Saturday, December 26, 2015

Love your Neighbor

 So the last few years I've been trying something new—new for me, anyway. It started with a neighbor, or at least I think it did. It's sometimes hard to put your finger on the beginnings of the often long process of God's patient attempts to shift our hearts toward His. Perhaps there were many other moments He intended me to take note of, but I remember this one. We had a neighbor, a young single guy, who for three to four years lived right next door to us in our apartment complex. His door was literally a few feet from ours. I don't know his name. We would greet each other politely when we passed. One day on my way out the door, I saw him loading his furniture into a moving van. I think I stopped and asked the obvious, “are you moving?” I didn't really have much to say after that beyond a generic “good luck.” I didn't know him. I remember feeling like I had completely wasted the years that I had lived in such close proximity to this guy. I wasn't a good steward of the time or the space we shared or, most importantly, of the Gospel with which I had been entrusted. The whisper of the Spirit was not condemning, though. God was instead welcoming me to view my neighbors the way He does. He was inviting me to follow him into the terrifying and exciting realm of actively loving my neighbors, seeking to bless them however I could, and pursuing them the way He pursues me.

I quickly realized that before I could love my neighbors I would have to first meet them. This obvious initial step can be an Everest of an undertaking for an introvert such as myself. How exactly does one meet one's neighbors anyway? I had to think on it for awhile. Our first attempt to meet the neighbors came about near Halloween. I had been conspiring with the Holy Spirit for a few weeks to devise a plan to meet everyone in our complex. Finally, He gave me the idea of doing what we ended up calling “reverse trick-or-treating.” We bought a bunch of candy, dressed our seven-month old up in her cute little Disney's Stitch costume, had a quick family prayer, and off we went. I gotta tell you, it was terrifying. Just knocking on doors and talking to strangers is really tough for me. Having an adorable baby as your wingman definitely helps, though. Family, and particularly kids, can be awesome ice breakers. We introduced ourselves, passed out some candy, and let people know where we lived. No big deal. These initial introductions eventually lead to a weekly neighborhood BBQ and a growing community within our previously guarded apartment complex.

I wish I could tell you it was all an easy ride from anonymity to instant community—that we didn't have any obstacles or heartaches. Getting to know people, earning the right to peer into their lives, and becoming vulnerable by welcoming them into your life can be a messy business. There really isn't any other way to go about it, though. The good news of Jesus' incarnation is best delivered incarnate, face to face. If He can leave Heaven to become Immanuel, “God with us,” then we can cross the hall to love the folks in the next apartment. The first door that opened to us belonged to an older woman who was desperately afraid to leave her apartment. She was addicted to painkillers and had burned all bridges to her remaining family. It was into this darkness and despair that Jesus invited us to shine His light. She eventually came with us to our weekly church gatherings, and we gave her rides to the grocery store and her doctor's appointments. She had some profound emotional/psychological wounds. Sometimes she loved us, and sometimes she was inexplicably angry with us. To be frank, it was often an extremely taxing relationship. Even so, I am grateful that He trusted us with her.

There were many encouraging moments, new friends, and redemptive glimpses of the kingdom of God breaking through. One notable highpoint of our time at the apartment complex was meeting a young family who later became our good friends and ministry partners. They were really great at inviting people and helping us put on our neighborhood BBQ every week. They were kind of shy like us, introverts set in motion by the power of the Gospel. Just like God to intentionally use our weaknesses to emphasize His strength. They opened doors to a bunch of Spanish speaking and Filipino neighbors with whom they already had ties (their kids being in school activities together and such). I remember the husband later telling me that he had been crying out to God to show up in his life, to offer some hope, a way out of his addiction and depression. He saw our knock at the door as God's answer to his prayer. As he spoke, I remembered back to when God was stirring in my heart and calling me out of my comfort zone. It's a beautiful thing when He gives us a brief peek into the bigger picture.

I'd say the biggest factor in this whole journey toward loving my neighbor thing was the new perspective that God gave me. Instead of simply “doing my laundry,” for example, I started actively looking to meet people and start conversations in the communal laundry room. In my previous life, I had learned exactly how long the machines took at each stage of the process, and I would drop my clothes off only to return briefly when I needed to move them to the next machine. With my new outlook, however, I started bringing a book, so I could stay in the shared space and visit with some of my neighbors if the opportunity arose. Going to get the mail became a trek across my mission field, greeting neighbors by name, and learning to notice the heartbeat of the neighborhood. Just being outside where you can be seen and become known by your neighbors is a huge part of the process. I would often play with our daughter on a shared patch of grass outside our apartment where we had our BBQs. We went for a lot of walks around the complex and to nearby shops. Our everyday tasks, stuff we are already doing, have the potential to be conduits of the Gospel. These are mundane activities that can be utilized by God if we are willing to seek His kingdom first in all things—even while washing a load of smelly socks.

I'm excited about this next chapter in our new neighborhood. We've been renting a house for a little over a year now, and we're eager to get to know everyone. We've especially been praying about and on the lookout for some other believers living in our neighborhood who would be interested in partnering with us. We try to use holidays and hospitality to foster the initial introductions. We've had an awesome neighborhood Memorial Day BBQ and a Halloween costume party. My wife made some great banana bread for Christmas that we recently passed out as a family. I've also been frequenting a local coffee shop within walking distance of our place. Whenever I meet one of my neighbors, I write their name down in my notebook (my memory is pretty pathetic). My goal is to pray for them and hopefully remember their name the next time I see them. Even doing yard work can be a kingdom activity. While I'm raking the leaves or cutting the lawn I'm also observing the neighborhood and praying for the families I've met and asking God to facilitate introductions to those I've yet to meet. I've already met a few neighbors while working in the yard. If we set out to merely rake the leaves, then odds are that's all we'll accomplish.

Ultimately, meeting the neighbors and seeking to bless them is about more than just expanding our social circle. We currently have all the friends a couple of introverts could ever want. However, the heart of God compels us out of ourselves. He is a perfectly content community within Himself, and yet He makes space at His table and welcomes us wandering orphans into His family. This missional DNA is transmitted to His adopted children. Play-dates, Superbowl parties (even if you don't like football), BBQs, and neighborhood game nights become the highway on which the Gospel can be delivered. As His ambassadors, we are to both declare and demonstrate the good news of God's kingdom. So I try to learn the story of God well—to know what He is up to in the world and in my neighborhood. I'm convinced that the declaration happens best in our living rooms or over coffee, and the demonstration happens most effectively and authentically in our Gospel-centric, everyday lives. Community is the unassuming and organic means by which God frequently advances His kingdom, so we seek community with Gospel intentions. I wouldn't want the reader to conclude that we're even close to proficient at this exciting endeavor. We're still awkwardly trying to figure this new way of life out, but I'm happy to report that it's a genuine pleasure to love our neighbors. My longing to see redemption in our neighborhood and city—for His kingdom to come—has been an incremental gift from God. Furthermore, I find that my commitment to God's global mission grows in direct relationship to my commitment to the folks living next door to me. I'm inspired by good friends who have left the comfort of the U.S. to make their home in Thailand (They also gifted us with their BBQ before they left!). They pursue their Thai neighbors with the love of Jesus in simple and profound ways, faithfully obeying the command to love neighbor as self in a cross-cultural context. Wherever you live, I can assure you that there is profound brokenness behind every door on your street. Our innate hunger for Christ manifests in a myriad of different fallen ways that end in death. Depression, addiction, abuse, empty pursuits of pleasure and things, hurting and broken families dwell in darkness behind white picket fences and nicely manicured lawns, awaiting the good news that has miraculously found us on its way to them.

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14).

Sunday, December 6, 2015

What Happened to the Kingdom?

Growing up in a typical evangelical, non-denominational, Christian tradition, I didn't hear much about the “kingdom of God,” or the “kingdom of Heaven,” as it's also often called. Sure, I got the obligatory and whimsically vague references to “seeking God's kingdom first” and I'd hear about how Jesus instructed his follower's to ask God to bring his kingdom to Earth in the frequently recited “Lord's Prayer.” But there wasn't always enough helpful talk about the nature and function of the kingdom, how we are to seek it, participate in it, recognize it, or even think about it. There are significant historical reasons for why much of the Church has shied away from talk of “the kingdom.” Misunderstanding about what (and when) the kingdom is had led many to look to generic social justice, technological/medical advancements, government, and a tragically misguided hope of man-made utopia as the answer to the Lord's prayer. After bad theology was exposed by harsh reality, the baby was essentially thrown out with the bathwater. In some circles, talk of the kingdom has been forever marred and relegated to “liberal” mainline traditions and heretical groups like the Watchtower Organization. But it will take an enormous effort of censorship on our part if we are to read through the four gospels and not notice Jesus' obvious preoccupation with “the kingdom.” He simply would not shut up about it (especially in the synoptic gospels). He went as far as saying that preaching the good news of the kingdom was the reason for his arrival (Luke 4:43). I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say anything this pivotal to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth is worth another look.

Fair notice, this post will probably raise more questions than it will answer. It is by no means meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the kingdom of God. I mainly plan to focus on what I see as three simple elements of the kingdom of God: the King, his people, and his reign. More on this shortly. I must begin by saying I believe we have truncated what Jesus preached as “the good news of the kingdom of God” into what we now think of as “the good news,” or “the gospel.” The modern American version of the “good news” primarily focuses on the individual's salvation from Hell (and perhaps their transformation into a better person). In other words, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Have you considered inviting Jesus into your heart as your personal savior?” While these sentiments are not untrue or entirely unhelpful, I would argue that they are incomplete. They miss the grander narrative of the good news of the kingdom of God as Jesus told it (of which personal redemption and transformation is certainly an important part). Notice that the “personal savior” pitch can more easily be sidestepped. “That's just not for me,” one might conclude. “I can see that it's really helpful to some, but I have a different truth that works for me,” etc. Jesus' invitation, on the other hand, is not so easily ignored. It has a scope and weightiness to it that must be reckoned with. In no uncertain terms, Jesus declares that he is the rightful King over everything, who is redeeming a people from among a horde of unworthy rebels, and he intends to ultimately confront and eradicate all evil from his universe and to reign supreme over all of creation. His people welcome his reign, while his enemies rage against it. We are in the midst of his redemptive process, and when he is finished every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:10-11). This is what we are being invited into. It's a story that's bigger than any one of us, and to opt out of Jesus' unprecedented invitation comes with immediately felt cosmic implications.

The unmistakable focal point of the kingdom of God is the King (an authoritative title that 21st Century Americans can hardly comprehend), who is sacrificially re-creating a people who will willingly live under his reign now and forever. I believe the language of kingdom (the King, his people, and his reign) is throughout Scripture. Genesis documents how the first humans rejected his reign, thereby rejecting their King, and ceasing to be his people. The rest of the unfolding story of the Bible recounts how he is methodically seeking to restore things to his original intent and good design. He calls Abraham out of a pagan society in order to miraculously create a people who would willingly live under his reign. Centuries later, he rescues Abraham's descendants from their Egyptian oppressors—to create a people, a “kingdom of priests”—with the purpose of reigning over every aspect of their society as their King. These foreshadowings of his kingdom were doomed from the beginning. The people he redeemed were unable to obey his law and live under his reign, as their hearts were cold as stone. But these early hints at kingdom were not without purpose or effect. He used these foreshadowings to articulate the necessity and genius of his ultimate plan. He promised David, the quintessential human king, that from his line would come a Son who would rule over an eternal kingdom. Likewise, Daniel prophesied, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those [previously mentioned human kingdoms] and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (from Daniel 2:44). The eternal Son would come himself, as a perfect human, uniquely capable of living under his Father's reign, and he would create a people from wretched rabble. This people, once freed from their chains, will be empowered by his Spirit to carry out their newfound desire to live under his reign. Where the King reigns, his kingdom comes.

So when Jesus of Nazareth walks on the scene, the people of Israel had been eagerly anticipating the kingdom of God for untold generations. The only problem—and it's a big one—was that they didn't realize what shape it would take or that they were presently unfit to participate. Even Jesus' closest follower's and friends were initially confused about the nature and scope of his kingdom. Shortly before his ascension, his disciples were still asking questions like, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus redirected their focus away from nationalistic dreams of earthly kingdoms with the Great Commission.

God's kingdom does not consist of brick and mortar, geographic conquest, and planted flags. Why are we surprised, though, that his kingdom does not resemble ours? It is, as Jesus explained to Pilate, “not of this world.” I would argue that the kingdom of God can't be reduced to a mere government or even the Church (as an institution), and yet it has claim to these and more. It pleases the Father to subject all things in due time to the lordship of Jesus the Christ. His kingdom is immense, and there is nothing outside of the King's jurisdiction. He stakes his claim to bodies, hearts, and souls. His kingdom boasts citizens from every people group, skin color, language, and culture. There is no line drawn on a map that can define or contain its boarders. Where the king reigns, his kingdom is present in a very real and powerful way. And so his people cry out “may your kingdom come” in every unseen crevice of our hearts. May you reign over our families and in our neighborhoods and cities. As mentioned, I don't think we can reduce the kingdom of God to the Church, but we should get the clearest view of his kingdom within his Church, as his people are faithfully living under his reign.

There seems to be a notably covert, even subversive, nature to the coming of his kingdom that shouldn't be overlooked. Apparently, his kingdom can go completely unnoticed by some. When asked by the Pharisees about the arrival of God's kingdom, Jesus responded with, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,' or ‘There it is,' because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (from Luke 17:20-21). The King has landed in disguise, easily mistaken by a superficial glance for your First Century average-Josephus. His kingdom spreads as a “good infection,” to borrow C. S. Lewis' term, an organic, grassroots campaign that is transmitted from person to person. It is unofficial and off the grid, often underestimated and ignored by the human powers that be. With a chuckle to himself, God uses the simple things of this world to counterintuitively dismantle the seemingly complex system of Satan's deeply entrenched illegitimate kingdom. If you don't know what you're looking for, you'll never see it. Indeed, Jesus explained to an inquisitive Nicodemus that anyone desiring to see the kingdom of God must first be born again. In Matthew 13, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great tree. He gives a similar anticlimactic example of humble beginnings and unnoticed progress with a tale of a woman adding a little yeast to her flour, which slowly works its way through 60 pounds of dough.

So is the kingdom of God here, is it coming, or is it yet to come? The short answer is “yes.” For the long answer, I think it's helpful to look at the coming of David's kingdom. You probably remember how God had stripped from Saul the authority to rule Israel and bestowed it upon a young shepherd boy named David. At David's anointing, God effectively said through the prophet Samuel, “this is my chosen one in whom I am pleased.” You might also remember that Saul continued to sit on the throne for years as an illegitimate king, even causing all kinds of trouble for David and his friends. David waited patiently—even heroically resisting the urge to take matters into his own hands on more than one occasion—for God to bring all of his enemies under his feet and to solidify the authority that was given years prior. “Day after day men came to help David, until he had a great army, like the army of God” (1 Chronicles 12:22). These defectors “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). David's kingdom grew daily while Saul's slowly diminished and was eventually violently overthrown by the hand of God. His kingdom grew somewhat like a mustard seed into a mighty tree.

Likewise, David was used by God to achieve a decisive victory over Israel's Philistine oppressors when he was a young man. Recall how the Philistines had challenged Israel to a winner-take-all death match between two champions. The losing nation would become the winners' slaves. David is of course famous for defeating an enormous warrior named Goliath, and effectively rescuing his countrymen from bondage, with only a sling and his faith. It was many more battles and years later, however, when God had completely subjected the Philistines and much of ancient Mesopotamia to David's reign.

Like David, Jesus has been anointed the rightful King. He accurately claims, “all authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me,” and yet not everyone currently recognizes his authority. His defeated foe still thrashes about as if he were the king, and, like Saul, he is still permitted to cause great harm. Jesus has truly defeated sin and death on the cross and at his resurrection, yet we clearly still die and are presently feeling the effects of sin in our own lives and in our world at large. The outcome of the war has been decided by Jesus' heroic feat, but for now the skirmishes rage on. The “god of this world” will not go quietly. Death has been defanged and the bondage of sin has been broken through the King's sacrifice and his powerful indwelling and transformative Spirit. However, we still look forward to the day when death will be swallowed up forever and the cancer of sin—rebellion against the King's reign—will be completely eradicated. Jesus patiently waits at the right hand of the Father, while the Father proceeds to make all of his enemies into his footstool.

Jesus invites his people to willingly live under his reign starting now. He is creating a people of light from the spoils of Satan's crumbling kingdom of darkness. He spent much of his earthly ministry describing and demonstrating the kingdom and explaining how its citizens are to behave. It is unavoidably dangerous to live as a citizen of the kingdom of God in a world that is still overrun with people who hate him. Ahimelech, the priest, was murdered by Saul along with most of his family for helping David. Jesus warned would-be-followers to “count the cost” and promised them that in this world they will have trouble. There's no going forward until we accept this, until we take up our cross and follow him. Loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, caring for others at our own expense leaves us vulnerable in a world that won't reciprocate. The darkness will capitalize on our mercy and will often trample on our forgiveness. Remember that they spit in our Savior's face as he carried our cross. He said “Father, forgive them” as his torturers went to work on him. He is not overcome by evil, but he instead overcomes evil with good. This is how he advances his kingdom—not at the edge of a sword but through a tidal wave of mercy and grace. The First Century Christ-followers understood this. They happily accepted torture, crucifixion, burning, and being made sport of in the Colosseum rather than breaking allegiance to their King and his better kingdom. As Jesus explained to Pilate, had his kingdom been of this world then his followers would have resorted to violence to defend him. The Caesars played a bloody game of Whack-A-Mole with our first brothers and sisters, but with every martyred kingdom-citizen another ten sprouted up behind them. Rome, a powerful empire of unmatched strength on the battlefield, was ultimately no match for the good news of the kingdom of God.

Make no mistake, the King's generous offer of amnesty to those defecting from Satan's illegitimate kingdom is for an unknown limited time. Jesus announced Jubilee, the time of God's great favor, when debts are canceled and mercy flows freely. This era of unprecedented grace will conclude with the King's physical return. He will at this point judge those who persistently love their treason more than their coming King along with the instigator who fancies himself a king. In accordance with their unyielding wishes, both will be permanently removed from his presence.

Like an unassuming mustard seed, his kingdom grows steadily, sometimes incrementally, both in our own hearts and in our world. As Christ-followers, we long to see his reign in every part of our lives. We want our friends, coworkers, and neighbors to partake in the good news of his kingdom too. So we persistently look for every opportunity to demonstrate and declare the joy of belonging to the King and living under his reign. My gauge of who is or isn't talking about the kingdom is purely anecdotal, and I have been seeing what looks like a growing interest among evangelicals (an apparent shift in worship song lyrics, sermon lingo, etc.). My hope is that the "kingdom" will not just become a trending ambiguous buzzword in popular Christian culture, overused and misapplied to the point where it is emptied of all meaning. Instead, let's genuinely consider the words of Christ concerning the good news of the kingdom of God, and let's faithfully proclaim and practice the full story. Beware of bad theology that leaves you cowering in a bunker with a stockpile of canned food and ammo. We can't allow ourselves to be fooled by the clatter and pomp of a defeated foe or to be frightened by the shrieking of the dying darkness. As we look around at a world seemingly spinning out of control, we must remember that our King is working all things together for our good and his glory. Light has come into the world and the darkness has not and will not overcome him. With our hand to the plow and our eyes to the sky, we say with one voice, “May his kingdom come!” 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Kingdom Patriot


I have to preface what I'm about to say with a clear declaration of my love for the United States. I'm partial to my homeland above others I have visited. Our country has numerous unique and admirable qualities, and, despite our failings, we’ve had many shining moments. The blood, sweat, and tears of those who have contributed and are currently contributing to the Great Experiment should be rightfully noted and celebrated. This being said, however, I find the fanatical brand of patriotism often expressed by the conservative Christian Right to be incongruent with the unambiguous and all-encompassing call to follow Jesus. He insists that our allegiance to him should supersede all other bonds, including our allegiance to our families and our own lives. As Christ-followers, we should love the people we dwell among (whether it’s in the United States, Afghanistan, North Korea, etc.), we should be a blessing to all around us, we should fulfill our civic duties, and we should respect and obey our political leaders (unless doing so would expressly violate our King’s command). Our true commitment to our King and his kingdom will make us the best of citizens wherever we live. However, the unquestioned hyper-nationalism that has become par for the course among American Christians is something different entirely. It seems to be laced with presumption. “God is for us,” we say.He fights on our side.” “We are the greatest nation in the world, founded by God, and under his special protection.” God help anyone who suggests otherwise. The Constitution, flag, and founders—noble as they may be—are inappropriately defended with religious fervor. This brand of patriotic dogma has long found an unchallenged home in the American Church. It creates an “us” and “them” mentality with the rest of the world that is unbecoming of a follower of Christ. As kingdom citizens, our familial bond with Syrian Christians, for example, should be greater than our bond to nation. Additionally, our obligations as kingdom ambassadors to be hospitable to foreigners of any faith should supersede our political allegiances, or even our natural desires for self-preservation.
Let's look for a moment beyond the rose-colored glasses through which we often see ourselves.
Something like six million Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany (an estimated 11 million people in total). The hearts of German citizens were predominantly calloused to the gruesome fates of their neighbors. As a result, Nazi Germany has maintained its place as the go-to example of a modern society blinded by and given over to evil. And yet the American people have staggeringly murdered more than 50 million of our own innocent, pre-born citizens (largely without pity or remorse, no less). It begs the question, how much innocent blood do we have to have on our hands before we become the “bad guys?” We are a religious people who worship God with our lips, but our hearts are far from him. We deal treacherously with each other in our pursuit of self. Our rampant consumerism has led to the complete commodification and exploitation of girls and women (in the process, our boys and men are also dehumanized). Our appetites for things and pleasure have made slaves of ourselves and others. “We need to tend to our own house,” we say, when met by a needy foreigner at our door. “Not enough to go around,” as we gorge ourselves on unprecedented excess. We bluster and thrash about over a redefinition of marriage while simultaneously mocking the same sacred institution with our own infidelity and ever-rising divorce rate. We stand before God and say “til death,” but we are not a people who keep our word. We are not to be trusted.
God bless America!,” we say. Why should he?

Let’s not forget that the people of ancient Israel still worshiped YHWH right up until the day they were led away into exile.
The problem was they ignored his heart for the poor and the outcast, they worshiped their wealth, they worshiped their pleasure, they worshiped demons and sacrificed their children, they worshiped themselves, and they pursued death and darkness while simultaneously carrying the holy name of God on their lips. “YHWH will save us,” they arrogantly said as the Babylonians surrounded them. A long-suffering and merciful God finally allowed them to be overrun by more wicked nations than they. It turns out a lukewarm nation of predominantly professed believers does greater violence to his holy name than a comparatively more evil society that doesn't pretend to represent him.
God of justice, have mercy on us.
My intent is not to disparage the United States, Christian Right, or even patriotism. My aim is to encourage the people of God to seek his kingdom first and to obey him with undivided loyalty—to understand the hierarchy of our true citizenship and its accompanying privileges and responsibilities. I also want to alert the American Church to the nationalistic syncretism that has taken root in our midst and thrived for as long as we've been a people. It is a dangerous syncretism that makes a virtue out of holding the traditions of men in higher honor than the commands of Christ. God forbid we presumptuously present him as our tribal deity when he has always had global intentions. May our love for our nation and all nations flow from our greater love for our King and his kingdom. May we see ourselves as ambassadors, even refugees, eagerly awaiting our “better country” (Hebrews 11:16). May we always and ever be true kingdom patriots.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Killing the Prophets


So it turns out we humans don't like being told when we're wrong. As a rule, we mostly don't enjoy having our deeply held beliefs and preconceptions challenged or even questioned either. We actually hate it—like “gnashing of teeth” hate it. Enter the prophet. These are folks who God has assigned the never-dull task of poking the hornet's nest of human insecurities and exposing the depths of our deeply entrenched rebellion against God. The prophet relentlessly advocates for the heart of God when his heart is being overlooked or ignored. The prophet unapologetic preaches repentance and reformation against the oncoming traffic of popular culture, even popular Christian culture. The prophet is ultimately more concerned with what God thinks than what people think. As a result, prophets are often seen as abrupt, stubborn, malcontents and agitators. As you can imagine, it usually doesn't go well for the prophet.

Prophets are a special breed. When we think of these men and women, we usually think of someone foretelling the future. While they are known to do that, the prophet primarily repeats what God has already said and has been saying for generations. The prophet reminds people of who God is and what he prioritizes and then points them back to what they should already know. When God gives the prophet a peek into the future it's usually just to establish their credibility (Isaiah 45:21) and not the primary message they are charged with delivering. Jeremiah explains the prophet's visceral motivation, “...his word burns in my heart like a fire. It’s like a fire in my bones! I am worn out trying to hold it in! I can’t do it!" (Jeremiah 20:9b NLT).

Prophets are on the fringe. They're usually a little off, as they march to a different drum. It's not unheard of for them to exhibit oddities like wild hair and crazy clothing choices or unexplainable behavior (John the Baptizer ate grasshoppers and as an object lesson Isaiah preached buck-naked for awhile... just saying). Don't write them off because they're out of step. It's often this wilderness-dwelling, outsider lifestyle that makes them the ideal candidates to deeply commune with the heart of God and quickly identify our collective blind spots. Not to mention that you've gotta be a certain kind of crazy to look a king in the eye and rebuke him to his face.

As mentioned, prophets are against the status quo. When everyone else says “yes,” the prophet says “no.” They don't say what we want to hear. They say what we need to hear. They're definitely not winning any popularity contests. Nor would they care to. There's a funny story in 1 Kings chapter 22 where King Ahab of Israel is seeking affirmation from a group of faux-prophets for his proposed war with the nation of Aram. They all enthusiastically give him the thumbs up and tell him “full speed ahead.” But Ahab's ally, Jehoshaphat of Judah, wants to hear from a prophet of YHWH before they head out. Ahab's response cracks me up and is typical of our fallen, corrupted flesh. He says, “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the LORD, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad.” Ahab apparently subscribes to the time-honored “what I don't know can't hurt me” philosophy. It reminds me of the guy who doesn't want to go to the dentist because they always find a cavity. So at Jehoshaphat's insistence, they bring the Debbie-Downer into the war room. After some coaxing, Micaiah delivers the word from God, and, just as Ahab predicted, it's bad news—like really bad news. He tells them that the military campaign will be a complete failure and will result in Ahab's death. Ahab has him promptly thrown in prison and orders that he be fed nothing but bread and water. Gee, thanks for your word from the LORD, Micaiah. Actually he got off pretty easy compared to many of his forebearers. Jeremiah is another guy who had an unpopular message. During the final years of Judah's sovereignty, when all the other prophets were predicting peace, prosperity, and liberation from their Babylonian oppressors, Jeremiah was encouraging the people to—get this—lay down their arms and surrender to Nebuchadnezzar, a guy who would undoubtedly knock their wall down, disrespect their king, desecrate their holy city, and probably castrate more than a few of the guys (just for good measure) before he relocated most of them to some far off foreign land. God had made it clear that his mind was made up, punishment was immanent, and the people of Judah were being instructed to obediently receive their well-earned whupping. For his unpatriotic suggestion Jeremiah was labeled a cowardly traitor and thrown in a dank hole. It could have been worse.

It should be noted that we don't so much mind when the prophets are speaking to someone else. In fact, it's in these instances that we're likely to encourage them to “bring the heat.” It's when they direct their rebuke to us that we take “offense” and become combative, feverishly scrambling for our favorite snippets of verses that instantly render their criticisms invalid to our particular case. We fancy ourselves as the ones who listen to the prophets, but I often wonder if we give ourselves too much credit. Would I have heeded the voice of the one crazy looking guy saying to go this direction or would I have followed the masses headed off the other way? I find that it's easy enough to sort things out once the dust has settled. We typically put ourselves on the side of the historical prophets, but do we stand with the contemporary prophets who are challenging us with the unpopular, but timeless, truths of God's word today? Jesus, who was—among other things—a prophet, points out this inconsistency in his detractors. “Woe to you,” he says, “because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them” (Luke 11:47). These Johnny-come-lately fanboys of the prophets were building monuments to the individuals their own parents murdered due to the inconvenience of the message they faithfully delivered. You see it's easy to pay lip service to a message from another time and to another people. We can interpret it in a way that's palatable and safe. It's an entirely different matter, however, when the messenger is standing before us with an uncompromising call to repentance, which inevitably will entail—gasp!—a reconsideration of our dearly held position and a drastic change in our current direction.

Let's be honest, throughout history the prophets have largely stood alone. Most abolitionists, for example, were Christian prophets, persistently calling the Church to repentance, pointing the people of God to the heart of God, and stubbornly demanding that they live out what they claimed they believed. While the American Church now widely praises these reformers, it was many of our Christian ancestors who made their lives a living hell and actively worked against them (in some cases murdered them). It was not uncommon to have sermons preached on the virtues of slavery and how it's one's Christian duty to know one's place and so on. Manifest destiny and all that. Others were just silent in the face of evil. Similar struggles, opposition, and indifference were faced by the relative few who fought for justice during the early days of the civil rights movement. Everyone is at the victory celebration when the war is won, and the “troublemakers” of today are often the heroes of tomorrow. Call them “bull-headed” and “arrogant” if you must, but thank God that the prophets have the grit and internal conviction to stay the course through the heaviest of the fray with little to no human backup.

I believe God has hard-wired the prophet this way for this express purpose. I love what God tells Ezekiel when he is prepping him for his prophetic mission. "You must give them my messages whether they listen or not." He goes on to say, "I have made you as obstinate and hard-hearted as they are.” And the super important part, “...let all my words sink deep into your own heart first. Listen to them carefully for yourself. Then go to your people in exile and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says!’" (from Ezekiel 2:7a, 8b, 10b-11a NLT). Noting that these brasher traits are useful, maybe even essential, to the prophet is not to broadly excuse poor behavior. The Apostle Paul points out that even if he has prophetic revelations and understands all mysteries, but lacks love, he has accomplished nothing (1 Corinthians 13). That is to say there is a thin line between unyielding conviction and blind arrogance, refreshing frankness and an uncalled for verbal assault. It is true that untempered strengths often become destructive weaknesses.

Not all change is good change, and not every “reformer” is to be followed. This should be obvious, but I'll say it just in case. For every prophet who is faithfully advocating for the heart of God, there's probably a hundred who are misrepresenting him. God spends as much or more time denouncing the false prophets throughout Scripture as he does endorsing the ones he has commissioned to carry his message. It is imperative that the people of God know his voice, his word, in order to accurately identify the prophets he is speaking through. And we don't want to “know” his word like a Pharisee or a pro-slavery clergyman with an arsenal of proof-texts at the ready, the sort who can describe in great detail the bark on every tree but has never once seen the lush forest that they collectively and beautifully compose. We don't want to be like the guys who could quote the Pentateuch verbatim but failed to recognize the Creator of the universe when he stood spitting distance from their pedantic faces. We want to truly KNOW the Word of God which/who effectively describes the heart of a glorious Being who desires mercy over sacrifice—a pulsating Gospel over dead religion.

I don't want to paint a one-dimensional picture of the prophet. Their message is not always negative, critical, sackcloth, and ashes. They can cast a captivating vision of the way things could be, the way God wants things to be. The prophets gave us glimpses of the Savior, for example, centuries before he walked among us. Seeing that this post is an attempt to understand our hostility toward the prophet, however, I am naturally focusing on the stuff they say and do that gets our dander up.

I thank God for the modern prophets who are challenging me to rethink treasured aspects of the American Dream in light of my Savior's better invitation to take up my cross and follow him. I need my idols of safety and security exposed so I can repent and whole-heartily pursue his kingdom. I know a guy who has been faithfully challenging his friends and family on social media to pursue God's heart for the marginalized, immigrant, and refugee by welcoming war-torn Syrians in the name of Jesus. “Well, I'm fine with the nice ones coming,” I hear the objectors say, “but we can't risk terrorists coming in as well.” “It's just not safe, is all.” “Plus, I've seen on the news how many of them don't really appreciate the help they're being offered anyway.” My Jesus says, “love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35). It's clear that the American Church needs to be reminded of God's heart for immigrants and mercy when we consider how Evangelical voters have been flocking to anti-immigrant presidential candidates as of late. We need prophets who point us back to what we should already know. I for one appreciate those who faithfully remind me of the beautiful and scary commands of Christ.

Prophets are a gift from God. We actually need the prophets in our midst. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul explains how “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (chapter 4:11-13). Jesus is the perfect apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher. All these traits, or archetypes, must be collectively present in his Body if we are to accurately portray him. We're usually comfortable with the apostles (“sent ones” or missionaries), evangelists, pastors, and teachers. But when the music stops, it's often the prophet who is left without a chair. The prophet is good in theory but often unpleasant and inconvenient in reality. Unless we're masochists, we aren't so fond of having them around. They push us out of our comfort zone and consistently expose our idols. They're often perfectionists because they have their eyes fixed on the Perfect, and they won't let us settle for anything less. If all the Church were prophets, we could probably call it “hell” and not be too far off. But just like the other members of the Body, the prophet performs a unique and irreplaceable function. Let's not assume that they're “just not good team players” and as a result are constantly slowing the pace of the ministry machine. Like Ahab, we're not always concerned with whether or not we're headed in the right direction so long as we're getting there fast. Also, let's not forget that how well we can receive a rebuke is ultimately a measure of our maturity. So how 'bout it folks? Can we agree to stop killing the prophets?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Who Am I?

The following is a poem written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during his time in a Nazi prison, awaiting what would be his eventual execution.

"Who am I? They often tell me
I step from my cell's confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing
    my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine." 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Great Excuse


Perhaps you've had this conversation. It goes something like this. A pair or group of Christians are standing around recounting the goodness, mercy, courage, power, wisdom, self-control, forgiveness, etc. of Jesus. “He was so great at that!” “I love how Jesus always did” such and such, and “I wish I could...” fill in the blank. After we've basked in the beauty of Christ, we end our conversation with a long sigh as we conclude, “...but he was God after all.” What we seem to be saying in these moments (disguised as humble piety, no less) is that Jesus, as the God-man, has a distinct, intrinsic advantage over his followers in regard to the messy business of being human. What's more, when we appeal to the divinity of Christ as the reason we bear such little resemblance to him, we invalidate the authentic humanity expressed in his incarnation and ultimately pay little more than lip service to the disciple's one and only goal of becoming like him. In short, I think we miss the point—big time.

Before we continue, let's take a minute to cover one of the essential doctrines of the Faith with a brief discussion of the hypostatic union. Just about every heretical quasi-Christian movement has a core misunderstanding about the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. This is no coincidence. It's unmistakably by the enemy's strategic design. The Scriptures are clear that what we are seeing in the First Century incarnation of Jesus is the undiminished deity of the eternal Son of God expressed in genuine human form. So did you get that? He's 100% God and 100% human. I know the math doesn't add up. It's one of the great mysteries of the Faith. And If you think that one is tricky, just ponder the hyper personhood of a triune God who exists as three persons in one being for awhile. It's enough to make your head spin.

All that to say, it is absolutely appropriate to note the uniqueness of Jesus as the Creator of all that was made, the great I AM, the eternal and transcendent YHWH. But let's speak for a minute about the purpose and nature of his incarnation. I believe the good news explains how God became human in order to show us how to be human. Of course, the plan of redemption is a little more complicated than a simple demonstration of ideal humanness. You see, we had mucked up the whole thing beyond recognition. Starting with the first humans, we had devolved into something unrecognizable and irreparably damaged from our original YHWH image-bearing design. Untainted by this universal cancer plaguing humanity, Jesus steps into the world unencumbered and with a distinct advantage over any other human descended from Adam. He is the only one capable of carrying out the plan. In his authentic humanity, he is a viable surrogate for all humans. In his deity, he contains the moral equity to pay for the crimes of every person who has ever lived or will live. His intent, however—and we simply can't afford to miss this—is to make this intrinsic advantage at being human widely available to anyone who wants it.

Think of Jesus in the incarnation as a prototype, a working model of the new human (which incidentally looks just like the old human—the original human—for the ten seconds before they went all renegade and doomed every one of us to death and decay). Jesus is the reset button for the human race. Through his death, burial, and resurrection he effectively dealt with humanity's crippling sin problem and offered us the option of a new ancestry and better DNA. For believers who are freed from the bondage of sin and empowered by his Spirit, Christ fully expects us to live as the new radically transformed humans that we have become. Paul says it like this, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:29). Likewise, the author of Hebrews explains, “In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:10-11). Jesus isn't looking for mere passive admirers. He intends to make genuine “sons” and “daughters” out of us. He intends to give us all that we need to live incredible lives as new creations, ministers of reconciliation, full partners in the Family business. In fact, he has done just that. Who better than the “only begotten” to teach his adopted siblings what it is to be fully submitted children of God in the truest sense?

There is certainly an unavoidable element of mystery involved when we set out to talk about the mechanics of the incarnation. Anyone who speaks with absolute certainty about the nuanced implications of the God-man should rightfully make us nervous. That said, there are some strong indicators throughout Scripture that shed light on what we're seeing play out in the life of this unforgettable First Century carpenter. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul explains that Jesus “emptied himself” or “made himself nothing” in the incarnation. And though he was certainly God, he did not count his deity something to be leveraged, “grasped,” or “used to his own advantage” during his sojourn on Earth (Philippians 2). “...he had to be made like them,” says the author of Hebrews, “fully human in every way” (Hebrews 2:17). John goes so far as to say that anyone who refuses to acknowledge that Jesus came as an authentic human being, or “in the flesh,” is a “deceiver” and “antichrist” (2 John 1:7).

We see Christ growing up in what seems to be complete obscurity until the Spirit of God activated him for his mission. The Gospels describe how the Holy Spirit descended upon him at the beginning of his ministry, empowered him, and led him every step of his incredible life. When Jesus kicks off his public ministry he reads from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news” (Luke 4:18a). Throughout his ministry he regularly reiterated that he doesn't speak for himself but he only speaks what his Father tells him to say. I would propose that what we're witnessing in the incarnation is the Word of God, the eternal Creator of the universe, fully and humbly committing to the arduous task of authentically demonstrating the new humanity, which is made possible for all through the power of his Gospel. That is to say, he didn't cheat. He never played his God-card. Unlimited, cosmic powers were at his disposal, but I would argue that he never utilized them during his life on Earth (this seems to be what Satan was trying to incite him to do in the wilderness. He resisted). I would further argue that all of Jesus' incredible power demonstrations were achieved vicariously through the power of the Spirit (assuming we can even distinguish the Spirit's power from the Son's) at the express will and timing of the Father (at this point in our conversation we are neck deep in the head-spinning territory of the Trinity). Having accomplished what he set out to do, the resurrected Jesus triumphantly announces to his followers that he is reclaiming his temporarily set aside authority and power, or, said another way, it “has been given” back to him by his proud Father (Matthew 28). It seems that in his glorified state, Jesus is no longer sent by the Spirit but is now in a position to send the Spirit.

The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher” (Luke 6:40). This comment from Jesus rings in my ears. It sounds like he actually expects his followers to mature to his level of awesomeness. Jesus incredibly promises, “...whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these” (John 14:12). I believe the “greater” Jesus is referencing may be understood as greater volume, as there will be an exponential number of these new Spirit-filled humans, these carbon copies of the prototype, running around. I'm not saying we will rise to the role of Savior of the world. The hero of the story of God has already been cast. We will never be more than human (nor should we want to be). But I am saying—no, Jesus is saying—that the disciple is supposed to actually become “like” his or her teacher. In this case, a radical, uncompromising, sacrificial, humble servant, in perfect step with his Father, possessing an unshakable identity, full of genuine goodness, exuding joy and hope, compassionate, courageous beyond words, and more alive than anyone you or I have ever met. Is it so absurd that this remarkable Teacher fully expects his Body to actually resemble him?

Speaking of his “Body,” this process of becoming like Christ is not to be misunderstood as merely a private endeavor. The unavoidably communal aspect of becoming transformed into the image of Christ must not be overlooked (especially by the American Church, which is prone to extreme individualism). It is the familial interactions that often become the primary method by which Jesus transforms and matures his people. In Ephesians 4, Paul explains that Christ has gifted his Church with various kinds of members “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” He goes on to say “...we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” It does no good for us to be exclusively preoccupied with our own personal growth (although each individual effort cannot be divorced from the success of the collective aim 1 Corinthians 9:27). We must band together to “spur one another on” (Hebrews 10:24). No one is to be left behind.

He is everything we were meant to be. He is everything we long to be” says Darrell W. Johnson (in Who is Jesus?). By God's grace, becoming like Christ is not only possible, it's the clearly articulated goal of the incarnation. When we excuse ourselves from actually resembling Jesus “because he was God,” we are not being humble. We are expressing cowardice and obstinate disobedience. We are like the wicked servant that Jesus spoke of who buried the investment his master left in his care. My prayer for myself and Jesus' Church is that we will not maintain an image in our hearts and heads of a strictly etherial and aloof Savior who is beyond our grasp, but that we will instead look unflinchingly into the eyes of a very human Savior who has made his divine nature scandalously and readily accessible to us. Without a hint of irony, he invites us to “follow” him. Having gone to such great lengths to re-create us in his image and reanimate us with his Breath—I think he's serious about this whole becoming like Jesus thing.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Map

Theology is like a map.

Some are content to study the map, learn its every nuance, and perhaps debate which elements hold the most merit, or whether one should use metric or standard measurements when charting the journey. From the safety of their study, they treasure the map above all else and pore over it together with their fellow map-enthusiasts. They issue stern warnings to all young travelers who would dare to tread the path. "Caution," they say, "the bogs and beasts are many." Never would they leave the comfort of their home, but for the map, and its correct reading, they would gladly lay down their lives (or so they say).

While others, eager for the journey, set out with haste to parts unknown. Their hearts are fearless and full of adventure. So excited to reach their destination, they have little need for maps. If they remembered to bring it, they may consult it from time to time (when it confirms the course they've chosen). But the journey is long, and the path is narrow. With the best intentions, they are likely to end up somewhere they don't want to be.

Pity the would-be adventurer who sets out without her map. But sadder still is he, with map in-hand, who never takes a single step. May we love the map, but, even more, may we love the place—the Person—to which it points.

Godspeed on the journey.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


I once saw some footage, taken shortly after World War II had ended, of a group of townspeople from Weimar, Germany who were being marched through the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp by Allied armed forces. The group of nicely dressed men and women, both young and old, began their trek with smirks on their faces as they casually strolled down the path to where unthinkable nightmares took place not months before. One by one the smiles disappeared as they were confronted with a table of human skin, harvested from the bodies of murdered Jews (horrifically used to create a grotesque lampshade and canvases for painting). They were then taken through the prisoners' “living quarters” (if we can call them that), and many of them staggered or fainted at the stench. Finally they were shown stacks of emaciated corpses, haphazardly piled up here and there, as if their murderers only took the time to shove them aside, making a path to carry on their sadistic work. When confronted with the handiwork of their complicity, many of the women screamed and looked away. How easy it is to judge them. How could they not have known? If I had lived during that time—if I saw my neighbors disappearing—I would have said something. I would have taken a stand, I tell myself. And yet I live in one of the darkest times in human history, where a finely tuned murderous machine of infanticidal industry dispassionately butchers over a million ill-timed unborn babies a year. Don't get me wrong, I am adamantly against the practice of abortion. If I am to be honest, though, I have become resigned to the permanence and the frequency of this heinous practice. Jaded, defeated, and outnumbered, I have gradually accepted things as they are.

More than 50 million babies have been killed since Roe vs. Wade—human sacrifices on the alter of the American Dream (Moloch is an amateur in comparison). As I sat at my computer watching one of the recent undercover videos starring Planned Parenthood, I couldn't help but think, “Dear God, what have we done?!” How have we let this happen for so long, to so many? Those of us in the Church may think of the recently released videos as a much needed “wake up call” for the multitude of naive abortion supporters (and that they are). But I found that I desperately needed to see them, as well. I needed to be graphically reminded of what goes on everyday all across America. I needed to repent of my slow-setting stupor of full-fledged apathy.

There are so many tragedies simultaneously occurring within our broken world (most are brought to our living rooms in real-time via 24-hour cable news) that I think we become calloused as a seemingly necessary defense mechanism. How am I to properly mourn the persecuted Church, with the frequent news of beheadings at the hands of ISIS, the injustice regularly perpetrated by global human trafficking rings, orphans and widows exploited in the world's poorest corners, and still have room in my heart to weep for the murdered unborn within my community and throughout my country, and all before breakfast? “No, I'll just let my heart become hardened,” we tell ourselves perhaps at some unconscious level. The conservative right's public shaming (via witty memes and indignant tweets) of those who mourned the recently slain lion seemed to fit into this line of thought. “We have a finite amount of empathy, and God forbid we waste it on an animal.” This approach does not sit well with me. My personal prayer is that God will enlarge my heart to look more like His. He seems to have an immense emotional spectrum that is nuanced enough to mourn the loss of a single fallen sparrow while simultaneously grieving over human genocidal massacres. Recognizing this tenderness of God, however, should not be seen as a challenge to Jesus' clear affirmation that we are “worth more” to Him than sparrows. I'm currently reading a collection of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's letters from prison in which he laments the loss of a bird that had nested near his window (if I remember correctly, or maybe it was in the prison yard). It struck me that he would have any compassion left for such a seemingly insignificant life in light of the mass-turmoil of his time, not to mention his own unfortunate predicament. I want a heart like that—a heart that feels more, not less.

It seems to me, however, that the murder of infants (with monumental indifference, no less) is of a particularly heinous variety of human depravity. It is fitting to note this. I am often frustrated by a large contingent of the Christian right that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the importance of issues that are close to the heart of God like racial reconciliation and hospitality to immigrants (both documented and undocumented alike), but on the topic of abortion it is often the Christians on the left who remain shamefully silent. I would argue that there is no justice issue before us of greater importance. If a human being can ever be considered “innocent,” there is certainly none so innocent as an unborn baby. And of all who are vulnerable and voiceless, there are none more so than the unborn. The people of God are commanded to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” and to “ensure justice for those being crushed” (Proverbs 31:8). Throughout the pages of Holy Scripture, God consistently, explicitly, and redundantly reveals His heart for the marginalized, exploited, and oppressed of human societies (orphans, widows, the poor, immigrants, outcasts, and—undoubtedly—helpless, unborn human beings). It is truly tragic to me that I would have to spend words explaining this to a professing Christ-follower.

So I'm ready to fight again. I'm ashamed that I had pretty much given up. I admit that I don't know very much about politics, and I feel like abortion has become little more than a talking point, a dangling carrot, wielded by manipulative politicians (on both the left and the right). Those who are skilled in political and legal means of combating this great evil should, of course, pursue them to the fullest. I confess that I don't know how best to resist this darkness, but I refuse to be numbered with the silent, the indecisive, the apathetic, the passively culpable, the townspeople of Weimar.

We are commanded to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). Some fighters that I admire have made a point to avoid giving their money to companies that financially contribute to the murder of babies. This may be as simple as switching from Pepsi to Coke (a modest “cross to bear”). I'm usually against boycotts, and I'm pretty pessimistic about whether they can actually sway the targeted company. On this issue, however, I greatly respect the individual who says, “I will not be a passive participant to mass murder.” My wife pointed out to me that you should be sure to send a letter or email respectfully letting the company know why you are discontinuing their service (be sure to “speak up,” and make your voice heard). While you're at it, send letters and emails to local, state, and national politicians. They're supposed to work for us, right? Remind them that we find the current situation unjust and intolerable. These suggestions encompass the least of what we can do. I would propose that the Gospel ultimately requires more of us than stern letters and catchy memes plastered across our Facebook page.

Other fighters, who really inspire me to overcome evil with good, are welcoming previously unwanted or displaced children into their homes. Considering the shear number of professing Christ-followers in our country, there should never be a child left without a family. This is not something I suggest flippantly. This is definitely the long haul, put your money where your mouth is, loving out loud approach, and perhaps the purest form of a Gospel presentation I can think of. My own family has beautifully modeled this for me, and my wife and I are eagerly looking forward to the day when we can follow in their footsteps.

Most of all, we can cry out to God to shake us out of our apathy. We can align our hearts with His, and regularly beg Him to rescue and redeem (both the oppressor and the oppressed). I know a group of believers in my city that gathers daily to pray for our community and country. They faithfully confess sin and cry out to God to intervene. As American Christians, heirs to a proud legacy of rugged individualism, we have a difficult time identifying with collective guilt. The truth is, we collectively have an ocean of innocent blood on our hands. May we feel the weight of it. May the people of God lead the call to repentance. And by God's grace, may He keep our current outrage from drifting back into apathy.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Reflections on Human Brokenness

There is a rare psychological disorder called Pica in which the afflicted have a compulsion to eat inedible things. I once saw an interview of an individual suffering from this harmful abnormality who would regularly eat the contents of ashtrays. They knew their behavior was disturbing and detrimental, but they just couldn't help themselves. Humanity was created with an innate taste for Christ, the Tree of Life. God knew that once we tasted darkness we would lose our taste for everything else. So like any good father He forbade it. Believing a lie, humanity partook, and we have been craving acid, excrement, and ash ever since. The resulting toxins have poisoned our souls—always thirsty—always hungry—never satisfied. Jesus' ministry of restoration is about reviving, even resurrecting, our desire and capacity to drink deep of Him, the source of Living Water, and to feast on the Bread come down from Heaven. For this is eternal life (John 17:3).

“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13). God seems to see the rejection of Life and the pursuit of death as two separate follies.  More than just foolishly refusing to partake of necessary nutrition, we actively seek to ingest poison. “Come, all you who are thirsty,” says the Lord, “come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare” (Isaiah 55:1-2).  We're generously invited to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8a). C.S. Lewis rightly says, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” 

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus elaborates on the nature of sin. He speaks of sin as if it is something living inside of us as a desire, a craving, before it manifests as an action. He expounds on the command regarding sexual faithfulness, for example, by explaining how the poison of adultery has already entered our soul before bodies ever touch. The deed has been done in the “privacy” of our mind when we chose to feast on a lie that promised nourishment. We often address the outside of the cup or dish, but it is the inside that is like a tomb full of rotting bones. All this time humanity thought sin was a list of bad things that we ought to avoid when it is, in fact, our appetites that have gone off the tracks. Jesus is crystal clear when He says that good trees bear good fruit and bad trees bear bad fruit. Likewise, James asks, “can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” This once and for all puts to bed the notion that we are “good people” who sometimes do bad things. We must stop trying to merely manage our sin and allow Jesus, the Great Physician, to address and heal our spiritual Pica.

I've heard people speak of Heaven as a place where they will be able to gorge themselves on all the rich foods they want without gaining any weight or becoming sick to their stomach. This sort of juvenile idea is missing the point of paradise restored and the present nature of fallen humanity. Instead of gorging ourselves without consequences, we'll know how to be satisfied with just enough. It's not the pesky consequences that are the trouble. It's the evil craving that wants more than its share.

Broken humans are given over to proportional excess. That is to say, it's not enough for me to merely have more than my share, I must also have more than you. My share is only acceptable or intolerable as it relates to your share. I believe Jesus reveals one of the most despicable yet common traits of fallen humanity with His story about the landowner and the day-laborers. If you remember the story, the landowner goes out early to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. He finds a crew, agrees on a fair price for a day's work, and sends them out to harvest his crops. He continues to recruit workers throughout the day, and hires the last batch with only an hour left until quitting time. When the day is done, the landowner reaches for his wallet. Beginning with the Johnny-come-lately group, he hands them each a day's wage. The guys that put in a full hard day's work are almost jumping out of their skin with excitement after seeing the landowner pay so much to the laborers who only worked one hour. They are certain that a huge bonus is coming their way. When the landowner gets to them, however, he promptly hands them what they had originally agreed upon, which just so happens to be what everyone got. The murmuring begins almost immediately. The landowner asks what the problem is, and the workers explain their frustration. The landowner reminds them that he's given them a fair wage—which they had originally happily agreed to—and it's only now, after witnessing his generosity, that they have become disgruntled. Jesus shines a spotlight on the putrid death that lurks in the hearts of humanity. “is your eye evil because I am good?” Wretched creatures that we are, it is common for us to feel envy, malice, and hatred toward those who have good fortune. We regularly feel robbed or slighted by others' good looks, better paying job, abundance of friends, etc. What an indicator of the evil at our core when generosity, others' good fortune—goodness—(which does nothing to affect our personal status) incites envious hatred in us. Suddenly our lot in life is not as agreeable as we had originally thought it.  Even in our darkest hour, why can't we simply gain joy from the good fortune of others? Perhaps we are broken beyond what we would care to admit.

Even in our rebirth, after God has poured His Spirit into us, accompanied by new desires and new cravings, we find that the old cravings linger. A war between the new life within us and the corrupted flesh that seeks to snuff it out rages daily. The Spirit of God and a rancid zombie-like corpse cannot peacefully coexist, and so we must daily put our flesh to death in order for the new cravings to take. Even the Apostle Paul finds that though he has been given a desire for filet mignon, he regularly finds his hand in the ashtray. In a moment of frustration and agony he exclaims, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” There's no way to sugarcoat it. The damage is extensive, worse than we may have feared or could have even imagined. But fortunately, the Rescuer is also far greater than we could have hoped or dreamed.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Why I (Now) Believe the Gospel Compels the Church to Seek Racial Reconciliation


If you ever want to make White people become edgy, defensive, and maybe a little bit indignant just bring up the topic of race in America or better yet mention “White privilege” and watch the ensuing fireworks. Believe me, I get it. I grew up a poor White kid. The last thing I felt was “privileged.” My dad was a minister, and, being one of eight kids, I knew from an early age that I was on my own when it came to buying my first car, paying for college, etc. I've had to work two jobs, seven days a week, at various times in my life just to make ends meet. The suggestion that I was somehow benefiting from my pale complexion seemed absurd. What's more, the implication that I was a “racist” or that I contribute to a racist system that favored me and harmed others was personally offensive. I subscribed fully to the “colorblind” mentality. If you asked me about race, I'd probably proudly assert that I “don't really notice skin color,” and that I “treat everyone the same.” I would of course agree that there are a few vile White racists living in our society (of the KKK and Swastika wielding variety), but they have long since been marginalized by the majority culture and currently posses very little influence. As a result, If you tried to convince me of the need for widespread racial reconciliation within our churches, communities, and culture, I would be left thoroughly unconvinced. I'd probably argue that “race isn't much of an issue anymore.” Flash forward to today—I now believe strongly that there are presently deep, festering, unacknowledged and unattended, racial wounds within our culture, our communities, and, most tragically, within Jesus' church. I also firmly believe that this unfortunate reality breaks the heart of God, and His Gospel, in no uncertain terms, compels His people to seek repentance, reconciliation and healing. Why the change of heart? I'm glad you asked.

Before I continue sharing my ideological journey, however, I'd like to offer up some preliminary clarifications. First off (if it's not already clear), I'm primarily writing to the people of God, those who are captivated by His Gospel and are passionately invested in living it out (with all of its wonderful and terrifying implications). All are free to read on, but—fair warning—there are many things I will say that will only make sense and/or be of interest to those who have already succumbed to the power of the Gospel. Second, I'm not at all interested in promoting a generic so called “White guilt.” You know what I mean—the kind that calls for trudging around with head hung low as you dutifully carry the weight of the knowledge that you are the product of and heir to an irredeemable ethnic heritage of imperialism and oppression. Simply knowing and proclaiming that you, as a White person, are the scum of the earth is your penance. It's the least you can do (quite literally). I find it narcissistic and ultimately unhelpful. The Bible describes a self-centered form of sorrow over wrong doing that does not lead to godly repentance. We would do well to steer clear of that sort of nonsense. Third, I would encourage that you hear what I have to say without immediately becoming intellectually defensive or dismissive (after which, you are of course free to disagree with me). When we feel threatened, we tend to dig our heels in and become hardened to the foreign idea that challenges our preconception. I find this natural, guarded stance to be antithetical to earnest learning. The Bible also warns us against an unwillingness to receive a rebuke or to hear counsel. He or she who will not listen has denied themselves any opportunity to grow in wisdom and understanding. Fourth (and understanding/accepting this point seems to be an insurmountable hurdle for most of the majority culture), systems that favor one group and/or punish another can be created and maintained by participants who harbor no particular malice toward the punished and have no awareness of the system at work. Finally (and this point is important), the suggestion that there may be unjust systems at work within our society that favor Whites and punish non-Whites is not to say that non-Whites are fatalistically incapable of succeeding within said system(s). Likewise, White individuals' accomplishments within this same unjust system are in no way negated or achieved without heroism or hardship. Said another way, a runner can still come in first even if they've unfairly been set back ten yards behind the other contestants, and another runner's course is not without difficulty in the event that they unknowingly had a ten yard head start. Setting out to discuss the initial fairness of the contest in no way expresses knowledge of the runners' final placement, and pointing to anecdotal evidences of individual achievements in no way refutes the claim that there was an injustice at work that should be addressed (to offer up your White grandpa's personal hardships or President Barack Obama's election to the highest political office as definitive evidences that White privilege or systemic racism no longer exist is to miss this point).

My first serious introduction to systemic racism and the pressing need for racial reconciliation was through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I volunteered with the dynamic college and university campus ministry for a year (an extremely rewarding experience). My staff leader during my time with IV was Amos Mbong, an African-American man from Cameroon. He had his team read A Transforming Vision: Multiethnic Fellowship in College and in the Church our first semester together, and we would gather weekly to discuss each chapter. I'm gonna be honest, I remember feeling like it was kind of a waste of time. I had a sense that there were more pressing issues to address. As a result, It was not uncommon for me to debate the merits and validity of the book's content at our meetings. Amos was patient with me (probably even more than I know). He and his wife, Emily, would regularly welcome us into their home. They would initiate and encourage frank discussions about race in a safe environment. Sometimes we would talk about foods and traditions that our families enjoyed (I was regularly surprised at how many things I had assumed were universal, or “normal,” yet were never a part of Amos' or other non-White student's experience). I find that White culture usually discourages this kind of discussion outside of one's own racial group. I guess the danger that one may misstep is considered too risky, so questions go unanswered. It became apparent that members of the majority culture have the luxury of determining whether or not they will engage in a discussion of race (hence the ability to declare race “no longer an issue” and therefore no longer worth discussing), while non-Whites, on the other hand, are unable to avoid the reality of race as a powerful cultural construct with vast real-world implications.

I learned that many non-Whites (especially Black Americans) have much they would like to share with their White friends, co-workers, and brothers/sisters in Christ. They often hold back, though, feeling that their stories will be once again dismissed, “explained,” or completely ignored. Perhaps they will be labeled another “angry Black person,” a “reverse racist,” or someone who is just impossible to please. When I inquired of the various Black people in my life, asking them to speak frankly, the stories flowed freely as if they had been penned up and were eager to be released. Common themes wove them together. It quickly became clear that their experiences with law enforcement, restaurant servers, educators, etc. were not typical of my experiences. The accounts came from non-White teachers, government employees—a diverse sampling of professionals that White culture would consider credible sources. The stories were too numerous to ignore. Am I saying that the White people in the stories were all racists? Not exactly. If only it were that simple.


Anatomy of an Unjust System

Systemic racism, a system or series of interacting systems that favors one racial group and/or punishes another, is undoubtedly the most widespread and damaging form of racism at work in our culture today. It is insidious because it goes unnoticed by the majority culture that both creates and maintains it. It often exists as a shared collection of presuppositions—arbitrary preferences and proclivities that are silently, even subconsciously, agreed upon and imposed as societal orthodoxy by the majority culture. The majority culture by shear numbers will always be the gatekeepers of society. It's no wonder that our preferences and predispositions are canonized as the norm, the standard by which all will be measured. When you stop to think about it, systemic racism is a natural, expected, perhaps inevitable byproduct of typical human selfishness. From a naturalist's perspective, one would be right to say, “so what?” “Of course the majority culture's preferences will become the standard.” “And why shouldn't they?” “If not ours than whose?” “Imagine you have ten people in a room with one television, where nine of them prefer American football as their sport of choice and only one is an ardent soccer fan—guess what they'll be watching.” The Christ-follower, however, is not permitted to think like this. We are commanded to set our preferences aside and to consider others as more important than ourselves. He or she who would be great in God's kingdom must become the servant of all. This is the Gospel way. More on this later.

The majority culture's unspoken preferences manifest on a spectrum that ranges from arguably benign to severely oppressive. They might be expressed as an arbitrary volume expectation for public spaces or a hairstyle or clothing type that's deemed “unprofessional.” In these instances, one might argue that the offending party could simply conform to the “rules” that the majority culture has agreed upon (changing one's dreadlocks, for example, to an approved hairstyle would be rewarded within such a system). Uncharitable as this expectation may be, it would at least present the minority member with a choice. But what of the instances where conformity is not even an option? What if one's complexion means “dangerous” or one's name says “uneducated” and “unemployable” in the majority cultures' arbitrary language? This could result in having one's application unconsciously passed over or even the loss of one's life in a split second decision where a heightened assumption of danger would make all the difference. Many of these presuppositions become self-fulfilling-prophecies. White property owners' investments can increase, for example, while non-White property owners' values inversely plummet all with the unspoken market perception that purchasing property in a White neighborhood is a safer investment. “But my neighborhood is diverse,” one might say. A measure of diversity is acceptable to the majority culture. There is a tipping point, however, that once reached the neighborhood starts to be seen as unfavorable by the market. That is when the White property owners are outnumbered by their non-White neighbors (so called “White flight” ensues). I would encourage further exploration into the shameful history of systemic racism in the real estate market (from loan procurement to market perceptions regarding racial demographics, partly perpetrated by benign data collection from government agencies that is then wielded by a majority culture's preconceptions and ultimately shapes the market and largely determines the geographic distribution of racial groups within a city). In short, the shared arbitrary perceptions of the majority culture can and do become concrete realities, sometimes with devastating results.

Human societies are like complex ecosystems. Most people are familiar with the peppered moth and how it's adaptation is used as an example of the mechanics of natural selection. The environment changed due to the Industrial Revolution, if I remember correctly, and the darker version of the peppered moth, which was previously rare, thrived among the newly soot-covered trees. Societal systems work in much the same way, favoring one trait over another. In some cases, as in nature, there is an objective relationship between the trait and its reward. Showing up to work on time, for example, may be rewarded with positive performance reviews, raises, and promotions (punctuality is highly valued by White culture as it lends itself nicely to another core value: efficient productivity). Human societies tend to reward traits with arguably objective value. The majority culture likes to think that our societal structures are comprised entirely of these sort of “correct,” “objective,” “normal,” and “true” guidelines. This assumption is based on blissful ignorance. Much if not most of our social ecosystem (in which we work, play, live and die) is comprised of arbitrary rules which are subconsciously generated by the majority culture. Those who do not, and in many cases cannot, observe the rules are punished. It's a vast system (made up of various intersecting systems) that was effortlessly designed for us and by us, and it's no surprise that we fit comfortably into its inner workings. This is the essence of “White privilege.” Its about power—the power of the majority culture to collectively tailor society to our preferences, proclivities, and preconceptions—the power to have say in the system's creation (whether we are aware of our individual contributions to the collective narrative or not) –the power to have a voice—the power to be heard. It should be noted, sinful human beings, left to their own devices, do not willingly give up power.

This is a lot to take in—a lot to process. In the words of William Wilberforce, the British abolitionist, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” I briefly mentioned how systemic racism can affect property values. This is a significant example due to the role home ownership plays in American culture. In most cases, a family's home is their most valuable asset and the foundation of all other wealth building endeavors necessary for future investments in the next generation's education, retirement, etc. As a property appraiser for a county Assessor, I am very aware of how shared perceptions create value within the market. My job is largely predicated on my ability to track market trends and note any and all value indicators. I don't claim to be able to produce a comprehensive list of all occurrences of systemic racism within the various realms of our society. I would imagine only God could produce such a list. The common, and often confidently stated, majority culture response, however, that “systemic racism simply does not exist” implies an absurdly vast level of personal knowledge. It would be reasonable to state that one is “currently unaware of any such system(s).” Obstinate ignorance maintained in the face of countless testimonies and numerous observable examples, however, quickly loses its innocence.

Christians tend to be culturally and politically conservative. I know many Christian brothers and sisters who will have difficulty with what I am saying for no other reason than I am using what's seen as “liberal language” in my argument (“systemic racism,” “White privilege,” “natural selection” etc.). If that's you as you're reading this, I would urge you to not let your heart become calloused. You may need to wrestle with some of these concepts for awhile, as I did. Hang in there. Keep in mind, this is ultimately not about “Left” or “Right” ideologies, memes, or mottos. It's about Jesus Christ and His Gospel which He has entrusted to us. We take our marching orders from the King of Kings, not political pundits or talk-radio personalities. His interests determine our actions. From Moses to Jesus and all the prophets in between, God has plenty to say about His heart for the marginalized and ignored of society, the poor, orphans, widows, and immigrants. He claims that ignorance of their plight is not a legitimate excuse to ignore their cries for justice. He uses very “liberal language” when page-after-page He expresses His concern that laborers are being paid fair wages and impartiality is being extended to outcasts. He warns the would-be oppressor that the marginalized are under His protection and He stands ready to avenge. All this to say, It would take an enormous effort on the part of the selective-listening Christ-follower to ignore God's consistent preoccupation with the underdog.


The Beauty of Diverse Unity

God seems to love rich diversity. A quick perusal of His beautiful and vastly varied creation makes a strong case for this assertion. The Gospels attest to the fact that many of Jesus' miracles were done for racially/ethnically un-kosher (in the strictest sense of the word) individuals. He seemed to go out of His way to make the point that He was not interested in merely being the Savior of one or a few people groups. He had global intentions from the start. This inclusiveness infuriated the religious authorities. It was far too liberal of an ambition for their taste. In the upper room, the night before Jesus was to be crucified, He prayed for the unity of the diverse family He was creating. He expressed His deep desire that the family of God would be “one,” and went on to state that our unity would authenticate His divine identity and redemptive ministry to the onlooking world. That's what's at stake here. In his letter to the Galatian church, Paul explains how the Gospel brings us all to a level playing field (elevated by Christ's imputed righteousness to the status of heirs). Our new identity in Christ is so all-encompassing, in fact, that now “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That is not to say that my maleness or my Whiteness has been extinguished, but it has certainly been superseded. I think the clearest picture of God's endgame for this whole diversity thing is seen in Revelation 7. John, the disciple Jesus loved, describes “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb,” and with a single “loud voice” they cried “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” This is an incredibly explosive multicultural, multilingual, multiethnic worship service in honor of an adoring God who is loving every second of it! I've heard it rightly said that Christians who are uncomfortable with diversity will be very uncomfortable in their final state. We may as well get in line with God's final intentions on this side of eternity.


Repentance: The Road to Healing

This discussion of racial reconciliation cannot be divorced from America's unique history. The majority culture's—White culture's—ancestral fathers and mothers more than dabbled in race based oppression. Millions of indigenous people and uprooted Africans were slaughtered, subjugated, and dehumanized in a wholesale industry of human brokenness at its worst. Centuries of oppression cannot be so easily undone in a few generations (even if the majority culture agrees that it is so), and it would be naive in the extreme to think that the oppressors' heirs do not still reap the residual benefits of stolen resources beyond measure. In our own time, Near Easterners have been mistreated and Central and South American immigrants exploited. Most of us are not horribly interested in what the wages and working conditions are like so long as the produce ends up at our grocery store in a timely manner and at a reasonable price. “But wait a minute,” says the reader, “You promised you weren't going to promote 'White guilt.'” And I'll stand by my initial claim that what has come to characterize “White guilt” is narcissistic and unhelpful. The Gospel speaks forgiveness and new identity over those who have received the lavish love of the Savior. In spite of its faults, I love my culture and the people who create it. I believe we can simultaneously, honestly admit our historical failings while still being affirming of our people's historical victories and accomplishments. No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as they say. The same people who exhibited uncommon bravery and innovation are unfortunately guilty of unthinkable barbarism and duplicity. This is an unavoidable truth. As Christ-followers, we no longer need to aggressively defend our personal or collective goodness. We've been liberated from that endless and pointless pursuit to rest in the foreign goodness that has been graciously attributed to us. I've gotta say, it certainly feels great having nothing to prove. Repentance, however, is an essential part of, and an appropriate response to, the good news. “You expect me to repent of things I had no direct part in?” one may protest. “My family never owned slaves.” “I've never wronged anyone because of their race.” “I have no culpability.” This is not the language of the Gospel. This is the voice of sinful flesh. I know it well. While I acknowledge God's mandate that an individual is not to be punished for the crimes of their ancestors (Ezekiel 18), I can't help but notice that those who were considered righteous in Scripture identified with the sin of their people. Moses, Isaiah, Nehemiah, Daniel, to name a few, spoke of “our sins” and used “we” and “us” statements as they interceded for their people. The greatest Interceder of all time took personal responsibility for a multitude of sins that were not His to atone for. It should be clear from our Teacher's example that the often expressed sentiments of “not my burden to bear” and “my hands are clean” are unbecoming of a reconciled minister of reconciliation. Furthermore, It's odd to me that people who subscribe to the foundational doctrines of original sin and substitutionary atonement can so easily disassociate themselves from the actions of our fathers. I think this is at the crux of the majority culture's stubborn refusal to admit any wrong doing, implicit in the acknowledgment of the existence of systemic racism. We vehemently reject the notion of collective sin and guilt, as it offends our culturally-specific high regard for individualism. I believe firmly that admitting to the problem will be the unavoidable first step toward racial reconciliation within Jesus' church. Unfortunately, as long as majority culture church members refuse to budge in this regard, we have reached an impasse. Forgiveness and healing are impossible without confession and repentance.


The Gospel Way: Observing the Law of Love

The Gospel transplants a foreign desire to love boldly and sacrificially, the way we have been loved. I appreciate how Paul talks about his obligation to love his brothers and sisters who may find the eating of meat offered to idols offensive. He basically affirms his freedom to partake, but graciously states that if his spiritual family is harmed by the expression of his freedom then he is prepared to bite the bullet and become a world class vegetarian in order that they would thrive. That's the Gospel way. Likewise, as his disciples were constantly jockeying for power, Jesus spoke of and illustrated another way. He said that unredeemed humans consistently exert power over each other, but that the one who aspired to be great in His kingdom would need to divest themselves of power and become the lowest and the least. This is the counterintuitive nature of kingdom economics. We are not to stockpile power (those who are invested in practical ecclesiology, take note). Power is given to empower. Jesus' invitation is to follow Him as He lays down His life, and only through our mutual death do we share with Him in His resurrection. This is the ultimate act of releasing power. In light of all authority and power being given to Jesus, he immediately distributes His power to His church, as He sends them out with borrowed authority to carry out His mission. He invites. He does not force. His “yoke is easy” and His “burden is light,” and yet there are millions inhabiting every epoch of time who would gladly lay their lives down for Him if He were to only ask. That's a profound and otherworldly form of true power that we can't wrap our heads around.

I would contend that listening to our neighbor is the first step to loving our neighbor. James says, “Everyone should be quick to listen,” and “slow to speak.” Unfortunately, the majority culture does not have a great track record of listening well. White Christians, not unlike the rest of the majority culture, often rabidly endorse, bolster, and share on social media the few non-White individuals who atypically share the majority culture's perspective (the occasional Black individual who loves and defends the Confederate battle flag or thinks Trayvon Martin “had it coming,” as an example). While these anomalous non-White individuals are, of course, welcome to their opinion (no community is a perfectly homogenous monolith), I take issue with the White Christian who erroneously offers up said opinion as if it were the result of their thorough investigation into the prevalent Black community's perspective. These type of videos, interviews, blog posts, political candidates seem to be employed by the majority culture with the intent of restating an already deeply held preconception (the fact that the sentiment comes from the mouth of a minority member is thought to somehow give the position greater credibility) rather than an honest effort to know the other side by listening to learn. I believe that many well meaning White Christians were extremely, though unintentionally, rude with the “All lives matter” counter movement that was launched in response to the original plea that “Black lives matter.” When criticized, the majority culture's response was typically “well, it's true, all lives do matter.” “How can you argue with that?” The inappropriateness of the popular counter campaign, as with many nuanced human interactions, was in the timing and the underlying reason. If your friend was sharing with you how devastated they were at the recent passing of their loved one, I'm sure you would see how unloving it would be to immediately talk over them with the truth that many other people have recently lost loved ones so there isn't anything particularly unique or unusually grievous about what they've just shared with you. I have also heard it rightly compared to someone running through a breast cancer awareness rally yelling “What about heart disease!?” “It's also a serious illness that affects millions of Americans!” While the zealous counter activist has in fact made a true statement, most would see the inappropriateness of their poor timing (and reasonably be left wondering what was the greater factor: the shouter's uncontainable commitment to heart disease awareness or their intent to disrupt the meeting in-progress). Given the timing and setting in which their true statement was shouted out, it is at best grossly inconsiderate and at worst outright malicious. I would contend that it is better understood as a show of power by the majority culture, using its louder voice to correct the arrant claim that “Black lives matter” (thereby denying the Black community's stated grievance—which was clearly “Black lives don't seem to matter to the majority culture” and not “Only Black lives matter”) with the more true statement, “All lives matter.” It is dismissive, rude, and unloving. We, the majority culture, are known for our proclivity to condescendingly explain, correct, and declare rather than our ability to compassionately listen with the goal of growing in wisdom and understanding. The Scriptures commend the one who reserves judgment until hearing both sides. May the people of God be gracious listeners.

One of the First Century church's earliest, and potentially crippling, obstacles pertained to the budding multicultural nature of the family of God. Bluntly stated, the first Christ-followers were vile racists (thank God for the redemptive grace of the Gospel!). Granted, race and ethnicity were viewed differently (religious/cultural/socioeconomic ties to ancestry as opposed to fixations on skin pigmentation). There were, however, comparable themes of racial superiority and presumptions of manifest destiny. The Spirit of God patiently led the early church through stages of difficult transition (inclusion of Hellenized Jews, then Samaritans, and finally Gentiles). Had the Jewish Apostles been unwilling to submit to the Spirit's multicultural vision for Jesus' church, the Gospel would have quickly begun and ended in First Century Palestine (Due to the sovereignty of God, this was of course never really at risk). The early tension is chronicled in Acts 6, where a group of Hellenized Jewish Christians (Greek speaking and cultured Jews who had trusted in Jesus), a minority in the church at this point, bring a grievance to the Jewish Apostles. Their claim (in the midst of a radical family-style sharing of the community's resources) was that the Hellenized widows were being unfairly “neglected” in the daily distribution. We really don't have the particulars. Was this an unintentional oversight by the majority culture (Jewish Christians), or was there some intentional prejudice at work? Perhaps the Hellenized Jewish Christians were honestly mistaken in their claims of being slighted. What's pivotal about this event is the Apostles' Gospel-centric response. They don't dismiss the complaint with an assurance that “no one is a racist here, so you simply must be mistaken.” Or explain the grievance away with, “Perhaps your people aren't lining up properly—we have rules, you know—or maybe their ridiculous baggy togas are making them look shifty and causing the Jewish distributors to get nervous around them” They didn't retort, “All widows matter.” They wisely responded with, “we hear you, we want to address your concern, and we'd like you to pick new distributors from among you” (my paraphrase). As a result, the first seven deacons were selected, all with distinctly Greek names. Did you catch that? There was an extremely humble release of power on the part of the majority culture. That's what I call Gospel progress. They could have easily taken a defensive posture and said, “How dare you call our integrity into question? —I've known brother Hezekiah for years, and he is definitely not a racist,” or “We walked with Jesus, who was Jewish by the way, and this is how we've always done it.” The growing tension reaches its pinnacle in Acts 15 at the Jerusalem council. The still Jewish-Christian run church gathers to give their definitive ruling on whether or not future Christ-followers must first become Jewish in order to be eligible for membership in the family of God. This was a landmark decision for Jesus' infant church. Their unanimous vote was for an enormous release of power that inevitably marked the beginning of the end of the current majority culture's influence over the rest of the family. The Jewish Christians quickly became the minority in an ever-expanding multicultural family of God. As a result, the four Gospels were written in Koine Greek, I imagine the Apostles had to let go of some of their favorite Hebrew hymns, they had to adapt to Corinthian worship styles, and the original members of this dynamic movement of God willingly and humbly put themselves at the mercy of the new majority culture. As I mentioned earlier, this type of willing, sacrificial release of power from a majority culture to its minority brothers and sisters happens nowhere else but in God's family.

Martin Luther King Jr. asserted that Sunday morning contained the most segregated hour of the American week. Decades later, this is still true. I find this undeniable fact devastating. What's more, it breaks the heart of a loving Father who yearns to see His children live as “one.” Why is it that the secular world has become more integrated than the family of God? Reconciliation, building bridges, is supposed to be our thing. I can't overemphasize how important it is that we get this right. By His own testimony, the validity of Christ's incarnation rests on our unified oneness. The onlooking world is supposed to stand back in awe and say “see how they love each other.” “There is no earthly explanation for what we are witnessing.” And instead they have just cause to smirk and walk away. “Hypocrites” is our duly earned title. But brothers and sisters, let's shake it off once and for all. The Gospel will have it no other way.

If your local church congregation and, more importantly, leadership team reflects the diversity of your city, then you are in the Christian minority. If your church is more like the rest of ours, then I would encourage you to actively and graciously seek diversity within your corner of the family. We ought not to try to presumptuously speak for our minority brothers and sisters (this would be conventional majority culture thinking), but we can use our privilege, our voice, to make room for them to be able to speak for themselves. It is we, the majority culture, who are impoverished for lack of their voices within our divided church community. Cliquey homogeneity is our natural human bent—par for the course—and diversity will not happen without intentionality. The Gospel of Jesus Christ prescribes, in no uncertain terms, the necessary intentionality. As mentioned, people do not typically seek out opportunities to rid themselves of their current power, privilege, and ability to institute their preferences. I'm inspired by organizations like InterVarsity, that have been leading the charge toward sacrificial racial reconciliation. Some gestures are small, but get the ball rolling. InterVarsity regularly incorporates multicultural worship styles into their gatherings, for example (I awkwardly sang Spanish or Korean, etc. worship songs on many occasions during my time with IV). Gestures like this seem to say “we don't have to, but we want to, because we're family” to our frequently ignored minority brothers and sisters. I remember attending InterVarsity's awesome mission conference, Urbana '12, and was puzzled at first when I saw the teaching lineup for the week. David Platt, an incredible speaker, best selling author of “Radical” and “Follow Me,” and mega-church pastor—a veritable, Christian majority culture rock star—was only asked to speak one evening. Why isn't this guy headlining the week, I thought? In lieu of Platt (who is undeniably an awesome leader in the church today) the keynote speaker was a Kenyan pastor that I had never even heard of. Because of Urbana's intentional dedication to actively seeking racial reconciliation within Jesus' church, I was exposed to the incredible teaching of—the previously unknown to me—Calisto Odede. I'm also inspired by the voices of conservative pastors like John Piper who have declared their intentions to seek diversity within their leadership teams. We can all respectfully request that our current church leaders consider making room for future qualified non-White leaders. It does us no good to merely absorb them. We must release power to them if we are to benefit from their voices, their God given uniqueness. If our intention is to seek out Gospel-centric racial reconciliation within the American church, we must be prepared for the inevitable push-back from comfortable naysayers and the unavoidable messiness of cross-cultural interactions. Our worship and teaching styles will change. It will mean the death of our preferences in hundreds of large and small ways. But didn't we always know that was part of the deal when we answered the call to take up our cross and follow Him? I've heard doubts from non-White Christ-followers who question whether the majority culture will ever “get it.” I love the church. I'm hopeful in the transformative power of her inherent Gospel DNA, and I know, through the power of His Spirit, she can be all that Jesus graciously sees in her.