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.