The Wonder and Power of Reconciliation

Take a mere cursory glance at the world around us and into our own hearts and we see division, opposition, hatred, hurt and broken relationships. The painful exposure of the racial divisions in America in recent weeks has reminded me of three things: how fracturous and diminishing this disunity is for our personal and shared human experience of life as imago Dei (made in the image of God), how much it grieves the heart of God who created us and how unique and singular is the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to bring true healing, reconciliation and shalom. We, as individuals and as communities, fall short of life that is truly life apart from the power of reconciliation - a reality born from the heart of God our Father, brokered to us through Jesus Christ and manifested today by the power of his Holy Spirit. 

Reconciliation is the restoration of relationship. Restoration implies a recovery of something which was lost. It is rooted in the past, present and the future; a former relationship of unity, a present reality of fracture and future promise of wholeness and peace. There are many apologetics for the uniquely Christocentric Gospel narrative - inked by the prophecy, birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth - but when I think about the Gospel story, I see a story which tells the truth about our human experience as it relates to fractured relationships and the promise of reconciliation. God's power is the only one able to cover that span of past, present and future. 

 The racial and ethnic divisions in our nation and in our world provide a commonly experienced place of reflection for this discussion on a uniquely Gospel-rooted reconciliation. If the world has a conversation about healing racial and ethnic divisions, I often hear it move only to the realm of equal rights and diversity. Yes, those are ideals born from the heart of God who made us equal in his image - and it is from a Biblical view of the the world that the African-American civil rights shouts of "I AM A MAN" and #blacklivesmatter have been justly born. However, if we stop at equal rights or merely celebrate multi-ethnicity we fall short. God calls us to unity, to reconciliation, not merely diversity. A snapshot from Scripture reveals his heart: 

 John the Seer's heaven-born vision of the age to come echoes the proclamations of the kingdom of God: "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation." (Revelation 5:9) God is not a distinguisher of persons; he shows no favortism. 

And, Paul the Church-planter's exposition of the Gospel of Jesus Christ brought us this history-changing truth: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28) God doesn't just save people from sin/death and into heaven, he saves us into a new family where we are called to sit at the same table as folks we are much different from. 

 And, Jesus our Lord subverted everything we thought about how the world should work by telling us straight from the heart of God: "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Jesus doesn't call us to tolerate our enemies, or relegate them to the margins, but to press in and love them. 

So, at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ alone and no other place, we rightly see our common human experience: we are poor, incapable wretches bent on getting our own way - however slyly, subtly, cleverly or blatantly we may pursue it! We've offended God, each other, ourselves and creation. Broken relationships everywhere. But, by the grace and kindness of God our Father in Jesus Christ, we have been offered terms of peace! 

So, when I think about the racial divisions in our nation - be they at a personal, neighbor-to-neighbor level or at a systemic, national level rooted in centuries of oppression upon a minority people group - I ONLY see hope in the story of the King who came to redeem lost and messed up people by shedding his blood for us and restoring his rightful kingdom through reconciled relationships - firs to God and then to one another. 

I've had the privilege of spending time in to places in our world often known by the history of racial division - South Africa and Memphis, TN - and I will soon be traveling to a third this coming January - Rwanda. Whether it be Desmond Tutu's and the Church's "Truth & Reconciliation Commission" in South Africa which championed forgiveness as a means towards progress rather than "eye for eye" or mere tolerance of the "other", or Dr. King's Gospel-driven ethic of racial harmony and forgiveness for a racially-torn America or the application of the Gospel to the ethnic hatred and genocide in Rwanda, these are stories of the salvation and healing that only comes from God's grace and Jesus' call for us to "love our enemies." 

 We can rearrange the furniture all we want in our cities and nations (and I am certainly not diminishing intentional movements toward honest dialogue and more just ethics and laws - these things should be prayed for and championed by the Church, not relegated to "the world"), but until we are reconciled to God and to one another through Christ, the promise of lasting healing remains empty. 

This may all sound like hyper sentimentalism and idealism, but in the words of GK Chesterton: 'The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."

Until we honestly see the extent to which we've each been an enemy to God our Father who simultaneously sent Christ to die for us "while we were yet sinners", we will treat the "other" as someone to be tolerated, tamed, manipulated or marginalized. Thank you, God, for your grace which saved us, is saving us and will save us!

Ferguson, John Perkins, Mockingjay and Race

Just prior to the recent Grand Jury announcement in Ferguson, we (the SOS Academy) wrapped up a collective reading of Let Justice Roll Down, a autobiographical memoir of pastor, civil rights leader and founding father of the Christian Community Development Association, John Perkins.

His book reminds me that we are not long in our tumultuous struggle of racial equality and reconciliation in this country; the wounds of the civil rights era remain tender in this nation. His story reminds me that we have very far to go in our sojourn towards reconciliation and justice in this nation which has witnessed a long history of one racial majority subjugating racial minorities. His testimony reminds me that both personal, moral accountability is a critical factor for all parties in the conversation, and his own experience tells me that simultaneously there are objective, systematic forms of racial oppression which must be confronted and dismantled, for all lovers of God are lovers of justice for the vulnerable and marginalized. Indifference is no option.

Lastly and most importantly, his story poignantly underscores the reality that there remains no hope for true racial reconciliation and justice apart from the scandalously good news of Jesus Christ. This good news comes to us in human flesh who emptied himself of the prerogative of his divine power and made himself a servant and sacrifice in order to bring about the end of the tyrannical rule of sin, evil and death - the worst form of oppression for humankind and all of creation.

Unfortunately, we as individuals, and as a nation, are far to adept at deceiving ourselves and taking a stance which serves to merely advance our own comforts. As I sat and watched the recent dystopian film, Mockingjay, my body pulsed with energy and elation as the impoverished districts fought the Capital (i.e. "the system"). The long oppressed citizens marched across a bridge towards the damn, arms filled with explosives by which they would decimate the very source of energy for the Capital. Every person in that room internally cheered for the end of the Captial's oppressive regime.

Stories like the Hunger Games simply highlight a common-grace thirst for justice for those who have long been weary under the thumb of the "system." The grand epic of The Exodus surely tells us this truth. When the credits of Mockingjay rolled, my mind immediately went to the events of Ferguson, and more recently to the #wecantbreathe tactics in NYC. Should we be surprised when those who've long received the short end of the stick rally together to cry for justice? Set your judgment of tactics aside and sympathize with those who have far too long seen the evidence in our nation that black lives matter far less than those of us who come from the privileged white majority.

In the aftermath of the untimely deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we've all encountered a barrage of rhetoric on the tangled up subjects of racial inequality and excessive police force - this blog post included. In spite of the fact that we may have a non-white President in the oval office, we do NOT live in a post-racial society. Personally, as one who lives under the grace and authority of Jesus Christ and his revealed words of Scripture, I cannot sit idly by. God's heart aches for each life and for the racial wounds of our nation. I've posted several articles which I have found helpful as I reflect on the place we find ourselves in.

A very good, well-articulated, point-by-point critique of Vodie Baucham's "Thoughts on Ferguson" -

An organized response to Vodie Bachaum's "Thoughts on Ferguson" -

African American pastor, Vodie Baucham's "Thoughts on Ferguson", deemed by many as simplistic and laden with internalized racism -

African American pastor, Thabiti Anyabwile's call to action in response to Ferguson -

Benjamin Watson, New Orleans Saints player, posted a thoughtful, honest, emotional reaction to the Ferguson Grand Jury's decision on his Facebook page which went viral -

A look at several specific actions that those of us who are white can take in response to our present racial crisis -

A provocative take from one African America who makes his case for why our nation does not value black lives -

A survey of five international op-eds, each of which addresses her particular relationship to America's present racial crisis -

In the House of Mourning

Solomon once wrote:

"It is better to go to a house of mourning
Than to go to a house of feasting,
Because that is the end of every man, And the living takes it to heart.
orrow is better than laughter,For when a face is sad a heart may be happy. 
The [d]mind of the wise is in the house of mourning,
While the [e]mind of fools is in the house of pleasure." (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4)

This past weekend, our family of three traveled ten hours to east Ohio for the funeral of one of Amber's family (we'll call her T) who died after a tough fight with cancer. She was married to J and left four children, the youngest of which is just three - born just a couple weeks after our daughter, Anna, thus rending our hearts a bit more than usual. 

Could it really be that it's better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting? Was this just the melancholic rant of a jaded cynic? Wouldn't it be better for us to just avoid the house of mourning and remain in the house of pleasure? Or, was Solomon on to something? Was he able to see, as CS Lewis says, "along the beam" of suffering and death, rather than merely staring straight into the beam and being so blinded to miss the point?

Death is the end of all mankind. If we only remain in the house of pleasure, we deny that which lays before us. There is no other door for us to walk through. Our bodies will each decay and perish. If that is so, where is hope? What is this life for? What am I living for? Is there life beyond the grave?

The house of mourning affords the opportunity to stop and reflect on these ultimate questions. In our pleasure-seeking, entertainment-driven, distraction-oriented culture, the house of mourning demands of us to stop, be still and listen. 

While sitting in the pew among a crowd of observers while the piano played beautiful melodies, listening to the pastor share intimate insights from T's final moments, standing in the cemetery among the gravestones while the cool autumn winds blew. I had the chance to reflect. Everyone who came to the funeral had this opportunity - a rare opportunity to learn from T's suffering and death. It was not wasted

In a final journal entry she pointed to her hope found in 1 Peter 1:3-6 - "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed."
These words were originally penned to a community of saints who were suffering some of the greatest persecution ever to befall Christians. If anyone ever knew the physical pains and sufferings associated with physical death, it was this group. Peter pointed them to the profound and unheralded hope which we, as believers in Jesus Christ, have because of his resurrection.

Resurrection: a word redefined, magnified, rightly positioned and personified by none other than Jesus of Nazareth. 

In one of the intimate portraits that the pastor painted, he shared an exchange between J & T. As T fought against the raging effects of cancer on her body, J told her he was praying for a miracle from the Lord. But, he said, the good news is that Jesus has already provided that miracle - through his resurrection! T was in a "win-win" situation, he said; either she pulls through or she dies in the living hope of the resurrection.

There is more to life than meets the eye. Just as a window in a mountain cabin exists to provide a view to a greater vista beyond, so can death provide us with a view into deeper realities which lie beyond. Whether we are given 30, 40, 50 or 100 years on this earth, we are just a "mere mist", James writes. But death doesn't have the final word. Through Jesus Christ, we can say "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15).

Yes, "all creation groans" still (Romans 8 - one of the most potent chapters in the Bible!). I groan as I look at this precious three year old girl and my heart groans for her. She won't have mommy there with her as she learns to ride a bike and starts school and learns how to talk to boys and begins to walk her own journey of faith and wrestles with life's big questions. It stings now, but the sting is not permanent. There is a living hope and permanent inheritance for all who now worship Jesus Christ. He will return and rightfully claim his authority over the entire cosmos; he will permanently eradicate the dissenters and ills which stand in opposition to his majestic kingdom of grace and justice and his people will bask in the light of his loving presence and reign with him in his new creation. 

The "sun will rise" for those whose life is hidden with Christ. This song comes to mind:

And, that is why it is better to go to the house of mourning.

Training Ourselves

Physical training is of some value...

But Godliness holds value in all things
Both in this life and in the life to come

For the first time in several years, I'm attempting to stick to a training regiment for a running race - the St. Jude half marathon this coming December right here in my new city. This isn't a big runners city, but there are still a good amount of running races, the St. Jude weekend in December being the granddaddy of them all.

I've taken such a casual attitude toward running for the past few years. I have not pushed myself. I have not made myself hurt. In short, I have not trained. Thus, I have not grown. I've sacrificed long term reward for short term comfort. I suppose I've kept myself mildly active, but I haven't pushed myself to discomfort in a long time.

It is all too easy for me to be an untrained individual. All the entropy leads towards lazy, undisciplined, convenient, instant gratification living.

What are the reasons I don't train? There is little accountability or structure to force me to train. There is little perceived immediate reward. I lack the intrinsic motivation. I'd rather consume and be happy than work hard and hurt. Also, I often suffer from FOMO - if I train for one thing, I'm missing out on something else! The ancient Proverb remains true: "without vision, the people perish."

What are reasons for training? It pushes me over new thresholds, to be stronger, persevering, tough-minded. It brings satisfaction - completing a goal feels good! Ultimately, it provides the opportunity to honor and please God - who is the God of order and cosmos, not chaos. Of course, training or no training, if I do either in pride, I am bound to fall.

Physical training has temporary value, but ultimately it is a tool to point us toward spiritual training. We are physical and spiritual creatures. Without spiritual training, we will sit on the couch and channel surf our way into disorder and destruction and death.

I'm thankful that God's Word - the Bible - says a great deal about training our spiritual lives. We are not invited into a life of cheap grace when we become worshipers of the one true God - no, it is a costly grace which asks us to train ourselves that we may keep ourselves from being "polluted by the world." Only because of God's first act of intentional grace am I able to respond in this way.

But, everywhere I look in my life I see a battle raging between my desire for immediate pleasure and the call to everlasting reward. Which one will I train myself for?

Come to think of it, I guess we are always training ourselves in something...

Overton park sings a tune

Verdant canopy
towering trees
singing birds
cool breeze
this forest sings a tune
to her king
awake o earth
arise you creatures
make a glad song
to your maker

What a widow's olive oil has to say to us today

There was a widow once who ran up to Elisha the prophet and laid out her story: "My husband is dead. He was a Godly man who worshiped Yahweh. But he was in debt and his creditors have come and threaten to throw my two boys into the labor camp." 

How does the prophet respond? What does a man of God do in this situation? 

Does he condemn the woman for being in debt? Does he write her a check? Does he invite her to the sanctuary for prayer?

"How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?" he asks.

Hmmm. Not the response I'd expect. Funny timing on this passage from 1 Kings 4:1-7 because in the past two weeks since arriving in Memphis I've had several men come up to me to ask for help and for money. I've been caught off guard after living the past four years within the world of campus ministry. But I suppose I had this happen in that context, too. Maybe it was, "I just failed my exam. My mom is not listening to me. I feel so alone. Help!" But, here in Memphis, I've had people approach me with tangible needs and I am sad to say I've felt full, no room for compassion. My knee jerk response is not compassion and mercy, but rather, "not now." 

So at work today when we opened this story from the pages of God's Word, I recognized the helpful timing of this story. 

Elisha genuinely wants to know how he can help, but he doesn't help in the way we'd expect. He first wants to know what the woman already has. It's a response which affirms her dignity as a woman made in the image of God. She is not a sorry charity case. She is a woman with faith, with poverty of spirit, with something already in her hands which God can use. 

"A small jar of olive oil."

Okay, God can work with this, Elisha thinks. He commissions the widow to turn around and go to all of her neighbors and ask for help: "Please, do you have any extra empty jars I could have?"

Wow, that's vulnerable. Go to my neighbors? Ask for help? Well, God's man told me to do it, and by golly, I've got nothing to lose! 

There's part of my problem. I have so much to lose, or so I think. I don't want to look undignified. I don't want to lose my time. I don't want to get used. Lord, help me. It's so much easier to feign ignorance, incapacity or to just fork over some change. 

So, the woman obeys. She collects jars. Her dearth of olive oil transforms to an abundance. 

Of course, Elisha is not the hero and neither is the widow. It's the God of Elisha and the God of the widow. The God who always has enough to go around, especially for a widow of faith who doesn't want to fall under the tyranny of injustice which threatens her sons freedom, her own well-being and the last shred of her dignity.

But, we can learn from Elisha and from the widow. Stay calm, focused, remembering that we worship a God who wants to act on behalf of widows. Don't be too quick to offer a casual handout of charity. Remember that God can involve the recipient of our "help" to use what they already have. He'll take it and multiply it. 

The Unexpected Neighbor

Knock. Knock. There stood my neighbor, dressed in his starch white Naval uniform. He had just completed his duties at a military funeral and returned earlier than usual. He didn't have a key to his house, which actually isn't his house. He and his wife and children are staying with in-laws for the time being. They just had their fifth baby and are in a time of need. His wife had the key and wasn't home yet, so he kindly asked if he could sit down and wait until she returned home in a few minutes. Of course, of course. Do you want anything to drink? Have a seat, have a seat. We began to converse and learned more about our neighbor. We learned that he has worked 300 funerals in a short period of time, in order to earn extra money to support his family, each funeral an optional opportunity for a reservist. He shared his history in the Navy and the current economic pressures he feels as he waits to see if he will be granted an extension to finish out his career in the reserves. If he is not, he will be forced to find another job, another job he confesses which he knows will pay very little. He shared about his concerns for future generations and the moral decline which is so pervasive everywhere he looks. He courageously asks if we will pray for him that he would be granted the extension so that he can finish out his career in the military and will be able to retire. He knows that any other job, with his age and level of education, will not allow him to provide for his family - especially a family which just introduced another newborn into the world. I am struck by his humble plea for prayer. This aging father, who has served in multiple war zones came to us and asked boldly for prayer believing that God would hear our prayer. He offered his hands and we joined ours to his as we stood in our living room, praying. He exited our home to greet his wife. I know that it was a privilege to be able to pray for this man, to stand beside my brother in his time of need.

What's this? What's this?

Have you seen Nightmare Before Christmas? Like a bear waking from his winter cave, the song "What's this?" stirred and stretched and sauntered out of my memory yesterday. Looking around at my new environment - new house, new neighbors, new city, new community, new colors, sights and sounds - my heart began to stir with a wonder and excitement I haven't felt for some time. I suppose all of this newness awakened the song, somewhat appropriately for this occasion as I look around at this place I now call home.

Unlike the "Christmas town" which Jack discovers where people are singing and throwing snowballs in the expectant dawn of Christmas, I am in Memphis, Tennessee. Certainly no snow here. But my eyes and ears are thirsty as they drink deeply from my new surroundings. My heart, too. I've been tired and restless of late and this move seems to be stirring me from a slumber. No, moving is not a quick fix. Our hearts are much more complicated than that. But I'm learning that sometimes you do need change. Not change for change sake, but change which turns on the hinges of something more solid and enduring. Something like a bigger vision of living life under the good and loving reign of Jesus Christ. His holy love transcends my undulating obedience and temperamental devotion. Thankfully, as I enter into this season of change, I can trust that he is bigger than the possible failures or fickleness which may be incipient in this change. I cling to the hope of his transforming grace which calls me out of the suffocating fears which threaten to numb and deaden me.

My prayer is that this "What's this?" perspective will not just be a temporary gust in my sails, but a threshold by which I cross over into a new way of living in the kingdom. May wonder and awe at my Father Creator grow within my soul like a spring ivy. May I think less about my changes and my perspective and more about what Jesus is doing around me.

Speaking of what he's doing around me, I look forward to sharing a brief story about a neighbor in my next post.

Tacitus, 120 AD, speaking of Christ

"Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea,"