Tuesday, April 29, 2014


It would be hard for me to overestimate the blessing reconciliation has been to me in my life.  Of course reconciliation with God, but I speak here specifically of how God first theologically made reconciliation possible between people groups, and then through the activity of His Holy Spirit made it possible in my life across racial and ethnic lines.

    I blame God for both of those things as a way of giving him praise.  This is one sweet doctrine, one sweet fulfillment of the will of God.  If you know me you might be thinking, "oh, he's just happy he is married to Joan (who is an African American)."  Well, yes that is true, but I had black male friends, and Puerto-Rican friends, before I ever met Joan.  Not only do I have friends (and this must be one of my greatest treasures), but I have had encounters with ethnic culture that have added so much richness to my life.  

    I've learned not to be afraid of difference, I've learned all kinds of music, and I learned to dance (that's my opinion about what I do at weddings).  I've learned loyalty in ways I could never imagine, laughter and joy, and perspective on things that would never have come naturally to me.  Along the way I learned ideas about justice, about compassion, about endurance and faith during suffering and oppression, about forgiveness that I would never have learned in my own racial and ethnic world.

    I learned things about myself, about being white, about my own culture and history that I heard and read from insights outside of my own group.  This has given me greater clarity in what is Biblical versus what is cultural.  I have learned better ways of preaching and communicating.

   I say these things because there is always something bubbling in racial news in our country.  I probably could write this and make it applicable in any one of a hundred news events over the last several years.  Right now we are hearing about the Los Angeles Clippers and their owner and his "alleged" racial remarks."

   I just have a couple of comments most of which are generic when it comes to this kind of thing.
1.  Learn to listen to the pain people express even when others might attempt to minimize the importance of the event.
2.  If you don't understand why people are so upset about something, ask them, and think about it before you start giving them immediate counter arguments.  Your verbal processing just may be pissing everyone off.
3.  Try not to let the reality and continued existence of racism and racist feelings surprise you, it is a constant of sinful humanity.
4.  Don't ever be complacent about it and understand that racist attitudes left uncontested create a future bill that must be paid.
5.  Don't think racism is the unforgivable sin, whether you despise it in others, or see it in yourself.  Sin can be repented of, and forgiven.
6.  The sin of hatred, despising the image of God in other human beings, and not loving others as your self, as your neighbor, are sins that make up the sin of racism; along with the idolatry of  ethnocentrism.
7.  Making friends and peace across racial, ethnic, and cultural boundaries doesn't usually just happen.  Reconciliation needs to be intentionally and purposefully pursued, and it is not something you do once in your life and mark it off your list.
8.  Whining about the reaction that minorities have to their feelings of insult when racism is exposed in the marketplace, even in the garb of political commentary, offer nothing in creating peace and reconciliation.  Stop whining.
9.  We have a right to differ in strategies to change things; some of us have the wisdom and courage to know when and how to take direct action.  Others of us have the ability to listen, speak, and negotiate/navigate our way to change.  We should be cautious in a quick condemnation of someone's strategy, unless it is obviously sinful.
10.  Sinful reactions to someone else's sinful words and behavior doesn't help any of us very much. Sometimes, for some of us, our greatest wisdom is in keeping our mouth shut and not adding to the problem.
11.  Compassion for the racist seems undeserved, and it is, but wouldn't  it be wonderful if the grace you and I need so desperately, and which saved us, could be extended to help the racist repent and become a friend?
12.  Spending more time in prayer for our country, and about events that boil our blood, is time better spent than in absorbing, spreading, and inflating the distractions on social networking and the internet.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


(From a book not yet published)
    “All the believers were one in heart and mind.  No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had…(v.34) There were no needy persons among them.  For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 4:32, 34-35) NIV

    Among Christians it is not uncommon to see people give generously to missions, to build church buildings, to employ pastors and staff.  These are indeed often worthy of our support.  Where is the pattern of the early church among us in sharing within our own congregations to make sure there are no needy among us?  Where is the pattern of the early church to share with other churches who had needy people as we see described in 2 Corinthians 8:1-15?

    Some Christians have decided to live in community in order to try and live out this idea, some have attempted to live simply and set a level on their own consumption in order to share more.  Some congregations have partnered with other churches, across town and across the world, to become supporting congregations.  All of these things can be wonderful, and they can also have temptations and problems.

   We must always be careful not to become legalistic and self-righteous, especially in specifics that the Scripture has not commanded.  The godly principles of Scripture must be applied by all of us but sometimes these matters are left to our own conscience.  We need to be careful not to quickly condemn others because we judge them on how they spend their money. Yet, I am afraid we often err in doing little or nothing to stop our headlong pursuit of self-centered materialism.  When I say self-centered I also speak of whole congregations that simply endorse selfish living.

    I have been the recipient of many acts of mercy to me personally, to my family, to my congregation and people.  I confess that at one time I had a very wary eye toward the wealthy.  I had not known many of them and it was easy for me to live in stereotypes.  I did not trust them. Thankfully, over the years I have met people with lots of money who seemed bent on trying to give all of it away.  I have seen them attempt to do so wisely.  It is too easy to want to be friends of the wealthy, to please them, to seek to exploit a friendship for personal favors.  I can’t imagine how hard it is to be met with a new request by so-called friends every day or so. 

    I have had to fight within myself to guard my own integrity, that I would not accept personal favors simply because I wanted or even needed something. I have tried not to take advantage but to live under authority, with my salary published by my church, and to channel money to the truly needy.    I am grateful for the many acts of love toward myself; I hope I have received this with humility and honesty.

     Those of us in ministry have the opportunity to “poor mouth” so that it seems we always need a new car, a new suit, a better home, or a free meal.  Since I have had the forum of the pulpit I knew that I could steer the generosity of wealthy members to help me and my family.  They would often have done so with joy in believing they were helping “God’s man, God’s servant.”  God forbid I would steal from the widow, from the orphan, from the unemployed.  I t is especially important for those in ministry, in leadership, to be examples of not taking advantage of their positions, of practicing material generosity and not simply examples of consumption. 

    I don’t believe God calls on us to despise the rich, but nor does he want us to suck up to them so that they would fail to be held to accountability.  The wealthy need to live in justice and generosity; it is a blessing for them to do so.  God will give them even more in this life and the life to come.  All of us need to learn to share, from the widow with her mite, to the working poor, to the middle class, to the professional, to the scary rich.

A call comes from the State Department of Human Services.  “We hear that your church is able to help people with food and utility bills, is that correct?”   “Yes,” our full time Deacon answers.  “We have a lady whose lights have been shut off, but we have no designated funds to cover this contingency, can you help her?”   Our Deacon suggests that they send her to our office so we can meet her and find out what she needs.  She is a widow, she works cleaning the local library at night, she has no one in her family able to help her, she had been out of work and lost income.  She walks a mile home after work in the middle of the night since no buses run then.
     She comes to the office and tells our Deacon her story.  He tells her that, yes, we can pay this bill for her, but we could help her so much more if she could come and visit our church and worship with us.  The Deacon arranges a ride to pick her up, she begins to attend.  Eventually she joins the church, and not long after she starts coming the pastor makes an appeal for church members to give money to provide scholarships to send some men to a conference.  After the service this widow walks forward to give the pastor an envelope holding fifty dollars.  She was the first to respond, the first to give.

    One of the things I know that many of the poor who come to our church for help don’t know,  yet, is that if they were to become part of our congregation they would never again have to be hungry.  Surely every church ought to be able to say that.  In America this is possible, we have enough to share, to at least feed our own people.  If we really tried we could make sure every congregation that we believed was preaching the Gospel and faithful to the Word would always have enough to care for their poorest members.  We cannot do this without an attitude and lifestyle of sharing, and sometimes that means a radical disposing and distribution of our assets.
  “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) NIV

   We need, our children really need, a call to something greater than themselves.  Many Christians are very sacrificial for their children, but I am afraid sometimes this is in reality just indulgence and an extension of self.  We must take care of our own families, but someday our children must rise up to be people of character, and if they been given a life where everything has revolved around them then how will they know how to share, and how to give their lives away for the kingdom of God?

    So give, find some worthy young person who is from a single parent home, some kid who has no resources and give him a part time job, give him a bike, give him or her a scholarship to camp or a good school.  Find some poor church and give them books for their young people, set up summer jobs at other Christian ministries for them. Go to your pastor and tell him you can buy a new set of clothes for any middle school kid who can help with the offering once a month, and buy the whole outfit from shoes up.  Tell your pastor you will match any money for adoptions up to a thousand dollars for anyone in the church.  Go to your Deacons and tell them they never have to worry about having enough food in the pantry to give to the hungry.  Give, and make yourself glad.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


  "Nothing is too hard for God" is a good place to start in doing what seems impossible, or at the very least, hard. Planting churches among the poor that grow to be solid, sound, and a blessing to their communities is not easy. God has been at work among the poor for a long time, praise his name!  This is true for the inner city poor as well as for new immigrants and refugees. There have always been churches in poor communities, and sometimes a lot of them. If that is true then what is the problem and why are we even having this discussion?

    There are several compelling issues to prompt a discussion about pursuing church planting among the poor, at least for me.  One is simply the issue of missions and the call upon Jesus (and consequently us) to preach the Gospel to the poor; are all the poor saved?  Another issue for church planting is the issue of justice and the consequent issues of reconciliation, economic and material opportunity, and deliverance from injustice.  Theology has results, and if the theology is bad it produces ideas and patterns that hurt people.  So, another issue in all of church planting is whether or not the people being gathered are being discipled under Biblical teaching, and is it sound Biblical theology, or not?

    Have you got "good religion?" To put it bluntly, we need more urban missionaries to bring a better Gospel than a lot of people have carried into the cities already.  Certainly this sounds presumptuous, but we believe what we believe out of conscience, and it is observable that there has been a lot of "bad religion" which now seeks to defend its territory.  All should enter such ministry with humility, a willingness to learn from others who are there, to learn how to be servants, but we cannot acquiesce to the conditions that exist.  More of the same will not do.

    There are dangers for any people receiving missionaries, and there are of course other dangers for them to have no missionary at all.  Our goal in planting churches among the poor is to have those evangelists (indigenous or not) be people of integrity, people of good theology, people of sound cultural intelligence. Missionaries who lack these things can cause damage to folk. We would like to start with the assumption that they are spiritual people who know God, and whose lives reflect Christ.

    Ministry among and to the poor needs to have some standard as to whether or not it is effective, helpful, glorying to God, and life changing for the poor.  There are many ministries to and for the poor in the United States.  A good many of them might be classified as "sustaining" people in their condition while giving them some religious faith and hope but with no strategy to change the condition of folk.  Worse still are some that "do" for the poor without changing people hearts  or economic conditions.  Obviously if someone is hungry and they are given a meal at the moment of their hunger it can help keep them going, so with any particular kind of relief given to them.  There is a place for that, but it should be either as a starting place or at sustaining places in the relationship along a slope of growth and improvement for the person receiving the help.  If there is no "upward slope", then that ministry is not really helpful or effective; it is not life changing.

    There are too many "ministries" with no strategy for relationship, no strategy for the growth of people, families, or communities.  So, I would offer a few questions to help anyone in their evaluation of an urban ministry, or ministry to the poor, for their continued support or involvement.  These are not necessarily in their order of importance:

1.  Is this ministry focused on any other personality than that of Jesus?  Is it a money maker for the founder, leader, or pastor or is tangible help flowing to the people?
2.  Is there an articulation of the Gospel to the people, are people being called to faith, are they being gathered around a submission to the Scriptures?
3.  Is there a purposeful raising up of indigenous folk in spiritual leadership for the ministry?  Where are the leaders?
4.  Is mercy given with accountability, in relationship, and with wisdom so it doesn't make people dependent or cynical?
5.  Is there a "holistic" sensitivity to the condition of people and their families, with an awareness of their spiritual, economic, ethnic, cultural, and neighborhood context?
6.  Is there a reconciling aspect to the ministry, without attempting to lock people into a "ghettoized" view of community or poverty ministry, where they become ingrown and cut off from the wider Kingdom and community of God?
7.  Are people being visibly lifted out of misery, or simply sustained in it with occasional, crisis, or seasonal relief?  Are individuals growing in social, literary, vocational, and economic capital so they can thrive on their own?
8.  Is there a church being formed, whether it be small or not, whether it have adequate resources for its own sustainment or not?  Is it meeting for worship, is it preaching the Word in truth, is there loving accountability, are the sacraments being celebrated?  Is it growing at all?  The gathering of children should not be despised.
9.  Is this Christian community caring for each other, caring for the spiritual life of their own families, friends, and neighbors?  Are the poor learning to care for others that are poor?
10.  Is this ministry gaining respect from outside supporters, where in developing its own voice and its own aspirations and goals is being listened to, or is it only treated in a  paternalistic way and used simply as a ministry opportunity by outside interests?

    I would encourage you to examine any ministry with which you are involved with these questions, and to press for the better as simply opposed to what has been.  Remember, poor communities which are being evangelized will take much longer to arrive at self-sustainment in being a congregation.  This doesn't mean they shouldn't be self-governing, and even self-propagating prior to the day when they need no outside help.

   Congregations in very depressed and marginalized communities need at least ten years, or more, of outside help without a barrage of constant badgering or criticism.  At the same time any donor has a right to ask for a measure of progress, and maybe the questions above will help give some markers for that progress.