Racism and Reconciliation

Our nation is hurting.

It was hurting when Ahmaud Arbery was cornered by two men in a truck who shot and killed him in Georgia. It was hurting when George Floyd died after an officer held his knee on his neck for over eight minutes in Minneapolis. And it is still hurting as protests have erupted over the death of these two men.

Many of these protests turned violent and spread across the nation over the weekend – beginning and Minneapolis and then moving quickly to Atlanta, Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, and continuing to fan out across many other cities. Businesses have been looted and burned. Communities have been terrorized. In Detroit, one man was even killed.

Did I mention our nation is hurting?

It can be difficult to know how to respond as we watch all of this unfold on our TV screens and in our cities. I myself have grappled with what to say. I also know, however, that, as a Christian, I am called to offer hope to the hurting. So, here are four – admittedly limited and incomplete – thoughts as to how we can respond in the midst of a national inflection point of pain.

We can mourn.

When two men – along with, tragically, many others – die unjustly under racially tinged circumstances, that should grieve us and cause us to mourn. When violent protests shatter communities, that should grieve us and cause us to mourn. The apostle Paul reminds us that we should “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). To take a moment to feel with and listen to those who are hurting, angry, frightened, and confused should be a cornerstone of a Christian ethos. To not empathize with those who are hurting flies in the face of a God who would take on human flesh to experience everything we experience – including hurt, anger, fear, and death itself.

This weekend, I saw a post from a man who regularly walks with his daughter and dog through his neighborhood. He explained how he worries that, if he walks alone, he could be profiled in an unfavorable way because he is a black man. One commenter responded with a bevy of studies and statistics concerning how many African Americans are shot by police and implied that this man’s fears were unfounded. I am all for studies and statistics. They can help us understand trends and identify problems. But to criticize a man’s personal story of fear with studies and statistics strikes me as akin to criticizing mourners at a funeral by bringing actuarial tables to the service and explaining how their loved one’s death falls within a standard variance of mortality rates. Even if it’s statistically true, it’s also emotionally cruel. Let’s take the time to mourn with those who mourn.

We can work for justice.

In his famous speech, “I Have a Dream,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his faith in justice even as he called for justice:

We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Later in his speech, he quoted these words from the prophet Amos:

But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:24)

When injustice is perpetrated, we cannot make excuses for it. We cannot minimize it, rationalize it, or justify it by claiming that there are other injustices that have been worse, so the current injustices we are facing must be no big deal. And we certainly cannot ignore injustice because it doesn’t affect us personally or fit our interests politically. The Fifth Commandment – “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13) – was meant to protect Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd just as much as it was meant to protect any of us.

We are a nation whose creed is “liberty and justice for all.” If the liberty of any person is compromised by murder, manslaughter, or any other untoward act that leads to death, it is an injustice that should concern and upset us all.

We can call for peace.

In the same speech that Dr. King called for justice, he also described how he worked toward and fought for justice:

The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

Dr. King knew the struggle for justice is not best paved by violent deeds.

The scenes of violence that have erupted across the nation have hurt many innocent people. They have taken eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth, but they have not recovered or restored the lives of Mr. Arbery and Mr. Floyd. Their families are still grieving. Their sons, husbands, and fathers are still not coming home.

In His Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). It is important to understand that peacemaking can be quite different from peacekeeping. Peacekeeping can sometimes imply simply covering for or overlooking sin so that no one gets upset. In other words, peacekeeping can often be an exercise in little more than keeping the status quo. Peacemaking, however, means calling sin what it is and then working to restore peace from the ground up – not with excuses, but by repentance, and not with hatred, but by forgiveness. This is the kind of peace toward which Christians are called to work.

We can love.

Racism is rooted in hatred. To stand against racism, then, we must address the hatred endemic to it. How do we do this? Jesus shows us the way:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)

During these months of pandemic, a refrain has arisen: “We’re in this together.” This refrain is similar to the one uttered by Dr. King on the Washington Mall all those years ago as he was fighting the racism of his day:

Many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

Dr. King is right. We cannot walk alone. So, let’s not. Let’s stand shoulder to should, side by side, and arm in arm. Our race may be a part of our humanity, but it is not the sum total of our humanity. Our humanity also includes:

Being somebody’s son or daughter.

Being somebody’s husband, wife, mother, or father.

Being somebody’s friend, coworker, and neighbor.

And being made in the image of our Creator.

These are the ties that bind us.

In a press conference on Saturday, Minnesota’s governor not only mourned acts of violence, but highlighted acts of love. He talked about protestors who had come out not with firebombs, but with brooms, shovels, and wheelbarrows to help their neighbors clean up their communities. They refused to let their neighbors walk alone. They walked together – both to protest injustice and to love each other.

We can, too.

June 1, 2020 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Hope Beyond the Pandemic

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Credit: Ron SmithUnsplash

It has been difficult navigating all the changes that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. But this past week brought some good news in our protracted battle against the virus. Last Wednesday, the CDC updated its safety guidelines to indicate that the virus does not spread as easily via contaminated surfaces as experts first thought, which means you may not have to scrub down your milk jug with a Clorox wipe after picking it up at the grocery store. We also learned of some promising testing on experimental vaccines. Last Monday, the biotech company Moderna announced that eight people who received two doses of their vaccine fared well against exposure to the coronavirus. Then, on Wednesday, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center published research showing that their prototype vaccine protected monkeys against exposure to the virus.

All of this good news, of course, is subject to change. After all, plenty of what we thought we knew about COVID-19 has changed – sometimes for the better and other times for the worse. But news like this does offer us a glimmer of what we all need during a difficult time like this – hope. Indeed, The New York Times, at the news of promising vaccine trials, ran this headline: “A New Entry in the Race for a Coronavirus Vaccine: Hope.”

As Christians, it is important to understand what hope truly is. Hope is not just a convenient wish for something to work out well regardless of how outlandish or unfounded that wish might be. Instead, hope is a confidence about tomorrow based on what we already know to be true today.

This is why the Christian hope is not just some nebulous wish that, after we die, we may be able to live on forever rather than merely dissolving back into the cells from which we came. Instead, the Christian hope is a true hope based on what the Church claims is a real historical event: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. As one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, writes about the Christian’s hope:

Through Christ you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:21)

Peter says our faith and hope are in God because we have seen what God can do – He can raise Jesus from the dead. And if God did this with Jesus, our hope is well grounded and founded that He can do the same with us, too.

I truly hope that COVID-19 does not spread as easily via surfaces as experts once thought. And I truly hope that an effective vaccine against the virus is produced faster than any vaccine ever has been in history. I don’t just wish; I hope. I hope because of what I can read in these newly released scientifically-rigorous studies. But, of course, my hopes could be dashed. Scientific studies can – and often do – err. The CDC could shift its guidelines. And the now promising vaccines could turn out, upon further trials, to be busts.

Though my hopes for what this pandemic’s future holds may be dashed, I am thankful that my hope in Christ will not. After all, Christ has 2,000 of history, human trial, and study behind Him. And He still stands resurrected. While other hopes may fail, hope in Him will not.

So, here’s to hoping for what lies ahead.

May 25, 2020 at 5:17 am Leave a comment

Overwhelmed At Home

Stress At Home

One of the many things that has shifted during this pandemic is how and where children are being educated. What once happened in a classroom with career teachers is now happening in homes with parents who have other careers. Homeschooling has gone from being boutique to being ubiquitous.

But not all homeschoolers are equal.

An interesting – and somewhat humorous – poll conducted by Morning Consult for The New York Times found that half of fathers with children 12 and under reported spending more time homeschooling their children than did their wives. The ladies, however, saw the division of homeschooling labor differently. Just 3 percent of the mothers surveyed indicated their husbands spent more time on homeschooling the kids than they did. The New York Times article about this study noted:

Years of past research using time diaries have consistently shown that men often overestimate the amount they do, and that women do more.

All of this plays, of course, to a certain humorous stereotype of men who are oblivious to just how much their wives do for their household. The stereotype may feel overwrought at times. But statistically, there seems to be something in it that is true.

For those of us who call ourselves Christians, being oblivious to another person’s efforts, challenges, or selfless service is not an option. When Paul writes to the Christians at Corinth, he says:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. (2 Corinthians 1:8)

Although we do not know the specific troubles to which Paul is referring in this verse, we do know that while Paul was in the Asian city of Ephesus, he got crossways with a silversmith named Demetrius who made shrines for a Greek goddess named Artemis. When Paul shows up and starts teaching that Jesus is Lord and not Artemis, Demetrius in not pleased and rallies the city with a speech:

You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty. (Acts 19:25-27) 

Demetrius’s speech turns out to be so persuasive that a riot breaks out and Paul and his companions are driven out of the region. Paul’s words to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 1:8 may refer to this situation, or they may refer to some other situation. But whatever the situation, this much is certain: Paul has faced plenty of challenges in his efforts for the gospel. And he wants the Corinthians to know this. He does not want them to be oblivious to the challenges he has faced for the sake of the Church.

Do you know what challenges the people closest to you are facing during this time? Or, are you so caught up in your own worries and concerns that you are uninformed of all that even a person as close to you as your own spouse is dealing with?

If you have not said “thank you” to someone for what they have done during this pandemic yet, now is the time. Husbands, you can start with your wives – especially if they are educating the kids, tending to the house, and working an outside job all at the same time.

A survey like the one published in The New York Times reveals just how much we love to debate who works hardest through difficult times. Perhaps, instead of defending what we do – and often overestimating it – we should instead notice what other people do – and celebrate them. This will keep us from feeling overwhelmed by our own responsibilities when we see all that others are doing – and it’ll make them feel better about their responsibilities when we notice and appreciate them.

So, take some time to appreciate someone today. You – and they – will be glad you did.

May 18, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Seeking the Good of Others

Cities and states across the country are beginning to reopen. Already, health experts are issuing warnings of a second wave of COVID-19 to come. The Associated Press reports:

From the marbled halls of Italy to the wheat fields of Kansas, health authorities are increasingly warning that the question isn’t whether a second wave of coronavirus infections and deaths will hit, but when – and how badly.

In India, which relaxed its lockdown this week, health authorities scrambled Wednesday to contain an outbreak at a huge market. Hard-hit New York City shut down its subway system overnight for disinfection. Experts in Italy, which just began easing some restrictions, warned lawmakers that a new surge of infections and deaths is coming, and they urged intensified efforts to identify victims, monitor their symptoms and trace their contacts …

U.S. infection rates outside the New York City area are in fact rising, notably in rural areas. 

This is a worrisome prediction. And yet, if a severe second wave does sweep across our nation, Christians can be uniquely positioned to be a force and a source for hope and help.

When the apostle Paul writes to the Christian church at Corinth, he confronts a strain of selfishness that has infected many in the congregation. It seems as though some of the Christians at Corinth have come to believe that just because they can do something, they should do it if they desire to, regardless of whether what they do hurts or offends others. Paul has to remind them that the call of Christianity is not to live for you and your wants, but to live for others and their wellbeing:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say – but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything” – but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)

As cities and states reopen, I am thankful that I will be able to patronize businesses I have not been able to shop at for a while. I am thankful that I will be able to go places I have not been able to go for a while. And yet, even while restrictions are blessedly being loosened, I still try to keep in mind those who I am called to serve – my family, my friends, and my congregation. I try to remember that how I handle my own health and safety can directly affect the health and safety of others with whom I come into contact. I may have the right to do many things. But I would rather seek to do the most beneficial things – for the sake of my family and my community.

As Christians, we are called to be neither restless over what will happen nor reckless as we confront what is happening. Instead, we are called to be selfless – always seeking the good of others. As Paul writes a little later in this same chapter to the Corinthians:

Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10:31-33)

Paul shows concern for everyone – for his fellow Jews with whom he grew up, for pagan Greeks who do not worship the God of Israel, and for those who are part of the church of God and follow Jesus. Whether they are like him or unlike him, Paul puts others first, for Paul knows that, when he does so, he is not just being kind, he is witnessing unto salvation.

May we do likewise for others. They need us – and they need Christ.

May 11, 2020 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Casting Your COVID Anxiety on Christ

As states, cities, and businesses begin what will likely be a long, slow, and uncertain process of reopening as the COVID-19 pandemic begins to show signs of receding, a new normal is sure to emerge. Social distancing will likely continue for some time. Face masks will likely be commonplace. E-commerce will almost certainly dominate. And we will be encouraged to sanitize, sanitize, and sanitize.

For some, the transition out of staying at home will be exciting. They are ready to go. Others I have talked to are experiencing a fair amount of anxiety over re-entering workplaces and public spaces. There is, after all, still a lot uncertainty surrounding how far this virus will continue to spread and how much more damage this virus will continue to do.

In the early 60s of the first century, one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, was living under a lot of uncertainty. The ruler at this time was a Roman Emperor named Nero, who became a famed persecutor of early Christianity. When Peter writes his first letter to the church-at-large, though he does not quite yet know the future holds, he knows he has to encourage Christians to be ready for potential trials and persecution to come:

You greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. (1 Peter 1:6)

Even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” (1 Peter 3:14)

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you … If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:12, 16)

Such looming trials, understandably, caused a lot of anxiety among many in the early church because they did not know where, when, or if they were going to suffer and be persecuted.

Peter, however, does not want these Christians to be trapped by their anxiety. So, he writes these famous words:

Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)

Peter knows that anxiety often arises because of circumstances that are beyond our control. In order to deal with anxiety, Peter instructs us to give what we can’t control to the One who is in control. And He assures us that what we can’t control is safe with Him, because “He cares for you.”

When Peter invites us to cast all our anxiety on the Lord, the word “cast,” in Greek, is a participle – “casting.” This verse, therefore, can be translated as a phrase that piggybacks on the verse that comes before it:

Humble yourselves…under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time, casting all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7)

It turns out that casting our anxiety on the Lord not only helps us feel better, it helps us learn humility, because it reminds us that we are not masters of our own destinies and captains of our own ships. Our calling is not to be in control, but to humbly submit ourselves to God’s control – to live under His mighty hand, which, Peter promises, will take care of our problems, even when our problems are as thorny as how to re-enter workplaces and public spaces in the midst of a still-very-ominous pandemic.

As anyone who has dealt with intense anxiety knows, anxiety is not an emotion one can simply “turn off” or “un-feel.” It bubbles up inside of us, often when we least expect it. But even if we cannot stop it, we can confront it. Clinically, we can receive help for it. And spiritually, we can cast it on Christ. He’s strong enough to take care of it. And He’s compassionate enough to take care of us.

May 4, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Keeping Perspective in COVID-19 Times

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Credit: cottonbroPexels

At Concordia in San Antonio where I serve as one of the pastors, we are sending out a weekly “check-in.” People can voluntarily “check-in” with us by answering a few questions about how they’re doing during this pandemic. For a lot of people, just knowing that someone cares and is concerned about them is enough to give them a little boost in their spirits.

This past week, I had an old friend, who is also a pastor, call and check-in with me just to see how I was doing. We caught up on a whole host of ministry triumphs and challenges and talked about how we are navigating a situation the likes of which neither one of us has ever seen. They don’t offer a class on “pandemic response” in seminary. Or, if they did, I missed it.

To keep my spirits up during this time, I have had to fight to keep my perspective. These words from the apostle Paul have become words I’ve turned to again and again when I’ve felt like my spirits were sinking and my perspective was darkening:

We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

There is so much perspective packed into these few verses.

Many of us feel like “we are wasting away.” Whether we have contracted COVID-19, or are just struggling to keep ourselves in shape when gyms are closed, junk food is plentiful, and the sofa is inviting, a lot of our bodies are taking a hit. But even apart from a pandemic, our bodies would waste away anyway. Every body eventually breaks down and falls prey to the wages of sin, which are death. And yet, Paul says, we can be “renewed day by day.” God – one day at a time – can meet us in His Word and refresh us by His Spirit. Our bodily wasting away does not need to result in a deeper spiritual decay.

Paul continues by comparing “our light and momentary troubles” with “an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” This little word “far,” in Greek, is a three-word-phrase: hyperbolen eis hyperbolen. We get our word “hyperbole” from this word, which refers to something that is over-the-top. The glory that awaits us in eternity, Paul says, will be over-the-top and so over-the-top that we will look back and scoff at the troubles we are now facing. God’s glory will one day wipe away this pandemic’s gory sicknesses and deaths.

Because we long for this glory, Paul concludes, we should “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,” because “what is unseen is eternal.” In other words, instead of fretting over this day’s news, we are to be people who look forward to the day when all things will be made new in Christ Jesus. What we are seeing now is temporary. What remains unseen – but what will one day be seen when Christ reveals it to us – is eternal.

I wish I was better at keeping Paul’s perspective. I, just like anyone else, can get caught up in “our light and momentary troubles.” But when I’m tempted to fall prey to pity, these words call me back. These words give me hope. And because of hope:

We do not lose heart.

April 27, 2020 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Sick in Spirit When We’re Scared for our Bodies

The COVID-19 outbreak is taking a toll not only on the physical health of millions, but on the emotional health of millions, too. A new survey out from the University of Phoenix shows 4 in 10 Americans are lonelier now than ever before. 71% are worried about the health of a loved one while 61% are concerned about their own health. You combine this with 33% of survey respondents being worried about paying their bills and 27% experiencing depression, and you have the makings of not only a contagious disease pandemic, but a mental health crisis. We may be trying to avoid becoming sick in body through masks, hand washing, and social distancing, but, in the process, we have become sick in spirit.

Early in Jesus’ public ministry, some men bring to Him a paralyzed man, hoping He can heal him. Jesus does. But before He heals his body, He says to this man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2). Jesus knows that this man is not only invalid in his flesh, but struggling in his spirit. He needed his sins forgiven.

What Jesus does for this man, Jesus wants to do for every man – and woman. Jesus cares about those who are sick in spirit. This is why Jesus opens His ministry with not only miraculous healing, but profound teaching. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). It turns out that poverty in spirit is just as important to Jesus as infirmity in body. And so, to those who are lonely, Jesus becomes a friend. To those who are worried, Jesus brings peace. And to those who are depressed, Jesus shows empathy. After all, His soul, too, was once “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38).

Some 1,000 years before Jesus, King David praised the Lord as the One “who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases” (Psalm 103:3). David knew the Lord cared about all of us and all that is us – both our spirits and our bodies. More than that, David had hope in One who, in his day, was still to come come – a God who is spirit, but would one day take on a body to walk among our bodies and heal them and to love us in our spirits and forgive them. God cares so much about spirit and body that He comes in Jesus, who is both spirit and body.

And so, whatever COVID-19 may be doing to you – whether in your spirit or in your body – you have One who is both spirit and body to see you through. And He will.

April 20, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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