Don’t leave the World at the Church Doors

Yesterday I prefaced my sermon by making this statement to the congregation. I’ve edited it a little to make it more readable to a broader audience.

I’ve often heard it said in church that, “We should leave our worries outside and focus our minds upon God as we come to worship him.” There may be times where that is good advice. In general, I believe that worship provides an opportunity to bring our concerns to God, and to hear His response. Thus I provide this commentary this morning.

We come together today as a multi-ethnic group of Jesus followers as once again we see our TV screens and internet explode in racial violence. If you paid any attention to the events in Charlottesville over the past few days then like me you’re probably filled with many emotions. I’m not going to say a lot this morning, although I could.

Why should I say anything? Because it occurs to me that when Muslim extremists conduct acts of terrorism, one of the comments I hear most is, “Why don’t other peaceful Muslims condemn them?” So while I don’t believe that anyone here blames me for the events in Charlottesville, I don’t want to leave any question of my thoughts regarding this white supremacy rally and associated violence.

Let me clearly say this morning the white extremists who spew hatred, incite violence, and seek to use fear to intimidate, and who do so while claiming that God is on their side, do not represent white Christians as a whole and certainly do not represent the white Christians at this congregation. Furthermore, not only do these views not represent Christianity, they oppose God. It is not enough for us to say that the people on television don’t represent us. We condemn their actions. We condemn their violence. We condemn their hatred. We condemn their words. We condemn any attitude, theology, or philosophy that challenges the God-created value and equality of all people.

In addition, I ask each of us to make a particular effort this week to stand together in Christ. It is not sufficient for us to wag our finger at the television. We must take action to love in repsonse to others’ actions of hate.

two coffee cupsTo my white family I ask that you make an effort to demonstrate your faith conviction of God’s love toward people of all races. Spend time, a meal, or coffee, with an immigrant or ethnic minority. Listen to their thoughts on condition of race relations in the United States and our community in particular. Seek to understand them.

To my black family I ask that this week you make an effort to speak up for Christ, and remind your friends and family that you’ve experienced the true beauty of God’s multi-coloured family and it’s nothing like what we see on television. Invite people to come and experience your church. Invite people to Worship in the Park at the end of the month and encourage them to experience God’s love expressed through unity in diversity.

Specifically, one way that we can all demonstrate respect for each other and to display unity is to support the Gospel meeting at Central Church of Christ this Wednesday. I know not everyone comes out for Bible Class each Wednesday, and I know even less attend Gospel meetings, and I know that even less of our white members attend Gospel meetings at other churches. But this week, if you’re sickened by the racism you see and hear in other parts of the country, you have an opportunity to do something tangible. And I encourage you to do that.

Lastly, I want to say that I’m honored to serve this church family. We’re not perfect. We make mistakes. Sometimes I’m insensitive, for which I value your grace. But I’m grateful that together we get to explore what it means to live life together as children of God.

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Black Lives Matter TOO!

I’ve been reluctant to dip my toe into this pond. Many people with greater experience and education than I have written great articles on this topic. However, perhaps some people who haven’t read those articles will take a few minutes to read this post.

We’ve all heard, and maybe said, the response to #BlackLivesMatter: All Lives Matter. Most people I’ve seen commenting on social media don’t seem to realise that everyone places an additional word at the end of that phrase.

Many white people hear “Black Lives Matter” as “Black Lives Matter More” or “Black Lives Matter Most”. So they respond with a phrase (that also contains a silent word) to correct the imbalance they perceive: “All Lives Matter Equally”.

This retort is a true statement.

What these people seem to miss is that the vast majority of people using the phrase “Black Lives Matter” do so while using a silent “Too”: Black Lives Matter Too!

Black Lives Matter 01

Why do they need to make this statement? Are they seeking to be inflammatory or to make trouble?

Those using the phrase “Black Lives Matter” do so because they’re expressing their impression that many in society don’t think they matter. They feel neglected, so they remind each other and the world that they do matter. They do have value. Of course all lives matter, but there are many people made to feel as though they’re insignificant. Sometimes it’s individuals who feel as though no one notices them. Sometimes it’s whole communities.

Did you notice that little feeling of indignation you feel when you see #BlackLivesMatter and think that you’re being overlooked or devalued? That’s a sensation these people experience as a way of life.

Just telling them that “All Lives Matter” doesn’t remove the negative messages these people have heard for so long.

Why would a large portion of the African-Americans community feel a need to remind the world that Black Lives Matter?

  • Because they feel targeted by law enforcement and have seen a disproportionate number of African-Americans killed by police shootings.
  • Because in 2010 blacks accounted for only 13% of the US population they made up 40% of the incarcerated population.
  • Because drug laws are enforced more stringently against blacks than whites.
  • Because the best schools are in white neighbourhoods.
  • Because they have higher rates of unemployment.
  • Because they experience prejudice in their interactions with white Americans.
  • Because ‘white flight’ tells them they’re distasteful.
  • Because of history that, yes, goes all the way back to slavery, and more recently to Jim Crow.
  • Because they have limited opportunities as a result of Jim Crow policies that ensured limited inter-generational wealth transfer within much of the black community.
  • Because no one tells them they matter or are valuable.

These issues are complex. There is no single simple solution. But all these factors and more contribute to why so many in the black community feel a need to remind the world #BlackLivesMatter…Too.


If you’ve read this far, you might also appreciate this article by Michael Hanegan, 9 Reasons Why My Faith Compels Me To Say #BlackLivesMatter.

You may also be encouraged by this short video from Rick Atchley who preaches for The Hills Church in Fort Worth. This was filmed in the days after the shooting of 5 Dallas law enforcement officers.

And I’m sharing this video below because sometimes we just need to be slapped.

Less Talk : More Peace

Last week my church hosted three representatives from the local Turkish Muslim community at what is usually our Wednesday evening Bible class.

This was a big step for my church. We’re part of a christian movement (and there are many others like us) that has historically invested a great deal of energy in telling others why they’re wrong.

muslim prayWe would use examples such as, “If you see a man about to fall down a hole it’s your responsibility to yell and warn him.” So we yelled… a lot. We yelled at Baptists. We yelled at Methodists. We yelled at Catholics. In more recent years we yelled at Community Churches (who are really Baptists in disguise). We yelled at the New Age Movement. And in more recent years we’ve joined the rest of the country in yelling at Muslims.

Christianity is inherently a missionary religion. I participate and support my movement’s evangelistic / proselytising efforts. I believe that God still wants all people everywhere to repent and that salvation is found in Christ and him crucified.

But that’s not all…

Christianity is inherently a peaceful religion.

Christianity is inherently a loving religion.

Christianity is inherently a religion that makes the world a better place.

Except when it’s not.

I have come to realise that yelling doesn’t accomplish these purposes. Yelling creates barriers. Yelling, regardless of the words, immediately communicates that I’m right and you’re wrong. The person that’s yelling isn’t listening.

If peacemaking is as essential to the practice of my faith as proselytising, I have some thinking to do. There is an onus upon me to share my faith in ways that communicate peace on my part.

When I recognise that a person or group of people don’t want to hear of my faith convictions because they already have their own, I have a responsibility to live peacefully, and lovingly with them.

I am convinced that in order to live peacefully with my Muslim / Black / Catholic / Other nieghbours I must first demonstrate my respect for them by listening to them. Who am I to demand they listen to me unless I’m willing to listen to them?

Three Muslims walked into our church… and our church listened.

We ran out of time. I had more questions. They had to run afterwards to a funeral so there was no informal visiting. But a conversation was started. A relationship began. And now when we see Muslims on TV I hope we see Mamut, Fazir, and Mufasa. I hope we see people we know we can live with peacefully. I hope we see people we can love.

Living peacefully with people different from ourselves doesn’t mean that we endorse everything they think and do. It doesn’t mean that we understand and value equally all their customs and cultural heritage. It doesn’t mean that we feel totally comfortable when they speak in a language we don’t understand.

Living peacefully means that we respect others as sharing a common humanity. It means respecting their right to different beliefs as we hope they respect ours. It means acknowledging that our culture isn’t the best in everything. Living as peacemakers means loving our neighbours as Jesus loved us.

Signs of Hope

Beginning with the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 it seemed that almost monthly there was another tragic death or incident that revealed, or prompted, racial conflict in the United States. Most of my readers know the list, but here are some low-lights:

  • July 2014: Eric Garner (black) is choked by (white) police and dies on Staten Island for selling cigarettes on a street corner.
  • November 2014: In Cleveland, 12 year old (black) Tamir Rice is shot by (white) police for pointing a toy gun at people.
  • April 2015: Walter Scott (black) was shot in the back while running from a (white) police office after a traffic stop in North Charleston, SC.
  • April 2015: Unrest envelops Baltimore after Freddie Gray (black) died as a result of not being properly restrained while being transported in a police vehicle.
  • June 2015: 9 (black) people were shot and killed at an AME church in Charleston, SC by a young (white) male.

In the face of this barrage of shameful violence, I want to share some of my experiences and resources that I’ve encountered of the past few weeks that give me hope for the future.

hope sign 01In many ways it begins with the response of the families of those 9 people killed in the Charleston church shooting. Instead of responding with violence, the went to the courthouse and addressed the killer, Dylan Roof. In a dramatic and unexpected moment they expressed both their grief and forgiveness to Dylan.

From the outside this expression of grace seemed Christlike and exemplary to others engaged in racial conflict. But it’s not that simple. I also appreciate those family members that called upon him to repent. It’s very easy for white America to sit back and expect that past wrongs be forgiven by minority populations and then we can all just move on. There’s a Godly onus upon white government institutions, white corporations, white churches and white families to acknowledge past wrongdoings and repent of those sins. We cannot ask black America to forgive us for sins we refuse to admit.

So how do I find this hopeful?

I find hope because the conversation is starting. I find hope in the LA Times article that discusses the difficulties of forgiveness and atonement. I find hope in the airing of alternative perspectives such as those expressed in this article,We should be sick and tired of apologizing for who we are and what’s happened to us. If I hear that on the news again, I’m going to throw up.” That statement makes me uncomfortable, but it belongs in the conversation.

I find hope in this interview of civil rights leader John Perkins that was conducted at the North American Christian Convention a couple of weeks ago. In graphic detail he describes the moment he decided to pursue reconciliation rather than revenge. He also calls for repentance to accompany forgiveness.

I believe you will also find this interview with NACC keynote speaker, Sean Palmer, challenging as he reminds us that racial reconciliation is a Gospel issue, not just a nice idea.

I find hope because when I attended Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration last week I found people wanting to talk about racial reconciliation and church integration.

  • Randy Lowry, the president of Lipscomb hosted a two-part Forum on Racial Relations in Our Country and Our Church.
  • Dr Lowry mentioned that about 18% of Lipscomb’s students are from minority populations.
  • Buddy Bell, the minister at Landmark Church in Montgomery, Alabama, used his keynote address to support the removal of the Confederate Flag from public institutions and to encourage white Christians to talk with African-Americans about what the flag means to them.
  • I had lunch with a friend who described a recent unity church service he’d attended where members of the African-American churches were given a venue to describe the discrimination they’d faced in that town. He told how (among other things) they recounted the reality of a hospital segregated by race and the story of a (black) woman forced to give birth on a mattress in the floor of a janitor’s closet while beds were available but off-limits in the white wing of the hospital. Not that the story is unique, but I find hope because this story was told within a church.
  • I find hope in the stories of different people I met who had participated, sometimes with their church groups, in a tour organized by Lipscomb of significant civil rights sites and the way that impacted their attitudes and worldview.
  • I’m encouraged that Summer Celebration had two sessions addressing the issues of racial reconciliation in churches.

These are small steps.

Much work and discussion lies ahead. Both NACC and Summer Celebration are overwhelmingly attended by white Christians. So these forums can have all the discussions they want, but changes also need to take place. Talk must lead to action. One racial unity service a year, or even two, isn’t enough. But it is a beginning.

I am convicted that the church can fulfill it’s mission as a force for reconciliation within our society, but there’s still a long road ahead.

I want to leave you with a powerful sermon that was delivered at Summer Celebration. Dr David Fleer is a homiletics professor at Lipscomb University. The sermon presented at Summer Celebration is available for purchase and download HERE. But Dr Fleer presented the same basic material at a racial unity service just a few days before. I encourage you to listen and pick it up in this video at the 30 minute mark.

America, We Have A Problem

If your spouse tell you, “We have a problem.” How do you respond?

You can try to convince him that he’s wrong. You can tell her that she’s taking everything the wrong way. You can suggest that you’re not the problem in the relationship. You can argue that the relationship is better than it used to be. You can deny, deny, deny. But that just means you’ll be surprised when you find yourself sleeping in the car.

Alternatively, you can ask questions to understand the problem. Perhaps it turns out to be a misunderstanding that can be remedied by talking. More likely, resolution of the problem will require a change of behaviour.

White America, we have a problem.

We know this because black America keeps telling us.

We know this because of Ferguson.

We know this because of Baltimore.

We know this because of Charleston, South Carolina.

And we know the issues are complex, partly because of Rachel Dolezal.

We know this.

A couple of days ago I attended a one-day workshop featuring Dr Christena Cleveland. The workshop involved five hours of lectures. The first three hours were spent describing the need for reconciliation. She covered topics including:

  • Segregation within American cities (admit it, you know the “black” parts of town)
  • Perceptions
  • Discriminiation
  • Implicit Prejudice (take this research test from Harvard to gauge your own prejudice)

She also spend considerable time discussing and describing “Privilege”, which must exist whenever one group of people experience prejudice.

We spent so much time describing the problems that before we broke for lunch I raised my hand to ask if all this groundwork was necessary. “Don’t people already recognise there’s a problem?

Dr Cleveland responded that until these issues are resolved, there’s an ongoing need to keep them in America’s consciousness.

During the lunch break a white woman at my table shared that her (white) church had someone make a presentation to them recently where much of this material was presented. She said it was new to her at the time and she needed to hear it.

Yesterday, I was talking to another woman who would describe herself as a non-Christian, social liberal in her 50h’s and she told me, “I don’t know any black people. I work in the city. I’d like to do something to address the poverty issues I see as a I drive around. But I don’t know any members of the black community or what to do.

If you’re reading this blog you already know there’s a problem.

You drive around on a Sunday morning and you see the vast majority of churches segregated by skin colour. You read the news stories about the shooting this week in Charleston, and see that the description of the church as an “African-American” church reveals a spiritual issue of which this shooting is the most recent manifestation. Sometimes this segregation reflects the neighbourhood demographics. More often it reflects the comfortable ambivalence of the members.

So what can be done to fix this problem?

Centuries of division demonstrate the stark reality that no answer will be simple or easy. But here’s part one of the solution: Convince people of a problem.

I’m not a World War 2 history buff, so I won’t attempt to make exact statements about why it took the United States so long to enter World War 2. What I do know is that US involvement increased dramatically after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. I’ll suggest that one element of that increased involvement was the widespread recognition of a problem. Once the problem was clearly identified, people were willing to sacrifice for solutions.

As long as people convince themselves that race relations in the United States were solved in the 1950’s & 60’s by Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and the process of school desegregation, we’ll never resolve the issues that continue to confront us today.

If you’re a church leader, you have a platform to peel back the band-aids and expose the continuing sores of racial prejudice, both implicit and explicit, in this country. Your church needs you verbalise the problems. Your community needs you to speak against prejudice. Your God expects you to speak up for those whose voices aren’t being heard. So speak.

So Many Questions

Over the years I’ve engaged in numerous discussions regarding the role of the church in social and political issues. As an Australian I have zero expectations that the government will reflect Christian values, at least, not because they’re Christian. When a Christian is elected to parliament it’s nice to see and I hope they vote according to their conscience. However, I don’t look to politicians to further the kingdom of God. Faith cannot be legislated.

I also struggle within myself regarding the extent to which churches should engage social issues. I am not a proponent of abortion, but the role churches have played in publicly and loudly condemning abortion seems to have done little more than produce a harvest of guilt in women who’ve made that decision.

We don’t need to look very far to see the other side of the coin. I’m sure most (all?) of my readers are aware of the role the church played in the United States’ civil rights movement and the prominent voice of Dr Martin Luther King. This upswell of Christian and broader social pressure transformed American society for the better.

mondaysThe pursuit of social causes by churches also creates dilemmas:

  • Which cause should a church pursue?
  • Can a church of 100 or 500 immerse itself in ending sex slavery in the community and/or around the world, and supporting teenage girls who find themselves mothers; and fighting AIDS or malaria in Africa? Churches need to make decisions and it seems whichever need we prioritise we’ll be criticised for overlooking another.
  • How do we balance these legitimate needs with the need of people around the world to hear the Gospel for the first time?

Then there are more significant systemic issues.

I’ll confess that since I work with a multi-ethnic church (mostly bi-racial: black/white) I view the events in Ferguson and Baltimore differently than I otherwise would. I now ask how my brothers and sisters that I worship with each week feel about these conflicts. I want to make society better, not just for people in general, but for the people I talk to each Sunday. I want the future to be brighter for the children with whom my daughter plays.

I think about the unrest in these cities. I think about the role of the news media. I think about the role of churches in those communities. I think about the role of my church in my community.

I see black church leaders take a public stand against policy policies and behaviours that discriminate against African-Americans. I see black ministers marching with protestors calling for justice. I see black churches functioning as voices for the black community and I wonder, “What is my role as a white minister in a biracial congregation?”  (For example watch this video.)

I recognise that God has given the church a role of calling empires to practice justice. I recognise that when the news media finally leaves Ferguson and Baltimore the root problems have not been solved. So…

  • Should my church lobby for reform in the education system?
  • Should we have signs on the lawn highlighting the disparate rates of incarceration between the black and white communities?
  • Should my church offer education programs for employers to promote equal hiring practices?
  • Should church members seek to strategically join committees and organizations promoting racial harmony and equality?
  • What difference can a church make to these institutional systems that have been in place for decades?

Do issues of racial justice automatically take a higher priority than sex slavery because my church has African-American members? What if the church was evenly divided between black, white and Vietnamese? Would my position require me to equally champion black and Vietnamese rights?

Or should I simply focus on preaching the death, burial and resurrection to anyone I meet? Should I focus on baptisms, not legislation? Should I point people to Jesus then allow individual members to take whatever action they deem best on these issues?

I am aware that in posing these questions I have established a divide between the church, politics, and social causes that is artificial and not necessarily helpful. But I believe that this is the starting point for most leaders in multi-ethnic churches facing these issues for the first time.

What do you think?

What Happened in Oklahoma… Didn’t Begin There

A recent article in the Christian Chronicle prompted my to write this post. You can read it here: www.christianchronicle.org.

The story tells how one of the students at the University of Oklahoma who was caught on video making extremely racist remarks repented and sought forgiveness. The video made headline nationally and resulted in that fraternity being expelled from the University of Oklahoma. The article also mentions that this student had been baptised in a Church of Christ and how the Northeast Church of Christ (a black congregation) played a role guiding him through the process of repentance.

I am grateful for the role the church and its members (including State Sen. Anastasia Pittman) played in guiding his repentance and then granting him their forgiveness. They provide a powerful example of Christianity. I love this quote int the article from Arnelious Crenshaw Jr., the minister at Northeast Church of Christ. Commenting on the necessity to forgive even statements as hurtful as those on the video, he reflected, “I cannot rid the world of hate and prejudice if I’m full of hate and prejudice.

I do not know the student. I also don’t know his faith or family background beyond the statement in the article that he was baptised in a Church of Christ. So my statements from this point are more general than specific to this event.

I wonder, if a high school student was raised in a multi-ethnic church where loving all our neighbours was emphasised, would that student desire to join a white or black fraternity of social club?

I wonder, if a student had friends in a youth group and that youth group had the courage to discuss the emotional impact of racial slurs, would that student use hateful racist language?

I wonder, if our teenagers had spiritual mentors they respected from an ethnic group outside their own, would that influence their attitudes toward other races and cultures?

I understand that young people will always be influenced by peer pressure. I also believe that when our churches are segregated we [unwittingly] promote segregation. It seems normal for us to associate with our own racial group and to exclude others when we have a choice in the matter.

The hope of multi-ethnic churches is that racial diversity becomes not only normal, but valued. We hope that our members will find mono-ethnic clubs, frats, associations, etc strangely abnormal and irrelevant.

The Christian Chronicle story describes how the OU student met with African-American civil rights leaders and pastors. They shared their stories, values and emotional responses to the video. In his public apology the student commented to them, “I can never thank you enough for the way you have embraced me and opened my eyes to things I had not seen before.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our churches could expose our young people to these stories and values before they leave for college. It’s not enough just to say “Racism is wrong”. The church should also give a face to racism so that prejudiced remarks are not directed to nameless, faceless, people “out there”, but can bring to mind faces of friends and Christian role models that are loved and respected.

Thank-you Christian Chronicle for covering this story.