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Baltimore and Community Reconciliation

IMG_0735Yesterday I joined Lawrence Rodgers, Winston Curry, and Jo El Berean along with several other people from the Westside Church of Christ and we went into Baltimore. There we stood among a group of peaceful protesters just to listen and observe. We wound up talking with a couple of people, just asking them questions… to listen, learn, and pray. Here are several thoughts that I would like to share…

  • I want to remind people that you will never truly understand an issue from afar or only by what you hear on news media outlets like CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. If you want to know and understand an issue, you must be willing to walk among the people on the ground level and listen in order to understand. The news media is only interested in the narrative which they want to frame the happenings within.
  • Violence will never resolve anything. Those who turn to rioting and looting businesses in response to injustice only create more injustice. As for the city of Baltimore and the State of Maryland, a strong show of police force dressed in full military gear with assault rifles and batons might neutralize those who violently riot and loot but such force will never resolve the deeper issues that have led to the unrest.
  • The only way towards community reconciliation begins with humility on the part of everyone. Then perhaps people can gather together in order to listen to one another, forgive each other and repent of wrong doing as necessary, and turn the page with a new commitment of extending charity to each other as neighbors rather than enemies.
  • The present issues facing Baltimore are issues that effect everyone, from Maine to California, from the big city to the small town, in one way or another. Repeating the same old sound-bites, platitudes, and generalized assumptions about people, whether those people happen to be Blacks, the police, etc…, only exasperates the issue and creates further polarization. This happens too often in various social-media outlets. We all have some repentance to do!
  • Lastly, I am unapologetically a Christian… a firm believer in Jesus and strive to follow him. That also means that I believe true reconciliation comes only from what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus shows us that we all are guilty in some way and yet it is from that cross that he offers us the promise of forgiveness and reconciliation. So as we receive that grace so must we extend that grace by loving others, even our enemies, because we know that even as we were enemies with God, we were loved by God who has reconciled us (cf. Romans 5:10). All that to say that if we want love and peace, maybe it is time that we stop trying to seek that on our own terms and instead receive as God offers it to us in Jesus so that we can share with our neighbors. Wouldn’t that make for a better society?

I originally shared the above on Facebook and share them now on the blog because I believe it is important for people know there is a way toward resolving difficult issues that goes beyond the typical tiresome politics. May it be so in Baltimore as well as every other city and countryside where poverty and injustice seem to prevail!

Closing A Church: A Necessary Conversation

Earlier this month I wrote an article titled Disband with Dignity regarding the closure of the Columbia Church of Christ, whom I served with as the minister. Now that the article is out, I want to blog some more about the subject of deciding to close a church. With the reality that Churches of Christ are declining, there will be other congregations facing this issue. In fact, I have already talked with six other ministers wondering if it is time for the congregation they serve to close.

Church ClosedI want to say upfront this is a discernment issue. No matter the circumstances, churches are called to discernment… discerning the where and how of God’s work among the church. That is, the leaders along with the rest of the church must discern where God is leading their church as participants in the mission of God and how the church is called to serve as participants in the mission of God. This is true, I believe, just as much for a church that is outgrowing its current facility as it is for a small church struggling in decline.

Here is what is important: The question of discernment is about participating in the mission of God, not preserving the church. Having declined to about 25 members, this was the question the Columbia Church of Christ was asking and had to ask… “how is God leading each of us to participate in his mission?” This is not a question that any church should fear, no matter the outcome. God is still God and our salvation in Christ remains, no matter how and where such discernment leads.

Seeking to participate in the mission of God may lead to renewal of the current church or maybe God is leading that church to disband so that through the pruning and scattering, greater fruit is produced. Remember, in Acts 8:1, it must have seemed like a bad dream come true as the Jerusalem church was scattered abroad due to local persecution. However, one chapter later in Acts 9:31, we see that the church was now growing throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. Likewise, God may want to “close” a church so that the members are scattered where they may further participate in the spreading of the gospel (how that happens must be entrusted to God).

I will not say that every small church should consider closure as an option. There are some small churches with very vibrant gospel ministries. Yet there are some churches that are shrinking in number, are unsure of their identity (purpose and calling), have suffered from unhealthy conflict, and are living with other circumstances that call into question their long-term viability. In another post I will spend some time on what it might take for declining church to find renewal in the mission of God. But at the same time, for the churches that I am broadly describing in this paragraph, the discerning question of closure should also be considered and in another post I will share why.

For this introductory post on closing a church out, let me share with two book recommendations. The first book is Legacy Churches, written by Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond. This book written from the perspective of mainline denominations, tells some of the practical issues that churches have to deal with in closing a church and how they can still leave a legacy in doing so. The second book is Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups, written by Ruth Haley Barton. This book will help either the leadership  or even the church as a whole learn how practice discernment together as a spiritual discipline that seeks the will of God.

Let me close by saying that helping close the Columbia Church of Christ has been a bittersweet experience. It is never something I dreamed of doing when I was called into ministry and preparing for ministry as a seminary student. Further more, it has been a very stressful season of life for me. I know it was for the church as well. Yet at the same time, it was a season of amazing community in which the Holy Spirit was powerfully at work. The church faithfully extended grace toward each other in the midst of a difficult season and drank deeply from the promise of hope that God has blessed us with in Christ. My hope now is that by extending this journey into a series of blog posts, it might help other churches faithfully face difficult times with grace and hope.

Communion With Jesus, Our Savior

Yesterday during our worship gathering with the Columbia Church of Christ, the following was story was read as we began sharing the bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus, our Savior:

Though I have heard and given many of Lord’s Supper meditations, there is on that is firmly fixed in my mind: An elderly man in a church I was attending stood one Sunday to give his meditation. He slowly made his way to the pulpit and then slowly spoke these words…

“When I was a younger man I thought when I would be aged that I would be done with sin. Now as an old man I realize that sin is more powerful to me today than ever before. That is why I need this cup and this bread. That is why I need communion. That is why I need a Savior, and that is why I am thankful for what my Savior has done.”

It is with those simple words that the man sat down and together we worshiped in a time of true communion.

Then we sang the hymn There Is A Fountain. Here is a video of Selah singing this hymn with scenes from Jesus’ passion.

And that is why I love gathering with the church for worship and why I need to gather with the church in worship where we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (cf. 1 Cor 11:26). For I too am a sinner and need reminding of God’s grace, the story of Jesus, our Savior, which offers the promise that sin is not the final word.

So remember this throughout the week. There is another word after sin and it’s written in the blood of Jesus… Salvation!

When Fear and Faith Collide

Ebola!

ISIS!

Ferguson, Missouri!

And _____!

It all evokes fear. Perhaps lots of fear. And the fear is somewhat understandable. After all, if you find yourself in the middle of a bad storm, a little fear is expected.  Yet…

Last Sunday I preached on the story of Jesus stilling the storm in Mark 4:35-41. I’ve preached on the passage before but this time was different because unlike before, I understood why the disciples became afraid. The text says that the storm on the sea was so fierce that the winds were blowing waves up into the boat. I’d be scared if I was on that boat . . . and I’d bet you would be too.

So what is Jesus thinking about when he questions his disciples about their fear and loss of faith? Maybe Jesus is speaking into something much deeper than just a severe thunderstorm. Maybe Jesus is taking the occasion to speak about the deeper issue of discipleship in those moments when faith and fear collide, where we allow one to drive the other away.

You see, when faith and fear collide, like they will later on for Jesus and his disciples when they enter Jerusalem for the Passover, our response speaks. Fear seems natural but those who let fear dictate the agenda will abandon the way of life Jesus calls us to embrace in attempt to assuage the fear on our own. With the fear of Ebola, we’re tempted to demand secure national borders rather than recalling how God expects his people to treat foreigners (read Deuteronomy lately?) much less care for the suffering should we encounter them. With the fear of ISIS, we’re tempted to champion the idea fighting fire with fire in another war rather than stopping to pray for them (read the Sermon on the Mount lately?).

But Jesus silences the storm, rebuking the win as he says to the sea, “Peace! Be Still!” The story in the Gospel of Mark leaves us with the question of who is Jesus? It’s meant to refocus our faith in the midst of fear.

Who is this Jesus but the Messiah, the crucified and resurrected King of Kings, Lord of Lords! The storms cannot and will not destroy us. Keep our focus on Jesus. Silence the profiteers of fear posing as news stations like CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and so forth.

Listen instead for the voice of Jesus and follow him. Together we will weather the storm!

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!

The Glory of the Son

Originally posted on Timeless Teachings:

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Six days later … Peter had confessed that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:18). Jesushad revealed to his disciples that he was going to die and be resurrected three days later, which was not well received (Matt. 16:21-24). Jesus had taught his disciples about the cost of discipleship, which included self-denial and bearing one’s cross (Matt. 16:24-28).

Six days later … Now, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to a high mountain for an experience of a lifetime. At the top of the mountain, Jesus reveals his glory to them in a way they had never seen and would never forget. The text reads: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matt. 17:2). The word transfigured (metamorphóō) means…

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Why me, God?

Originally posted on The Sharp End:

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I’m a nobody.

There’s nothing overly special about me. I’m not stronger or smarter than the average person. I don’t have some kind of special knowledge. I don’t love better than others. I don’t sin less than anyone. I’m abundantly average.

In fact, I feel like I am weaker than most. I don’t know nearly all that I want to know, and my wisdom isn’t very wise compared to those I look up to. I struggle with loving other people because of my innate ability to be selfish. Oh, and I sin – a lot. Maybe I’m less than average.

I didn’t always see myself like this. I used to think I was everything to everyone. I was God’s gift to the world, but then I grew up and the voices around me began to make headway into my own thoughts. I began to see myself in light of the…

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