Which Lives Matter?

Black Lives Matter?  All Lives Matter?  How do we respond to the upheaval around us?  In this unsettling and uncertain time, I know and understand the tensions and discomfort that we have talking about race.  “Well I’m not a racist.” we may say, or, “I didn’t have slaves.”  “I don’t discriminate.”  “Why are people making such a big deal about it?”

As I reflect on my own life, I have to admit that I have benefited greatly from my race and gender, as a white man living in a country historically and currently, dominated by white men.  I know that my experiences are not the same as my black and brown brothers and sisters, but I want to learn and show empathy.  I want to be a partner.  I want to listen.  I want to recognize the subtle and overt ways that I, and people like me, build and perpetuate racial barriers.  I want to see through new eyes.  And as I learn, I will share. 

As a Christian, I want to be a part of the words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 ringing true in all of our lives: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you…I have given them the glory that you gave me that they may be one as we are one.”  Our unity is not that we all look the same, for God created our beautiful differences, rather it’s that our lives are surrendered to the God who created us.  It’s hearts and minds directed to God, led by His Spirit, seeking His Kingdom first.  Also, the glory that God gives us is that He is glorified through us.  So, may God be glorified in all that we do, say, and think.  May God be glorified in our relationships with one another.  May God be glorified as He reconciles us all unto Himself.

Now onto our question at hand – which lives matter?  Of course, when we say something or someone “matters,” that really means we have to do something about it.  Something or someone that matters to us, affects how we live.  And so the question, which lives matter, means we are asking, which lives am I going to have affect my life.  Which lives am I going to do something about? Which lives am I no longer going to ignore?

As we begin to look to God’s Word, we see that yes, every life matters.  As a Christian, I firmly believe that every human life, every race, is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), knit by His hand (Psalm 139:13), and is loved by our Creator (John 3:16).  This pro-life ethic calls me to value and have basic dignity and respect for every person from the unborn baby to the 110-year-old man gasping for his last breaths; to people of all nationalities and races; truly, to “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev. 7:9).  Now, are we to provide the same care and attention to every human being on the planet simultaneously?  No, none of us can do that, we weren’t meant to, but God has placed us all in families and communities that we do have a greater responsibility for.  So when we continue at this question, and look from a biblical justice perspective, we say that the ones who need defending, the ones that need help, are the lives that we need to pay special attention to.  These lives and situations require some extra attention, some extra focus.  For those of us in the United States, we have to face the truth that black lives have not mattered in the same way and to the same extent that white lives have.  We have to have honest conversations about our history if we are going to move forward well.  These are problems and injustices that we can no longer ignore.

I read about slavery and segregation and thought that it was in the past, that we’ve moved on from that.  We work together now.  And yes, there certainly has been much progress, but the white supremacist notions of black inferiority that were present hundreds of years ago, are still with us.  No, none of us alive today owned black slaves as property, but the attitudes and beliefs that permitted slavery in the first place still linger around us.  Change must happen and it starts in the hearts and minds of each of us.

What follows here is just a small snapshot of racial discrimination and the ways that barriers were put in the way of blacks in the United States.  My hope is that as our eyes are opened, so will our hearts open.  My hope is that God’s justice and unity will guide us.

The first reports of African slaves being brought to, and used on American soil date back to 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia.  Yes, that is before the Pilgrims sailed the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.  We engaged in this practice of treating humans as property for over 150 years before the Revolutionary War.  Generations of Americans saw blacks as less than whites through the institution of slavery.

{Sidebar:  The sad history of what American colonists and eventually the full US government themselves did to Native Americans is atrocious on its own.  There are certainly related issues of white dominance and supremacy there as well.  Yes, the lives of Native Americans matter.}

So jumping ahead, the colonists win the Revolutionary War and are setting up a new nation, the United States of America.  Sadly, as the constitution was being written and ratified, black people were not considered equal to whites.  How do we know this?  The 3/5 Compromise.  This addition to the US Constitution (Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3) worked doubly against blacks, specifically slaves.  It said that for representative purposes in that state, slaves counted as 3/5 of a person, yet they were denied voting rights themselves.  So, it was literally in the Constitution that black lives don’t matter as much as white lives.  But this went on to harm black citizens and further propagate the institution of slavery by actually giving the southern states more representatives than if they could only count free citizens living in their state.  This gave the southern states more voting power in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College for generations.  So that even as anti-slavery sentiment began to grow, especially in the northern states, there was a voting strength in the South that had to be reckoned with.

By the mid 1800’s splits and factions were beginning to form in our county over slavery.  National groups were beginning to split, and three major Christian denominations, Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians all split over the course of a couple of decades over slavery.  These divisions in our country began to bubble up in a way that could not be ignored in the lead-up to the 1860 presidential election.  The call for conserving the South and the institution of slavery grew.  The threat of the abolishment of slavery by Abraham Lincoln’s victory was so strong that Southern states began seceding from the Union only one month after his victory.   Very quickly, a new confederacy of southern states leaving the Union was formed, with Jefferson Davis, a former US Senator from Mississippi, as its first, and only, president.

Many elementary students in the US learned that while slavery was a part of the reason for the Civil War, the issue of states’ rights was really central to the struggle.  Even if that were true, it was primarily to preserve the state’s right to keep slaves.  But it’s not true, as the words of the vice-president of the Confederacy declared only weeks before the first shots of the war were fired.  In a speech, that is often referred to as the “Cornerstone Speech,” given in Savannah, GA on March 21, 1861 Alexander Stephens says:

“Our new government is founded upon … its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”  (emphasis mine)

He went on to proudly declare that this new nation of the Confederacy would be “the first [nation], in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”  So, yes, the Confederacy was founded upon white supremacy and racial segregation, and the Civil War was fought to preserve these beliefs and the institution of slavery.

But the Union army won the war, slaves were emancipated, and slavery was abolished in the United States.  While it became illegal to own slaves, the white supremacist attitudes and beliefs did not disappear.  Sadly, they only adapted.

In the aftermath of the Civil War and Emancipation, freed slaves, who had worked for years, or their families for generations, with no compensation, were given no ground on which to stand, literally.  The economy, not only of the south, but of the entire nation, was held up by the free labor from slaves.  They now had their freedom, but many had nowhere to go.  There were attempts during reconstruction to provide freed slaves with land to get started on, the promise of “40 acres and a mule,” but these attempts were defeated, leaving many no choice but to return to plantations and work as sharecroppers.  Others were arrested on minor crimes and forced to pay off their sentences with hard labor.

The character and ability of blacks was continually questioned.  They were freed, but they were not welcome.  To make this unwelcome-ness abundantly clear, thousands of blacks were lynched from the late 1800’s into the mid 1900’s.  These mob murders typically needed little instigating, and those involved in the atrocities suffered little to no consequences for their actions.  During this same time, segregation laws and practices, known as “Jim Crow laws,” made sure that whites were provided the better working, education, dining, transportation, and housing opportunities, while pushing aside the needs and desires of their black neighbors.

These difficulties led tens of thousands of black families to flee the south for places in the north and west in the early decades of the 20th century.  While the official presence of racist Jim Crow laws and things like lynchings were happening primarily in the south (though still existent in the north and west), sadly, there was not much of a welcome mat put out in these places either.  For example, one practice happening during this time that worked against black families is known as “redlining.”  Banks and home loan organizations would mark as “undesirable,” the neighborhoods where many black families lived.  Those living within those “red lines” had much greater difficulty, and often impossibility, getting home loans to provide security and build long-term wealth and equity for their families.

By the time many of these laws and practices were officially banned, the damage was already done.  The household equity that the average white family was able to build was exponentially higher that what many black families were able to build.  The loss of potential equity is still being felt in many of our cities and communities.   Sadly, in many places, this was not an accident.  It was not because the black families were less intelligent or less hard working, but rather the same root problems of white supremacy and racial discrimination did not go away.  It continues today in areas like the mass incarceration of blacks.   Black citizens make up around 13% of the overall population in this country, yet they constitute 40% of the prison population.  There is more going on than just saying blacks commit more crimes than other races.  When you put it in the historical context of our nation, we see the same mindsets that say somehow or in some way, blacks are just worse or lesser people.   The stain and pain of this thinking and belief is still with us today.

God spoke through the prophet Amos and said, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream,” (Amos 5:24).  We must look in the mirror of our past with honesty and admit the sin of slavery and racism.  We must recognize the stones and barricades that have been put up to prevent that river of justice from flowing.  We must work together and take up the cause of justice for our black brothers and sisters, whose lives matter greatly to God, and must matter greatly to all of us.

 

References:

Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the Beginning:  The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Bold Type Books, 2016.

Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise:  The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.  Zondervan, 2019.

“Cornerstone” Speech, Alexander H. Stephens | March 21,1861. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/cornerstone-speech/.  Accessed 07/01/2020.

 

Luther: 500 Years On

October 31, 2017 marks 500 years from one of the most significant events in modern Christian history.  It is believed that on October 31, 1517, a 30-something Catholic monk and professor named Martin Luther, posted 95 theses, or statements against the Catholic church, on the door of the stately Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  If you belong to a church that professes Christ and is not Roman Catholic or Orthodox, then you can probably ultimately trace your church or denomination’s roots back to this event. This is what we point to as the birth of the Protestant Reformation.  While this is overly simplified, there are three main branches of Christianity:  Catholic, which almost all Christians were for the first thousand years after Christ; Orthodox, which broke off in 1054 in what is known as the Great Schism; and then Protestantism, which now has many branches of its own, but they all ultimately point back to this day 500 years ago.

This studious and fiery man didn’t, as I understand it, set out to start a new religious movement or order, and certainly not one named after him, as Lutheranism became.  No, at this point he saw some of the terrible things going on in the church and wanted them fixed, or reformed.  Two of the most notable things troubling him were the practice of selling indulgences, which was basically a money-making scheme designed to have people pay to get their sins forgiven, and the other, the notion that “good works” could lead a person to right relationship with God.  These, and several other things, didn’t sit well with Luther, and he couldn’t stand by and do nothing.  The religious environment in Europe was ripe for being questioned and seeking change and whether he wanted to or not, Luther became a central figure in the landscape and the world has never been the same.

Now, there are far more qualified and intelligent people than me who can speak and write with authority on Luther and the Protestant Reformation, but what I want to look briefly at is what this means for us today as we seek to understand and live in God’s kingdom.

I am a part of the Protestant branch of the tree of Christianity, more specifically, the Baptist arm of that branch.  We Baptists trace our origins to the early 1600’s when, after a couple of generations of reformers had come and various movements were springing up, a man named John Smyth baptized himself and then Thomas Helwys and started a Baptist church.  There is much that I find appealing about worshipping in and serving in a Baptist church, and in particular an American Baptist church, but I would be very shortsighted and arrogant if I thought that my church or my denomination did everything perfectly, had all of the questions of life and faith answered, and were perfectly positioned to reach every single person around us.  That’s just simply not true.  I believe this is the same of any church or ministry or denomination.  None of us has it all figured out, and none of us is perfectly reaching everyone.

This has led some to despair and wonder if there should be no separate denominations; that since we are all Christians, we should all come together.  That is certainly a lovely thought, and one that I’ve had at times, but I do believe there is validity in having different groups and different denominations.  Some churches or groups of churches are better positioned to reach certain people and help connect them to God and be a vital part of His Kingdom and other churches or groups can do the same with other people.  No single church can do it all.  No single denomination has it all figured out.  This truth ought to keep us humble, realizing that we all have a long way to go, but it can also serve to spur us on and work faithfully within the church or denominational structure we find ourselves in.  As long as we keep the perspective on God’s one true Kingdom, I think we’ll be OK.  When we realize that He is the One God and One King and we as individuals or churches or ministries or denominations have our small part to play in helping build His Kingdom, I believe we’re on the right track.

Yes, there will always be legitimate questions of Biblical interpretation and we may sincerely think that one group might have something wrong and be teaching people something false, but I think that just gives all the more evidence that we need each other.  We need to help hold each other accountable.  We still need prophetic voices like Luther’s that challenge us to get back to God’s Word and that lift up God’s Kingdom, but our voices must always be with a tone of grace and humility because we might be wrong on some other point ourselves.

Perhaps this will be a helpful way to explain this.  As a pastor and church leader I have been challenged and guided by a passage from the book of Hebrews.  In the 5th chapter the author is talking about the High Priest offering sacrifices for the people.  There was not a higher human position that one could attain in the Jewish religious structure.  This was the top guy; the most important human figure at the temple.  But even this person had to be careful.  This is what we find in verses 2 and 3 of that chapter: “[The High Priest] is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness.  This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people.”

So as we remember a courageous act from an imperfect person, may we know that in all His power and wisdom, God still wants to use us sinful and broken vessels to proclaim His truths and help build His Kingdom.  May we seek His Kingdom above our individual church and denominational affiliations, but may we also faithfully serve those who do come our way in the churches and ministries that God has called us to during our time in history.

People-Pleasing is Not About Pleasing People

I have long lived my life trying to get people to like me.  It’s like a game, this fragile balance of trying to say the right thing to someone or do the right thing for them so that in return they would think well of me.  I didn’t always know that’s what I was doing and I wouldn’t have worded it like that.  I also don’t know all the reasons why I was (and am) doing it; I just knew that if I was nice enough or smart enough or faithful enough then people around me would likely be pleased and they would like me and that would be good.  I would find a measure of comfort and satisfaction with life if that happened.

I don’t think I’m the only one who has done this.  This is, in varying degrees, what we call people-pleasing.  We’re trying to find a sense of value and worth in the opinions and thoughts of others.  We want to please people so that they will think well of us.  Those of us with these tendencies really like when people praise us because that means our efforts worked, they like us! (Although you’ve got to be humble about receiving praise.)  But then we also feel really hurt when we’re criticized. (Although you can’t lash out because that’s not good to do either.)  We don’t often verbalize it so clearly, but we think we’re pretty special people when we’re praised and we feel pretty lousy, even depressed when we think people are looking down on us.

I’ve come to understand the term ‘people-pleasing’ does not mean a person seeks to please people for the other people’s benefit, rather it is a selfish and protective mechanism to ultimately please oneself.  People-pleasing really is about me.  It’s about finding security in the thoughts and opinions of others.  It’s about seeking worth and value in their eyes.  If other people are pleased, that means they like me and that means I am good or that I have worth.  So, consequently when that positive feedback doesn’t come it hurts because I believe the lie that my worth and value are dependent on the opinions of others.

Even worse, what people-pleasing is not about is understanding and believing who I am in God’s eyes and valuing that above anyone else.  This is difficult, and I believe is only increasingly difficult as our lives get busier and louder and more technologically driven.  We don’t hear God’s voice anymore.  I, and perhaps you as well, have neglected the long-standing practice of silence, prayerfully meditating on God, allowing Him to speak to us, allowing His voice to rise above the noise.  Because it’s only when we listen to His voice that we understand that He is the source of life, He is the source of our lives.  He created us and knows us and knows what we need.

He longs to speak to us as a loving parent pouring out love on a child.  He longs to walk with us through life’s challenges, guiding and redirecting as He knows we need.  He longs for us to know that we are worth far more than what anyone can give us or offer us.  True peace and life in Him is where we begin to find our worth.  We are valuable not for what we can do for others, but simply because we are created by and loved by the Father.

Are You Happy?

Our nation is on the brink of turning 240. While I don’t want to go into the state of our country or politics here, I believe each 4th of July is an important time to consider our country, while deeply flawed, it’s still the place that affords us so many freedoms and has so much to enjoy. It is a day of celebrating, a day of remembering, and a day of thanking God for the freedoms we do have here. On a personal level, the day before our collective celebration as a nation, marks exactly 6 months since my last Sunday as pastor of a local church. Having stepped into this time not knowing how long it would be or what would come next, 6 months in begs for some reflection. And perhaps the most significant thing that I’m learning during this time is, are you ready for it…to be happy.

Really, you say, that’s all you got? To be happy? Let me explain.

It may not sound super-spiritual, but I believe that through this process of having what I’d gone to school for and worked at for over 10 years stripped away, not having a house of our own, working a physically demanding job (construction and remodeling), having over 20 interviews that have yielded nothing definitive at this point, I’ve learned that my happiness and satisfaction and even mission in life does not come from others, it does not come from a title I have or don’t have, it comes from a mind and heart submitted to God and willing to do what He has put right in front of me.

I now understand that a good deal of the dissatisfaction in my life was from the fact that I wanted something different. I wanted my ministry to work better, I wanted my family to function better, I wanted to have more peace and vibrant relationships with others and with God. My reality did not meet my expectations, and to the level that I didn’t adjust or accept my reality, I was harboring resentment. I was looking down on the things and unfortunately even the people who where, in my (hard-headed) opinion, not meeting my expectations. Let me explain this a little more specifically.

I’ve lived most of my life trying to have those around me think well of me. I try to be a nice guy, do the right things, and by and large, it’s worked out for me. As a result it made me feel good, and valued, and yes, happy. But recently, that was not the case. Not only were there some around me who didn’t like me, but that who I was and what I did was not valued and was rejected by them, and I’ve got to tell you, it was not pleasant. I have never felt so low. And I didn’t realize how much of my value and self-worth was tied to the opinions of others. I didn’t think it was, but I painfully discovered the truth.

While there were hurtful things said about me, I’m learning (this lesson I seem to have a great struggle with) that my worth, value, purpose, and joy (happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment) in life is not contingent on others’ opinions of me. My happiness and contentment in life is seeing what God has put right in front of me, the immense blessings and gifts that He has given me, and accepting that, loving that, and loving well the journey that God has me on. I cannot seek after what is not for me, or wallow in regret of what could have or should have been, but to let go of the unmet expectations in myself and in others, to forgive, to accept forgiveness, to recognize the beauty in those around me, to know that I am secure in my Father’s love, and how dare I think that’s not enough.

My world is right in front of me, a beautiful, wise, and faithful wife, 4 precious gifts that God has graciously loaned to me to love and teach, and hopefully give a glimmer of the goodness and grace that pours out to them from their Heavenly Father, and beyond that the promise of His faithfulness and presence. As God continues to be patient with me, teaching, loving, molding, drawing me closer to Him, I do look forward to being able to serve Him and serve others in a ministry setting again in the future. And I can truly say, I am happy.

Liminal

I love learning new words.  Not just for the value of learning itself, but how, many times, a new word will help me understand something in a new way or help give a perspective that I hadn’t seen before.  I hope you will bear with me as I explain one such word that I recently learned, it may not be new to you, but it’s the word liminal. (The first part is pronounced like the word ‘limb.’)  It’s a fairly obscure word (in fact, WordPress thinks it’s a misspelled word) that is derived from the Latin word, limen, which means ‘threshold.’  Liminal means, ‘situated at the limen,’ or ‘situated at the threshold.’   To be in liminality (the noun form of the word) means that one is at a place of transition, a place of moving from one phase of life to another, like the time during a graduation ceremony or a wedding.  A person in liminality is finished or is stepping away from one thing, from one phase of life, but has not yet stepped fully into what is to come.

As I was learning this word, which was introduced to me at a conference by Daniel Vestal, one helpful image that came to mind is that of a trapeze artist who has leaped from one swing, but has not yet taken hold of another swing or another trapeze artist’s hands; they are in a suspended state, they can’t go back to where they were, but they are not yet at where they are going.  This is a space of excitement, fear, adventure, worry, thrill, unknown, and hopefulness all wrapped into one moment.

trapeze artist

Those of you who are familiar with my story can see why this word resonates with me right now.  I, and my family, are in a state of liminality right now.  We have left one thing behind, we have stepped away from our ministry in Orleans, but we are not yet where we will be in the future.  We are at the threshold of our future, but as we are reaching out our arms to take hold of what God is leading us to, we reach out to uncertainty.

As I reflect on this time in our life, and as I think on this word, liminal, I realize that for the disciple, for the follow of Christ, this is not just something we go through at different phases in our lives, but rather this is to be the state we are always in.  As each of us stands on the thresholds of our own futures there is only One who knows that future.  There is only One who holds that future.  Every moment of our lives ought to be lived standing on this threshold and leaping out in faith that God will not only catch us, but will plant our feet on His good ground.

The words that come to mind to help explain this are Paul’s words from the second chapter of his letter to the churches in the region of Galatia, Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” 

My life is no longer my own.  My future is no longer my own.  The life of the follower of Christ, the life that I want to live, is one of complete faith in God, complete surrender to Him, opening myself to Him, leaping into His future, trusting that He is good, that He is wise, that He is secure and strong. 

 

 

 

 

Surrender

Our family has been in a time of difficult transition lately. For various reasons (that I won’t go into here), I’ve stepped down from my most recent ministry position. We are currently staying with family and sorting through the things God is teaching us and growing in us as we look ahead to what is next, that murky picture of what ‘next’ is. And as I mull over and pray over the things that didn’t go well and the ways that dreams and visions didn’t pan out, the word that God has continually brought to mind is the word surrender.

whiteflag1

Surrender is not a popular word in our world, especially in our ‘boot-strap’ individualistic American culture. In military terms surrendering means that you’ve lost. You raise the white flag. You admit that your opposition is stronger or more capable than you are. So, as an absolute last resort, for the sake of your own life and the lives of the people remaining with you, the white flag of surrender is raised. This is not typically a proud moment, rather this is a humbling, shameful act. Surrendering is also an undesirable last resort on the battle fields of our lives. We’ve been doing something one way our entire lives, when we learn that there’s a better way, that what we were doing is actually harmful. Do we surrender? Do we admit that there could be better information than what we have with us? What about someone who may oppose some key part of our lives? Do we work against them? We don’t want to give in. In fact, our world loves those who don’t give in and those who never surrender.

But we know that Jesus’ teachings and parables reveal to us that the priorities and values of God’s Kingdom are not the priorities and values of the world. Perhaps there is no more striking distinction between these worlds than when it comes to the notion and nature of surrendering. Now, there is certainly value in fighting on in many circumstances, in fact God calls His people to stand firm against the strong currents of this world and hold fast to the truth and to not surrender to the forces of evil. But the surrendering we’re talking about here is surrendering to God. This is what we must first of all understand and more significantly, must do.

Understanding Surrender

As a lover of music, I often find strength and inspiration through song. The nature of surrendering to God has been brought out in music in such examples as the title track of Passion’s 2012 release, White Flag, as well as the classic hymn written by Van DeVenter and Weeden, I Surrender All. God has always called His people to surrender to Him. But, being one who isn’t satisfied with short, trite answers, I understand that a statement like “God wants us to surrender to Him” begs the simple question, why? In our lives, we usually have some sense of why we do the things that we do. So, why would we surrender to God? The beginning of the answer is that the way to the Kingdom is through surrender. There is simply no other way. To see this we have to understand one of the most fundamental issues we humans have.

In our sinful state, in our willful thoughts and actions against our Holy God, we live as enemies of Him. We, as sinners, as sinful humans, are in opposition to God. Yes, it’s true. We live in opposition to God. And lest any of us think this certainly doesn’t apply to me for I’m OK because I believe in God, I know a few good “Christiany” answers to things, and I have above-average church attendance, a quick look through the Old and New Testaments will remind us that God’s people, the people He chose and established to be a shining light to all the world of what it means to follow and honor God, failed miserably. Some of the terms that were used about the Hebrew people throughout the Biblical record are such terms as “stiff-necked,” “hearts as hard as flint,” and having a “heart of stone.” These are strong indictments of the spiritual state of the people. These are all designations that show spiritual hardness and firm posture opposing God. And again, this is the people to whom God’s word and law was revealed. It is these people who, more so than any others in the world, should have known what it means to faithfully follow God, yet they often lived in hardness and opposition to God. You see, it’s very troubling that those of us who claim to follow God can, in fact, live our lives – even our good religious-looking lives – in opposition to God and remain in hardness towards Him.

We all have to admit that in our nature we are fighting against God. The very first word of preaching from Jesus that is recorded in the New Testament (Matthew 4:17) is a word of surrender, a word of admitting our failure, a word of acknowledging God’s high and worthy position, the word is “Repent.” Friends, if we don’t think we’re wrong, if we don’t think we need help in our lives, if we don’t really need God, if we don’t really need a Savior, if we think ultimately this is up to me being a “good enough” person or doing more good things than bad things, then there is no need to repent. There is no need to surrender to God. But there is then no relationship with God. And we are then on a dangerous and deadly path that we were never intended to go on. The very nature of the Christian life is one of surrender. We must surrender to Him because there is no other hope. We cannot accomplish the saving of our soul or any other soul by means of our own working and striving. In God’s Kingdom, life, true life, begins when we wave the white flag and bow our knee to the God of all creation.

That, I trust begins to answer the ‘why‘ we surrender question, but we are not yet seeing the fuller picture.  The next question is: what does it mean to surrender to Him? Really, what does surrendering to God look like? While the specific answers to this question are as varied as there are people asking the question, the heart of the answer lies in Jesus’ challenging words in Luke 9. Speaking to His disciples, (disciple, that’s a designation that I want to be worthy of bearing in my life) He says in verse 23, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” A quick point here first. These words were spoken before Jesus died on the cross. In the hearers minds the image of dying on a cross was utterly shameful and humiliating – it was not something that was in any way desirable or glorified. Only terrible and shameful criminals died on crosses. So Jesus words to spiritually die on a cross each day (words echoed by Paul in Romans 12 about being a ‘living sacrifice’) were not easy words to take in, and even today in light of the cross’s significance in our lives, this is not something to treat lightly or flippantly. Surrendering to God means dying to the things that are in opposition to God in us. The depths of our sin and hardness and selfish pride are the depths to which our kneeling and surrendering must be.

Another image that comes to mind in thinking about the nature of surrendering is one of bending towards God. We’re in the depths of winter around us right now, but before we know it, the first spring flowers will be popping up. A flower bends towards the sun because it knows that’s where the life source is. For the disciple of Christ, our lives are bent towards God. Our spiritual posture is one of openness and bending in towards the life source. It is a humbling realization that there truly is no other life, that is truly life, apart from Him. The branch cannot grow apart from the vine of life.

Now, briefly getting back to my story. God is using this time of transition and uncertainty to challenge in me the ways that I am not surrendered to Him. He is probing the areas of my heart, mind, and life where pride has a strong root. (It’s more areas than I’d like to admit!) Like a metal refiner burning away the impurities, it is a sometimes painful and humbling process, God is calling me to let go of every piece within me that is not bent towards Him, that is not bowed before Him in surrender. This is a daily process. Each morning I must admit that I still have parts of my life that are not surrendered to Him and lay down my life as a sacrifice before Him. This act of faith (as feeble as my faith is many days) trusts in the grace and goodness of God. This continual surrender puts life in the correct positions, God on the throne and I kneeling before Him. He alone is worthy to sit on the Throne. He alone is the King. He alone is to be glorified in all that I can ever say or do that meaningfully touches someone’s life.

Have Courage and Be Kind

A few days ago our family had a movie night. We don’t watch a lot of movies, but the kids had earned “Daddy Dollars” (doing extra chores and helping above and beyond around the house) and wanted to redeem them for a movie night. They selected the recent live-action drama-fantasy, Cinderella. When there are three little girls in the house that tends to sway the vote, but even our son didn’t mind the selection, and neither did I.

Cinderella

You see, I’m not ashamed to say that I enjoy movies with romance in them, as I still claim The Princess Bride as my all-time favorite, so watching, and enjoying Cinderella was certainly not out of the question. This version of the movie fills in much of the background story on Ella’s life (the name ‘Cinder’ Ella coming from a put down by her step family due to her hard work as essentially their servant and having cinders on her face); how she lost her mother and father and came to be living with her stepmother and two stepsisters. This part of the film is beautifully done, and one of the most stirring moments occurs shortly before her mother passes away. She calls young Ella in to see her and her parting words for her are, “Have courage and be kind.” It’s these words, along with the loving memory of her parents, which she carries with her throughout her life.

Now, I don’t want to delve too deeply into a movie, as even the best of movies only give us a glimpse of humanity or greatness, but I want to touch on these two themes that are central to Cinderella’s life and how she acts, courage and kindness. While this certainly is not a Christian movie (Really how can a movie be Christian, it doesn’t have a soul does it?), I believe these themes give us a picture of how those of us who claim Christ as Lord, and seek to follow Him, ought to live.

Courage

Courage is about taking risks. Courage means that I have to step out of what is comfortable, what is ordinary, what is expected, so that something better, something greater, something more important can be done or accomplished. The flip-side of courage, of course, is fear. Risk is called risk because you can lose something. Unless the potential benefit of the risk is greater than the potential loss, we’re not very likely to take the risk, to be courageous.

Now courage, as I’m describing it here, deals with our relationships with others and our relationship with God. It’s not like making a $10,000 bet at the blackjack table, yes that might be a big risk with a large potential payoff, but that’s a different kind of courage (or stupidity, depending on the situation), here I’m looking at things like the courage to stand up against injustice, or the courage to say something that might, in the short-term, hurt someone’s feelings, but is ultimately for the person’s benefit. The courage I’m talking about is like the priests of Israel about to enter the Promised Land, who, as described in Joshua 3:15-16, step into the flooded river before God stops the water. Courage risks our reputations and relationships at times. “If I do that I might look bad.” “If I say that, so-and-so might not like me.” “If I risk that and it doesn’t work out, where will I be then?”

There will always be reasons to say no to God. There will always be reasons not to risk, not to step out in faith, to play it safe, to go with the flow, to maintain the status quo. But the more I read about God’s working among His people throughout the Bible and throughout history, I see a God who is not very interested in maintaining the status quo. “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10). Everyone in Christ is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). God is about to do something new (Isaiah 43:19). God wants to work in our lives and grow us and change us and challenge us in ways that we have never seen. That takes incredible courage to fight against all that would hold us back, but it’s a courage that doesn’t originate with us.

You see, we can only be courageous in our Christian walk to the extent that we trust in God. If I don’t trust that God is going to fill me up or support me in some situation then I’m not going to risk, then I’m not going to be courageous. It’s not that God won’t or can’t, the problem is my perspective, God’s not off, I’m off, I’m looking at things the wrong way. But when I do realize that His Spirit is with me, that He is stronger than any force at work around me, that “no weapon formed against me shall prosper,” (Isaiah 54:17) well then the game changes, and then the way is clear, at least clear in that I know who I’m following.

Now, as good as courage is, as much as we need courage to stand up to people or to say or do some hard things, courage without kindness can trample. Strength and will without a kind heart behind can wound instead of build.

Kindness

Kindness must go with courage, but kindness may not be what you think. I believe that often when we think of kindness we’re really thinking about being nice and docile, but true kindness is not nice and docile. You see, kindness carries with it a strength and humility that niceness does not. There is a reason that kindness is a Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 6:22-23) and niceness is not. That reason is the motivation behind the actions. Being nice and being kind can often look similar, but my being nice to you usually carries with it the motivation and expectation that you will be nice back to me. If we’re honest, and I’ve had to realize this in my own life, we try to be nice so that other people will like us and be nice back to us; whereas kindness is showing grace and empathy towards another person for their benefit regardless of what we receive back. Being nice is a good human trait, being kind is a Godly, spiritual trait that doesn’t come of our own accord, it comes from God’s Spirit working in us.

It is the kindness of God Himself that overcomes the sin and brokenness in our lives. Romans 2:4 tells us “that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance.” God is a holy and righteous God – we are to revere Him, but it ultimately is His kindness towards we sinners that softens our hearts and opens our eyes to see how good and holy He is, that He cares for us, that He loves us and seeks our lives more than we know. It is His kindness that draws us to Him. And if our hope is to not only be drawn closer to Him in our own lives, but to help others do the same, then we must know that God uses His kindness working through us to accomplish that. It is a humbling and powerful picture that God works through us to touch the lives of others for eternity.

Cinderella lived by courage and kindness to honor her mother and some vague hope that fate or something would make it work out in the end. Now, as a Christian, I take a different view; that we live this way ultimately to honor God, that even in the struggles of life we can stand strong and love those around us. This is because it is God who fills us up, it is He who strengthens us, and it is He who gets the glory in all things. He makes us worthy to be with Him for all eternity, no matter how terrible this life is and even if our ‘happily ever after’ never comes while we’re on this earth.

So yes, have courage and be kind, not so a handsome prince will sweep you away, but because the King of Kings gives us the strength and support to step out into the rushing waters around us, to say the things we need to say, to be the kind of people who follow Him and glorify Him with our whole lives knowing that His Kingdom is strong, His Kingdom is secure, His reign is eternal.

Something Wonderful

Sweater on display at Pittsburgh Children's Museum

Sweater on display at Pittsburgh Children’s Museum

Fred Rogers, more commonly known, of course, as Mister Rogers, has always been someone I admired; for I was blessed and privileged to be among the generations of children who grew up between 1968 and 2001 when the well-known and well-beloved show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” aired. Mister Rogers, in his kind and gentle manner, reminded us kids that we have great value and worth. Although, never (to my knowledge) explicitly mentioned on the show, Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister and saw the show as a way to touch people’s lives in a positive, Kingdom-building way.

Why is Mister Rogers on my mind? A couple of weeks ago this Indiana family spent some time on the road – first meeting some of Brittany’s family in Ohio for camping and hiking at beautiful Hocking Hills State Park (highly recommended!), then on to Lancaster County Pennsylvania for a family reunion with my dad’s side of the family. It’s always hard to explain, but we are not from Lancaster County, nor do we have any family there, but it is a good meeting place for everyone traveling. This too was a good time to spend with family, most of whom we only get to see every 3 years or so. But the Mister Rogers connection comes on our journey home, as we decided to break up the trip by staying overnight in Pittsburgh, the city from which “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” was broadcast for over 30 years. We visited the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum – a fun and creative place truly full of imagination and learning – we had a blast, and sprinkled throughout the museum are memorabilia, pictures and quotes from Fred Rogers and the show. There are items such as the sweater pictured above (which almost all of his sweaters worn on the show were knit by his mother), a pair of sneakers, and the actual puppets used in the show. But it was after reading several quotes that my admiration of Fred Rogers, and more importantly, of the God who strengthened and guided him, grew immensely, and I was able to gain some very valuable insights into life in the Kingdom of God from this kind and generous soul.

The quote that struck me the deepest is this: “So the greatest thing we can do is to find what is healthy and laudable about somebody else and reflect that to them. I really think that’s the greatest weapon against any kind of bigotry, racism. It’s a large assignment, to be able to help people look deep within themselves and find what is wonderful in there, because at the core of everyone is something wonderful…”

That struck me so much because often I fail to see the great value in others, often those closest to me, and it also helped reassure me that I too have something wonderful deep in me, something that I believe is from God. It helped me realize that when I fail to see the great value and worth of others and don’t work to bring that out, I’m coming from a place of emptiness that I’ve allowed myself to not find my worth and fulfillment in God alone. If I am going to truly help bring out the best in others, then I need to know that my worth and value and creativity and direction come from God alone. He fills me up, He gives me value, and it’s out of that deep understanding that I can have the security and confidence to really help others. Without that piece I will always be trying to get something from those around me, things that ultimately only God can fulfill. But when I do realize how great and amazing that God is and that this incredible God uniquely crafted my life and I find my security in Him, I can see others through “Kingdom eyes” and see their great value and worth. When I do this people are seen simply as unique people, not as enemies or ones who don’t agree with me, but as ones created in the image of God by God’s loving and creative hand. Yes, sin has marred each of us, and marred each of us deeply, marred all of our relationships, but I believe God would have us seek to bring out in one another those deep parts of our souls that are still whole, the parts that may be dirty and dingy, but hold God’s image underneath, like a buried treasure that seems lost, but really just needs unearthed and cleaned off to see it’s great value.

God created our inmost being, He knit us together in His great love. Like the love that Fred Rogers’ mom poured into every sweater that she made for her son, we are held together by God’s great love for us. I believe our task as Christians, as followers of Jesus, as ones living in the Kingdom of God here and now, is to realize these deep truths about who we are in God, the great value He has placed on each of our lives, and seek to bring that value out in others; to spend much more of our efforts on bridge building than wall building. Because the thing is, the differences that divide us, the barriers and walls that we put up between us are all going to come crumbling down in God’s eternal Kingdom anyways, so as citizens of His Kingdom, why don’t we work on tearing those walls down now? Why don’t we invest in one another, trusting not in ourselves, in our own weaknesses, but trusting that God will work in and through us for His glory.

May we seek to fulfill the incredible declaration that Jesus makes in Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world.” Christ’s followers, the ones who have surrendered to Him, the ones who trust in Him, this rag-tag group of sinners and misfits, it’s us who God is using and will use to show the world the way to Him. What an incredible task! But we do not light ourselves, rather it is Christ’s light in us, His life, the image of the Divine in us that can show others the way to God and build His Kingdom. May we, by God’s strength and grace, be shining God’s light and helping others do the same, knowing that all of God’s creations, all of us humans, because we bear His image, truly do have “something wonderful” in us.

Grace and Truth

I’ve been in a wrestling match for some time now. What have I been wrestling with you ask? A topic of great importance, and the more I struggle with it, the more it’s mulled over, prayed over, talked over, the more I realize how important and central it is to our interactions with others and our understanding how we live in the Kingdom now. This struggle is in understanding the interplay between grace and truth.

Let me set it up this way – in my experience with fellow Christians, and in my own life, I feel a very real tension between grace and truth. I visualize a sort of tug-of-war with grace on one side and truth on the other. Truth is the side that sets an absolute standard, that says this is wrong and this is right. Truth points out sin. Truth says we’ve gone too far over the line, we’ve messed up, we’ve sinned. Grace, on the other side, says, your sin is not counted against you; you are forgiven and free.

Tug-of-war between grace and truth

Tug-of-war between grace and truth

Now how this struggle plays out with Christians in real life, I believe, is something like this. We see sin in the world around us, and we feel like if we show too much grace, if we let people off the hook too much, if we don’t point out sin, then anything will go, and nothing will be seen as wrong or sinful. What it will be like is that the only sin left in this scenario is the sin of negatively judging others’ behaviors and attitudes. This scenario, or the potential of this scenario, doesn’t sit well with me or many evangelical Christians. We feel like the world is getting more and more accommodating to sin, and that they view those of us who might point out sin as backwards, close-minded jerks.

But then let’s look at the other side. When we just stand on the truth, the standard of right and wrong, there is coldness and harshness there that leads us to look down on people and push them away. The image of this is sort of a ‘holy huddle’ where we insiders are all OK, and we’re pointing our fingers at those bad sinners out there who aren’t measuring up the way we are. We have the truth, and we’re good people, so what’s their problem? They need to just get in line and do what’s right. There are many, many former church members and attenders who have left the church because they have felt the pain of truth poured down on them without the grace alongside of it. They’ve seen the hypocrisy of some from the inside, where the standard of truth gets applied to others, but not to themselves, and it looks ugly, so they’ve chosen to turn away from it.  My heart breaks for them.

So, the central question for me in this is: How can I stand on God’s truth, how can I have His standard, not just of what’s right and wrong, but hold to the fact that there is right and wrong at all and that people do the wrong, how can I stand on that, and yet not do it in a way that alienates, puts people down, pushes them away, or devalues them in any way, but rather draws them to God?

John 1:14 says,

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The ‘Word’ is Jesus. He came to this earth, from His Father, and He was full of grace and truth. For Jesus, there was not a tension between showing too much grace or showing too much truth – He was completely filled with both at the same time, and at all times. So, to begin to answer this question I turn to Jesus, and look at who He is and what He did. Looking into His life and His interactions with others there are many incidents where we see grace and truth at work, but I want to share two stories of Jesus’ interactions with sinners that help me get a handle on what being full of grace and being full of truth might look like lived out. The stories both come from John’s gospel, the woman caught in adultery in John 8 and the woman at the well in John 4.

In both of these stories there is clear measurement of truth that these women did not meet. They had both committed sins, they had both fallen short of God’s standard of holiness and purity. Both passages make it clear the women had sinned, the woman in chapter 8 had committed adultery, that charge was never challenged or dismissed, this was not a matter of someone spitefully bringing up false charges, no, there was a sin committed. In the John 4 passage Jesus points out her sin to her, she’s living with a man who’s not her husband, and has had a string of husbands (although we don’t know the details of how each of those marriages ended, the implication is that she was at least partially to blame). So, what is clear is that these women fell short of truth, they fell short of the standard. These women had both sinned. But it’s in these interactions here, I believe, we see the power of Jesus being full of grace and truth on display.

Jesus, being full of truth, never says their sins are OK. He never says that what they did was no big deal, but, being full of grace, He did not make them bear the punishment of their sin right then. He held out the full standard of truth, and they didn’t measure up, but yet they were not condemned and by the grace they were shown, they were offered life, life to be lived according to God’s truth, but by God’s strength. To the woman caught in adultery He says to her, “Go and sin no more.” The sin was evident, it was what others would use to define her, but Jesus calls her to a more truth-filled life, and he underlying implication is that this cannot be done on her own strength, but that God’s grace covers her sin and strengthens her to live faithfully. We see even more evidence of this in the John 4 passage.

This woman who Jesus met at the well was ashamed. She tried to hide from the effects of her sin. She didn’t go to the well when others did so that she didn’t have to face ridicule or shaming. When Jesus talked about living water that she could drink so she would never thirst again, she thought that was a pretty good idea, that way she wouldn’t have to keep coming out in public every day, she could just hide herself away, but when she was touched by the truth of her sin and the overflowing powerful grace from Jesus, she was filled and strengthened to not hide behind her sin anymore. It no longer defined her, and she boldly went to the same ones who ridiculed her, to share with them the great truth of who Jesus was. She was no longer feeling beaten down by her sin, but liberated from its effects, and empowered to boldly point to the one who poured grace out on her.

Dallas Willard defines grace as God empowering us to do the things we could not do on our own. Grace is not just something that saves us from the effects of our sins, but rather that it is the fuel that propels the Christian on to righteousness and purity. So when we merely look at offering grace to others just as ‘letting them off the hook’ (and also fail to realize the great number of times that we ourselves have been ‘let off the hook’), we miss the great truth that God’s grace is empowering – it truly is what enables us to live a faithful, holy, pure life, something that we could never even come close to on our own strength.

And also, one of the great problems with applying truth to others, is not that we don’t correctly point out their sin, rather it’s when we fail to apply the truth to our own lives as well; when we don’t realize that I too, you too, are a wretched sinner who doesn’t measure up to God’s standard of truth and holiness. The more that we realize the bar is so incredibly high that we haven’t measured up, I believe we’re able to deal more gently with others. Now, it’s at this point where we could go off and say, well since none of us measure up, then it’s no big deal the sins any of us commit, let’s just try to be decent people. No, then we’re losing sight of God’s truth. We must hold on to truth, but to apply it to our own lives as well. Yes, there may be some sins that you struggle with that are not a struggle for me, but that does not make me better than you, that makes me different than you, because there are sins that I struggle with that you may not, and that doesn’t make you better than me. All of us fall incredibly short of God’s standard of truth; the bar is far too high for any of us to reach, which is where God’s grace comes in to fuel and strengthen us. May we be humble people who hold onto God’s great truth, but also generously offer God’s grace to help fuel others to deeper and more meaningful relationship with God.

There is so much more in this struggle that I have yet to work out in my mind and even more to work out in my words and actions, but my prayer is that I seek after God to drink deep of His living water so that I may know who I truly am in Him, may know His truth fully, and may know His grace fully, and offer that grace generously to those around me.

The Day God Spoke to Me

Does God speak to us today? I never remember a time when the audible voice of God spoke to me. I’d experienced Him speaking to me when I’ve been reading or praying or through discussions with others, I’d get a sense in my spirit that God was telling me something, but never had I heard a clear call of God’s audible voice. Never, that is, until I met an unemployed man begging for a job on the side of the road.

Last fall we were leaving Bloomington, IN after several hours of shopping and eating and some quality time at the coffee shop, and as were heading onto the highway, to go back home, I noticed a man standing on the side of the road at the opposite on-ramp. We had some water bottles left over from lunch that I had been looking for someone to give some of them to, but I thought ‘well, we’re on our way home now, I’ll just keep going.’ But as I was starting to head down the highway I sensed an urging to turn around and get off at his exit and give him a water bottle and possibly a few dollars that I had in my pocket. (You may have different thoughts on giving ‘beggars’ money, sometimes I do it sometimes I don’t, or I’ll offer food or something else, I try to let God lead me in that.) It took a couple of minutes to get turned around and headed towards his exit, but as we were getting closer to the spot he had been, I noticed that he was still there (another confirmation that this was from God). When I stopped, he asked if I had a job for him, which I did not, but I offered a couple of water bottles to him, he took one, and I also gave him the $5 bill I had.

It was at this point I expected him to thank me, possibly say something like ‘God bless,’ and I’d feel good about doing a good deed and he’d have something positive from me, but that’s not what happened, and it’s what he said in response that struck me. He did thank me, but as we were about to pull away he said, “I love you.”

Yes, this could be dismissed as a crazy man saying something crazy, but I believe, deep in me, that this was the very voice of God delivering a simple but powerful message that I needed to hear. You see, I’d been really down the few weeks before then, struggling with feelings of failure in life and ministry. I’d really been down on myself and doubting who I am, and if I can do the things I’d been called to do, and God, who created me and knows me better than anyone possibly could, wanted me to know that I am His precious child. He wanted me to know that He is my Father, that He is the one who strengthens me, equips me, guides me, and all ultimately for His glory. And the power to be who I really am, the strength to lead, to dare, to risk is fueled by His great love. And God, who has always identified with the poor, used this man, standing on the side of an off ramp of Highway 37, in Bloomington, IN, to deliver a sacred message, to me, an unworthy and cracked vessel, that I am made worthy and made right, not because of what I have done, but because of His great love, because of His great power, because of His great worth.

I don’t know the man’s name, and I may never see him again, but God brought us together, in a perfectly timed moment, so that I, in some small way could bless him, and that he, as a faithful and obedient servant of God (at least in that moment), was a mouthpiece of God Almighty to proclaim His great love for me. It was humbling and meaningful, and I am grateful to this man, and eternally grateful to the God whose grace and love are beyond what I could earn, but are poured out on me – He is good.

God I thank you for your love – may it drive me to be the man, the husband, the father, the pastor, that you have created and called me to be.