Category Archives: Justice and Mercy

A Memorial Message For a Child

I recently spoke at the memorial service for a young man who was murdered. I did not know the man and only recently had come to know his mother, who asked me to speak. Undertaking the pastoral role of peaking at any memorial service, where family and friends are understandably upset, if enough of a challenge. However, when the deceased person is a child and was a victim of a violent crime, there challenge seems even greater. My role is never to judge but to comfort. How does a pastor do that and speak not only to the hope God extends in Jesus Christ but also to the desire for justice?

I have included the manuscript of the message I shared at the memorial service. However, I have changed the names of all people and locations as well as the dates in order to protect the privacy of the actual family. I am sharing this manuscript for whatever help it offer to others, especially those called to serve in similar circumstances.


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John Smith, Jr., passed away on January 8, 2018 in Massachusetts. John was born in Atlanta, Georgia on July 10, 1987 to his mother, Juanita Bowen, and father, John Smith, Sr. John is survived by his mother, Juanita, and his step-father, Michael Bowen, his sisters, Janice Rice and Tina Smith, his brother Alex Smith, and his auntie, Debora Stone. He was proceeded in death by his father, John Smith, Sr.

Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.” Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” – John 11:38-44, CEB

Several days ago I sat down with John’s mother Juanita and asked her to tell me about her son. She described her son John as someone who loved to have a good time, teasing and laughing. And like any good son, that also meant teasing and laughing with his mother. But Juanita also noted how she could always count on John to help her with the little, the often thankless jobs like carrying in the groceries or just pausing to open the door for another person. I don’t know about you but where I’m from that’s what we call a “gentleman.” 

More importantly though, Juanita recalled how her son John was always “very loving and very hugging.” That sounds like a wonderful son to have.

But that’s also part of why the passing of John is so difficult, especially for his mother and his step-father. As parents, we never expect to bury our children. They’re supposed to bury us. And so no matter the age, when a child passes away there is a grief and pain that words cannot fully describe. 

Of course, this child, John is more than just a son. He’s also a brother, a nephew, and a friend to others. And to lose a brother, nephew, and friend at the young age of just thirty-two is a difficult burden to bear. 

I am also aware that John’s death was not because of an accident or illness but because someone else took his life from him in a criminal act. And so, we’re here today because a terrible injustice has occurred, an injustice committed not just against John but also against his mother and step-father… and against his brothers and sisters as well as his auntie… and even against his friends.

But I am here speaking today as one who believes in Jesus Christ. My conviction that Jesus is the Lord and Savior also means I have some convictions about the way the world works and the path of history the world will follow. What I’m getting at has to do with redemption and the need for justice and mercy along the way. 

A few minutes ago we heard a passage of scripture that recounted the time when Jesus raised a young man named Lazarus from death. Lazarus had been sick and by the time Jesus showed up, he had died from his illness. So Jesus raised him as a sign that God is at work in our world, redeeming life and will in fact bring an end to the curse of death we all face. 

So Jesus said, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” (Jn 11:40). It’s a question and it invites us to ask if we do believe. Because if we do believe then we have hope for redemption from all the grief and pain in life, including death. And if we do believe then we are right to also want justice just as God desires justice. So we do desire for the government, whom God has ordained as a lawful authority, to hold accountable those responsible for taking John’s life.

But if we believe in Jesus, we also must be people who show mercy. I’m not sure what that always looks like and it seems rather difficult to think about showing mercy to people who have acted unjustly towards us. But I also know that evil wins when our righteous anger and protest of injustice becomes hatred and vengeance. God wins when we remain steadfast in love, extending mercy just as God has shown us mercy.

All of this doesn’t make the death of John or anyone else, for that matter, any easier. To Juanita and Michael as well as to the rest of John’s family and friends, I am truly sorry that John has passed away. As a parent myself who has had a son pass away, I know that there isn’t any “getting over” such a loss. The grief and pain of losing someone you love is a terrible thing. 

What we have is hope… hope which springs from our belief in Jesus Christ, our Lord. According to the passage of scripture we read earlier, when Jesus shouted for Lazarus to come out of the grave, he did so. And one day the proclamation that God has made in his Son, Jesus Christ, and particularly through his death and resurrection, means that the grave of death is not eternal. Instead we are offered the promise of eternal life with Jesus Christ, our Lord and that is our hope.

Agape Blitz in Portland, Oregon

Two weeks ago I accompanied three other adults and six students, including my daughter, from the Chillicothe Church of Christ on a service mission trip to the city of Portland, Oregon. The purpose of our trip was to work with the Agape Church of Christ as part of their summer Agape Blitz in serving people who are homeless.

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Group photo taken with the family of Ron and Lori Clark. Ron serves as the Minister with the Agape Church of Christ in Portland.

We did this by working in some homeless camps that provide housing shelter to those who otherwise would likely be sleeping on city sidewalks or underneath some overpass. We also participated in a Night Strike which according to the website “is a community gathering that mobilizes volunteers/services, meets felt needs, and develops relationships that transform lives.” This is a weekly event that provides everything from basic care, such as haircuts and feet-washing, to services that extend human dignity to people who often are ignored by much of society, such as offering a hot meal and friendship.

Besides the work we were doing, we enjoyed the fellowship we had with one another as we took a day to travel into the mountains and visit both Seaside and Canon Beach on the Pacific Ocean. In addition, we enjoyed some meals together, a few stops at local coffee shops, and a visit to the famous Voodoo Donuts, which provided us with opportunities to grow closer to each other as people who are all on the journey of following Jesus.

To sum up this trip, it was an opportunity to not only love people but to teach our students what it means to follow Jesus. Our goal was to #SeeJesusBeJesus. Or in other words, we wanted see how God is working in Jesus and to participate in the work that God is doing in Jesus among the world. Of course, that is something we can and are learning to do in our everyday lives as people of “the Way” (cf. Acts 9:2). As Jerry, a deacon of our church who organized this trip, says, “Everybody is somebody, so treat everybody as somebody.”

I personally am really proud of our students. When it came time to work, they worked hard without complaining. When it came time to interact with people whose lives and circumstances were very different than their own, they loved and served without fear or judgement. Here is a slide show video of our trip…

And Who Is My Neighbor?

Most people have heard the story Jesus told in Luke 10 commonly referred to as The Parable of The Good Samaritan. You can read the story here if you would like to reacquaint yourself with the story, which I would highly recommend. Why? Because despite the casual familiarity society has with this story, which has undoubtedly served as the inspiration for the names of numerous “Good Samaritan” hospitals and other “Samaritan” charities, this story really isn’t about a Samaritan.

Yes, you read that correctly! The Parable of the Good Samaritan really isn’t about the Samaritan whom, by the way, is never described as good (or bad) in the actual text. So while we may derive a side point about the virtuous character of the Samaritan, it’s not the main point of the story.

The story is actually about a conversation between a Jewish lawyer and Jesus. The lawyer approached Jesus wanting to “test” him by asking him a question about how he may inherit eternal life (v. 25). Wisely, Jesus turns the tables on his little religious test and asks him about what the Law says. More importantly, Jesus asks this lawyer about how he reads the Law (v. 26). It’s sort of analogous to saying “What does the Bible say about inheriting eternal life? How do you read the Bible?” That’s important because in becomes clear as the story unfolds that Jesus and this lawyer don’t read the Law exactly the same. Their hermeneutic for understanding what is necessary for inheriting eternal life is different. It begs the question of us, as we read the story, as to whether our hermeneutic differs with Jesus.

The lawyer responds by reciting what we commonly refer to as the greatest commands: 1) love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and 2) love your neighbor as yourself (v. 27) (see also Matt 22:36-40; Mk 12:28-31). If this lawyer was simply taking a test, he would have passed because he is right that about loving God and neighbor. The problem is his understanding of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. He doesn’t want to really love every neighbor as himself and so to justify himself, he asks Jesus just who his neighbor really is (v. 29).

In turn, Jesus responds by telling him a story… Well you know the story. But the shocking part of the story is that of all the characters Jesus could have chosen to play the role of hero in the story, Jesus chose a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans hated each other with an enmity that was full of mutual distrust, discrimination, and animosity. And yes, Jesus knew this and that’s the point. Because Jesus is saying to this Jewish lawyer is that the Samaritans, whom he hates, are his neighbor too and if he wants to have a place in the kingdom of God then he must learn to love the Samaritans as his neighbor and that looks something like how the hero Samaritan of the story loved the man who was viciously assaulted along the roadside.

“…we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

So where do we find ourselves in this story? Who are we more like? The Samaritan or the Jewish lawyer? Of course, we want to become like Jesus but to do that we first need to ask if we’re not more like the Jewish lawyer than we realize. If we don’t discern that question then we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.

When Jesus made the hero of his story a Samaritan, he was saying that our neighbors include those we regard as enemies, those we may fear, and even those we may discriminate against in one fashion or another. Had it been a White American evangelical Christian approaching Jesus like this Jewish lawyer, who would have been the hero of the story Jesus told? I think the hero of the story would have been a Muslim father from Pakistan, Egypt, etc… Or a LBGTQ Feminist girl attending college at Harvard, Stanford, etc… or a young Black male living in Chicago, Baltimore, etc… Or a Latino woman originally from Honduras, Mexico, etc… Or a… The list can go on and on and on.

The point is that our neighbors are also Muslims, LBGTQ people, Blacks and Latinos, and whoever else we think of as different from us. Jesus told the Jewish lawyer to go do as the Samaritan did and extend mercy to our neighbors. We don’t have to agree with our neighbor, share their same religious and political views, or even like their way of life but we must love them as ourselves by showing them mercy − doing acts of mercy as we have the opportunity. In fact, we’ll never see the kingdom of God unless we can learn to show mercy and be their neighbor by loving them.

“Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!”

I’ll push this even farther because it is time we get the point. The currency of our gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is that we love God by loving others… we love one another but we also love our neighbors and even our enemy neighbors. It doesn’t matter what we preach and teach if we cannot love our neighbors as ourselves! To paraphrase Paul somewhat, if we cannot love our neighbors then we are as useless as a noisy gong.

Let’s be more than a useless noisy gong. We believe that we are called to be witnesses of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God to the world. Very good! But remember that begins by loving our neighbors and the best place to begin is right in our own neighborhoods with the people living next door or just a few doors down no matter what skin color they have, what sort of lifestyle they live, what their nationality of origin is, or what their religious and political beliefs are. Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!

The Triumph of Good

Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This quote is often cited and paraphrased by people to justify their engagement in and response to the affairs of life such as politics, crime, and other social-cultural issues. So whether it is stopping something as terrifying as a possible terrorist entering a café with a bomb or confronting an issue like systematic racism, something must be done or else evil wins.

Over the years I have heard plenty of Christians express the wisdom of Burke too, though I always wonder what they must think of Jesus hanging on the cross then. After all, in the moment of the Jesus’ crucifixion it appears that Jesus has done nothing and that the triumph of evil is at hand. Of course, given the message preached by the apostle Peter on Pentecost that the God has raised the crucified Jesus from death and exalted him as Lord and Messiah, we believe that God has ultimately − in an eschatological sense − triumphed over evil. So we know that while Jesus may have appeared to be doing nothing to stop evil, God was actually doing much.

That begs of us to think more critically about how we respond to evil. While it may be true in a temporal sense that evil may triumph when good men do nothing, evil may also triumph when good men do the wrong something. So for the church, as followers of Jesus, we must become more discerning about our engagement as a public faith in a world still awaiting the fullness of redemption from evil.

What does it mean to be a good person? What sort of actions does a good person undertake? These questions have to do with virtuous living which is itself a big issue taken up in numerous books, some good and some not so good. At the risk of sounding reductionistic and too simplistic, these questions are answered by the way of life Jesus, whom we follow as believers, lived as described to us in scripture. Thus fighting fire with fire, evil with evil is out of the question. We must instead learn how to practice self-sacrificial love and faith showing mercy and extending grace, offering hospitality and rendering service without discrimination. Our responsibility is not to ask how well self-sacrificial love and faith works but to trust that it does, even if for a time it might seem foolishly inept in the fight against evil.

“While it may be true in a temporal sense that evil may triumph when good men do nothing, evil may also triumph when good men do the wrong something.”

Last week America was shaken by the news of two more fatal police shootings of black men. In one case, the shooting death of an unarmed Terence Crutcher, officer Betty Shelby has been charged with first-degree manslaughter. Not wanting to create a distraction at her church’s worship gathering, Officer Shelby offered to stay home but her church insisted that she join them. After all, whatever the outcome of the charges Officer Shelby is facing and whatever responsibility she bears in the death of Terence Crutcher, she needs as much grace as the rest of us. The response of her church is but one example of what it means to practice self-sacrificial love and faith. Another example is the response of black and white Tulsa residents, many of whom I presume identify as Christians since they live within the Bible-belt, who gathered to pray. Prayer is not an empty act devoid in the pursuit of justice, as it allows us to pause long enough that we may continue trusting in God and hear from God as to how we should respond to the issues of violence, racism, and injustice in our day.

The only response to any form of evil is good and for Christians, what is “good” is known to us in the way of life Jesus teaches us to live and exemplified himself. As we near another major election in America and as our society wrestles with so many challenging issues, we may choose to vote and even protest. However, let us never allow such politics to become a replacement for embodying the good news of Jesus and the kingdom of God. The redemptive mission of God, which has and will triumph over evil, is extended by living in word and deed as faithful witnesses of Jesus. That has always been the case whether Christians have had state political freedom to vote and protest or not.

The way to lose any single battle over evil is not just by doing nothing but also by doing the wrong something. So even if it appears in the temporal sense that evil is winning, do good by practicing the self-sacrificing love and faith of Jesus for the triumph of good! 

A Deafening Silence

October is around the corner and the fall season is almost here. That mean people will be buying Pumpkin Spice Lattes, apple cider from the local market, and planning for Halloween parties, all while children anticipate going out Trick-or-treating with their friends. October also means Baseball playoffs and with the Chicago Cubs having the best record in baseball, I really look forward to the playoffs this year. But with each playoff game, the fans in attendance will be asked to stand during the seventh-inning stretch for the singing of God Bless America. But maybe instead of having a nice patriotic song to declare the blessing of God on the nation, maybe the Lord has another word he wants us to hear.

The land was full of evil and idolatry, violence and corruption was everywhere. There didn’t seem to be any end to the injustice and wrongdoing taking place. All that was left was lament, to cry out to the Lord in complaint as to why he tolerates such wickedness and does not come to save his people.

So that is just what the prophet Habakkuk did. He lamented, pouring out his complaint to the Lord and so the Lord answered. The Lord said that the most dreaded Babylonians, with their strong and violent military, were coming and it would not be pleasant. Not the response Habakkuk was hoping for, so he cried out to the Lord again and again the Lord spoke. This time expressed his anger with a series of rebukes, saying “Woe…” regarding all the ways that people have acted unjustly and engaged in idolatry. But it’s the statement the Lord makes at the end of his response that should pierce the heart.

“The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.”

– Habakkuk 2:20

And then it as if the Lord has just dropped the mic and walked off the stage. The silence is deafening, as it should be. With all of the injustice, idolatry, and corruption, along with the utter hubris that always seems to lurk behind such evil as people complain and accuse others with a pointed finger, it is as if the Lord has had enough. Now the Lord is imploring the people to look at him, to bow before him with humility and recognize that he alone is the Holy God.

That seems to be a message we need to hear in America, whether we are Christians or not. Right now there is evil and corruption all around us. There is a problem with racial injustice as, by way of example, “black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers,” even when they are unarmed and appear to have their hands in the air as in the case of Terrence Crutcher or as in the case of Charles Kinsey, a therapist who was unarmed but still shot by police as he was trying to help an autistic patient. Violence abounds in places like Chicago where as of September 1st of this year there have been 471 deaths and 2,300 shootings, as well as places like Dallas and Baton Rouge where police officers were murdered simply because they serve the public in law enforcement. And with a scandal like that of the Wells Fargo scam, we are reminded that wealth and power allows for corruption to take place seemingly with impunity.

Maybe it’s time for Americans to stop singing God Bless America and instead just be silent before the Lord!

So just for a little clarification, I am not suggesting that America should do away with God Bless America for good but that given all the hatred and violence, maybe it’s time for America to be silent before the Lord for a season.

Can We Listen to the Protest?

For the last couple of weeks we all have seen the news of football players refusing to stand during the playing of America’s National Anthem. Some people have applauded while many others have condemned. This has all taken place amid a larger conversation about race-relations in America as it has become painfully clear over the last several years that racism is still a problem challenging society. How we respond, especially those of us who are white like me, will either further the divide or open a door for reimagined future where racism begins to lose its grip on society.

I’ve never known what it’s like to suffer oppression but I have experienced suffering of another kind. I’m referring to the death of my son Kenny when he was just three days old. Sixteen months later, my younger brother John died unexpectedly too. I was only twenty-nine then and only seven years removed from when I sat beside my father as he laid in bed and took his last breath, succumbing to cancer. These deaths and the suffering they trigger has had a lasting impact on my personal narrative, the story of my life. Although I have learned to live with such grief and pain, it’s still suffering.

One of the realities of such suffering is dealing with those who think they know how I or someone else who has suffered should handle such tragedy when they have never endured such tragedy themselves. I’ve heard people say things like “just got to let it go and move on” when my life seemed to be emotionally paralyzed with grief and it seemed impossible and even undesirable to move on because the only thing I wanted to do is hold my son one more time. Others said  something like “Don’t think like that… God works in all things for the good of…” (cf. Rom 8:28) when I voiced my anger as I questioned why God did not save son.

Those who have endured great suffering whether it be a serious health crisis such as cancer, the death of someone like a child, divorce, etc… understand what I am talking about. For all the suffering endured there is also the frustration of having someone who has not walked in our shoes telling us how we should handle it. And frustrating it is! That’s also why even though I have never suffered social-political oppression, I believe I can speak up for the oppressed on at least one issue: The frustration of having those who have never been oppressed criticize them and school them in a better response.

…it is utter foolishness for us, who are not oppressed, to think that we can define how those who feel oppressed voice their protest.

Right now in America there are many minorities, and particularly Blacks, who feel as if they are being oppressed. Whether the reality matches their perception does not matter, though I will say that I believe there is always some truth to the perception and that seems true in this case as well. The rest of us are not in any position judge the oppressed, especially if we cannot even take the time to be present with them first in order to listen (= listen to understand) a little. But that’s not what happens these days. Instead the voice of protest is quickly dismissed and criticized by plenty of people. Thus, as certain football players have chosen not to stand for the playing of the National Anthem, choosing to kneel in order to raise a voice of protest over the oppression of blacks and other minorities they see taking place in America, others have been critical as reported here and as we have all seen in our social-media feeds. Of course, if we haven’t ever suffered oppression then we have the privilege of so easily dismissing and criticizing those who do protest since we’re not the one’s suffering, but I digress!

We may dislike the way some football players are choose to kneel during the National Anthem as they protest the oppression they see but we are not the ones to judge. In fact, it is utter foolishness for us, who are not oppressed, to think that we can define how those who feel oppressed voice their protest. The best thing we can do is listen as they voice their protest. Any failure to listen and so critically dismiss such protests is itself a form of oppression. God forgive us for such a sin!

So can we listen? Can we talk to someone who is a minority living “one the other side of the tracks” in town and ask them what struggles they have because they are black, because their first language is Spanish, because they come from somewhere in the Middle-East? If we’ll listen to such people, and hear the ways in which they still struggle because they are a minority and because of some of the injustices that still occur in America, we might just learn to have empathy for their suffering. When that happen we might just discover together ways of cultivating a more civil and just society for all people. And if we’re Christians doing this in the name of Jesus, as we should, we help extend the kingdom of heaven so that the will of God takes place here on earth as it does in heaven!

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

~ Micah 6:8

Overcoming Racism: The Pursuit of Reconciliation

Like most others, I am saddened by the violent loss of human life. Whether it is the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile or the deaths of the five police officers, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa, there are now seven different families that are grieving the loss of someone they loved. As a follower of Jesus and a minister of the gospel, I am grieved because I don’t like seeing and hearing of others suffering. I am also  frustrated because I believe the church of Jesus Christ in America should be an example of reconciliation but isn’t. But as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, I believe we must!

On television and social-media, the vitriol and anger is so palpable that it can be cut with a knife. Some want to point fingers, but don’t! Blaming others for flaming the current racial divide only stokes the fire more. The truth is that racism and inequality has always been a problem in America but those who have suffered as a result of such hatred, particularly blacks, are tired and are crying out to those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see. Some seem to think that violence will help but it won’t. It never has and never will. In fact, violence only begets violence which only begets more anger and hatred which only begets more violence which only… you get my point.

But there is an alternative to blaming others and killing one another, an alternative that seeks true peace and reconciliation. As a praxis, peace and reconciliation begin with a conversation that’s possible because Jesus has died on the cross, exposing the darkness and rendering it powerless (cf. Col 2:15). On the cross, Jesus extends true love and forgiveness. In turn, we are free to love each other with enough humility to hear the pain of the other, repent as necessary (whether it’s injustice or just indifference and apathy), forgive each other, learn to speak truthfully with each other and serve with each other for the sake of justice.

What we need is a conversation where we come around the table with enough humility to listen with empathy to others, especially to people of different skin colors. Overcoming racial and social differences requires that we engage others, listening with empathy for the struggles of the other. Love demands that we engage others, listening with empathy to their struggles of being hated and discriminated against. The pursuit of reconciliation demands that we are willing to repent where necessary, forgive one another, and stand with the oppressed in their desire for justice.

The place for such conversations should be our churches and that means becoming intentional about creating and cultivating space for such conversations. Our pursuit of reconciliation is the outworking of the gospel we profess and our currency that gives visible substance to our gospel, so that our proclamation of the gospel is a living tradition rather than dead traditionalism. But for far too long churches have been on the wrong side of the fence either because we were engaged in unjust practices of racism or because our we remained indifferent, pursuing other issues we deemed more important. This has to change! If we believe that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ and not Democrat or Republican politics that offers true peace and reconciliation then it must change and that change must be us. So let’s open space for others of different color at the table, just as Jesus has done for us, that we may pursue reconciliation with them.