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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

After Charlottesville: Monday Work

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Two G's: Gentleness and Grace

I owe thanks to Becky Heatley, the daughter of the Christian philosopher and apologist Dallas Willard.  She compiled the text of many of his speeches, and produced the book The Allure of Gentleness.  It was amazing to me to be able to read another Dallas Willard book after he had gone on to be with the Lord.  I read it while our family traveled throughout Russia and Ethiopia.  By the time we arrived in Egypt, I had finished the short book.
            Gentleness.  I think I actually achieve it, a bit, in some circumstances.  But, in the most familiar places of life, the times with my wife and children, I am too harsh, too quick to judge, and too sharp with my tongue.  It’s the last great spiritual horizon.  Can I learn to be gentle with the most important people in my life? I am praying I can.  I’d love it if I could learn to yield to the presence of the Holy Spirit and be gentle with my immediate family before my kids grow up.  What if my kids, when grown, could look back and remember that their dad was gentle with them?
            I think if this happened, that Christ-inspired posture of gentleness would bleed over into the other relationships in my life.  But it has to happen in that direction: from my home outward to the rest of the places of my life.  And for it to happen in my home, it has to begin in my own heart.  For me to become gentle in my own heart, I need to receive the forgiveness God has for me and see myself as a forgiven person, washed by grace, and clean.  I have to lean on God, live in total dependence on the Holy Spirit.
            If I lived as one who has been ‘graced,’ I will be filled with grace and love, and I will be prepared to share grace and love.  That’s the wonder with love.  The more we look to God, the more we are filled with love.  The more we share grace and love, the more we are filled with both. 
            I came into Sabbatical supposing there were grand mega-lessons to be learned, and upon learning them, I’d see with entirely new eyes.  Now, I realize, I do indeed need to see with new eyes, but that seeing won’t come through mega-lessons.  It comes through simple lessons, new vision through the two G’s, gentleness and grace.  I have to be gentle, and to be gentle, I need to give grace.  My first reaction to people, especially my wife, two sons, and daughter, needs to be grace.  I will be inclined to give grace if I can train myself to live gently.
            Dallas Willard has taught me such life redirection definitely requires spiritual training (a/k/a ‘spiritual discipline’).  Just as dieting requires behavior modification (eating less fatty foods, disciplined work-outs), changing one’s behavioral posture also requires discipline.  In the case of spiritual discipline, the exercises are done in alignment with prayer and spiritual and emotional dependence on the Holy Spirit.  God the Spirit actually works the change in the heart.  The spiritual discipline simply positions the disciple to be ready to be transformed by God.
            I will begin with daily prayer and daily attentiveness.  Tomorrow, I will ask God to heighten my awareness when those moments arise.  My wife says something that triggers a negative response from me.  My children don’t listen to a simple instruction – for the fifth time!  In those moments, I might, by habit, snap, or say something snarky or mean.  The moments will come.  It’s inevitable.  I will begin the day praying into those moments, asking God to prepare me to (1) lean on the Spirit, (2) speak and move gently, and (3) give grace.
            In addition to prayerful attentiveness, a second discipline will be to ask God to help me focus my gentle intentions at those times of day when I am most fatigued.  When I am tired, I am least likely to be gentle.  I will ask God for extra grace in those moments. 

            A third discipline (after prayerfully beginning and the prayer for grace in times of low-energy) is the active seeking of opportunities for gentleness.  In interactions with my family, I will look for times to do something more gently than I would have a week ago, or a month ago.  I am attempting to retrain my emotional response muscles.  I pray these disciplines of praying, receiving grace, and seeking new response will position me to be a gentle grace giver.  I am certain that as I grow in the two G’s, gentleness and grace, I will see more of God in the most normal places of my life.  

Monday, July 31, 2017

Leaving the Nest ... Starting High School

            Today is the first day of cross-country practice for my 9th grader.  School starts in a month, but this is my oldest child’s first high school activity.  It was my first time dropping him off at the high school for anything as a student there.  He grumbled because they start at 7AM.  He tried to talk his way out of it.  I pushed him forward, out of the nest.
            He and I went into the building and turned in the requisite paperwork so he could get his “ticket to play” (a doctor’s permission stating him fit and able).  You can’t play high school sports without it.  After turning it in, we left the building and began walking toward the track.
            The building is on lower ground than the track/football field.  With the bleachers and raised ground, you can’t actually see the field as you approach.  You just hear it.  We heard the sound of young men grunting and roaring; young men set to prove their toughness, their manliness.  Without seeing them, I knew.  Football players.
It reminded me of the movie Divergent. You see the teens of the different factions, Amity, Abnegation, Erudite, and Candor, walking around in peace and calm. Then there’s the Dauntless faction.  They are the ones you hear before you see.  They yell, they run, they climb, they laugh, they hoot and howl.  Everyone gets out of their way. In high school, the football players are the Dauntless.
I was a high school football player.  It’s not because I truly was without fear, truly undaunted.  I was scared of many things.  That’s why I tried out for the hardest of sports.  I figured if I could make it through two-a-day football workouts, I could handle any other challenges that arose.  Before I tried to earn playing time, I just tried to survive practice.  Inside me, I carried that threat to my sense of self all through high school.  Even when not on the football field, I was trying to prove I was man enough.  For me, it was that way all of the time.
This morning as I walked through the parking lot with my 9th grader, “ticket to play” in hand, and as I listened to the football players grunt, I thanked God my son is not playing football.  If he were playing, I’d thank God for that too, but I am glad he won’t carry the pressures in the way I carried them.  He has his own and they might be much harder than mine were.  But I hope he doesn’t feel constant pressure to show he’s man enough, tough enough.
As we walked I thought about a Brian Adams song, “The Summer of ’69.”  One line in the song is “they were the best days of my life.”  My experience is completely different than Adams’.  I appreciate the life I lived in high school.  I wouldn’t change much.  I was happy.  But my high school years certainly weren’t best days of my life.  For me, I am convinced those days are ahead.  I enjoy parenting, and someday, I plan on loving retirement.
As we neared the place where Igor, my son, would join up with his cross country teammates, I saw the football players.  They were in line, each waiting his turn to run the 40-yard dash for time.  What a contrast, football players and cross country runners.  The cross country crowd is mellow, chill.  The football players are posturing, muscles pressed out as much as possible, manly strutting over the top.  The cross country coaches are laid back.  The football coaches ready to yell and then yell some more. 

As soon as Igor could clearly see where he was going he turned to me and said, “OK, I’ll see you.”  No message could be clearer.  Dad, this is as far as you go.  I am grateful you got me this far, but I’ll take it from here.  Please leave NOW.  So often, he and I struggle to communicate.  God, thank you.  This time it was clear.  “Alright,” I said.  OK, son.  I am really proud of you.  Now go run.  

Friday, July 28, 2017

Among Muslims

On Sabbatical from my normal duties as senior pastor, I have examined race relations in America because I think that the church in America should be where black and white, Asian and Hispanic, Arab and Native American people come together.  How do we lead the church to be that uniting space where people delight in one another, celebrating our differences and rejoicing in our shared life in Christ?
            While race has been the topic of my study (through reading and interviews with church leaders), I am aware that followers of Jesus in America also need to set a tone of love and peace in relation to Muslims.  Many high profile “evangelicals”[i] have been downright hateful in their stance toward Muslims.  This antipathy is combined with woeful ignorance.  I pray that a part of my church’s renewal and step toward multiethnic worship and community will be the witness of peace and love extended to Muslims.
            Here, I offer my own experiences, which I grant are limited.
            First, I have traveled in a town that is 70-80% Muslim.  Each year from 2011-2016, I have spent time in Kombolcha, Ethiopia.  There, I have been a part of the Children’s Hope Chest work that provides school uniforms, school supplies, meals, and other support to extremely poor children and their families.  The CHC program is run out of a church and part of the curriculum is the presentation of the Gospel.  In my times there, I have never been confronted or threatened by any of the 180,000 Muslims who live there.  I do not know of any of our kids in the program who have suffered because they are participating in a Christian program.  It is has been peaceful and safe. 
            Second, shortly after the election of President Trump, his attempts at travel bans from 7 majority-Muslim countries, and the fears aroused in American Muslim communities, one of our church members reached out to a Mosque in Durham, NC.  Her efforts lead to me actually speaking at an ecumenical event there.  The hospitality was generous.  I felt welcomed and the Holy Spirit led me to publically repent on behalf of Christians for the ways we have failed to show love to our Muslim neighbors.  My repentance was graciously received.
            Third, as I blogged earlier this summer, I read A Common Word (editor, Miroslav Volf).  In this book, I learned that Muslims place as high a value on the two great commandments as do Christians.  Love of God and love of neighbor are central tenets of Islam.
            Fourth, as a part of our Sabbatical, my family had the opportunity to travel to Egypt.  There I learned that no one dislikes the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS more than your average everyday Egyptian.  Cairo is an enormous Muslim city (over 20,000,000 people).  From the rooftop of the Barcelo Hotel, you can hear Mosques across the city issue the call to prayer.  It echoes through the canyons of buildings.  As in Kombolcha, I felt safe, and never threatened.  Now, I need to acknowledge that the people who worked so hard to assure my comfort there are in the tourism business.  They need my dollars and they need me to come home to the U.S.A. and put in a good word for them.  They are financially motivated to makes things nice for Americans willing to spend money.  Even so, I met others not a part of that business.
            One day, we were enjoying the rooftop pool, a cool relief from the unrelenting sun’s heat, and I met a man from Bagdad, Iraq.  He and I discussed religion and life in Iraq.  He felt that my wife and I, as adoptive parents, were a blessing from God.  He was charming and genuine. He is an engineer and was in Cairo for a conference.  He had no personal gain in being nice to me.  His kindness was just that, kindness.
            These experiences through reading, conversation, and the receiving of generous hospitality lead me to think that Muslims are people just like my neighbors in Chapel Hill are people.  Some Muslims are terrorists – a few.  So too are some of the members of Westboro Baptist Church.  I don’t condemn all Baptists as terrorists because of what they do.  Among the 20,000,000 Egyptians in Cairo there are good-hearted people, lazy people, thieves and liars, hard workers, and every variety of humanity you’d find anywhere. 
            It broke my heart to read the Voice of the Martyrs report that more than 100 Coptic Christians have been killed in Egypt.[ii]  There are terrorists Muslims (and terrorist Christians and terrorist Buddhists in South Asia and terrorist Hindus in India).  Most Muslims (and most Christians and Buddhists and Hindus and Jews) are just people, people God has called us to love.  What happened to our Coptic brothers and sisters calls for lament and for prayer.  But it is not an indictment of Egypt any more than Dylan Roof’s villainous act at Mother Emmanuel Church in 2015 is an indictment of all white people in Charleston, SC.
            More than simply acknowledging the humanity of Muslims, we who follow Jesus are to affirm Muslims as our neighbors.  We believe they are wrong about Jesus.  They see Jesus as a venerated prophet.  We see Jesus as the Son of God, the human incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, and the Savior of the world.  You can’t believe that and be a Muslim.  You can’t not believe it and be a Christian.  The differences are irreconcilable.  Muslims worship the same God we do, but their belief about God, in my view, is wrong.  But the difference I have with my Muslim neighbor, my Muslims friend, should be discussed over a cup of coffee in a friendly environment.  I don’t need to condemn him.  I can befriend him and share God’s love with him.
            As we rode to the airport on our last day in Egypt, the sun was setting and we passed a church, one of the few.  In the fleeing sunlight, I looked at the crosses on the church roof.  I realized how powerfully I felt God’s presence, the Holy Spirit’s hand, there in Cairo, a sprawling Muslim metropolis.  The crosses on the church reminded me God is there.  I and all Christians need to remember God is present in our interactions with Muslims.  God is love.  When we are with our Muslims neighbors and aware of God’s presence, we are to show love through neighborly friendship, welcoming conversation, and Holy Spirit empowered grace. 

[i] I put “evangelicals” in quotes because the term is one I really don’t want to surrender.  The perception in America is that evangelicals are white, are people who vote Republican, hate homosexuals and Muslims, and are quick to condemn to Hell anyone whose theology does not align with their fundamentalist hyper-Calvinism.  My definition of evangelical is a person who shares the good news that in Jesus, God had come, the Kingdom is inaugurated, and all who repent of sin and turn to Him can have eternal life in His name.  I put “evangelicals” in quotes because I think true evangelicals are those who lovingly point the world to Jesus, not those who constantly condemn others to Hell.

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.