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Monday, July 18, 2016

Moral Imagination - a Gospel Response to Tragedy and Terror

If murder is poison, we need an antidote. The chaos, violence and the unholy permission of certain ideologies toward wanton destruction and brutality need undoing. That undoing is calling all our names to act with honor.

We have a powerful moral imagination born of the great Creator God who sees the value of each human life and the hope of building beloved community through mutual sacrifice and love of neighbor. As black, white, blue and brown Americans, we have a moral imagination for justice. Our nation was born of a commitment to human rights and civil institutions that enable people to participate in making true justice and honoring life together.

These comments come from Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Executive Coordinator Suzii Paynter in the wake of the murder of 3 Baton Rouge police officers on July 17, 2016.  Her entire statement can be read here,

I love her phrase ‘moral imagination,’ and I love that she links this phrase to our ‘Creator God.’  God is many things.  Lord, Savior, Sustainer, and Creator are a few of the roles God fills.  In God’s original creation, the word to describe what God had done was ‘good.’  God looked and saw that it was good (Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). 

God is still creating good things today.  One of the numerous insidious ways acts of evil undercut human thriving is the way they are magnified in our thought.  Good stories just don’t grab our attention the way horrible ones do. 

Children’s Hope Chest provides education and food for economically struggling children in Kombolcha, Ethiopia.  No one reports it.  Isis soldiers make a public spectacle of beheading people they’ve captured: it’s the BBC lead.

Habitat for Humanity brings Christians from five different denominations together to help people into the life of home ownership as an entire block of new homes goes up in Chapel Hill.  WRAL in Raleigh doesn’t utter a peep.  Police officers kill unarmed black young men; and then police officers (not the ones who shot the young black men, but rather those keeping order so a protest can be possible) are killed.  News outlets go crazy (as does Twitter and Facebook).

HillSong Church (and many other churches) gives away hundreds of dollars each month to help struggling families pay their utilities’ bills.  CNN doesn’t know and does not care.  A terrorist kills dozens of people in France by running them over with a truck.  It’s broadcast worldwide.

My point is not that the tragedies and horrors should be ignored.  They shouldn’t.  They need to be faced, confronted, and especially, followers of Jesus must actively opposed evil.  No, my point is not that these stories of terror and sorrow should be swept under the rug.

My point is that these aren’t the only stories.  There are good stories to be told of how God is active in the world, helping people thrive.  God is doing this through His body, the church.  Using our ‘moral imagination’ (thank you Ms. Paynter for this wonderful phrase), we followers of Jesus move in rhythm with the Holy Spirit to unlock the creativity God has planted in our minds.  We imaginatively tell the good that God is working in the world.  Moreover, we seek new places to join God as God works to save the world that’s fallen in sin and sinking into destruction.

Through imagination that leads to constructive conversations and to actions that help people thrive, the body of Christ competes with evil.  The Enemy collaborates with the media’s lust for headlines.  The body of Christ counters with stories and actions of love that promote health, spiritual and relational wellbeing, and help people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus.  We Christians insist that our narrative will compete with the sad saga of evil, and our good news will win out because it is nourished by the Spirit of God. 

There is a time to weep and to lament, but our tears are most moving because beyond the sickly gray of death is the blinding illumination emanating from the empty tomb.   Our Lord Jesus has defeated death and his resurrection provides hope this summer of terrors cannot dampen.  Jesus told us to let our light shine.  He is our Light.  We tell his story and evil is vanquished. 

I pray Christians will, through worship and prayer, tap into our moral imagination that we might offer our competing narrative, a tale of transforming, saving love.  I pray the summer of 2016 will be remembered for the way the good news of Jesus became the dominant story.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

God’s Character (Luke 15:11-32)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

            In last week’s sermon, we focused on the Biblical commands  “weep with those who weep” and “do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” These brilliant words come from the Apostle Paul in Romans chapter 12.  It’s a message we Christ followers needed the Sunday after a week of tragic shootings in the United States.
            Of course there is no relief to the violence.  Evil keeps finding new ways to break the human spirit as the tragedy in Nice, France on Thursday showed.  In the wake of such horror, some preachers are given to sermons of doom and gloom and judgment and wrath.  And somehow, these are the preachers CNN always tracks down as examples of what Christians think. 
            We do not offer doom and gloom this morning.  However, we cannot ignore that the Bible does speak of God’s wrath.  In fact this comes up in the passage from last week, Romans 12:19. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  That verse certainly portrays a God with serious wrath in Him. 
Is that the God we worship and love and proclaim?  Is wrath a defining characteristic of God?  I think Jesus told parables to show us God’s character.  In the swirl of hate, anger, rhetoric, and reaction happening in the world now, in the face of the violence of this summer, I believe that because of God’s character, we can take refuge in the Holy Spirit.  So, we will look at one of Jesus’ parables – the Prodigal Son – to see God’s character, the quality of God that makes God so inviting to people in pain.

11 Then Jesus[a] said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

On the cross, God puts Jesus forward as a sacrifice of atonement.  The cross is a brutal instrument of a torturous death designed to show Rome’s absolute power.  Based on the passage from Romans and many other passages, we believe God subverts that Roman torture device by willingly sending his son to die on it in our place.  In this act, our sin is removed and God is satisfied.  This is salvation. 
However, as Jesus bleeds out on the cross, has justice been served?  Why was it necessary to happen that way?  I know Romans mentions God’s wrath, but why?  Is God violent by nature, and is that why a cruel, bloody death like crucifixion was necessary for atonement?  Is there any justice on that cross where Jesus suffers and dies for sins he did not commit?
            Someone who did commit sins was the younger son in Jesus’ story of a man with two sons.  In requesting his inheritance, he declared his father dead to him.  It was a lot of money for his father was wealthy enough to have a lot of land and many servants.  This son who turned his back on his dad and his family, took the money his father had earned through hard work and then generously given him in spite of the outrageous audacity of the request, and he squandered that money through gambling and drinking and wild parties. 
            Than a famine came.  No more gambling.  No more parties.  Friends made when we buy the drinks disappear when we run out of money.  During a famine, neighbors might help each other, but he had no neighbors and no friends and no money.  So he hired himself out to a pig farmer, an unthinkable job for a good Jewish man.  But was it really a job?  He did not make enough money to feed himself.  He would have, it says, gladly filled himself with the pods the pigs ate.  It sounds like he had become a slave. 
That’s where sin leads.  It’s nasty.  It’s desperate.  It’s lonely.  It’s pathetic.  And it is deadly.  He was where he was because of his own choices. Could he call God a bloodthirsty sadist who delights in the way his wrath obliterates sinners?  Is there something in God that demanded the awfulness of the cross and was thus satisfied to see Jesus hang on it? 
In this parable, the father represents God.  Was it the Father’s fault that the younger son was starving as he lived as a slave in a pig pen and literally dreamt of eating pig slop?  Did the father condemn him to that fate?  Not at all.  The Father gave the son what he requested – his share of the inheritance.  He let the son go.  And then, every day, he watched the horizon, hoping the son would return. 
That’s God!  He watches for us.  We’ve wandered off, chasing our epicurean appetites. He allows us to choose that.  God allows us to live with the destruction that comes with our sins.  But, just because God allows our sin to come to its natural conclusion doesn’t mean God has abandoned us.  He is watching, waiting, ready to welcome us with arms of love when we turn back to Him.  God sounds merciful. 
Earlier in this same chapter, Luke 15, Jesus describes God as a shepherd who leaves the flock in safety and ventures into the dangers of the wilderness in order to find one lost sheep.  In the Prodigal Son story, God allows the sinner to suffer the fate of his own bad choices but constantly watches for the sinner to return.  In the lost sheep story, God diligently searches for the lost. 
When Jesus thought of God he thought of love, mercy, and grace.  He didn’t think of wrath.  Jesus knew the cross was coming.  He knew his task was to die.  He knew how horrible it would be.  That’s why in the Garden of Gethsemane he desperately begged God to find another way.  God did not grant that request.  But Jesus never imagined that God put him on the cross.  He never presented the drama as God’s active punishment.  As it says in the Old Testament, God gave humanity over to sin. 
When Jesus is hanging on the cross, it is the ultimate and final judgment on sin.  Sin leads to a cross where God allows us to live with the results of our sinful choices: pain, abandonment, and death.  Except, on the cross, we aren’t living with where our sin leads, God is. 
On the cross, God the Father does not punish God the Son in place of sinners who should be the ones hanging there.  Rather, God the Son affirms that sin leads to death.  But, even though justice is to let us suffer for our sins, God the Son takes our place.  In His love, God the Son determines to spare us by the taking the cross himself.  God the Father honors God the Son’s choice. 
What about that Gethsemane prayer where Jesus begs for another way?  Jesus was fully God and fully human.  As a human being, knowing what was coming, Jesus was scared.  Even though he knew the necessity of it, in his fear, he sought an alternative.  Luke write that his prayer was so intense he sweat drops of blood (Luke 22:44).  Mark writes that as he died on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Mark 15:34)?  In these moments of doubt and despair, Jesus, a human being, carries the Hell of being separated from God and lost in sin that belongs to all people in history.  It all rests on Jesus and even as God the Son goes through it all willingly as an act of love, Jesus the man expresses the utter desolation humans face when headed to eternity separated from God. 
If we go by our sense of what’s right and what’s fair, this is unjust.  Jesus should not suffer for me or for you.  The younger brother who has gambled away the grace his father gave should not be lovingly welcomed home.  That’s not fair and the older brother expresses this quite forcefully as he confronts his father.
“Listen,” the older brother barks at the father, “for all these years, I have been working like a slave for you.”  Working like a slave.  The father tells him “All that is mine is yours.”  From the Father’s perspective, God’s perspective, this older son shares the life of the Father.  Their hearts are linked.  The Older Son cannot see this because his ultimate standard is the rule book.  In his mind, the rules determine his life.  The ultimate standard should be the relationship he has with his father.  But he’s gotten it confused.
In the Prodigal Son story, the Older Brother represents those Pharisees and legalists who constantly clashed with Jesus.  The Law of the Old Testament was a gift God gave to help people live in relationship with God.  The relationship is what is ultimate and God is the arbiter.  If God decides to override the law, God has the right do that.  When Jesus violated the Sabbath by healing on the Sabbath, he was claiming the right to do so, a right only God has.  When Jesus forgave sins, he was claiming the authority to do so, an authority only God has.  In these actions, Jesus announced, I can do what only God can do.[i] 
The legalists who challenged him felt that God, like human beings, is subject to the law.  They lost sight the fact that because God is the giver of the law, God can supersede the law.  They thought the law was ultimate.  God is ultimate and God’s heart of love leads God to one purpose – relationship with his creation.  We – humans – are the height of God’s creation and the ones most suited to a lasting relationship with God.  The law is to serve God’s purpose.  The law is to help us live in relationship with God.  When it fails to do that, God will do what’s necessary to open the way for us to be in relationship with Him.
The Older Brother, locked in legalism, couldn’t receive the love.  The Older Brother couldn’t see the Father’s ultimate purpose either for himself or for his younger, prodigal brother.  The Older Brother was as far from the Father’s heart as the younger one.  His estrangement came in a different form but the union with the Father was just as broken. 
In the end, we can look at the cross and say, “Justice is served,” because God chose it to be this way and God is the source of justice.  Jesus is on it in order to unite with us in our suffering.  Jesus embraces it so He can be where we are.  By our standards, the cross of Jesus is not just, is not fair.  But we don’t go by our standards, not when we have chosen to repent of sin and follow Jesus. 
Look once more at the parable.  The younger son tries to set his own identity.  “Father, I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  But we don’t set our identity.  God sets our identity.  God runs to the younger son, tackles him in an embrace, puts a ring on his finger, a robe on his shoulders, and throws a party. 
The older son tries to set his own identity.  “All these years, I have been working like a slave for you.”  A slave?  No, we don’t set our own identity, not when we give ourselves to Jesus.  He sets our identity.  A slave?  The Father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
God is welcoming and loving and grace-giving by nature.  What comes between you and God? What lies are you believing about yourself this morning?  Do you see yourself as unworthy?  The Father God is running to you with arms open wide.  Do you see yourself as a slave to rules?  The Father God invites you to His heart.  Are you crushed under the weight of sin?  God the Son joins you right where you are.  In fact, he has taken your burden to the cross.  He has lifted it off your shoulders.  Receive his gift of grace, his forgiveness, his love, his welcome.  Is it too hard to imagine this could be true?  God the Holy Spirit is here now to help each us understand this story of Him reaching to us.  The Holy Spirit is here to guide us into the arms of God.
However you see yourself, right now, come to God.  Let God determine who you are.  He starts by calling you beloved.  Come to Him.

[i] Fiddes (1989), Past Event and Present Salvation, p.91-91.

Friday, July 15, 2016

How Long, O Lord (Dallas, Nice, Ankara)

Habakkuk 1:2English Standard Version (ESV)

Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
    and you will not save?

            As I write this, I do not know who is in power in the nation of Turkey.  I am writing at 10:18PM, EST.  The BBC is reporting that President Recep Tayyip Ergodan is making threats against the rebels, while Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is asserting that things are under control.  Will either of those two even be in power tomorrow?  And if not, what does it mean for the region?  If they are what does it mean for the region?  Could any country be more centrally located than Turkey, the threshold where Asia meets Europe?  The major power within shouting distance of Syria’s endless war? 
            Meanwhile, France recoils from another terrorist act.  What macabre ingenuity!  A terrorist knows the streets will be body-to-body with people, people with nowhere to go.  So he mows them down with a truck going over 60mph.  And on Bastille Day.  Horrible.  Just horrible.
            In my own country, the United States, we have high profile, deadly encounters between law enforcement and the citizenry, especially people of color.  And there are mass shootings, like the nightmare at the Pulse night club in Orlando, FL. 
            Orlando.  Baton Rouge.  St. Paul.  Dallas.  Nice.  Ankara.  Don’t dare ask, what’s next?   Don’t do it. 

            But, I always write as a follower of Jesus.  It is through the lens of a disciple that I see the world.  I may be a pitifully bad disciple compared to James and John, Matthew and Thomas.  I don’t know.  What I know is I have cast my lot with Jesus and I believe life and hope come in Him.
            At the moment though, I feel suddenly winded, like a gut punch has come and another is coming. I am sure another is coming.   So tonight, I was reading the lectionary passages for September and October as I anticipate the sermons I will preach in those months.[i]  And I came across October 30, Habakkuk 1-2. 
            Is this passage prophecy?  Well, obviously.  But would it also be categorized as a song of lament?  Or is it a distressed confrontation.  The prophet demands action from God.  I think that’s present in Habakkuk.  He says in verse 4 that justice gets perverted.
            I honestly don’t know what justice in Turkey would be.  Nor do I know enough facts about any of the other stories to opine in specifics.  It is pretty clear that chaos abounds, terror lurks, and people are dying in horrible, spectacular ways.  For those of us who believe God is The Sovereign Lord, who else can we confront?  Habakkuk, speak for us.  “How long?”  “Will you not save?”
            I read a series of tweets from some Christian, someone I do not know.  He was asking, “Don’t you want a respite from all that’s happening out there?”  “Just rest in Jesus.”  It sounded feeble and saccharine.  Yes, I agree, our rest and rescue is in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Of course I believe that.  I preach it.  But, reading those tweets alongside the tweets about what’s going on in Turkey made me feel kind of sick.  I imagined the composer of those tweets is a middle class American Christian sitting in a comfortable room like the one I sit in as I type.  The only way these stories affect him or me is by burdening us with bad news. [ii]
            What about our Christian brothers and sisters in Turkey? 
            I support a missionary who lives in … actually I don’t know exactly where she lives.  For security reasons, she keeps her actual location confidential.  She witnesses to Muslims.  From the pictures in her reports, it is clear she is in a strict Muslim country.  In all likelihood, the doings in Turkey will directly affect her.  I can’t sit in my comfortable chair and complain about the “bad news” that poisons my computer screen.  I have to think about her as she strives to proclaim Christ in communities where she could be killed for doing so. 
I have to pray for her.  I have to pray for people in and around Nice, including my denomination’s missionaries in France.  I have to pray and tonight, I take Habakkuk’s words as my prayer.  “How long, O Lord, before you will save?”
Of course, Habakkuk says other things and Habakkuk’s is not the only prophet in history.  But for now … for tonight, for my missionary friend, for my CBF brethren in France, for Christ-followers in Turkey, as a disciple who’s feeling a bit worried, for tonight, I just ask.  If I wasn’t hopeful and completely trusting in God’s love and wisdom, I wouldn’t bother.  But, I am. 
So …
How long, O Lord?  How long until you save?

[i] The lectionary is a 3-year cycle of scripture readings for each Sunday.  Most Sundays include 1 psalm, another OT reading, a gospel reading, and another NT reading.  Sometimes that pattern varies and sometimes there are more than 4 readings.  Some pastors (especially mainline Protestants) follow the lectionary exactly.  Others, like me, follow it sometimes and ignore it at other times.  And some pastors don’t know what the lectionary is.  If you ever here that a pastor is “preaching from the lectionary,” he or she is preaching from scripture.  He’s a “Bible preacher.”   He’s just preaching a prescribed text instead of one he selected.
[ii] I may be completely wrong about him.  I am just reacting to how insufficient I felt when I read his tweets.  Maybe his words are essential for him in his situation.  For me, his words were empty and useless – because of the moment.

Nelson Mandela and his Friend, the Prison Guard

Good Bfana by James Gregory is a book people in America sorely needs to read right now, the summer of 2016, as racial tension burns in our country.  I recently reviewed The Autobiography Malcolm X.  In the 1950’ and early to mid 60’s, Malcolm went on a miraculous journey from hatred of all white people to hatred of evil and a desire for brotherhood of all men, whites included.  Something similar happens to James Gregory and Nelson Mandela as they spend the decades of the 70’s and 80’s together.

Gregory is the jailor.  Of course at the beginning of their time together, he is not Mandela’s personal warden and they certainly are not friends.  But things change.  The seeds were planted early in Gregory’s life.  They weren’t the only seeds planted.  In soil of his soul, Gregory had a love for people that disregarded color.  This goes back to his earliest childhood.  Also from his childhood and from his formal education apartheid and hatred was planted in him.  In fact, by the time he became a guard in the prison system, he hated most people.  Relationships, real, deep relationships, seemed to be missing in his life.

As a cold, hardened, relationship averse man, prison guard seemed to be in the perfect job for him.  He was the kind of tough guy that could keep rowdy prisoners in line.  What changed?  This tough cuss was faired minded, and when he discovered his famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela, was a good man, a fair man, and not a terrorist, his perspective changed.  The two formed, unintentionally at first, a trust that evolved into a friendship. 

I am not spoiling anything here.  The subtitle is ‘Nelson Mandela – My Prisoner, My Friend.’  Knowing the ending doesn’t spoil the story.  In fact, what’s so amazing for me is that I was amazed even though I knew the ending.  I was in tears because I saw that even in Apartheid South Africa, love is more powerful than hate.  I believe God was in the friendship of the guard and the political prisoner.

And I believe God can bring people together in America today.  Some black people, with reason, totally fear the police and by extension ‘the system.’  Some white people, not wanting to face their own prejudice, reject the notion that they benefit from the system.  They – we (I am as white as they come) – do.  In 2016 America, white people, educated people, and wealthy (read middle class) people benefit from privileges others lack.  But, I think God can bring us together in love.

God will work through programs and protests and government legislation.  God will work through movements and interfaith worship services and black-white gatherings.  But more than any of these macro-level efforts, God will work through relationships.  When individuals step beyond themselves and befriend individuals totally different than themselves, totally ‘other,’ God will reform the hearts of those individuals.  And that’s where a change in society will rise up, in individual hearts.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Black and White at Play

            Last week, the week our country celebrated our independence and freedom, July 3-9, 2016, tragedy struck and enflamed America.  A black man was killed by police in Louisiana, and the next day in Minnesota.  In both the deaths appeared needless.  Thus both circumstance looked like they might be examples of lethal injustice inflicted upon black people by white systems of power.  A lot of people believe that if the person in each of the encounters were white, not black, they certainly would not have been killed by the police.  Many others do not believe race had anything to do with it.  These conflicting interpretations and the rising sense among black people that their lives are put in danger by the police has been a combustible mix.
            It blew up the next day in Dallas at a protest (protesting police violence against young black men).  A sniper, a black military veteran, picked off police officers, sniper styles.  He killed five and injured several others before he was killed by a police robot.  Those police officers were keeping the peace so the people could have a protest that was done appropriately.  And it all went to Hell as the sniper exacerbated the violence and the tension. 
            I agree with those interpreters who feel that African Americans are victims of systemic injustice.  That is clear to me.  That’s why I us the hashtag #blacklivesmatter.  I think the system was established (hundreds of years ago) by people do not regard Africans or African Americans.  Over time the American justice system has shifted, but is still tilted in favor of white people and against black people.  And black people (and many white including me) are sick of it.
            Sadly the shooting incidents continue.  This type of national crisis has happened so often (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, etc) that I now have in myself a set of standard responses. This post is not intended to commend my own thinking nor to critique it.  I am sharing what goes through my head, the impulses I feel.  When highly public, racially-charged events happen, my first instinct is note every positive encounter I have had with black people.  Maybe this is self-preservation for my own soul.  I simply cannot swallow that it is all bad
            Philando Castile.  Alton Sterling.  Eric Garner.  Freddy Gray.  Lorne Ahrens.  Brent Thompson.  Patrick Zamarripa.  It is bad and it is evil.  But tragedy is not the only story playing out in America.  It is an important story to be faced and dealt with, not ignored.  We must walk in the tragedy, but not be overcome by it.  One way to overcome instead of being overcome is to make space in our brains for other, better stories.
            Another story playing out is one of harmony, peaceful coexistence, and even joyfully collaboration.  Here I offer two examples from just this past week.  The shootings were early in the week and then in Dallas, midweek.  Saturday, I was still thinking about things.  But for my kids, it was an extremely hot summer day.  For relief from the oppressive heat, I took my kids to a waterpark in Greensboro, NC where the first better story happened.
            Our group was my dad, my nephew, my sons, my daughter and me.  My younger son and my daughter, 9 and 7 respectively, are both adopted and both black.  My older son is adopted and white, and my nephew, also white, is also adopted (by my sister and her husband).  My dad is my biological father and we are white. The only reason I am being so specific about race and relations here is this post is about race relations.
            At this water park there was huge wave pool.  It was enormous and on this Saturday, it was packed with people.  The depth went from ankle deep down a gradual slope to six feet deep.  At a far end, it is deeper, but that’s where they shoot the waves at you, so no swimmers are permitted past the 6 feet deep section.  From where the waves come, they shoot from deeper to shallower, simulating the ways lap up on the ocean shore.  The wave origination point is about 50 yards across, and there’s a 50 yard buffer where it is deep and swimmers are not permitted.  In that space, the wave builds momentum.
            At the 6-ft depth, the pool widens on each side at a right angle.  In the shallow area where the masses swim, it is probably 100 yards by 200 yards – really big.  The huge crowd at the water park that day had people of all races, shapes, colors, and sizes.  It was true diversity. 
However, one group was by far a majority.  At least 60% of the people were African American.  The number was probably higher.  In that massive wave pool, body to body with people, I probably rubbed my pale flesh against more dark-skinned men and women in bathing suits than I can count.  There were no incidents.  Zero.  None.  No one said, “Hey a white person just brushed against me.”  No one gave me a sneer.  We all had the same mission.  Have fun, stay cool, and keep our kids safe.
            That keeping the kids safe part was complicated because of the crowds and the waves.  My older son, 14, was on his own.  The younger ones, including my 8-year-old nephews, want to follow the big kids to the deeper water, but the waves make that dicey.  My dad and I had our hands full keeping my younger children and my nephew where they needed to be.  However, it occurred to me after a while that I hadn’t seen my older son.  I wasn’t all that confident in the life guards, so I went to check on him. 
            I started to mildly worry as I couldn’t find him in the crowd.  But then I looked over to where the pool widened, right at the cusp of where swimming is permitted.  He looked like the white spot on a black cow.  He and a dozen other (non-white) teens discovered something very fun.  When the wave runs through if you hug the wall, a whirlpool is stirred up that whips you around the 90 angle where the pool widens.  What teenage boy, oblivious to risks to how own saftey, doesn’t want to be whipped around a corner out of control by a whirlpool?
            I marveled at this because when I was 14, I really didn’t hang out with anyone who didn’t look just like me.  It was white me and my white buddies.  My worldview was limited because my crowd was limited.  When I was 14, the black kids I encountered were on the football team and the basketball team.  It seemed like they were all faster than me, stronger, and more talented.  It never occurred to me that the uncoordinated, unathletic black kids didn’t go out for sports.  Even passing those black kids in the hall at school, I didn’t notice them.  The only ones I saw were the ones who were much better than me in the sports I loved.  Something inside me assumed they were better because they were black.  I didn’t assume the white kids who were better than were better because they were white.  I thought maybe they worked harder or something. 
            As I watched my 14-year-old white son freely play with a dozen black boys he had never met, I felt joy that he had something I had not.  He had freedom from the subtle racism that crept around the edges of my mind at age 14.  There was nothing to this.  Just a bunch of boys riding waves.  Color was in that place, at that moment, irrelevant.  How beautiful.
            I experienced this beauty a second time last night.  My wife had been taking our kids to a Vacation Bible School at another church.  Our VBS was last month.  What better way to fill the summer than to attend VBS at other churches.  Our kids get out of the house, hear the Gospel, and have fun.  My wife had taken them Sunday and Monday night.  Last night was my turn.
            I was amazed.  It is an Adventist Church in Durham and it is as diverse as any church as I have found in North Carolina.  I was surprised when my older son wanted to go to VBS with the younger ones.  They love VBS, but as a teenager, he sometimes thinks he is too cool for such things.  As a teenager he thinks he is too cool for a lot of things, including his parents.  But he went to this enthusiastically.  I was intrigued and wanted to see why.
            I saw it.  He was slotted in a class with other teens – all black (most born in Africa, now living in America).  At this church led by Africans (black and white; the lead pastor is a white South African), it felt like race was irrelevant.  My white 14-year-old son fit right in with his black groupmates with no problem.  After the final prayer, he ran up to me and said, “We don’t have to go yet, do we?”  I told him to take his time as long as he included his younger siblings in whatever game he was concocting. 
            He and the rest of the kids went outside where he organized a massive game of tag.  Aside from their flagrant disregard for their own safety as they played their game in a parking lot where people were driving cars to leave the place, it was beautiful.  A month ago, I had seen my son do the same thing, take over an entire campground by organizing a massive nocturnal game of tag.  In that case, all the kids were white and most were younger than him.  In this case at the VBS, the kids were many ages, a few older than him, and 60-70% were black.  My son didn’t really care about race or time or place.  It was a summer night with kids all around.  What do you do?  You play.
            These stories aren’t going to be in the news.  These stories are good and beautiful.  The news will be full of anger, grief, funerals, recriminations, and down the line trials and depending on how the trials turn out.  Those ominous, sad stories must be told.  Followers of Jesus cannot avoid them.  We must walk in them because Jesus is where hurting people are.  We have to see him there and join him.
            But today, I wanted to tell the story of black kids and white kids playing together in innocence and pure joy.  I thank God that my son will be able to see the world with eyes much different than mine.  I ask God to help me see it as he sees (“he” being my son; I also want to see as God sees).  If more of us prayed this prayer to see with such freedom, there would be fewer sad stories to tell and more time to play.


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (my review)

America is incredibly fragile right now, July 12, 2016. There have been killings of black men by the police. There have been mass shootings at gay night clubs. There have been sniper-style ambushes that left 5 Dallas policemen dead. 

How do we respond? Attend community forums. 
How do we respond? Pray. 
How do we respond? Befriend police officer, and befriend people who race, ethnicity, religion, or orientation is different than yours. These friendships won't usually come naturally but must be sought, diligently pursued. It will take work, patience, and tremendous humility. 

How do we respond? Listen to black voices and gay voices and Muslim voices as they speak on NPR, in the TV media, in articles, and in public forums. Listen to Black conservatives and fundamentalists, and to black liberals and fundamentalists. I am not saying agree with all they say, but do listen and thoughtfully consider their perspective. 

Another response is to listen to voices from the past. Two giants to consider are Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. I had read many books by or about King, but this was my first reading about Malcolm. It was so rewarding. The only reason I did not give this book 5 stars is the questionable reliability of the ghost writer, Alex Haley. 

He has been widely accused of plagiarism in his book "Roots," and I have read suggestions that the material in this autobiography is embellished by either him or by Malcolm. I cannot verify the book. But, if it were false, it would to be a wide conspiracy involving many to completely falsify the material. Actor Ossie Davis contributes 4 pages of his own feelings about Malcolm at the end of the book. So, if it were all completely conjured up, he's have to be in on it too. And there is no doubt, Malcolm was killed in a spectacular and public fashion and at a young age. Alex Haley did not make that up.

So, I accept that maybe some of it is embellishment while believing that most is pretty close to what happened. And what happened is an amazing spirit of courage and defiance by a man who insisted on being regarded as a man in a time when many whites arrogantly called black men "boy" or worse. Malcolm X contributed to the strength of black men in our country and he should be appreciated for that.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Weep with those Who Weep (Romans 12:9-21)

This is my message the Sunday after the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Dallas.
Sunday, July 10, 2016

            Earlier this week, I was walking from my home to the church office as I often do.   It’s a little over a .5 mile walk.  A married couple walking their large, strong dog came toward me.  I have walked past these folks and their dog hundreds of times.  Sometimes we exchange smiles but we’ve never talked.  On this day, as I walked past they greeted me and asked about my family.  Clearly they have noticed me walking or riding bikes with my kids just as I have noticed them.  I gave friendly response and then reached to pet the dog.  He decided to jump and sink his teeth into my hand.
            The bite hurt a little bit but did not break the skin.  That dog could snap my finger if he bit hard enough.  I don’t know if he was playing and just plays rough or would have really gotten me if the husband didn’t quickly move to discipline him. 
As I said, it didn’t hurt much, but it surprised me in a most unpleasant way.  They were friendly.  I was friendly.  We didn’t really know each other, but I was feeling good like maybe next time I see them we’d speak a little more.  They and I were inching toward each other in hopeful friendliness and then the dog jump and bit me.
I feel like that might happen again this morning as I preach because this is an unpopular topic full of unseen snares. 
We Americans are weary of the violence in our country, but I have to address what occurred in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, St. Paul Minnesota, and Dallas, Texas.  We don’t want to have to face the reality of violence.  Part of the reason we don’t want to face it is we don’t all agree on what causes it or what to do about it or what it means.  Within this room, we have different opinions.  Another reason we’d rather talk about something else is it so painful and disheartening. 
However, even when we disagree about causes, and we disagree about politics of race and politics of guns; even when we disagree about all that, we can agree that it is sad when people in their 30’s die. 
Some of the people who died this week are almost 1o years younger than me.  I wasn’t ready to die 10 years ago.  I am not ready to die now.  So, we as followers of Jesus have to face what’s happening.  When I say we have to, I mean we are commanded.  We don’t have the option to ignore it.  For those living in “white privilege,” as Christ followers, we must relinquish our privilege for the sake of love.  Love is more important than our comfort.  In this church family, we are not all white.  We have a debt of love to be paid to our brothers and sisters, and so all of us must face the growing crisis of race and violence in America.
We hold the Bible to be authoritative.  The word of God guided by the Spirit of God is how God speaks to us.  Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we open the Bible and our lives are shaped by what we read.  In the book of Romans, a bedrock text for Christian theology, we read, “Weep with those who Weep.”
In Baton Rouge, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, died when he was shot in an altercation with the police.  Can we weep with Quinyetta McMillon, the mother of Sterling’s 15-year-old son?  Can we weep with that 15-year-old son and his other children?  I know Christians, not necessarily in this church but Christians nonetheless, who will find reasons to judge him.  Instead of pity, they offer contempt.  Let be as blunt as possible.  Swallow that kind of judgment right now.  It is not to be hear here.  We don’t have room for it.  This room where the church gathers is to be filled with love and compassion.  Romans – the word of God – tells us to weep with those who weep, to share their pain. 
Psalm 102:1-2, “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let me cry to you.  Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress.”
Can we weep for Philando Castile and his daughter and his fiancĂ© Diamond Reynolds who watched as he was shot during a routine traffic stop?  I have been stopped for the same violation – a taillight not working.  The police did not approach me with guns drawn.  They did not panic when I reached in my pocket to get my license.   That’s privilege, by the way.  When you’re white, a traffic stop is an annoyance.  When you’re black, a traffic stop means your life is on the line depending on how you act.  Can we agree that what happened in Minnesota is terribly sad and can we heed the word of the Apostle Paul and weep for this man?
Ezekiel 2:9-10 (paraphrased).  “I looked and a hand was stretched out to me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe.”   Lord, we lament the sorrow of the loss of Philando Castile and of Alton Sterling.
And we lament for the police officers in Dallas and for their families.
Patrick Zamarripa was a father of two children.
Brent Thompson of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Agency was newly married.
The names of the others who died are Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith.  In addition, several others has gun shots wounds that were not fatal.
These officers are the heroes.  We can go downtown to a concert or a movie or a big game or a protest and we can feel safe because these men and women are on the job.  When I go to work, I open a Bible, my notebook, and a computer.  When these officers go to work, they put on a flak jacket, holster weapons, and then get into their cars willing to face the danger so you and I can live in peace and safety. 
This week it didn’t work.  For a moment, let’s just align our hearts with God’s heart and grieve. 
Lamentations 5:1, 15 “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look and see our disgrace.  … The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning.”
            I am humbled that God has called me to preach His word.  I am grateful to be able to do it in this church.  I love you and I love the role I get to play.  Most Sundays, we gather in happiness and embrace to be together.  Some have told me that Sunday morning at church is the happiest time of the week.  In the warmth of the atmosphere we reach to each other in brother love, and the dog jumps up and bites!  Violence rips into our serenity once again.  Just a few weeks after the evil insanity in the Orlando night club, more comes along. 
In addition to weeping in lament, we raise our voices in anger at injustice and death.  But to whom do we direct our anger?  Think about this year in our country and the world.  Are we to rage against Muslims?  During Ramadan in Saudi Arabia, there were terrorist attacks.  Muslims were the victims the way police and black individuals were this past week.  Last month in Orlando, gay people were the victims.  And this past week, police officers were caught in the crosshairs.  In past years, mass shootings have happened on army bases, in elementary schools, on campuses, at white churches, at African American churches, and in Wisconsin a few years ago, it was a Sikh worship gathering.  Everyone is vulnerable in the path of the bullet. 
It reminds of an old political cartoon, one I cut from the newspaper in college.  In the cartoon, there are two skulls which sit in a field of scatter bones and bomb craters.  Each skeleton has a bullet hole.   One says to the other, “Man, I can’t tell if you used to be man or woman, Jew or Arab, black or white, gay or straight, old or young.”  The second skeleton says back, “Man, I used to be alive.”
Jesus got angry.  There is the familiar story of him toppling the money changers’ tables in the temple’s outer court.  That’s an account many recognize.  But also read his testy exchanges with the legalists in Jerusalem.  Read of his exasperation when his disciples acted just like those legalists.  He got mad.  And he wept.  Again, the familiar story; he wept for Lazarus –John 11:35.  Oh it’s the shortest verse in the New Testament: Jesus wept!  He was weeping at the sorrow of Mary and Marth, Lazarus’ sisters.  But it is not the only time.  The one that sticks with me is Luke 19.  Jesus wept as he rode into Jerusalem because he could see just how blind and lost the people were. 
In lament and in anger, we walk in our master’s footsteps.  We should do this here as the body of Christ gathered together.  And we should do this in our times of private, individual prayer.  And we should seek out persons different from ourselves.  This week, pray and weep with someone in law enforcement.  Appreciate them and help them carry their emotional burdens. 
Reach out to a black person if you aren’t black.  Or extend yourself in love and compassionate mercy to gay person or to a Muslim.  Obviously we have some of these persons present.  So if you are black, Muslim, or gay, reach to someone different than you in order to embrace and pray and weep together.  This isn’t easy.  It could be awkward.  The dog will inevitably jump and bite you.  But get past that.  In Romans 12, Paul does not say, “weep with those who weep if it is easy and convenient to do so.”  He actually says, “Bless those who persecute you.”
Lament.  Anger.  Prayer.  There is one more critical response to weeks like this for followers of Jesus.  This one is the most important for pointing the world toward the Kingdom of our Savior God.
Followers of Jesus must tell another story than the ones that are dominating public consciousness right now.  We have to make sure that the story of life in Christ gets told and told in love and compassion.
Our story involves grace, mercy, and love. Our story requires us to compassionately sit with others in their pain and not try to explain away their pain or negate their pain with logic. Pain doesn't abate with a well-reasoned argument. Jesus people are to affirm others' pain and comfort them.
Followers of Jesus must tell a hopeful story.
Followers of Jesus must hold wrongdoers accountable.
Followers of Jesus must sit with others in their pain.
Followers of Jesus must also model the kingdom of God. We do this through grace-filled collaboration in which we work with different group – black churches, Hispanic churches, community groups, and other organizations.  We join and work together, and in this effort, we discover God-inspired creativity. The Holy Spirit helps us create contexts in which people can freely love across racial and ethnic divides. We open our arms to embrace people different from ourselves.  And we do not balk when it gets sticky and testy. We do not quit on potential relationship if the other comes from a hostile perspective. We love past the hostility. How?  Sometimes, we just stay until the other realizes that no matter how much pain he vents, we’re not leaving. 
He has to unload that crushing burden.  To relieve himself, he casts his hurt onto us.  He does this by being aggressive, by hurling insults, and by refusing to enjoy our overtures of peace and embrace.  But we don’t run away when the ‘other’ is unwelcoming.  With grace and persistence, we stick with it.  We care too much to bail. 
Our calling is to tell and live a better story than the one the world is believing right now.
Paul concludes Romans 12 by writing, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them.  If they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
I don’t know about burning coals and I suggest we don’t see anyone as our enemies.  I suggest, as followers of Christ, we set our chins in resolve to be agents of God’s love no matter the cost.  In all the noise of the violence, the racism, the hatred, and the fear, oh the mounting fear … in that dread cacophony of chaos that is building to a frightful crescendo, I pray we will raise our voices with a competing narrative: the story of God’s love expressed in Jesus Christ. 
I pray we will tell that story and we will live it.  Swallow any words of judgment we might feel creeping into our throat.  I have them sometimes.  We all do.  We all harbor our own prejudice.  Swallow it.  Beat it down.  Stifle any impulse to defend cops or defend white people or defend the #blacklivesmatter hashtag.  People defend when they feel attacked, but as followers Jesus the Holy Spirit conditions us to respond differently. 
As followers of Jesus, when we are attacked, we respond with God’s love.  We heap his love on people.  A good place to start is in prayer, in lament, and in compassionate weeping with someone who has lost everything.  No explanations.  No judgments.  No opinions asserted.  Just sit with the one heartbroken and with the love of Christ share her burden.