Saturday, December 31, 2016
Today I had one of those interesting moments where all kinds of issues came together for me as an urban pastor. It was all about being a pastor that made the moment happen. I was in a place of business where two young African American women were behind a business desk. One of them happened to know who I was as I had spoken at her church sometime previously.
As I left the place of business the one woman who knew me called out to me and used the title “Pastor.” I said good-bye and went on my way. As I was walking down the sidewalk I heard a woman calling out to me, “Pastor, pastor!” Here chasing after me was the woman who did not know me, and would not have known I was a pastor except for her colleague.
I was thinking I had done something wrong or that I must have left something in the office but her call to me was actually because she wanted and needed to speak to me as a pastor. What followed, right there on the sidewalk, was a conversation that included pastoral issues, but also ones of sociology, history, apologetics, morality, and theology. The pastoral issue was the one concerning her heart, but all the other issues were playing their role.
The essential issue was that she has a man she wanted to marry. She is Christian and he is Muslim. She was looking for someone “open minded” who could counsel them about potential conflict due to their different religions, but yet would be willing to marry them. Here was the pastoral issue, which of course led to the theological issue, which led to the apologetics issue, which meant we had to deal with the sociological, historical, and moral issues.
I was able to distance myself a little by speaking to the reality that Bible believing, Bible obeying Christians would certainly have a problem marrying her to a Muslim. I did not want the conversation to simply be about what I thought versus what she thought. She brought up the idea that maybe the Bible has been “diluted” and that it could be interpreted this way or that. We spoke together some of what the Bible did say, and what she said Muslims believe about Jesus, and what the Bible actually says about Jesus.
Then there came the moment when the existential pain of history cut across the faith of her childhood. The distortion of true Christianity by racism and slavery, and the reality that so many black men were in prison. She began to cry at this moment, and I wanted to join her. We agreed with her about history, about the demographic-cultural-sociological reality of a dearth of eligible black men for black Christian women to marry. I told her that we didn’t need to deny the history, or the realities, but she still had to deal with the claims of Christ or else call Jesus a liar. Is He the only way or not? Everyone is welcome to Him, but there is no way without Him. We spoke of the Muslim view of intermarriage, that it only goes one way, where Muslim men may marry Christian women but Muslim women are not allowed to marry Christian men. Despite all of her boyfriend’s efforts to convince her there really wan’t much difference in the two faiths, which is typical in such relationships, that quest for Muslim domination doesn’t go away.
I asked what church she attended, and she told me, but then said she didn’t respect the pastor for how he lived outside of the church. Here was the moral issue. I encouraged her to get into a church where she could receive good teaching. She yearns for a marriage like her parents, where her father worked hard and was faithful and her mother took her to church every Sunday. That is all she wants, a marriage that had formed and shaped her and that she admired in her parents.
This is part of the pastoral challenge, and pain, for urban pastors. African American pastors and cross cultural pastors who pastor black folk; they must face all of these issues. They are issues of theology and apologetics, but they can’t be easily faced without a knowledge of history, and culture, and sociology. They can’t be honestly discussed without a humble acknowledgement of the sins of the institutional and historic church and the reality of how the true faith has been distorted. These are issues that cannot be honestly faced without some recognition of injustice in the criminal justice system, about the Evangelical church’s failure to evangelize and make a cultural impact on millions of African American young men.
I encouraged her to get in to a good church, one like her colleague at work attends. I gave her names of men who could counsel her and her boyfriend, and who would certainly seek to lead him to Christ. My heart also bleeds for her, and for my country. It bleeds because we are wasting so many young men who could be the answer for her and a million other black young women.
I do celebrate and rejoice in every young black man I have known who loves the Lord Jesus Christ, loves the Word of God, is in touch with his own culture and history, has a strong sense of worth, and self, and purpose. I rejoice in those men who have married and love their wives as themselves, love and participate in the raising of their children, is a model of what it means to be faithful, hard working, and a builder of his church and community. They are here and in more numbers than might be first realized. They are usually quiet in their success.
In some strange way this made me think about the movie “Fences.” The thought that occurred to me was Denzel Washington plays all kinds of characters, and he is good at it. I believe that the one movie role he hasn’t played is that of himself, which is the very model (at least as far as I know about and of him) that is the most to be followed and imitated. In his personal life he is a believer, he is a husband, he is a dad, he does his work well, he cares about people, culture, and society. He is great at playing bad, but even better at living good in the righteous sense of the term. This is the kind of man women need. Actually, we all need that kind of man and we need a whole lot of them for our communities, cities, and nation to be what they should be.
So while I celebrate the fact that we do have some good men at one and the same time we do not have enough of them. We have too many in prison, and even more on the corners. Too many without an education and without meaningful work, too many producing children without raising them. We have too few effective evangelists among them, too few pastors who even know how to speak to them, too few congregations that are bringing them into discipleship. So we end with the “missional” issue.
If you wish to fight me on the idea that there is no missional need, that the churches that exist in the cities are doing fine, that I have in some way misrepresented and that the percentage of broken families, poverty, crime, and violence are really not too alarming, or that the lack of urban black young men in anybody’s church is a distorted presentation I am happy to be corrected. I would just have to say that I am not interested in strategies that “piss on forest fires.” I don’t find church planting by transfer growth or the gathering of the already saved as the answer to these problems. Nor am I impressed by critics of those who do missions poorly as if that in someway excused our lack of mobilization for a modern missions movement not simply among the poor, but among the resistant, violent, and the antagonistic. If the critics ask, “but what about so few evangelistic church plants among poor whites?” or “What about Native Americans and the scarcity of church plants among them?” My answer is, “exactly!” To everyone and every community that is being left unreached and undiscipled, this is where we must go. Citing one unreached area cannot be an excuse not to pursue another.
Friday, December 9, 2016
Recently my wife and I were in Miami Beach for a few days of vacation. We walked over to a restaurant called Pollo Tropical for a meal and while I was in line a white man standing next to me began to talk. We were in a very multi-ethnic setting with all kinds of folks around. Now my wife Joan is African American, and I am white. Joan was sitting at a table waiting for me so this individual who began to randomly speak to me didn’t know she was with me.
Sometimes this happens, where you are standing next to people you have never met, and either you or they begin to make observations about life, or the weather, or the situation we are mutually experiencing. This man began to talk about race. His comments went something like this, “They’ve been treating me like a black guy for the last eight years and I resent it. Now it’s our turn. I drive a cab and I pulled over to pick up a black lady, but then she said, ‘oh never mind!” I said, ‘Why, because I’m white?’ She said, ‘No, that has nothing to do with it.” I said, ‘whatever!’ Now we get to do it back to them.”
Since this conversation sprang up rather suddenly I didn’t quite know what to do or say, especially since Joan was close by. When I suspect there might be racial hostility I become a bit hyper vigilant, which means I get real quiet and get ready to fight, even though I am too old to be doing such things. It comes from growing up in Newark I think. These comments coming from the mouth of a stranger were pretty revealing to me as well as being illogical, threatening, and sad.
I mean, the very idea that being “treated like a black guy” is a bad thing in his mind means he is admitting that black guys are being mistreated, although with the implication that the color of their skin makes them deserving of such treatment. If he thinks that is a bad thing why would he assume he has the right to mistreat anyone else? And who is the “they” he is referring to, except the obvious reference to President Obama having been the president for 8 years? So was he assuming this was a “racial” election and now white people have their turn to treat black people like “black guys?” I might have suspected there were some who thought this way but it was bracing to actually hear it from someone’s mouth.
I have been amazed at those who blame President Obama for an increase in racial hostility over the last 8 years, as if latent and incipient racism wasn’t boiling in people’s hearts already, and incited to some extent simply because the president is black. There is a definite feeling in some people that every racial incident and development, and the hostility within black communities against police brutality, is not only somehow caused by President Obama but fostered by him and that therefore white people have a right to be angry at black people and a right to blame their racism on the president.
Even if President Obama made a mistake in something he might have said about any particular situation, which I can’t help but imagine he and every single president we have ever had has done at some time, surely none of us can blame our sinfulness on him. Racism is hatred, it is also the idolatry of our own race or ethnic sense of superiority. So here you have the sins of pride, idol worship, and murder all wrapped up in attitudes within our hearts. Whose fault is it? “They wouldn’t feel that way if he hadn’t said that, or this, or done that, or this.” Surely if racism is sin then each individual has to own the responsibility of it for themselves and not blame it on the words or actions of others. At least, this is my understanding of how we are to take ownership of our own sins.
I am distressed when I read or hear other Evangelicals excusing sin in people who agree with their political platform and support that sinfulness by using a political opponent as a ‘scape goat. I am reminded of conversations of children who say such things as, “well, I wouldn’t have hit him if he hadn’t made me mad.” So, you have no responsibility for being violent, you have no responsibility for maintaining self-control, you are in fact helpless before the power of others to make you react emotionally, sinfully, and recklessly? That this is all too human doesn’t make it any less childish.
Now the book of Proverbs warns me against rebuking a fool but foolishness does need to be rebuked. I am concerned that we are in a time when lots of foolishness needs to be rebuked. There is to me a sense of danger in the air, as if there is an ascendancy of racial evil. May the Lord rebuke it. May the Lord also rebuke any rebuttal of my argument by bringing up any and all bad policy causes championed by President Obama, or faults of Hillary Clinton. I can be against racism without giving tacit approval to the ideas or programs of other political figures, which seems to be the accusation by some of my critics as soon as I seem to say or hint at anything that they think favors the president. It does cause me to suspect either their ability to read accurately what I have said, or suspect that their political agenda leaves them deaf to conviction.