Thursday, March 27, 2008

Confronting Racism: We've got to handle the truth!

One of my favorite movie clips of all time comes from the military drama, "A Few Good Men." The clip is pulled from the climatic scene of the movie where a highly decorated and supremely respected Marine Corps Colonel, played by Jack Nicholson, is confronted by a newly commissioned Naval Officer attorney, played by Tom Cruise, regarding the harshness of the discipline within the ranks of the elite unit the Colonel commands. When the young attorney presses the Colonel for information and demands the truth with respect to the training and discipline which has led to the death of a Marine, the Colonel responds with intense ferocity by explaining the harsh facts of the "Tip of the Sword" view of national defense and punctuates his remarks with the charge, "You can't HANDLE the truth!" I sometimes feel as if this phrase applies all too frequently in discussions of race in the United States and further believe the the inability to deal effectively with racial matters has particular and serious implications for the christian community within this nation.

As someone who came of age during the cresting of the US Civil rights movement, and who has ministered in two major American metropolitan areas with racially charged histories, I have viewed many of the highs and lows of race relations in some extremely tense situations. I have also witnessed first-hand the enormous complexities of dealing with racial conflicts and of attempting to bring about healing and understanding in situations where hope sometimes seemed all but lost. I have been reminded of this complexity as I have watched the development of Detroit's Mayoral crisis and have seen the history of race subtly and cleverly used as a shield to avert responsibility and buy credibility in a situation that really stems from a lack of personal integrity and professional accountability. I have been further reminded of the complexity of race through the highly polarized reactions to the comments of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose public and inflammatory comments I personally criticized in earlier entries, by people of every hue who profess sincere faith in Jesus Christ. How can people who follow the same Lord, see things so an issue so differently and why have we not made more progress in finding common ground in the issue of race through faith in Jesus on a grass roots level?

I believe the answer is identical to the retort of the aforementioned Marine Corps Colonel - "We can't HANDLE the truth!" Or perhaps I should adjust the charge and say, we don't really WANT to! It is easy to make superficial and symbolic gestures towards dealing with racism - we can sing songs, we can hold rallies, and we can even preach sermons from any vantage point one might choose, with rhetoric that either forces us to deny that painful events ever occurred or with alternative rhetoric that forces us to reopen old wounds with no possibility for healing in sight. How do we address the seemingly endless one step forward, two steps back approach to race and racism as people of the cross? I believe that Scripture shows us that "Handling the truth" means being able to face the reality of events too painful to remember, but too important to forget with courage, with candor and with complete faith in Jesus Christ. This is a faith that enables every Christian believer to say, "There's nothing that I have faced, nothing that I am facing, or nothing that I will face, that my Lord Jesus isn't aware of and can't work for my good and the good of others."

When it comes to dealing with racial matters, the pivotal point of this process is a willingness to discuss divergent historical viewpoints with honesty in a safe environment where hurts can be candidly shared, while forgiveness is graciously offered and received. A dear friend who has dedicated her life to reconciliation ministries throughout the world, recently told a group she addressed that people often try to reconcile "by building the roof of a house before they lay the foundation." In other words, they want to get to the end of the reconciliation project, without doing the hard work of confessing, repenting and forgiving. In our own communities and spheres of influence, we must create atmospheres where people can share their experiences and be heard with a willingness to allow them to expose their pain with an end towards healing their wounds. We must also be mindful of the unshakable demand our faith places upon us to take responsibility for own responses to the wrongs done to us and to exemplify Jesus Christ in the way we react to any injuries we suffer during the course of our lives. For this reason, we must lovingly challenge the wounded to keep moving forward and to allow the Lord to use their experiences not to incite others to hostility, but to motivate others to reconciliation. We must all display compassion and follow the way of the Cross, led by the Word of God, living bold and courageous lives that take on hate and overcome it with the love and forgiveness that was most powerfully demonstrated on the Hill of Golgotha by Jesus Himself.

The continuing challenge of this work of racial healing, is the willingness to get up and do it again every day until the Lord calls us home. Anyone who tries to deal with this issue, will have to be willing to hear similar stories and deal with familiar problems over and over again. Tenacity is necessary in addressing all human problems and must be applied in the trenches, one person at a time, day in and day out for as long as life endures. It takes tenacity to confront racism, with the understanding that our own continent's history with this problem is almost 400 years old and will not be quickly undone. As time rolls on, controversies will continue to emerge and people will continue to make racially charged statements that we find totally perplexing. Nevertheless, we must not throw our hands in the air in hopelessness, or dive into self-serving rants that make us feel good for the moment. As followers of Jesus Christ, we must instead seek to understand and seek to bring understanding to our nation's most persistently troubling issue - an issue that will continue to divide us and confound us until we have the courage to speak and live in the truth. Remember, Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." In Him, we can handle racism and whatever problems people may throw at us, because He is our life. With faith in Christ, we can handle the truth about racism and the truth of how to confront it. Because of Jesus' call on our lives as peacemakers, we've got to! Until next time...


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What We Preach, Part 2

"That boy sho' can preach!" It's an accolade that establishes a preacher within the African-American community as someone who can be counted on to inspire, motivate, encourage and even entertain a congregation to summon the strength to face life's challenges and difficulties with hope, confidence and enthusiasm. When one observes Sen. Obama's Pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright in action, it doesn't take long to grasp that he is someone who can indeed fire up his congregation and leave them with a sense of being understood, represented and heard in their daily struggles. It is also clear that Rev. Wright is very oratorically gifted and that he has considerable powers of persuasion that grab a listener's attention and that cause the faithful members of his flock to eagerly hinge on his every word. This ability is a prized one for most public communicators. For the Gospel preacher, however, this effect is always accompanied by the unshakable responsibility that one's information be Biblical, accurate and ultimately lead to healing, redemption and transformed living on the part of the listeners.

Rev. Wright's commitment to identify with his listeners is unquestionable, as is his desire to inspire them. The issues in question revolve around what role truth plays in the pursuit of pastoral inspiration, and how much poetic license can a pastor be allowed in seeking to creatively communicate to a congregation and anyone else who might happen to hear the message? These issues are of particular importance when addressing the issue of race.

One of the huge challenges in communicating effectively about race in any context is making a particular set of difficult life experiences understandable to a broad audience in a non-threatening way. This challenge is complicated by the fact that on Sunday mornings, the styles in which any subject is communicated to a Christian audience differ greatly between people groups, denominations, and even economic backgrounds. With these stylistic differences come various expectations, allowances and demands that make what is highly palatable in one cultural context, seem totally tasteless in another. For this reason, some common ground of expectation must be established that allows for truth and beauty to shine through, no mater what the stylistic method of delivery might be.

Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of being associated with a local Rotary club. One of the distinctive attributes of Rotary is a "Four Way Test" that is applied to all undertakings involving rotary members. The test is simple and is made up of the following questions:
Is it the truth?
Is it fair to all concerned?
Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

These are great questions to apply to the demand that healing and redemption must emerge from Gospel preaching, whatever the stylistic or cultural context from which the message is delivered.

Is the preaching the truth? One of the problems that emerges from Rev. wright's preaching is the blurring of fact with anecdotal fiction. Though hyperbole can be useful in humorously driving a point home, such as Jesus' telling his listeners to remove the logs from their own eyes before attempting to deal with the "toothpicks" in their neighbors, it is counterproductive when attempting to build a factual case that illustrates an important truth. Why was it necessary for Rev. Wright to cite what amount to urban legends regarding problems of race in the US when there are plenty of historical and statistical facts that would better illustrate the point without ruining his credibility? Why use misinformation and fabrications to support an argument that by its very sensitive nature demands the use of the most verifiable facts possible? Why risk one's reputation and trustworthiness beyond one's own circle of influence by making outrageous statements that just have no basis at all in the truth?

Is the preaching fair? One of the elements of Scripture I find so reassuring is the fairness in judgement that is evident throughout its pages. As the prophets thunder judgement upon the nations, they never fail to mention any redeeming qualities even the most wicked societies might have possessed. When God informs Abraham of His plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham makes the following appeal,
Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

The answer is, of course, yes He will do right and the Lord shows His willingness to stay His judgement for even a handful of people. When addressing the problems of race in America, it is imperative to acknowledge the tremendous progress that has been made even as stubborn residual problems persist. This duality of the race issue in the United States was well-expressed by Carl B. Stokes, the first Black mayor of a major US city, Cleveland, who said, "We ain't where we need to be, but thank God, we ain't where we used to be!" While there are issues of race that are heartbreaking, emotionally taxing, and still beg to be confronted, Rev. Wright's credibility to those outside of his congregation and community would have been strengthened by acknowledging the progress that has been made and the opportunities that have arisen from over three centuries of struggle by justice-loving people of all backgrounds and origins on this continent.

I will address both the third and fourth questions of the four-way test jointly. Does the preaching build goodwill and better friendships and is the message beneficial for all concerned? It seems that Rev. Wright's explosive rhetoric betrays a lack of concern that he is most likely demolishing bridges of understanding in attempting to build a road to success. Rev. Wright's use of untruths, half-truths, distortions, faulty theology and shaky spirituality in the communication of his message obliterates good will and abandons the Good News of Jesus Christ which is at its heart, a message of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5 reminds Christians that we are obligated to shun "the world's" tactics built on anger, hatred and retribution and duty-bound to cling to the conciliatory message of Jesus Christ.
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

The passage leaves no room for wiggling. We are Christ's ambassador's called to behave as though God Himself were making an appeal for reconciliation through us. A little further along in 2 Corinthians, Paul dismisses any attempt to justify "preaching with an attitude" or "arrogance-based sermonizing". He states that,
We demolish arguments and every high-minded thing that is raised up against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

This means that no philosophy based on ethnic superiority can be allowed to shape our preaching. Neither can we allow skewed and distorted theological systems formed by ungodly presuppositions to influence how we communicate the message of Jesus. We must oppose any manifestation of prejudice, ethnic superiority or cultural arrogance. We are Ambassadors of Jesus Christ, called to present the truth in love, rising above the miry clay of stereotyping and race baiting while fulfilling our ministries with an aim to be reconciled to our God and our neighbors, building bridges of understanding and forming friendships of goodwill whenever and wherever we can in the Name of Jesus. This is what we are to practice. This is what we are to preach. Until next time...


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What We Preach, Part 1

The Book of James issues a stern warning to anyone desiring to become involved in a Christian teaching or preaching ministry:
My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.

There is no escaping the clear expectation of close scrutiny for anyone who aspires to a ministry requiring the utilization of public speaking gifts as a primary function of Christian service.

The incendiary comments of Presidential Candidate Barak Obama's pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, have come under intense scrutiny and have elicited responses ranging from unqualified support to raging opposition. Many of Rev. Wright's comments have been framed by him and by others who support him as candid and necessary insights into the plight of African-American people in US society today. His comments have also been described by others as venomous, divisive diatribes that have no place in the pulpit and betray a most un-Christian and unholy character within the pastor. It is of utmost importance that the appropriateness or inappropriateness of Rev. Wright be addressed and that a clear sense of exactly how a pastor should address difficult and potentially divisive topics be established. In what I plan to be the first of several entries on the subject, I will set some parameters for what preachers are to use as guideposts in their addressing difficult topics. I will then follow up with a head-on discussion of dealing with the subject of race as an African American pastor in the 21st Century United States.

When the apostle Paul was led to give his protege Timothy instructions on how to execute his preaching ministry in the midst of difficult and complex times, he issued these instructions:

Before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom, I solemnly charge you: preach the word; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will accumulate teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. But as for you, keep a clear head about everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

These instructions also apply to those of us who have been called to preach in this era. Note that Paul begins this bit of instruction with a warning - a warning similar to the one issued by James - Remember you are going to be judged. Jesus taught that all people will be held accountable for every idle word they utter - how much more those of us who attempt to publicly offer words of instruction and guidance for others. Paul then commands us to "preach the word" - to insure that our message is based on the solid foundation of Scripture and that we consistently submit ourselves to the principles and commands of Scripture whether we are correcting, encouraging or informing. Our message cannot be driven by a pursuit of popularity or mass affirmation, but must be driven by an unshakable commitment to bring our listeners back to the convicting pages of Scripture in a relentless pursuit of truth and a wholesale abandonment of myths, untruths and sordid rumors. Paul also instructs teachers to be patient, keep a clear head, and to endure hardship so that the work we have been called to do will have the maximum potential to result in changed lives and communities, not merely worked up/stirred up emotions.

Pastors have the difficult, but unwavering challenge to present the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth with patience, love and much, much grace. As they exhort and correct, preachers must never forget that they themselves are the recipients of God's marvelous forgiveness. There have been occasions in the past when I entered the pulpit with anger in my heart and a desire to "set someone straight" burning within me. When those times came, and I am sure they will come again, I have to force myself to remember I am not called to carry out a personal vendetta when I preach, but to communicate God's unwavering standards and His unquenchable love - The Truth in love - Scripture commands. It further commands me to allow no unwholesome thing to come out of my mouth. When broaching a subject as heavy and as significant as race in the United States, it becomes especially important to discipline oneself to not only to aim to connect with an audience, but to be led by the Holy Spirit in a way that will communicate the truth with conviction, enlightenment and healing as the by-products.

In my next blog, entry, I will address how the aforementioned foundations for preaching impact addressing the subject of race, and also offer my personal opinion on Rev. Wright's style and substance. Until then...


Monday, March 10, 2008

Spiritual Reminders From A High School Musical

For the past three months, a very significant portion of our daughter Joana's life has been devoted to her participation in the Grosse Pointe North High School's production of the Musical "Guys and Dolls." Joana has participated in musicals since her elementary years, but was particular excited about stepping up the the "big leagues" of high school theatre. It turned out to be a rather demanding commitment with almost daily rehearsals after school during the week, several all day Saturday rehearsals as well as fittings for costumes, extensive choreography and other requirements necessary to put together a top-notch performance. I have to admit that process tested our whole family at times with conflicting schedules, last minute adjustments, long waits in the parking lot for the end of practice and other unplanned inconveniences that at times put families involved in such an undertaking on edge. On several occasions I asked myself with the sight of the performance unseen on my part, "Can all of this craziness REALLY be worth it?" Well, as the commercial used to say, "The proof of the pudding is in the taste" and now having seen the actual performance I can say without any doubt that the "taste of the pudding" was delightful!

Having gone through a few High School Musicals in my time, as a participant and as a the parent of two now-grown daughters with their own High School performance histories, I can confidently state that almost all High School performances are fun to watch, but not all are good. This years production by GP North was both! The preparation and imagination put into the production was clear from the opening curtain, and it didn't take long at all to be pulled into the story and its characters to forget, for a time, that you were not watching fully grown adults from a different time and place, but High School Students from Southeast Michigan putting on quite a show! Most of our family was present- my wife, our three-year-old , our oldest daughter and her husband were there with me as well as a few dear friends from church. Only our second-born and her husband could not make it as she had commitments in South Carolina where she is finishing her undergraduate degree.

The plot of the musical-comedy made for especially compelling viewing for my family and me as it focused on the struggles of the downtown Save-A-Soul Mission and its daunting task to make headway in the rough and tumble, hard-living gangster society of mid 20th Century New York City. In spite of earnest efforts, the missionaries just could make headway into the gangster culture through street preaching and Bible Studies. When a couple of lovable big time gamblers make a bet regarding the ability of one of them to secure a date with a particularly attractive and dedicated missionary, a comedic love story and an unlikely spiritual journey ensue.

Luz and I could identify with many elements of the story from the beginning. We both met as missionaries serving the extremely poor at a conference developing global strategies for ministering to the impoverished. At the time, it seemed that Luz was virtually "married" to the ministry in which she was involved and I felt that my chances of capturing her heart were extremely remote. Her commitment to the ministry was, however, very similar to my own and it was that commitment that eventually brought us together as soul mates. The on-stage courtship brought back many fond memories.

Nevertheless, it was the devotion of the missionaries in the story and their willingness to think outside the box that particularly resonated with us. Their goal was to get "12 sinners" into that mission by the time their supervising missionary came in for her periodic evaluation of their work and their desperation led them to do the unthinkable - get involved in the lives of the people they were seeking to reach. Though the "romance" is the primary focal point of the musical, friendships are developed with members of the gamblers extended networks of friends by the missionaries. As a closeness develops, both the missionaries and the gamblers see each others humanity, walls come down and both the seekers and the sought are transformed into better and more complete people than they were when the adventure began.

My family has seen these principles in action over the course of our years of service as overseas and inner-city missionaries and in or local church ministry too. When asked why he befriended "sinners" Jesus informed his critics that His purpose was to "seek and save that which was lost." He got so close to the less desirable elements of society that the spiritually uninformed counted him among their ranks. In our time in ministry, Luz and I have found that we have been called again and again to go places where nobody wanted to go, to reach people nobody wanted to reach only to see the Lord change lives nobody believed could be changed, including and especially our own! My mentor in Seminary, a wonderful man named Tom Petty who has now gone on to his Heavenly Home gave me this charge: "You've got to be willing to be a nobody, willing to tell everybody, about Somebody Who can reach anybody!"

My congratulations to the students and staff of Grosse Pointe North for a job well done and my thanks for reminding me of what I'm called to do and how I'm called to do it.