Reflections on MLK Day

MLK Memorial. Photo by Suzy Brooks on Unsplash

It has become a new ritual of mine to read the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” every year around the holiday named in his honor. I was first introduced to the letter in book form when I was a student at Whitworth University (then Whitworth College). I don’t remember exactly how it affected me then, but it must have had some impact, because years later I have read it a dozen times or more. (You can read it for free using the link above, or even listen to a reading of it by Rev. King himself).

The impact this letter has on me now is much different than when I was younger. For one thing, I can now be categorized as a “white moderate pastor” – and this is exactly those to whom the letter is addressed. And 2021 brings even more urgency to the Rev. King’s words as we wrestle with the lack of progress towards racial equity and justice in our nation. As always, I am challenged, encouraged, and amazed the powerful words of the letter. But today, I wanted to simply reflect on two sections that grabbed me the most.

“If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning of the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, p. 17

An “irrelevant social club!” I admit that I chuckled a bit when I read that. Not because I find the idea humorous, but because I have heard the church described this way in calls for reform by many leaders of the missional church movement. But I also now see, some 52 years later, that he was right. The American church has lost its “authentic ring” for much of the population. Church declines can be measured in the millions. The view of many young people toward the church can be described as “outright disgust.” And while there may be many reasons for this, I happen to think that the #1 reason is that the church has, in many cases, lost the sacrificial spirit of the early church – the sacrificial spirit of Jesus Christ.

Of course, it is easy to critique, much harder to take ownership. It is powerful to be reminded that as disappointed as Rev. King was with the state of the Church, he refused to give up hope. As a church leader, that is what I must do. I must take ownership and look for ways to guide myself and my congregation back to that sacrificial spirit. And that should at least look like the willingness to have difficult conversations about race, difficult conversations about inequity and injustice, and taking time to listen to the voices of our brothers and sisters of color. (If this is something that you or your church are interested in I highly recommend beginning with Jamar Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise or the video of the same name on Amazon Prime Video).

Here is another section of the letter that really grabbed me today:

“Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structures of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, p. 16

I have to admit that I do not understand the reluctance of many of my white Christian brothers and sisters to enter into conversations about race and injustice. My spiritual journey has been one of constant rebuke, correction, repentance, and growth. I’m never surprised to discover hidden sin in my life. I was not pleased to see racism in myself, but as a sinner in need of grace, I was eager have the Holy Spirit shine light on the darkness of my soul and move me towards sanctification. It is a process, and I own that it may not be complete in this life. But I want to move closer to the heart of Christ, even if it is painful to do so at times.

But the pull of the status quo is powerful when you are the one that benefits from it. And just as it was in the day that Rev. King penned the letter in the cell in Birmingham, there are growing calls within the white church today to “focus on the things of the Spirit” and “keep politics out of the Church.” I hear them myself, and I know that other church leaders hear them as well. But the call to follow our Lord comes first, the call to sacrifice and service remains foremost.

I deeply admire Rev. King and love listening to or reading his sermons and other works. I read the sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct” today. It seemed so timely and appropriate and I highly recommend it. But more than that it reminded me of my call to follow Christ faithfully in this moment we call 2021. O Lord, hear my prayer, and give me wisdom and courage!

Another Take

One of my college professors, Jerry Sittser, has a new blog post on the same topic that I wrote about last week. Jerry is an expert in Christian history and his take on current events is well worth the read. Besides, he just has a much nicer way of saying things! Go check it out at jerrysittser.com. Here is an excerpt:

The attempt to make America a “Christian Nation” has birthed the rise of Christian Nationalism, which elevates nation above Kingdom, party above church, leader above Lord.  It also privileges the few over the many: rich over poor, white over black, men over women.  It leads to apocalyptic thinking and tends to turn all national problems into a fight between good and evil, light and darkness, which makes it almost impossible to negotiate compromise and to exercise any degree of self-criticism.  It is too much “all or nothing.”

— Dr. Jerry Sittser

Dr. Jerry Sittser

A False Gospel

This last week I silently wept as news reports rolled in, detailing the storming of the US Capitol Building by pro-Trump extremists during a joint session of Congress actively deliberating to certify the electoral college votes naming Joe Biden the next President of the United States. I love my country. I take pride in many of our democratic principles and values. I am heartbroken, ashamed, and even angry at the violence that took place. I never imagined that I would see this day. And most disturbing of all, some of those storming the Capitol carried the name of Jesus on their signs and clothing, and carried with them the false rallying cry that this act was “God’s will.”

But it was not God’s will! That is, not the will of the God that Christians know and worship. It is, however, the will of a very disturbed President clinging desperately to power. A man who has twisted, contorted, and mangled the truth to the point that many of those who support him, even some of my brothers and sisters in Christ, live in a web of tangled lies (John 8:42-47). This deception runs so deep that some of them are even able to justify violence, insurrection, hatred, and political power at all costs. This is NOT the way of Christ! In fact, this is anti-Christ! It is for this reason that I am writing this now. It may be that there is someone out there who needs to hear me say this.

There have been many articles in the past year that have looked at the QAnon conspiracy theories and point to the emergence of a new religion complete with a new savior (Trump). But much of what we are seeing now has been brewing long before Donald Trump became president. The roots, I believe, are deeply embedded in a false gospel. This false gospel claims that the United States of America is God’s chosen nation, and Americans (specifically white Christian Americans) are God’s chosen people. Ignoring the words of Jesus to love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you (Matthew 5:44), this false gospel justifies violence and war against any who would threaten it.  Carefully picking around passages of scripture that say to care for the marginalized, immigrant, and poor, this false gospel instead calls for massive sums of money for more weapons, military, police, and prisons. This false gospel claims that the God’s will is supported by a political party, and your allegiance to voting Republican is the sole evidence of your standing before God. 

This false gospel claims that the United States of America is God’s chosen nation, and Americans (specifically white Christian Americans) are God’s chosen people.

Is it any wonder that now there has arisen someone like Donald Trump? He has none of the characteristics of a godly person according to the Bible, showing himself to be the polar opposite of every fruit of the Holy Spirit and, in fact, having many of the marks of the so-called “flesh” (Galatians 5:13-26). And yet, according to current data, roughly 81% of so-called “evangelical Christians” voted for Trump in 2020. Why? Because he stands for the things that really matter to those who have bought into the false gospel: “America first,” wealth, power, the Republican party as the party of Jesus, and white privilege. And yes, I know that this oversimplifies why many Christians claim that have voted for him (e.g. abortion and the Supreme Court), but I would argue that there is much evidence to show that these other issues are justifications for what really matters most to many of these voters.  I should know, because I used to be one of them and I was not honest with myself about why I really supported some candidates. I claimed the moral high ground of a single-issue voter, but I didn’t want to be bothered with the details about whether or not electing a certain candidate made any real difference on abortion, and I certainly didn’t want to be bothered with doing anything about it myself! I voted on what I thought would be best for me – a white middle-class man who doesn’t want things to change because I am doing just fine.

This false gospel requires faith. We see this clearly right now. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, there are ongoing claims that the election was “stolen,” that there is massive and wide-spread “voter fraud,” that there is a liberal “deep state,” working in the shadows to undermine our democracy and elections. Never mind that it wasn’t a particularly close election, never mind that every court in the land has upheld the result because no credible evidence of fraud has been brought forward. Never mind that those in charge of the safety and security of the election from all sides of the political spectrum say that the election was valid. It requires faith. You simply must believe. And if you go far enough down the rabbit hole you can begin to believe in new kind of evil: A Democratic party intent on taking away all of the things that we hold dear: namely our guns, our money, our power, and our privilege. And if that isn’t evil enough for you, maybe throw in some conspiracy theories about an underground network of child sexual slaves. 

Even now, as I write this, the FBI is reporting that the danger of more violence at the US capitol and at other state capitols is growing. The national guard is being deployed at our capitol here in Washington State, and extra security is being deployed at capitols all over our nation. My hope is that we will have a transition of power on January 20 without more bloodshed. I think it is too late to claim – as we have often done with great pride – that we will have a peaceful transition of power. But we can only guess at what the future holds. If the past teaches us anything, it is that nations come and go, democracy is fragile, and that those who have power do not give it up easily. But as Christians, our hope and our true citizenship rests not in this country, nor in any president, but in a kingdom that is “not of this world.” (Phil. 3:17-21, John 18:36). There are Christians living in every nation on this earth. Many live in places of war, famine, poverty, and corruption. Some live in prosperous and peaceful places, some live under dictators ruling with an iron fist. But all of them live ultimately under the reign of God, and their hope rests not in this life, but in the life to come (1 Cor. 15:19-26). Their Savior is not a political party, or a president, or a nation. There Savior is none other than Jesus Christ. 

But as Christians, our hope and our true citizenship rests not in this country, nor in any president, but in a kingdom that is “not of this world.”

The true gospel is that only when we admit our weakness and brokenness can we find forgiveness and salvation. The true Gospel is found in a Lord who showed strength through weakness, power through kindness and mercy, greatness through service, and life through death. The way of this Gospel is not violence, but sacrifice and love for the other. The way of this Gospel is not allegiance to nation or party, but identity in a family that transcends nation, race, class, and politics.  And through this Gospel, Christians claim – as they have from the very beginning – that only Jesus is Lord!

I Didn't Plan to Give Up This Much for Lent!

Even though we are notoriously good at partnering with nature to fill any vacuum in our over-scheduled lives, we are being helped in our discipline by a world that is moving at a slower pace.

First a confession: I totally stole my title from a tweet by Andy Crouch. As soon as I read it, I started laughing and said “Exactly!” With everything that is going on with COVID-19 it is easy to forget that we are still in the season of Lent… but we shouldn’t! Embracing Lent might just help many of us through these next few weeks. Let me explain.

It really is fascinating looking at how fast everything is developing with this Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic (yes, it is officially a pandemic now). I just glanced at my last post and I find it hard to believe that it was only 15 days ago that I wrote it! We are now in an almost complete shutdown. Schools are closed, sports events are cancelled, restaurants and bars are closed (except takeout), no large gatherings are allowed, worship is going online for all churches, recreation facilities are closed, the US-Canada border is closed, and on and on. It seems like every day we get news of more closures and restrictions. San Francisco has already issued a “shelter in place” order, and we may see that here too before this is all over (before I could even finish this article I saw a news alert that ALL Californians are being told to say home!).

Life as we know it has come to a screeching halt.

Life as we know it has come to a screeching halt. Those of us that can work from home are doing it, some are still able to work with modifications, but many are simply staying at home. There is a bit of novelty to it that is… dare I say… fun? But we all know that feeling won’t last if this goes on for weeks or months. And beyond that, there is the very real concern that those we know and love could become sick or even die. And even if it isn’t someone that is close to us, we know that there are many in this world who are suffering at this moment.

I need to add a quick note here: There are those for whom this time is very much the opposite of a slowdown. Our health care workers and first responders (and others too) are busier than ever and may even be working to the point of exhaustion. This post is not primarily for them – I recognize that they are in a much different place. This post is directed at those who find themselves in a kind of “quarantine.”

So back to Lent. How can this ancient Christian practice help us now? The season of Lent is a time when many of us choose to “fast” in some form or another. We choose to cut things out of our life in order to create more space for prayer – more space for the Holy Spirit to move and speak into our lives. But now we have things being cut out of our life that are not by our choice. Even though we are notoriously good at partnering with nature to fill any vacuum in our over-scheduled lives, we are being helped in our discipline by a world that is moving at a slower pace. The way things are looking right now, for many of us the adventure of our week may be going to the supermarket or the hardware store. This lack of control can be unsettling, but it can also be a blessing. We can look at all of this as a curse, or as a potential gift.

…we are being helped in our discipline by a world that is moving at a slower pace.

My two boys are now 14 and 16. The way things are going I have no doubt that they will be telling stories for the rest of their life about the “coronavirus pandemic of 2020.” I hope that some day they will be old men sharing the story and their kids and grandkids will roll their eyes at the beginning of the well-worn tale. But what tale will they tell? Right now we all hope that it will not be a tale of sickness and death. But I also hope that it will not be a tale of fear and insecurity, or a tale simply of lost weeks and months of life.

The decisions that we all make right now determine what this break in routine will be. So why not embrace the “fast?” Take the time to pray more and wade more deeply into scripture. Look for the opportunities that come as friends and neighbors need a helping hand or a listening ear. Be present with our families, reach out in love to the lonely. Read some of those books that we have been putting off. Plant a garden. Take a walk. Avoid the temptation to make this about productivity and instead look for joy and peace. And if suffering comes? Well, that too is part of Lent, is it not? Jesus Christ suffered and died so that we might have life.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

– John 10:9

Will We Bury the Bodies?

How do we as modern Christians respond to something like the Coronavirus outbreak?

Right now we are in the midst of another global epidemic – this one from a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Nobody knows how far this COVID-19 disease will spread, or how bad it will be, but it has arrived now in our community here in Washington and has already caused some deaths. Most likely it will be similar to other epidemics we’ve experienced in recent decades, and it will be a cause for legitimate concern, will peak, will wain, and in the end will probably cause less deaths than the Flu this winter. But right now we don’t know, and it is in that space of unknowing that fear breads.

As I write this, though I have not seen it myself, I am told that there has been a run on the grocery stores, hardware stores, warehouse stores, etc. People are stocking up and hoarding food, hand sanitizers, surgical masks, and apparently toilet paper (I admit I don’t get that last one: “It might be the end of the world! You know what we really need in order to survive? Toilet paper!). The stock market has fallen about 10%. I wouldn’t be surprised, as has happened in past times of crisis, that we will also hear that gun sales have spiked this week and that generators are sold out. There is a sense of “Every man for himself!” that seems to be spreading through the nation. As a pastor I wonder: what should a Christian response to this crisis look like?

This is not the first time that the world has faced an epidemic and it won’t be the last. In fact, this may turn into a “pandemic” before it is all over. We are, after all, much more connected globally than at any other time in the world’s history. Lately I have been reading through Jerry Sittser’s book Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World. In it, he describes how the response of Christians to a plague in the Roman Empire in AD 250 had a big impact on their witness to the love of Jesus Christ (146). Scholars estimate that up to one fifth of the population of the Roman Empire died during this plague! It was so bad, that people began leaving bodies and dying people littering the streets. One biographer from the time wrote “All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also” (Sittser 147). But while many were fleeing and hunkering down and looking after only themselves, the Christian response was different. They began to wash, wrap, and bury the bodies.

Not only did these early Christians take care of the dead, but they also took care of the sick. While they had no understating of germs and viruses like we do today, they knew that if they cared for the sick, then they were likely to get sick too, and perhaps even die themselves. They also knew, that if cared for, some of the sick would survive. Their theology developed to be something like this: If we Christians step in and care for a sick and dying person, we may be able to take their sickness from them, prevent death, and take their place in sickness and in death as Jesus has taken ours. Some miracles of healing did happen – the Spirit was at work – but the larger miracle was in the way the Christian Church became knows as the one community that would care for and love those who had nowhere else to turn – even if it was a risk to their own life and comfort. So I wonder… do we still carry this same faith and witness today?

I’m certainly not suggesting that we Christians need to begin rushing to put ourselves in harms way of this disease. We live in a different world with different ways of caring for and managing an epidemic. However, I do know that our response should be to give rather than to hoard, to live in hope rather than fear, to seek the welfare of others ahead of our own, and to be people of courage, hospitality, faith, and love. Rather than hunker down and bar the doors, we are called to reach out in the love of Jesus Christ.

“…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

2 Timothy 1:7

Time to Surf?

It is like we are standing in waste-deep water on the beach, but rather than withstanding one wave, catching our breath, and then fighting off another, we are instead facing a massive tsunami that is way over our head and unrelenting!

Photo by Nathan Cowley

On a recent vacation I had the opportunity to take some surf lessons on the beach. I grew up skateboarding, I’m a descent wakeboarder, and I can snowboard, so I didn’t think it would be all that difficult. And I was right – once I actually stood up on the board, it wasn’t all that hard. But getting up, that was the challenge! And not only getting up, but getting back out to catch the next wave! My patent instructor would stand in about 6′ of water, hold the board for me while I got onto my stomach on the board, and then tell me when to start paddling for the wave and let me go. I would make an attempt to stand, sometimes successfully, and then jump off quickly before I got too shallow, or fall off and tumble into the shallows. Then I would turn around and walk/swim the board back out through wave after crashing wave to my instructor. It was exhausting! I longed to simply get up on that board and take a long ride on the wave. I appreciate wakeboarding a lot more now. Give me a boat!

I read a fabulous Verge Network article today by Hugh Halter called “Cheap Church: Bi-Vocational Living.” In the article he discusses many issues that I have also been thinking about in terms of the way that churches are changing, and the challenge of leading a congregation in light of those changes. Some of these changes are financial, some are cultural, some are structural, and some are spiritual. And of course, all of these changes are interconnected. Major shifts in just one of these areas would be challenge enough for the Church, but right now all of these areas are changing at one time, and changing rapidly. It is like we are standing in waste-deep water on the beach, but rather than withstanding one wave, catching our breath, and then fighting off another, we are instead facing a massive tsunami that is way over our head and unrelenting! Some people see this happening and say that the Church in the U.S. will simply drown. Others say, “let’s get the surfboard!” Here are some brief thoughts on some of these challenges.

Emerging generations of Christians in the U.S. don’t give financially in the same way as previous generations. I’m not sure if I have read any definitive statistics on whether they give more or less, but I do know that they give differently. Hugh points out in his article that they prefer to give to things that have “meaning” – either something that they perceive to be making a big difference in the lives of others or something that gives them personal satisfaction. Compare this to previous generations that gave out of a sense of “loyalty” to an organization, and often in the church out of spiritual obligation to “tithe” (give 10%). This means that even if these young Christians are official members of a church they are probably not interested in giving most of their charitable donations to the church – especially since paying for staff, buildings, and utilities doesn’t check the “meaning” box.

The western church’s business model based on the expectation of growth, optimism, and promise of financial blessing has proven to be a consumer nightmare.

– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church

Churches of all kinds are feeling this pinch in their budgets and wondering how to move forward. Some dig harder into old habits, requiring members to pledge and running ongoing “stewardship campaigns” that are often thinly-veiled manipulation campaigns using modern fundraising practices laced with scripture. Others have adapted by allowing people to give to specific causes within the congregation (thus meeting the “meaning” standard). This of course leaves a smaller and smaller pool to cover the unsexy costs of keeping the lights on and the lawn mowed. And some are realizing that there are tectonic shifts happening that will require greater adaption by the Church. I appreciate that Hugh mentions the emerging economic realities in his article. Things like: the emerging generation of young adults will be the first in U.S. history to make less income than their parents, and most people have to remain mobile and moving in order to get better jobs.

As people lose their sense of stability, security and sustainability, their tendency is to move from generosity to scarcity—they simply won’t give like they used to. At present, the average Christian gives to the church at the exact percentage non-believers give to charities—just fewer than three percent.

– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church

Obviously some new ways of doing things are required. As a church planter, the one thing discussed often in my circles is the idea of a bi-vocational or “co-vocational” pastors. Of course, there are plenty of challenges associated with this, but there are also plenty of opportunities for further engagement of a pastor with the community. Another common assumption being challenged is that of the church building (often confusingly called “the church”). How much building do we need, and is the building being fully utilized or sitting empty most of the week? Are there other ways to use existing community space that might meet our needs? These two areas alone (staff & property) account for the bulk of most church budgets.

People, even those inside the church, are exhausted at giving to boxes or buildings whose influence is waning, and they simply won’t give to keep the lights on or pay the staff. They want to help real people with real needs.

– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church

If people don’t give financially in the same way that they used to, they also don’t attend worship and other church activities in the same way that they used to. And in my experience, this has less to do with any generational changes, and more to do with larger cultural shifts. I often tell people that I am lucky to see our church elders two Sundays a month! And that is not to disparage the elders, they are the ones elected by the congregation because of their spiritual maturity! This is to say that if even the most spiritually committed are at worship about 1/2 the time, that means that many others are going to be there even less than that!

As church attendance declines nationally, and as we fail on a global scale to see new disciples made, mega churches and growing churches are tasting what could be the last wave of transfer growth before the reality of the trends hit home.

– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church

There are definitely many reasons for this shift, and undoubtedly some of it has to do with increasing “competition” for people’s time from things like sporting events, kid’s activities, and endless entertainment options. Here in the Pacific Northwest, even a sunny day can be competition – and how do you compete with the sun? (Hint: you can’t!). Add to this mix the fact that many more people are working on Sunday mornings and on nights and weekends. Also, the fastest growing demographic in many U.S. communities are single-parent homes. I can’t imagine life as a single parent, but I can imagine how difficult it would be to get the family to a worship service after a hectic week! This is to say nothing about the access to endless content online with the click of a button. YouTube, podcasts, email subscriptions and more offer access to all kinds of Christian content from sermons by celebrity preachers, podcasts by professional theologians, to live-steaming videos of worship services and worship music on-demand. Some of this content is excellent, and some of it is garbage, and unfortunately few churches are doing anything to help navigate these waters.

The response to this in some churches has been to compete head-on! Make a consumer-oriented worship experience featuring the best live concert-style worship music, the most awesome venue, cutting-edge advertising and technology, entertaining preachers, etc. And of course, this will often result in what Hugh calls “transfer growth.” These exciting congregations will often attract consumer-Christians from older, traditional, smaller, or less-appealing churches. Other churches have responded by digging in their heals and holding on dearly to the way that they have always done things in the name of faithfulness and orthodoxy – even if it means that they will slowly die. They pretend that nothing has changed except for the level of sinfulness and compromise in the population at large.

Yes, there will always be churches that expand through transfer growth and that can keep their pastors paid and their churchy folks happy and safe, but what about the rest of us who are no longer content to simply exist in the religious zone?

– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church

All of this, in my opinion, misses the bigger problem. Churches of all stripes are failing to effectively make disciples in the world that we live in today (this topic is already the source of some of my other blog posts and will be again in the future). Time is precious, and people are less willing to spend it doing something that they perceive to have little value. The truth is, the Church does not need to compete at all, but it does need to think about new models. The Church already has the one thing that people desperately need and that they cannot find elsewhere: the community formed by Jesus living together on mission. This community can be structured in a lot of ways that work well in this cultural context – but it will necessitate new forms inspired by the Holy Spirit.

So are we at a moment of desperation or opportunity, or both? I suppose the answer to that question depends on whether we want to try to stand our ground and take on the waves, turn our backs and ignore the waves, or grab our surfboard and take a ride.

Send Her Back?

A pastor’s response to the crowd at a Trump rally chanting “Send Her Back!”

Today I heard something that shook me to my core. It was an audio clip of people at Presdent Trump’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina chanting “send her back!” in reference to Congressional Representive Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. I am naïve. I never thought I would hear something like this in our country in my lifetime.  

I am a pastor, I am a white man, and I cannot stay silent. Some will dismiss what I write now as a political attack from someone on the left directed at the President because he is a conservative. This seems to be a fashionable way in our time to avoid truly listening to others and it happens from all sides of the political spectrum. But what I write now is not meant to be directed at the President, nor is it meant to be directed at the people at the rally, nor even Americans at large. It is, however, meant to be for those who consider themselves to be my sisters and brothers in Christ. I have been charged with caring for them and proclaiming God’s Word to them, and therefore I must speak at this moment for those who will listen. 

“Send her back!” 

Why her? Send her where? 

Representative Omar is an immigrant to this county, she is a Muslim, and she is an outspoken critic of many of the policies of the current administration, including its stance towards Israel and the Palestinian territories. She immigrated to the United States with her father when she was a child (her mother died when she was two). Her family was fleeing war in Somalia, they lived in refugee camps for many years before coming to the U.S. where they were granted asylum, and where they eventually became naturalized citizens. Now Ilhan Omar has been elected by the people of her state to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives. And while her positions and her approach have been distasteful to many, this alone would not be enough to get a crowd standing in front of the President of the United States to scream “send her back” while the President stood there silently. It is also not simply because she was not born here (in fact, the President’s current wife was not born in the U.S.). The reason that Rep. Omar is being targeted is because of two reasons: her skin color, and her religion. And this is why hearing this chant, coming from a crowd of white people, many of whom would undoubtedly identify as Christians, is profoundly disturbing to me. 

We have seen this before in our history. We have seen this before in world history. This form of racism is ugly, it is sinful, and if not resisted it will become a cancer that will destroy lives and corrupt the message of the Gospel. Darkness is never so obvious as when it follows brilliant light. The “send back” call chanted by a crowd standing before the President of the United States is especially disturbing when directed at a woman who represents all that many Christians in this country have long fought for: a sanctuary for the refugee, a place of freedom of worship, a country where marginalized voices are heard and represented.

I am grateful to be part of a Christian denomination that that is “confessional.” This means that we have written confessions of faith (statements of what we believe) as a part of our constitution. When we ordain elders (pastors and lay leaders) they must agree to be guided and instructed by these confessions. We have a confession written by Christians in Germany during the rise of Hitler, we have a confession written during the height of race tensions in the 1960’s (The Confession of 1967), and we have a recently added confession written by the Uniting Reformed Church of South Africa in response to Apartheid (The Confession of Belhar). All of these confessions seek to profess the faith of the Church and the authority of scripture in the face of competing values, and all of them have something to say to us now.

From the Confession of Belhar (emphasis mine):

We believe…
• That Christ’s work of reconciliation is made
manifest in the church as the community of
believers who have been reconciled with God
and with one another;
• that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation
for the church of Jesus Christ; that
through the working of God’s Spirit it is a
binding force, yet simultaneously a reality
which must be earnestly pursued and sought:
one which the people of God must continually
be built up to attain;
• that this unity must become visible so that the
world may believe that separation, enmity and
hatred between people and groups is sin
which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly
that anything which threatens this
unity may have no place in the church and
must be resisted;
Therefore, we reject any ideology
• which would legitimate forms of injustice and
any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such
an ideology in the name of the gospel.

Notice the strong language of “sin” used to describe “enmity and hatred between people and groups.” If you read these confessions in our Book of Confessionsyou will also see the scripture references to go along with them. In this case it is the prayer of Jesus in John 17 for the unity of future disciples and Paul’s prayer for the unity of the church in Ephesians 4 (among other references). But one could make the argument that this confession and these scriptures are directed at the church, not to those outside of it (someone of a different religion). But in both the confessions and scripture the call to be unified with each other in Christ is only the start, the next step is living out the unity in the world. The Belhar confession goes on to say…

“We believe… 
• that the church must therefore stand by people
in any form of suffering and need, which implies,
among other things, that the church
must witness against and strive against any
form of injustice, so that justice may roll
down like waters, and righteousness like an
ever-flowing stream;
• that the church as the possession of God must
stand where the Lord stands, namely against
injustice and with the wronged;
• that in following Christ the church must witness
against all the powerful and privileged
who selfishly seek their own interests and thus
control and harm others.”

It is unjust for those of us in a place of privilege and power to use that position for our own purposes against others simply because they believe something different than we do or because they look differently than we do or because they were born on the other side of a national border. Even as I write this last sentence, I feel as if I am writing an argumentative essay for a high school history class studying segregation in the United States. I can’t believe that it needs to be said today, but it does. My brothers and sisters in Christ, if our desire to maintain a position of privilege in this country, and our desire to keep things comfortable for ourselves, comes before our calling to be a people of God, welcoming the stranger and the alien, and caring for the widow and the orphan, then we have indeed “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Rom. 1:25).

The Gospel truth on this matter is expressed well in the Confession of 1967:

God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, he overcomes the barriers between brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all men to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.

I have just spent most of my morning thinking about and writing these words. I doubt that many, if any will read them to the end. It may be, in fact, that they are only for me, and that is well and good. A just criticism would be to ask me: “Why now? Why this?” It is true, that in recent years that has been a lot of conflict and anguish over the issue of race and prejudice in our nation.  I often feel compelled to speak, but rarely know the best way to do it. But there was something today that was a tipping point for me. Perhaps it was simply hearing the rising, angry chant of “Send her back!” over the radio in response to the words of our president that brought a picture into my head that was simply too close to some of those disturbing images I have seen over the years of crowds before fascist leaders. There is certainly more to be said, but for now, at least I have spoken.

Moving Into the Neighborhood

Christmas is winding down. We’ve crossed the threshold into another year and Epiphany arrives on Sunday. I enjoy the rhythm every year of being reminded of the reality of the incarnation. One of my favorite phrases to describe this comes from Eugene Peterson’s Message translation of John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

Peterson has been one of my mentors in life. Even though I only met him briefly in person on a couple of different occasions, his writing and teaching for pastors has had more influence on my understanding of what it means to be a pastor more than anything else outside of scripture. Today, I read an article in Christianity Today with a fairly recent interview with him. I was stuck by the following question and answer:

Q: As you know, community has become something of a buzzword in the church today, yet in some ways we have less of it even though we talk about it more. Why is that?

A: Probably because many people in churches today don’t have a sense of community, and in order to get a sense of community, church leaders start gathering people up and giving them jobs. We’ve lost a talent for relationship and showing interest in the other person. We don’t have community because we skip over the critical part: being in relationship with the people, knowing their kids, knowing their jobs, knowing the neighborhood.

As I get older, and as I get more experience in pastoral ministry, the more that I recognize the importance of truly getting to know people, getting to know their lives, and getting to know the community where God has placed me. I can now recognize that when I was younger I often treated people as commodities – something that I could get something from. People were valuable to me in as much as they could offer me something. It was easy for me to move on from relationships once they ceased to be valuable to me.

The truly disturbing thing is that it is possible have this same attitude under the guise of “ministry” or “Christian service.” We can fall into the trap of serving people because we know that we need to serve someone. The particular person doesn’t matter as much as the fact that we need someone to serve and they are available to us. I suppose the classic modern example of this would be American Christian short-term mission trips that are totally disconnected from any kind of long-term relationship.

Of course, this kind of people-as-commodity thinking is compounded by living in a highly mobile society. We can move on from a job, move on from a school, move on from a church, any time that relationships become difficult. We can move halfway across the county if we wish and “start fresh” with a clean slate of relationships with no prior history or baggage. I increasingly hear from older Christians something along the lines of this: “At my age, I have no time for toxic relationships.” This becomes an excuse for dismissing those that are hard to get along with in favor of those whom you enjoy being around. I sure am glad that God did not have this attitude with us!

Jesus “moved into the neighborhood,” and he didn’t exactly pick the best neighborhood!

So I think about this often these days. What does it mean to put down roots and truly get to know and care for my “neighborhood.” This, of course, includes those in my congregation, but it includes so much more. One of my greatest joys these days is going into a local business in the Stanwood/Camano Island area. It is rare that I don’t end up sidetracked and having a long conversation with someone that I know. Sometimes this is someone from my congregation, but often it is not. Usually it is someone that I genuinely want to know better because they are my “neighbor.” For many years one of my ongoing prayers has been this: “God, give me your heart for people.” This prayer emerged out of the awareness of what I described earlier about how I approached relationships with others, and God continues to answer it in surprising ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Church Planting Reflections

background-beautiful-blossom-268533I was inspired to write today after reading an article on CT’s The Exchange called Reflecting on Church Planting in the Aftermath of Being on the Startup Podcast, Part 2. In the article, A.J. Smith, pastor and church planter, is responding and reflecting to some of the feedback he has received after being on a podcast called “Startup.” Apparently their latest season was all about church planting, and as you might expect, Smith received a wide range of responses after his episodes aired to the 1,000,000 viewers (the podcast is secular and reaches a diverse audience). I appreciated his reflections because it reminded me of some of the important lessons that I have learned along the way. In fact, I immediately shared the link with my brother, who is at the very beginning of planting a church and recently told me that he welcomes any advice I might have. While I plan to listen to the podcast, I have not done so yet. I suspect that will lead to some more reflections once I do. I did read “part 1,” and I’ll likely write an entry around that soon.

The three areas that Smith is addressing specifically come from the three areas he identified as getting the most responses from the podcast. Those are vulnerability, money, and identity. I’m also going to reflect on these, using a quote from the article on each of these areas as a primer.

VULNERABILITY

Regardless of the reasons, I came to a point in professional ministry where I decided that I was only going to do this if I could do it while truly maintaining my integrity. If I couldn’t be honest about my issues, doubts, and struggles, then why would I be a spiritual leader for others?

Growing up in the church, the pastor was someone that I put on a pedestal. I realize that sounds cliché, but that phrasing has always worked well for me since the pastor was often up front and above everyone else on Sunday morning, and usually standing behind something very pedestal-like! And because of this, I had a real hard time ever considering myself a serious candidate for “pastor.” While I won’t share that journey here, it took an immense amount of grace, a strong and unavoidable calling from God, and some minor miracles for me to accept that I could, in fact, be a pastor. Nevertheless, venerability and pastoral ministry were two things that I didn’t readily associate with each other.

Throughout my undergraduate work in theology and my time in seminary, the message I received over and over again was a message about setting healthy “boundaries” in ministry. And while I still think that is good advice, I now realize how often setting boundaries is actually just code for protecting yourself. And lets be honest here, it is hard to both be vulnerable and protect yourself at the same time! And in fact, it is hard to find Biblical support for this kind of language. Rather, we often find the opposite. If we are going to truly love others, then we are going to have to risk injury to ourself, and injury to our family. Jesus is our leadership model and the cross is our standard.

So I came to a similar conclusion early in church planting that A.J. Smith did. I was either going to be honest about my own life, failings, doubts, etc., or I wasn’t going to do this work. We knew that we could not open our home week after week to those both inside and outside the church and somehow put on a show that our life was somehow perfect. That would be exhausting and ultimately self-defeating. And while I still struggle with where those boundaries need to be drawn (because they do), I have tried to err on the side of vulnerabiblity.

MONEY

“We’re nothing like Silicon Valley startups” is a funny thing to say when we use demographic studies, marketing tools, social media, websites, merchandise, and investors to start churches. Moreover, we run churches like businesses with budgets, salaries, and insurance packages. The parallels are striking!

During my life I have had a strongly negative reaction to churches that smack of the corporate world. Whether it be the pastor as CEO mindset or the church growth movement strategies. I’ve discovered that this is, in general, a common reaction among my “Gen X” peers. And yet, starting a church has made me realize just how much business knowledge is needed to get things off the ground!

Beyond budgets, salaries, and insurance, when you are starting a new church you have to figure out things like incorporation, non-profit law, worker’s compensation, taxes, land use restrictions, building codes, opening business banking accounts, etc. And starting out in a denomination like the PC(USA) has both advantages and disadvantages in this regard. On the one hand, I had plenty of people to go to for advice and help, and we were able to wrap ourselves under the protective umbrella of our Presbytery and parent church when we needed to for insurance and non-profit purposes. On the other hand, this also means we had to navigate our denomination’s Book of Order, Board of Pensions, and Presbytery councils.

I can now say unequivocally that if you want to be a church planter and have no desire to ever run a business you are probably in trouble. While the church is not a business, it often requires many of the same skills and work on a day to day basis. Either that, or you need to be willing to find others who will do that work for you from the beginning and be prepared to still spend a lot of your time having conversations about these business-like issues. And surprise, surprise… seminary does nothing to train you for this!

IDENTITY

Unfortunately, before [church planters] know it, their happiness is directly connected to the success of their church. I’ve learned that in order for me to stay sane, my role as a pastor cannot be my identity. If the church is doing great, it shouldn’t mean that I’m necessarily doing great. Likewise, if the church is failing, it doesn’t mean I’m failing.

This is hard. Whenever you create something, you have a bit of yourself tied up in it. If people dislike it, you feel a bit disliked. If people love it, you feel a bit loved. Theologically, I think it is safe to say that nobody every really starts a “church.” All we are doing is participating in a new expression of the Church started by Jesus. And yet, it is hard not to blur the lines and begin to have your self-worth wrapped up in the success or failure of your new expression! This is especially problematic when some of the statistics list church plant “failures” as high as 2 out of every 3 (failure being defined as a congregation/organization that doesn’t continue).

Early on in my work with Tidelands I was fortunate to attend the “Soma School” in Tacoma with one of our other leaders. Jeff Vanderstelt was doing a lot of the teaching, and he reminded all of us that there is a temptation in pastoral ministry to try to justify and prove ourselves through our preaching and work in ministry. We don’t think of it this way, of course, but we may find ourselves feeling miserably spent after a morning preaching. Or we my find our spirit in the dumps when we work hard all week and only a handful of people show up at the worship gathering or small group meeting. I have been there a thousand times! And it may just be that we were expecting that doing this great work would somehow prove us worthy of God’s love and acceptance. But if we truly believe that God is gracious, then we do not have to prove ourselves (thank you Jeff and Tim Chesterton for the reminder). Our worth is not based on the perceived success or failure of our church plant, but rather on the unconditional grace of Jesus and the unconditional acceptance of the Father. I have to rely on the Holy Spirit to remind me of this daily.

A wonderful thing has happened in my ministry as I have learned to trust my identity in Christ more: I am less concerned about what others think of me, I am less anxious and busy in my ministry, and I am more present with those around me. Of course, this runs the risk that others may feel that things are moving too slow, or that we are not “driven” enough. But ultimately I want to know that I am being faithful to my calling and obedient to the Holy Spirit.

I’m grateful to A.J. Smith for his article and I look forward to listening to his podcast. These reflections have been helpful for me to put into writing and I hope that they just might help others out there at some point as well.

Genuine Love

paper-romance-symbol-valentine-159526We are coming up quickly on Valentine’s Day (which also happens to be Ash Wednesday this year) so it seems appropriate that my scripture reading this morning began with “Let love be genuine.” From Romans 12:

9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I’ve probably read or heard this scripture read hundreds of times in my life. But as a pastor, this hit me in a new way this morning. I found myself wondering: What if a church (meaning a community of Christians) actually lived like this in all of their life? I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a part of something like that?

I feel like I could do an entire year of preaching out of this passage alone! I suppose, if nothing else, it could give us kind of “litmus test” for the health of our church. Do we see these things being lived out among us? Are we the kind of people who would be willing to extend hospitality, peace, and welcome to those who are different from us, or only those who are like us? What about our “enemies?” Would we be willing to sit down and eat with them? Would we be willing to prepare a meal for them?

Well I certainly don’t want to claim to be wiser than I am! I know that, personally, I have a long way to go to live this out in my own life. Of course, as a North American Christian, I have become accustomed to applying scripture primarily to my own life – taking responsibility for my own actions. But perhaps that is exactly the problem? What IF I began working to see this lived out among those who are part of my church community? What would I do differently?