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Thursday, June 22, 2017


            “Whenever speech overwhelms and silences, it is not [an] expression of love.”[i]  When speech is not an expression of love, the speaker does not “affirm the freedom and dignity of the one spoken to, but uses him or her for extrinsic purposes.  Harvard divinity professor, Harvey Cox, makes these comments in an essay in which he draws out a Biblical concept of God in the way he connects speech and love.  The Gospel of John begins, “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God” (1:1).  And then verse 14, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  And 1 John 4:16b, “God is love.”  So, God is “word” (logos).  And God is love.  Thus, word is love, or it should be.  “Since God’s love/speech is unqualified, we should love all people regardless of whether they qualify.[ii]
Cox’s essay appears in ‘A Common Word,’ which was first a letter written by Muslim scholars, addressed to Christians worldwide.  The intent was to call Christians and Muslims together around the two commands present in both faiths: love God and love neighbor.  The book by the same title is comprised of essays from scholars of both faiths that further develop the concept of love and how it can, as a topic, be the ground on which Muslims and Christians meet in peace.
Cox insists that love cannot be coerced, only chosen.  We can’t be made to love God.  We choose to because God has overwhelmed us with his freely given love.  But it is that, a gift.  The counter-speech, or “antiparable” to use Cox’s speech is seduction and sorcery.  Seduction does what Cox wrote that it does; it uses people.
He quotes Goethe’s Faust to illustrate his point, but the conversation moves out of the realm of dry academic writing and into the realm of uncomfortable invasion of personal space when we turn the question.  Instead of pointing out how Faust uses people with his speech, we have to ask do we?  Do you?  Have you spoken in ways, whether bullying or deceiving, browbeating or seducing, in order to get someone to do something for your benefit, but not necessarily for theirs?  Have I?  You better believe I have.
I have used speech to run down a woman who turned back my romantic overtures.  I have spoken violently to intimidate my children just to convince myself I was in control.  I have manipulated others for my own ends.  I have used speech to use people.  People are God’s image-bearers and I have sinned by seeing them as tools for my own personal use.  In the thought space of Cox’s essay, that’s seduction, not love.
The second way sin turns love aside is sorcery.  “Sorcery mocks and reverses God’s loving speech.”[iii]  Lovespeech communicates “in ways that preserve and nourish the freedom and dignity of people addressed.”[iv]  Sorcery, robs people of their dignity.  Cox sees three forms of sorcery as it exists in modern practice: propaganda, advertising, and complexification. 
Of these forms of modern word-sorcery, advertising is especially insidious.  Advertising plays on the anxieties that plague people, especially in America.  TV watchers and internet users in America are out of shape, isolated, lonely, and sedentary.  And they (we Americans) know it.  Because we see the emptiness of our own lives, advertisers use beer, shampoo, potato chips, diet plans, dating services, video games, cars, and 1000 other products as ways to rescue us from our anxiety.  The anxiety makes us vulnerable and into the space our own insecurity has carved out, advertisers convince us to spend money we don’t have on products we don’t want or need, products that won’t deliver what the advertiser promised.  Sorcery is the right word for it.
Christians are to speak and listen to lovespeech.  Note the difference.  Sorcery deceives and seduction uses.  In sorcery, humans – God’s image bearers – are pillaged.  In seduction, God’s image bearers are used as tools.  In lovespeech, God’s image bearers are given dignity and helped to flourish.
Cox and the other authors in A Common Word urge Muslims and Christians in the world to work for human flourishing by focusing on love of God and love of neighbor.  Love is essential in bringing together the billions of adherents to these faiths.  Beyond the scope of A Common Word, love softens the hearts of Buddhists and Hindus, Jews and Mormons to one another. 
And in the topic that has been my focus in these blog posts – race relations and Christianity - love is the foundation.  No attempts at justice or reconciliation will be successful without love. 
So, put the question to yourself as you become intention about your own speech.  Let this be an exercise in the day ahead.  Does your speech promote the dignity of the one to whom you speak?  Do your words reveal that you are trying to use that person the way a plumber uses a wrench or other tool?  Is your speech lovespeech, speech that helps the other flourish?  Or, when you talk, is the other being manipulated, led down paths that will lead to his destruction?  Put your own speech to the test.  Jesus, the World made Flesh is our guide and our standard.  May the meditations of our hearts and the words of our mouths be acceptable in his holy sight. 

[i] Harvey Cox (2010), “Love and Speech: with Remarks on Seduction and Sorcery” in A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Loving Neighbor, Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington, editors, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids), p.166.
[ii] Cox, p.165.
[iii] Cox, p.167. 
[iv] Ibid.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Racial Diversity and The Music of Jubilee

Is music playing that only you can hear, that others around you cannot?  “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”[i] 
People you know hear other songs.  “Terrorism!”  “Fear!”  “Disappointment.” Those dissonant chords scratch the ears of your friends, your neighbors, the people who cross your path daily.  But your ears are caressed. 
“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the thrown will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every test from their eyes.”[ii] That’s the song your hear.
Why does your neighbor despair over morbid tones he cannot escape, while you bask in melodic songs of eternity and life?  Why are you deaf to the deathsong?  Why in your hearing is it drowned out by the promises of God?
            Deidra Riggs writes
Because American society is built on systems that were born out of racialized notions of humanity, it’s extremely difficult to transform a church that historically been comprised of one race into a multiracial congregation.  It’s not impossible, but the cost of such change is great. 

The work of integrating a church is often debilitating because of the way it exposes and uncovers the layers of latent issues, thought patterns, and reticence.[iii]

            I hope you don’t feel blindsided?  I began talking about the music of Heaven, songs sung by angels in the book of Revelation.  And then I dive-bomb in a quote that claims there is inherent racism in American churches?  What kind of sideways turn is this?
            The “latent issues,” to use Riggs’ terminology, derive from the music we hear.  When a person is attuned to the Holy Spirit, she hears God.  He is aware of the Spirit’s prompts.  When a person is spiritually tone deaf, he or she misses the Spirit’s persistent message.  Both the spiritually tone deaf person and the spiritually attuned person live in the same world – one saved at the cross, but currently in the death throes of sin.  Do we see death or do we see salvation?  Are we set on following Christ, or do we wedge small faith into a small, uninfluential corner of our crowded lives?
            In Revelation 7:9-10, people from every human culture stand together, maintaining recognizable cultural distinctiveness, but at the same time completely united in their faith in Christ.  The same picture is described in Revelation 5:9.  The church today that is awake when it comes to institutional racism, and is active in combating that racism, and is determined to bring people together across the racial divide – that church is comprised of people who hear Heaven’s songs, even in the midst of the worst this fallen world has to offer.  Spiritual acuity and actively working for racial unity in the church go hand in hand.  One cannot be blind to the racial struggle and still claim to be actively pursuing the life of a disciple of Jesus. 
            Thus the picture in Revelation 7 is the goal and we construct church to live into that goal.  We do this acknowledging the full weight of Riggs’ observation of how hard it is to lead the church to become multicultural and multiracial.  Her approach is a thought experiment that every church goer should undertake.  What’s it like to be a _________ at my church?[iv]  What is it like to be black at my church?  What is it like to be a single mom at my church?  What is it like to be Mexican at my church?  What is it like to be gay at my church?  What is it like to be divorced at my church?  Another way of asking the question is ‘who would not be welcomed in my church?’
            Answer these questions honestly and it gets really hard.  Because most churches, if we are honest, have someone they won’t welcome.  As we play the honesty out, we realize that whenever we don’t welcome someone, we’re rejecting Jesus.[v]  Jesus loves us all and especially identifies with those who get rejected. 
            The good news is we can go through the hard work of change.  We can have the honest conversation centered on who is not welcome at my church?  In all likelihood, this conversation will need to happen many times because the church is comprised of many people.  As we identify people against whom our church has some prejudice and as we ask the Holy Spirit to root that prejudice out of our church, the opportunity comes to welcome those we previously rejected.  Subtly, we notice that the music we hear has changed.  Our church becomes a body that leans in to the vision in Revelation 7.
            In her own assessment of our times, Deidra Riggs has declared that “Right now is the moment of grace.”[vi]  She believes this is the time of Jubilee,[vii] when debts are forgiven and relationships are made right.  The debt whites owe to blacks in America, a debt born in the Middle Passage, planted in slavery, grown in Jim Crowe, and now flowering in mass incarcerations is forgiven as white society repents and seeks forgiveness.  Of course not all whites seek forgiveness or even acknowledge the debt.  And many black Americans have no interest in forgiveness.  That’s where the music clashes.
            Are we people living in Jubilee?  Or are our feet firmly planted in the soil of death, a soil composed of human sin? 
            The church must declare the New Day that has come in Jesus.  We must make this declaration in the make-up of the church family.  In diverse communities, there must be diverse churches serving as a witness to the community as a whole that all are welcome in the Kingdom of God.  “This is who we are.  We are together people.  We are in-one-place people.  We need to keep reminding ourselves of this.  We are our tribe. All of us.  Together.”

[i] Revelation 4:8. 
[ii] Revelation 7:16-17.
[iii] D. Riggs (2017), One: Unity in a Divided World, Baker Books (Grand Rapids), p.47.
[iv] Ibid, p.50-51.
[v] Keep in mind the following passages from the gospels: Matthew 25:40; Mark 2:15-17; and Luke 14:21.
[vi] Riggs, p.58.
[vii] The very first Christians believed this too.  The reason they shared their things in common and provided for everyone (Acts 4:32-37), and the reason the gospel gradually spread beyond the boundaries of Israel (Acts 6-24) is the very first Christians believed that in Jesus’ resurrection, Jubilee had come.  

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Love, Love, Love

            This morning, a Sunday morning, my Sabbatical continued.  Instead of preaching at HillSong Church, my family and I worshipped for a 4th week in a row at Citywell Church in Durham, NC.  Pastor Cleve May delivered a remarkable sermon on creation (Genesis 1).  He made the case that the creation account actually comes out of the writings of Jews in the exile, 6th century BC.  The account is a response to the violent origins story of the Babylonian god Tiamat.  In the Tiamat creation drama, humans are the result of violent conflict among the gods.  In the Genesis story, the universe, the earth, and human beings are all created as expressions of “God’s overflowing abundance.”  A key quality in the creation is relationship.  God is relational.  The Genesis story flows from God’s love and shouts of God’s yearning for relationship.
            Pastor May’s thoughts on Genesis, and more importantly on the relationship of God and human beings, aligns well with the writing of the great author, pastor, and Bible translator Eugene Peterson.  In his sermon on Psalm 116 “Land of the living,” he says, “Every word [from God], every phrase, every sentence, every silence must be received relationally.  God does not reveal himself impersonally.”[i]  Creation is something God does.  Relationship is something God initiates.  We are created, but out of love, not violence.  We are invited, but not coerced. 
            The key is love – love between God and humans and love humans show to one another.  A Common Word (edited by Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington) is a compilation of essays written to reflect upon the October 2007 letter written by Muslim leaders to Christian leaders.  The essence of the letter is that Muslims and Christians both have at the center of their respective faiths two central tenets or commands – to love God and to love neighbor.  Mark 12:29-31 is one of many places in scripture that make plain the centrality of these commands for Christians.  The Muslim authors who contribute to the A Common Word letter and essays to the book by the same title exhaustively demonstrate that similar commands are operative in Islam.  While both the Christian and the Muslim authors in the book recognize the likely irreconcilable differences in the two faiths, including nuanced understandings of “love,” both demonstrate that love is the key.  Furthermore, the Christian and Muslim authors make a compelling case that love is the ground upon which Muslims and Christians can meet in friendship and peace. 
            The key is love – in creation, in relationship, in drawing together parties that have experienced mutual enmity.  The theologian Miroslav Volf writes one of the Christian responses.  His essay is a tour de force of theological explanation as he explains the trinity even while demonstrating why the trinity cannot be explained.[ii]  On the love of God Volf writes, “God loves irrespective of the existence or non-existence of creation; … the contingent world is created by a God who is always love and just because God is love” (italics Volf’s).[iii] 
            One of the points of emphasis in my Sabbatical is a study of the differences between people and how those differences can be overcome for the sake of beautiful friendship, and more importantly that differences be overcome because we are family – brothers and sisters in Christ.  Admittedly, I have devoted much of my reading and conversation to the divide between European Americans (white) and African Americans (blacks) while knowing there are other divisions separating people.  I felt the black-white divide demanded my attention.  But, the animus many American Christians feel toward Muslims needs to be abolished too.  And maybe my study of A Common Word will yield reminders of the call of Christ to love that can become identity markers in interracial friendships and encounters in the church I pastor.  We Christians are called to, commanded to love our neighbors.  The church is to be the community that witnesses to the world the unity and diversity of the body of Christ.  We can do this when, within the church body, we see sacred neighbor love so powerfully that all who come in know from the start they are welcome and are at home among people who deeply care for them.
            From Pastor May’s word on God’s love as the basis for creation to Eugene Peterson’s display of God as the supremely relational One to Dr. Volf’s smart, straightforward account of God as God is Love, the point is abundantly made.  The root of who we are is love – God’s love.  My son and I saw Wonder Woman, and we thoroughly enjoyed it, but I snickered at the end when her final conclusion was “the most important thing is love.”  I smugly thought, “Well that’s just Hollywood cliché, its vapid fluffiness on full display. Wonder Woman kicks some serious bad guy butt and then in a reflection both hopeful and melancholy concludes, ‘the most important thing is love’?  Seriously?” 
Now, I’m saying the same thing. 
            I am because it’s how I was made.  I was created by love (you know, 1 John 4:16, ‘God is love’).  I was made in the image of the One who is love.  He who made me knows me and in spite of my selfishness and impatience commands me to love my neighbor.  He pours His Spirit and His love into me.  Created and commanded, I must love.  Also, I know that the hope for our church (HillSong) and for the church (Christians everywhere) is that we be the living embodiment of God’s love.  Only then are we truly God’s church.  And for peace and flourishing and joy, the world needs the church to truly be the church. 
            I can’t believe I am going to say it, but I have Cleve May, Eugene Peterson, Miroslav Volf, and Diana Prince’s endorsements (not to mention the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s).  And, seriously, who am I to question Wonder Woman?  The most important thing really is love. 

[i] E. Peterson (2017), As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Waterbook (New York), p. 74.
[ii] Volf, Muhammad, and Yarrington, editors (2010).  A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor, William B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids), p.130.
[iii] Ibid, p.126.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Lazy Sabbatical?

            “I’m disappointed in you, Rob.  You should still be in bed.”
            A neighbor said this to me a month ago, when my Sabbatical began.  He had the sense that Sabbatical = relaxation, or rest.  He made this smiling, sarcastic comment at the bus stop as he along with me and other parents stood with our elementary-aged kids waiting for the bus that usually arrives around 7:20AM.  Our kids go out there at 7:00AM to play high octane games of tag while waiting.  Sometimes, for my kids, waiting for the bus is the highlight of the day.  We parents join them, clutching our coffee cups, around 7:10.
I couldn’t take up a practice of sleeping in even if I wanted to.  My kids are early risers.  It’s not uncommon for me to hear one of them stumbling around before 6AM, on a Saturday.  I am the type of sleeper that cannot really sleep if the kids are up. I also have trouble in June, when it’s daylight for so long.  I shudder to think how I’ll do when I am in St. Petersburg in July with 19-20 hours of daylight.
It’s funny that he, of all my neighbors said that particular thing.  He’s just started a running program.  A lot of mornings at the bus stop with the kids, we see him come running up, dripping sweat.  He’s just finished a 6-mile run.  He’s lost so much weight, I hardly recognize him. I wish I had that kind of discipline.
I don’t.  Discipline is something I struggle with, so Sabbatical has been a challenge.  A lot of times, I hear “You’re not doing anything. Can you …” (insert request). I don’t resent it.  Usually the person making the request is my wife, and the request she’s making is something our family needs me to do.  And she doubles me in terms of work done making our family’s life better.  So, I need to emphasize, stress, and underline this (in case she reads this).  Her requests are not intrusions on the Sabbatical.  But, I’ll get to that in a minute. 
The phrase “you’re not doing anything” is poignant.  In actuality, that’s not what she says.  It’s what I hear.  What she says is “Could you help,” and what I should immediately say is “Yes dear.”  But, I do wonder sometimes.  What am I to be doing?  How do I go about the work of rest?  What is my “work” right now?   I thought I’d have figured this all out by now, but I think that misses the point.  I think this Sabbatical is about meeting God in the normal rhythms of life.  I think this is especially so in my adopted Sabbatical motto, “die to self.”   
I have hiked.  Miles and miles in the Eno River State Park, Duke Forest, Occaneechi Mountain, and in my own neighborhood. On those wilderness walks, I listen to God talk to me through the voices in nature: through the wind, through frogs and turtles and millipedes.  God spoke to Balaam through a donkey and to Elijah through the silence after the storm.  I have always known that God speaks to me in green spaces. 

I have read.  Deidra Riggs One (you have to check it out); The Next Worship by Sandra Maria Van Opstal; A Common Word (this is by several Christian and Muslim authors including Miroslav Volf; I’ve read these and many other works.

I have talked to pastors and Christians in multiethnic church contexts.  Walking, reading, talking – this is all stuff I do all the time anyway, but in now, in Sabbatical, it is in a unique space.  But none of this is the “work” of Sabbatical.  The work of Sabbatical is those times when my wife or my kids need me.  One definition of “vocation” is “a person’s employment or main occupation, especially regarded as particularly worthy and requiring great dedication.”  My family is worthy of “great dedication.”  My vocation right now is being here for them.
I’ve gone on my son’s 4th grade beach field trip.  That was a 4AM-8PM commitment.  I’ve attended my daughter’s classroom awards ceremony.  Tomorrow, I will spend the day with my son who’s about to finish 8th grade.  Next week, I take all three of them on a three-night camping trip, one we’ve talked about for over a year.
Also, on this Sabbatical, I’ve mowed the lawn, done dozens of loads of laundry, and taken the trash and recycling out countless times (I don’t know if anyone else in my house knows how to do that).  In these simple tasks, I am living my faith in the course of daily life.  Sometimes pastors forget to do that.  Sometimes we get our heads caught up in theology or lofty goals related to justice or compassion or evangelism.  Those are all worthy things to which pastors are called, but not at the expense of serving God in daily life, in the context of our most important relationships.
The real vocation is to live as a disciple of Jesus.  One of the ways Jesus’ disciples show love for him is by loving their families, in my case, wife and kids.  Sabbatical definitely has lazy moments.  “Should I spend the next hour reading The Next Jim Crow, or should I spend the next hour watching The Avengers?” [i]  Sometimes, heavy social reading is left on the shelf and I veg out watching a fun movie.  Sometimes, not enough times, I do the reading.  But much of the time, the answer is neither.  I want to read.  I want to veg out.  But I am “called” to play Wii golf with my son or read to my daughter.  In that, I meet God as much as in my heavy reading or nature walks. 
I am fortunate to have the gift of this time.  I’m trying to appreciate it and be a good steward of it. 

[i] Quick quiz – Can you watch The Avengers or Captain America too many times?  The answer is No.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Racial Justice: Coming Together

            A play date!  That’s what Deidra Riggs said fixed things.  She was talking about a when her husband Harry was 4 years old.  At a birthday party, he and another 4-year-old almost came to blows over a helium balloon.  His mother decided the way to solve this pre-k feud was to call the other boy’s mom and schedule a play date.  The boys became good friends and stayed that way for over 50 years.[i] 
            Oh that we could settle things with playdates. 
Oh that we could all see as 4-year-olds see. 
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus said that (Matthew 18:4). 
I know the issues that divide people are complicated.   As a white, educated, middle class, American male, I am acutely aware of particular divisions between people perpetrated by individuals like me.  White males of means displaced, killed, and emasculated the indigenous people in the Americas.  We (white males) enslaved Africans, hauled them to the Americas in the horrific middle passage, and then tried to strip their humanity in ‘the peculiar institution.’  We replaced slavery with Jim Crow, and Jim Crow with mass incarcerations.  We put American citizens of Japanese descent in internment camps.  And today millions of white Americans, blissfully ignorant of any of this history, profess their innocence and their disinterest. 
Understanding our own collective racism is too complicated.  We just want to be happy and go to Heaven when we die.  Dealing with the complexities of generational, systemic, institutional racism is too messy.  To get into discussions about privilege threatens us with guilt.  We came after slavery and Jim Crowe, we say.  Those things aren’t my fault.  We want to claim we are “colorblind” and then spend our energy and resources pursuing our own happiness. 
It’s not that simple.  But it is.  Riggs’ book is not about playdates.  But it is.  She knows how complicated and how simple human relationships are.  Her book is about loving God and loving neighbor and doing the work to overcome divisions that separate people. That I am reading her book as I enter a Sabbatical from pastoral ministry is providential.  Matthew 10:39 (‘those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it) is the theme verse of my Sabbatical.  I am learning what it means for me as a disciple, as a dad, as a husband, and as a pastor to ‘die to self.’  Deidra Riggs’ book One is one of my primary non-Biblical texts.
My church has sent me away for four months of rest, renewal, and new focus.  One of the things driving me on this Sabbatical and, I believe, in the future of my ministry life is the call of God on the church to bring people together in Jesus’ name.  Uniting diverse people is a direct effect of the Gospel of the salvation we have in Jesus Christ. Look at Ephesians 2:11-21.  Look at Revelation 7:9-10.  Read the entire book of Acts.  Crossing cultural lines and breaking down racial barriers in order to unite divergent groups in Christ is rooted in the Gospel.  All who are a part of Christ hold in their hearts a deeps concern for crossing racial barriers for the sake of loving the neighbor and bringing people together in Jesus’ name.  Let me restate that for the sake of emphasis and clarity.  To love and follow Jesus is to actively oppose racism and to actively advocate for justice and the coming together of all people in Jesus’ name.  The Christian cannot be indifferent concerning racism and still be a Christian.
This, by the way, is a blanket condemnation of Christians who supported Jim Crowe and segregation (not to mention slavery).  There can be no lionizing of our predecessors in Christianity in America or anywhere else where our forbearers tolerated and even promoted the degradation of one racial group while simultaneously exalting another.  Such blatant racism is foreign to the Gospel and that was as clear in 1865 as it is today.[ii] 
Unity, equality, diversity – these words have a Gospel aroma when they are understood in light of the passages I mentioned above as well as John 17 and other New Testament passages.   The yearning for these things is a yearning for the Kingdom of God, where people of all shades and backgrounds joyously come together as one family in Christ.  I believe the church in North America is positioned to sound a clarion call for unity and togetherness.  I especially believe those with privilege (middle class educated whites) are called to sacrifice our own tastes and preferences and to willingly give up power so that minorities who have been held down by systemic racism can have a seat at the table of leadership.  The church is called to set the pace as this generation moves toward equality for all people.  If we, church leaders, can do this, we will help the church show the world the goodness of the Kingdom of God. And that’s our mission, to help people enter the kingdom of God as Jesus’ disciples.
With this sense of calling in mind, Riggs’ observation about how we (“we” humans) approach conversation and interaction is a guide for the Christ-follower.  First, she quotes U.S. ambassador Samantha Power who says, “Some people put themselves at stake when they get involved in a cause.”  My opposition to abortion is as much about my ability to defend pre-birth life as it is about the pre-birth life itself.  I find myself more concerned about how I advocate for the Ethiopian orphan than I am worried about any particular orphan.  No matter what the cause is, when I become strident (for or against it), I am more worried about my own image, which I happen to have attached to said cause.  Ambassador Power’s point is well made.  Whether or not I ever prevent an abortion or a child from starving, I want to make sure my identity and ego are preserved in how I represent myself.
Opposite this self-aggrandizing approach, Riggs makes this salient point.  “Our identity is not impacted by whether or not others agree with us, or even by what others think about us.  Instead, finding the right perspective on who we are is based on understanding whose we are.”[iii]  Hear this.  We are God’s possessions, God’s children, people made new in Christ.  He is master, we are disciples.  He is Lord, we are servants.  Advocating for the unborn and the orphan and the victim of racism and injustice – these are all stances we take and works in which we invest ourselves as a part of our discipleship. 
I don’t fight racism for the sake of fighting racism.  I fight it because that’s what a Christ follower does.  I fight it because in Ephesians 2, we read that Jesus has broken down the dividing wall.  This is true for any cause or in any decision or interaction.  I try to act and think and speak in ways that align me with Jesus.  When I do that, I find myself forcefully rejecting racism.  I find myself exhausted by the yearning for diversity, the longing to see the church today stand as a living embodiment of Revelation 7:9-10.
Riggs shows just how difficult this step into the work of reconciliation is.  She shares a litany of people represented by actions you may support or decry:
-      Women who have had abortions.
-      Men who dress in drag.
-      White people who shoot unarmed black men.
-      People who shoot up crowded movie theaters and elementary schools with automatic rifles.
-      Adulterers.
-      Cheaters.
-      Gay teens from Fundamentalist Christian families.

You may go through her list and wonder how she compiled it.  Maybe you sympathetically identify with some on her list and angrily despise others.  Maybe it is offensive that some on this list would be cited along with others.  I know Deidra Riggs could make a list 2 or 3 times longer than this as could you or I, with people much more divergent than those listed here.  There is but one thing that unites everyone on this list, and this is the author’s point. God loves everyone on this list.[iv] 
Christ followers have two assignments, straight from Jesus.  First, we are two love these people just as God does.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  It’s easier to draw a line in the sand and determine who’s on our side,[v] but God wants us to see it his way.  So, we have to die to our own sense of injustice, to our self-perceptions and self-righteousness.  We have to die to self and see as Jesus sees and love everyone as Jesus loves them; even those we would hate.  Second, we have to help people who don’t know Jesus come to know Him and become his followers. 
That second assignment comes later and in most cases what we actually do through words and actions is witness.  We testify to God’s goodness.  Whether or not people become Christians after hearing our testimony is between them and God.  But whether they ever do or not, our call is to love and to be God’s agents of reconciliation.
            “Reconciliation invites everyone to the table, the wraparound porch, the picnic on a summer afternoon.  All of us, even those we wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to invite.  And isn’t that the point?  We are not in charge of the guest list.  We are guests along with everyone else.”[vi]  Remember, it’s not about who we are, but about whose we are.  Meeting for coffee or talking over beers is the way adults have playdates. 
            I went to a playdate like this a month ago at a Durham (NC) mosque.  There were Jews there, Muslims of course, and Christians.  The food was delicious.  As a “faith leader,” I was, at the last minute, added to the program.  I knew that might happen and had a few remarks prepared.  But when my time to speak came, I shoved my notes in my pocket and ignored them. 
Instead, I began my speech by thanking our Muslim hosts for their generous hospitality.  Then, I repented of the ways Christians have demonized and “hated on” Muslims.  I didn’t affirm Islam.  I didn’t deny the evil done by extremists.  I just stood up, and with a voice that surprised me by its cracking said, “I am sorry.  On behalf of Christians who have been hateful, I am truly sorry.”  Why did I do that?  Because on a playdate, you have to say sorry if you hit your friend.  Also, I did it because when the Holy Spirit prompts us, we need to follow that lead.  
            I believe the Holy Spirit prompted me to go on Sabbatical and prompted my church to celebrate this decision.  I believe the Holy Spirit prompted me to study racial reconciliation as an act of discipleship and to read One as a part of my study.  I now proceed seeking to learn, to love my neighbor, and to follow the next prompting of the Spirit as it comes. 

[i] D. Riggs (2017), One: Unity in Divided World, Baker Books (Grand Rapids), p.24.
[ii] In this paragraph, I am not suggesting that specific individuals who claimed faith in Jesus but also supported racist systems and held racist thoughts in their own hearts are condemned to Hell.  Eternal destiny and eternal condition are God’s to determine and I make no effort to say who’s going where after death.  What I am saying is white people who grew up in the Jim Crowe south knew it was wrong at the time.  Failure to stand up to racism is a sin of omission.  To stand idly by and watch as black people are lynched and degraded is as bad as participating in the lynching and degradation.  
[iii] Riggs, p.26.
[iv] Riggs. p.33.
[v] Riggs, p.34.
[vi] Riggs, p.41.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Is Multicultural Worship Necessary?

“It is no longer a question of whether we like or want diversity.  The church is diverse.   And congregational worship should reflect the diversity of God’s people, even if a local congregation itself is not diverse.”[i]
            I don’t know quite what to do with this statement from author/pastor/worship leader Sandra Maria Van Opstal.  I agree completely that “congregational worship should reflect the diversity of God’s people.”  I am praying, thinking about, hoping for, and working toward greater diversity in the congregation where I am the lead pastor.  I am visiting with pastors who serve in multiethnic contexts.  I am listening to non-white people in ministry to hear their perspectives. I have heard perspectives of whites all my life and I am one.  I am trying to see through the eyes of others.
            So, I agree with Van Opstal, don’t I?
            I think I do.  I then think about the little church my family visited in Penhook, VA a few years ago.  When we walked into this rural congregation in a quaint, inviting country sanctuary with our adopted black children, the church was instantly integrated.  Prior to that it was a group of white people worshiping God together.  It is highly unlikely that non-white people are there very often; maybe only when we show up.  They were extremely hospitable to us. 
How would that church’s worship reflect the diversity of God’s people? 
            Maybe, as a part of their communal prayer life, they could focus on the worship of Christians in other parts of the world, say Namibia, or Bolivia, or Vietnam.  Believers in those places look very different than those in Penhook.  Those country folk in Virginia could expand their sense of God’s people by praying for believers.  Maybe there are other ways they could reflect that diversity.
            However, there is a particular cultural timbre in southern Virginia.  Should that be compromised in worship so that the church goers have a greater sense of God in the world? Maybe the answer is yes.  But one culture is not superior to another.  God can be glorified in the warp and woof of life on the farms that make up Penhook.  The people who live there will most likely hear God when God speaks in ways they can understand.  That speaking by God begins in worship that is done in familiar cultural expression.
            This is challenging for me because one of the foundations of my own faith is the willingness to plunge into the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable.  I don’t believe a person can grow in Christ until he or she willingly gives up his/her tastes and preferences and fully (even if temporarily) enters another’s cultural world.  I think those white, rural worshipers should do partnership ministry which would involve trips to Ethiopia or Bolivia, or at least to the sections of Roanoke, VA dominated by African Americans.  Just as I recognize their need for worship in familiar language, I also see their need for new experiences.  In the new experiences, we grow into a bigger sense of just how big God is.
            It is both.  We need times when church feels like church (in our own understanding of church).  And we need to see church happen in ways we never could have imagined and in people who are new (and maybe strange) to us.  I’ve only just begun my engagement with Van Opstal’s ideas, but I have to say, I am very excited to read her book as a part of my Sabbatical journey and as a part of my exploration of the possibilities of developing our congregation as a multi-ethnic church.

[i] Van Opstal, Sandra Maria (2016), IVP Books (Downer’s Grove, IL), p.14.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review of Eugene Peterson's 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire'

I am extremely thankful that this sermon collection has been released.  Eugene Peterson is the person, in my own reading, who has put the dignity into the work of the pastor.  Peterson was a scholar through and through, but he saw the daily, weekly, yearly work pastors do as being just as important as any work done by anyone in any field.  In fact, he saw a unique dignity in the work of the pastor.
            This collection is one record of how he did it.  ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ is an anthology of his sermons.  Tracking his preaching, one can see how a pastor dealt with the major movements of history as they affected a suburban congregation in Maryland.

            My own preaching is quite different.  However, I am my own person and I live in a different time.  I find myself blessed and educated as I observe how Peterson preached on Moses and Adam and Eve and creation and law.  His work informs and shapes mine.  I recommend this book as a guide to pastors and as a primer in discipleship for all Christians.

"I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Sabbatical theme lived out in Daily Relationships

            I am a little over one week into my Sabbatical.  For 4 months I will be away from the church I lead as senior pastor, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregation HillSong Church, of Chapel Hill, NC.  For much of the Sabbatical, I will be in Chapel Hill, just not at HillSong.  So far, I have had to go back to the office once to pick up something I accidentally had delivered there instead of my house.  And, I have seen two church members, on separate occasions bumping into them at the Chapel Hill Public Library.
            I’ll spend much of the Sabbatical at the library.  I am here as I type this.  On this occasion, I’ll be needing to put some music on (headphones, of course) because someone behind me keeps snorting.  I am sorry for the cold that is clearly irritating her, but her snot is not helping me concentrate.  However, it is a helpful reminder that life with God happens in normal, everyday places.  Sabbath may be a palace in time, but space is shared with people who have colds and with people who have crying babies.  Space is shared with my own children who try my patience and, more than anyone else, expose my flaws.  Space is shared with my wife.
            As I hiked this morning, it became clear that Matthew 10:39, die to self, is one of the themes of this Sabbatical.  If I truly am to die to self and live to Christ, one of the arenas in which this happens will be my marriage.  Obvious as this may seem, I need to make a spiritual discipline out of putting my wife’s needs ahead of my own.  I need to, out of love, swallow my first reaction to any little habit or tic she has that annoys me.  When my hackles are being raised, I need to shift my mind and spirit.  I need to shift from focus on the annoyance to focus on loving my wife.
All married people annoy each other.  If you think that won’t happen when you get married, I promise, it will.  We marry people, human beings, and human beings do things that get on our nerves.  And each and every one of is a human being who does things to irk those nearest to us.  But, I need to zero in on this: to be married to her is a pleasure.  She makes my life better and she is enormously patient with me.  I need to keep that joy that I find in her ever in front me.
            I need to also focus on honoring God by how I love my wife.  This is scriptural – Ephesians 5.  Matthew 10:39 & Ephesians 5 together produce a pretty clear message.  As an act of discipleship, I must be a self-sacrificing husband.  I’ve said this type of thing in pre-marriage counseling dozens of times.  Now, on Sabbatical time, I need to step back and listen to the sermon instead of preaching it.  That’s true of this sermon and of many others.

            One last thing for this post.  When I sat down to write, I had an entirely different post in mind.  I am still going to write that one.  However, I am committed to yielding to the flow of Sabbatical.  I may have certain plan, but God may have it in mind to alter my plan.  If that happens, ok.  I sat down to write something.  I ended up writing this.  I will still write that other piece.  I’ll just write it later.