Conversations On Racism and Injustice

This past Sunday afternoon I attended the “Town Hall Meeting for Justice For All” hosted by the Bridgeway Community Church in my town, Columbia, Maryland. The meeting was in response to the events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man who was shot by the police. Even though there is 800 miles of Interstate 70 between Columbia and Ferguson, the issues that Browns death and the subsequent protesting have raised affect Columbia just as they affect every community.

The meeting itself was a great start to some courageous conversations that communities must start engaging in. Whites, Blacks, and Latinos all showed up for this meeting but the majority of the audience was Black. Pastor David Anderson served as a moderator taking questions the audience had for the five panelists that consisted of a school administrator, two police officers, a college student, and a local pastor. Of the five panelists, three were Black and the other two were White.

Black America and Fear

As you what has happened in Ferguson has brought to the forefront the problem of racism that still exists in America. Besides the problem of racism, there is a distrust of law-enforcement and a lot of frustration because of injustices that Blacks and other minorities have endured (and if you’re not sure what those are, I suggest you do a little more listening to some of your Black neighbors).

I went to this town-hall meeting to listen because I’m interested in what I can do to help facilitate racial reconciliation and be an advocate for justice. After all, as a minister of the gospel, the God I serve seeks reconciliation and desires justice, so… Any ways, I tried my best to just listen during this meeting and here’s a couple of things I heard:

  1. Negative Images of Young Black Males. During the meeting, the Black voice of the audience agreed that the Hip-Hop culture has created a caricature of the young Black male that contributes to the negative perceptions and that the Black community has helped perpetuate this image. I thought this is important because it tells me that when we hear the Black community saying there’s a problem, they are also willing to own their part of the problem too.
  2. Palpable Fear. There was a point when the audience was asked if those who are minorities raise their children to carry themselves in certain ways in public because of a fear of being mistaken by law enforcement and others as being up to criminal activity. This is the fear of how their children might be perceived when they’re hanging out, walking down the street, into a store, etc… and how might the police react if their children appear “suspicious”? As an observer, this fear was extremely evident in the response of the minorities present (who were in the majority there). And I must say, words cannot really express how sad this is because nobody should have to live in fear for their life or the lives of their children.
  3. Where are the Whites? As I said, the majority of those in attendance were Black. Now there could be a variety of reasons for this, so I don’t want to make too much of this observation. But I do want to say that the problems of racism, et al. is a problem for the entire community, not just minorities. White people, like myself, don’t have to engage in conversations like this because we’re not the ones who suffer from systemic racism. That’s part of our White Privilege. But the problem isn’t going away and if it gets worse (with the violent protests of Ferguson as a sign of what might be on the horizon), we’ll all suffer the consequences. So let’s all work together for the good of racial-reconciliation and justice!

Where Do We Begin

Working together for reconciliation and justice begins at the table, so to speak. That is to say, we have to start by talking and having a conversation together about these issues. As you know, such conversations are not always easy but we must have the necessary courage, humility, and love to gather at the table with others for some talk.

Now I’m not any expert but one thing I’ve learned as a minister is the importance of listening. Or let’s say, I’m learning the importance of listening and more importantly, listening first. Listening to understand before we speak is important because in conversations like this, there are tense moments of disagreement at times. Someone says something that we disagree with and our gut reaction is to respond immediately, countering…arguing. And then we’re just talking past each other, or shouting past each other like they do on what passes for nightly cable news.

Instead of that, Don McLaughin, who serves as the preaching minister for the North Atlanta Church of Christ, suggests that we learn to say “Tell me more” (you can listen to all he has to say about this and more on this podcast). If we don’t understand or don’t seem to agree with what someone says then by saying “Tell me more” rather than counter-reacting, we can here their point of view and what it is that has led them to feel this or that way. We may still disagree but at least we’ll understand better and we’re validating the feeling of others.

One Last Thing…

As a parting word, let me encourage us to begin a conversation. Maybe it’s with a friend of another race or ethnicity, or maybe that conversation starts by attending a town meeting on race and justice matters in your own community. Help your church to start having these conversations (churches should be leading the way in conversations about reconciliation but sadly, we’re not!). Learn to ask questions and listen… Imagine what could happen if we just start having conversations!

Amidst Racism, Wars, and Other Afflictions: What Says the Church?

It’s a predictable script. When something terrible happens, such as the police-shooting death of one unarmed Michael Brown or the recently release of a video showing the beheading of missing American journalist James Foley, people become indignant. Something is wrong and something should be done. So the question is asked, “Mr. President of the United States of America, what say you?”

Our Way or The Way of God?

That’s how the script always seems to play out. The President must do something or at least say something. Depending on his response, one either cheers him on from the sidelines or one starts cursing him in one fashion or the other. Issues of racism, violence, and other cancerous maladies become political issues for the government to solve. Yet because the politicians and the masses that elect them can’t seem to even agree on what the first step towards a solution should be, the conversation turns into a toxic pit that poisons everyone who steps into it. And maybe in writing this, I’m showing symptoms of poisoning too.

Having said all that, I think I understand why people always turn to the government for a fix. To start with, for some people, the government is their best shot. Regardless of what they claim on a religious census, they don’t have the living hope in Christ that allows them to see how the gospel is redeeming, reconciling, and restoring life. But some people, Christians included, would rather just turn to the government in hopes for a quick solution to the problems… like passing a new law, sending some more troops, or creating a new program and initiative.

I think the devil likes it this way… keeping people, Christians included, seeking quick-fix human engineered solutions to problems that will only be resolved through a slow process requiring personal sacrifice. As a Christian, and as a preacher and minister of the gospel, I believe the slow process leads right to the cross of Jesus Christ. It’s the process that the church is called to participate in. But as I said, it’s a slow process that requires personal sacrifice.

It’s A Way of Life!

In the Gospels when Jesus calls his disciples to pick up their crosses and follow him, he is calling them to a very different way of life than what the rest of the world seeks. Jesus is clear that answering this call may cost the disciples their very own life but he assures them that they will actually receive life, a promise made with his own death and resurrection (cf. Mk 8:34-35).

This way of life is bears witness to what life looks like when God’s redemptive, reconciling, and restorative work is at hand. It’s a life that loves God by loving neighbors and even the enemies. It’s a life that champions peace rather than trumpeting the 2nd Amendment as though an AR-15 assault rifle will keep the peace. It’s a life that extends hospitality rather than judgment to all people, including the neighbors who that came across the borders in search of better living and the single-parents buying their groceries with EBT cards. It’s a life that exalts God as the Creator and Redeemer of life rather than patronizing Old Glory as the symbol of life, liberty, and happiness. It’s a way of life in which the things said and done during Sunday morning’s church service are also the things said and done at home, in the work place, and even on Facebook, Twitter, and so forth (for those who have a presence in the world of social-media).

As I said, this way of life bears witness the redemptive work of God in Christ. In this way, the church lives as a proleptic sign of why the gospel really is good news. It’s God offering the world through Christ and his church the alternative to fear, violence, and hatred. It demonstrates the possibilities of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration so that ideals like brotherly love, joy in Christ, and the peace of God move beyond the realm of spiritual platitudes, becoming instead virtues with concrete meaning. Though the church will always struggle in this endeavor, without intentionally pursuing this way of life the preaching of the church sings like a broken record playing the music of religious superstition than the songs of life.

What I’m Saying

If the church has any desire to offer the promise of hope amidst racism, wars, and all the other afflictions that plague the world, then we, who are the church, must learn to be the church Jesus envisions. If we really believe in the good news that Jesus preached, then we must learn to embrace it as how we live. Then, we can tell the world about God and sound like we actually know God. The results will not come quick as this is and will always be a slow process requiring the personal sacrifice but in doing so–following Jesus in this mission–we join God in creating a life legacy of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration.

Being Church In A Burning World

I want to mention three recent events, two of which you are already aware of unless you just crawled out of a cave and another issue that many of you are unfortunately all too familiar with. But let me first ask you one question: What do you think it means to be the church?

Coming Apart At The Seams

So, as I said, unless you just crawled out of some cave, you know that Robin Williams died last week. Like so many others, I was disappointed because he was a truly brilliant actor, comedian, and entertainer. Of course, I’m sure that those who knew him personally, especially his family, are heart-broken. It was even more sad to read that in the midst of suffering from depression among other health-related issues, Robin Williams took his own life. However, his death also reminded us of just how terrible and deadly the illness of depression can be. Sadly, thanks to the ridiculous blog of person and his absurd follow up post (which I won’t link to hear, so as not to give his ilk more publicity), we also know just how badly our society still sometimes misunderstands mental illnesses.

Also last week in Ferguson, Missouri, a young man by the name of Michael Brown, who was unarmed, was shot and killed a police officer. This has triggered both protesting and rioting. While we don’t know the full details of what happened that led to the shooting of Michael Brown, his death joins a list of unarmed black males killed by law enforcement. Regardless of what the investigation into the death of Michael Brown reveals, the fall out of his death has reminded again that racism is still an issue in America. And it seems the hostility is weaved into the ever increasing political polarization taking place in America, which political pundit Glenn Beck describes America as being “at or near a cold civil war.” Whether you agree or disagree, one thing seems clear: the cracks are getting bigger and the little 238 year experiment called the American Dream is fading.

Of course, while society around us is coming apart at the seams, some Christians would rather continue on pursuing their adventures in missing the point. Two weeks ago I spoke at the Bowie Church of Christ for their Wednesday Evening Praise on following Jesus (you can listen to the message here). It was a wonderful evening and the praise team did an amazing job of leading the church in worship. It was nice to visit with another church that allows women to serve as God has gifted them. However, word of this church having a praise team got out and it drew sharp criticism from another area Church of Christ who suggested that this violated the teaching of scripture.

Now do you understand what I mean by adventures in missing the point?

Being Church… Following Jesus!

We’re called to follow Jesus… learning to live our lives as Jesus lives his life. When churches and Christians are still occupied with trying to convince others why praise teams are wrong or arguing about who’s going to hell while the black community is living in hell (you should really click on that link and read the article), you can be sure that we’ve forgotten how to follow Jesus.

Our best response to a world suffering in depression, racism, and many other issues is simply to be the church, just like Richard Beck describes in this blog post (and you should really click on that link and read it too). You see, when we follow Jesus we learn how to become better neighbors, how to become hospitable with people who are different from us… different in skin color, country of origin, religion, and even sexual orientation. When we follow Jesus we learn how to show solidarity with the poor and oppressed, with the suffering. Only then do we gain the credibility to speak truth… to speak about this good news of the kingdom of God, the good news that Jesus preached.

The question of what it means to be the church is a huge question, one that too large to answer in one blog post. So don’t take this as an exhaustive answer but let me clearly say: we are being the church when we follow Jesus! Just because we are gathering to sing and pray does not necessarily mean we are being the church. That’s just a religious service. But we can be the church in that religious service when the invitation of Jesus and his communion table moves us to welcome the stranger, listen to the pains and fears of others as we bear that burden with them, and love each other enough to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of serving one another. We live as the church when this way of life transcends beyond the walls of our church buildings and becomes our way of life in our homes, our neighborhoods, our work and social spaces, and so on. Then… we can speak the truth of Jesus we are compelled to speak because it’s a message that has transformed our own way of life.

The world around is burning. Sometimes it’s a small smoldering fire and but here lately it seems like a wildfire that’s burning out of control like it seems to be right now in Ferguson, MO, The Ukraine, Iraq and Syria, Israel and Palestine, and West Africa. What we can do is learn to follow Jesus again! Can we do that?

The Gift

There’s a story in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus is standing in the temple watching the wealthy give their offerings.* Somewhere in the midst of all this comes a “poor widow” who only has two coins to offer. After placing her coins in the offering, Jesus saw the difference between the two offerings. According to Luke 21:3-4, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all offered their gifts out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.”

At first glance this story may appear as a blight against the wealthy or it might lead us to believe the only acceptable offering is giving every last cent in our pocket. Or maybe we’re just missing the point.

Some Baseball Cards, Dad!

Today is my 41st birthday. I’ve already received birthday greetings, cards, and a few gifts. I appreciate them all but there is one gift that stands out, one that I’ll remember throughout my life.

Yesterday my son Jared gave me a set of baseball cards because he knows I’m a baseball fan. And he’s becoming a fan, as we’ve taken in an Orioles game each of the last two years. So he decided to give me some baseball cards.

What makes this gift so special is that it’s the first time where Jared has decided on his own to give me a gift. In the past, his mother has always taken him shopping on our dime (insert smile). Not this year. Jared picked out his own gift to give. And he was so excited it! So much that he couldn’t wait until my birthday… He gave me my gift yesterday.

As I opened the gift and saw the baseball cards, I saw the smile on his face and the joy in his heart. That joy that radiated through his smile lit up the room and filled the air with joy. That was the real gift he was giving, a gift from the heart born out of the love he has for his dad.

The Heart That Gives…

Back to the story of the widow’s offering. What was it that she gave out of her poverty? Was it just two small coins or was it something much deeper, of an unmeasurable wealth?

I wasn’t at the temple with Jesus to see this woman’s expression or the expressions of her wealthy neighbors. Nevertheless, it seems that the gift this poor widow gave was her heart. Yes, the gift was expressed through two coins but the gift was the heart nonetheless.

The heart that gives is the gift that pleases God, that brings a smile to his face like it did when my son gave me the set of baseball cards. The heart that gives is a gift that can be expressed through two coins, if that is all one has, or through an abundance like the wealthy temple-goers had. Likewise, one can give either an abundant or just a small amount such as two coins and still never give from the heart.

What matters when we worship and when we serve God is that we do with a heart that gives. That’s not an offering that can be manufactured or taught. That’s the heart that gives because it’s the heart that loves… loves God and loves neighbor!

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* This same article was originally published in Connecting 29 (August 6, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

Discipleship and Prayer

I’ve thought about writing on developing a rhythm of prayer for several months but have hesitated, as I don’t want come off as tooting my own piety which truly is nothing to brag about. However, in writing this, which involves sharing something of my own prayer discipline, the hope is that it might help someone else in this journey of following Jesus.

The Problem With Prayer

To begin with, let me give you a little background so that you’ll understand my struggle a bit more. The Christian tradition I come from, the Churches of Christ, is really big on pot-luck fellowships and Bible study. Have a cook-out or a Bible-study and you can expect a decent turn out. Invite people over for a time of  praying together and the turn probably won’t be so great. I know this from experience. This isn’t to say that people from the Churches of Christ don’t believe in prayer, it’s just doesn’t hold the same value as eating and studying the Bible.

But here’s the deal: As followers of Jesus, disciples, prayer is a vitally important aspect of our life. Prayer was an important discipline for Jesus, who would get up early in the morning so that he could go and pray in a quiet place (cf. Mk 1:35). Yet when we haven’t learned to value prayer like this it’s difficult to establish a disciplined rhythm of prayer in life. I suppose it’s even harder to do so in our world which seems constantly on the move, where we have hand-held computers in our hand almost the entire day.

In the past, I’ve tried remaining vigilant about praying every-time I get in my truck and drive somewhere, even if it’s just to the store. This, however, is mainly just a prayer asking God to see where he is at work so that I might join him in his work, which I also forget to do at times. There’s nothing wrong with such a prayer but in reading through the Psalms, I am convinced that prayer is more than just this. I also like to go for walks (it’s great exercise) and will pray at times during these walks but as someone who struggles with remaining focused and keeping my attention (ADHD)… Let’s just say that since my mind is thinking in a thousand different directions, neither praying or reflecting comes easy on these walks.

A Rhythmic Approach to Prayer

Wanting to become more disciplined in praying, I’ve developed a rhythmic approach that I want to share with you. I don’t know if someone else has developed a similar approach but I’ve really found this helpful. However, before I do let me share two important disclaimers. First, though we should be praying people just as Jesus was, I don’t believe this means that we must go about praying exactly as Jesus did. That is, the idea is becoming more disciplined in the practice of prayer but we can do that without necessarily getting up at dark-thirty in the morning for a trip into the woods for prayer. Second, the approach I am sharing with you is intended as descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words, my way is not the only way. So if it helps, great! If it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine too. But if I encourage you to become more intentional about the discipline of prayer then this post is worth the effort.

Besides praying on walks, praying with my family before bed, I have started practicing a rhythm of prayer based on the A.C.T.S. acronym. Perhaps you’ve heard of this before but for those who haven’t, this acronym stands for AdorationConfessionThanksgiving, and Supplication. While the acronym has four parts, the rhythm involves five times of prayer throughout the day that runs as follows:

  • The Prayer of Adoration at 9:00 AM (Morning Prayer) praises God for who he is as Creator and Redeemer. Reflecting on all that God is and all the ways that he is at work in the world, this prayer exalts him for this.
  • The Prayer of Confession at 12:00 PM (Noontime Prayer) involves a confession of faith and confession of sins. This prayer professes the fundamental beliefs of being Christian (i.e., “Jesus is Lord!”) and admits the things done and not done that are wrong and therefore are sin.
  • The Prayer of Thanksgiving at 3:00 (Afternoon Prayer) involves thanking God for his blessings and grace. That is, in light of all that God has done, including the continued grace and mercy he extends, this prayer expresses gratitude.
  • The Prayer of Supplication at 6:00 (Evening Prayer) involves petitioning God for the various needs I encounter. This is the prayer where personal needs as well as the needs of others are brought to God’s attention.
  • The Lord’s Prayer at 9:00 (Nighttime Prayer) is simply a recitation of The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). In some ways, this prayer is a rehearsal of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication.

As I suggested earlier, this rhythm doesn’t exclude other prayers and if you can take some time out every day for a prayer walk, that’s good too!

Let me share a couple of helpful ideas. One thing that I’ve done is scheduled these prayer times into the calendar on my iPhone. When the time comes for prayer, a little “alert” sound will ring letting me know what time it is. So if you have some sort of smart-phone, you can use the calendar to help establish this rhythm for you. Lastly, there are some days where my rhythm is thrown off and occasionally I blow it off (I’m a work in progress). That will happen to you as well but don’t fret about it and don’t be a legalist about setting a rhythm like this. I am convinced that having a disciplined rhythm of prayer is vital as we follow Jesus as but the rhythm itself is not the Lord. So if you miss, then just pick up where you left off.

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Do you find this might helpful? What other ideas you have or how you can incorporate a rhythm of prayer into your life? What suggestions do you have for me and others?

Twelve Years Ago… Remembering Kenny!

Those Unhelpful Labels!

What kind of Christian do you consider yourself? A liberal or conservative? Perhaps a progressive or traditionalist? Maybe you consider yourself a fundamentalist or one of those “spiritual but not religious” Christians. What about a Neo-Calvinist or Missional?

Once Upon A Time…

In the year 2007 my wife and I moved to Ithaca, New York, a small town full of an earthy, free-spirited, political culture. Down the road from my house was a trendy little coffee shop that I frequented a couple times a day. One day one of the Barista’s, who knew I was a Christian, asked me if I considered myself a mainline-protestant or an evangelical? Well, I’m not one who likes to be cornered but I also knew that there were (and still are) some assumptions this person had attached to both choices that I didn’t want to claim. Fortunately, having been raised in the Churches of Christ, I responded as any Church of Christ member would and said, “I’m just a Christian.”

Several months later, the same Barista asked me if I believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Knowing that the person asking the question was not a Christian, I invited her to have a cup of coffee with me sometime so we could talk about her question. She did. And I did my best to explain over a nice cup of coffee why I believe Jesus is the only way of salvation. Her response… “So Rex, you really are a conservative!”

It’s kind of ironic because a year before that, when still living in Memphis, I had someone insist that I was a liberal because they knew I rejected a literalist reading of the Genesis creation narrative (creationism) and opposed the war in Iraq.

So Am I a liberal? A conservative? Or am I… Truthfully, I don’t really care!

Hyphenated-Christians?

But if you must know whether I consider myself a liberal or conservative, or whatever other designated tag you want to label me with, it all depends on where you stand in relation to me. You see, from my perspective, I stand perfectly in the center and it’s you who are either too far to the right or too far to the left.

How’s that for an answer! It also shows the absurdity of such labels. They’re all just too nebulous and too loaded for the kingdom of God. Fortunately, followers of Jesus don’t need such labels. That’s one of the values I greatly appreciate about my Restoration heritage that reminds me, we can just be “Christian’s only.” Not the only Christians but Christians only!

To say that we are Christians only without any additional hyphenated adjective allows us to stop defining ourselves by our own terms and instead define ourselves simply as followers of Jesus, which is what we are. Any thing else is too nebulous and in my experience as a minister, people and churches are too diverse to fit into the categories we want to label each other with.

So let’s just be Christians… followers of Jesus!