Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Struggle of Huddled Masses

Humanity is greatly characterized by contradictions, tensions and conflict.  The United States, as an open society, generally presents its contradictions and conflicts in the open without dilution, for the entire world to behold, even when the conflict is ugly, painful and embarrassing.  The same nation that declared all equal, intentionally forced some to its shores in chains, and forbade at least half of its population from participating in its political process – for a time.  The same nation that lifts its lamp beside the golden door, beseeching the tired and poor from around the world to partake of its goodness, has from time to time vacillated between those it eagerly welcomes as Americans and those it grudgingly accepts.

No nation’s character is static, and the United States is no exception.  America’s ethos is fluid, changing between generations and morphing into shapes that are sometimes unrecognizable until they have taken a form that stuns all those who love this land and the ideal that represents it. Ideals are difficult to attain, and within my lifetime, I have seen America struggle to live up to its ideal several times over, for a variety of reasons.  This present age represents a shockingly uncertain era in American History.  Cohesion seems illusive.  Congeniality appears ungraspable.  Unity is all but impossible.  In America’s current state, even “facts” are constantly in dispute causing one to wonder if even the mighty “2+2” will ever again be “4” with any meaningful degree of certainty.

This land of the free is now in upheaval regarding issues of immigration and refugees.  The issues are complex and the opinions about how to resolve those issues are varied and in conflict.  I have been privileged to live a life that has exposed me to many sides of this current dilemma.  I am the descendant of African Slaves and English immigrants.  Over half of my family was not born on these shores, but under another flag beneath the same sun.  Those family members and I went through a thorough and sometimes harrowing and even dehumanizing process of legal immigration, paying painstaking attention to every “jot and tittle” of the law so that we could eventually, as a family, live together beneath Old Glory as an American Family.  I saw it as my duty as an American to obey the law and called my family to do the same. We did so even to the point of personal humiliation. Our efforts, nevertheless, were fruitful, and we all now live as committed and loyal citizens of the United States of America.

As ministers of the Gospel, my family’s duty to God has led us to help anyone we believed the Lord brought across our path – anyone.  That has led to a variety of solutions to complex human problems with answers and results that were often – creative.  While I can’t guarantee the accolades of people in some of our courses of action, I sleep soundly each night believing we have supported godly justice, even when choosing the “harder right over the easier wrong,” understanding that righteousness and legality are sometimes in tension with each other. At other times, we have challenged others to make painful decisions, convinced by their explanations that their dreams might be more righteously met in a place different than they imagined.  The issues are as varied and complex as the stories of those who represent them.

In this season of high tension and broad disunity, it is my prayer that false characterizations of proposed solutions to these complex problems would cease, and that true dialogue and a mutual pursuit of the common good would eventually emerge.  America is beautiful, but it has issues.  We must find ways to live out the charge issued to ancient Israel in Leviticus 19:34 which states, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” At the same time, we must keep ourselves safe while we keep ourselves free – free for ourselves and open for those “yearning to breathe free” with us.  In the midst of these very turbulent times and our painful struggles, we will eventually discover “If [this] nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” God, help us, please!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Minding The Messengers

The manner in which an argument is presented is of as much importance as the person chosen to make it.  When I consider the crass nature of verbal exchange that is becoming normative for presenters of any side of issues currently being debated, I reflect upon how the more effective movements of the past were presented.   These movements had goals beyond gathering people together and being noticed for size.  Great attention was given to make sure that the right representatives spoke as the voices of the movement and that their words presented the case being made with clarity and excellence. The ultimate power to persuade came through a singular, clearly articulated message, delivered by clear minded, articulate leaders.  During the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, whether one considers Dr. King, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Barbara Jordan or Shirley Chisholm, one always could be assured that their rhetoric would be powerful, clear, rooted in morality and free of vulgar and obscene references. We are failing to maintain this standard in our time.

In our contemporary efforts to speak freely, we are trending towards communicating lazily.  We are failing to take the time to craft thoughtful, powerful and precise language that enables us to skillfully persuade and convince. Instead, we rely on the brute force of obscenity, vulgarity and rancor to shock opposing views with incessant verbal bombing.  The problem with conducting a bombing campaign towards an opposing view is that it tends to harden those who hold the other view against you rather than to soften them towards considering a different point of view.  This results in shouting matches that continue without resolution, breaking only to reload for the next assault.

The time has come to clean up the rhetoric, cut out the rancor and to take on the hard work of skillfully crafting a thoughtfully prepared argument, backed by a beautifully lived life, exemplified by a trustworthy representative who communicates and demonstrates the reality of the points being made. It is also time to yank the mic away from the lips of those who waste airtime with vile vocal eruptions and to demand more from anyone who dares to think they may represent certain views in a more formal manner.  Fame does not guarantee persuasive ability. Being able to memorize amazing words for a script or to sing sweet melodies at concerts, does not ensure that one is the best choice to represent the voice of a movement or a people.

Dr. King did not emerge from thin air.  He was carefully and thoughtfully affirmed by others who had done the foundational work and cared enough about their future to test him by fire so that when he was introduced onto the national scene, his power, presence, and character would sustain the momentum needed to project the cause to its rightful place in American society.  We must look among ourselves for individuals who exemplify similar trustworthiness for the causes we hold dear.  It is now time for us to guard the mics, watch the keyboards and mind the Messengers in our contemporary arena of ideas. The cacophony of furious, indistinct sound has already begun and it may be too late to produce the atmosphere of reason that might open opportunities for the sweet songs of healing to begin. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Awakenings: Life the Morning After The Dream

It is the day after the holiday established in honor of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King’s life and legacy.  Yesterday was filled with tributes and reflections that paid homage to this iconic American leader and paused to give attention to the causes of equality that characterized the days he walked this earth.  Remembering the battle to establish a holiday in his honor, it is a blessing to see so many give attention to his writings, actions and particularly his dream.  Nevertheless, I intentionally chose not to write anything on that momentous occasion.  Why not?  My heart is not so much inspired by the dream as much as my soul is now stirred by a sanctified vision of engaging the current reality. It is my conviction that what we do now that matters more than what he dreamed then.

For me, Dr. King laid a foundation upon which those of us who follow should build.  He dreamed not for us to dream, but rather for us to work in the context of the realities we face daily towards the better day of which he dreamed.  At this stage of my soul is deadened towards utopian dreams of equality while my spirit is quickened by the conviction that we must stop dreaming and take righteous action towards establishing a more loving and harmonious society. 

What do I mean by “take action?”  Let me establish first what I do not mean.  I do not mean marching, sitting, chanting or protesting.  Those means of communicating have their place, and in the United States, those means of communication are totally within our rights.  Nevertheless, I now find that those means are of little effect for more than letting people know one is displeased with a situation and while they are cathartic for those who employ them, they do not generally bring about the change people are seeking to achieve. 

I am calling people of good will to do something tangible to bring about change in the places in which they live within the spheres of influence they actually possess.  I am asking people to go beyond posting an opinion on social media but instead to engage in some new behaviors and to take some grass roots level risks.  If you have “a friend” of a different background, don’t stop at one.  If you don’t like someone’s behavior towards people of your background, don’t just post a meme, reach out to someone who shares that contrary opinion and ask questions. That is the outrageous and courageous step Darryl Davis took when he began to intentionally reach out to ask a simple question of white supremacists he sought out.  His question? “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?”   Dangerous approach? Gutsy for sure!  But his quest for an answer actually led to the kind of reflection that caused several individuals he encountered to renounce hateful life ways and to turn in the objects of their hateful obsession and turn towards a new way of seeing life and others!  That’s the kind of awakening that grass roots, trench level action can bring about.

Let me be clear.  I am not na├»ve. My literal eschatological view of the world doesn’t see things getting better without some seismic, catastrophic occurrences first taking place.  The world is trending towards catastrophe, and the division I see within the nation I call home does not currently give me much reason to believe we will see “a better day” without much striving and strife.  Nevertheless, the Lord I serve warned that “In this world, [we] will have tribulation. But be of good cheer!  I have overcome the world!”  The Scriptures in which I believe call for those who follow Jesus to be overcomers as well, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  That is why I intend to work for the rest of my life as my mind and body allow me, fully awakened, no longer dreaming, but pressing on!  I will endure the ups and downs of life, stirred in my soul by a sanctified vision that moves beyond marching and protesting, but instead, moves me to love my neighbor and my enemy in tangible ways that others can see, replicate and thus give glory to God.  “Awake my soul and rise!” the time for slumber and dreaming has ended!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Time To Re-calibrate!

In a bone-chilling display of barbarity, 4 African-Americans assaulted, tortured, berated, and dehumanized a Caucasian man for hours, broadcasting their wickedness live on social media. How in the world could this happen in 21st Century America? I am not nostalgic. I understand that inhumane acts have been part of the human experience since “The Garden,” but the boldness with which these acts were committed and the associated callousness, is shocking. Perhaps one reason we as a nation are seeing an increase in the boldness with which abominable acts are committed has to do with our fixation of style over substance and appearances over reality.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 15, it is recorded that Jesus was confronted by religious leaders of his community because he and his disciples did not engage in ritualistic hand-washing before eating. Jesus responded to their accusations by asking them why they used the fulfillment of ritualistic traditions as an excuse to bypass righteous living, as exemplified in their refusal to use their money to help their elderly parents because they designated those funds as being “devoted to God!” Those leaders were very concerned about “politically correct” appearances, while totally ignoring truly righteous living. Jesus called them to pay less attention to external appearances and to focus instead on the cultivation of the heart. Could our fixation on countless transgressions of politically correct style, be causing us to ignore the internalization of true righteousness that leads to transformed hearts and minds that help and heal rather than hurt and destroy? I fear this latest outrage is one manifestation among many that the answer is “yes.” We cannot offer any excuses to such evil. We must call it out, confront it, suppress it and teach those within our spheres of influence what true righteousness looks like and exemplify it in our own lives as we teach.

This Sunday, I will begin a preaching series called, “Calibrating Ourselves for Service in 2017.” During each Sunday in this month, I will be addressing topics that call those who claim to follow Jesus to re-calibrate themselves for His service as I re-calibrate myself as a servant of God and people. The topics are these:

1. Living Beyond Political Correctness – January 8
2. Pressing On When Life Doesn’t Make Sense – January 15
3. How Do We Love One Another? – January 22
4. The Confidence to Face Giants – January 29

I hope you’ll join me in taking a personal inventory and endeavoring to move beyond appearances and moving on to truly righteous living. The stakes are high. Time is short. I can’t fix the world, but I can put my hands to work in my own backyard. Grab your calibration tools, and follow me!