Tag Archives: Community

privilege of walking

I wrote the following essay a few months ago (June 5th, 2018). I don’t know why I didn’t share it then. I guess I was a little ashamed that I’m not further along with some issues than I am. I think I was also a little scared. Scared that my life may not live up to the ideas that I proclaim myself to seek out. I’m a person, and I don’t always walk the walk as well as I talk the talk. Maybe you can relate to that.

I think this afternoon, I needed to read this again. A couple weeks ago, a young black man, Botham Shem Jean, was killed in his apartment in Dallas by a police officer. For some reason, I felt this one more than a lot of other similar shootings. It could be that I know people who are close to the situation, and it could be that Botham was about my age, went to a school of the same faith tradition as me, and was heavily involved in his University’s community and his church family, much like I am. Maybe it was the Spirit of God giving me a feeling of conviction.

I have put off saying much publicly about my feelings regarding the painful situation in Dallas. I didn’t want anyone to feel as though I was trying to jump in on something that wasn’t mine to jump in on, and I hope that this isn’t perceived that way.

I hope that I am not the only one that this injustice has awakened.




 

 

Tonight I went for a walk through my neighborhood.

I started going on walks through my neighborhood last summer due to some stress and a consistent need to clear my head.  I have found that these walks have given me space to talk to God, or to be more clear, talk to myself about myself in front of God.  Yeah, I talk to myself often.  Those who have ever lived with me or walked in front of me can probably attest to that.  I don’t think I have a clinical disorder, maybe it’s just more that I really like to hear myself speak.  Either way as I walk the neighborhood, a lot of my thoughts just come out.  They come out free and unedited.  Sometimes as I walk, I learn that I think and feel things that I didn’t previously know that I thought and felt.

It’s a beautiful evening out in Nashville tonight.  The weather is perfect, and a lot of people have chosen to spend it on their front porch, playing with their dog, or going for a walk themselves.  As I passed other people, we exchanged a smile and a wave, sometimes a hello.  People have always seemed to be pretty receptive to me right off the bat.  Maybe it’s my face or my approachable, non-threatening body shape, who knows.  As my thoughts wandered out of my head tonight, I kept coming back to one thing in particular:  how might this walk be different if I weren’t white?

I remember a time before I was white.  In elementary school, most of my friends at school weren’t white, and they never told me that I was.  We ate lunch together, played together at recess, and participated in a school percussion group together.  On Valentine’s Day I gave everyone a Spiderman valentine.  I got a bunch of different valentines too.  I was good at a lot of things, mostly school stuff.  I won a bunch of awards for the school’s core virtues: responsibility, respect, trustworthiness, citizenship.  I was really good at math and spelling.  I don’t know that my self esteem has ever been higher than it was in elementary school.

I’m not really sure at what age or point in my life it clicked that I was white and some people weren’t.  Somewhere in middle school probably.  I think I’ve subconsciously blocked out most of middle school.  I had to go to a new school in 5th grade.  A private, Christian one at that.  People at my new school had more money than people at my old school.  I guess no one ever really feels like they fit in when they’re in middle school, but I definitely felt like a fish out of water.  The idea of race started to creep in.  As I got older, I noticed that the few black kids at school were all friends with each other.  I heard a joke here, told it there.  It doesn’t take long before that becomes the new normal.

In high school, I still didn’t realize that I was white.  Intellectually I did, but I didn’t have any grasp whatsoever on the weight of what it means to be white.  Being white was normal.  If I was telling a story about one of my white friends, they were never “my white friend,” they were just my friend.  If I was telling a story about one of my few non-white friends, they were “my black friend” or “my hispanic friend.”  I spent hours upon hours in parking lots in high school just talking with my other white friends.  I don’t remember ever getting a sideways glance.  One time in particular, after church, my white youth group friends and I went to Wendy’s.  I maybe ordered a frosty, if that.  We stayed at a table at Wendy’s until they closed for the night.  Then we went out in the parking lot and talked for another couple hours.  Those times are some of my fondest memories from high school, just sitting in public places until late at night, talking and joking with my youth group friends.  Never one time did I even have a thought of “could we do this if we weren’t white?”

I think the Trayvon Martin tragedy was the first time I ever thought that perhaps someone might be viewed differently than me because they aren’t white.  I remember seeing LeBron and the rest of the Miami Heat wearing hoodies.  I knew it was related to the Trayvon Martin story, but I didn’t really feel it.  I remember being a 20-year-old Junior in college at my predominantly white, private Christian university here in Nashville and seeing the events in Ferguson on the news after the Michael Brown shooting.  I remember being in my dorm room with my friend Cedric as we watched on CNN.  In that moment, I knew deep down in my gut that something wasn’t right.  I remember within a week or two of that memory, I went with a group of friends to Nashville’s Live On The Green when, during the show, protesters made their way to the front with signs chanting “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE.”  At that time I thought, “Why are they protesting here and now and in this way?  Couldn’t more be accomplished by sitting down and having a civilized conversation?

Over the next couple years, the back end of college, I grew a lot.  As more of these cases of policing came to light, I learned about implicit racial bias.  In short, implicit bias is you feeling different about seeing someone that looks like me (white, 24-year-old man) walking through your neighborhood wearing a hoodie at night than you would feel about seeing a black 24-year-old man wearing a hoodie walking through your neighborhood at night.  Or to give another example: someone might feel different about 5 black young men hanging out in a parking lot than they would 5 white young men.  I learned that everyone in the world, based on their life experience, has some sort of implicit bias.  Perhaps most importantly, I learned that I have implicit bias.  I don’t say that everyone has implicit bias to communicate that there’s nothing that we can do about it, I communicate that as a way of saying that I believe coming to grips with our implicit biases is a key beginning step in our growth.

I also learned towards the end of school that once the person or people in power are dictating how someone else chooses to express themselves in protest, it is no longer a protest.  Protests are designed to disrupt in order to get someone’s attention.  The reason people feel the need to protest is not to ruin my concert or an NFL game, often a reason that people protest is because they were not invited to the conversation and feel unheard.  So when we are upset by someone’s protest, perhaps we should invite them to the table, not write them off.

By the end of college, I felt much more of the weight of what it means to be white.  So much so that I had begun to dissociate with my whiteness.  I began to feel a sense of shame about what it means to be white in America.  I felt overwhelmed with the history of how white people in our country have oppressed black and brown bodies.  First with colonization and slavery, then with Jim Crow, and now with mass incarceration.  When confronted with the dark realities of U.S. history, it’s hard to not want to run and hide.  Being naïve is one thing, but once we have faced the reality of systemic oppression throughout our history, what we absolutely cannot do is shrug it off.

Only in the last year have I begun to realize that being ashamed of being white is not a helpful posture either.  To be white and socially conscious, I believe we have to understand our privilege.  The more I think about my life, my history, and my current day-to-day dealings, the more I see myself benefitting from white privilege.  To my white friends, me claiming that white privilege exists in our culture today is not me saying that white people do not work for what they have.  I would go more in depth on the realities of implicit bias, systemic oppression, and white privilege, but that would take many more words.  Furthermore, many more learned men and women writers, authors, and speakers have tackled these issues in great depth, and I would much rather leave you to read their work.

So now I find myself in a position where I ask myself the question: As a white man, how do I use the platforms that I’m given?

The conclusion that I am coming to is this: When possible, use my seat at the table to bring diversity to the table, even if this means giving up my seat.

Granted, I’m 24.  I’m young, and I have a lot of growing up to do still.  Perhaps in a few years I’ll look back at this time and think, “Wow I was young and dumb.”  The great thing about writing for me is that later I get to look back and see where I’ve come from.  I don’t know if anyone will ever read this, but I hope that if you do, you will grant me some grace because I know I probably said some things wrong.  More than that, I hope reading this may propel you to growth.  We all have room to grow, a next step to take, a new conversation to start.  Me included. Scratch that, especially me.

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A Push and a Promise – A Message for Graduates

This past Sunday at New Garden Church in Nashville, we had our Graduation Sunday where we affirmed and honored the achievements of our high school grads.  As the Student Minister, I got to share a message with our awesome graduates and our church.  Here’s a manuscript of the message:

 

Let me just say that this is one of my favorite Sundays every year.  I’m so glad to be part of a church that says we want to affirm our high school grads in front of everyone.  So grads, let me start by saying, these are your people.  And church, let me start by saying, that we have a lot to be proud of with this group.

This week, in preparation for this morning, I spent some time wondering about the question:

“What does a student graduating from high school need?”

I asked my Facebook friends, and I got some good and weird answers (as Facebook does), things like:

A Cell Phone Charger, Access to transportation, A book, and A tool box. You need to know your SSN, you need someone you can talk to, A mentor. You need money management skills, Bandaids, and Laundry detergent

When I graduated high school, I thought I needed a lot of things.  I thought I needed to go to college, I thought I needed some graduation gifts, I thought I needed a new pair of shoes, and maybe most of all, I thought I needed to get a girlfriend.  Like me when I graduated, you probably don’t have all those things.

You all have been raised in a new era.  More and more you are able to see what the world has to offer.  You’ve grown up in a world where at just the tap of a screen, you can find anything that you want, good, bad, or ugly.  You’ve grown up in a world where at just the tap of the screen, you can make someone feel good, bad, or ugly.  Some would say that the world that you’ve grown up in is a better world than some past generations, and some would say that the world you’ve grown up in is a world that is farther gone than it was before.

I think either way, you’re not ready for the world.

I don’t think you’re ready for the heartache and the conflict.  I don’t think you’re ready for the inevitable failure coming your way, and I don’t think you’re ready for those things that you can’t control.  You’re going to make mistakes, and it’s going to hurt.  And I know that on some level, you’ve already been through some stuff that you weren’t ready for.

But here’s the thing, it’s not just you that’s not ready.  Look around at all these adults, none of us were ready when we were in your position, and we’re still not ready.

And 2,000 years ago, Jesus gave his disciples a task that they weren’t ready for.

After hanging out with this group of people for three years, they surely ate over a thousand meals together, they traveled together, and they had seen many miracles done in the name of Jesus.  The sick were healed, the blind received sight, and the dead were raised back to life.  But they still weren’t ready.

After Jesus was raised back to life, he was around and appeared to different people until it was time for him to go away.  And so Jesus has these people, his friends and followers meet him on a mountain for his final words to them on earth.

We’re going to pick up there in Matthew chapter 28:

16 Then the eleven disciples left for Galilee, going to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him—but some of them doubted!

Even after everything they had seen, three years of hearing Jesus teach and watching Him interact with the world, three years of miracles, and then being witnesses to the ultimate miracle, Jesus rising out of the tomb he was barricaded in, these people still doubt!  We find it easy to blame them, but I think this shows that doubting is part of the journey.  Along the way, we all doubt our faith.  It’s hard and confusing, but it’s part of following Jesus.  Having doubt is not wrong, and it is nothing to be ashamed of.  In those times of doubt, what’s important is that we don’t isolate ourselves.  Keep the conversation going. Find people who are willing to be in that with you.  If you need someone, I would suggest taking a look around this room.

Now we get to Jesus’ final words to his followers, A pep talk of sorts.:

“I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. 

He starts off letting them know He is in charge.  Jesus has authority.  What Jesus has said will come to pass.  We can trust that when Jesus says something, God’s going to back it up.  

Then Jesus gives them some parting instructions: “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.”  Now sometimes we see this and we think it means we need to move to away to find people and turn them into church people, but this is better translated “As you go” instead of simply “go.”  So as you are doing whatever comes next, make disciples, baptize, and teach.

Sounds pretty easy, right? Wrong!  These followers of Jesus were not ready!  And when we read these instructions, neither are we!  I know that you’ve grown up in church or youth group, but this is scary and confusing.  Where do we start?  What do we say?  How do we get from here to there?

Jesus doesn’t wait till we’re ready to give us a push.

But Jesus doesn’t just give his followers a command, He gives them a promise.  And that’s what I want us to be focused on today.  Jesus goes on to say:

“And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

When Jesus tells us to go out into the unknown, He doesn’t leave us.  When Jesus tells us to make disciples, baptize, and teach the world, He knows we’re not ready!  When Jesus tells us to seek justice in an unjust world, He doesn’t expect or desire that we do it alone.

When Jesus gives us a push, He also gives a promise.

There used to be a kids swimming instructor in the area who had an interesting strategy for teaching kids to swim.  If you went to her lessons and didn’t know how to swim, and refused to get in the pool, she would literally push you in.  But guess what?  To my knowledge, they didn’t let anyone drown.  The instructors were there, in the pool, for when the kid needed a hand.  There was a push, but there was also a promise, “You aren’t going to drown.”

Now I know that this season of life has a lot of potential stress involved in it.  People asking you “what’s next?” “where to?” and all those other question that you don’t have a great answer to, and even if you do have solid plans, those will likely change.  You’re not ready, but you’re not going to drown.

So today, I want to give you, and all of us, a push.  But I also want to give you a promise.

Your life is here now, and it has been here. A story has already begun to be written with your life.  As you go about what’s next, fill those pages with a life following Jesus, you won’t regret it.  And that doesn’t mean your life will be boring!  Dream big, try new things, don’t be afraid to fail!  As you transition from this stage into what’s next, keep in mind what we are called to do, share our faith with the people we encounter along the way.  There will be plenty of opportunities to fiercely love your friends and your enemies.  There will be plenty of opportunities to seek justice for those who are not treated the right way.  There will be plenty of opportunities to show humility and place the needs of others above your own.  In all of these things, I am pushing you to follow Jesus, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

With that push comes a promise.  God will be with you always.  And that will look different at different times.  Sometimes God will give you the words to say to a friend in need.  Sometimes God will give you a friend’s warmth when you feel alone.  Sometimes God will show up right when you’re ready to give up.  God will be there.

Furthermore, I want to promise that the people of God in this room today will be there for you.  I don’t know how you feel about church or church people, and I don’t know how you’ll feel about church or church people in 5 years, 20 years, or 50 years, but I can tell you that no matter where we meet, what songs we sing, or what we call ourselves, the people of God care deeply for you.  We cannot follow Jesus on our own.  And guess what, you don’t have to be perfect or even pretty good to be with us.

I always say, that there’s nothing you can ever do to make God love you more, and there’s nothing you can ever do to make God love you less.  And we want to have that same mindset.  You are never too far gone to find a home here with us.  Never.  Our door will always be open to you.

Spider-Man, Creation, and Blemishes

Have you ever made something that you were really proud of? A masterpiece of sorts?

When I was in third grade, I created a masterpiece.

In Art class, we had a new teacher named Mr. Stevens.  He was a really cool younger teacher.  Ok maybe I don’t know how cool he actually was, but to a boy in 3rd grade, a male teacher who isn’t old and boring is super cool.  Mr. Stevens was a really talented doodler, and he loved Marvel comics.  He would always show us some of his drawings of The Hulk, Wolverine, and others.  Spider-Man was his favorite superhero.  Spider-Man is undoubtedly cool; he’s a high schooler that can shoot super strong spider webs from his wrists, climb buildings without any gear, and fly through New York City swinging from web to web and building to building.  I probably would have thought Spider-Man was cool anyway, but the fact that Mr. Stevens liked him really put me over the top.  Mr. Stevens had a ton of drawings of Spider-Man in his classroom that he would show us, most of them were of Spider-Man swinging through New York City.

So one day, after watching Mr. Stevens draw Spider-Man a few times, I decided that I wanted to give it a try.  I started with Spider-Man’s eyes and head followed by the rest of his body, very carefully making sure everything was drawn to scale.  I finished with the web and the tall Manhattan buildings in the background.  It was a masterpiece.

Mr. Stevens had inspired me to create something that took detail and time, and it was the best picture that I had ever drawn (and to this day still might be).  But it wasn’t perfect. I still remember the blue mark that I accidentally scratched onto the paper.  The drawing got partially crumpled in my classically unorganized backpack.  And there were some other spots where I had gotten a tad careless and colored slightly outside of the lines that I had created.

When I look back on that time now, I realize that this seemingly insignificant art class experience was actually teaching me something past how to draw a bomb superhero picture.  I learned that creating something is exciting, worthwhile, and takes time.  I also learned that everything we create will have its blemishes.

In Genesis, our Creator God creates humankind in the Image of God.  Our creative God created creative people.  God then blesses them and commands them to create:

“Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.”  Then God said, “Look! I have given you every seed-bearing plant throughout the earth and all the fruit trees for your food. And I have given every green plant as food for all the wild animals, the birds in the sky, and the small animals that scurry along the ground—everything that has life.”

In the Bible, the first thing God tells people is essentially this: “I have created all of this for you. Be creative, fill it, take care of it. Go enjoy creation.

So we know how the story goes, in their creating, they make some mistakes.  They had to leave the Garden, and we call that whole tiny part of the Bible the “Creation Story.”  But God was far from finished creating, that was just the beginning.  Since then, God has continued in the task of creating and so have God’s creative people.

Since the Garden, people have created all kinds of things and very rarely gotten it right the first (or second) time!  Someone at some point figured out how to create fire and then someone found what to use it for.  People created wheels, irrigation, chariots, and now motorized vehicles, running water, and iPhones.  Each person on earth has been given both the ability and the need to create in one way or another.

I have several friends who create their own music.  That is a truly amazing thing to me.  Not only do they have to be able to play an instrument or instruments, but they have to be able to put the different sounds in an order that sounds good and also an order that hasn’t been done before.  A couple months ago I asked one of my musician friends if he thought that someday there would be no music created because everything had already been done before.  He said that he believes new music will always be created because there will always be more fusion and influence and creative people.

I like to write occasionally.  I don’t always have much to write about, but there are rare times like tonight when I can’t sleep because I have to get a thought out.  Writing is a challenge in creativity.  Much like music, I have wondered if someday there will be no new literature because there will be no more creative original thought, but the nature of God’s creation is to be creative.

When I create, there are blemishes.  No matter how well I did in English class in high school or Freshman Composition in college, when creation is involved, mistakes will be made.  Looking back at some essays and posts that I’ve written in the past, I see typos and misspellings (I literally just misspelled “misspellings” three times in a row).  I see ideas that I would word differently now than I did then, and I see posts that I simply wouldn’t write at all now.

I suppose that’s how life is too.  We move through life, and if we do it right, we create amazing and beautiful things.  We create relationships, we create systems, and we create things we’re passionate about.  But the creative process is a messy one.  As we go on living and creating in life, we’re going to make mistakes.  We are going to say something we shouldn’t have said to someone we care about.  We are going to go a little overboard and show a lack of self-control.  And we are going to end things too soon or hang on to things for too long.  These are the blemishes of life.

Often we feel the need to cover up our blemishes, but blemishes are signs of creation and life.  Others need to see our blemishes so they know that yes, we are a masterpiece, but we also are still learning and growing.  We are still being created by the Creator God who sees and knows every time we’ve accidentally scratched the canvass, crumpled things up, and colored outside the lines.  Though God sees our blemishes, God also sees and loves the larger masterpiece that we are creating.

We have been created by the Creator God to be creative people.  Don’t be afraid of messing up.  God is in the business of creating light in darkness, wholeness in brokenness, and masterpieces out of our blemishes.

life after death

I remember growing up in Sunday School and knowing everything.  Certainty was my drug of choice.  I knew the ten commandments, the 12 apostles, and the fruits of the Spirit.  I also knew the song for each.  I wasn’t ever in Bible Bowl because God showed mercy on those other kids.  I had all the answers (or so I thought).

Even those questions that no one has a firm knowledge of, I thought I knew for sure.  Like heaven.  I knew that I’d fly away (oh glory) to a mansion just over the hilltop, in that bright land where we’ll never grow old.  I knew there’s a big, big house with lots and lots of rooms and a big, big table, with lots and lots of food.  There’d be a big, big yard where we could play football because its a big, big house, and its my Father’s house.  And most of all I knew, that when the roll is called up yonder, I’d be there.

These are all positive things to think about.  It helps cope with loss, and it helps to think hopefully as we deal with worldly stuff.  But I can’t help but wonder: what is it going to be like when we die?

I ponder this a lot.  Will it be here on this planet?  Will we go up into the sky or a cloud?  People have gone up there before, but eventually they were in space, not heaven… So is it like a parallel universe?  Do we go through some crazy sci-fi portal?  Does it look like jumping into hyperspeed looks in Star Wars?  Do we just wake up there after we die?  Is it like King’s Cross from Harry Potter?  HOW DO WE GET THERE!?

This afternoon, I met a guy who told me that in November, he had a heart attack and died 3 times.  I thought that was interesting because he was standing right there in front of me looking really healthy for his age.  So I asked something I had never asked any formerly dead person before, “Did you see anything?”  In retrospect, that was probably a weird question, but I’ve been thinking about the afterlife a lot.  He said that he didn’t see anything…  Bummer!  No best-selling novel coming about some heavenly revelation from him, and no viral blog post coming from me!

So to sum my ramblings up, I don’t know what happens when we physically die, and I’m pretty skeptical of anyone who says otherwise.

Later I got to thinking about death, specifically about being spiritually dead.  I don’t know about you, but some days, hours, or minutes, I can feel spiritually dead.  Often this is a result of sin which separates us from God (To my church family, it appears that even the youth minister isn’t perfect).  And often throughout my life in those moments, I have felt the sting of shame, a product of the fallen world and a tool of the Enemy.  Shame says because I have done something bad, I am bad.  Shame can make anyone and everyone feel unworthy.  Shame and death are both results of the fall from Eden and go hand-in-hand.  Shame and death are the story of the Enemy, but they are not the story of the Almighty God.  

Even though Paul (early church missionary) wrote letters to churches 2,000 years ago, I believe there is still much life for us to reap from his words today.  In his letter to the church in Ephesus, he writes:

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world… BUT God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved! For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus.”  Ephesians 2:1-2, 4-6… its in the Bible.

In Christ, we have life after death.  And it’s not because we were in good enough shape that we could be revived.  It is only grace that saves us.  ONLY GRACE!  One more time for the people in the back: ONLY GRACE!!

And this isn’t just a one time thing!  After the Spirit enters into our hearts, we are made alive!  But that doesn’t mean that we’ll never sin again.  It doesn’t mean that we will never choose death over life again, but it does mean that time and time again, we are given life!  The life that we have been gifted can never run out or be used up.  Time and time again we choose death, and time and time again, the Almighty God lavishes his love and grace on us!  

Furthermore, this is not just any old life that we have after death, we are united in Christ in the heavenly realms!  And Paul doesn’t say that we will be united with Christ when we die, but he says we ARE united with Christ Jesus!  Not “will be,” not “were,” but “are” right now!

I realize the amount of exclamation marks (!) I used in this post could be described as excessive or overbearing, but honestly, I just get excited sometimes.  The Almighty has seen us as we are, dead in sin and separated from the fullness of the love of God, and out of immense love and care, God made a way for us.

So who knows what will happen when the hearts we have stop beating and we physically die in this reality?  I certainly don’t!  But I know that every single day of our lives, the unchanging, Almighty God offers us life after death.

the blessing of wrestling

This morning I was having breakfast with a few dear friends at Chick-fil-a.

Have you ever heard a more delicious beginning to a story?

We were sitting there communing over spicy chicken biscuits, frosted coffee (it’s ice cream you can have for breakfast!), and other delicious cuisine when we began discussing something that we mutually decided that we didn’t fully understand.  Apparently we must’ve not been too quiet because a man came up to our table and began to “explain” the topic that we had been wrestling with together.  He was speaking very confidently and using large hand gestures to reinforce his point.

In that moment, we did what people do when someone gives them unwanted explanation.  We waited until he was finished and nodded saying “that’s interesting, thanks.”  As he began to walk away, he looked back and said, “I’m a minister to men.”  I guess what he probably didn’t realize was that the four guys he was talking to are also identified as ministers by church title.  Of course, all followers of Jesus are called to be ministers to others.  Stating that he was a minister as he was walking away seemed to be his way of expressing that he was some sort of authority on the matter.  It was frustrating to me, but I couldn’t really understand why in the moment.

Whether or not this man was correct in his explanation is beside the point.  I guess I was bothered because sometimes we, especially those of us who are referred to as ministers, pastors, or teachers, can try and explain away the mystery of God.

Growing up in church is different than growing up outside the church and coming to faith later.  For me, growing up in church was an exercise in knowing about God.  I believed that I could know everything about God.  I believed that there was someone out there in the world who knew more about God than anyone else, some sort of super Christian or God’s right hand man.  In a way I believed that God delighted in people knowing his stats much like how I can recite the names and numbers of obscure former Tennessee Titans players.  I looked at my dad and thought, “He probably knows more about God than most anyone else, after all, he has a couple degrees in the Bible.  He carries around a Bible with an ancient language in it.”  I looked at my youth minister and thought, “He must know a lot about God, he teaches us twice a week!”

So going to a Bible college myself to study the Bible seemed like a great way to fill my brain with knowledge about God.  Surely that was pleasing to God.  A few years in to my studies in college, I had a harsh, semi-painful realization.  More study of the Bible was not answering all my questions, it was providing more difficult questions that were not as easy to answer.  There is a difference between knowing about God and knowing God.

Looking back, I can identify this as a period of some faith “deconstruction.”  Deconstruction is a word that I had never heard used as a healthy thing regarding faith.  Wouldn’t you want your faith to be constantly constructing!?  Always building taller and taller so that it may reach new heights?  I think this period of deconstruction is natural and happens to all of us in one way or another.  Luckily for me, I did then and still do find myself in communities that are affirming of my questions.

Think about all the times people asked questions of Jesus.  Time and time again people come to Jesus asking questions.  These questions have all kinds of motives, some seeking, some to trap him, and some rhetorical.  Time and time again, Jesus does not answer these questions with a concrete answer that removes the mystery, but instead Jesus answers with another question, tells a story, or remains silent.  Jesus was not a cookie cutter, fill-in-the-blank teacher.  Jesus was a teacher who asked probing questions with which His followers wrestled.

As a community of Christ followers, we must give both ourselves and each other space to have questions and not have answers.  Naturally this is terrifying because we are an anxious people who need to know everything all the time.  That’s why Google is a thing, right?  So we can just Google anything that we don’t know.  And even more than in other realms of our life, our churches can seem like groups of people with whom we are uncomfortable expressing doubt or posing a tough question.  Here’s the thing about that: people will wrestle with doubt and questions regardless, but will they do that in the context of a people who believe that God is big enough for our questions, or will they have to leave our faith communities to ask their questions? 

We cannot place God in a box.  I am a minister who works in a church, and guess what?  I don’t have all the answers.  I went and got that degree in “Theology and Ministry” and guess what?  I am right there wrestling with everyone else.

So let’s try something.  And I’ll try and do this as well.  Next time someone expresses a question or doubt, let’s not be so quick to answer.  Life following God is a mystery.  Let’s spend some time in awe of the mystery of the Almighty God.  I think we will find that there is a blessing in wrestling with God.

-Michael

 

 

 

 

AN ASIDE:

What is it with Chick-fil-a and people trying to explain deep mysteries of God with lackingly short and easy quips?  I once overheard a man at Chick-fil-a attempt to explain the Holy Trinity to a 12-year-old using the metaphor of a buffalo sauce packet.  Don’t get me wrong, I love buffalo sauce, but I think even buffalo sauce in all of its splendor pales in comparison to the Holy Trinity.

The Pledge and Playing it Safe

Before I start, I just want to say that writing this is not easy. I’m well aware that many friends, family, or fellow Christians may disagree with me, but I also know that I am not always called to be agreeable. And I write this because I believe it to be truthful in my life. If I do end up posting what I write, I pray that God will do what He wills with it. God always seems to do that.

A teacher in school once told our class, “Never begin a speech or a paper with a definition.” BUT these teachers always said, there’s exceptions to every rule, and when we were a big-time author we could break the rules. I’m not a big-time author, but I do have my own, free-to-use blog that my mom may read, so I’m just going to break the rules anyways…

Merriam Webster defines allegiance as “devotion or loyalty to a person, group, or cause.” Now growing up in the U.S., the first thing I think of relating to allegiance is the “Pledge of Allegiance.” We all know it by heart. We grew up reciting it every morning in our schools. In elementary school, does anyone actually know what they’re saying? I remember thinking there was a word in the pledge that was “witchit.” I did not know what it meant, but we said it every day, so it had to mean something. As it turns out, that is actually two words “which it.” The whole thing goes like this:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

I don’t know why it seemed so long in school. Maybe because it was the morning? I am not much of a morning person. Or maybe it was because time seems to pass faster now? Who knows. Anyway, that’s what we said, every single day. Then when I was old enough to go to Church Camp, we said it there every morning as we raised the flag. This just seemed to me like part of life in this country, and I didn’t think another thing about it.

Well at least I didn’t think about it for a while. I graduated a year and a half ago from a school named after a preacher of the American Restoration movement, David Lipscomb. In learning about his life and his work, it struck me how he was unwavering in his stance that his citizenship was in the Kingdom of God, not in this country. Lipscomb did not take part in elections, and he also was a strong voice for nonviolence. Growing up in Christian circles, I had never heard this idea. Perhaps I thought that a good American was a Christian, and a good Christian was a “patriotic” person. For many older people with more life experience than my generation, some may view this country as a shining light of freedom in a world of darkness.

I have a hard time rectifying this vision of the U.S. as a beacon of hope with God’s vision of the Church. In Matthew 5, Jesus is preaching to the people.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  -Matthew 5:14-16

This tells me that God’s light of the world is His people: the Church. God is calling His people to do good deeds to bring glory to the Father. We are God’s people. Many of us know of other Christians in other countries, and they are no less part of the Kingdom of God than anyone who lives in this country. So we, God’s people, are to be a light, I get that. What else is required of us? Jesus goes on his sermon, and he teaches on taking care of the poor, prayer, fasting, and finding our treasures in heaven. Then he says this:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”  -Matthew 6:24

This is a painful teaching. Of course Jesus is talking about money here, but He is also talking about many other things that may become a master of our life. This teaching refers to power, sex, relationships, sports, and yes, the powers and authorities of the world. Occasionally, our country and God may have similar interests, but that is certainly not something that is consistent. God wants all of us, 100%, to be devoted to Him. Jesus’ message does not really attract those who only want a hobby.

This complete devotion that Jesus is requiring brings me back to the idea of allegiance. If we are completely devoted to following Christ, then our allegiance belongs to the Kingdom of God. I don’t believe myself capable of having multiple allegiances. At some point, we will make decisions that show where our devotion is, and I do not feel called to pledge my allegiance to a flag or a country. Believe me, this is not something that I really want to share on the internet. This idea has been banging around in my head for a few years now. I can no longer pledge allegiance to the flag and our country with a clean conscience.

This is not something I have decided based on the current political landscape or the many athletes who have taken a knee during the national anthem.  Throughout Scripture, God is calling upon His people to serve Him only.  All kids raised in church have to memorize the 10 Commandments.  Commandment #1: “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Commandment #2: “You shall not make for yourself and image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God am a jealous God.”  So maybe you don’t see standing, placing your hand over your heart, and pledging your devotion to a man-made object and human construct as idol worship?  OK, but its at least similar, right?

Then I look at a story from the book of Daniel about these three guys Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago.  Here these guys are living in a foreign empire and the king has a giant golden statue of himself made (a sign of empirical supremacy).  He decrees that everyone must bow down to this statue or be thrown into a furnace and burned alive.  So the time comes and everyone is gathered together in one place.  The instruments are played and everyone starts to bow, everyone except these three guys.  Can you imagine the looks even from other God-fearing people?  Can you imagine the whispering from their friends?  “Just bow and get it over with! It doesn’t mean anything! Just play it safe and do what you’ve gotta do!

Maybe you’ve heard, “Just play it safe and do what you’ve gotta do” before.  Maybe it was something at work that you just had to do to keep your job.  Maybe it was going along with the racist joking of a group of people because you were in the minority and didn’t want to be “that guy.”  There’s many times in our lives where we feel this pressure to play it safe and conform, and we are even advised by our friends and family to do so!  But I have been trying to think of a time where Jesus advised playing it safe, and I’m struggling to think of a time.

So anyways, the King has these three guys brought in and, to paraphrase, says, “I’m dead serious, I will throw you into the furnace if you don’t start playing along.”  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago, go on and tell this King that they believe God can deliver them from any harm, OH AND ALSO, and here’s the kicker for me, they say “But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold that you have set up.” *mic drop*

So now they’ve really done it!  The King is ticked!  He has the furnace made 7 times hotter than normal, ties them up and tosses them in there.  Then he looks in and sees 4 people in there, even though he only put 3 in… and the new one “looks like a son of the gods.”  They aren’t getting burnt up and their bindings are gone.  So the King has them brought out, and then goes on to praise God and decrees that “the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.”

Not only did Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago stand up for their convictions, but God used that to change the heart of the most powerful person in the world.  When we give a little, God multiplies it!

So all that to say, we are not called to play it safe or be agreeable.  We are not called to give our devotion to any earthly government or symbol of that government.  We are called to give 100% of our allegiance to the Almighty God, the only God who can save.

And I’ve had this post sitting in my drafts for 8 months, playing it safe, but today God gave me courage.  And let’s be honest here, I don’t have a wide readership.  And I stand at no risk to face imprisonment or any formal punishment because our country doesn’t do that, so how big of a risk am I really taking here?  But we can only be faithful with the platforms that we have been given.  We aren’t given the luxury of choosing what to care about. God tends to put stuff on our heart that won’t go away until we do something about it.

Also, I do not tell you this to start a movement. I simply tell you this because I had to. Maybe what I have written will make you think, and maybe you’ll read this and disregard it completely, that’s fine. I appreciate you hanging with me till the end.

Leading with Love

So maybe you have heard over the past few days about the Nashville Statement.  I honestly don’t know how widespread it has become, but as someone who works in a local church, I guess I might be more likely to have heard about it or read it than some others may be.  If you haven’t heard, a group of evangelical faith leaders met in Nashville in order to come to some sort of consensus on a doctrine regarding sexual stewardship.  They released this 3-page document this week in the midst of nationwide concern for Houston.  Besides Houston, there has been many other tragedies in the U.S. recently, for example, the show of hatred and evil in Charlottesville 3 weeks ago. Much of the Nashville Statement is directly in relation to the LGBTQ+ community.  If you’d like to read the document, you can find it here.

I know, you are all still reading this to find out all about my beliefs regarding marriage and God-honoring sexuality, but that’s not why I am writing today.  I will say that wherever you come down on these issues, I would try my best to understand your beliefs and how they have formed or changed throughout your life.  I write this today because I think many are missing the point as I did when I read the document the first time.

I can honestly say that I know some wonderful, absolutely good-hearted people who fall on either side of the debate regarding the Church’s affirmation of those who have accepted non-traditional sexual lifestyles.  And I do not write this to offend or send anyone into shock.  I write this because I believe that the overwhelming majority of the current dialogue regarding the Nashville Statement has not been fruitful.  There have been a lot of voices falling on deaf ears.

Before I go any further, let me clarify: I 100% believe that members of the Body of Christ have a responsibility to other members of the Body to hold each other accountable to live lives according to the calling that we have received as followers of Jesus Christ.

And now let me say: the only way in which we can or should hold each other accountable is within the context of a faith community in loving relationship with each other.

Think about it this way, has anyone that you did not have a relationship with ever scolded or chastised you?  I would assume that was not an enjoyable experience.  Has anyone that you don’t know ever said to you, “I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but…” That probably did not make you feel good.  Throughout my life, I have often resented being told what to do.  I’m working on maturing and growing, but man, that’s the worst!  Now certainly, there are times in my life where I need guidance, and I’m even learning how to ask someone else for their input (what a novel concept), but I will only receive correction well from someone that I know loves me.  Maybe this is just me, but I would bet you have felt similarly.

As followers of Christ, we are trying to be like Christ, right?  If that’s the case, we need to look at the way that Jesus lived to inform every aspect of our lives.  In Luke 19, there’s a story that I think really applies to this topic:

Jesus is traveling with his disciples through Jericho, and there’s a ton of people trying to see him.  There’s this short tax collector (social stigma implied) in town named Zaccheus, and he really wants to see Jesus, but he can’t see over the crowds, so he climbs up in a tree just to catch a glimpse.  Jesus sees Zaccheus up in the tree, and calls out to him, “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today!”  Ecstatic, Zaccheus takes Jesus to his home.  But the people were not happy with this.  They grumbled to each other, “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner.”  That day, Zaccheus’s heart was transformed.  Because of his interaction with Jesus, who just went over to his house, he vows to give half of his money to the poor and to repay anyone he has cheated four times over!

So let’s think about this story.  I would bet that Zaccheus knew that the religious folks disagreed with his lifestyle choices.  But guess what, knowing that a bunch of religious people didn’t like him really didn’t make him want to change.  All Zaccheus needed for radical life change was to interact with the transformative love of Jesus.  People in our world could use a little more of that.

When dealing with people, Jesus always lead with love.  He befriended many other “notorious sinners.”  Jesus offered the Samaritan woman caught in adultery living water!  Jesus had a quality about him that not only tolerated those who had been outcast by the religious establishment, but he attracted them!  You know what’s not attractive?  Someone that you don’t know telling you that you’re a sinner.

So let me bring this back to the Nashville Statement.  Whatever side you find yourself on, there are real people, living breathing people, on the other side who legitimately believe that what they are standing for is right.  People on every side of this issue are created in the image of God, and there are devoted followers of Christ who are still developing thoughts and views on these matters.  We cannot let this be divisive in our faith communities.

Too many times, we, Christians, divide ourselves into different camps.  We split ourselves by how we like to worship, our views on the Eucharist, our traditions, etc.  And in the midst of a world that has an immediate need for the love of Jesus, we have found yet another thing that divides us instead of unifies us.

We need to be known more by what we are for than what we are against.  We need to be identified by our love for one another, our neighbors, and our enemies.  We need to be identified by our desire to lift the lowly, welcome the outcast, and break the chains of the oppressed.  

And yes, we need to be having these important discussions in our faith communities regarding our views on these topics.  But any view that does not begin with a love for God and for our neighbor is not a view that is from God.  These topics need to be wrestled with in our faith communities, but not on Facebook or Twitter.  These are not topics to make decrees about.  These are conversations to be had together in homes and at coffee shops, not on the internet for the whole world to see.  And when we do have these conversations, we must give each other permission to still be working it out in our hearts.

I must say that when it comes to withholding grace from those with whom I disagree, I am the chief of sinners, but I am encouraged because through the grace of God I know I can grow in that way.  I pray that I will be a person who leads with love, and I pray the same for all of us.

Only through the power of God’s grace can we truly become people who can speak truth in love.