Archives For Social Justice

“From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view…Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. -Paul in 2nd Corinthians 5

diverse city screen2

 

Two weeks ago today, I had the privilege to go with 10 black preachers and 10 white preachers in Churches of Christ on a bus ride all over the South to see where some of the most historical Civil Rights events had happened.

It was one of the highlights of my life.

We worshipped in Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, we spent time in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (where four little black girls were killed by a KKK bomb). We saw where Rosa Parks got on the bus, we marched over the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, and we got to spend several hours with Dr. Fred Grey, a life long preacher in Churches of Christ, who also happened to be the lawyer for Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

 We got to see and touch (and pretend to preach behind) the very pulpit Dr. King used. It was the pulpit they used when filming the movie Selma, it was a piece of history and it was just standing out in the open in the church basement Bible Class room.

In one of my favorite moments from the trip, someone asked our tour guide/church member “Why don’t you have Dr. King’s pulpit in a case or behind plastic protection?”

She said ‘Because were going to be using it Sunday at 9:30!”

In other words, “We are a church, we were just doing church work then, were doing it still and we’re going to keep doing just good local church work.”

That’s what impressed me the most about this trip, all these churches were so, well churchy.

Did you know that the Deacons of Dexter Avenue Baptist fired the next preacher after Dr. King? Like any church, they have argued and fought over everything from paying utility bills to what kind of songs they would sing. They are a regular local church, warts and all.

But looking back through history, we know now that weren’t just that.

They were living the dream.

But I’d like to ask who’s dream?

Paul the Prophet

The classically trained scholar Sarah Ruden, tells a story in her great book “Paul Among the People” about being in an ivy league class talking about classical literature when the subject of St. Paul came up. And one of her peers began to rail against Paul for his condemnation of sorcery.

Her classmate said that to her sorcery meant “just the ability to project my power and essence.” And just about everyone in the class nodded their head in agreement. Yes, Paul was such a repressive brute.

Sarah said she would have sighed too, except that suddenly an image flashed into her mind of just what kind of world St. Paul lived in and just what sorcery would’ve meant in his Greco-Roman context.

She remembered reading the Roman poet Horace’s story of a small boy buried up to his neck who had been left to starve to death while staring at food, so that his liver and bone marrow, which must now be filled with his frenzied longing, could serve as a love charm.

They would change the meal out 3 times a day, with the most delicious of foods so that the starving boy would be driven out of his mind with longing as he slowly died from starvation.

And then a rich man would buy his bones as a love potion because he thought some girl was cute.

Reading that probably bothers you, but I want you to see the world that Paul was actually planting churches in, so you can see that Paul isn’t just railing against Harry Potter. He was taking on something that we can see clearly now as evil. But only because we have been given his Christian imagination.

Paul spent his life taking on some of history’s most institutionalized systemic evils. He was taking the truly good news of the Gospel to the entire known world, and changing people’s imagination for how things ought to be.

He was giving the world his dream about the Kingdom of God.

The problem we have when we talk about Paul is that we take cruise ships to see the cities that he walked months to get to. We watch videos or look at pictures to see where he, as a middle aged man, backpacked and bled to be at.

The problem we have with Paul is that we aren’t bleeding for these truths, we are bored with them. And we forgot just how deep, radical and beautiful they really are.

You may see Paul as some oppressive, sexist, pro-slavery and anti-freedom guy who talks too much about sex because he’s single and doesn’t get to have any.

But every category that I just mentioned is one that Paul gave you, and spent his life fighting against.

Before MLK had a dream, Paul had a vision and it’s one that we need more than ever today.

Racism and the Kingdom of God

These days we talk a lot about racism. We say things that sound so obvious, like “You shouldn’t be racist.’ But I’d like to ask why? Because for thousands of years no one really thought that was a problem. Of course, you would consider your race to be better than others, it was your race after all.

20 Church of Christ Preachers with Preacher and Civil Rights Leader Dr. Fred Grey

20 Church of Christ Preachers with Dr. Fred Grey (Preacher and Civil Rights Leader)

We say things like all people are created equal like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. But why would anyone think that? It’s not obvious, in fact, the exact opposite it true. The equality of human beings is actually anything but self-evident.

The senior in the wheelchair doesn’t strike anyone as equal to the virile young man. The boy with Down Syndrome is anything but equal to the young winner of the recent beauty pageant. Unless…

You have in someway been shaped by the story of the Bible, a story where the image of God is in everyone, no matter their age, gender, appearance or status in life.

The problem with today’s world is that we have these revolutionary ideas but we don’t know where we got them. It’s not just a part of being a good human being to be kind to the people you disagree with, mercy isn’t the default nature of mankind, and justice isn’t the default state of the universe.

The problem with the Western world is that we have just enough Christian roots to know the problem, but we’ve forgotten the solution.

Did you know that the word kindness comes from the word kin, as in your family. This is because we tend to like people who are like us.

But Jesus had a different vision.

His people were, His family would be a family of a thousand different backgrounds, races, statuses nationalities and kinds.

Jesus had this radical idea that because of His work on the Cross we wouldn’t try to build their identity on who they were better than, but by the overwhelming, overpowering love of God.

This is what Jesus started and Paul planted. The Church is a city within a city, a church of different’s that can make a difference.

A Diverse city of people.

A Church of a Different Kind.

If you are in Abilene, we’d love to invite you to join us at Highland on Sunday mornings at 8:30 (a capella) or 11 (instrumental) this fall for this series, if you don’t live in West Texas you can check out the podcast here.

“I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”-C.S. Lewis

Unknown-2Jesus once said that it would be harder for a rich man to enter Heaven than it is for a camel to go through an eye of a needle. I’ve read a lot of commentaries on that verse, and I’ve heard and given more than my share of sermons about it.

Most of the time people spend the majority of their energy trying to explain why Jesus didn’t mean what He said.

But what if Jesus did? And what if He’s not just trying to be mean to all of us rich people? What if he’s trying to explain ultimate reality to us? Notice Jesus says “It’s hard for the Rich to enter Heaven” not “God will keep them out of Heaven.”

As if this whole thing isn’t about a cruel God who keeps us out, but a good and loving God who will always give us what we want, even if we choose our own destruction.

A Parable of Pain and Paradise

One of Jesus most memorable stories comes from the Gospel of Luke, it’s just a few verses after Jesus tells the religious people the story of the Prodigal Son, about God’s limitless grace and forgiveness, and then he starts talking about Hades and dying and torment and fire.

So did Jesus just have a bad day?

The story Jesus tells is a parable about a beggar named Lazarus who is laid every day at a rich man’s gate.

All we know about the rich man is that he dresses well and he eats well, and Lazarus just hopes to eat the crumbs from his table.

But death, the great equalizer, comes to them both, and Lazarus goes to paradise where he’s in Abraham’s bosom, and the rich man goes to torment where he does this:

Then the rich man called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

And Here’s how Heaven responds:

 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

Now this sounds pretty dark, and our temptation is to just ignore it, and focus on other places were Jesus talks about puppies and rainbows.

But the problem with ignoring this story of the Rich man and Lazarus is that it’s too close to the other stories Jesus tells about God that we like. It’s too close to the good stories that we admire, the ones that we tell all the time and put on our Precious Moments Bible because they give us goosebumps and cause us to tear up as we hear them.

Everybody loves the story of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan. I mean those stories rock Jesus! Give us more of that, not this Wes Craven made-for-tv horror script.

But what if I told you that this story and the Prodigal Son story are basically the same stories?

The Good God and The Older Brother

It’s interesting that the word Jesus uses to describe the agony that this rich man is enduring is the same word Luke uses to describe the loss Mary and Joseph felt when they lost their 12 year old Jesus in the Temple. It’s the same word Luke uses later in Acts when Paul is saying goodbye to his dear friends for another mission.

The Rich Man and Lazarus is one of the most common stories painted in Christian History

The Rich Man and Lazarus is one of the most common stories painted in Christian History

Torment in this story doesn’t come from fire and sulfur, it comes from inside, it comes from losing something that was precious to you.

And what does the rich man lose? He’s lost the very stuff that defined him. After all, he’s not rich anymore.

God doesn’t judge this man by putting him in fire, God judges this man by taking his riches (the very riches that had prevented him from seeing Lazarus) away.

And notice what the rich man’s response is. He never asks to get into Heaven (!) instead he asks for Abraham to send Lazarus to him. The rich man is still under the impression that he is above Lazarus and that Lazarus should serve him. It might be helpful to understand the word the Rich man uses here, he asks for Abraham to pempon Lazarus, (to send), which is where we get the word Pimp.

Lazarus is seen as a commodity to be pimped out as the Rich Man sees fit, and the Rich man’s definition of mercy is another person definition of cruelty.

I like the way Joshua Ryan Butler says this:

The rich man is in denial. He still lives in the old order of things, where he was king and Lazarus was lower on the social ladder. He refuses the Great Reversal that God has accomplished. This is not a penitent sinner saying, “God I’m sorry! Please forgive me! I want to live with you!” Jesus’ parable reveals his heart, he’d rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. 

And notice that Heaven doesn’t turn it’s back on him. Abraham doesn’t call him sinner or fool, Heaven is wide open to this rich man but not on the terms that the rich man expects.

In Butler’s words:

“Heaven calls him son, but it doesn’t call him rich man…This is an expression of fatherhood of filial devotion, of care. This is not a stone cold heaven shut off to a sorry, penitent sinner trying to come inside. This is the new Jerusalem, with gates wide open and a son who is stuck in the old world, weeping at the toys he wouldn’t share that have now been taken away.”

Heaven calls him son, but it doesn’t call him rich man.

And the rich man doesn’t like that option, and so he remains outside.

He is the older brother, angry that the world that he thought he had mastered had been turned upside down. And now that he’s realizing he no longer has everything under his thumb, he refuses to accept God’s Great Reversal. He’s rejecting the invitation to come into the party, because he doesn’t like the terms of the party.

Also notice that there is a chasm (very much like the gate this man had set up outside his own home) but now it’s not keeping Lazarus out, it’s keeping the rich man out.

The rich man can’t enter into Heaven from where he is, or more importantly as he is.

Because Heaven protects Lazarus, The Grace of God, in C.S. Lewis’ terms has created the fixed pains of Hell. God’s not going to let the bully rule the playground any longer, God’s not going to let that husband continue to beat his spouse or the super-power continue to exploit the developing world just because they can. (Butler 75)

But like the Older brother, the invitation still stands, the party is still wide open and the music and dancing continues, but the Rich Man can’t bring himself to enter, he doesn’t want to enter it because he can’t celebrate what is being so recklessly thrown about.

The Grace and Goodness of the Father.

Remember Abraham calls this man son. He addresses him in the same language that the Father address the older brother in the Prodigal Son story just a few verses earlier.

The problem with the rich man, is that Heaven doesn’t work like that. You can’t buy it or control it. In Heaven you can’t gate off your land or pimp someone else out. You can’t slave away and earn anything because every thing the Father has is already yours, and always has been.

You can’t be rich in Heaven because Heaven doesn’t have rich men, it only has sons and daughters!

And for some that is Gospel news that they have waited a lifetime to hear, and for others it’s torment, the loss of the only thing that they ever really loved.

In other words. It’s torment, it’s paradise.

It’s Hell and Heaven at the same party.

As always, we must persuade [others] with love… And we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts.” – Mother Teresa

UnknownI want to talk today about the incredibly controversial Supreme Court Decision that has changed and is changing the face of morality in America. It’s the decision that has Christians talking about America losing it’s way and turning it’s back on God.

I’m speaking of course, about the SCOTUS decision in Roe Vs. Wade

I’ve never known an America where abortion wasn’t legal. I’ve never known a Christianity that didn’t care deeply about this and often in ugly ways.

And by the way, I get it. I hate abortion, I rarely speak out on it, like many people in my generation because I’ve never seen a productive discussion come out of the quickly escalating shouting matches.

But strange as it may seem, I believe that the Roe vs. Wade decision and the recent SCOTUS ruling in favor of same sex marriages are tied together (not that same-sex relationships are in a same category with abortion, but) because the real underlying point of disagreement between the Church and modern Western culture is the purpose of our sexuality.

In many ways, Christians in the West are still trying to work out all of the implications of the Birth Control, and our recent ability to sever the connection between making love and making babies.

Mary Eberstadt in her book “Adam and Eve after the Pill” writes that this is the defining cultural event of the 21st century:

Time magazine and Francis Fukuyama, Raquel Welch and a series of popes, some of the world’s leading scientists, and many other unlikely allies all agree: No single event … has been as consequential for relations between the sexes as the arrival of modern contraception.

I believe Christianity is more liberating for women than we can imagine, and Jesus calls us to work toward gender equality, but one thing I’m growing more skeptical of is our cultures great promises for a correlation between greater freedom and greater happiness.

I think it’s indicative that for all our progress we’re not getting happier, actually we are losing our joy

Christian Homes and Modern Families

Historically, a Christian theology of marriage and sexuality says that God designed this relationship of total self-giving, in which each spouse gives of him- or herself to the other, remaining open to the blessing of children “when it is God’s will”-the Book of Common Prayer

In other words, for 3,000 plus years, the ideal vision of human sexuality was a means of getting us outside of ourselves. It was literally about making something other than you, When a man and a woman came together they created a soul, a new world, they made love and they actually made a little person.

I love the way Rob Bell once said this:

Is that where the phrase “Making Love” comes from? An awareness that something mystic happens in sex, that something good and needed is created. Something is added to the world, given to the world. The world is blessed with something that it desperately needs. The man and this woman together are in some profoundly, mysterious way good for the well-being of the whole world.

or in the words of Diedrich Bonhoeffer:

Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which he wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom.

Bonhoeffer, wrote this from a prison cell as he was waiting to die. He was executed as a single man who would never be married. But he saw marriage as a temporary arrangement(!) And as a way of linking generations together. Once that is divorced from our sexuality than the story of our sexuality has fundamentally changed.

But this isn’t a blog about contraception, it’s a blog about the relationship of the Church and the State.

I have never known a world where Abortion wasn’t a fundamental point of disagreement with the culture and Christians around me, Even while making exceptions, Christians and Christianity for a variety of reasons, and across the conservative/progressive spectrum seem to be against abortion.

But I have known Churches that have been refused to let politics set the agenda for what it means to love and sacrificially live out the way of Jesus.

For example, at the church I currently serve. 50 years ago, we started a ministry called Christian Homes. Where they took in those at-risk single mothers, housed them, protected them, covered over their (at the time very real) shame, and set up foster and adoptive homes for their children.

Christian Homes protected the dignity of these women back when it cut against the spirit of a 1950’s hyper-moralism, and then they protected the dignity of unborn children when the tides of culture turned toward a more permissive version of sexuality.

I don’t talk regularly about this issue, and maybe I should. But I’m so proud of my home church for their vision, sacrifice and compassionate way of living out the way of Jesus. They just intuitively knew that what it meant to be a good local church involved protecting and serving the least of these.

And that’s why I wanted to do this series on the Church and the Court as a way of laying some ideas out for a better way to handle a controversial SCOTUS decision this time around.

Make Love Not War

Did you know that in 1995, Norma Leah McCorvey, the famous “Jane Roe” of the Roe vs. Wade case became a Christian? In 1995, she was baptized and eventually became an outspoken opponent of abortion.

In his book, Vanishing Grace, Phillip Yancey tells that the most surprising part of the story was how the person who influenced her the most was her greatest enemy, the director of “Operation Rescue” the Anti-Abortion group. The director changed McCorvey heart when he stopped treating her like a villain.

McCorvey's baptism in 1996 (from CNN)

McCorvey’s baptism in 1996 (from CNN)

The director publicly apologized for calling her a “baby killer” and started spending time with her as a person. The pro-abortion forces had washed their hands of McCorvey because of her past history with drug addiction and promiscuity she was not exactly the poster child for any public movement, but thank God Jesus followers didn’t.

McCorvey went on to write a book appropriately titled “Won By Love” that detailed how her heart had changed not by lobbying but by the relentless love of God and the people who finally began to see her as a person and not as an issue.

I realize that the world is not what it ought to be. For some of us it can feel scary and threatening. We’re watching the societal mores and norms change at a breakneck speed. But remember that the world Jesus started His church in was filled with infanticide, Jesus would’ve known all about it, and as far as we know, He didn’t preach on it. Instead he created a group of people and commanded them to “let the little children come to me.”

And they did.

This group of people captured the world’s imagination by adopting the discarded babies that had been previously unwanted. These first Christians pioneered a new ethic of love for children.

Previously children weren’t named until they were older because the parents didn’t want to get attached in case they died or decided they didn’t want them. But Christians began to give them names at birth. That’s where we get the idea for children’s “Christian names” The term God-Parents was coined for Christians who cared for children who weren’t biologically their own.

Remember in Ancient Rome all kinds of sexual relationships were celebrated and even worshipped, and in that world the movement of Jesus not only thrived…it won especially those people over. Women flocked to this new Jesus movement because they were finally in a group that didn’t reduce them to their bodies or sexual usefulness.

I think it’s important to remember there is a difference between the Church and the world. Because the Church at her best is good for the world by not being like the world. We are a counter-culture for the good of the culture.

And in order to be that again, I think internally, we Christians have some work to do. We’ve got to work out the ways that we’ve been complicit in the bigotry against people with same-sex attraction and confess it and repent of it. We’ve got to revisit our theology of sexuality/body/marriage and repent of our idolatry from where we’ve made the good gifts of God into little “g” gods themselves.

I believe that this is real opportunity for Christians in America to learn again how to be disciples of a man who lived in 1st century Roman occupation, and who changed the world not by accumulating power but by laying down His life.

I believe this is an opportunity for American Christians to become more like Jesus…To Make Love not War.

Because people aren’t won by war, but they are by love.

RacismThis past Wednesday night Churches all over Abilene held a prayer vigil for our Christian brothers and sisters in Charleston, trying to stand in solidarity with a people who were hurting and remind ourselves that, in the words of the Apostle Paul “When one part of the body suffers, we all suffer along with it.”

It was a great evening filled with preachers/elders and pastors from several different churches singing hymns and praying for our city, churches, country and even Dylan Roof, the perpetrator of these evil acts.

For my part of the evening, I stood up to a crowd of racially diverse people and said the most counter-intuitive, most terrifying thing I could think to say.

I told them I was a racist.

Racism and Me

Whenever racism becomes a topic of media coverage, I cringe. It seems like the talking points are already solidified and many of us rush toward postures of defense and blame.

So let me get this out there. I am a racist.

I grew up in rural Arkansas in the 80s, not that it was my parents’ fault, they were incredibly hospitable and open to other people, not that it was my state’s fault, there were plenty of people who were doing lots of good work for reconciliation, but racism was in the air.

I grew up with the flag that everyone is talking about hanging on my wall.

As a tangent, I like the way that the conservative Southern Baptist Convention president Russell Moore talked about this,

“The Cross and the Confederate flag can co-exist for only so long before one of them sets the other on fire.”

That was true in my own life.

And I’m so grateful that the Cross won that battle.7595927876_56f66e7446_o

I grew up in a church of ten people. Most people would call that a small group, but it was my entire church, and I love the people from that church.

When I went to college, I would come back a few times a year to preach, and I would try to bring some friends with me to encourage my church family. One of those Sundays we had brought about forty people with us, and right before it was time for me to preach, Brother Foy, the patriarch of the church, stood up to introduce me.

This is funny in itself, because I was the only person there who knew everyone. This was the church I grew up in, and these were my friends who came home with me. But tradition is tradition, and if someone other than Foy was preaching, he was going to say something.

So Foy stood up and the first words out of his mouth were, “I can’t help but notice that all of our guests are white.”  Immediately I was worried about where this was going, because Foy was crazy. He was crazy for Jesus, but he was crazy. If he felt like something was true, he would say it without regard for how you felt about it, and I could tell this was about to be one of those occasions.

“We have forty extra people with us this morning, and every one of them is a white person.” Then Foy pointed at the African-American teenage boy sitting on the second row and said, “I brought an African-American this morning. Why didn’t you?” (Obviously, political correctness was not Foy’s strong suit.)

“Now Brother Jonathan, come preach the word to us.”

Then I had to stand up and preach to a group of people who were just made to feel like they just stumbled in from their Klan meeting.

But to be honest, looking back, I’m glad Brother Foy asked that question. I wish all our churches had someone asking questions like that.

Whenever I get frustrated with church, this is the story that brings me back. It is a story that reminds me of why I need the church, even when I don’t want her…maybe especially when I don’t want her.

Elegant Racism

In his great little book, I Told Me So Gregg A. Ten Elshof talks about the pervasive nature of self-deception. This book is about how intelligent, self-reflective people often lie to themselves, oblivious that they are doing so.

Then Elshof says this:

We assume that each person is the unquestionable authority on the question of which beliefs he or she has.

In other words, none of us really knows clearly what we believe.

That is the nature of self-deceit. We need each other to help us see the blind spots we have. I think this is the reason that we Christians aren’t able to move very well on issues of race.

We have made this into the unforgivable, and therefore an un-confessable sin, and when the topic rears its ugly head we rush to prove how innocent we are, we scapegoat public figures and point out our own “squeaky clean” record instead of asking the dangerous but Gospel-bringing question…”Where is this in me?”

We are often guilty of what last year, an article in the Atlantic calls, “Elegant Racism” the kind or racism that has learned to be polite about its indifference. But the Gospel can help us here. Because when we are aware of the love of God we are able to be suspicious of our own virtues.

The well-known Social Psychologist Brene Brown points out that shame’s survival depends on not being able to talk about it. We’ve done that with racism. Everyone is so afraid to be “that person” who says or does something stupid and offensive that we just remain silent.

We clam up and ignore the sin we see right in front of us, and in the mirror. And sure it might be a bit racist, but at least it’s a more elegant form of it.

I believe that when churches don’t allow or create spaces to openly confess and receive forgiveness for sins like this, is dangerously close to believing that racism is a sin stronger than the Grace of God.

And that is a lie.

My generation quotes the verse “Do not judge” often. But the point of that verse isn’t that Christians can’t call each other out, the point is that we call each other out cautiously…confront others the way you would like to be confronted, and make sure that you have dealt with the beam in your own eye first.

Around thirty years earlier, when Foy had already been a Christian for a decade or two, he also became convicted that he was a racist. And for Foy that was unacceptable. So he moved to a predominately African-American town and spent the rest of his career teaching at a predominately African-American school.

He lived out the word repentance, and now he could call others to it as well.

He often took me and other young people to African-American churches, just so we could rub shoulders with people we weren’t familiar with, and help us to see how much we had in common.

From the time when I met Foy, he had African-Americans (and people from several different ethnicities) living in his house with him. He was Shane Claiborne before it was cool. And from the time I was a kid we were a racially integrated church in a racially segregated world.

I am a racist, I have prejudices and discriminations that I’m not proud of. But praise God that the church helped me know it, she taught me that it was wrong, and showed me how to repent.

I am a racist, but I don’t want to be, I don’t have to be, anymore.

This blog is a re-purposed version of something that I originally posted on Patheos

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If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you’ve heard me talk about growing up in a little 10 person church. I talk about it so often because it is the filter that I view the majority of my life through. A down-syndrome boy who led worship, a mentally unstable preacher, senior saints and racial diversity, communion served by ex-convincts, we had it all.

But one of the more formative parts of our church, is something I’ve never really talked about before. That was that while we had plenty of characters in our church, we almost never had a plan.

There was never really an order of worship, although a regular routine did evolve (3 songs, prayer, 2 songs, communion, sermon etc) there was a lot of moving pieces. After all, when your worship is led by anyone who showed up it’s hard to plan until they get there.

Room for the Spirit

And here is where one of the more charming memories about my little church happened. At least a couple of times a month, Bro. Foy would turn around in his pew and loudly remind all of us about the Quakers:

“You know our Quaker brothers and sisters will sit in silence and just wait on the LORD to give them a word”

And when Bro. Foy did this we knew what was coming next…nothing. No one would speak, as we tried out this little Quaker experiment.

There was lots of silence, heavy breathing, a cough or two and finally someone would stand up and say something that they thought God had moved them to say.

Let me remind you, we were an anti-Sunday School Church of Christ, we were against Bible Classes because the New Testament didn’t specifically authorize them, but worked into our semi-regular liturgy was this idea that the world was inhabited by God and that God could speak anytime and through anyone.

And over the course of my childhood I began to believe it.

One of the more interesting stories in the Bible, is the story of Elijah going up against the prophets of Ba’al. Israel has been flirting with other gods, and now God has sent Elijah to make them choose between Ba’al the idol and the living LORD. So Elijah has a kind of Wild West showdown with over 400 prophets, they carve up a couple of bulls (of course), and put them on their respective altars and they are going to have a god-off to see whose god will send down fire from Heaven.

Elijah lets the prophets of Ba’al pray to their “god” first. So the prophets of Ba’al pray and weep and wail for hours, they take to cutting themselves to get Ba’als attention and the whole time they are banging on drums. I imagine it was a pretty noisy, messy affair. But at the end of the day, there was no fire from Ba’al, because the Bible is insinuating, there is no Ba’al.

But then when Elijah steps up to pray, there’s no dog and pony show, he simply prays for God to send down fire from Heaven and show Israel what a real God looks like. And that’s exactly what happens.

There’s a verse in the book of Habbakuk that has always intrigued me, and it’s a verse related to this story:

“The LORD is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silent before Him.”

This is not a verse against drums or musical instruments or a Scriptural mandate not to talk (but it might be wise to use less words), it’s a polemic against the very thing that the prophets of Ba’al were doing. God isn’t like Ba’al, He’s alive, he doesn’t need your drums or your shouting to prop up the appearance that He’s really there. He really is there, and so be silent, because God might just have something to say.

The Quakers were right.

The Journal of John Woolman

So back to the Quakers, I don’t know if you’ve heard of them (they are awfully quiet) but if you live in America your life has been radically shaped by them.

A few weeks ago, I read the journal by an 16th century Quaker named John Woolman, Woolman was a entrepreneurial businessman who probably did as much as anyone in America to bring to an end slavery…and chances are you’ve never heard of him.

The Radical Quaker John Woolman

The Radical Quaker John Woolman

At the beginning of his journal, Woolman realized that he had fallen away from meetings and he recommitted himself to gathering with the other Quakers. Because he realized that he was becoming a kind of person he didn’t like. He knew that he was gathering with/spending time with the wrong people, and if he wanted to hear the voice of God he needed to be with people who knew how to hear Him.

So he went, and heard from God in more ways than he’d hoped for.

He noticed that some of his fellow Quakers held slaves, and that bothered him…a lot. So he started privately taking these brothers and sisters aside and sharing his concerns. I want you to think about the courage this took, back in the day, many in the abolitionist movement were very harsh and judgmental, they would shout their angry condemnation of slavery from a distance, but not Woolman. Which is why he was so effective.

He didn’t believe you could love people in theory, but only the actual people in front of you, and out of concern for them, and for the people they thought they owned, Woolman spoke for God.

Seriously, he heard the voice of God over and over again say the same thing in different places. Because that’s the thing about Woolman, God sent him all over the country, and everytime he’d go to the Quaker meeting house, they’d all sit for hour(s) of silence, and then when God would give Woolman a word he’d say it.

And it worked.

Here’s something that Woolman said repeatedly:

These are souls for whom Christ died, and for our conduct toward them we must answer before that Almighty Being who is no respecter of persons…I have been under a concern for some time on account of the great number of slaves which are imported into this colony.  I am aware that it is a tender point to speak to, but apprehend I am not clear in the sight of heaven without speaking to it.

Eventually, the 1780 Slavery Abolition act become official, and it comes from the tiny little Quaker colony called Pennsylvania, that was shaped by a business man who was moved by the voice of God.

Just because someone says that they hear from God doesn’t mean that they do. They may even hear something, but that doesn’t mean it’s from God. A real test of whether something is from the God of Jesus is whether or not it costs you something, if it challenges the status quo that leads to greater justice to self-sacrifice and toward reconciliation with other people.

God still speaks and moves.

So thank God for those movers who are Quakers.

On March 11, 2015

Uncool: A Work In Progress

“I got myself into trouble, but it was the good kind of trouble, the necessary kind of trouble.” –Congressman John Lewis speaking about being beaten at Selma

“When it feels the road’s too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah:’Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.” –President Obama this weekend honoring the 50th anniversary of Selma

Un-Cool Desktop

 

In 1968, there was a rebellion in France that came closer than any other to overthrowing the government. College students were rebelling against the stringent education system and there was several riots in the street which exposed, on national television, police brutality. The people of France turned against their government and Europe turned into a tinder-box, waiting for the revolution.

But it never happened…Why?

Because summer came. The students took off for vacation. The revolution went no where, because it had no where to go. The French students were bored and had seen the anti-war protesters on television, and thought that was something that looked cool to do. In the words of Paul Grant,

“Cool makes for great street theater but doesn’t lend itself to serious activism.”

Most Revolutions go nowhere because they have nowhere to go.

Over the past few decades we’ve talked more about changing the world than ever before, but this begs the question…change it to what?

it is so much easier to be against something than it is to be for anything, and I’m starting to believe that most of the rhetoric that I see online these days is image management, that is we want to be seen as rebelling against the status quo, but not enough to skip summer vacation,

The Best Religions Don’t Need Batteries

A couple of days ago, Ross Dothat, a thoughtful, conservative Catholic columnist at the New York Times wrote an article called “The Case for Old Ideas” where he disagreed with the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari who is airing a sentiment that seems to be growing more common these days. Here’s what Harari said:

It was only when people “came up with new ideas, not from the Shariah, and not from the Bible, and not from some vision,” but from studying science and technology, that answers to the industrial age’s dislocations emerged… “In terms of ideas, in terms of religions,,,the most interesting place today in the world is Silicon Valley, not the Middle East.” It’s in Silicon Valley that people are “creating new religions….that will take over the world.”

Ross Douthat points out that Silicon Valley is certainly changing the world, but in ways that are leading to a whole new set of rich/poor divides, a whole new slate of dehumanizing some people for the profit of others, and that this is not a new development with our relationship to progress. Here is Douthat’s point in rebuttal to Harari:

When technological progress helped entrench slavery, the religious radicalism of abolitionists helped destroy it. When industrial development rent the fabric of everyday life, religious awakenings helped reknit it. When history’s arc bent toward eugenics, religious humanists helped keep the idea of equality alive.

selma_1965

Image from WhiteHouse.gov

It’s unfortunate timing for Harari to say that people coming up with new technological ideas, and not the Bible or some vision are the solution to the world.

Because it was precisely a vision from a Baptist pastor that had saints marching out of their churches and over the bridge 50 years ago this week. It was a dream that was drenched in the spirit of the Prophets, and it was the Isaiah of the Bible that no less than the POTUS quoted in closing his speech in Selma this weekend.

Changing the Future Lies in the Past

I’m pushing back on progressive Christianity with this series not because I don’t believe in progress but because I do. I just don’t believe that there has been a better vision of progress that has come along in the past couple of thousand years than the one that has got us this far. Every Church in every age has to figure out how to embody it in their time and place, every generation God’s people have to reinvent how to change the world, but they don’t have to reinvent what the changed world looks like.

I don’t know of a better manifesto for the future than the prophets and apostles of the past.

And even though it may often appear that Churches and Christians are too slow to move for our own good (sometimes we are), even when it appears that we are stumbling in from one spirit of the age to another and not the Gospel (a charge sadly often true) even when it appears that we are stuck in days gone by. Please remember, on our best days we’re not primarily concerned with how we appear.

And if we are not useful to the world with criticism, than let us be useful to the world as a specimen. We may be seen as a throwback to age without wi-fi and common sense but I believe whole heartedly that we are more than that.

I believe that God’s good world is headed somewhere, and that what seems quaint and farfetched today just might be celebrated tomorrow. Because somedays those church doors swing open and we walk across bridges when it’s not cool to walk across because we have a dream from yesterday about how tomorrow ought to be.

We don’t rebel because it’s cool, that never lasts, we rebel because we hope. Not a hope in politics, not a hope in human greatness or that things are just slowly getting better with each invention, that’s not just hubris, it’s foolish. No, we are prisoners of hope in God.

Somedays we fail, somedays we are the white clergy urging patience not the Baptist Pastor in the jail cell, and on those days it’s tempting to disavow the people who share this common dream, but remember…

We are a work in progress.

On February 26, 2015

UnCool: The Church Is For God

Un-Cool DesktopChristine Frost never set out to attract the attention of the entire world. The 77 year old nun had no interest in that kind of platform, she was just serving the LORD by serving the poor.

For the past forty years she had worked to get poor, disenfranchised people into better housing, she and her abbey devoted themselves to serving people in what we call “the projects.” For four decades she had served these people no matter what faith they had or didn’t.

And so when she Christine Frost saw the black flag of ISIS flying over the entry of the apartments she’d spent the better part of her life serving she did what was only natural. She took that flag down.

The flag had already been flying for two weeks, and when journalists approached to take pictures they were threatened with bodily harm, people had complained to local authorities, who were trying to figure out what to do. And that’s when Christine Frost, the nun, known for her ability to organize bingo nights and speak on behalf of the marginalized, stepped up.

Christine Frost (photo from the International Business News UK)

Christine Frost (photo from the International Business News UK)

This plucky senior saint just walked up to the building with a step-ladder and took the flag down.

At first, no one in the British press knew what to make of this act of bravery. Some assumed it was a Christian vs. Islam thing, but it wasn’t, it was woman who had been faithfully serving her community in the name of Jesus for decades and she had no idea that what she was doing would be so very cool, she just knew it was right.

Getting Hugged by Strangers

I spent this past Saturday night hanging out with Kent and Amber Brantly for a fundraising event. I had the privilege of getting to interview Kent about his experience with serving West Africa and having Ebola. They were really incredible, humble people who have given Jesus a good name. But the one thing I wasn’t expecting is how many people wanted to hug them.

We ate dinner at the Macaroni Grill before hand and total strangers just came up and hugged him and walked away without saying a word.

Amber told my wife, “This has been happening a lot lately.”

Think about that, these aren’t people who are asking for selfies or autographs, they aren’t wanting to get anything, they are just wanting to say thank you.

If you know Kent, you know that the best word to describe him isn’t cool, he’s not edgy or image-conscious, he’s the furthest thing from a hipster. He’s not cool, he’s more than that, He’s trying to be faithful.

And this brings me to the problem with the American Christian’s preoccupation with being cool. Cool is built on rebellion, and it’s easier to sell rebellion than holding on to some kind of tradition. I like the way Paul Grant puts it in his book, “Blessed are the Uncool”

Was Jesus really a rebel? Yes, but Jesus didn’t rage against some abstract machine; he called people to an old way, the way revealed in the prophets. . . . Jesus rocked the boat, and defied the status quo, modeling courageous resistance of the prevailing winds. But in our contemporary culture, rebellion is considered a good in its own right—and a thrilling one at that. We’re out to transgress. But we don’t really have any agenda beyond rebellion itself.

It’s so tempting for Churches to fall into the trap of pursuing cool, we use words like relevant or cultural engagement, we want to show the world that we “get it” and that we don’t believe in dragons or elves, but when we pursue this, it quickly becomes where we spend our best energies and resources.

David Wells makes this point well in his book “The Courage to Be Protestant”

“the miscalculation here is enormous…The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God. And the further irony is that the younger generations [are not impressed, they] often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.

Instead of battling to be relevant and cool, churches should be doing is engaging their communities and cultures by trying to be the most faithful version of themselves for God and for the world.

Our chief goal isn’t to be relevant, it is to be the people of God.

Who is the Church For?

A couple of years ago I read the great book by Andy Stanley “Deep and Wide” where he asked the insightful question, “Is the Church for members or non-members?” He’s asking the question because of the tendency that churches have to bend toward being internally focused, and Stanley very convincingly makes the point that the church exists for the people who don’t belong to her.

So I went to Jeff Childers, a member at Highland and a good friend, and I asked him that question “Who is the church for?” And in one sentence Jeff exposed a huge gap in my faith and view of Church.

He just said, “Short answer is the Church is for God.”

Immediately, I was like “Oh yeah, that’s the right answer.”

I realized that this was the missing piece in my theology, I still believe that the Church is the only institution in the world that exists for the people who don’t belong to her, but not first, She first exists for God.

Do you realize the great pleasure it gives God when we forgive people who are difficult to forgive? Do you realize when we reconcile racially/economically/politically we give God great joy because we are acting like His Son? We don’t’ do it because it’s popular, we do it because it’s who God is.

I don’t know of another reason that would cause someone to serve Ebola victims at the expense of their own health, or could cause an elderly nun to take down a flag at the cost of her own safety.

Sometimes the faithfulness of the Church catches the world’s attention and people are reminded that it is good news that Christians follow Jesus. And that may put an elderly nun on the front page of the Guardian, or it may get strangers coming up and giving you hugs at a Macaroni Grill.

But that’s not why we do it, the Church exists for the world, but not first, she first exists for God.

On February 10, 2015

Uncool: Shame On Us

Progressive kingdom theology has become too often an emasculated kingdom of those whose theology is framed to make reparations for past injustices. As such it functions as little more than the puppeting echoes of progressive Western liberalism and politics with a thin veneer of [salvation] slathered on top of what is little more than a feeble attempt to salve a guilty conscience over a sinful history.  Many evangelicals and progressives today are steamed up about their opportunity to change the world and to be significant and do something important. For all the “good” this movement can do and is doing, I contend that far more importantly it is largely a shame-based movement masking a shallow gospel and an inept grasp of what kingdom means in the Bible.

–Scot McKnight

Un-Cool Desktop

Imagine for a second a good man, who wants to do good things with his life. Imagine that he decides to start doing good things for people around him, so he starts looking for people who are in need, he gives money to people who say they need it, he gives food to people who say they are hungry, and he volunteers at the food pantry. But to his horror he discovers that he’s been drinking coffee made from beans farmed by migrant day-laborers, so he switches to fair-trade organic coffee. Then he discovers that his clothes were all made in Sri Lankan sweat shops, so he takes up knitting. He discovers that his smart phone was made by people in Chinese factories with nets around the windows to catch all the suicide attempts, so he burns his smart phone and gets a dumb one.

Then he finds out that because of his racial background that he had certain advantages that others didn’t have, and then he learns of all the privilege that he inherited just by being born a man into the world, so he tries to redistribute wealth and opportunity to racial minorities and women, and then he hears about how Native Americans were treated by the first settlers, he learns that he stands on top of opportunity built on oppression. And at this point the man looks around him and realizes that there’s just too much injustice going on, and not enough people care, and so he starts to get angry, in part because people should care, but in a secret part of his heart he knows it’s because there’s no way to get clean.

Why are we so angry?

This is a question I’m asking a lot these days, I try to do most of it face to face with friends rather than online, but it’s one that I think most of us need to ask ourselves more often. Because we are so very angry so very often,

Sometimes it feels like the internet is akin to angry writing in the bathroom stall, it feels like a race to see who can say they’re offended first and with the most volume.

I’m saying this as someone who cares very much about justice and who’s closest relationships are with people who do as well, but I’m also saying this as the man who I described above. I’ve been on this journey for a while, and I’ve started to learn that pure justice is ugly, because we’re not just, in the words of Richard Beck, “There is no way to get clean. We can’t wash our hands enough.”

Shame is on all of us.

And here’s where classic Christian theology can help us find our way to a better place. Christianity starts with this radical idea that no one is just, given the right opportunity, and the right incentive, each one of us would do horrible things to other people, in fact we probably already have.

Against traditional liberalism, Jewish-Christian morality has insisted that humanity is actually not, well, moral. In fact, some well-known atheist thinkers have started to see this as one of the greatest gifts the Christian tradition gives the world:

 The doctrine of Original Sin encourages us to inch towards moral improvement by understanding that the faults we despise in ourselves are inevitable features of the species. We can therefore admit to them candidly and attempt to rectify them in the light of day…Enlightenment thinkers believed that they were doing us a favor by declaring man to be originally and naturally good. However, being repeatedly informed of our native decency can cause us to become paralyzed with remise over our failure to measure up to impossible standards of integrity. Confessions of universal sinfulness turn out to be a better starting point from which to take our first modest steps towards virtue. –Atheist Alain De Bottom

In other words, no matter who you are there is a reason to be ashamed of something, somewhere that you have done, chances are you don’t need me to tell you this, it’s probably something that you are already keenly aware of and probably pretty driven to deal with it. We all want to get our hands clean.

But Christianity refuses to see human behavior as something related to a balance sheet. We can’t sum up all the good and evil of our lives and do some kind of calculus to see if our life has justified the next breath we take. Because Christianity, if it says anything says our cruelty cannot be canceled out by equal and opposite amounts of being kind. In the words of Francis Spufford, “The weight of sorrow is not lightened by happiness elsewhere. The bad stuff cannot be averaged. It can only be confessed.”

What Comes After Cool

This is what the Classic view of Jesus’ death on the Cross has meant, it’s why a robust Christian view of Justice must not be based in shame no matter how temporarily effective it might be, because it leads to angry, dis-enchanted people, and because Jesus death actually means that for His people there’s no more room for shame in our lives or in communities that bear His name.

But we are addicted to shame. Why? I think it’s because shame and cool are related, they are siblings.  Cool is built on the shame of some being outsiders, it must rebel against something and someone. It must shame them.

It might be helpful to remember that the Cross functioned primarily as a tool of shaming, in a culture that ran on honor and shame. Jesus’ death was a public mocking of a naked, religious weak and dying man. Mess with us, and Rome says…This is what happens. We strip you bare, we parade you through your hometown and fillet you in front of your friends and family.

That’s what everyone knew about crucifixion in the day of Jesus. But suddenly, people started telling a different story over it. Here’s Paul:

 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Rembrandt's Painting of the Crucifixion

Rembrandt’s Painting of the Crucifixion

Did you catch that? He made a public spectacle of them, he shamed the shamers, He bullied the bullies by emptying the power and changing the very definition of what justice was and taking away the very way it was fueled.

Albert Schweitzer once defined Jesus as a man who was so convinced that the gears of the universe were running the wrong way that He threw Himself into them and slowly the wheels started turning the other way.

He reverses the way the world works, he changes our very notions of justice and mercy and he does it without saying a word, he does it without any notion of needing to justify Himself. And classic Christian theology says He’s not just feeling the anger of this one crowd on one Friday morning in Jerusalem. He’s the love that made the world, to whom all times and all places are present, and He’s turning his bruised face toward the whole human condition, accepting everything we can throw at Him, everything we suspect we deserve ourselves.

In the words of Francis Spufford:

The doors of his heart are wedged open wide, and in rushes the whole pestilential flood, the vile and roiling tide of cruelties and failures and secrets. Let me take that from you, he is saying. Give that to me instead. Let me carry it. Let me be to blame instead. I am big enough. I am wide enough.

I am the shining your shame cannot extinguish.

I am the door where you thought there was only wall.

I am what comes after deserving.

Jesus deals with shame by being shamed. The cross is not cool, and neither are people who pick up ones themselves. This is what comes after cool.

On February 3, 2015

Uncool: Embarrased to Say

“The chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” -The Westminster Confession

Un-Cool Desktop

Alex was pretty well off in life, he probably came from a family with a modest income, and now he was on a fast track to having a pretty good life. He was lucky enough to be put in an imperial boarding school, and in 1st century Rome that meant that he was going to get to serve in the palace of the Emperor. If Alex played his cards right he might even get to serve the emperor himself.

But that probably never happened.Alex graffiti

Because it turns out that the boarding school that Alex went to was really cruel. Today the ruins of this 1900 year old school are famous not for the education, but for it’s graffiti. The students drew all over the walls of this school, and one of them carved this picture, and along with it all we know about the student “Alex”

Alex’s peers carved a picture of a man worshipping a donkey on a cross. Then they added in crude language “Alexamenos worships [his] God”

And you thought Junior High was tough for you.

The Courage to be Different

One of the best books I read in years was a book by Francis Spufford, a British author writing on why he was still a Christian. In the U.S. Edition of his book, he wrote a preface to explain to people reading in America about what it was like to live as a Jesus follower in the U.K.

 In Britain, where I live, recent figures suggest that about 6 percent of the population goes regularly to church, and it’s a number that has drifted steadily downward over the past few decades, while the average age of churchgoers has just as steadily trended upward: presently the average worshipper is fifty-one years old. In the United States, by contrast, the equivalent figure (from 2006) is 26 percent of the population, with a youthful, rosy-cheeked age distribution. That’s not all, though. Some surveys, tellingly, reveal that a further 16 percent of Americans claim to be regular churchgoers. From the British perspective this second statistic is even more startling and alien than the first one. The idea of people pretending to be regular churchgoers because it will make them look virtuous—or respectable, or serious, or community-minded—is completely bizarre to us. Here in Britain, it is more likely that people would deny they went to church even if they actually did, on the grounds of embarrassment

These days the word persecution is thrown around a lot, generally centering around politics. But I live in a city where people often buy my meal, I get my haircut and eye exams and dental work for free just because I’m a preacher.  I’m not persecuted I’m privileged.

But with that said, I get it, things aren’t like they used to be for American Christians. The privilege is slipping a bit, however when I hear Christians talking in the media today about being persecuted I think the word they are really reaching for is embarrassed. 

And I get embarrassment. I’ve grown up in the Bible Belt, I’ve always lived in the South, I’m a preacher at a church in Texas, and when I get on a plane somewhere and someone asks me what I do, I often feel like a stereotype. I feel as if they assume I also get on television wearing tacky suits to ask for money, or maybe they think of the Religious Right or the Crusades, or the different atrocities that have been committed in Jesus’ name.

I feel in a word: uncool.

There’s lots of things to be embarrassed about, in the words of Bono “Christians are unbearable, I don’t know how Jesus does it.”

But In light of the very real and violent persecution that Christians in other parts of the world are currently facing, I’d like to recommend a passage of Scripture for all of us who live in a world that is growing more post-Christian.

The Smile of God

There is this one time in the New Testament, where Peter the disciple who followed Jesus, is writing to a church that’s facing real persecution. Slowly the Roman empire is becoming aware that they aren’t worshipping their gods, and the Roman Emperor is learning that they don’t worship him.

Rome doesn’t do nuance very well, What Rome understands is that the Cross works…Peter is trying to get the Christians to understand the same thing.

So Peter writes to these men and women and says,

It is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.

This is commendable before God?!!

In context, Peter is writing about people who are at the bottom of society, namely slaves, and Peter isn’t saying slavery is good and that slaves need to be passive toward gaining their freedom. Peter is writing at an entirely different level here, he’s assuming that certain options aren’t on the table, and he’s teaching people how to be Christian in whatever circumstances they find find themselves in.

Peter knows that to be the people of God involves suffering, and his initial advice isn’t to try and avoid it, it is to allow God to redeem it. Reading from a modern Western perspective this sounds absurd and abusive, but then it dawns on me Peter has seen this work before.

And a cursory look at Christian history says it’s been working ever since.

Brett McCracken points out that Christianity has done more to make the world a better place than any other organized movement in history. Almost every major reform movement or social-justice campaign has Christian roots. From Jesuit Priests to Wesley and Wilberforce, Christians have historically been the first and most active responders to international relief, hunger, and justice issues, and have started the largest charities from Red Cross, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan’s Purse, to Feed the Children, and World Vision. Jesus followers were the first to establish hospitals, schools, and universities. They led the way in literacy movements, adult education, prison reform, and substance-abuse programs.

Today it’s trendy to care about these things, but Christians cared about it before it was cool, even when it was embarrassing to care about.

Now just because it can be uncool to be a Jesus follower, that doesn’t mean that if you are uncool you are necessarily being a good Christian. You might just be obnoxious. But I suspect that there is an aspect of following Jesus that will always be embarrassing and counter-cultural.

And this is my greatest concern with progressive Christianity. I believe just about everything my other progressive Christian friends believe, but sometimes I wonder if we believe it for the wrong reasons. I think the way of Jesus leads to social justice, equality and ministries of mercy, but I think the reason Christians are called to do that is to serve and honor God.

In my more cynical moments, I think that we talk about it so much so we can be seen as cool.

Think back to Alex in Jr. High, all we know about him is found by looking at what people wrote about him on the ancient world equivalent of a bathroom stall. But what we know from the rest of that period is that being a person who believed in Jesus was not just difficult, it was embarrassing.

People were shamed by their family, the rumors were floating around that Christians were cannibals, that they had deliberately started the fire that crippled the Roman economy, and that they were the worst of all people.

And Peter’s answer wasn’t to argue with them, it was for the Christians to live like Jesus did, for the pleasure of God.

We can’t justify ourselves, or offer an explanation for everything we believe in a way that is going to satisfy everyone, all we can offer is our lives of living like Jesus.

On January 19, 2015

There is a Promised Land

“Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

gLyt1OR

On the Thursday morning that Dr. King was assassinated he also was attacked by one of his own friends….with a pillow. On the day of his death, Martin Luther King Jr. got in a pillow fight in his own hotel room.

I don’t know about you, but that fact makes me smile in some deeper parts of my soul. The realization that even though hate might kill this good man, it couldn’t kill the goodness and joy in the man. I smile at the realization that during Dr. King’s final moments alive he was able to smile.

And then I wonder…how did he do that?

Standing on Promises

This past summer I went to Israel with a group of people For the most part, we were your usual group of Christians touring the Holy Lands, retired doctors and lawyers and teachers on a pilgrimage to see where all the stories that had saturated their imagination had happened.

For the most part we were white and southern. But that doesn’t quite account for all of us. There were several African-American women from Memphis, and I spent the majority of the first few days seeing the Holy Lands with them. Mainly because they were so nice and kind, but also because I didn’t want to just see the Holy Lands, I wanted to see it through their eyes.

See, I’ve learned just enough about the Bible to remember that the Bible is harder for me to read than others. The Bible is hard for me to read, not because of a lack of training or my ability to never quite get above a B in Greek. It’s hard for me to read because or where I read the Bible from, and where I don’t.

People who have known systematic oppression and marginalization were the ones who wrote the Bible, it is as it were, a history written by the losers. And so when my new friends were seeing these stories of the land of liberated slaves I wanted to know how they saw it.

And that brings me to Mrs. Shirley.

Mrs. Shirley was a senior saint who also happened to be African American. She had lived her entire life in Memphis and she had seen a lot. She told me about her family’s struggle to rise out of poverty and her concern for her children and grandchildren to do well in a system that seemed stacked against them
And then she told me a story that became one of my favorite memories from the trip.

When when she was only 14 years old, and she got to walk with Dr. King when the Civil Rights movement came to Memphis. In order to go on one of these marches she had to go through all the training about how to keep the protest non-violent in the face of other people’s great anger, she was trained how to respond if people spit on her, or how to react if she or someone she cared about were beaten.

But the advice that really stuck with her was when the civil right protest organizers told her that if that the police released the dogs that they should try to remain calm and keep walking hand in hand. As she was telling me this story, Mrs. Shirley remained calm, as if she was still following the instructions, but she had a fire in her eyes as she was remembering.

I didn’t know how to respond to her story so I asked her if she was scared during all of this and she said, “No, not really.” Then a few minutes later she came back and said, “I can’t lie. I’m embarrassed now, but I was scared. What I really afraid of was the idea that those dogs might bite me.”1183155006_08b1215aeb

Protests and Pillow Fights

I don’t know what you did over this holiday weekend, but I joined the crowds watching Selma. The movie about Dr. King and the civil rights stand off that ultimately past sweeping Federal Voting reform. During that movie I wept on more than one occasion. But the scene that touched me the deepest was watching little African-American girls march with dignity into the angry crowd armed with billy clubs and attack dogs.

I wept because I now knew who that little girl was, and I knew that even thought she might not look it, she was afraid.

But Mrs. Shirley, like so many of my black brothers and sisters who lived through the civil rights movement, wasn’t angry. She wasn’t angry at other white people, and incredibly enough she wasn’t angry even at the people who had unleashed the dogs on her. She had every right to be furious but she had chosen another path.

So eventually I asked Mrs. Shirley how she did it. I wondered what could move someone to refuse to harbor bitterness against those who wish you evil. And that’s when Mrs. Shirley told me the most profound gospel-like things. She said something to me that made me realize how Dr. King could get into a pillow fight on the day of his assignation, even after saying the night before that he knew his life was in danger.

Mrs. Shirley said she wasn’t angry because, “There is a Promised Land”

And suddenly it all clicked for me. Mrs. Shirley wasn’t just there to see the Holy Lands, Mrs. Shirley was there because her entire life had been oriented around a God who makes promises that the future will be better than the past.

There is a Promised Land.

The civil rights movement succeeded because tens of thousands of men and women trusted that what God had promised would one day become a reality, and they were able to refrain from violence or anger because that God would one day keep his promises.

If we want justice, if we want to keep from getting angry in the face of injustice, we must remember this. There is such a thing as a perfect justice and one day it will roll down like a river. There is such a thing as a perfect righteousness and one day it will flow like a never-ending stream. If we want mercy than we must remember that there is such a thing as a good and compassionate God.

That’s how you do it. There is a Promised Land, it’s not quite here yet but it is coming and it changes everything.

The final public words of Dr. King were spoken in a church in Memphis and as we look back on a year of racial tension, injustice and peace, his words are just as hopeful and calming as they were on the day he spoke them:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I’m happy tonight.

I’ll die tomorrow.

I think I’ll have a pillow fight in between.

Because there is a promised land.