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.

Bait and Switch

In the video below, Dallas Willard talked about how the biggest danger to Christianity is the attitude that it is a statement of belief rather than a life of discipleship. I was particularly struck by his comments about pastors being accused of “bait and switch” when they try to do intentional discipleship. I have heard similar comments from those that are farther along in developing missional communities than we are at Tidelands. Longtime “church” people can struggle with the idea that they are being asked to be part of a group that is focused on following Jesus in all aspects of life. Sometimes our focus on church programs and sunday morning performance results in immature Christians that want to be “fed” rather than disciples capable of leading others in being disciples of Jesus.

Perhaps this is why I often get quizzical reactions from other Christians leaders when I talk about our missional communities. I have even fielded questions asking whether we are a “cult” or a “commune.” Why would a description of people living on mission in their neighborhood result in those kinds of labels? One possibility is that I am simply not being very articulate in describing what we are doing (I’m working on this). The other possibility is that a life of following Jesus as a disciple sounds foreign to them. If the latter is true, it begs the question: what kind of “Christian” doesn’t feel comfortable with discipleship? I believe this is the kind of thing that Dallas is addressing in this video. If discipleship sounds like a “switch” then what is being used as the “bait?” Certainly not the gospel of Jesus!

I Want to be a Pastor When I Grow Up

Bailey BoysRecently my youngest son, Calvin (8 years old), made a comment about wanting to be a pastor someday. I don’t exactly remember how the conversation began, but it had to do with something at school where he had to answer that dreaded question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The conversation happened with both my wife and I present. With a mixture of pride and concern I asked, “WHY do you want to be a pastor?” His response: “It doesn’t take much energy.” My wife and I tried to hide our reaction as we both looked at each other wide-eyed.

My wife’s look said it all, because she knows exactly how much “energy” being a pastor requires of me. She sees me lying on the couch in a gelatinous pool of emptied humanity every Sunday after worship. She gets woken up on those nights when I can’t sleep because an important issue with a certain person is keeping me awake. She sees all the hidden hours of work that will never make it onto a timesheet – and so much more! Fortunately, I was able to keep my thoughts to myself and give him a generic response equivalent to: “That’s nice honey.”

Not much energy!? Where did that come from? I could’ve taken his meaning to be: you don’t work very much or very hard. But I have a sense that there is more to it than that. Let me explain.

Recently I was with some other pastors and we were talking about this very issue of “energy.” One woman shared a story about how her young children once explained her work as a pastor to others as “going to a bunch of meetings.” Another person shared that their child once described themselves as “living” at the church building. Unfortunately, these stories aren’t that uncommon.

When my wife and I were newlyweds, I took a job as a youth director at a church. It was our first time being exposed to what full-time paid ministry work looked like from the inside. Like many people we naively assumed that it would be a somewhat “easy” job. After all, I had spent seven years working in wildland firefighting where it wasn’t uncommon for me to put in over 1000 hours of overtime between June and September! 21 days on, 2 days off during the busiest times. How hard could ministry be in comparison?

I quickly discovered that not only was I putting in hours that well exceeded my expectations (including stretches extending at times to multiple weeks without a full day off), but many of those I knew in ministry were even busier. So busy, in fact, that my wife and I made a vow to each other that we would never allow our life to get out-of-control busy for the sake of ministry. Not that we weren’t willing to make any sacrifice to follow Jesus, but we didn’t believe that God desired for us to be burned-out casualties, with neglected children and a broken marriage, all for the sake of running church programs.

That brings me back to my son’s comment about wanting to be a pastor because it doesn’t “take much energy.” Does he think that my job is easy? I hope so! When we started Tidelands we had people questioning the wisdom of starting a church with a core team consisting of families with young children (I’ve questioned the wisdom of that myself many times in the past year as well). But we believed, and still believe, that if we couldn’t start a church while as the same time practicing self-care and raising our children well, then we were starting something that we didn’t want to be a part of anyway!

The truth is, I do work from home a lot right now since we don’t yet have an office in the community (we have a room in our shop that I use that is separate from the house). Even as I type this I am working from home with my kids around (they have a half day today from school and my wife is still working). So part of this probably has to do with perception: my kids see me a lot. I drop them off at school every morning. I pick them up from school every afternoon. But I also coach their soccer and help with their baseball – and that is intentionally part of our mission. Also as part of our mission, we have our missional community at our house every Sunday night for dinner and a meeting where all the kids are included. Last Sunday we went and worked as a missional community at a neighbor’s house that needed some yard work done with the kids’ help. Tonight we will be doing our monthly dinner out at a restaurant with our MC (including kids). So I believe that part of what my son means by, “it doesn’t take much energy,” is that he knows that I am very much a part of his life and the life of our family. I’m not locked away in an office somewhere running off to meetings every night of the week in order to keep programs up and running. I hope that is what he means.

I also hope that part of what he is trying to express is that he can see just how much joy is in my life because of Jesus. Despite being physically, emotionally, and even spiritually drained at times, I hope that he is noticing that because I am doing what I am called to do by God that I still have joy and energy left for him! I have peace rather than exhaustion when the day is done.

I recognize that all of this may come across as unnecessarily sanctimonious. I hope that it doesn’t. Just a couple of weeks ago my kids were complaining about me being at too many meetings because I had two nights in row when I had to be gone. So for them, even one meeting a week is too much! But I do hope that we as pastors (and parents in general) take the time to question whether we are modeling what life in Christ and life in the church community is supposed to be about. Are we converting people to Jesus’ way of living or something else?

Follow Up: 

The conversation came up again, and this time my youngest son told me again that he wanted to be a pastor. He said that my job was better than “mom’s” (she is an elementary school teacher). When my older son challenged him, he explained that my job was best because it was so important. It was important, he said, because I get to go out and tell people about Jesus that don’t know him yet. I was driving them home from school at the time, and I was so overjoyed that this was how he defined my work as pastor that I had tears in my eyes and almost had to pull over! I didn’t have the heart to argue with him, because I actually believe that telling people about Jesus is the job of every person in the church. For the record: I also believe that, in terms of impact for God’s kingdom, my wife’s job is much more important than mine. Someday, I hope he’ll understand that as well. In the meantime, I’ve tried to prove to myself that all that I’ve written here is valid by taking the time to blog in the midst of a day when my “todo” list is long enough to justify 1,000 hours of overtime!

Shush! The Pastor is talking!

What You Can't Say in ChurchTake a look at the following article that addresses the idea of interaction during preaching in the worship service:  “What You Can’t Say in Church.” I would love to know what other’s think or have experienced with this. At Tidelands worship gatherings I have tried to allow time after many sermons for questions and interaction. I have found that it is often one of the most profound moments in our time together. However, I also know that we are small and that is one of the reasons that we can get away with it. I like the idea presented in the above article though: Preach for a bit, ask a discussion question to be talked about with those seated nearby, and repeat. Of course, coming up with a worthy question would be the key.

“A Pastor…What’s That?”

I had this wonderful experience with a kid on my soccer team this week. He said, “Coach, what do you do for a job?” I answered, “I’m a pastor.” He gave me this funny look and said, “What’s that?” Keep in mind that this was in the middle of me trying to explain a drill to nine boys, most of whom were asking me questions at the same moment. I knew I didn’t have a chance to even begin to explain it to him right there, but it just confirmed to me that I was in the right place. It is exactly where I want to be and exactly the kind of conversations that I hope to build on in the future. I would love it if for the rest of his life, regardless of what happens, he thinks of a “pastor” as a person who cared about him on a rainy soccer field. My prayer is that he one day discovers that I was able to care for him because of the grace of Jesus in my life.

Here is an awesome video that connects in with this way of thinking about being “the church” and the role of “pastor.” I wish I could articulate it as well as Jeff does: