Wednesday, April 25, 2007

There's STILL Work to be Done!

Celebrations are fun. Work many times, is not. The pursuit of building understanding between people of different backgrounds and cultures can generate as much cause for celebration as it exposes the need for more work. This week in the news, I came across two stories - one that gives us cause to celebrate why it pays to be tenacious in breaking down barriers - the other gives us more understanding in just how much work remains for building cultural understanding and undoing damage from the past.

First, the cause for celebration. Thanks to the determination of the leadership of the Class of 2007, one Georgia High School is having the FIRST integrated prom in its history. The school itself has been integrated for many, many years, but up to this year, students have been content to keep their school relations strictly on a scholarly or athletic basis. Social contact just wasn't welcomed. The leaders of the Turner County High School Class of 2007, however, decided that enough was enough. Starting a grassroots movement for school unity, they began by convincing their fellow students that it was time to come together. Once they had the support of the student body and then the approval of administration, the school crowned its first solo Homecoming Queen in the Fall - there had previously been two queens crowned for each Homecoming, one Black and one White. This success naturally spawned the pursuit of a unified Prom. The development has become a source of hope and a much needed breath of fresh air to a community that has experienced hard times due to increasing economic difficulties. Though work remains to be done, one lingering vestige of a meaner, harsher era has come tumbling down due to refusal of a few dedicated student leaders to "let dead dogs lie."

Now for the work. A Black Canadian woman of West Indian origin was horrified when her elementary-aged daughter found an official tag stapled to the back of a new couch she had just had delivered to her home listed as "'n----r' brown!" Her child stated that she was familiar with brown, but had never heard that of that other color. When the woman confronted the Store Owner, he denied knowing about the description and himself being an immigrant, expressed ignorance of the meaning of the word. The supplier blamed the word on a computer error it said was traceable to China. Incredibly, the Chinese Company that manufactured the couch admitted that the description had come from an older bilingual dictionary that used the "N-word" to translate the term "dark Brown!" This is an amazing display of how deeply prejudices can effect even the other cultures with which we interact. If you think this story is outrageous and beyond belief, I have a personal story for you. Once,while serving in a severely economically depressed area in the Philippines I was greeted with a loving hug and a beaming smile by a young boy wished to express his thankfulness for my ministry efforts in terms I could understand. In his best American English he stepped back after hugging me, gave me a big thumbs up and said, "God bless you Mr. N-----r!" Talk about mixed emotions! Of course, I knew what he meant and I knew that he had no idea of the impact of the word he had just used and I lovingly accepted his heartfelt gesture. Nevertheless, I was somewhat troubled that in an area where the interactions with Americans were mostly with people involved in either missions or relief organizations - in other words, good and compassionate people who care about bringing people together - this word had emerged as the descriptive term for people who looked like me.

The Bible warns us that our "sin will find [us] out." In other words, the wrongs we fail to completely and thoroughly correct, will continue to annoy us until we do the exhaustive work of making things right. That is why when I am asked to participate in "reading days" in elementary schools, I pick a story written in English and Spanish, and when I speak to High School students, I mention that I was required to study other languages in Seminary - we have to learn about other cultures so that we can spread truth and correct error. This doesn't allow us to remain lazy and rely on stereotypes, but it forces us to get inside the heads of others and the ways they think, discovering both things we have in common and important, but not necessarily negative, differences.

My wife and I took some time to explain acceptable and unacceptable ways to describe Americans of African decent during our mission and I know I'm going to do some more research into just how Chinese dictionaries describe various shades of brown or black for English translation. Somewhere, there's some cultural bridge building work for you to do too. Maybe it's in an employment situation, among friends, family or acquaintances or with somebody who's trying to find out what this country's all about. Just keep working, keep celebrating and don't ever give up! In the end you'll make a difference and you'll have a reward from your Heavenly Father who is well pleased with this kind of effort! Until next time,


Monday, April 23, 2007

The Reality of Evil - A Follow-up on the Virgina Tech Tragedy

How could he do it? Why would he do it? What would drive a college senior to arm himself, casually walk into a dorm and classroom facilities and kill 32 people then himself? As all of us search for answers, we stay tuned to TV news reports and special editions, turn to newspaper articles, log onto blogs and chat rooms hoping to find some explanation that will unlock the secret of exactly what went so horribly wrong.

Chuck Colson, the well-known Christian worker, author and social analyst, has spanned the globe reaching out to the individuals considered the most "untouchable" by virtually every society of humanity - encarcerated criminals. In his travels, Colson often asks the correctional staffs what they believe causes inmates to commit their crimes. Generally, especially in Europe, the answer is "Mental Illness". While it is true that mental illness is a factor in many cases of the crimes committed throughout the world, there is a strong sense that there is something more foundationally causal that fules the fires of mental illness, aberrant behavior and destructive violence that we see in the world around us. The Bible says, that something is evil. Colson explains:

As we seek to understand what happened and why... it is vital that we not exclude an important part of the equation: evil.

Faced with this kind of horror, we automatically assume that we are dealing with a madman—a word the media has already used to describe the killer. That's because we can't imagine ourselves or anyone we know doing anything remotely like this. Therefore, we conclude that something must have been "wrong" with the perpetrator.

And, since our culture is defined by what sociologist Philip Rieff called the "therapeutic ethos," the "something" that's "wrong" must be a psychological defect. Mental illness, not human evil, is our preferred explanation for what happened in places like Blacksburg or Columbine.

I would add this - the types of mental illness that might contribute to a Blacksburg or a Columbine are not adequately explained without the consideration of evil. Scripture warns us that our life struggle is not merely a war of flesh and blood, neurons and synapses, the visible and the measureable, but our struggle is ultimately a Spritual battle against powerful and authoritative forces of wickedness, darkness and evil. Of course, this assertion is troubling and disarming because we are severely limited in and of ourselves to wage war with these unseen spiritual forces. The freedom to bear arms has no effect in deterring the power of Satan. Arm yourself to the teeth with firearms, and there is still no guarantee that some form of evil will not find it's way to vex you.

For this reason, we MUST remember a few truths that will prepare us to effectively fight this battle.

First, remember the nature of the battle:
Ephesians 6 reminds us that,
"...[W]e are not fighting against people made of flesh and blood, but against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against those mighty powers of darkness who rule this world, and against wicked spirits in the heavenly realms."
We call these beings, demons. They are not fantasy characters from horror films, but sinister beings aligned with God's archenemy, Satan, who seek to thwart God's plan of redemtion and to bring the lives of all people to ruin and misery.

Second, remember the nature of the weapons:
The Ephesians 6 passage continues to address the "Spritual War by listing and explaining the essential spiritual weapons,
"Use every piece of God’s armor to resist the enemy in the time of evil, so that after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the sturdy belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News, so that you will be fully prepared. In every battle you will need faith as your shield to stop the fiery arrows aimed at you by Satan. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times and on every occasion in the power of the Holy Spirit. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all Christians everywhere."
This spiritual battle is one that requires us to have a personal relationship with the Lord that we continually cultivate through Bible study, prayer, and sharing the Truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Lastly, remember who our commander is:
1 Samuel 17:47 reminds us that we are not to fight our own battles in this realm, but must remember that, "the LORD does not save with sword and spear - for the battle is the LORD’S"! Our Life Commander can strengthen us, encourage us, deliver us and fight for us in every battle with evil. He is able to be all that we need in the most heated part of the battle with evil.

Evil is real and a part of the fallen world in which we live. It is an aspect of life for which the Bible warns us to be prepared at all times. Ignoring the reality of evil in favor of solely "naturalistic and rational" explanations for the inexplicable dangers and tragdies of life is dangerous. Nevertheless, we don't have to live in fear of evil. Let's be confident in the Lord and the spiritual weapons Jesus has given us to fight the good fight and to be prepared no matter what situation may come our way. Until next time,


Monday, April 16, 2007

Depravity and The Violence Among Us

The tragic massacre at Virginia Tech punctuates in a most definitive manner the increasing atmosphere of violence that plagues our nation. Not only are we at war overseas, but we are at war amongst ourselves, fighting for the security of our children on our own shores, with casualty rates that continue to mount year after year.

My first exposure to a high profile, news-stopping murder case was as a Grade School Student at Fort Bragg, NC. The ruthless murder of the family of Green Beret Doctor Jeffrey MacDonald shook all who lived at "The Home of the Airborne" - a tight military community that just couldn't believe such a tragedy could happen on our turf. It was especially shocking because then, as now, we were a nation at war and this unbelievable event was so vicious that it temporarily eclipsed the dominant news of the Vietnam War. At first, it was thought that a band of thugs has committed the crime. This belief put everyone on edge and made our walks to school seem more like military marches with everyone forced to walk in large groups with an escort of Paratroopers between designated rallying points and school. Our parents, trained in the use of weapons, all purchased personal weapons, determined that no wandering band of marauders would catch them unawares. No one could believe it when the discovery was made that Dr. Mac Donald himself, a Green Beret sworn to free the oppressed, had violated the trust of his own family in the worst way, murdering them in their own home. The question plagued us all, "How could someone who seemed to have everything going for him - a great career, a beautiful family and a wonderful and supportive community - do something that so violated everything he and the community stood for?" It seemed that peace was elusive not only abroad, but at home as well.

So here we are, more than 30 years later, and we awaken once again to the horrible scene of violence at home. Emergency vehicles everywhere, a shocking scenario unfolding and at the end of it all, the big questions loom on every one's mind - Why?
How could this happen in such a peaceful. low key, All American setting? We expect this in a combat zone and we half expect it in the "Big City", but Hometown USA? How could it happen there? In spite of the fact that we have more freedom, more comfort, more knowledge, more recreation, and more luxury than any society that ever lived, the "Good Ole USA" is among the most homicidal developed nations on the face of the earth. Where is this violence coming from?

Jesus describes the time of the end as a time much like the "Days of Noah"! Genesis describes those days as "filled with violence." In fact, Genesis tells us that violence and depravity [were] everywhere. The word, "depravity" particularly stands out. Depravity describes a human state of being that does not submit to or consider God and His requirements. It is a word that highlights a human tendency to ignore God in our dealings with a result that is never positive and at it's worst, is perverse, destructive, chaotic and ultimately deadly. I believe it is especially telling that these tragedies aren't confined to our "worst" communities, but occur in some the safest places we know - A Military Post, A patriotic Texas Town, A secure Colorado Suburb, a simple and peace loving Amish Community and an All-American Virginia College Campus. Each event is a stark reminder that depravity is universal and that evil is crouching at the door just as it was at the beginning when Cain's murder of Able shattered the security of the very first family.

This Eviland Depravity with which we contend each day can only be held at bay by the Overcoming Power of Jesus Christ which is available to anyone who is willing to surrender themselves to His loving care. Knowing Jesus doesn't mean that one will be spared from the fall out of Evil, but it offers assurance that peace can be enjoyed in the most tumultuous of circumstances. This peace is what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he declared "I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me." We can endure anything thrown at us good, bad or painfully tragic when we realize that Christ is with us to comfort us and guide us through every storm, even should we die in its raging. This confidence is what we call faith - not a blind faith that is based on wishful thinking, but a faith based on the reality of Jesus' own resurrection and the certain hope of ultimate victory that is ours if we don't faint.

Therefore, don't be surprised by the constant parade of tragedies - such is a world plagued by depravity. Rather seize the hope that is available from the one who left us with these words, "In this world you have tribulation, but be of good cheer - I have overcome the World!" Until next time,


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Dealing With Harsh Words

It seems every week a new high profile person is issuing an apology for saying something outrageous. We are seeing an incredible increase in on-the-air outbursts that include racial epithets, comments demeaning to women, statements that are insulting to people of various political persuasions or just plain ole rudeness. One would think in this era of political correctness, our public speech would increase in civility and decrease in coarseness. Sadly, I believe the voluminous increase in embarrassing speech shows we are retrogressing in the area of public restraint and grace in the way we talk.

This increase in hurtful speech is also heard on the streets everyday. As a youth, I remember hearing peers who were "big and bad" cussing like sailors out of the earshot of adults, but converting to the whispering, respectful tones of a monastery if there was even the hint of an adult presence. This is no longer the case. I am at the point where I want to issue ear muffs to my children before we go to the Mall, because I know that 9 times out of 10 we are likely to hear someone with a "potty mouth" hurling obscenities with the efficiency of a Cold War Era Drill Instructor and not caring who hears them! We clearly have a serious cultural problem!

With the celebrities of late who have been publicly diagnosed with "Acute foot in mouth disease" the suggested prescription goes something like this: 1. Apologize profusely on as many broadcast outlets as possible. 2. Seek out the most publicly renowned person of the group you have insulted, beg their forgiveness and seek to open up a dialogue with as many of their comrades as you can. 3. Check into rehab. This is a start. It is appropriate, Biblical, and Christian to apologize when we injure others and it is certainly appropriate to seek to make amends for harm done whenever possible.

The problem with the emotional and relational damage of words is that unlike physical injuries, the wounds words inflict can take generations to heal and can hurt others beyond the immediate group at whom our ill-intentioned words were aimed. The "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" adage just isn't true. And rehab...Can anyone be sure that a week or two of therapy in a comfortable if not luxurious setting can really change behavior? I might be more convinced if there were specialized modules of "Scared Straight" clinics where the offender was forced to face the most intimidating members of the group offended in closed quarters for a month!

Even these efforts leave us hollow and seem to fall short. More than anything, the contrite words and humble apologies come off as efforts to save a career not to truly make amends. What, then, do we do? Well, we can begin first by remembering what Scripture says, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Before I begin to beat up on anyone without mercy, I need to check my attitude and remind myself of the times I have made harmful statements and offended others by the things I said. Next I need to remember that Jesus says that the harmful things we say proceed from our hearts, not an empty vacuum or "heat of the moment". Harmful words betray some kind of issue lurking inside us. Even Christians sometimes have areas we have not brought under the Lord's control and spew unbelievable verbal sewage that brings shame on ourselves, other Christians and our Lord - How much more non-Christan's! Taking this fact into account, it is clear that mere apologies and rehab will not ultimately solve the problem of heinous verbal spewage. What is needed is a heart transplant, a spirit overhaul and a mind transformation. Of course, I'm talking about being reborn through a relationship with Jesus Christ and consequently allowing Him to renew us in the ways we feel and think.

The Scripture commands us to stop being conformed to the World System, and to submit ourselves to be transformed by God by having our minds renewed by His Spirit so that we may prove through our actions what is good, acceptable and perfect according to His will. This process would transform and govern everything about us, including the way we think which ultimately influences the way we speak. If my mind is transformed to be like the mind of Jesus, I will consider others before I consider myself, not looking down on them with condescension, but looking directly at them with compassion and an earnest desire to understand and bring healing.

For this reason, when I consider the harmful words of the latest celebrity Bad Boy, my heart goes out to him. If I could say anything to him and others who find themselves in similar situations, I would say, "As a Christian and a gentleman, I accept your apology. However, I challenge you to go beyond trying to save your job, and invite you to turn to the One who can save your soul and transform you inside and out so that you will be far less likely to even have the desire to say something that could be considered harmful or destructive. My friend, let your heart be transformed so your speech will be reformed." That's the kind of rehab we all need.

Until next time,


Monday, April 2, 2007


Labels can be very helpful. They can assist us in understanding the content and quality of the products we are buying and how long the products might be of use to us. In those instances, I like labels and depend heavily upon them to lead me to deeper understanding and to help me make sound choices. When it comes to labeling Human Beings, however, labels can be more problematic and often lead to misunderstanding and a breakdown in communication.

A few days ago, my teen aged daughter was sharing what went on during her day at school and told me of an incident involving "human labeling" that I found absolutely astounding. She recalled having lunch with her classmates and discussing the latest goings on, when one of her friends of a different ethnicity suddenly shared that they liked her because she didn't "act Black." Not being one to back down from an awkward situation, my daughter asked what this individual considered "acting Black." My daughter listened with astonishment as this very misinformed friend listed a series of less than flattering attributes that they associated with "Blackness." When my daughter tried to assist the friend by bringing some positive perspective to the situation and to the friends understanding of "Blackness" in general, the friend didn't miss a beat. "But you're half Asian", the friend answered, "So that kind of washes out the Black stuff." Some at the table nodded their heads in agreement while others stared in disbelief.

Flabbergasted, another one of my daughter's friends who is originally from East Africa interjected, "And what does that say about me?" Undeterred, the friend added, "Oh you're different too, because you're directly from Africa, not one of the Blacks from here." All attempts to educate this friend and to bring awareness to the situation went for naught. The imprint of the labels was just too deep.

To this friend, the label "Black" has an exclusively negative meaning directed only towards African Americans. The adjectives, "unsophisticated", "unruly", "undisciplined", "undependable" and "ineducable" are just some of the flawed descriptions this individual would attribute to American-born Blacks. This label has such power, that even when the fallacious nature of the label is exposed, the label persists - Black American = not good!

Of course, these aren't the only labels used to relegate people to a less than desirable status. We all tend to assign labels to marginalize or demonize people we don't have the desire to get to know. We use terms like "conservative", "liberal", "radical", "fundamentalist", "lunatic fringe", "outsider", "special interest group" to make certain people appear less sympathetic or even worse. less human than ourselves. It's part of the baggage of our sinful nature.

One well known broadcaster of yesteryear attributed this practice of labeling to selfishness and laziness. He believed that people were simply too selfish and too lazy to do the work of understanding others. After all, it takes work to learn a language, courage to engage a culture, patience to understand a way of life and selflessness to take the risk of being rejected as you reach out. It might even take a lifetime to make headway towards really learning about someone beyond a label.

Jesus, however, is calling Christians to do to the redemptive work of getting beyond labels. He has charged His people to be His witnesses in the places familiar to us, the places on the wrong side of the tracks from us and even the places that are totally strange to us to the point of laying down our lives if we must. His imperative, known as the Great Commission, calls Christians to learn unknown languages, eat unfamiliar food and love people long considered unlovable for the purpose of making God's redemption known to everyone. As a matter of fact, Jesus says when we minster and reach out in His Name to those we consider the least desirable, we're really ministering to Him!

My daughter's lunchtime occurrence clearly exposes the need to carry out Jesus' imperative. If American Middle School students in 2007 are labeling each other with such recklessness, much work remains to be done. Hearts must be touched and minds must be transformed - that's the power of the Gospel. For this reason, I still have hope - The Bible unequivocally affirms that people can be changed by the power of God if His people are willing to continue in reaching beyond barriers and labels.

I take some comfort in the fact that my daughter and her friends continue to eat together, and laugh together and still work at trying to get past the labels in spite of the difficulties. I believe that this effort pleases Jesus - people stumbling along, sometimes even stumbling over each other, but never giving up on doing the work God has called them to do in bringing healing and understanding between people. Those kinds of people are called "Peacemakers." That's a label I'd like to see spread around.

Until next time,