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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Hard Turnarounds

            Here, I quote a little-known, unpublished but prolific writer (perhaps completely unknown).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

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

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

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


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

After Charlottesville: Monday Work

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

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

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

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

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.