A few thoughts on Charlottesville, Race, and Church Practices

I did not say much about the horror in Charlottesville over the weekend beyond a few things on Twitter. Many wiser, clearer heads had spoken and were speaking and it made more sense to share their thoughts. After church yesterday, though, I was left with a couple theological meditations on the practices of the church and the issue of race. They are small and incomplete, and yet I offer them such as they are.

The Lord’s Prayer

Jesus left us a prayer and it’s one my church prays every Sunday. We ask God our Father that he hallow his name–set it apart as Holy and unique–among us and in all the world. We expand on this by asking him that his kingdom come, his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. To ask God for his kingdom to come is to pray for many things, but central among them is the gift of justice. To know God as Holy is know God as the just in all his judgments (Rev. 16:5).

What’s more, this prayer is a self-involving prayer. Praying the Lord’s Prayer cultivates in us a desire, a longing, to see the justice of our God done here and now in this world. We make these petitions of God recognizing that if justice is to come in this world, however much is possible before Christ’s final advent in justice, it is only and ultimately by his hand and will.

And yet, God’s hand works in and through us. God involves his children. Working for justice is not opposed to trusting in the Lord for justice. We do not bring the kingdom of God, but we work for it nonetheless, and trust God to give the growth (1 Cor. 3). And this is true of our work to oppose the works of darkness in our hearts and communities, including racism, and in this country, the lasting legacy of white supremacy.

One more point. In the second half of the prayer, we also pray for God’s provision (“our daily bread”), protection (“keep us from the evil One”), and transforming grace (“forgive us as we forgive”). All of these are essential.

We work in God’s strength. What’s more, we need to recognize that we work against opposition. Not primarily the flesh and blood racists we can see, though, but against the principalities and powers which stand behind them, blinding the hearts and minds of those under their thrall (Eph. 6). So we pray. And we remember to forgive as God has forgiven us our own sins. It is in that forgiveness we hope that just as God transformed our stony hearts, he might transform theirs as well as we witness to the Gospel of Jesus.

It is only as the Church depends on God’s provision, protection, and transforming grace that our work for justice can be the kind which demonstrates the Name of our Father.

The Lord’s Supper

We also celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week. As one body we share one loaf and one cup with our one Lord through whom our one Father feeds us in the one Spirit we share. In it we hear the promises of the one Gospel. One Supper flows from one Gospel. This one Gospel is the good news of our one Savior, Jesus Christ, who is the Son become man by taking on our one humanity, putting it to death, and raising it to new life again in his resurrection. And it is this one humanity that is made in the Image of our one God.

It is precisely this oneness that any doctrine of racial supremacy and superiority violates. For that reason, I do not think it wrong to speak of such teachings such as white supremacy, not merely as sin, but as damnable heresy. It violates so many doctrines in the faith and practice of the Church, there is simply no gospel left on the other side of it.

The Supper stands, then, as testimony that now there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, black or white, but all are one in Christ who redeems and restores the original unity of humanity in a higher register. To practice the Lord’s Supper is to tacitly condemn the sin and unrighteousness of racial exaltation or subjugation. A racially-divided Supper is no Supper at all.

And yet the beauty of the Supper is that it is not primarily condemnation. It also stands as a witness to the gospel. It is an invitation out of these divisions into the unity of the body, into the family of God who share the feast of the Father’s forgiveness. Here in the Supper we begin to taste the justice and reconciliation of our God.

Of course, for people to hear the invitation out of sin and into life, it must be articulated as such. Which means sin, including racism, must be named as sin. This will take courage and wisdom. But then, so do most of the Christian life and ministry. Our God is faithful, though. He will direct the path of those who call on him and strengthen the voices of those who cry to him for aid. His Kingdom shall come, his Will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. For all his children.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Tweeting Yourself Into An Identity

Embed from Getty Images

I was struck by an unoriginal thought about Twitter today. It holds for most other forms of social media as well, I suppose. It’s simply this: Twitter is not simply a medium for the self-expression of our given or chosen identity, but for the formative construction of our identity. And not always in a conscious way.

Some of us consciously go onto social media looking to project a particular version of ourselves which is more idealized than real. But Twitter easily turns into this subconscious feedback loop.

First you start tweeting things. Various things. Links, thoughts, jokes, aphorisms, political opinions, insults, or whatever occurs to you. But then, some of those get more responses than others. They get the most favorites or retweets.

Most of us like getting favorites or retweets. So we notice what type of content gets that. Is it the funny jokes? The angry political thoughts? The prophetic word about the Church? The earnest Jesus-aphorisms? The encouraging nuggets of wisdom?

Whatever it is, you begin to think more and more along that groove, posting more in that vein, and getting more positive feedback. So you start adopting that role more and more: inane humorist, earnest preacher-man, prophet, purveyor of wisdom, screen-shot guy, emotive relater, political pundit.

Pretty soon, your “most retweeted self” becomes a stronger feature of your real-world self as you inhabit that identity more and more. It might have always been part of your personality make-up, or skill-set, but it increases in dominance as it is positively reinforced online.

In any case, for some, the positive retweets/likes become a confirmation of my need to be “who I really am”, which is this most-retweeted self. And so you begin living into this more consciously and it’s now a reinforcing cycle.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes people find their voice online. Others develop a skill-set that plays out positively in their practical career. For myself, I actually got a bit pithier and punchier in my preaching for a while, when I was thinking about how to make my points more tweetable, like proverbs. It’s not all negative.

That said, a friend pointed out online that Twitter tends to reward either generic, positivity or anger. Maybe you have had different experiences, but there’s something to that.

This isn’t awful, but it can have all sorts of negative effects unless we’re careful. Some of us may be influenced to timidity and quietude when we ought to speak up (Eph. 6:19). Others of us maybe tempted to speak in anger, when Proverbs might urge a soft answer (Prov. 15:1). And in either case, it’s forming our hearts.

I bring this up for those of us who dwell online simply to consider the way our tweeting and updating may be forming us for good or ill. In that vein, here are a few questions to consider.

Is this who I really want to be?” I mean, honestly, do I want to be a spouter of inanities? A purveyor of proverbs? An encourager? A prophet? A counselor? A political pundit? A cultural observer? Or even more, “Is this all I want to be?” Am I reducing myself to this role?  Or, “Is who I am becoming online impinging on who I am becoming in real life in positive or negative ways?”

Pastors probably need to think about this more than they do. Some are too scared to speak when then ought. But others should really consider the way their online activity is feeding back into their congregational care.

“Who is giving me this affirmation?” The internet is such that you can find all sorts of people to affirm your thoughts if you’re sufficiently skilled at packaging them, or adopting popular modes of speech. Popularity does not ensure health.

Is your speech receiving affirmation from the people whose judgment you trusted before you went online? Am I becoming someone my loved ones recognize? Am I becoming someone who the wisest people who love me most and want the best for me would encourage me to be?

I suppose I’ll just close with a Jesus-juke and say, “Remember, the only RT that matters most, is the RT we get in our identity in Christ.”  Or, more Biblically, take care not to love “the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:43).

Soli Deo Gloria

Work Unto the Lord, Not Unto the Advocate

elijah-in-the-desertAdvocating for justice is a difficult business at the best of times. This is not only because we are fallen sinners, but because we are finite and the world is a complex place. Moral discernment takes hard-won wisdom, passion, and a great deal of humility. Acting on it takes even greater courage and care. Few places seem require this more than the painful struggles around racial reconciliation and justice, both in the broader culture as well as within the walls of the Church.

Unfortunately, it seems particularly easy for discouragement to set in at just this point.

I do not consider myself an expert in these matters, though I have written on them occasionally. Still, I wanted to briefly speak to one particular sort discouragement: that of the frustrated ally. I have noticed among some of my white friends (especially Evangelicals) who care and speak out on issues of racial injustice and bias (often in the face of opposition), a disappointment and weariness that sets in when it seems that their efforts go unrecognized.

This discouragement sets in especially when some POC (people of color) advocates speak as if there are no white allies trying to stand alongside them. Or as if the efforts of certain allies still aren’t good enough—or indeed shouldn’t be seen as true efforts at all.

At that point, for some the question can become, “Why even bother?” And I get that. I’m not white (Arab and Hispanic), so I don’t typically struggle with white-guilt about these sorts of things. But I can imagine a bit of the frustration, especially if you felt you’d sacrificed and were doing your level-best from the heart.

To that frustration I would speak a few quick points and one major encouragement that might be summed up as, “Work unto the Lord, not unto the advocate.”

First, if you’re aiming your efforts in part to please the loudest voices for justice out on social media you’re setting yourself up for frustration. Prophetic voices are not often looking to hand out praises to those who are doing work that is the basic responsibility of Christians anyways. Also, the prophetic mindset is often more keenly attuned to what is wrong, what is still broken and needs to be alleviated, than applauding what is going right with some. Third, they are humans as well, who cannot see all and speak to all things. Finally, you should consider that they might not even be talking about you.

Second, I’ll be very Calvinistic and say that, as sinners, we often tend to evaluate our efforts more highly than we ought to anyways. I know I do that myself. In which case, there is likely more to forgive in our best works for reconciliation than we’d like to admit in the first place. We need to not rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn from these voices and to grow in our work unto the Lord, by letting our first instinct be that of self-vindication. They are not perfect, and they may be missing some of the good in your work, but the Lord can use them to sharpen us nonetheless.

Third, following this, we need to remember that all of our work is done unto the Lord anyways.  As Jesus puts it in his brief parable, at the end of all of his hard work, all any faithful servant can really say is, “‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10). God does not owe us for our hard work for justice. We are to work, sweat, struggle, cry, pray, and go to bed only to wake up and go through the same cycle over again, simply because it is the proper obedience due to our Lord who wills justice.

Fourth, and this is probably the most important point, it is to the Lord that we work. And this is the forgiving, saving Lord who is our Righteousness. It is unto the gracious One whose eyes behold heaven and earth, who judges the living and the dead that we turn our efforts. In which case, we know that even if others do not see our efforts for what they are, he does. And on the right day, he will vindicate them and reward them.

What’s more, even our most impure efforts he will forgive and accept, for (as Lewis says) he is a gracious Father who is never satisfied, but quite easily pleased by the stumbling first steps of his children. Indeed, Jesus says there is a special blessing from the Father for those good works done without any public recognition (Matt. 6:4). This is a special encouragement to work from a pure heart unto the Lord alone.

That said, we should recall we have already been vindicated in Christ. In which case, our efforts for justice in the world are no longer part of our project of self-justification. They are carried out in the power of the Spirit because we have been united by faith to the Just One, Jesus Christ. And he is the one who is at work in us, giving us the energy to do what is right whether or not the voices whose approval we seek give it or not. We love them and we serve them, but we serve them because we work unto the Lord.

Take heart, then. “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick Thoughts on Comparison, and the Angst of Growing Up Slowly

kierkegaard2_360x450

Kierkegaard is not mentioned at all, but “angst”, so obvious photo, right?

I have always struggled with impatience and no slight bit of angst connected with it.

After getting the call to ministry in college, there were a couple of popular pastors I used to podcast religiously each week. Alongside my own pastor, these guys had kind of nailed the dream for me.

They had vibrant churches that ministered the gospel to non-believers. They were preaching to thousands. They were writing popular books. On the whole, if I could have picked my path, they seemed to have carved it out pretty well.

The fact that I was still in college, hadn’t been to seminary, and had virtually no experience or disciplined talent for preaching or teaching, made that path to the promised land seem endless. Not preaching now made it like I would never preach then. Even worse, knowing I couldn’t preach now, even if given the chance, added insult to injury.

Ten years later, for different reasons and in different ways, both have tanked as ministers and teachers. Which is to say the models or paths we choose for ourselves at twenty may not be the ones we actually need.

One of the most difficult lessons we learn growing up is that we can’t actually be our heroes. Indeed, often our heroes couldn’t really be our heroes either.

I was reminded of all this recently as I sat reading a book by one of my favorite authors—another “hero” who (thankfully) has traveled a very different trajectory. As I sat there reading, delighting in the work, I was filled once again with that same impatience, that frustration and angst that comes with knowing I simply could not pull this off right now.

Not in my finest moments could I write with the wisdom, the maturity, style, and assurance of someone twice my age. I know this. And if I stop and think for more than twenty seconds, I understand that my impatience is foolish.

The problem is that I need the patience of a sixty-year-old to cope with being thirty.

Of course, it is at times like these that I’m grateful I have an advisor who happens to possess that sort of patience and wisdom. We were chatting about all of this and he gently called my attention to a number of spiritual realities I wasn’t properly attending: the slowness of spiritual growth, God’s way of wisdom, grace—the big stuff.

I suppose part of what makes all of this even worse, though, is the constant comparison game that we’re all tempted to play. In grad school it looks like sizing up your classmates’ CVs (articles published, lectures given, etc). In blogging, it’s publications, book deals, and so forth.

It’s damnably easy to begin looking around, finding all the accomplished people you know, heaping them up on one side of the scale, and then finding yourself wanting in comparison. Just as others are likely doing when they look at you.

One chap pointed out online that the one-talent servant isn’t supposed to be producing what the five-talent servant should.

In a different context, Paul tells the church in Rome that believers shouldn’t be too concerned about thinking too highly of themselves. God has given all different gifts and so they should learn to use them as best they can for the whole body (Romans 12:6).

At the end of John 21, Jesus tells Peter how he’s going to die. Peter looks over at John and says, “But what about that guy?”

Jesus responds, “If I will that he stays until I return, what is it to you? You follow me!”

Even though you might be the five-talent servant compared to the next person over, I think quite a bit of the painful part of growing up is learning to be a faithful, one-talent servant who patiently follows Jesus at the particular pace he has appointed.

It is not my pace, but, then again, I have learned enough over the years to know that is not a bad thing.

In the end, the Teacher has seen the heart of it: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Eccl 3:11)

Soli Deo Gloria

Learning to Walk Down the Aisle With Christ

wedding rehearsal.pngThis last week, I had a piece published in The Local Church (a recent sub-branch of Christianity Today). It’s about the Lord’s Supper. I have to say that I loved writing this piece. Kind of a different one for me. This is one of my favorite chunks:

Learning to Walk Down the Aisle

The night before my wedding, I learned that my natural gait isn’t “wedding processional speed.” Over the years, I have developed my own ways of walking. Typically I set a brisk pace and dodge and weave in and out of crowds.

This, apparently, is not the way you walk up the aisle with your bride.

The same holds true about the way you walk forward to receive the bread and the wine. There is a rhythm to feasting with the body. You have to remember, week by week, that you can only walk as quickly as the server is handing out the elements—or as slow your sister in front of you, whether young or old, can make it.

Receiving the bread and wine reminds you that if you’re always used to walking at your own pace, insisting on getting there in your own time and in your own way, you’ll ruin the rhythms of grace.

The Lord’s Supper trains us to step in such a way as to be receptive to the life he desires to give us. It’s one of the ways that God teaches us to “not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). God’s gifts come to us as he deems it fit to give them—at his own pace, in his own time. We learn this by participating in the Lord’s Supper.

You can read the rest of the article as well as a number of other excellent pieces on the theme of “Feast” by clicking here.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

5 Wrong Ways to Talk About Sin (TGC)

sinChristianity is inextricably bound up with the notion of sin. The Bible tells the story of the triune God’s rescue mission to redeem rebels out of their sin and guilt, which alienates them from his shared life of light and love. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the central message of how the Son came in the power of the Spirit to conquer sin and death through his own life, death, and resurrection. Without seriously considering the weight of sin, as Anselm so famously urged us to do, we can’t possibly understand the glory, goodness, and mercy of God’s liberation. Neither can we respond to it appropriately with repentance, faith, and worship. This is why Christians have historically spent so much time talking about sin.

If you’ve been around church long enough, though, you know there are plenty of ways to “talk about sin” that fall short of considering its full weight. I can think of at least five.

You can read the rest of the article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mayors and Prophets: Both Servants of the Lord in Tricky Times

kingsAhab’s reign in the Kingdom of Israel was one of the most godless in her whole history. And that’s saying something. Queen Jezebel has instituted worship of the Baals and ordered all the prophets of Yahweh slaughtered. The godlessness is so rampant that Yahweh has the prophet Elijah proclaim a drought and a famine in the land of Israel, in response. If Jezebel and Ahab want the word of Yahweh to dry up in the land, they will suffer the consequences.

What does it look like to serve Yahweh faithfully in this context? In the first half of 1 Kings chapter 18, right before Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, we’re given a portrait of two quite distinct servants of Yahweh: Obadiah, the household manager in Ahab’s court, and Elijah, the iconoclastic prophet.

In his absurdly insightful theological commentary, Peter Leithart sheds some light on the distinct roles they play in the Yahweh’s retinue:

As “mayor of the palace” Obadiah holds a high position in Israel, with responsibility for Ahab’s palace, estates, and livestock. Both Elijah and Obadiah (whose name means “servant of Yah”) are faithful servants of Yahweh, the God of Israel, but radically differ in their position and mode of service. Elijah confronts Ahab from outside the court, while Obadiah works for the preservation of the prophets–and hence the preservation of the word of Yahweh–from within Ahab’s court, subverting the official policies of the court even while acting as chief steward. Not every faithful believer is called to be an Elijah. Many are called to the tricky work of remaining faithful in a faithless context, to the business of serving Elijah and Yahweh as “master” (18:7) and serving Ahab as “master” (18:8) Obadiah’s position is not merely tricky; it is dangerous. A false shepherd, Ahab tolerates Jezebel “cutting off”…prophets (18:4), but is reluctant to “cut off” any of his cattle…(18:5). Jezebel the Baal worshiper is willing to tolerate golden calves and other forms of idolatrous worship, but she cannot tolerate the intolerance of Yahweh worshipers.

1 & 2 Kings, 133-134

Elijah is obviously the hero of the whole narrative and one of the central figures in both 1 & Kings. Elijah has the word of Yahweh come to him personally. Elijah courageously calls out Ahab, the king of Israel in the name of the true God. Elijah faces off with the prophets on the mountain, calling down fire from Yahweh in the heavens. Elijah is a model of prophetic faithfulness, the willingness to stand outside the compromising systems of empire and power, depending solely on the Yahweh’s protection and preservation to carry out his task.

And yet, there stands Obadiah–the skittish, possibly compromised, bureaucrat. Because, think about it–wouldn’t many of us on the purist end (a rather exaggerated Neo-Anabaptist, possibly), be tempted to consider him compromised? Isn’t he working for a godless king in a regime that seems actively hostile the will of Yahweh? Aren’t followers of Yahweh to remain pure and set apart from evil-doers and the systems of power that they run? To avoid colluding with Empire? Doesn’t running Ahab’s household count?

Well, according to the political theology of 1 & 2 Kings, it’s only because of Obadiah’s willingness to stay within the regime that he was able to successfully resist it and save some of Yahweh’s prophets, ensuring that when Elijah’s showdown happens and the prophets of Baal are overthrown, there’s someone around to preach God’s Word. Obadiah is able to exercise wisdom and rebel from within, only because he stays within.

In times of trial like those facing God’s people in the times of Ahab, the danger is the Elijahs and Obadiahs God has called to serve him might not recognize each other’s distinct calls. Elijah might be tempted to scorn the cowardice and compromise of Obadiah’s wisdom in difficult places. Obadiah, meanwhile, might be tempted to bemoan and begrudge the “trouble” brought on by the rash words and confrontational stance of Elijah, who seems to paint everything in black and white with no shades of grey. And yet that would be a mistake, for God’s wisdom can employ both prophet and bureaucrat to preserve and proclaim his Word, each according to the gifts and privileges that God had given them. In a sense, we need Paul’s theology of the body and the gifts (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12). applied outward into the worldly vocations that the citizens of the Kingdom must engage in.

Texts like this are obviously relevant in the face of a culture that is increasingly intolerant of the “intolerance” or exclusivity of Christian values and truth claims. Don’t worry, I’m not breaking out the “p”-word and claiming that Christians will have to face firing squads soon, or something like that. All the same, let’s not be naive in the other direction. If there are Chicken Littles running around proclaiming the imminent descent of the heavens, there are also ostriches with their heads in the sand. Or worse, those who refuse to see any difficulties ahead because, well, you know, Jezebel “has a point.” Trouble will come and, indeed, has always come for the people of God.

For that reason, we need deep, biblical wisdom like that of the book of 1 & 2 Kings, read with an eye to the horizon. As Paul says, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). These things happened back then and there, but since the patterns of the world’s sin repeat in history, these texts are still used by the Spirit of God “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Soli Deo Gloria