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

Naked and Afraid


My younger two children are perfecting the art of bickering, expanding the field of play in limitless ways each day.  Whether or not a car is in fact “tiny”, did the other intend to turn the water off before the second could brush teeth, whether a scratch happened knowingly, whether the radio should remain on this song or be changed, who gets to sit in which seat in a choice of the same three in our back seat, did the “hot potato” game end on one or the other, and on and on and on.  The power struggle, the need to be right, the need to win, the need…

For what could be the thousandth time, I spent an hour and a half yesterday on the sidelines of my oldest daughter’s soccer game at a tournament in Florida.  The stands were filled with frustrated voices, disappointed in the defense, mad at the ref’s call, mad that a child was taken out of the game, then I looked down the sidelines and an actual fight had broken out between parents over the ref’s work.  Was the fight sparked because of inherent racism, as the initial visual appeared, or sparked by grown-ups who have lost all perspective on what is worth losing their dignity (and cool) over in life?

It can feel like disdain, disgruntlement, discontent, disconnect and displeasure are the ruling forces of relationships.   Division and distrust are more guaranteed experiences of each day than unity and affection, pleasure and delight.  Why is this humanity’s default mode?  How do we engage differently without being trampled in its stampede?

This bickering started in the beginning of humanity’s story:

But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.  Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. Gen. 3:4-7

Distrust of God’s goodness, God’s ability, God’s plan, God’s wisdom convinces us that we know better than God, can choose better than God, don’t need God.  Almost immediately, like the promise of the Emperor’s New Clothes, our eyes being opened doesn’t make us as smart as God but rather exposes the reality that we never will be, that we are naked and left vulnerable in all senses.  Our fig leaves don’t cover well, but God made a covering to restore our dignity and remove our shame.

Even so, the pull is there.  Now I’m covered and free of shame, so I can move on without God.  I no longer need Him since he has met my need.  Maybe if we ban together, we can do it well without Him!

So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth. Gen. 11:8-9

If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. Mark 3:24-25

Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.  For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three.  They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. Luke 12:51-53

Eyes opened to realize what we do not know, our vulnerability, our weakness.  Division not as a wizard’s dark magic or a White Witch’s always winter and never Christmas, but as a tangible reminder that, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” Zech. 4:6  The hunger in the desert was to remind His people that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from God.  Deut. 8

And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.   And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. Acts 2:2-6

We inject ourselves with small doses of influenza to protect ourselves from the flu.  God shows us our proclivity toward division, suicidal independence and the impossibility of making it right or good on our own to show us His good, His power, His guaranteed plan and His wisdom that we were tempted to distrust from the beginning.

My own heart is so set to find fault with others, to back away from others, to separate myself from others and to be dismayed by my inability to live otherwise and at peace with all.  My Gospel amnesia persuades me to believe I either can do nothing to change “the way it is” or need to buckle down and lecture/bribe/threaten my children into loving well.  O ye of little faith.  “If my people who are called by name would humble themselves”, this is me, not a rally or an event or a public spectacle, but one heart acknowledging that I can’t but He can.  I need to pray, not just ponder.  I need to seek and trust in His power, not my perpetual pushing.

But what is my hope for change?  “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.”  I suppose seeing the bickering, the division, the distance and the “trouble” as evidence of His word and my need for it.

Loving in the Divide


I am tired of conflict.  I am tired of the small conflict that happens between child siblings and that happens between co-workers and that happens between roommates.  I am tired of the large conflicts that happen in churches, in marriages, between neighbors and in families.  I am tired of the generational conflicts that happen between nations, tribes and cultures.  I am tired of the blame, the wounds that can’t heal, and the blindness of both victimizer and victim to our own contribution to the division.

But more than even the existence of conflict, which is with us until all things are made new, is the question of how to exist in it.  We are compelled to choose a side, but want to be sure it is the winning side.  But choosing a side is rarely choosing people, not even the person on that side, but often more about personal identification instead.  I get lost in the setting and forget the characters.  I feel the feelings of others, their agitation, their sense of being judged, their desire to be approved and yet feeling disapproval, their weariness of being patient, their confusion over the wrong committed, their inability to see as the other person sees and the reality that they may be entering with very different goals even from the beginning.

I want white people globally to care about the world’s history of favoring lighter skinned humans over darker ones, and how this reality may not be apparent to people in light skin but is experienced in big and small ways every single day by the darker skinned folks.  I would like the darker skinned humans, who have born with patience this injustice since the beginning of time, to by grace alone continue to resist the reasonable solution to demonize all lighter skinned participants in this system (which is all of us) because we haven’t collectively figured out how to correct the macro-course yet.  I want highly logical processors to be gracious with highly emotional processors and in return, for those highly emotional processors to assume the best of the logical friend’s perspective.  I want the humans who are deeply focused on moral codes to love better, and the humans who are deeply focused on inclusion to include those moral code focused folks too.

I judge my neighbor, my friends, my family and myself.  I want peace.  I want every incorrectly phrased thought not to be weighed as if it is the final plea before a firing wall. I want to be human in all the error and sloppiness that entails, without the judgment and increasingly too expensive cost of not doing or saying it “correctly”.  I want the freedom to be in process.

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.  There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?  James 4:11-12

Grace.  I need grace.  I need grace to have spoken too soon, to have said too much, to be misunderstood or properly understood and resented.  I need grace to be called a racist and to examine where in fact there is truth to that accusation.  I need grace to be inaccurately counted among the “all those (fill in the blank)” and to endure it as a small taste of what others have lived in for their whole existence.  I need grace to sit in conflict and let it remain unresolved today, tomorrow and maybe until Jesus comes back.  I need to remove myself and my approval rating from the list of prerequisites to love freely and well.  I need to be less concerned with my reputation in a conflict and with my need to emerge unscathed.  Need less, love more, right?  I cannot love well or generously until it isn’t about me at all.  To be liked or disliked, to be approved or judged harshly, or judged mildly for that matter, should all be irrelevant to the way I love others.

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.   Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.   And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.  But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Luke 6:27-36