Let the Church be a Thermostat, not a Thermometer

mlk-in-jail

 

Tomorrow our church’s adult Sunday school class will discuss white privilege and Martin Luther King’s compelling “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I think I’ve marked up at least 50% of the words in his moving piece of writing. Here’s one section that stood out:

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

King continues:

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?

Reading and preaching through the Old Testament lectionary (prophets!) has been reminding me of the dual proclamation of the prophets: both God’s hope (which I prefer to think about and preach on) and God’s judgment on those who practice injustice and sin (not as easy to talk about; no less true). Rev. Dr. King was a prophet in the tradition of Joel, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all the rest. Of course the church today is not immune from God’s judgment for too easily capitulating to a non-Christlike status quo.

Also intriguing is the idea, as Joel has it in tomorrow’s reading, that all believers have not only the Holy Spirit, but also the charge of prophesying and proclaiming the truth of the God who judges with justice, in whom we can put our hope. All of God’s people are called to the prophetic office!

This Will Almost Undoubtedly Be the Best Theology Book This Fall: The Mestizo Augustine

Mestizo Augustine

 

A forthcoming book from IVP combines one of my favorite lenses for theology (mestizaje) with one of my favorite theologians (Augustine). And the author is none other than Justo González. I believe Michael Scott calls that win-win-win.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

Few thinkers have been as influential as Augustine of Hippo. His writings, such as Confessions and City of God, have left an indelible mark on Western Christianity. He has become so synonymous with Christianity in the West that we easily forget he was a man of two cultures: African and Greco-Roman. The mixture of African Christianity and Greco-Roman rhetoric and philosophy gave his theology and ministry a unique potency in the cultural ferment of the late Roman empire.

Augustine experienced what Latino/a theology calls mestizaje, which means being of a mixed background. Cuban American historian and theologian Justo González looks at the life and legacy of Augustine from the perspective of his own Latino heritage and finds in the bishop of Hippo a remarkable resource for the church today. The mestizo Augustine can serve as a lens by which to see afresh not only the history of Christianity but also our own culturally diverse world.

Coming in November! If you go to the publisher’s page, you can see the Table of Contents. Amazon has it up for pre-order. I’ll do my best to review it here this fall.

After Philando Castile: The Christian’s Calling

This is the text of the sermon I preached the Sunday after Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers were shot to death.

 

Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile (© Adam Bettcher / Reuters—REUTERS)
Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile (© Adam Bettcher / Reuters—REUTERS)

 

Michael Brown’s homicide in Ferguson, Missouri was almost two years ago. His encounter with a police officer set off a wave of protests and brought a conversation about institutionalized racism once again into the public square.

This week Michael Brown’s mother expressed the numbness and wordlessness that often comes after unjust killing:

When their children are killed, mothers are expected to say something. To help keep the peace. To help make change. But what can I possibly say? I just know we need to do something. We are taught to be peaceful, but we aren’t at peace. I have to wake up and go to sleep with this pain everyday. Ain’t no peace. If we mothers can’t change where this is heading for these families — to public hearings, protests, un-asked-for martyrdom, or worse, to nothing at all — what can we do?

We can at least remember the names of the deceased as we are gathered in the presence of God.

37-year-old Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

32-year-old Philando Castile of Saint Paul, Minnesota.

And then five police officers killed while they were protecting the people’s right to protest police brutality: Patrick Zamarripa, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, and Brent Thompson.

Let us remember their names and their faces and their families. They were and are loved deeply by God. May the Lord receive them into his loving arms, into his eternal care.

In one sense it would be missing the point for white folks to dwell on our cluelessness in what to say after another spate of gun violence. Though the thought keeps crossing my mind, I would be selfish to complain about having to find words for this pulpit after yet another week of killing in the United States.

Because as much as we may struggle in figuring out what to think and how to pray, there is an entire segment of our population that is worrying about how—worrying about if—they can live under these conditions.

Ty Burr, a writer for the Boston Globe, expressed it this way:

I understand; it’s exhausting. Social change asks a lot of us, but most of all our attention. To process all that incoming outrage, we have to become stronger in heart and clearer of head, and we have to decide when it’s time to stop watching the slipstream and dive into it instead.

If you hadn’t already, a week like this one all but demands that we followers of Christ dive in.

But… “what can [we] possibly say?” And “what can we do?”

Well, I don’t know. But I sure have read Ephesians 4 in a different light. And, so help me, God, may I not be shaken in my faith that Scripture always—always—will have something to say to us, even in our darkest hours.

With that conviction, hear again the first three verses of Ephesians 4:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:1 is the pivot point of the whole letter. Paul moves from the theologically rich prayers and beautiful expression of Christian identity—chapters 1 through 3—to what we should do about it—in chapters 4 through 6.

“Therefore,” he says, “I—a prisoner of the Lord!—urge you strongly to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called.”

Paul lays a nice guilt trip on his listeners: Look, I’m in chains here! I’m a prisoner! The least you could do is live up to your calling as a Christian, like your poor Paul is urging you to do.

If you’ve been thinking about memorizing part or all of Ephesians recently, you could at least memorize 4:1, since it summarizes the whole book. Paul’s told them what their calling is in the first half of the letter.

He’s said: you Christians have been chosen by God, God delights in you, and you are sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit. He’s encouraged the church by saying: we are a people called to hope. We are God’s riches. And God’s power for us who believe—even for those who feel powerless—God’s power for us is immense. Nothing compares to it, and we who believe have the power of God.

Paul has also written: we were dead in sin, but God was rich in mercy, and God intervened. He made as alive with Christ, he raised us with Christ, and he seated us with Christ in the heavenly realms.

When he says, “Therefore,” or “Live a life, then,”—he’s got all of that in mind, everything in the first three chapters.

From here on out he’s going to get specific about how to live a life worthy of that calling. You are this, this, and this… so here’s how you can live like it.

“Live a life”—or as Paul first put it in his letter: “walk” in a worthy way.

It was a Jewish metaphor to talk about life as a walk. A sort of ongoing journey: active, with movement. “Walk the walk,” your “Christian walk”—that didn’t come from your evangelical youth pastor, it came from the Hebrew Bible!

Paul starts in right away with some of the ways Christians should walk.

 

Humility

 

He says in verse 2, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

Completely humble. Gentle. Patient.

As I studied the passage this week, I was surprised to learn that the particular word for humility in this verse was not really in Greek literature before the Bible. And then finally there was a Greek writer outside of the New Testament, Epictetus, who mentioned “humility” in the first century. He said it was the first character trait to avoid.

That could help explain why a humble and even humiliated Jesus was mocked on the cross. God had said, through Isaiah, “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (66:2). But humility is a counter-cultural value; it always has been.

 

Gentleness

 

“Be completely humble,” Paul says, “and gentle.” Be gentle.

Jesus told Peter to put away his sword in the garden. Those who live by the sword, he said, will die by the sword. Or as I’ve heard it paraphrased, “When you fight fire with fire, the whole world burns down.”

Micah prophesies about a day when “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

There will be a day, when what happened this last week, and all the evils leading up to it (that still exist!)—will not happen anymore. Nations will not go to war with other nations. Nations will not even feel like they are engaging civil war within their own borders.

This is what it means to be gentle. Loretta Lynch said, “After the events of this week, Americans across our country are feeling a sense of helplessness, uncertainty and fear … but the answer must not be violence.” Paul would agree: the answer must not be violence, but the answer must be gentleness.

Yeah, gentleness.

I know… I almost picked another passage and didn’t preach on this one today because after Alton and Philando and five officers died, a gentle response felt like a cop-out.

I might as well have been reading, “Be tepid. Let it go. Don’t do anything about it. Just watch.”

Turns out, that’s not what Paul is saying. Harold Hoehner, who taught at Dallas Seminary for many years, says, “The word [gentleness] never connotes the idea of weakness. Rather, it implies the conscious exercise of self-control, exhibiting a conscious choice of gentleness as opposed to the use of power for the purpose of retaliation.” Self-control, not retaliation.

Aristotle talks about gentleness as coming between two extremes: “never being angry with anything” on the one hand and “excessive anger against everyone and on all occasions” on the other. Gentleness is somewhere in the middle. As another interpreter put it, if you’re gentle as Paul urges, you are “always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”

Our model again is Jesus, the one who said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus was “always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time.”

When Jesus saw oppression, hatred, and racial injustice—he got angry. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t gentle.

“Be completely humble,” Paul says, “and gentle.” That gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, a piece of evidence that we Christians are living lives worthy of the calling we have received.
 

Patience

 

Then to humility and gentleness, Paul adds this one more: patience.

The Old Testament talks about patience as long-suffering. Being patient doesn’t mean letting injustice go unprotested, but it does mean persistence… holding out hope… slowing down to wait and listen to the voice of another.

Those of us who have not been racially profiled and probably never will be, would do well to slow down and listen to our brothers and sisters who have. We need to exercise patience to hear the stories and pain of others… even to let it transform our own view of the world.

And now Paul gets into church territory—he says one mark of patience is “bearing with one another in love.”

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

“Put up with each other,” he’s saying! This is the same word Jesus uses when he is exasperated by his faithless disciples: “How long shall I put up with you?”

Well… how long did Jesus put up with his disciples? He’s still doing it, right? He is still, even right now, interceding for us while we worship.

Patience—putting up with each other’s differences and even annoying habits—is required if the church is going to be a bastion of unity… a witness of one love to a divided world.
 

Eager to Keep Peace

 

Paul says, then, ”Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” He tells them to be eager to keep the peace.

But here’s a nice twist—he’s calling on them to be peacekeepers. The peace has already been made. Paul had said earlier, Jesus himself is peace. Jesus is the one who made peace—it’s the work he did when he broke down the dividing wall between so-called races—Jew and Gentile in the first century, a work that extends to black and white America in the 21st century.

“Keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

Paul calls for Christians to be humble, gentle, patience, and eager to keep the peace that Christ himself established. Even as Jesus made peace, others try to snuff it out. But we’ve got to guard and protect the peace of unity—and for Paul that starts in the church and then emanates outward.

Paul reminds the church that the reason we can be practice a peaceful witness of unity is that God is not divided. God is one. And God is everywhere. God is, Paul says, “Over all and through all and in all.”

In other words, he’s still on this throne, though evil powers try unsuccessfully to unseat him. He’s still working through his church and his followers. And he’s still making his home with us. He walks alongside us, even as Paul calls us to walk faithfully in the world. It’s because of the strength of the God who is over all, through all, and in all that we can be faithful to our calling. God is with us. He walks with us to enable us to walk strong in our call.
 

God Speaks in Falcon Heights

 

I heard an echo of this promise in the horrific video of the Falcon Heights shooting.

A four-year-old girl saw what no child should ever have to see. Afterwards she says to her grieving mother, “It’s okay, Mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you.” That little girl had to have been full of the power of the Holy Spirit to be able to say that.

She was the mouthpiece of God: “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”

There’s a scene in Hoosiers, the greatest basketball movie, greatest sports movie, and—yea, verily—greatest movie in human history. The assistant coach, Shooter, stumbles out onto the court in the middle of a game, totally inebriated.

One of the players is Shooter’s son, who’s utterly embarrassed by his dad.

Coach Norman Dale pulls his player aside and says, “Hey, you keep your head in the game. I need you out there.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, friends: we’ve got to keep our heads in the game. God chooses to need us. God calls us to witness with humility to a world filled with the arrogant who are still getting their way. God urges us to witness with gentleness to a world where violence continues to make headlines. God needs us to show patience with each other, to work together as one body to witness to a hurting world.

So let’s keep our head in the game. As a classic lament Psalm says, “none of us knows how long this will be.” But as best as I can tell, God encourages us to wait it out anyway, to walk out our call every day.

And we don’t walk alone. Our generous God gives us each other, and even himself. He’s like that precious little girl telling us, “It’s okay. I’m right here with you.”

The one who calls us is faithful—he will freely give us his power so we can live out the humility, gentleness, and patience that seem at first blush too weak to us. But those virtues are, in fact, our strong and powerful witness. Humility, gentleness, patience, and peacekeeping—they’re all an expression of the calling we’ve received.

And we need to live it out now more than ever before.

White Privilege Curriculum from the United Church of Christ

WhitePrivilege-graphic-3

 

I read through the United Church of Christ’s 2015 Annual Report this afternoon and was delighted to learn about a forthcoming curriculum to help congregations think through white privilege.

It’s slated for a September 1 release: good timing since I’m eager to once again explore and offer resources to my congregation that will aid in racial identity development and help us bolster anti-racism efforts.

Here is an excerpt from the May press release:

“As an extension of our ongoing commitment to Sacred Conversations on race, it is time that this still largely white denomination wrestle with its investment in whiteness, and learn all it can about the manifestations and impact of White Privilege,” said the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president. “This Curriculum, written by five gifted authors with decades of experience teaching about race and privilege, is presented to enable such dialogue to take place at every level of the Church.”

Due to traveling, I missed the related Webinars in June, but more information is available about them here. (I plan to watch recordings.) I already love the title of one session: Spiritual Autobiography through the Lens of Race. Brilliant.

If you, dear reader, are aware of any other resources (specifically already structured as group curriculum) for congregational racial identity development (especially for predominantly white churches), I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Or you can contact me here.

 

 


 

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After Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Dallas Police… How to Pray in Church Sunday?

Image source: Dallas Police (I think)
Image source: Dallas Police (I think)

 

It’s getting way past old: Senseless murder. Institutionalized bias and racism. Sheer evil in action. Too-easy-to-access AR-15s used to kill in times of peace.

There’s more to say than any single blog post could. I simply want to suggest here a resource for worship service planning for this Sunday. After looking through a host of lament prayers, both ancient and modern, I’ve come to Psalm 74.

It doesn’t take much imagination to update its striking imagery of “men wielding axes” and ones who “smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets” to the context of this last week in the United States. Verse 9 offers the poignant observation, “None of us knows how long this will be.

Here’s Psalm 74 in its entirety, which our congregation will use as our Call to Worship on Sunday, mindful of and mourning for this week’s tragic loss of life.

O God, why have you rejected us forever?
    Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?
Remember the nation you purchased long ago,
    the people of your inheritance, whom you redeemed—
    Mount Zion, where you dwelt.
Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins,
    all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary.

Your foes roared in the place where you met with us;
    they set up their standards as signs.
They behaved like men wielding axes
    to cut through a thicket of trees.
They smashed all the carved paneling
    with their axes and hatchets.
They burned your sanctuary to the ground;
    they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
They said in their hearts, “We will crush them completely!”
    They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.

We are given no signs from God;
    no prophets are left,
    and none of us knows how long this will be.
10 How long will the enemy mock you, God?
    Will the foe revile your name forever?
11 Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
    Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!

12 But God is my King from long ago;
    he brings salvation on the earth.

13 It was you who split open the sea by your power;
    you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.
14 It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan
    and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.
15 It was you who opened up springs and streams;
    you dried up the ever-flowing rivers.
16 The day is yours, and yours also the night;
    you established the sun and moon.
17 It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth;
    you made both summer and winter.

18 Remember how the enemy has mocked you, Lord,
    how foolish people have reviled your name.
19 Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts;
    do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever.
20 Have regard for your covenant,
    because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land.
21 Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace;
    may the poor and needy praise your name.
22 Rise up, O God, and defend your cause;
    remember how fools mock you all day long.
23 Do not ignore the clamor of your adversaries,
    the uproar of your enemies, which rises continually.

 
 
 
 
 


 
 

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“No Hay Mal Que Por Bien No Venga”

Galilean JourneyThere is a compelling book about Jesus that I’ve been working my way through again recently: Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise, by Virgilio Elizondo. Elizondo’s context is that of one who, as an ethnic minority in the United States, has experienced oppression and racism, which he connects to Jesus’ own experience of being ostracized as a Galilean with a non-mainstream identity.

He says:

Jesus can have compassion on the weak and erring because he himself has lived through the same situation. Without ceasing to be God, he entered the world of the voiceless, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the public sinners, the emarginated, the suffering. He did not come just to do certain things for them: he came to become one of them, so as to enable them to find new life in him and thus be able to do things for themselves.

I could go on about how rich the book is (and it’s barely 130 pages). But I especially wanted to share these lines, where he describes what he calls the resurrection principle:

Only love can triumph over evil, and no human power can prevail against the power of unlimited love. The more that the sinful world tries to crush and destroy the ways of unstinted love, the greater will be love’s triumph. A Spanish dicho can be applied here: no hay mal que por bien no venga (“there is no evil from which good cannot come”).

Good words for us to cling to!