A Pastoral Letter Concerning Racism and the Church’s Life

              I was 13 years old the first time I began to understand the realities of racism. When you live in a system that benefits you, it’s easy to ignore or be shielded from those realities. Our town did not have any black residents, something I later learned was by design. The town was very ethnically homogenous, although there was a small percentage of Hispanics that lived there as well. Looking back, it is not difficult to now perceive the racial inequality at work in our community. It was my 8th grade year and our teacher required us to memorize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

            As I sat in my desk listening to Rev. Dr. King narrate the American dream and its “promissory note” of equality, I couldn’t help but be captivated by this call to “justice for all.” His words were like a fiery coal searing the heart. It was difficult to imagine thirty years after Dr. King that anyone would be disregarded, disqualified, or discarded because of their skin color. I thought the battle for Civil Rights had been won and was now an interesting historical fact.

            A few weeks later, my sister and I were riding in my grandparents’ Suburban. We were going to dinner with them and sat on the bench seat in the middle of the SUV. My grandparents asked us what we were studying in school. When my turn came, I proudly noted I was memorizing Dr. King’s speech. The vehicle exploded with racial slurs and words that I had never heard before. There was a brooding rage I thought would engulf my sister and me. There was no escape from the moving vehicle and I experienced a fear I had never experienced before. I met racism face-to-face that night and it left an indelible mark on me.

            Twenty-two years have passed since that night with my grandparents. I wish I could say those twenty-two years brought with them the necessary reforms to extinguish the white-hot inferno of racism. The reality is racism did not die after the Civil Rights movement. It just became more subtle in its work. That is how systemic evil often operates. When confronted, it hides itself behind a more respectable façade: chattel slavery shifted to Jim Crow laws, Jim Crow laws became mass incarceration, the penal system became a for-profit institution that profited from occupied beds. Each step along the way has dehumanized black and brown bodies by criminalizing and monetizing those same bodies. Four hundred years of fear, trauma, violence, and abuse can be summed up in three words uttered this week: “I can’t breathe.” It was a specific officer, Derek Chauvin, that bore his weight down on the neck of George Floyd, but it was a racist system that authorized and empowered him to do it.

            Four hundred years is a long time to wait patiently for equality and equity. Four hundred years of broken promises and frustrated dreams. Four hundred years of learning to do more while being afforded so much less. Four hundred years of complicity and silence from the Church.

            As a pastor, my calling is to serve the Church by speaking truthfully about the world and about the life of the Church. I am called to serve by pointing to Jesus and holding up a mirror for the Church to check its reflection to see if it resembles Jesus in its life. That sometimes means I am in the uncomfortable and difficult position of saying that our reflection looks like something other than Jesus. Having spent years seeking to understand racism and the systems that propagate it, I have to say that the Church has sometimes been the worst offender. That is not simply an indictment on the past. It is the harsh reality of our present moment.

            I am reminded, however, of a story in scripture concerning another group who experienced the terrors of oppression. They languished for four hundred years under harsh and unjust treatment from Pharaoh and his overseers decked out in Egyptian riot gear. God’s people cried out in their suffering. God saw, heard, and knew intimately their suffering as God’s own. And, God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go. God brought them out of Egypt, out of bondage. And, like Moses, the Church must hear the cries of the oppressed and call out for freedom against the powers of domination that continue to enslave black and brown bodies. The Church cannot continue to sit in comfortable silence. Nor can it settle for speech that is devoid of action. God’s compassion for those who suffer invites us to speak out against the modern-day pharaohs of our world. We need only say, “Here am I.”

            Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed this prayer that may help orient us for the difficult but necessary road ahead: “Thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so, as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”

Proclaim the Hope

The most devastating waves of hatred exercised in violence betray an underlying sense of fear and fatalism in those perpetrating such atrocities. I sometimes wonder what drives people to the precipice where they no longer see any hope for alternative ways to change their world than to destroy others. Perhaps many of these tragedies might have been avoided if the Church had better articulated its message of hope, if it did not so often succumbed to the same tragic despair that can no longer imagine new possibilities from dead ends? How devastatingly dull our witness is when it is incapable of offering hope to the hopeless. Salt that has lost its saltiness is thrown away and trampled under foot. May God revive the imagination of the Church for these days. May the Church and its disciples be light in the dark places.

 

Turned Right-side Up

 

There is fear that is not fear

There is faith that is not faith

There is hope that is not Hope

There is peace that is not Peace

There is success that is not Success

There is failure that is not Failure

 

There is presence that is not Presence

There is absence that is not Absence

There is victory that is not Victory

There is defeat that is not Defeat

 

There is life that is not Life

There is death that is not Death

 

For our eyes see but do not see

Our ears hear but do not hear

Our minds behold and yet do not comprehend

The Kingdom has turned everything right-side up

Kids These Days: Reflections on Generational Conflict in the Church

Occasionally, I hear phrases bemoaning the state of the “younger” generation.  Somehow or another, they are given credit for the state of the world or the Church’s stumbling about.  They are usually castigated as lazy, unmotivated, faithless, entitled, and ungrateful persons.  Of course, this is true of persons in every generation, but it is easier to point the finger at others than to reflect critically on the ways we are responsible for the world and the state of the Church.  It also releases us from taking responsibility for the way we have discipled the next generation.  There have been books and blogs written ad nauseum about how to fix “the problem.”  I’m not saying we don’t have a lot of growing up to do still.  But, I want to point out that the issues we face in the Church concern all generations within the Church, both in culpability and responsibility.  After all, some problems we created, others we inherited.

Using blanket statements about this younger generation, often couched in negative language, has sometimes blinded us to the incredible things God is doing in and through them!  Becca and I sat at a table of Church congregants complaining about how “this younger generation doesn’t appreciate commitment in marriage.”  Granted, Becca and I hadn’t been married but for five years at this point – there’s still a long way to go.  But, we looked at each other as if to say, “Well, I guess we don’t count as taking our vows seriously in their eyes.”  I can name so many others that have undertaken those vows with utmost seriousness.  Is divorce still an issue?  Yes, definitely!  But, it hasn’t just infected the youngest generation.  In fact, what has often been modeled for them hasn’t looked like fidelity and covenant – even when the marriage hasn’t resulted in divorce!  This is an issue for the whole Church, not just a small segment.

I have actually been encouraged watching young Church members, ministers, and pastors.  Some of the work and witness that they are doing is incredible!  Some have written books, some are ministering in “unconventional” ways, some are teachers, some serve the most vulnerable and destitute in our communities (when they could be making bigger paychecks doing other kinds of work), some are using the arts to proclaim God’s glory.  There are a million ways that these young ministers, entrepreneurs, mothers and fathers, counselors, librarians, coffee-makers, and others are serving and proclaiming Good News in their communities.

One young minister in Oklahoma City has created a community garden as a means of living sustainable, healthy lives and simultaneously helping those in need.  Several people that I know (or know of) have created community through coffee ministries where they integrate themselves into a community and share the Gospel.  Some others run a weekly VBS in Section 8 apartments, while their church has created a center that is intentionally being used to help those families through education and other programs.  Incredible gifts that are being offered by those who want to make a tangible difference as the hands and feet of Christ.

This is not to raise up a younger generation as the saviors of the Church or to say that they have all the answers.  I really don’t believe that to be true.  Nor is it to say that an older generation is unfaithful and obsolete.  I have often found the contrary to be true.  Rather, it is to say that all are needed as part of the Body.  But, if we continue to look upon every new generation as a liability or with suspicion while failing to recognize them as a gift, then we might very well find generations absent from the church (by the way, Millenials were not the first generation to leave denominations or the Church over generational divides. Our parents modeled this trend for us.).  If we can’t love those represented in the Church, how much more difficult is it to love those we might identify as enemies?  But, we are often suspicious of difference and change because it creates tension in us and sometimes challenges our own assumptions (this is not a new problem).

If we are fearful of change and the resulting conflict, we will treat those who are different like a body treats an illness.  It attacks the foreign element to eradicate it.  There may be elements that are harmful to the Body that must be healed or expelled (i.e., sin), but when the Body attacks itself we call that “cancer.”  Sometimes we have lacked the patience discerning when it is a disease in the Body and when its simply difference represented in the Body (i.e., the foot or the hand or the eye).  Like the wounds of Jesus, the Body bears the marks of our wounding one another.  As Pastor Becca, my lovely wife, once stated: “It is sad when we who have had our wounds healed turn around and wound others.”

The wounding of one another is astonishing.  I think of a young pastor that I know who went on vacation with his family only to return to find that the board had voted to fire him out of the blue.  I recall a young female pastor that is a tremendous pastor and yet is dealing with “ministry PTSD” because the church treated her like an enemy because her ministry resembled something they didn’t expect (I think it resembled the Kingdom, which makes all sorts of people uncomfortable!).  I know a pastor that received death threats from his some of his congregants!  I can name too many stories where “difference” was met with disdain.  Rather than seeking conversation, clarification, and discernment together, faithful people were dismissed, demeaned and denigrated.

As I have reflected on these realities, there are a few areas (though this list is not exhaustive) where these tensions, dissonances, and differences have created conflict.  They revolve around questions concerning the nature of the Church, what it means to follow Jesus as a disciple, our responsibility for living as Kingdom people here and now, and our complicity with the powers that be, among other issues.  These are important and complex issues that every generation must navigate and re-articulate because every generation faces a changing world in which to contextualize the Gospel.  It is hard yet necessary work which has been going on since the beginning of the Church.

Rather than problematizing a “younger generation” and dismissing them out-of-hand, we could see the tension emerging from the changes happening around us as opportunity for discipleship and discernment together – which is a two-way street where we are all willing to learn, to grow, and to work together for the proclamation of God’s Kingdom.  I am deeply grateful for the many older pastors and parishioners who have lovingly and graciously engaged with me on the hard issues without disowning me and branding me a heretic when we disagree.  Those have been transforming relationships that continue to shape me.  And, I pray that I will be that same kind of non-anxious presence for those who come after me.  When we fail to embody this kind of posture, we move, in the words of Willie James Jennings, toward “Faith seeking understanding” to a “Faith judging intelligence.”

 

 

“Heaping Burning Coals – Romans 12” – Reflecting on Lent

Lent is a season of reflecting in a further intentional way on the life of Christ which leads to the Cross.  The cross is symbolic, although not simply that, of the kind of ministry which Jesus embodied while proclaiming the Kingdom of God has begun here and now in him.  The cross is the way of the Kingdom, for it is the way of its King.  As Kingdom citizens, we are called to embody this same cruciform way of living here and now.  We are called to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.  Our baptisms are where we are buried with Christ so that we might also participate in his new-creation-life, which also anticipates Christ’s coming again to fulfill that which he began – “on earth as it is in heaven.”

As such, we are visible, tangible reminders that God’s Kingdom has come.  We are stewards that build for the Kingdom, announcing its inauguration in Jesus, and the Christian hope that it will someday be consummated in his return.  This is why we say: “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again!”

Yet, while we wait for Christ’s return, we recognize that there is still work to be done in the Creation and in us.  Although the Kingdom has begun, it is not yet completed work.  So, we long for and anticipate the coming redemption of all things, when Christ will be all in all.  Paul says that the Creation waits for the redemption of humanity.  And, as we wait for our redemption, sometimes we groan in prayer when words fail us.  The Spirit of God takes up our prayer and presents them to God.  We hunger and thirst for God to make right that which is broken and twisted by sin.  We all, including the Creation, groan to be set free from the bonds of sin and death.  Paul’s words picture this anguish perfectly: “Who can rescue me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24)!?

Lent weighs heavily upon us.  We see the cross in the distance and recognize that the twisted beams of wood which pierce the ground and the rusty nails which pierce Jesus are both driven deep in the flesh and the earth by our own hands.  It is our violence and our demand for justice which finally nail Jesus to that branchless tree.

It is a tree of death upon which we have placed the Author of Life.  It is the tree which is rooted in our anger, bitterness, anxiety, and malice.  Through that tree we pour out all of our contempt upon the Light of the World.  The cross which stands in the distance comes nearer and nearer as we approach Good Friday.  It holds up the mirror before us, asking: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  We can only exclaim, “Yes, it was me.  Yes, it was us.”  We try to avoid the disciplines of Lent because we finally want to avoid seeing our face in the crowd which cried out, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”  We cannot bear the shame.

Astonishingly, what we intended for evil, God reorients for our good.  This is what Paul is exclaiming when he finishes his thought in Romans 7.  “Who can rescue me from this body of death!?  Thanks be to God – through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25).  God takes an instrument of death and transforms it into a tool for cultivating new life in the Creation and in us.  This is the grand sweep of Romans 8.  Jesus has brought about new creation!  Yes, it is not completed work yet.  But, it’s not just a future event that we are waiting for either.  In fact, Paul calls the Christian community to begin to live into the reality of new creation now – to put our minds on the things of the Spirit and thus to put to death the misdeeds of the body.

We are to “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).  God’s work through the Spirit will impact what we do with our bodies.  Paul writes, “… if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” Rom. 8:13b-15a).  We are called to no longer live in the deathly ways of this world (12:2a), “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  I do not think such transformation is possible without intentional practices that engage both body and spirit in the life of a follower of Jesus.  More specifically, as Paul highlights in the following section (vv. 3-8), it cannot happen outside of the community of faith.  This is not a journey which we can do by ourselves.  God has gifted us the Church for mutual encouragement and accountability.  Christian community and the peculiar practices (i.e., prayer, sacraments, fasting, confession, reading scripture, etc.) of that community have an odd way of “humbling us” and training us to think with “sober judgment.”

Paul reminds this covenant community (the Church) that the very purpose of this community is to serve as a training ground for the Kingdom-already-here-yet-still-to-come.  It is a training ground of love.  Love of God, yes!  Most certainly.  But, equally, love of our fellow people.  In fact, the competition of the world which tries to dominate others is traded in for a new kind of competition.  It is a competition of mutual affection where everyone seeks the benefit of others over their own desires.  It is a “holy zeal and an ardent spirit, serving the Lord” by serving each other (v. 11).  It is this energetic affection for God and for each other which makes things like “Rejoicing in hope, being patient in suffering, and persevering in prayer” possible (v. 12).  We bear the burdens together and we share in each other’s joy.  And, it is a joy that spills over to others.  The needs of the saints are met by one another (v. 13a).  Not only that, but this joy spills outside of the Church as well, by extending hospitality to the stranger (13b).  In other words, the new creation is expanding to receive those parts of the old creation that have yet experienced the new life found in Christ through the Spirit to the glory of the Father.

Of course, Paul isn’t wearing rose-colored glasses.  He recognizes that there are people that are still living by the flesh.  As such, they may very well reject, even in violent ways, the hope offered by the Church.  The Church may experience persecution.  Jesus never denied this possibility.  He said, “The world hated me; it will hate you.”  Don’t be surprised.  The Kingdom of Jesus isn’t always received as good news and is sometimes treated with hostility because it challenges the world’s way of life.  It says that there is a radically different way of doing things like politics, economics, how we treat our environment, how we treat our bodies, how we treat our enemies, how we treat the most vulnerable in society.  Love is the new priority.  And, if our way of life does not reflect the way of the cross, perhaps our minds have yet to be transformed by the Spirit.

Paul outlines how we are called to respond to the abuses which the world may heap upon us.  Before our renewal by the Spirit, we fought fire with fire.  We matched violence with violence.  We responded to hatred and evil with hatred and evil.  But, now, we are to be those who “bless and do not curse” (v. 14).  We are to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (vv. 15-19).  The way of Jesus; the way of the cross; the way of love.

Just in case we were confused, Paul goes further still.  We must not simply avoid evil.  We must pursue the good of others – even our enemies.  Paul writes, “No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (vv. 20-21).  Deep inside of us, we might cheer, “Good!  Serves them right!  My enemies deserve some burning coals on their head!”  But, that interpretation only highlights how much our lives still need to be formed by the Spirit.

The idea Paul is conveying by “heap burning coals on their heads” is rooted in a cultural practice during his day.  They didn’t have instant gas fires or lighters.  Starting a fire was hard work.  Once one was started, it was easier to keep it going than to let it die out and restart it.  If your fire died, it could be a serious problem, especially on cold nights.  If your fire did go out, you might visit a neighbor to get some live coals with which to start your fire back up.  Live coals are hot and heat rises.  So, carrying those coals in a bucket on your head would keep you from getting scorched.  Thus, “heaping burning coals on their heads” was a way of saying that we are called to get their “fires” going by returning evil with good.  Just as Jesus transformed our evil (the cross) into something for our good, we are called to do the same – even for our worst enemies.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  He understood the pain and suffering of being hated.  Yet, the Gospel of Jesus led him to respond with compassion and love for his enemies.  That is Christian hope in action.

May Lent call us to repentance where we have failed to put on the mind of Christ.  May Lent draw us to daily pick up our cross and follow Jesus in the way of love!  Let us move from the ash heap of the old creation people that we have been to those anointed with the oil of the Spirit as new creation people.

Wesleyan Covenant Service (Adapted)

We recently did the Wesley Covenant Service 2016 at our church.  You can click the red highlighted text above to see the content of the service in booklet form.

We began our evening of reflection over the Genesis 15 text.  In the text, Abram hears again God’s promise to give him an heir to carry the promise.  Abram is fearful that God is slow on fulfilling the promise and that there won’t be a true heir to follow him.  Abram complains about God’s timing or inability to make good on the promises given.

Despite the complaint, God invites Abram again into the mystery of the promise.  Go outside and count all the stars, if you can (in broad daylight).  God promises progeny as numerous as the stars, but there’s likely only one star visible in the daylight hours.  Just because something isn’t seen doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.  God’s promises apparently work in that way at times.

Then, God tells Abram to kill a heifer, and a male and female goat, and to bring two birds (not killed).  The heifer and two goats are to be killed and cut in halves and placed on either side, making a runway of animal parts.  Gruesome.

This ritual was significant in that time period.  It was called a Suzerain treaty.  When two parties and people would agree on peaceful terms, the more powerful of the two factions would march the lesser party through the dead animal parts as if to say, “Break this pact and you’re likely to end up like these animals – dead meat!”

The text says a dread fear fell over Abram.  Perhaps he recognized his peril.  God would grab him by the scruff of the neck, march him through the animal carcasses, and tell him that he would be ripped apart if he dared step a toe out of line.  Abram is clearly at God’s mercy as the weaker party in this agreement and how is Abram to make good on a promise that he can’t fulfill or keep?  After all, he’s too old to have children!

Suddenly, inexplicably, a fiery pot and a flaming torch appear – fire often is used to represent God’s presence.  And, rather than being force marched through the animal pylons, Abram is astonished to see God move through the gory pathway first – not Abram.  God makes the first move.

God stakes God’s very life on fulfilling God’s promises.  The One who promises is the One who is faithful to complete the work.  God puts God’s name on the line, placing God’s honor, reputation, and glory on seeing this plan through to fruition.

As we reflect on the nature of making covenant with God, Wesley reminds us that it is God’s work into which God invites us.  God invites us to participate in the divine life and plan, but it is something that God accomplishes – yes, working in and through us – for our sake and for the sake of the world.  The appropriate response, as with Abram, is awe, wonder, joy, and thankful receiving of the promise.

The promise may seem slow in coming, but we can rest assured in God’s faithfulness.  This is especially true for those that understand Jesus to be both the promise, fulfillment, and the one by whom the new covenant with God is entered.  All the promises of God are “yes” in Christ Jesus.  And, God is willing to put God’s life at risk to accomplish that which is promised.

To enter into covenant with this risky God means that God is not willing to settle for anything less than our whole selves.  God desires to be all in all.  Covenant is no small matter, no small step.  It is the bid to come and die.  Yet, in great surprise, we find that the risk we thought we had entered into was really our gain for we were invited to partake of God’s life, to drink deeply of the Spring of Life.  God shouldered the risk and, for those who commit their very lives to God, we became the benefactors of such abundant grace.

To be a covenant people is submitting our lives to be shaped into the likeness of Jesus, to fall upon his righteousness, and to humble our hearts for holy service.  The promise of God may seem slow in coming – but, God has given God’s very life to see it through to completion.  If God is willing to stake God’s life on God’s promise, then it seems like such a small risk (though perhaps very painful or difficult in practice) to give my life to the One who will complete the good work started.