If you know me, then you know I generally have a suspicious take on hip and trendy pastor phrases. It’s just one of my quirky things. I remembering one of those motivational posters from school when I was a kid that said, “What is right is now always what is popular. What is popular is not always what is right.” I’m not saying that hip and trendy phrases are wrong, I’m just saying that *I* tend to meet them with suspicion. It’s about me, not the phrase.
One of those passages/statements is from what I think is a true idea, but perhaps a goofy application of said idea. What I’ll do is show the idea, show what I like, show where I’m a little critical, and then leave with a thought or two moving forward.
I’m grateful for my church. Though we, a largely-white congregation in a largely-white part of Baton Rouge, have many things to learn about how the gospel can bring racial healing in our church, we have been trying to better unite with and support the work of our African-American brothers and sisters in the city. One of our strongest relationships is with Pastor Donald Hunter at New Beginning Baptist Church (in the middle, below, during one of our partnered workdays [credit: The Advocate]).
Thus, when in the middle of the week when Baton Rouge was trying to process the death of Alton Sterling, Donald came over and recorded a message that we played on Sunday for our services that then launched into a prayer time for our city. I was grateful that we did not have to ask, “Hey, who knows any of the African-American pastors in town?”
I am not an expert on the racial tensions in the city. I have watched the events of the past week and prayed for Baton Rouge, for St. Paul, and for Dallas. I have tried to make sense of the protests, night after night. I ache for Baton Rouge, but not as much as Christ does or has. What I bring are these four thoughts.
YES, WE HAVE A LONG WAY TO GO BRINGING RECONCILIATION IN OUR CITY AND CHURCHES
I remember being an LSU student and seeing where the black students spent time in the quad and the white students spent time (it wasn’t often together). I remember hearing older folks that I know flippantly using a derogatory word for “black” as if it wasn’t a big deal. “Oh, that’s just what we say, it doesn’t mean anything.” I disagree (but, unfortunately [and to my shame], remained awkwardly silent, only enabling the behavior). Words always mean something (Prov 18:21). I recall numerous times being told stories and hearing something like, “I saw this guy, you know, a big black guy . . .” as if that detail were helpful or necessary in the telling of the story. I don’t recall being told many stories where someone says, “I saw this guy, you know, a big white guy,” or “a big asian guy.” A teacher in one of my communication studies classes I had at LSU highlighted that the word “articulate” is often used to describe black people, as if the one using the word is surprised that a black person could speak articulately.
Yes, we have a problem.
The city is divided over race in many ways. Not in every way, but in many. Even the census data, when color-coded for demographics, reveals the divide. Compare that to Baton Rouge’s homicide map (2012-2014) and tell me if you see a correlation. We may not even recognize it, but the racial divide in Baton Rouge—our geography, our language, and even our churches—exists. Events like last week do not bring new issues to the surface, they just surface the issues. And the issues are numerous.
OUR LANGUAGE REVEALS WE MISUNDERSTAND GRACE
It becomes so easy processing these things to simply say, “Let’s wait until we get all the facts,” or, “Man, that guy was a criminal.” I agree, let’s get facts; and, yes, he did have a criminal history. But as a Christian, those responses can be so callous. Can we have room in our hearts for both incredible sorrow and prayers for justice? Can we long for racial reconciliation in our city and support law enforcement? Can we admit there are broken parts of our city and talk about how we contribute to its brokenness? Can we be broken for families that have been shattered due to violence? Can we, at the same time, hurt for police officers who one week ago were not known by the nation for shooting black men or, in the case of the five in Dallas, were still alive?
Christians, of all people, should understand that, if not for grace, we would stand condemned. The case against us for our condemnation is large, and yet Christ forgave—wholly and completely. That should change how we react, it should help us to feel. Christians will never hear Jesus say to us, “Well, if only this part of your life would’ve been better.” That’s works-based, and it is wrong. As a church, can we grieve over death because it is evidence that sin still exists in our very broken world? I hope and believe we can.
LISTENING IS A GOOD SKILL TO LEARN
Bryan Loritts is a pastor that I listen to in times like this. About two years ago he wrote a blog post entitled “It’s Time to Listen” over on Christianity Today. Part of his post has stuck with me, and I’ll share it here:
If you sense exasperation from we African-Americans over yet another news story of a black man slain at the hands of a white man, this is a wonderful opportunity to grab some coffee and seek to understand our hearts. I need my white brothers to know how I felt as I sat in the preaching classes in Bible college and seminary not once hearing examples of great African-American preachers. I need you to know how I felt when I was forced face down on the hard asphalt of Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, all because I was nineteen and driving my pastor’s Lexus, a year after the 1993 Rodney King riots. I need you to ask how I felt when I walked into a Target recently behind a white woman who took one look at me and pulled her purse tightly to her.
However, as much as I am an African-American, I am even more so a follower of Jesus Christ. The death, burial, and resurrection of our Savior demands that I subjugate my cultural hermeneutic to my gospel hermeneutic. In other words, my Jesus-ness must trump my blackness. As Dr. Tony Evans says, “Black is only beautiful when it is biblical.” This is at odds with the teaching of liberation theology, where you had black theologians like Dr. James Cone who wrote that the gospel is essentially for the oppressed and not the oppressor. Not true. If I understand the gospel right, Jesus died for Michael Brown and Darren Wilson (his shooter); slaves and slave masters; the lynched and the lynch mob. My new gospel hermeneutic, therefore, leaves no place for hatred, bitterness or unforgiveness.
In these times the church must listen. Everyone wants to be heard, and subjects like race are ones that we don’t often try and listen to. There are many in the African-American community who love Jesus deeply and have an entirely different experience than my own—than many of the folks who read this blog. Is it too much to ask them what life is like?
WE SHOULD NEVER LOSE HOPE IN WHAT JESUS CAN DO
The doomsday folks look at this and say, “What is this world coming to?” But for the Christian, I hope we never lose hope in what Jesus can do in our world—and the world that is to come. Truly, the gospel message is the only message that can bring the necessary redemption. It doesn’t say of any one people group, “They are superior. Be like them.” No, instead it says, “None of you are right, but God will become like you so you can become like Him.” Paul speaks of this Jew/Gentile relationships in Ephesians 2.
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph 2:13-22)
Last week I was taking my six-year-old to camp. I was trying to tell him of what has gone on in the city that week, and how it was a sad time. When I told him that there are people in our city who don’t like others for the color of their skin, or where they live, or some other reason, he replied with, “That. . . That doesn’t even matter to me.”
If I could bottle up that perspective and spread it around my whole family, then my whole neighborhood, then the whole world, I would. But, for now, we watch and we pray and we work for Jesus to be more fully known.
A dear friend came up to me after the service mentioning how difficult it is to apply a message on loving your city. Where do you start? How do you engage Baton Rouge? Where do you get intertwined into the city in a meaningful way?
Sometimes in a service—and I’m not sure which service it is in—I say something and think, “Hey, that was good. I should write that down.” I have friends who are excellent preachers and are disciplined enough to manuscript their sermons. I have manuscripted a few sermons, but the bulk of them are–how shall we say–not that (supply whatever you need in place of “not that”).
But, in the second service Sunday, I asked this question: Who is your everyone?
If you haven’t noticed lately, evangelical Christians like to draw boundaries on things and then remind others of when they are or are not within their boundaries. I’m one of them and I do the same. However, we need to be sure we define the boundaries wisely, and that Jesus stays in view.
I mentioned Sunday that I do not always give my stance on issues. That is not to say that I do not have them, but that I do not give them. There is a difference between having a stance and regularly promoting that stance. At times I remain vague on things (even if I may agree with the person who wants to know my stance), and it is not just to be a jerk (I promise!). A few reasons. . .
About ten years ago I served my church by setting up a nearby school’s gym for one of our worship services. (“Served” is the wrong word. They paid me to do it.) The church paid a few college folks who wanted to get up at 6am and be the heavy labor, and I worked closely with one of them. He didn’t attend our services; he just wanted the check (and who can blame him?).
He came from another country, and I’d usually pick him up and drop him off. And, being from another country, his English wasn’t as strong as my own, and he carried a thick accent to boot. One morning I was taking him back to his apartment and remember–almost to the part of the road I was on–what I thought when he was talking to me.
“This guy must be an idiot.”
Donald Sterling is all the news right now. The owner of the LA Clippers (an NBA franchise, for you non-sports types) made some terrible, reprehensible comments about black people; things that you would not think people would say today. And he did something else stupid simultaneously, which was somehow let someone record him saying them. He must be an idiot.
“Let him burn!” we scream. “Let him burn!” “Nobody makes those kinds of comments today. We are past that.”