Tuesday, July 18, 2017
This is an excerpt from a book I am writing on ministry....
There is probably nothing better for your physical heart than to have a happy home life. If you are in love with your wife, and she loves you, and if you enjoy your children and they delight for you to be home and involved in their lives, this indeed is joy. There is so much to oppose the achievement of this in modern ministry life. I will try to give some ideas to make it possible….
1. Let’s be counter intuitive, to have a happy home you must not make an idol out of it. Your wife and family have to see you leading them to something greater than time with you, or seeing themselves indulged with all of your attention. The call of God, missions, ministry, commitment to a local church, justice, the poor, and love for others has to be the value system on which our families are built. If you don’t want self-centered children than you have to model it, and far too often our quest for a good quality of life is in reality nothing but self-love.
2. To have a happy home you have to love your wife. If you want your children to respect you, honor your wife. If you want respect from your wife, learn to listen to her and take her opinions seriously. If you want your children to be polite, teach them to respect and honor their mother. Insist on obedience and respect in the home from your children and do not allow signs and acts of rebellion in their early years to go unchecked; it will pay off when they are teens.
3. Being full of anger and giving yourself over to rage at home is neither healthy nor a testimony to your children. Many pastors are driven people, often frustrated, and sometimes way too demanding of their wives and children. Rage, bellowing and yelling, being controlling, and overly strict is not the same as discipling your children. Do not call them names, except those of endearment (idiot, meathead, lazy, fool, and your mother’s child are not included). Love and patience with affection works wonders.
4. Nothing can replace time spent with your wife and kids, and it is a rare pastor who can get through life without feeling guilty over the times he has missed with his immediate family. There is no way out of it, you and your family will sacrifice to be in the ministry, and you should. However, that means the times you should set apart to be with them should be sacred to you, so set apart the time and fight hard to protect it. I failed often at this, as do many pastors, and lay people who must work long hours and sometimes work more than one job to keep their families financially afloat.
5. Learn how to rest. Set a day off and take it, plan vacations and take them, ask for a sabbatical and use it well. Try not to replace real vacations with working ones, but sometimes that is the only way to get your family out of town and some place fun, so don’t despise the opportunity if that is what you have to do. I learned these lessons far too late in raising a family. I am grateful for every great, but rare, memory of time off fun with my kids and family.
6. Pray for and practice a healthy sex life. If you are married you need to not neglect each other, and neither do you need to be obsessive and selfish. Talk to your wife about your mutual needs and don’t fall into habits of neglect, being slovenly, or emotional distance.
7. May God deliver you from pornography, and if it is any kind of problem get counseling, and help. Protect yourself from temptation and stop thinking you are above it and can handle everything. Watch out for counseling sessions with needy women, make sure someone else is around or in the building. When you travel for ministry take someone with you that will hold you to godly behavior, of the same sex or your wife. Think of yourself as vulnerable and a target for the Devil and stop listening to his lies that tell you that you are a success and deserve to be admired and can handle sexually dangerous situations.
8. Stop obsessing over money. One can spend way too much time worrying about how, or if, they are going to financially make it, or give way to anger about how they are not being paid enough, or how their spouse seems to have no self-control, or how their children are missing out, or about the car they have to drive, or vacations they can’t take. Pray about your money, be diligent to account for it and use it well, get advice on how to manage and budget it, and learn to be content in whatever situation you are in. Make sure you tithe faithfully and be generous. Stop your complaining (especially in front of your wife) and learn to be grateful for what you have. It is unhealthy to have a cheap and greedy heart.
9. Figure out how to worship as a family and teach your children about our holy religion. Use the catechism, Scripture memory, psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, Christian stories and biographies. Engage your children in ministry events, mission trips, and service. Pray with and for them, at the table, when you put them to sleep, when they are struggling with issues of friends, school problems, etc. Try to stop your bitching about all the failures of the church or the people in it, show some respect for the Bride of Christ.
10. For your children; compliment, encourage, use good and positive words. Stop always saying, “no!” Try to get to a “yes.” Make sure your wife and you are a team and can’t be divided and conquered by those manipulative children. Reward, gently push, ask questions, listen to their questions, don’t judge them for doubts or concerns. Brag about them, and let them know of your pride in them. Say, “I love you” a lot. Let your boundaries be clear and the door always open to your heart.
Thursday, June 29, 2017
I have been consciously in the struggle for racial justice since I was in high school. I believe strongly in and strive for racial reconciliation in the way I live my life. I am a white American male married to an African American woman. We both come from Newark, NJ and were teenagers at the time of the Newark riots in 1967. We both grew up watching the news of Civil Rights marches, Dr. King’s speeches, his murder, and riots in the streets. We have felt the intensity of racial hatred from Black Muslims in Newark and arbitrary white people in the south.
We have felt the smug equivocation concerning injustice from fellow Christians when it absolutely was not ambiguous. We have seen the retreat into denial and the determined avoidance of engagement from truth and justice by far too many Christian leaders. These are matters that demand engagement and require repentance, the risk of love and forgiveness, and determined change. Many simply want nothing to do with repentance if it deprives them of their self-righteousness or their anger.
My wife and I have both read and studied African American history and culture, we have helped to start and I have pastored an intentional cross-cultural church, pursued various reconciliation ministries and initiatives, and fostered a national movement of cross-cultural congregations. We have had to be apologists for justice within our own very conservative Presbyterian denomination. We have sometimes had to be apologists to an untrusting and incredulous black community concerning sincere white folk who wished strongly to see justice come and experience love and peace from people of color. We have had to answer countless questions about race and culture, explaining and teaching the value of diversity and difference while pursuing and living out unity.
Neither of us has a degree in racial reconciliation, cultural diversity, cross cultural communication, or racial justice. We do have experience. We have been in some tight spots and scary situations, sometimes fearing the possibilities for ourselves or our children. We have experienced some shunning, been falsely accused of nefarious agendas, assumed to have a confused racial identity, purposefully left out of certain opportunities, and when we have achieved had those dismissed as if things were simply handed to us. In short, to some degree, we believe we have paid our dues in the struggle.
All of this being said so the reader might understand why we find it a bit problematic when people who are also in the struggle chose to be needlessly provocative, insulting, and divisive as they claim to pursue social justice. My problem isn’t so much with the purpose and attitude of their hearts; obviously only God can accurately assess that, and I tend to give those that I know the benefit of the doubt that they mean well. My problem is more with the current language in the quest for racial and cultural justice.
I would imagine that there are those who have heard me speak on racial or justice issues that felt slightly beat up by the time I was through. It is difficult to honestly and humbly listen to the shameful racial history of our country, or of American Christianity, and to see the facts of current prejudice and disparities and not feel ashamed, disturbed, and even angry. I know those feelings because I have certainly felt them as I became more and more woke to the reality of our fallen world in regard to the issues of race and justice. I cannot read of slavery, Jim Crow laws and segregation, lynching, race riots, and a history of intentional economic discrimination that has helped to create poverty, humiliation, and injustice without deep emotional anguish; I have often been reduced to weeping. I know it is difficult for my wife to even watch a film or television documentary that will throw in her face one more time all that her people have suffered in this land.
Yet, we seek peace. We follow Jesus the Reconciler, the One who brought us the message of reconciliation from God the Father and accomplished reconciliation at the cross. We believe that we are called to be peacemakers; it is simply part of what it means to be a Christian. So how do you tell uncomfortable truths to people and make peace?
James answers that this way, “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”(3:17-18) So, peace isn’t simply my goal or end, it is the very means by which I accomplish my end and achieve God’s goal. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated this many times, and he practiced it.
The consciousness of racial injustice and its attendant social, economic, psychic, emotional, and physical realities are like a punch in the gut. We have no alternative but to spell them out, to both the ignorant and the resistant. Yet, if we allowed hate to fill us, these truths could inflame our hearts and push us to be fiery-eyed zealots and avengers, we instead seek to speak the truth in love; as Ephesians 4:15 teaches us to do. This is not always easy to do, to speak hard truths in love. We cannot be flippant about what love means (claiming we love people but producing no demonstrable proof) in our communication, especially not in having read the James passage in how the “wisdom from above” is to be imparted. In other words people who hear hard truths from us must also hear and feel the love as far as it may depend on us.
It is way too easy to be self-righteous in this work, especially if any of us ever lose touch with our own sinfulness. Self-righteous zealots are both dangerous and boring. They create more division and give people an excuse to stop listening. I may have taken too long to get to my point, which is simply that we need to watch our mouths and our pens if we want to stay true to Jesus as we pursue the justice we believe is inherent in his own character and which he demands from all of us.
There is a lot of racial rhetoric (from various ideological perspectives) and the Christian has to navigate their way through words and phrases that are sometimes intemperate, out of proportion, historically inaccurate, blatantly false, almost totalitarian in their attempt to control the narrative, and just plain mean. We must never sacrifice our commitment to truth nor our commitment to love, and for that we will need a lot of help from the Holy Ghost.
Let me try to give some suggestions in the quest for peacemaking:
· Tell the truth while being humble, and with as much kindness as possible.
· Is the purpose of your communication positive change in others or an excuse for you to vent your anger? We should all be angry at injustice, but none of us should be sinfully angry.
· Watch out for gross generalizations and provocative slogans that are needlessly offensive. Do you simply want an “amen” from people who agree with you or understanding from those who are still in ignorance?
· Articulate racial concepts with explanation and alternative strategies and try to avoid leaving people in and with ambiguity.
· Watch out for simply spreading guilt, even to the guilty, without the Gospel alternative.
· Have some sense of balance concerning your reactions to things which are annoying or make you feel insulted as opposed to those threats and situations which are actual physical assaults on life and liberty.
· Choose your battles, for there will be times you will need real courage against dangerous foes. An insulting mouth will give you enemies you don’t need to make.
· Denouncing the mistakes and cultural obliviousness of the dominant majority culture can be helpful, but it won’t keep them from being the dominant culture, so how can these various cultures live with justice and love in their current reality?
· Lead us to some positive change, model it, and love your enemies, or else your articulate explanation of what is wrong and unjust might simply leave us all frustrated.
· Proportion your perspectives and passions: keep in balance the reality of living in a fallen world that will always have a limited ability for change, keep fervent your eschatological hope that a new heavens and new earth is coming, keep fervent your passion and call for justice, love and peace (and belief in its possibility) in the name of Jesus and by the power of a resurrected Christ.
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
One of the greatest things we have in our Western system of justice is trial by jury. One of the most frustrating things we have in our Western system of justice is trial by jury. One of the best things we have as American citizens are our rights under the U.S. Constitution and one of the most mischievous parasites upon it is the way the criminal justice system seems to manipulate it to create perverted ends.
Surely most thinking citizens have at times been frustrated when someone who has clearly broken the law seems to get off with little or no punishment. At other times most thinking citizens have been scandalized when someone who is innocent, or actually a victim of unusual circumstances, is slammed with a heavy- fisted punishment due to the written code of jurisprudence. In all of these situations the reflective question of, “What if that had that been me, or someone close to me?” is worth asking. What if I had been railroaded and sent to prison for a crime I did not commit and spent years in prison? What If I had lost my family, my youth, and my fortune because of such injustice? Maybe those questions would motivate our sympathy, our sense of outrage at injustice; maybe.
What if my wife, son or daughter, someone I love had been murdered, raped, beaten, robbed by someone who had been clearly identified and that person managed to get away with murder? Surely if I thought that the victim of crime on the news could have been me or mine my empathy might become engaged; maybe. I remember all those vigilante movies, (remember the ones with Charles Bronson?) and I am a bit sympathetic.
Our American history reveals how the jury system is not infallible in determining guilt or innocence, especially when the culture of the jurists is resistant to justice, predetermined to protect the accused because of a communal prejudice. It is one of the great protections for defendants to be tried by a jury of his or her peers, as it allows defendants, and especially those who are ably and well defended by competent and zealous attorneys, to elicit sympathy even in the clear and demonstrable evidence of their complicity and guilt. We have seen racism in juries during the Civil Rights movement allow clearly guilty killers and bombers walk out of the courtroom as free men. The words of Native Americans, African Americans, and Mexicans just didn’t carry the same weight as white men when in court.
Many poor defendants never get a jury trial, and therefore many of them end up in prison serving long sentences. The process of plea bargaining, the heavy handed stacking of charges, and incompetent representation deprives many of a sympathetic jury and only a “by the book” mathematical precision of sentence by penal code. Again, when a person of color went before a white jury the results were often predetermined.
We are currently facing such a cultural injustice in our jury system. It has a blue color over it, but it is not the fault necessarily of the police departments or systems whose individuals come to trial. It is a fault in our citizenry, and thus in our culture. We are prejudiced for law and order, we are prejudiced for the uniform, we are prejudiced for authority and it is a prejudice that is both ignorant and dangerous. We are finding it almost impossible to hold officers of the law responsible for their crimes. If they cannot be held accountable sooner or later all of our rights, and our lives, are at risk.
What is interesting is that in several cases the police departments themselves have repudiated the actions and behaviors of their officers and fired the incompetents or malefactors. What is also interesting is that in case after case whole cities and communities have had to pay exorbitant settlements in wrongful death suits. In short, the very citizens who let these officers go free pay for the crimes they have committed by higher taxes, or less policing since the city budget can no longer include it.
Does this tell our citizens anything? Does it educate them that when officers go off the reservation as it were and kill citizens whose guilt has in no way been proven or established, nor have given any real threat to the officers, that these officers need to be held accountable for their failures in executing the law they have sworn to uphold? The jury system allows for feelings, and the biggest feeling such officers submit in their defense is fear. Fear now seems to be the trump card that an officer can offer as to why they shot the deceased in the back half a dozen times or so, and why they shot the man who was walking away from them, or the man who was telling the officer he had a gun but also had a permit, etc. etc.
Can we change the culture of juries so that they understand that fear might make any of us sympathetic but is not an excuse for cowardice? Cowards are those who are afraid but don’t know how to master their fear. Fear is something that training is supposed to help those in uniform services know how to confront in themselves so that they can function effectively and lawfully. Fear is understandable, and so is anger, but it should be no defense for those who respond emotionally and not with self-control.
If you cannot learn to control your fear you should not be a police officer, or a soldier. Fear is a constant in confrontation, it can make people do stupid things and it surely has, but it cannot be an excuse for killing innocent or non-convicted citizens. Despite what police unions say (that seem to excuse all kinds of bad behavior and make incidents political) police departments are trying to hold their officers to a higher standard and all of us as citizens need that higher standard.
So, if you ever have the opportunity to be on a jury that must judge a police officer who has been accused of hurting someone unjustly, think not just of that officer’s fear, think of the victim, and think of them as if it had been you or yours. We must have sympathy for the abuse and danger officers face every day, we must pray for them, love on them, support them, and absolutely let them know that we understand that the challenge they face is greater than just another day at the office. However, we depend on them not to respond with their fears, but with wisdom and justice. And we will and must hold them to such standards, if for nothing else than for the safety of our very own children.
Wednesday, May 17, 2017
I have been ruminating on how often a pastor should be gone from his flock. How many outside engagements should a pastor take per year? How many Sundays should he miss for vacation, denominational responsibilities, or preaching invitations?
The answer lies somewhere in what specifically your employer allows (namely your Elders or Board), in what your desire might be, in how many invitations one receives, and what you request (or need) for rest, and in what simply is a failure to fulfill ones’ responsibility in the discipling through preaching of your primary charge.
The answer to the question of how many absences from the pulpit is slightly different, as there are times when the pastor is not absent but he opens the pulpit to a guest preacher, missionary, associate pastors, etc. Taken together with the pastor’s absence from the church this can amount to a considerable amount of time away from his preaching presence and ministry.
I have known some pastors who were amazingly gifted (and sought after) but seldom left their pulpit for out of town engagements. I have known some who simply hated to share the pulpit, even with associate pastors who desperately needed preaching time, or refused to relinquish it for missionaries or special speakers. At the same time I have known some who seemed always to be gone, who seemed to accept any and all invitations to go somewhere else or be anywhere else than where their congregation expected them to be; at their own church preaching on Sunday.
The pastor who is always gone will most likely soon be gone, permanently. Congregations expect to be pastored by the pastor they have hired, and they expect the person they pay to preach will actually do so on most Sundays. There are reasons of course some pastors are out of town or who give over their pulpit to others, some good and some not so good.
The danger with discussing good and bad reasons is that sometimes these reasons are not obvious. A pastor may be having some internal struggles, even deeply psychological ones that he is not consciously aware of and hasn’t come to grips with yet. So, even if it looks legitimate, a pastor’s absence may in fact stem from a negative impulse.
If a pastor feels constantly criticized for his preaching he may prefer to preach to people who don’t complain, or where he can possibly preach one of his best sermons and be fairly certain it will be well received. Where his own people may seem bored to hear him week after week other places may see him as a novelty and think he is pretty exciting. Of course if he actually went there (and became their pastor) they would eventually be bored with him as well, so instead of resigning his charge he uses his main employment as a financial base while he keeps traveling to get positive feedback from strangers.
Instead of the people being bored, the pastor may be bored, and seeks outside engagements because he loves novelty and varied experiences. This leads of course to the question of how much he really loves his own flock, and does he seek to shepherd them effectively. If he only sees himself as a preacher and not a shepherd then he won’t care as much about shaping the congregation, or discipling them, in the direction of conforming them into the image of Christ.
I had a Ruling Elder who loved me and he actually liked my preaching. Sometimes he would come to Session meetings with a list of dates that I had been out of town or absent from the pulpit. He was keeping score, and he would remind me of how much time I had missed. This always seemed to happen just before I was to make a request to be gone one more Sunday. As annoying as this was to me it was actually helpful.
I hate saying, “no” to anyone who asks me to come and preach. It certainly pumped up my ego, made me feel needed and important, and somewhat necessary for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Being reminded that I had a responsibility gave me stability and kept me grounded in reality.
In my particular case the Session had agreed that I would have a certain amount of time for vacation, and another amount of time for my Army Reserve duty. If I exceeded that time I would have an unpaid leave of absence. Unfortunately, a few times, the Army took more of my time than I had planned for as they sent me off to war, but they did pay me while the church did not have to do so. Special requests for my teaching or preaching from outside the congregation had to be filtered through a Session committee which would permit, or not permit, another absence.
I was asked to do seminars in prisons, be a camp speaker, be a missions conference speaker, take foreign mission trips, and received various other kind of invitations. At the same time I often felt nobody noticed me or invited me to the really important (popular) speaking opportunities. Most of this was an insatiable need within me to feel important, and that was certainly fleshly, part of my sinful fallenness, a lack of faith in Christ’s love for me, a failure to see and appreciate my true identity and worth in Christ, and just the plain sin of pride.
I actually loved preaching to my own congregation and seldom felt disappointed in their response or appreciation for my preaching. They seemed dismayed when I was gone, and complained hardily if the person preaching in my absence was not very good. I could use up all my own vacation time going somewhere else to preach, and then be exhausted. This certainly ticked off my wife, but made me feel embarrassed if I ever thought to complain to the Elders that I needed more time off. I often felt guilty for being away, and I had this one Elder who would make sure that I did. I loved him for it, and I needed it, as I would have failed to be faithful in my call to my own church.
So, it is wise to not only make an agreement with your Elders about how often you should be gone, but it also important to have that agreement “policed.” If the Session doesn’t hold preachers accountable the “spooky” spiritual nature of their calling seems to make all their choices to go somewhere else and preach “God’s will,” when it is not. I certainly believe in rest, in vacations, in sabbaticals. I believe in missions, I believe in study times. My problem was that I wanted to do it all and my congregation’s problem was they simply wanted a reliable pastor; what was wrong with those people?
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
I had a hard time sleeping last night. It is sometimes like this for me after I preach or speak at an event. I am often agitated about the mistakes I have made in my sermon or speech. I feel guilty and that I have disappointed the Lord. Usually this does not come about because someone has complained or criticized me. It is extremely rare for anyone to criticize me to my face after I speak, and I suppose I should be very grateful for that. I just jump all over myself.
Let me assure everyone that I know I’m forgiven, oh praise God for that, and that I am loved by my Heavenly Father! It just takes some time to work out the emotions when I think I should have done better. Maybe I failed to connect some of the thoughts and arguments, maybe I failed to rely on the Holy Spirit when I was speaking (I get really angry at myself if that is the case.) So, the purpose of this article is simply to restate my argument from last night in a way that I hope will be more coherent. I desire most to give glory to God and to be faithful to His Word.
I had the honor and privilege of speaking at the annual Hope for the Inner City banquet. They are a faith based non-profit that seeks to pursue Christian community economic development in Chattanooga. This was the tenth anniversary of their merger with Inner-City Ministries, and the 45th anniversary when I helped to found the original organization, Inner City Missions, Inc. back in 1972. Man, am I old! Though both organizations have had their struggles they have tried to be faithful and to help people rise up and prosper both spiritually and economically. I am thankful and proud of their efforts.
My remarks were based on the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18ff. “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
This of course is the very familiar passage which is used at mission conferences and challenges us to go, and to make disciples of the nations, and we do that in the practice of baptism and teaching people to obey everything Jesus taught us. I am someone who grew up in the inner city of Newark, NJ and then was called by God to plant a church in the city. The communities of the poor are something the Lord won’t let me forget in terms of my personal calling and the reality of their need.
We usually see this term “nations” or “ethnic groups” as just that, particular nations or ethnic groups. I have been thinking about African American urban poor communities, Native American reservations, poor white trailer parks and communities as also coming under that “ethne” word in the passage. They are communities that need to be discipled, although we don’t usually think of them that way – unless we are a church planter among the poor, and then we do.
I know it is currently important to look upon poor communities from an “asset based” perspective than simply that of need. But, seriously, when you grow up there and live there it is a little hard to ignore the deficits. The poverty, the gangs and violence, the drugs, the broken families (I grew up in one), the failing public schools, the alienation from the police and justice system, the lack of grocery stores, viable jobs, etc. It goes on and on, generation after generation, and the despair and frustration can be daunting. I know there are assets, and the greatest of course are the wonderful people created in God’s image who live in these places. Their potential is huge and untapped. Yet, the trouble is real.
We know such troubled places didn’t create themselves. We are aware of the history of economic racism, red lining, discrimination in housing, and employment. We do not blame all of the problems of the inner city on the bad or immoral decisions of those who might live there. People make immoral and bad decisions in every kind of human community. It is just that when such overwhelming circumstances are against us then we need something inside us to help us through, and out, and over them.
So, my remarks last night were based on two calls and two challenges. The first call is simply the call to salvation, which I believe is like a miracle. As the Scripture says, “Therefore if any man be in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) We think that the people who live in the communities of the poor need Jesus, they need to be converted. As Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16) If something can only happen by the power of God it must be a miracle.
One might object that is just the old fundamentalism that seeks to get people saved but doesn’t take their physical needs or being seriously. I would say it is much older than fundamentalism, it is essential Christianity. People need to be saved, and especially the poor who need an engine of hope in their hearts to rise above the circumstances in which they live.
The second call is that to discipleship. Now discipleship is that part of the Great Commission which tells us to teach people to obey everything that the Lord Jesus taught us. So much of American Christianity has been built on the idea of the instant miracle, where someone prays the sinner’s prayer (“Lord Jesus come into my heart and forgive me of my sins, amen!”) I am thankful that sometimes we see this miracle happen in people’s lives, where their life is changed immediately.
However, even in the ministry of Jesus, he led his disciples for three years and even after that they struggled, deserting him and betraying Him. No, he did not fail in discipleship, he forgave them, he taught them, he changed them. My point is that it was a process, and some people are saved that way. We are not sure exactly when it happens, but in the process of loving, mentoring, befriending, teaching, and training the transformation takes place. The Holy Spirit opens a person’s heart to realize Christ died for them, and loves them, and they can be forgiven and adopted as a child of God, and they believe.
People who come from so much trouble, dysfunctionality, and brokenness need their value system changed. They need hope, and they need models, and opportunity. Now, why isn’t this happening?
Here is where I want to offer two challenges. The first is to the church, the local church that is anywhere near the communities of the poor. If we persist in having church indoors, staying in our buildings, commuting to the neighborhood but never interacting with the neighbors, then we are not going to have much opportunity in sharing Christ with the poor. For that we are going to have to get out on the streets, hang out on porches, play ball in the community centers, and speak with people. Hold back yard bible clubs, have home Bible studies, whatever ways you can to share Christ.
The poor are not a project for the middle class do-gooder, they are real live human beings. Now, there is obviously a reason people avoid poor communities. Sometimes it is scary, we are afraid, there is potential violence. That has always been true in the history of missions. There have always been places too dangerous to go, too unhealthy, where people die and get killed. Places that don’t seem to even want Christ or seem to hate us for showing up. Yet, Christians went. They went, they shared Christ, they fed the poor, healed the sick, and lived among the people, and yes sometimes it cost them their lives. So, more Christians came, and the Christians among the people grew bold and lived out their faith, and nations were discipled.
Pastors and Christians need to get up out of their buildings and go out among the people. Just show up and hang out and as the Lord gives you opportunity become involved in God conversations. Ask questions, share your faith, invite folks to church and into your life. Now, if you are a pastor who doesn’t believe the Bible, or you don’t believe that people can be saved or need to be, well, you should stay in your office and not speak with anyone. You will just screw them up.
The second challenge, and this is specifically where I challenged people to support Hope, is to help the folk we meet in the community to enter into a long term training and development effort. It is not enough just to go around asking people to make decisions for Jesus; we need to call them to a lifetime of discipleship. This discipleship of the poor includes economic discipleship, and programs like Hope are trying to create a conveyor belt experience where principles of how to work, and then skills to do a job, are taught while a stipend is given to provide incentive to keep going in training.
My hope and vision is to see the community discipled. Yes, I know neighborhoods need viable jobs; that pay enough to allow families to get off of welfare and make progress. We need entrepreneurs, new industry, relevant training that translates into work opportunities. We need good schools; we need good government, better housing, adequate and affordable medical care. Yes, all of those things. But to have an engine of hope to pursue them, to use them, to profit from them, people need a relationship with Jesus Christ. I am calling on the church to get out among the people and disciple them as individuals and the community so that our neighborhoods might be changed. Church, do your job!
Last night I mentioned that even right now some young person is driving around with a gun in his pocket, looking for someone to shoot. This is our reality, and sure enough last night there were a few more shootings. How are we going to change that? Well, some of those folks are God’s elect, and they can and will be saved if we will actually get into their lives and experiences with the love of Christ. The need is urgent and real. May God give us the courage and faith to do so!
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
As someone who has been involved in the struggle for racial reconciliation for most of my life and ministry I am concerned at times with some of the rhetoric and conversation I hear and read from my side of the fence. What I mean by “my side of the fence” are those folks with whom I am in general agreement, those who claim Christ and who seek justice.
I am often dismayed, but seldom surprised, with statements made by people on the “other side of the fence;” those who are racist, and especially those who actually seek to defend hostile racial attitudes while still claiming to be Christian. I am also not that surprised by people we might describe as “on the fence;” those who want to take a neutral stand, who seem superior and condescending, who act like they don’t really have to take sides. This last group thinks they can escape blame for fostering prejudice, supporting an unjust status quo, or can justify being silent on those days when a righteous voice is needed.
I might be able to level criticism at these other people, at least at their statements or positions. I might be able to in general raise a prophetic voice at attitudes and commitments that I feel are antithetical to Christ, which I believe is my calling as a preacher and minister of the Gospel. However, I am constrained to make such statements, and to hold attitudes, and to foster only those emotions which are obedient to my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. This constraint means I must be restrained in returning evil for evil. The rules I live by are different than those who do not claim to serve Christ, and I only have a select drawer of weapons which I can legitimately use in this war.
So, when I read or hear from those with whom I mostly agree say things, or write things, or post, or blog, or podcast, etc. that I think are going in a direction of bitterness, or retreat, or separation, or self-segregating, or revenge, or arrogance, or self-pity, then I feel a bit discouraged, if not a bit annoyed. I also find myself wanting to give a warning.
As a white man I am very conscious that I ought never to attempt to speak for African Americans, or actually any group, including my own. I am certainly not the spokesman for white people. I am however a spokesman for God, and I certainly do not mean that in any presumptuous or arrogant way. This I accept as God’s calling on my life, and according to the power that God invests in me, and always bordered, controlled, and examined by the Scriptures.
There are those who write or say provocative things, and though sometimes the “truth” they are sharing might contain some of the truth yet not the complete truth, it sounds clear and radical enough to get our attention. Again, I am speaking about those on “the same side of the fence” as me. This provocation presumes motives, then seeks to stir up a reaction, and those who don’t hold to Biblical rules (even while claiming to be Christians) respond with hatred and racially vituperative rejoinders. I can roundly condemn all this racial garbage, all this meanness, all this spiteful and nasty commentary, and I most emphatically do.
At the same time I don’t feel as much pity for the victim because he obviously started the conversation in the way that he did to provoke a reaction but not necessarily to solve a problem. In other words it looked like he wanted attention but was not seeking some positive change. Such provocations cloud motive, and they are sharp enough to make people angry but not prophetic enough to bring repentance. On top of that the person who created the provocation tends to blame everyone else for not coming to comfort him. So, he repeats the cycle, and continues the alienation by blaming whole groups of people for those who acted sinfully. “…As much as it depends on you, live at peace with all men,” Romans 12:18 says. I thought that was Scripture, not, “as much as it depends on you start fights with all men.”
In this world of injustice, and then within the smaller world of those seeking justice is an even smaller world of those who seek justice but do it in the name of Jesus. I confess with great sorrow that not all of those who associate themselves with Jesus as savior have any commitment to seeking justice. In this relatively small world, (in this Christian community of justice seekers), there are various hurts, pains, reactions, intentions, commitments, and strategies.
There is no way any of us will completely know someone else’s pain. Proverbs 14:10 says, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” I cannot deny how much hurt someone is feeling. However, I believe we can usually discern whether or not their response is Biblical. This goes back to being constrained and restrained by what Scripture teaches us. The delicate thing is that when people are hurting it gets a bit dicey to say to someone that they aren’t handling it well. However, if enough of us keep our mouths shut when our very own brothers and sisters, and comrades in this fight, divert us from Jesus’ endorsed behaviors and strategies we risk being taken down some very dark roads.
There seems to be in this present generation the idea that if a person feels hurt or can express that hurt in racial or ideological terms then they are free to say stupid things, even if in fact those things are not really Christian but sound like justice. As I read the Scriptures I think we are told to test every prophecy, which I take to mean we have to align ideas, comments, statements, and proposals for action up against God’s Word. The test isn’t how authentic the feeling might be, or how sympathetic we might feel to someone who feels hurt or slighted, or even brutally attacked. The comparison is with Jesus, who being mocked and reviled did not respond in the way he surely could have, with ten legions of angels to kick the snot out of the world.
The real heroes of course are not those who have simply had their feelings hurt but who have physically suffered, who have lost property, wholeness and health, family, and even their own lives but still forgave and rose above the bitterness and hate which would seem so humanly understandable. I am convinced it is miraculous for God’s people to respond to injustice in such a forgiving way, but these are the miracles which God uses to convert the lost and convince the haters of God’s mercy and justice. We still need these kinds of miracles, and we need less of petty sniping and bitterness.
There seems to be a certain amount of insecurity and fear about how to deal with unjust power structures and privilege, even if residual from history. Some of the discussion I hear or see is not the call to faith strategies, but about power strategies. Are we after racial reconciliation or not? To not be for it means to be after racial alienation and satisfaction in segregation. To not be for reconciliation now, to refuse to pursue it until there is “racial justice,” is to lose all hope that the Spirit of God is able to create new realities on earth before all is made right in heaven (and that is the only place and time when true justice will actually be brought to pass).
We can retreat into the status quo and seek to create our own little strongholds protected from the storm of reality. Let us acknowledge that this is indeed retreat and not a quest for justice. It might feel comfortable, but it is an illusion, and without the pursuit of reconciliation in the church we allow the enemies of justice to grow and perpetuate themselves.
Is the quest for the advancement of minorities in formally white power structures a quest for ego, a quest for status and power (even in the name of justice), or is it a quest for relationship based on love and respect? Is it reconciliation we seek, or simply position? Sometimes those struggles that happen between pastors, between a Senior and an Associate or Assistant are simply personality issues. Sometimes they are pissing contests between a younger man and an older man with the younger wanting position now, or feeling his ideas are better and he could run things in a better way. This is all too human and it doesn’t matter what race you are to have such struggles. We even have black men who don’t want another black man to serve under them because they fear competition, as we do with plenty of white men.
Let’s be practical; can a black pastor work in a majority white church and be legitimately loved and respected if he holds a subordinate position to the senior white pastor? Is he in fact an “Uncle Tom” type token? Is the church legitimately cross-cultural if it doesn’t have black senior pastor leadership? Now the reality is that sometimes people of color are tokens. Sometimes people are hired for “window dressing” and don’t have authority or real influence. Sometimes there is a racial paternalism and patronizing spirit in an institution and this compromises what real reconciliation is and demeans individuals and institutions. Truth needs to be spoken to power to help correct such misguided patterns of church life.
Yet, there is the corresponding damage of people making assumptions about black people in white institutions, and this has happened in all kinds of institutions and organizations, not just the church. Some have offered generalized opinions that a black person in white institutions has to be a “sell out,” a “self-hater,” or “somebody’s boy.” Wow, what racist destructive trash people sell and buy, as if no one could legitimately earn or keep place, privilege, and power on their own merits and not forget who they are or where they come from.
I have lived long enough to see some racial myths broken down. I remember being told, “White people in the PCA will never submit to a black pastor.” Well, in the Presbyterian Church in America that has certainly been proved wrong as most of the black senior pastors we have do indeed pastor majority white churches. Such racial myths will keep being made up and propagated; they usually have a motive, hold a portion of the truth, but are not usually positive or helpful.
I write this with the conviction that Jesus want us to be peacemakers and that the only consistently Biblical way to do that is through peace, not by fighting. As the Lord is my witness, and as my whole life of preaching might attest, I am not trying to protect anybody’s feelings from the painful conviction of truth. I just don’t think being mean, demeaning, or needlessly insulting is the same as “speaking the truth in love.” James 3:17-18 says, “but the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”
Monday, February 13, 2017
On a recent Sunday our congregation sat down to a discussion during the Sunday School hour. We usually do something like this every year in February as we commemorate Black History Month. This year our discussion leader (Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr.) led us through some thoughts on Black Lives Matter, the difference between the concept and the organization.
The continuing discussion brought up questions about protest, the use of protest, and various efforts to bring about justice and righteousness in the community and the nation.
One of my observations about Evangelicals, especially those of us in the PCA, is our hesitation to take public stands, or to become involved in protests or demonstrations. We are reticent to make or do anything which might be construed as a political statement. At one and the same time of course the whole country pretty much knows where we stand on political issues, both by our statements, our sermons, our social media discourse, and our votes.
I read and hear criticism of pastors who write or speak very much about social or political issues. I also read or hear comments that tend to spiritualize any approach to issues, such as calling to prayer, and a negative opinion about going outside the doors of the church to march, or demonstrate in some way.
While many in our churches see any discussion or mention of social or political issues as straying from the Gospel I tend to see our reticence as a dogged maintaining of an often unjust status quo and a refusal to make our faith known concerning issues of justice. We have in our church used prayer as social protest. We have used protests at abortion clinics as evangelism.
This last year we had a very public prayer walk and march, with seasons of prayer as we began and when we finished, in protest against recent gang shootings and killings in our neighborhood. Was it spiritual to pray? Of course, blessedly so! Was it political to march? I think so, but it probably didn’t seem that way to most people who are against murder. Gang leaders might have taken it another way and as soon as you have two sides to an issue, whether they be right or wrong, you have politics.
What often comes across during a “spiritual” rebuke to any public demonstration by Christians is that often the “issue” is what really matters, and this is the underlying offense, and not usually so much the behavior of demonstration or protest. I think we always need to be discerning about both, not only to how a protest or demonstration is conducted but also as to what the issue might be.
As believers we must be non-violent, we must be loving, even to our enemies. We have to follow the example of Jesus who when he was reviled did not answer in the same way. Another problem some have with protests is that good guys and bad guys might come to the same rally for the same reason, and conduct it in the same way. So, if an anarchist, or a socialist, or a Muslim, or a Catholic, or a Democrat, or a Tea Party member shows up at a rally in which I am standing for something righteous, or just, then I welcome them to the event. However, not everyone shares our values as to being loving, meek, non-violent, and seeking conciliation.
There are times when we cannot stand with those who will take actions, or use strategies, that are antithetical to our faith. For me there are uniforms that would be so antithetical to my faith that I couldn’t stand with them even if they were against the same things I am against. I don’t think I could stand with a Klansman, or a Nazi. A nudist would bother me as well.
I believe we have to always be angry at evil. There is no other godly way to feel about it. This does not make us angry people. I think we always have to be angry at oppression and injustice, but this does not mean we are called to slander, belittle, misuse, hurt, malign, or commit violence against those who practice it. One of the problems with social media protest is that we often assume we know someone’s motives and mock them for a motive we actually have no honest or accurate way to discern. To articulate and describe their behavior is accusation enough. To call for penalty within the law is legitimate and does not make us vicious.
Civil disobedience calls for a lot more thought and justification. Sometimes there is absolutely no other way to protest an unjust and evil law except to disobey it, and be willing to go to jail for violating it, until such laws are changed.
Churches as churches have to be very discerning about what moral or justice issues they will speak about or against, but if they will not speak up against clear and sustained injustice or abuse then they are being disobedient to the Scriptures, hypocritical, and protectors and partners with oppression. One of our problems in Evangelicalism is that we won’t even discuss these issues in the church, so how are we ever going to have discernment about them?
Pastors especially have to know where their place of leadership should be, and when and where they must curtail their political or social involvement for the sake of maintaining a pastoral and shepherding role for everyone to whom they must minister. They must never let their pulpit ministry be consumed with anything but the Glory of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the grace of God, and the call of the Kingdom of God.
This is why pastors are subject to their brethren and have to be humble enough to listen to their Elders. It is easy to become self-righteous when inflamed with the issues of social righteousness and justice. It is also too easy to be passive and negligent in standing for the rights of the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the immigrant. I personally don’t want to sin either way but I think the much more frequent sin, and easier and often taken road is to do nothing; and I don’t believe this is acceptable to God. Lord, give us humility, wisdom, good counsel, strong Scriptural understanding and conviction, sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, faith, and courage!