from January 2011.  Usually, I am sort of annoyed by my old manuscripts.  But I thought this one wasn't bad and I had not previously posted it.  So here it is.

The Story of Your Life in 2011 (Ephesians 1:3-14)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
January 2, 2011


I am holding the story of your year.  This is the life of   fill in your name  , 2011.  It is December 31, 2011.  What’s on these pages?  Something new?  Did you do something you’ve never done before, and is it recorded here in the story of your life in 2011?
Who did you meet?  Who is the person unknown to you on January 1 2011 that becomes a central figure in your life on December 31, 2011? 
What places did you go?  On December 31, 2010, I was able to say I visited Kearney, Nebraska.  I couldn’t say that before 2010.  On December 31, 2011, as you review your year, what places did you go?  What stories will you tell about the places that you went?
What did you learn?  As you read the story of your life, 2011, what do you know now, now that it is December 31, 2011, that you did not know before this year?

Ah, the story of the year that was, 2011; in your book, what’s on these pages?  This is what is so exciting about the beginning of a new year.  Nothing in this book has been written yet.  We can imagine how we will fill these pages, but it is not December 31, 2011, it is January 2.  All we have is imagination … and planning … and prayer. 
I know some don’t think this way.  You live in the moment.  The turning of the page from one year to the next is not all that significant.  It’s too abstract and too philosophical.  You’re more wired to deal with the moment, getting through this day, this week. 
Others are might imagine the year to come, but not optimistically.  You don’t ask who will I meet, but who will I lose?  You’re not wondering what might be, but rather, what might go wrong? 
If you are an “in-the-moment” person, that’s OK.  God made you that way and dreamers like me need practical minded people like you to keep us grounded.  If you are a “prepare-for-the-worst” type, that’s good too.  God helps optimists like me who think all is well prepare for when things are not so well by bringing folks like you into our lives. 
Optimists, dreamers, pragmatists, and planners – all are needed; each one is created in the image of God.  Each has something to offer in the kingdom of God.  This morning as we step into a new year, we will look at how each of us contributes to life and to our life together as a community of faith.  Even if it is not your normal way of thinking, I invite you, just this morning, to join me in imagining, but not exactly you might think.
As we do imagine together, I want to borrow a line that will help us.  It’s from the book The Purpose Driven Life.  It’s the very first sentence of the book.  “It’s not about you.”  Or me.  Planners who are prepared for the next catastrophe, life is not about your worrying, helpful as it often is.  Pragmatists who live for today and deal with today, life is not about your intense and I might add very admirable focus.  My fellow dreamers and optimists, life is not about our fantasies of what might be and how good it can be.  What then, is life about?  If it’s not about me and not about you, what is it?  What’s the story and how are we supposed to live? 
Of the numerous scriptures that richly answer these questions, I am drawn to the opening verses of Ephesians which we just read.  This is written to people who are Christ followers.  I acknowledge that many here may not be followers of Jesus.  You’re checking the Christian scene out and exploring faith and visiting a church, and that’s awesome.  We love it that you are here.  Listen to what this Bible passage promises for people who have given themselves completely to Jesus and surrendered to his rule in life.
It says God the Father has promised “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (v.3).  Heavenly places are not far off lands to be enjoyed in a distant future by the soul some unknown duration of time after death.  They’re much closer and accessible for the person of faith.  The Apostle Paul was called to the third heaven even as he did missionary work in ancient Greece and ancient Turkey, places like Galatia and Thessolonica.  I have in the depths of my being in moments of extreme spiritual intimacy with God felt the fullness of the blessings in these heavenly places. 
With these blessings that we have when we are in Christ, we are adopted as children of God.  This will be more of my focus next week, what does it mean to be a child of God in the world?  For now I simply state that the New Testament clearly promises that all who put their trust in Jesus and give their lives to Jesus are sons and daughters of God Almighty, and Ephesians 1:5 is one of many passages that state this reality. 
Verse 6 and 7 speak of God’s grace and the forgiveness we are given.  Everything we have in Jesus is a gift.  Our sins – and we all commit them – separate us from God, but in Jesus Christ, we have complete forgiveness.  That which separates us has been removed, and it says in verse 11 we have an inheritance.  Our Father God is bequeathing to us an eternal home where there is no pain or worry and there is unending joy.
Along with that, and here we get to the meat of the matter, all who are in Christ are destined for a specific way of living.  What’s life all about? It’s not about me.  It’s not about you.  We see in Ephesians 1 we are destined to live for the praise of God’s glory (v.11a, 12b).
            It’s possible that I just lost half the room, maybe 2/3.  You just checked out and will come back next week to see I have anything interesting offer because what I just said is too churchy, too removed from real life.  To be fair to me, I am spouting my personal philosophy.  I am quoting from Ephesians 1.  To tune out what I am saying to tune out the Bible.  But that doesn’t matter.  To say that life is all about the praise of God’s glory feels unreal; it’s abstract; it’s ethereal. 
When I am washing the pots after we have had soup for dinner, I am not living for the praise of God’s glory.  I am trying to get the pot clean, and I am grumbling because the stuff is stuck on there and won’t come off.  I wasn’t grumbling when I ate the soup.  That meal hit the spot on a cold winter’s night.  But as happy as I was to eat it, I am suddenly a crab having to clean it up.  That stuff about God’s glory doesn’t apply. 
You’re about an hour away from leaving work for the day, and the boss says he needs you to stay two extra hours.  What can you do?  You need the job.  God’s glory?  You’ve got to trudge through another two hours.  You’re too tired and too distracted to be dreaming about praising God. 
Her boyfriend just left.  She thought this evening was going to end with him on one knee, presenting a diamond ring.  She was not expecting “I think we should take a break, maybe see other people for a while.”  God’s glory?  Praise?  She’s heartbroken.  She’s not emotionally in a place where she can live out the words of Ephesians 1.  She needs the promises of those Heavenly blessings, but she just can’t live for the sake of praising God, not right now. 
No, to say that life is all about living for God and to say that each of us should make that our driving ambition in 2011 is just unrealistic and unreachable.
But, what if …?  I know, I am a dreamer.  But what if we looked at each of the places of life – home (where we eat good food and have good times but also complain and sometimes fight with those we love), and work (where we make money but also give the greatest amount of waking hours and maybe give a bit of our souls), and relationships (where we cannot predict how they will go because they involve other people) – what if we look at the places of life differently? What if instead of combing the scriptures to find a verse to get me through the day, I submit myself to the scripture no matter how the day is going? 
I open up my self, my spirit, that I may be filled with the Holy Spirit so that I am ready for my day be it the worst of the year or the best.
I constantly meet with other believers in my church family and in my small group because God nourishes me through those people.
The Bible, the Spirit, the Community – I am continually filled in these places, so my life can be a testament of praise and in the world I can live in a way that points people to Jesus.

It’s December 31st 2011, and this is story of God having been at work in the world specifically seen in your life and mine.  It’s the story of someone who has discovered that life is about the relationship with God and the deeper one goes with God, the more one sees Jesus, lives a life that raises praise in church and in the daily world, and the more one lives in those Heavenly blessings. 
Take the three examples: home life, I am washing the soup pot, but I am living as one who wants to praise God with my life.  It doesn’t make the goop at the bottom come off any easier.  The change is in me.  I’ve opened myself to God’s grace, so my mind is on how grateful I am for the soup, for the wife who prepared it, for my kids who ate with me.  Maybe they fought all the way through dinner.  But I have gratitude because of God at work in me and my focus on Him.  Parenting isn’t easier and dirty pots are still dirty.  But I am different because of my relationship with God.  Because I am different, the whole scene is different.
You are tired and not happy about having to work two extra hours.  What’s different?  Starting 2011, you determined that this would not be a story about your job.  2011 is about you seeking God and God speaking through your life.  The drama plays out at your job and affects your approach to that job and your response to that boss.  You work hard and encourage your coworkers even when it’s tough to do so.  The title of this story is not “Dave the Insurance Adjuster.”  This story is called, “The God of the Universe at work in Dave’s life.”
She wanted him to propose and instead he dumped her.  She’s very, very sad.  But that is not the end of the story.  It’s not the story at all.  It might be a chapter in it, and maybe a long and dark chapter.  But the story is of a young woman seeking God, living in such a way that her life points to God and points others around her to the grace and forgiveness and love of Jesus.  She knows as a daughter of God she has a divine inheritance and she knows as one who walks in intimate relationship with God, the blessings are hers today.  Even when she is sad, she will pray, she will obey, and she will praise.  Even if it feels like she’s forcing herself.  Praise can be a spiritual discipline.  Praise is not about her own emotional state or how well things are going in life.  Praise is about God.  No matter what comes, her life will point to God. 
I can pray “God, please speak to me.  As I spend time washing this pot, a mundane activity, let this be a time I am thankful for the food I enjoyed that came from this pot.  And let me hear your voice.” 
You can pray, “Oh Lord, help me through these final hours of work.  I am tired and I want to go home, but I am thankful for this job.  Help me have a good attitude and reflect the love of Christ.” 
She can pray, “God, I am so lost right now. I need help.  I want to be married and I thought he was the one.  I don’t know where to turn so I am turning to you.”
It is good and right and Biblical to pray in all circumstances.  The examples I have shared vary from being of little importance (doing the dishes) to things that matter very, very much (like relationships and engagements).  You can think of more extreme examples.  In the little and the big, the insignificant and the highly important, our stories in 2011 can be about God because in everything we turn to Him and live in such a way that people see us and see God in us.

In His book The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons tells about the taxi stand at La Guardia airport in New York City.  He flies into New York often and has been to the taxi stand many times.  He always notices, if it is the right time of day, a group men in turbans.  They are at a part of the sidewalk that doesn’t have a loot of foot traffic.  They have their prayer mats, and they are kneeling facing east.  Their heads are on the ground. 
Lyons admires the dedication of these Muslims.  He writes, “Even though I don’t fully get it, and even though I’ve never felt the need to pray like this in public, I respect their countercultural commitment.  The odd and the curious practice of seeing a man put his face on a rug in the middle of a parking lot makes a statement.  It says, ‘I’m serious about my faith.  I’ve committed to expressing it and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.  I’ve found a better way to live’” (p.179)!
The Apostle Paul asserts in Ephesians 1 that life in Christ is the better way to live.  In Christ, our lives, the disappointments, the frustrations, the normal and boring, and the high and exciting times all point to Jesus.  It happens because we know life is all about Him.  We turn to Him in everything.  Through the Bible, through prayer and the Holy Spirit, and through the community of faith, we live in Christ.
December 31, 2011, may another take the book, the story of our lives over the course of the year.  May they read it and say, Oh wow!  This person knows Jesus and because of his life or her life, I want to know Jesus.  In Christ, we live the better story.  Many 2011 be a year we live in Christ.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Don't waste your Time Searching for Benno von Archimboldi: Book Review of 2666

One of the ways I expand my imagination is reading literature.  I read widely, all kinds of things, much of it not Christian. I find that God excites my imagination, but like a muscle the imagination must be stretched.  The stronger, more flexible my imagination is, the more capable I am of seeing God at work in the world and appreciating and joining in on the work God is doing.  So, for the sake of growing my thinking cells and building my capacity for imagination I read.  Writing a book review helps me process what I've read.  
The book I review here, "2666," is not a Christian story.  And, it is an R-rated novel.  I decided to follow it through until the end, but I don't really recommend it.  If you are thinking about reading this or other works by Roberto Bolano, remember, it's typically R-rated literature and does not promote Christianity.  

Here's my review of "2666" by Roberto Bolano:

Giles Harvey writes an article in the New Yorker online ( giving an overview of the workd of Chilean author Roberto Bolano.  I had trouble trusting Harvey's review because he lists "Nazi Literature in the Americas" as one of his top for suggestions for "navigating the Bolano labyrinth."  "Nazi Literature" is, he writes,  "every bit as fun as it sounds."  That's true.  It sounds miserable and it is.  I only read it (parts of it) because he recommended it as a way into the Bolano oeuvre.   That book is nothing more than a way into glum tedium.

However, for me, Harvey redeems himself at the end of his article on Bolano.  He writes, "Avoid '2666' for as long as possible, and for heaven's sake, don't start with it."  I laughed upon reading that sentence, because at that point, I was 10% percent into my first encounter with Bolano - "2666."  I kept at it, but per Harvey's advice, I picked up "Nazi Literature" and also "Last Evenings on Earth."  I will eventually read "Savage Detectives" and "By Night in Chile" as he suggests, but later.

I need a break from Bolano.

Harvey wrote of "2666."   Harvey says, "The book is a desert of negative space across which the panting reader will search in vain for the traditional pleasures of the novel.  ... The result is neither horror nor sympathy.  It is exhaustion."  He's right.  I cannot say I wasn't warned.  Harvey said, "Don't start with 2666."  I did.  He said it lacks all the traditional pleasures of the novel.  It does.

"2666" is almost 900 pages long, and Bolano could have accomplished his goals in maybe 400-500 pages.  Also, when he introduced interesting characters, he could let us know a little something about them later on instead of spending hundreds pages helping us get to know them only to have them drop unexpectedly out of the book with no explanation and no return.  He pulls the rug out like this over and over, throughout the book.

At the end of this novel, all I feel is unsatisfied.  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Freedom from Stone Laws

            I have enjoyed Sabbatical for the past months.  In 7 days, I return to my work as a church pastor.  I will sit with people over cups of coffee or lunch at Mexican restaurants.  In the same conversation, I will listen as they share their fears that the Tar Heels aren’t going to have a good season and their fears that their young adult children aren’t going to live good lives.  I will talk with our administrative assistant and our associate pastors about the daily details of life in the church.  I will get that email that the surgery has been scheduled, and then I will meet the family at the hospital at 6AM, and together we will pray.  We will pray that all will go well and she will be fine.  And as I leave the hospital, I will pray that my presence there helped with the anxiety, even just a little.
            And sermons.  I will be back to the work of studying scripture and studying our congregation and studying our culture and world, and all that study will merge on the interstate highway of ideas.  After merging, one focused idea will exit the off ramp that leads to the next Sunday’s message.  Yes, I am ready and very excited about returning to the flowing motion of sermon writing and worship planning.
            To all of this, I am ready to return.  Who am I, the man returning to this life?  I’ve written in previous posts that I want to learn to be gentle.  I want to be known as a person who gives graces.  I pray that I can grow into gentleness.  I pray that I can live grace-filled and be extravagantly generous in giving grace.
            What obstacles overshadow my efforts?  There are many, but one stands out from my time of personal Bible reading.  I’ve been making my way slowly through 2 Corinthians.  In chapter 3, Paul contrasts the old covenant[i] and the new.  Now, as an aside, I caution Christians not to be dismissive of the Law of Moses (see Exodus-Deuteronomy, books 2 through of the OT).  We must not see the coming of Jesus as rendering that scripture as obsolete.  Jesus fulfills that Old Testament word of God.  Jesus does not negate it.  Gospel is found in the Law, but we see the law through the light of Jesus.
            When Paul writes about the old covenant, the discerning reader has to be very attentive.  In 2 Corinthians 3 he says, “The Old Covenant ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life.  The old way, with its laws etched in stone, led to death” (see verses 6 & 7).  Ends in death.  In order for sins to be atoned, an animal sacrifice was required.  Something had to die.  In the new covenant, something comes after death – resurrection: first Jesus, then us.  The new covenant leads to eternal life.
            Etched in stone.  That can be taken literally.  Moses ascended the mountain and came down with laws that were inflexible – etched in stone tablets.  But living out that fixed law requires a dynamic relationship with God because questions arise.  What if someone is in a situation where he has to “bear false witness” (tell a lie) to prevent a murder?  Is he breaking the law if in doing it he prevents another of the commands from being broken?
            The new covenant it written on our hearts (Romans 2:29).  Our very inclinations, motivations, and impulses are guided by the Spirit – the Spirit of the same God who gave the law that was originally etched in stone.  There is continuity from the tablets Moses held to the way of God the Holy Spirit who is active in our daily lives.  However, we must live on the far side of history, the post-resurrection side, where we live responsively.  Our lives are a dance in which the Holy Spirit is the leader and we the follower, the responsive dance partner. 
            What’s obstructed my path to gentleness and grace are the laws etched in stone: laws I have etched in the rigidity of my expectations.  In some ways, this has been my own personal bugaboo for my entire life.  I expect things to go a certain way (in relationships, in ministry, in sports).  Then life turns our differently than I expected.  The girl breaks up with me, my kids do the opposite of what I say, the church doesn’t like my new idea, my team loses.  And I am disappointed, angered, and defeated.  My poor children bear the brunt of this when I get angry at them for not being who I expect them to be instead of loving who they are.  If I can just learn to be gentle with them and give them (and my wife too) grace, lots and lots of grace, I will change as a person.  I will become a “graced” person.  Or more accurately, I will begin living in the graced identity Christ has already given.
            One of my favorite Christian role models, Tony Dungy, writes, “Your real influence [as a Christian] comes from the foundation of your character.”[ii]  I want God’s grace to be the foundation of my character.  That Rob Tennant, man.  That guy is full of grace.  When people talk about me, that’s what I hope they will say.  This is the “greater glory” under the “new way,” which makes us “right with God” (Apostle Paul – 2 Corinthians 3:8, 9).  
            I am not there yet.  I know from the ways I have harangued my 15-year-old the last few days, I am not even close.  But because God is so grace-filled, God’s grace for me is never exhausted.  I fail and then, with tail tucked between my legs, come repentantly to God.  My sin is before me and I have to sit with it a while, but the Holy Spirit showers grace and forgiveness down on me, and cleansed, I try again. 
            My life rhythm is about to change.  I’ll return to the world of church work.  I come back with goals and hopes and dreams, but the big story, for me, is the prayer that I will follow the Spirit and walk alongside the Law (old covenant) down the path that leads to life in Christ (new covenant).  The further down that path I walk, the more people will see newness in me.  My life will emit the fragrance of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14-16). 
            To walk that path, I have to do what I have struggled to do my entire life.  I will need to turn my expectations over to God.  I need to be freed from the stone laws I have set over myself, the unyielding determination that things will turn out the way I think they should.  I need freedom from the yoke with which I burden myself.  One of the songs we sing at church has this line in it.  “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.”  That’s 2 Corinthians 3:17.  In the next verse says, “The Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like Him as we are changed into His glorious image.”
            As I get ready for the world of church work, I yearn for freedom the stone laws, freedom to live in the dynamic of the Spirit. 

[i] I use “old covenant,” “Law of Moses,” and Old Testament interchangeably in this post because each phrase represents the content that we find in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, & Deuteronomy, and I read these texts from a Christian/New Testament perspective. Thus, I also use “new covenant,” “Christian,” and New Testament interchangeably. 
[ii] T. Dungy and Nathan Whittaker (2011).  The Uncommon Life Daily Challenge, Tyndale-Momentum (Carol Stream, IL), September 8 entry.  This book uses calendar dates, not page numbers.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Boris Pasternak

My introduction to Boris Pasternak came when I read "The Adolescence of Zhenya Luvers" in an anthology of Russian novellas. That was several years ago. Then, roaming the stacks in the Chapel Hill Public Library, I came across "Selected Poems."

The forward by his son Yevgeny Pasternak invites the English reader to love Boris Pasternak through the work of translators Jon Stallworthy and Peter France. After reading the forward, I felt, "OK, it's alright for me to appreciate Pasternak even though I don't read Russian.

The introduction by Stallworthy and France is a brief biography of Pasternak, leading me to want to read more about this great author and thinker who grew up in Soviet Russia but was never bound by the constricting character of communism. Reading their English renditions of his brilliant poetry has me now thirsting for more of Pasternak. If I weren't neck-deep in several other books, I would begin "Dr. Zhivago" tonight. 

As it is, I am deeply moved by the poems of Pasternak I have read. I still struggle with poetry as a genre (and probably always will), but Pasternak makes the struggle worth the effort.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Hard Turnarounds

            Here, I quote a little-known, unpublished but prolific writer (perhaps completely unknown).
            “[I’ve learned that] I … need to see with new eyes, but that seeing won’t come through mega-lessons.  It comes through simple lessons, new vision through the two G’s, gentleness and grace.  I have to be gentle, and to be gentle, I need to give grace.”[i]
            Of course the writer is me.  I am quoting myself from earlier this month, August, 2017.  This past week, I saw a picture of the enormity of the task I’ve set before myself – turning to become truly gentle and grace-giving. 
            For a second straight year, my family, my immediate family plus niece and nephews, parents, sister and brother-in-law came together at First Landing State Park, Virginia Beach, VA.  For a second straight year, we occupied cabins 18, 19, & 20.  There are only 20 in total.  The road to the cabins takes a sharp right curve after cabin 17 so that our three cabins, 18-20 are tucked back into their own space.  And the road doesn’t go through. It ends after cabin 20.  No one has any reason to be back there unless they’re going to 18, 19, or 20.
            However, people don’t know that. All the time, people come back there and discover – oops! – I need to turn around.
            That’s usually fine, but not last Wednesday.  We were gathered in the afternoon in one of the cabins playing Nerts.[ii]  A huge camper with Harley Davidson in large letters came through – except you can’t come through.  That incredibly long thing had to turn around and there just wasn’t space. 
            I exited out cabin to greet the harried, stressed, tattooed 50ish woman driving the monstrosity and tried to coach her through the 25-point about face.  It was an ordeal.  She screamed, she ignore me, she waited until too late to follow my directions, she demolished the sign that says, “Cabin 20,” and she is still there.  We finally left the beach the next day, her still there, still cursing, trying to turn about that Harley Davidson camper.
            After a harrowing several minutes, my 9-year-old nephew Isaiah and I got her turned around.  The trailer with her bicycles got scratched and dented.  Her psyche was bruised and traumatized.  And worst of all, the Nerts game I was winning never got finished!

            Seriously though, turning around is often a mess, especially in life; especially when the turn we are trying to make is in ourselves.  Since I have declared that my Sabbatical lesson is to be gentler and give more grace, I have been gruff, short-tempered, grudge-holding, and petulant.[iii] At other times, I have had moments where grace has crossed my mind and in crossing has actually come out in my behavior.  I actually was a little gentler.  Did anyone notice?
            Here are the spiritual disciplines I committed to:
1.    Prayerful attentiveness
2.    Dependence on God (specifically seeking help when I am fatigued)
3.    Seeking opportunities to be gentle.

A week into this and these commitments are now re-commitments.  That’s why Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction is the best book title ever.  The key emphasis is on the word ‘long.’  That I have been on Sabbatical for four months doesn’t mean I’ll automatically be gentle and grace-filled.  It means I am aware that what I need is to be gentler and quicker to give grace.
Perhaps Romans 7:19 should be every Christian’s daily confession.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” It certainly was Paul’s.  And it will be mine. 
However, lest this blog descend into a nihilist’s fatalistic bleakness[iv], I refer back to Isaiah (my nephew not the prophet though he may turn out to be a prophet), me, tattooed Harley Davidson woman, and her oversized camper.  After much tears, dents, bruises, and some minor destruction (of a sign and a bush), the thing turned around.  Likewise, while there will be pain and maybe some blood and tears, our lives can turn around.  Romans does not end at chapter 7, verse 19.  After that comes chapter 8, verses 38-39.  “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Neither can hard turnarounds come between us the love God has for us. 
I was asked recently what I want to accomplish as a pastor and I was grateful for the question because it forced me to a place of mental focus I’ll need as I transition from Sabbatical back to the weekly, daily work of serving God in that formal role.  As a pastor, I want to take people by the hand and walk them to the place where they understand that their lives are stories.  You are a story!  And God is a story. 
Imagine your story as a road.  And God’s story as another road.  I want to help you get to the intersection, a three-way, where your story and God’s merge and become one story.  The journey to get there will require some painful about-face turns.  There will be tears, screaming, and do-overs.  But I believe that after “the evil I do not want to do is what I do” comes “[Nothing, nothing, nothing] can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  So, I always believe that even the hardest of turnarounds are possible. 
Including me learning to be gentle and give grace. 

Now …
1.    Prayerfully, pay attention.
2.    Depend on God (specifically when I am really tired).
3.    Seek opportunities to be gentle.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Something Worse than Protests Gone Bad - Review of "The New Jim Crow"

            Decrying the horrors of white nationalism is low hanging fruit.  Conservatives and liberals alike agree that white supremacy, KKK, neo-Nazis, and racist fascists are all evil.  The accepted verbiage in American culture in 2017 is that racism is an inherently bad thing.
            I intentionally excluded President Donald Trump from the above generalizations (conservatives and liberals) because as he showed on Monday, August 15, 2017, in his third set of statements responding to white nationalist protest from Charlottesville, VA, he actually doesn’t blanket condemnation on white hate groups.  He blames victims, that is, oppressed minorities, when confrontations turn violent.
            Here I address everyone else, which is most of America.  President Trump’s election has emboldened the brazenly racist.  But most people are not brazenly racist.  Their racism is hidden behind a veil of ‘colorblindness.’  Their racism is concealed, even from themselves much of the time, behind the misguided belief that the end of the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s was the end of systematic racism in America.  Their racism is buried deep because they know racism is evil, so they don’t want to face it in themselves.
            Two acts in the last few days will do nothing to combat this abiding racism that continues to render African Americans and Latinos in our country as second class citizens.  Michelle Alexander calls black and brown skinned persons the lowest caste and she believes America has an intricate, nearly intractable caste system (The New Jim Crowe, 2010).  First, there was the rally-gone-wrong in Charlottesville.  White supremacists protested the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.  Anti-racists counter protesters confronted the protesters.  Some of the confrontations became quite violent.  One white nationalist, James Alex Fields of Ohio, ran a car at high-speed into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer of Virginia.  Heather was trying to stand up to the bullying evil of white supremacy. 
            The entire event and especially James Fields’ murderous act is easy to condemn in the harshest of terms.  That condemnation, spoken in the language and town of damning, fiery rhetoric, will do nothing to deal with the system that keeps black and brown people in an under caste, denied of rights, and unable to thrive in American life.
            Second, on Monday, August 15, in Durham, NC, a group of protestors, angry at white nationalists and at the president for failing to condemn them, forcibly toppled a Confederate statue and then gleefully taunted the fallen monument.  The rage felt by the crowd that performed this act – rage at racism and rage at the continued debasement brought on by an unfair social and legal system – is justified.  Toppling that statue and all confederate statutes, especially in such a mocking way, won’t change the conditions that have produced this unfair social and legal system. 

      Michelle Alexander shows why.  The so-called war on drugs targets minority communities and doles out impossibly harsh penalties for minor drug offenses.  First comes the felony conviction, which the prosecutor bullies the usually impoverished black suspect into accepting.  Then the sentence.  The convict loses years of his life in prison, comes out, and is unable to find a job, public housing, or get food stamps.  This is because employers can discriminate in hiring based on a felony conviction.  A felony conviction also makes one ineligible for federal housing and food assistance. 
            There are as many drug users among Asians as among whites as among Hispanics as among blacks.  But all the felony convictions seem to fall on the blacks and Hispanics.[i]  The most dangerous drug is alcohol.  Drunk-driving accidents and alcohol related deaths greatly out-number deaths related to other drug usage.  Alcohol is far more dangerous to everyone than crystal meth or crack cocaine.  So why do we fear the meth and the cocaine?  Why are the harshest punishments assigned to the drugs mostly used by African Americans?  Why are African Americans more likely to be arrested and convicted than whites committing the exact same crimes at the same rates?  Blacks don’t commit more crime, they just get punished more often and more harshly. 
Shouting about how awful racism is, and waving an angry middle finger at a white nationalist or toppled confederate statue won’t change this.  The people who enforce the system that has wrecked so many black lives claim to be colorblind.  Many who enforce mass incarceration are the same people who shout about the evils of racism.  Alexander illustrates thoroughly in The New Jim Crow that two of our supposedly most black-friendly presidents, Bill Clinton and Barak Obama, did much in their respective tenures to increase the weight of mass incarceration born by black people who are openly targeted in the “war on drugs.”
Alexander offers only the beginning of what might be ways out of this systemic oppression of black communities.  To go into detail would entail another book (which I hope she writes).  Organizations like the New Baptist Covenant ( are taking steps to combat racism in meaningful ways.  But while Alexander does not outline ideas for how to end mass incarceration, she does give the kernel of the idea that’s needed.  She writes, “To deny the individual agency of those caught up in the system [of mass incarceration] – their capacity to overcome seemingly impossible odds – would be to deny an essential element of their humanity.   We (human beings) have a higher self, a capacity for transcendence” (p.176).  Then, she goes on to say, “Rather than shaming and condemning an already deeply stigmatized group (poor black convicted felons), we, collectively, can embrace them – no necessarily their behavior, but them – their humanness.  ‘Hate the crime, but love the criminal’” (p.176-177).
Until we (“we” = all Americans of every color and social class) see poor black people as people and the erasure of poor black people from mainstream society through mass incarceration as itself a crime, the problems of systemic racism will plague our society.  Toppling and taunting statues and yelling at supremacists won’t change a thing. 
The Bible has a framework for what Michelle Alexander is saying.  Human beings are made in the image of God.  This was emphasized in Genesis right before Adam and Eve were the first to flagrantly disobey God and then their son Cain committed the first murder, killing their other son, his brother Abel.  This idea of ‘image of God’ is central to the Biblical view of creation.  We don’t know the skin tone of the first humans, and the Bible does not specify.  The central theme is God is creator and humans – all humans – are special in God’s creation, the highpoint of God’s creation (Genesis 1:27-28, 31).  So, the poor, undereducated black 15-year-old who is targeted by cops and then busted for ‘possession’ the first time someone, maybe his mentor, slips him a small sealed bag of white powder and is then convicted and trapped in the system of mass incarceration – that kid is an “image bearer.” 
What does God look like?  Look at that kid.  When you do, see the image God.  Don’t see a “thug.”  Don’t see fear (yours or his).  Don’t see just one more felon to lock away.  See him.  See him.  See a child of God, made in the image of God.  If we see young black males this way, the way God sees them, we as a society won’t tolerate their disappearance in the racially weighted “war on drugs.”  We’ll pool our imaginations and come up with ways to end this system of oppression just slavery and Jim Crow ended.  But this time, if our solutions are based in love, mass incarceration won’t be replaced by the next iteration of systemic racism.
In the Genesis idea cited above, the Bible offers a creation framework to Alexander’s conclusion.  In the Gospels, the Bible also offers a redemption framework.  Jesus came to free that imprisoned black kid.  He said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.  He has anointed me … to free those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).  In ways impossible for a comfortable white suburbanite to understand, that 15-year-old imprisoned poor black kid is oppressed.  And just because we whites are comfortable and just because we don’t understand and just because we are extremely comfortable in our not understanding is no excuse to turn a blind eye.  Because we follow Jesus, we have to be for that kid.  Jesus teaches what love looks like in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and then demonstrates his love by dying for our sins.
We whites won’t be subject to mass incarceration.  We are no better than the inner city black person arrested for felony-possession.  No better.  But our mistakes will bring minimal suffering or none at all.  Yet, our mistakes cut us off from God.  Gossip.  Alcoholism.  Sloth.  Omission (failing to help those who God commands us to help or failing to share money and talents God has blessed us with).  Harsh, hateful rhetoric.  Society does not call these things ‘crimes.’  But, the Bible calls these things ‘sins.’  Sins cut us off from God.  Jesus died a shameful criminal’s death to make it possible for us to be cleansed of our sins.  Jesus stood in the shoes of the convicted felon and he did so that we might have abundant life (John 10:10).
As disciples, followers of Jesus, we are to be as he was and is.  We are to love as he loves.  He loves the millions of black and Hispanic Americans whose lives have been wrecked by mass incarceration.  If we – Christians who comprise his church in America – follow our master’s example and truly see and truly love our black and brown brothers and sisters, we will find a way to help them out of the system of oppression.  The church is the body of Christ.  He has come to free the captives.

[i] I realize that when I say “all,” that is hyperbole.  This is a short blog.  In her book Alexander details how the convictions of a few whites in the war on drugs help to perpetuate the entire system (see p.204-205).

Sunday, August 13, 2017

After Charlottesville: Monday Work

My brother is a pastor of a church in Charlottesville.  My best friend from seminary is a pastor of another church in Charlottesville, VA.  I texted them both this morning to make sure they’re OK after the white supremacy fiasco in their town yesterday.  I didn’t want to call because it was Sunday morning and they are pastors getting ready to lead the church in worship.  So I texted. Both texted to assure me they are fine.
I am a pastor too, but on Sabbatical.  In fact this morning, our family did not even attend church, but instead spent time at Smith Mountain Lake with my aunt and uncle.  However, sabbatical or not, I feel the need to share some of my thoughts in the aftermath of the nefarious, evil “Unite-the-Right” rally in Charlottesville. 
I approach this as a pastor, but more importantly as a follower of Jesus, a 1st century Palestinian Jew, and the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity.  I follow and worship Jesus, the Savior of the world and Lord of all.  I pray that my comments are inspired by Him.
Two quotes come to mind.  The first is from a fiery African American female preacher, Traci Blackmon.  I heard her last year in Atlanta, GA, and she blew my socks off.  Her sermon at the convening of the New Baptist Covenant last September helped me understand the importance of #blacklivesmatter.  Her sermon woke me up and fired me up to work for a better America, one in which all people are given equal rights and equal opportunities. 
Rev. Blackmon was in Charlottesville yesterday, up close to the tear gas, violence, and chaos.  A frequent Facebook commenter, she wrote, “I SURE DO PRAY THAT THE SERMON YOU WROTE EARLIER THIS WEEK IS NOT THE SERMON YOU ARE PREACHING TOMORROW” (
Her words are characteristic of her confrontational approach.  And, she wrote this fresh off her own up close and personal harrowing experience in Charlottesville.  Her words make sense to me.  As it is, I wasn’t preaching today.  But if I was, I hope I would not, in a gut reaction, scrap the sermon I had written earlier and start over.  I’ve done that very thing before.  I have scrapped sermons om Saturday nights, and started over.  I have scrapped sermons with just an hour to go before the start of worship.  But it is not always the right move. 
Contrasted with Rev. Blackmon are the words of African American author Deidra Riggs.  She writes,
Hey, white evangelical friends. Don't go to church today to hold your preacher's feet to the fire. Either they'll say it or they won't. Go to church to be lit on fire by the Holy Spirit. Don't lose your focus. There is work to do on Monday.

Besides, even if they say it, it won't be the way you want them to say it. This is not about them. It's about you. What are YOU going to say? What are YOU going to do? This is an all hands on deck moment and there are TONS of resources for you (

My favorite line from Mrs. Riggs’ quote is one that drives me now. “There’s work to do on Monday.”  That Monday Work is the work of combatting racism under the direction of the Holy Spirit.  Whether the pastor deals directly with what happened in Charlottesville or sticks with the sermon he or she originally planned is not the bigger point.  The bigger point is all churches, all followers of Jesus, are called to live out the values of the Kingdom of God and the greatest value is love. 
One of the cornerstones of my Sabbatical is the quest to discover how church – the local church – can embody the heavenly vision cast in Revelation 7:9-10.
After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. 10 And they were shouting with a great roar,
“Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne
            and from the Lamb!”

I believe the church is called to be a living witness to this Heavenly vision. The church in America is to testify to our country, divided as it is, that God’s vision and God’s future is a picture of people, resplendent in their cultural uniqueness joined together with other people, also with their uniqueness on display.  Note, when John looked into Heaven in Revelation 7, he could clearly see people from all cultures and all tribes all across the world.  Their distinctiveness stood out as much as their unity did.  And their unity was in Christ.
Where is that seen today?  I pray that Heavenly vision can be seen in the church.  Forming our churches as families and as communities is our work.  Our families and communities have to be so graciously welcoming and hospitable that all people – black, Asian, white, Hispanic, Arab, and Native American – can feel at home in the church. 
In other words, our Monday work is to tell a different story, the anti-story of Charlottesville and of hate groups like American Nazis and the KKK.  That story generates a lot of noise.  Our story, the story of people loving God and loving each other in Jesus’ name is a much better story.  CNN & Fox News are not going to tell our story.  We shouldn’t expect them to.  God has called the church to go into all the world and make disciples of Jesus.
Part of the work of doing this is to name evil – in this case the extreme evil of racism, the demonic force known as white supremacy.  Part of the work of giving witness to the Kingdom of God is renouncing evil and standing with those who have been victims.  It’s easy to look at the hooded, goose-stepping fools and say they’re evil.  It is much harder to name, define, and combat structural evils like the so-called “war on drugs,” the resulting mass-incarceration of brown and black peoples, and institutional racism that plagues our justice system.  Those evils are more far-reaching than the show that went on in UVA’s town yesterday.  We who follow Jesus have to name the deeper evils and stand up to them.
But even that is only part of the greater work, which is telling the story of Jesus and inviting the world around us to enter that story.  Evangelical pastors have no excuse for ignoring the evils of racism in our country.  We have to decry this evil.  Neither can we allow ourselves to get sucked in to causes to the point that those causes become our central, defining call.  Fighting white supremacy is a part of denouncing evil and denouncing evil is a part of our Monday Work – the work of telling the Good News of Jesus Christ. 
Our best strategy is to offer the world a competing narrative.  In our story, the oldest, truest story, the only forever story, God is love, loves all people, and all who come to him through Jesus are saved.  Blacks and whites can stand together as saved persons, brothers and sisters in the name of Christ. 
I know this isn’t much of a social commentary on the horrors of white nationalism, the impotence of the President’s statements, or the next steps to be taken by equality-minded groups like #blacklivesmatter.  I’m not social commentator.  I am a disciple of Jesus.  The best thing I can share is that Jesus’ heart is with those who have suffered from the evils of racism and Jesus is the savior for the poor and disadvantaged.  I hope my life and my church lives out that truth and draws people to Christ.  I hope this is my story the rest of my life.