White Guilt

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,the Lord of glory.  For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?  Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?  But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.  But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.  For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. James 2:1-10

I am partial to what is most familiar to me, to what is most “natural” to me, to what I have been conditioned to consider “best.”  But, like fashion choices, what I am certain is very attractive is horrifying ten years after my moment of great pride, and plain disgusting twenty years later.  Even with this knowledge of perspective, I persist in believing that from where I stand, my judgment of what is superior is failsafe.

God wasn’t making up stuff when He told us not to judge or show favoritism because He knows we can’t recognize value with our spiritually blind eyes.  Incomplete sanctification leaves us in the “not yet” of cognitive infallibility.  One of the most pernicious handicaps is the human’s fierce commitment to innocence when confronted with our guilt.

We who have self-consciously believed the Story of Scripture, that humanity who was created to image the perfections of God instead became captivated by worship and service to our own image, should not be shocked by indictments of our resulting failure to be to the world the breath of life we were intended to be.  Not that its easy to see our offenses or worse, to have them pointed out like the discovery of a kick me sign on our back we didn’t know was there, but we at least theoretically welcome the opportunity to have them removed.

Why then, I wonder, if we are willing to face and name with specificity our sins, in faith that they are covered and taken by Jesus in exchange for his righteousness, (our anger issues, our addiction to work or porn or food or intoxicating substances, our selfishness and laziness, our gossip and slander, our aversion to authority and so many other ways in which we place our own power and comfort and image over the health and well being of others), do the white brothers and sisters have such an aggressive resistance to naming how our whiteness has perpetuated a global favoritism that has excluded all of those with pigments that disqualify them from privileges we never earned?  Why is this particular effect of the fall one we are collectively so unwilling to acknowledge when we claim to understand that sin in it all its forms preceded us in Adam and is beyond our ability to correct?  This one indictment, that we enjoy a sense of safety, prosperity, cultural dominance and political power that has been born from a division of classes of people that God never acknowledged, is one that on the whole we who identify as white defensively argue our innocence. And my innocence does nothing to make my black friends feel safe around police or free to wear a hoodie while walking through an affluent neighborhood, or comforted when watched more closely than the white customers in a store.

So dear reader, if you are willing, can we examine the issue of favoritism as a starting place?  How about with speech…”The King’s English” is the corrective to the American black vernacular.  We show favoritism to this manner of communication and call it “correct” and those who use it “articulate”, though we find Australian or Jamaican English charming.  We show favoritism to straight hair over “kinky curly”, one style of music is deemed “sophisticated” while hip hop as genre, regardless of lyrical content, is deemed “crass.”  The white normative is so unquestioned that we feel it necessary to identify our “black” friend/classmate/teammate but do not identify another as our “white” friend/classmate/teammate.  Volume of voice and use of space in a room, whether that is in conversation or in worship, are judged favorably according to cultural norms though there is no implicit value in the spectrum.  Or how about the assumption that white favorites are probably everybody’s favorites…like Bruce Springsteen or Taylor Swift.  Until we look around and see the crowd, it may never occur to us that its no longer segregation keeping the fans looking so homogenous…but maybe, like the earlier discussion of perspective, everyone isn’t as impressed with “us” as we are.

This systemic oppression and favoritism is not something we can just fix nor is it something, if we are willing to see, that we can engage in and be “righteous” independent of Jesus.  Like every other aspect of being broken in a broken world, only Jesus can reverse the damage done and regenerate the life has been lost.  But also like our many forms of addiction, the first step which goes a very long way, is naming the truth about our problem.  We can’t then run off and correct centuries of man made hierarchies and the deeply embedded effects of those beliefs in all areas of society, but like all other areas of sin, we can look more fervently to Jesus to change us and enable us to love others as He has loved us.

Resisting the Death of Self

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Gal. 2:20

This verse from Galatians was one of the first I remember memorizing in high school, at a Young Life camp, and it seemed like the most profound directives for my life and identity.  My life is no longer about me serving me, but about my identity hidden in Jesus.  Recently reading Tim Keller’s small book about the gift of self forgetfulness, I realized how inflated my ego is, and how the root of much of my anxiety, sadness and frustration is my enslavement to my self-importance.  It occurred to me that all the many ways my ego is attacked and my over-inflated sense of importance is punctured, might just be the intentional means God is using to “kill” me.

I used to love John Baptist’s identifying words to the Pharisees, who were interrogating him and his ministry.  He kept responding with “I am not” as a way of making it clear that God was God and he was not God.  This was the clear call for the Christian, to make it clear to oneself and others that there is a God, He is GOOD, and I am not that God.  I guess the problem is that I don’t really trust that.

The fierce commitment to my self-importance is based upon a deeper belief that I am more important than others and should be honored above others, respected and appreciated above others, looked up to by others.  Its quite the opposite of dying to self but is instead self-preservation and glorification.  It doesn’t trust God’s call that we die to live.  Therefore, my restlessness, anxiety, constantly trying to figure out the plan for my life, how to be happy, how to find my perfect fit, is actually my refusing to die, resisting the death of self, not trusting the life promised on the other side.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  John 12:24

The end goal isn’t some horror movie or Kool Aid drinking cult, but instead the end goal is flourishing life that surely isn’t found in self-preservation or self-serving, ego driven glory seeking. But my anxiety about trusting God to be God rather than myself is real.

When I had knee surgery back in 9th grade, I was truly mortified about being undressed under that sheet heading into surgery.  As the anesthesia was pumping through my body, I wouldn’t succumb to its sweet sleep until the nurses assured me the sheet would stay over me during the surgery.  I was so worried about my pride that the work needed on my knee was not my priority.  Fighting the sleep was nauseating and uncomfortable, much like my current fight to preseve my sense of self-importance rather than trusting that God’s purposes are far grander than my own.

Joseph sat in prison for years, certainly not feeling all that special or beloved by God.  But he couldn’t have known that his death of self (his own father convinced he was really dead) would save the nation of Israel and many others.  It comes down to trusting God, and I apparently don’t.  I need to succumb to the sleep of self-glory, trusting His glory will be far better than whatever I am trying to grab for myself.

Racial Injustice and the Gospel

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.  I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 10:10-11

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.   John 13:34-35

Over a decade ago, working at a large church in Atlanta, a colleague and I were told we couldn’t address racial reconciliation issues because we were to preach Christ alone.  As a reformed theologian, I appreciate “Christ alone” when it comes to salvation, justification, and sanctification. It is by His work alone, and our faith that He has completed that work with nothing that we can add to make it more complete, that we are restored to peace with Him and to one another.   But as my current pastor says, that Grace frees us from worry, not from work.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.  If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.  1 John 3:16-18

We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.

However I feel about the existence of racial inequities in 2017, there are enough voices of people of color saying that is what they are experiencing that not to listen, not to seek to understand, not to read the stories and thinkers of color, is a deliberate choice not to lay down my life for my brothers and sisters of color.  If I react and make it about me, with an irritation that a burden has been placed on me that I didn’t invite and defensiveness that I am innocent, I am ultimately more concerned with self-preservation than laying down my life.

The truth is, in America and almost every country in the world, people with white skin are treated as superior to people with dark skin.  In Uganda, a country whose citizens were originally 100% dark skinned and today continue to be predominantly so, in every clothing shop we passed, we only saw white mannequins, because white mannequins sell more clothes.  The amount of money spent and long term damage caused in the process of straightening naturally tightly curled or kinky hair is often done in response to a standard of beauty that diminishes one ethnicity for the escalation of another.  These are daily experiences that don’t even touch upon the criminalization and therefore dehumanization of dark skinned people, the sense that they are inherently more likely to be dangerous or licentious.

And who has perpetuated these biases and who has the opportunity to change the narrative?

The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted…Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Matthew 23:11-12, 23-24

This isn’t a pet cause, something that some people are into but all don’t need to be.  This is what God’s people are called to work for…dying to self so that others may live, giving up our comfort so others may find relief, being quiet a moment so others can speak, sitting down so others can stand up.  God’s body is equal parts of all His people, created in His image, to image Him.  That is not how the world has distributed dignity, honor, resources, power or respect, but it is the way God calls His people to image Him.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Rev. 7:9-10

This is the very heart of Christ alone.

The Wisdom of the Poets

There is a lot I don’t understand about the affection for theme parks which compels people not just to go one day but to return day after day, season after season.  I can feel the initial excitement, the promises of an adult playground, of the freedom of zero gravity, the sensation of flight, and the thrill of speed.  Magical promises are easier to buy when wrapped in favorite storybook scenes straight out of Hollywood sets.  But to stand in a line for over an hour, sometimes two, for a ride that is over in two minutes, at least begs the question, “was it worth it?”  The speed of life can feel like a long wait for a fast roller coaster, where suddenly the lap bar is raised and you are climbing out of your little bench seat onto the opposite platform to follow the arrows to the exit.  At that point, there is just a stunned confusion at the end’s arrival.

So teach us to number our days
    that we may get a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12

Sitting with my uncles and their wives, hearing their stories from their childhood home, and then a newly written poem about the weekend’s purpose, guided by Willie Nelson’s September Song, was like finally getting to the front of the line for the exhilarating, yet too short, ride.  But of course the most nostalgic moments have nothing to do with speed but are more like a slow, beautiful montage set to heart rending music.  He wrote of the shortening days, the dwindling of time too short now for “the waiting game.”  And I wept.

We talked of writing, and of our genuine and broad fears of what might transpire under our country’s new leadership, of college memories, and new restaurants.  We talked about the white supremacy so deeply engrained in all the systems from which we have benefitted, and wondered how we might reconcile the treasured memories of our past while condemning the corrupt system by which they were born.  And we talked more of writing, of poetry, of life well lived, and the shortening of days.  I left with a full heart and found the fog burned from my vision.

If the ride is too short, and the day suddenly over, what should those waiting hours actually hold?  Should we just move through those snaking lines staring at whatever trivia or “news” is broadcast on the overhanging tv monitors, stare glassy eyed at our phones, complain about the line and the smells and our aching feet?

But now bring me a musician.” And when the musician played, the hand of the Lord came upon him. 2 Kings 3:15

My mouth shall speak wisdom;
    the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb;
    I will solve my riddle to the music of the lyre. Psalm 49:3-4

More music and poetry.  More words of Life from the One who is called Wisdom.  Life is too short to assume we have time for wasting.

The Humanizing Effect of Grace or What We Call Trash, He Makes Treasure

I am amazed at how willing I am to categorize people and then to dehumanize them as a result.  What happens in my heart is much like the despicable national regimes who have justified genocide after “sorting” the life worthy people from ones deemed sub-human, incomplete, unsatisfactory.  It of course makes my own value tenuous as well, as I fear being identified by a more sinister sorting hat as either trash or treasure.

Initially flawed in its presupposition, the standard of “normal” or “health” as both a tangible and fixed reality, places all variance into a “reject” pile, itself  an iron clad identity.  But this is not the biblical picture of humanity in it all of its complexity and fluid states of emotional being.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace. Eccles. 3:1-8

We are not meant to be “fine” all the time.  We were made emotional creatures, who can feel rage and exuberant joy, who can feel life sucking sadness and wide eyed peace.  Yet even with these categories, I continue to want them to be tidy, defined and orderly.  Be sad, sure, but for a quick minute and not in a way that makes others feel uncomfortable.  Be angry, ok, but don’t say anything irrational or that isn’t universally agreed upon.  Just be angry in a happy, agreeable way, that doesn’t require me to think about what it must be like to be you.  Mostly, spend 98% of the time in agreeable, positive emotions because the negative ones are imposing, unpleasant and like Joy in Inside Out initially believed, destructive.

God is a creator of life, restorer of life, sustainer of life.  Therefore, we assume, His people should also be builders not wreckers, givers not takers, lovers not haters.  And this is partially true.  But only partially.  Sunshine is required for life to grow and flourish, but so is rain.  Any good gardener knows that cutting or pruning plants is what helps them to grow in a healthy and full manner.

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  Romans 5:3-5

Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? Luke 24:26

Suffering is the only way by which muscles are built, strength is attained, endurance is produced, significant things are accomplished.  The ugly emotions are an important part of both our humanity and our process of becoming more like Jesus than we were yesterday.

So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Matt. 7:17-19

But what about the nastiness of what is exposed in us?  This is the part where I struggle.  Our negative emotions drive out our mouths words of judgment and pride, words that reveal our heart’s deep commitment to self above all others, words that can define us as mean, self-delusional, liars, and gossips.  This behavior makes me seem unsafe, unreliable, untrustworthy, un-Good.  It places me in the camp of BAD.  People who are “bad” are justifiably disqualified from participation, from reward, from respect, and from affection.  They are dangerous, even if just emotionally so, but often professionally and relationally too.  And once categorized, it is nearly impossible to be placed unconditionally back in the “good” category, the trustworthy, the desirable.  This is why we fear labels related to mental illness, because they feel like one way tickets to elimination of hope and guiltless joy.  The bad trees are thrown into the fire.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:4-5

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree,  do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Romans 11:17-18

And so here is the Good News.  No one is good, not even one.  Any good fruit, kind words, edifying attitudes, selfless acts are produced by the only One who could ever be called Good.  And even when it is not my natural state, it is His and He has made me His.  I therefore should not be so quick to throw others into the fire or forget that I too have been spared from this well deserved discard.  Oh that the shame of what is true about my rotten fruit would be covered and smothered by what is truer about His delicious, nourishing tree into which I have been grafted.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,  even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—  and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,  so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  Eph. 2:4-7