Sunday, April 11, 2021

"Jesus, Lord of Cold and Darkness?"

Imagine you're a Christian missionary on a different planet--one that is closer to its sun, where a thin atmosphere does not block harmful solar radiation.  People have adapted to the harsh environment by burrowing into the planet's crust, where it is cool and dark.  Like bats, they have developed keen ears and dull eyesight.  Trips to the surface are done at night, when poisonous sunburn does not threaten.  Crops are grown underground, from geothermal energy rather than sunlight.  This is the world on which you arrive as a missionary.

Then, with triumph, you proclaim, "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.  On those walking in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned!"  You tell them of a savior who said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."  You quote the prophet who said, "Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light."  

And you can't understand why nobody listens to you.
It doesn't make any sense that they reject your message, because you've been faithful to the scripture.  You've told them exactly what they need to hear--after all, these people literally are walking in a land of darkness and you've brought the light of salvation to them.  What could be the problem?

Perhaps you're offering Jesus as the solution to the wrong problem.  Maybe, just maybe, on this planet, instead of being the Light of the World, Jesus is Lord of Cold and Darkness.

On Earth, such a title would only be suitable for an arch-villain, like C.S. Lewis' White Witch, Jadis, or the Night King from Game of Thrones.  On earth, sunlight is almost universally good, and associated with abundant crops, warm beaches, and summer love.  But on this new planet, where people associate light with toxic radiation and broiling heat, it comes across wrong when you tell them that Jesus is the light.  Here, they'd understand better if Jesus were Lord of Cold and Darkness.

If you decided to adapt your message, you could still remain true to scripture.  You could emphasize Bible passages like, "The Lord is the shade upon my right hand," or "He descended to the lower, earthly regions," or "As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly: so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."  You would change the metaphors you use, and instead of describing lostness as wandering in darkness, you would describe sin as analagous to struggling through blinding daylight, with the sun's scorching heat on your back.  Jesus, then, as Lord of Cold and Darkness, would offer shelter, shade, and relief from sin's searing heat.  You would be sharing God's love with people by offering them a dark savior who rescues them from the light.

Eventually, once you adapt your message and present Jesus as Lord of Cold and Darkness, you would begin to gain a following.  People would understand that God loves them, and wants to meet their needs and rescue them from harm.   But pretty soon, you would come under the scrutiny of the missionary board that sent you to this new planet.  They would say you had abandoned the truth of scripture, and point out that there are far more verses that depict God as the light than there are that say God will shelter you beneath the shadow of his wing.

Soon, more missionaries would arrive, not only to win converts but to oppose your efforts.  They would accuse you of twisting scripture by calling good evil, and evil good.  Darkness, they would say, is universally bad, while light is universally good.  Light represents divine truth and favor, while darkness depicts rebellion, sin, and confusion.  These missionaries would call themselves Light-Bearers, and would invite people to meetings in brilliantly illuminated halls where they would squint and strain to see, all the while calling it good.  They would build cathedrals in the open air, where adherents would come to worship and return home with blisters from their scorching sun.  Then they would display their welts with pride, displaying them as a sign of their faithfulness to the light.

Meanwhile, your people would gather in grottoes and caves, where they would find refuge not only from the damaging sun, but also from the persecution of the Light-Bearers.  These second-wave missionaries would proclaim that their teachings are "biblically correct," while saying your teachings are "unbiblical."  But you would counter by pointing out that not everything that is biblical is true--and on this world, being biblically correct is less important than communicating truth in a culturally relevant way.  And so the debate would continue.

And so it goes on this world, today.  One group catches the culture, but may step outside of "orthodoxy" to do so.  Another insists on faithfulness to biblical literalism, while becoming less relevant to everyday society.  The more each faction insists it is right, the more it digs in its heels, the more its potential audience slips through its fingers.  

Because the truth is, Jesus is not the Light.  Neither is Jesus the Lord of Cold and Darkness.  Jesus is described as light, as a metaphor.  "The Lord is the shade on your right hand" is a metaphor.  It's only when we embrace the mystery of God, and allow that God is greater than we could imagine or describe, that we begin to approach the full reality of who God is.  Religion insists that our group has the correct way and the other group has it all wrong.  Humility and spirituality say that God is present in both light and darkness, in your group of believers and in mine.  It's time we stop fighting over symbols, metaphors and methods, and seek instead that which is true not only on this world, but the truths that are universal.  If God does not change, then we realize that it's only our perspectives that shift--and there are, in fact, ways that we can all know the truth, without fighting over light and shadows.

*Photo Credit: "neither light nor darkness are here to know her way" by matthias lueger is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sacred Cows, Golden Calves

Every church has at least one sacred cow--a fascinating term that we have appropriated from Hindu custom.  If you travel to India, there are places where you will find cattle roaming freely in the streets.  Because cows are considered sacred to many Hindus, they (of course) refrain from eating beef,  but they also permit cows to wander at will, obstruct traffic, and leave their excrement everywhere. defines a sacred cow as, "someone or something that has been accepted or respected for a long time and that people are afraid or unwilling to criticize or question."  And every church has at least one.

In my first church that I served as pastor, the sacred cow was an antique Communion set, said to be the original one used by the two hundred year old congregation.  It was a beautiful old set, never used anymore, and displayed in a glass case. Unfortunately, the church chose to display it in the worst possible location, beside the main door to the side of the chancel that was the most highly traveled passage in the building. I can't tell you how many times I saw that case bumped and abused, and people almost get hurt by crashing into its corners. Moreover, that spot would have been the best location, in my opinion, for the occasional display to highlight areas of active ministry. As a young pastor who had no idea what landmine he was stepping on, I moved the Communion set to a different, and equally prominent position in the sanctuary. You would have thought I had broken the glass case, desacrated the Communion set, and set the building on fire. My name was mud for the rest of the time I was at that church. From that experience, I learned a thing or two about messing with a church's sacred cows.

"Sacred Cows!" by wallygrom is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

First, I learned that every church has at least one. That cow might be an object within the church building or on its grounds. Or, the cow might be a person in the church that is so venerated that you can never disagree with them. In the congregations I served, sacred cows have been the American flag, the church patriarch or matriarch, an annual event that can never be changed, or a room within the church building. But no church that had any age on it is without its sacred cow.  Pastor, beware, lest you step in that landmine and it go off in your face!

Second, I learned that there are always people who will warn you where those sacred cows are, if you listen.  Once, I opposed the installation of a flag pole in front of the sanctuary, not on the grounds of separation of church and state, but because I thought it would do better to preside over the cemetery where so many veterans were buried. But a kind church member warned me that, while they agreed with me, this was not a hill to die on. They knew that the flag pole was a sacred cow, and they loved me enough to caution me not to fight this one.  I took that advice, and planned a ceremony to dedicate the new flag pole in honor of our military dead. Sometimes, you just have to avoid touching those sacred cows. You have to pick your battles, and live to fight another day. 

Third, I learned that sometimes people will tell you about sacred cows in order to control you.  Shortly after I had moved to one church, I sat in a deacon's living room as he told me what the last pastor had done to get on his bad side, and finished with how he convinced the church to vote that pastor out. In essence he was saying, "I'm the sacred cow."  I decided the best approach was neither to openly oppose him, nor to give in to his emotional tirades, which were frequent in deacon meetings. Soon, he dug his own hole with the other deacons, who had grown tired of his antics and, like me, wanted nothing to do with them. Within a year, he removed himself from the board, not because he was forced out, but because people systematically stopped giving him power. 

Fourth, I learned that sometimes you've got to not only touch the sacred cow,  but you have to call it the golden calf that it is.  One church I served had a broken organ that sat in the sanctuary for years, collecting dust and taking up space.  Even before I accepted the call to serve that church, I was told the story of that organ.  A decade or so pior, the church had decided to form a youth band.  As a drum set became standard in the worship service, it had made sense to remove that never-played organ, and put the drum set in the unused instrument's place.  But prominent and vocal members of the church who didn't like the younger people's style complained about how loud the drums were.  Eventually, after enough complaints, the youth band was disbanded, and the organ returned to its "rightful" place of honor in the sanctuary.  (Indicentally, the young drummer was so upset by this that he left the church, and hasn't returned to this day, fifteen years later.)  Still, the organ sat there, unused.  When I came to the church, I was warned not to disturb this sacred cow in the church.  However, I determined that some sacred cows you can operate around, but others you must exorcize.   This organ (which we later determined was irreparably damaged by mice chewing on the wires) had become a symbol of the old guard's staunch refusal to allow younger people to participate in the service in a way that spoke to their own modern spirituality.  It represented stoicism that squashed young people's dreams and made them feel unwelcome.  As such, I knew that the organ had to go.  So, before I left that church I made it my mission to encourage the church to do away with the broken instrument, which at that point was no more than furniture.  This they finally did--but it's amazing how difficult that was to accomplish.  Still, with a little faith, you can move a mountain--or an organ--or a sacred cow.

Even though the term "sacred cow" comes from Hinduism, it certainly harkens to the story of the Golden Calf.  When Moses was on the mountain, getting the Ten Commandments from God, the people in the valley were busy fashioning a metal cattle-god for themselves.  Upon returning, he saw what they had done, and had to destroy it--along with many of them!  While we read that story in the Bible and it seems obvious to Christian readers that apostates had been wrong to replace Yahweh with such an idol, church members do it all the time when they exalt symbols and traditions over God.  Or when they allow those traditions to become obstacles that actually block people from experiencing the joy and grace of Jesus.

Over the years, I've seen sacred cows in the shape of Bibles.  Like one particular giant pulpit Bible under glass, that couldn't be moved from its place of honor in the sanctuary.  Or like when I was told that my sermons weren't "bibilical" because I read from an electronic Bible instead of one made of paper and leather.  I've seen golden calves in the shape of political figures--where folks worshipped a President whose policies and personality flew in the face of the teachings and spirit of Jesus.  I've seen idols that looked like symbols and songs of patriotism, but that took such prominence that they took the "worship" part out of "worship service."  I've watched as Christians made gods out of certain rooms for certain purposes in the building, enshrining the past rather than making space for the young--who are the present and future of the Church.  Some sacred cows you learn to work around.  But others you have to draw out, like poison from a wound.  Knowing the difference takes practice, perception, and prayer.

If you're a pastor (and there are many, who read this blog), I pray that you'll have the serenity accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

If you're a church member who's reading this blog, I hope you'll help your pastor identify sacred cows in the church.  Not as someone who seeks to control, but as an ally who wants to warn where the land mines might be.  Not as some who sets themself up as an idol, but as a friend who fights alongside your pastor, to help them exorcise the demons and demagogues.  Because, while traditions in church can be good, they can also become substitutes for God, and drive away the very people who are there to seek God.  

Sunday, February 7, 2021

An Open Letter to Pastors: "Child Sacrifice on Church Altars"

Every pastor has at least one good Molech sermon, vividly describing Canaanite child sacrifice by laying the infant on the red-hot arms of the fiery metal idol.  It's good for that cringe-effect from your congregation that rivets them to their pews and lets you know they're listening.  It might get you in trouble from a young mother who didn't want her toddler to hear stories like that in church--but you remind her that you gave fair warning, and encouraged parents to send their kids to Children's Church, especially this Sunday.   Your scripture text was likely Deuteronomy 12:29-31 (NIV):

The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.”  You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.

You may have used this passage as an explanation of how evil the Canaanites were, explaining why God judged them so harshly as to command the Israelites to commit genocide against them.  Or, you might have used the same scripture to condem the genocide of abortion, comparing mothers who make that choice to parents who burned their children as sacrifices.  When reading about the ancient Molech cult, I've often wondered how people could be so cruel, so evil, as to sacrifice their children.  But maybe they weren't evil.  Maybe it was something else.

Instinctually, every parent loves their children.  These weren't moms and dads who hated their kids or who were so filled with Satan that they craved the blood of their offspring.  No--these parents were duped.  Certainly, whoever dreamed up the Molech idol and its heinous sacrificial method was rotten to the core.  But the people were terrified that the God who called them to the land of milk and honey might abandon them to pestilence and poverty.  They were completely convinced that giving up their children was the only way to assure prosperity in the present and fertility in the future.  They were so misled by Canaanites, so scared of disasster, and so mistrustful of Yahweh, that they sacrificed their children's life and breath, in exchange for false promises and manipulation.

Now, here's what hits me hard.  Pastors with children of their own may be sacrificing them to a false god, without even knowing it.  

Much like the good people who sacrificed their children because they were terrified that God wouldn't meet their needs, pastors turn to workaholism out of fear that they won't get everything done.  They fear that if they don't, their parishioners will be displeased with them.  If their church members don't like them, they might lose their jobs.  If they lose their jobs, how will they provide for their children?  So, while they're trying to provide for their kids, they sacrifice them to endless nighttime committee meetings, Saturdays spent at church yard sales and parishioner's anniversary parties, and dinnertime hospital visits.  They think they're taking care of their families by their obsessive work, while forgetting that God never expected them to lay their children on the burning arms of the church altar.

The difference is, for pastors, the false God isn't named Molech.  The false God is called The Church.

Don't get me wrong.  The Church is beautiful.  She is the Bride of Christ, dressed in white.  She is the building of Christ, established by Jesus himself on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.  The Church is the Body of Christ, made of  many members. one pastor's wife told me, "The Church is a terrible mistress."  In the worst situations, pastors find themselves pulling away from their spouses and children, all the while demanding more and more perfection from their families in order to please their demanding lover, the Church.  

I confess, as a pastor, tending the flock, placing priority on the church, I have...

  • Rescheduled "date night" due to a hospital visit.
  • Answered a church member's phone call in the movie theater with my daughter.
  • Met with deacons and Sunday school teachers concerning my child's behavior.
  • Told my son that he had to attend youth group because non-attendance could affect my job.
  • Taken my young children on countless hospital and nursing home visits, thinking that I was spending quality time with them, while serving the church at the same time.

Of course, there are times when ministers need to respond quickly to the needs of their parishioners.  And pastoral families, for the most part, understand this.  But too often pastors put their church's needs ahead of their families' needs, and in doing so they lay their loved ones on the sacrificial altar.  We take it to the extreme when we read Proverbs 24:33-34 (NIV), "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man."

Granted, some pastors take too much advantage of the fact that they set their own schedules, and don't have anybody looking over their shoulders.  Some pastors make a part-time job out of a full-time position.  But mostly I've seen it work the other way, where bivocational pastors try to make a full-time job out of their church, and where full-time pastors work way too much overtime.  Sometimes it's their own zeal to win their neighborhood for Jesus, but more often it's a secret fear that they're not doing enough, and a relentless desire to please people.  When you're afraid of being a disappointment, it's easy to make your parishioners your first priority, and inadvertently sacrifice your children on the church altar.

As a result, ministry friends, let me say--you reap what you sow.  Be careful that you don't impose your church's unrealistic expectations on your family.  By doing so, we become like the Pharisees, of whom Jesus said, "They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them (Matthew 23:4 NIV)."  Instead, "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:2-3 NIV)." 

As one pastor's spouse told me about the minister in the family, "I wish they would just give us as much grace as they give their church members!"  It's a stop-y0u-dead-in-your-tracks statement, and it's an indictment against us pastors who can sometimes get our priorities wrong, and sacrifice our families on church altars.  My prayer is that the fires of Molech would be far from your homes, and that you would have the guts to draw hard lines when it comes to your church's demands.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

January 6 - The New September 11

Think this title is too dramatic?  Read on, to see what I mean...

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, like everyone else (who was old enough to really be aware), I was outraged.  I was grief-stricken.  I was traumatized.  Yes, even though I was safe on my couch in Virginia, far from Ground Zero in New York, or the Pentagon, or even that Pennsylvania field, I felt traumatized and violated.  Our nation was under attack, so by extension, I felt like I was under attack.  Like everyone else, I glued myself to the TV and watched those images over and over again.  And just like you, I replayed those videos in my nightmares night after night.

At the time, I was pastor of a small country church that expected me to have something to say, the following Sunday morning.  Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday ticked by as I prayed for guidance.  I already had a message prepared--I had learned years before, not to procrastinate in my sermon writing.  But was a sermon that was written on September 10 still an appropriate message for a post-9/11 world?  

When the morning of the 15th came, I carried with me the manuscript I had written on Monday, the day before the world came crashing down.  Through the first half of the service, I continued to pray.  "What should I do, God?  What can I say to my people?"  We collected the offering.  We sang the Doxology.  The people sat down.  And I was on.

I stood in the pulpit, notes in hand.  I stood there for a full sixty seconds, as people shuffled in their pews.  Somebody coughed.  Somebody else stopped unwrapping their hard candy.

Then, I stepped down from the pulpit, tore my notes in half and threw them into the air so they scattered to the floor.  I took off my coat and tie, and sat on the back of the first pew, facing the people, with my feet on the next pew (a no-no, to be sure).  And for rest of the service, we just talked about grief.

Our eyes were red.  Our voices shaky.  Wet tissues joined my notes on the floor.  One by one, people told their stories of where they were when they got the news, and the things they saw on TV.  They expressed their denial, anger, fear, sadness, and vulnerability.  By the end of that hour, we were wrecked.  But we were better--if just by a tiny margin of God's grace.

Today, pastors throughout the United States ascended to their pulpits, or descended to the people, to share the message that they felt God laid on their hearts.  Some who still support Trump gesticulated and shouted their own holy outrage.  Others who name him a criminal pounded their pulpits with righteous indignation.  For the purpose of this article, I will take no position (though I certainly have one) regarding the political events that took place on either September 11 or on December 6.  But I will say that in many ways, they are the same.

On both days, the United States was under attack.  American democracy was challenged.  American people were killed, some of them doing their jobs to serve and protect our way of life and rule of law.

On both days, the attack was on more than just the direct target.  Septeber 11 saw the deaths of almost 3,000 people, but each of these suffered as part of a larger assault against American democracy.  On December 6, five people lost their lives--a number so few in comparison to September 11 that it might seem foolish to put them side by side.  But the same principle applies in both cases, because on December 6, it wasn't simply the Capitol Building that was attacked--it was all Americans.  

Both were days that defined a generation.  In this way, December 6 is the new September 11.  Much as people ask, "Where were you when you saw the moon landing?  Or when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot?  Or the Challenger explosion," a generation is defined by the question, "Where were you on September 11?"  In the same way (mark my words), the events of December 6 will define this youngest generation.  It will not be a day that is forgotten, but a day that history books will record with infamy.  If you're an adult, don't miss the impact that Wednesday's events had on young people.  They are more affected by it than you think.

On both days, viewers felt traumatized by the things they watched, and were filled with shock, horror, fear, grief, and outrage.  Vicarious trauma takes place when people witness or are told of traumatizing events, and they feel those events with such empathy that it seems as if it happened to them.  Certainly they are not as traumatized as the people who actually experienced these things, but that does not negate the severe impact that people can have when they feel the trauma of others.  It can manifest as feelings of depression, fatigue, shame, self-doubt, bystander-guilt, and victimization.  These are all very real emotions that you may be experiencing yourself, as you deal with the vicarious trauma of watching the news these days.

Enough people are writing their political and social commentaries on the Trump presidency, and the events of December 6.  They will do so with more poignancy and eloquence than I.  As a caretaker of souls, it is not my focus to figure out the politics.  It is my goal to ask--are you okay?  

So today, just like I did on September 15, I'm just going to sit down with you, and ask--how're you doing?  It's okay to NOT be okay.  It's okay to be angry, frustrated, scared.  It's normal to feel vindictive, horrified, or violated.  I just hope that you'll talk with somebody about it.  Find a trusted person and wrestle with these emotions together.  Ask someone to sit quitely and just listen to how you feel.  Take the time to feel the feels, and to talk it out.  And help the young people around you to do the same.  It's likely affecting them even more deeply than it is impacting you.

History will record the events that followed December 6.  Twenty years from now, we will remember this time, and judge from that vantage point whether we proceded with wisdom or folly.  When our children are grown, they will determine whether we acted shamefully, or in righteousness.  It is up to us to make history, today.  Perhaps it's not just the events of December 6 that will define us--but how we respond to them that will make all the difference.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

"Silent Night, Lonely Night: Christmas in Pandemic"

Silver starlight descends with the snow as 
aged hands light Christmas candles, 
alone at home though her family is near.  
Tears trickle with liquid love, reliving holidays past, 
with children and grandchildren gathered 
in a cacophony of grownup laughter, 
baby's cries, childhood play, and teenage angst.  
But not this year.  
Now, she is alone in her silent night,
lonely night, lonely night.

Two doors down the dawn will come 
to babies she will not see.
Little feet will race down stairs,  
delighted squeals above the sound of tearing paper.
But not for her.
This year has taken many things from her:
ability to travel, 
pure breath free from the filter of a mask,
financial security,
social stability.
But the greatest toll is being alone 
on this silent night, lonely night, lonely night.

Her mind reaches back to a couple, young, 
frantic in their need in that quiet Judean town,
turned away from human dwelling,
alone beneath the light of a single star.
Amid the agony of labor, 
a young woman pleads for her mother who isn't there.
Filled with desperation, 
a young man yearns for the steady hand of his father,
nowhere to be seen.
They, too, feel socially distant, isolated.

Silver starlight descends on angel wings as
Joseph kindles his lamp in the stable 
alone among beasts, though people are near. 
Even shepherds keep their distance when they visit,
faces hidden beneath their scarves,
because they are called unclean.
Tears trickle with liquid love, celebrating this present moment, 
grateful for what he does have:
the warmth of a stable, the love of his wife,
a newborn child,
in a cacophony of stable sound, 
and it is enough
on this silent night, lonely night, lonely night.

Grandma's heart reaches to the tent city
surrounded by bustling town, 
figures huddling beneath discarded layers 
of thin tarpaulin, wet cardboard, and sodden clothes.
Turned away from human dwelling,
alone beneath the light of a neon sign.
A cacaphony of souls scream in the night,
a bit of raucous laughter,
others cursing ghosts of the mind,
still more finding solace in strangers' arms
or the warmth and oblivion of a pipe.

Silver starlight descends with visiting angels
who bear no gold, frankincense, or myrrh, 
but whose treasures smell like coffee,
protect like masks and wipes,
and feel like love.
So Grandma puts on angel's wings, which look like PPE.
Leaving her warmth to join the Seraphim,
she shares her manna of  blankets and smiles.
Keen ears listen to well-traveled stories from a safe distance
as hot tears warm her cheeks with liquid love.

It's Christmas in pandemic, 
but change is in the air.
The Star shines as it hasn't done in centuries,
and hope for the nations wispers peace
to a weary and war-torn world.
"No room at your inn," say the mandates from above.
So Grandma takes her love outside
and gives,
behind mask, at a distance,
but gives,
on this silent night, lovely night, holy night.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

"Racism in the White, Southern Church: A Pastor's Confession of Compromise"

"I hear you've been invited to preach at the Black church," the deacon told me.  "Do you think that's wise?"

Yes, this was a real conversation in a real church I served in Virginia.  One of the great things about having been either a youth pastor or senior pastor at six churches is that when I talk about them, nobody knows which church it is.  So there will be no names--but this really happened.  This is the tragedy of a congregation and community in the rural South, where such things still happen...and the story of a pastor who still had a lot to learn.  It's a story in which we learn that the color of compromise is yellow, and how cowardly some churches and pastors can be.  I'll tell you more in a minute.  But first...

"The Color of Compromise is both enlightening and compelling, telling a history we either ignore or just don't know. Equal parts painful and inspirational, it details how the American church has helped create and maintain racist ideas and practices. You will be guided in thinking through concrete solutions for improved race relations and a racially inclusive church....The Color of Compromise is not a call to shame or a platform to blame white evangelical Christians. It is a call from a place of love and desire to fight for a more racially unified church that no longer compromises what the Bible teaches about human dignity and equality."

Jemar Tisby's book is a must-read for all followers of Jesus who want to understand the real history of brutal racism in the American church.  The author goes beyond discussing aggressive forms of racism, and tackles the passive-aggressive prejudice that allows racism to exist and thrive.  Tisby talks about the "go along to get along" attitude toward racism that does nothing more than perpetuate discrimination, even if motivated by a well-intentioned desire for unity in the church.  I hope you'll get a paper copy that you can take notes in, underline, and mark up.  It's definitely worth the read!

"Do you really think that's a good idea?" the deacon asked, piercing me with a gaze that said, "You know that you'll be in trouble if you do this, don't you?" That stern look also made me wonder if this deacon might be the source of the trouble, and if this "kind advice" might be more of a threat than a caution.

Bear in mind--I was not a novice pastor at this point in my career.  So I knew that in a Baptist church, the pastor doesn't truly call the shots, and lives or dies professionally at the whim of the people.  Neither was I a seasoned veteran, full of confidence and able to weather the storms of an angry congregation.  So I did the only thing I could think of.

I compromised.  Well, to be honest, I lied.  

Compromise would imply a give-and-take.  But in this case, all I did was take.  I took back my promise, and broke my word.  Or maybe the compromise wasn't with other people, but with my own beliefs, and my own character.  In any case, it was one of the things I'm most ashamed of in my life, and I have told few people about until now.

"I'm sorry," I told my friend, the pastor of the other church.  "When I agreed to speak on that date, I forgot that I'd already booked that Sunday off with my family."

I'm sure he could see through my lie, but he also knew that I was so fragile at this moment that he let me get away with it.  He simply said, "Well, maybe some other time."

You have to understand the deep-seated racism in the rural South where I served.  You have to know that integrated churches in that region are few and far-between.  On page 52 of The Color of Compromise, Tisby says:

"Harsh though it may sound, the facts of history nevertheless bear out this truth: there would be no black church without racism in the white church."

Yes, it's true that the African American church was formed by formerly enslaved people who left the Caucasian church of their own accord, to establish for themselves churches and denominations independent of their former enslavers.  So it could be said that the segregation of the American church is due to the actions of Black worshipers.  Yet, there would have been no need for these believers' mass exodus from white churches, had it not been for the racism of church leaders who forced congregants of color to endure continued submission in church roles.  Realizing that segregated worship was the only way to find equality in the church, Black believers had left the white church in droves.

In my time pastoring that little church, I had seen the racism of my own congregants.  I had also built (what I believed to be) a friendship with the pastor of the local African American church.  I visited them when I could, when their services fell at times when my own church had no meetings.  I became known to the people of that congregation, and I felt I knew some of them.  So the invitation came naturally, when that church scheduled it's anniversary celebration, marking a benchmark number of years since its founding.  "It only makes sense that you speak at our church," the pastor had told me.  "Since the ancestors of our church members had been former members of your congregation."  I thought it made perfect sense, too, so I had accepted the invitation.  But then I had caved, and lied, and damaged a friendship, at the slightest pressure from a racist deacon who may or may not have even been speaking for the others in my church.  (And so what, if that deacon had been speaking for all of them?)  Yes, the color of my compromise was as yellow as the cowardice in my heart.  And I have regretted that decision from that day until now.

Let me emphasize--I knew this decision was cowardly, even before I carried it out.  I didn't "slip into sin"--I ran into this lie as if into the arms of a savior that would rescue me from a tight spot.  I knew it was wrong, but I didn't see any way out.  I thought it was the easiest way to keep my deacon and other church members happy, while saving face with the neighboring church that I had come to love, too.  What I didn't realize was the rift that it would create, how guilt would prevent me from entering the doors of that neighboring church for another fifteen years--and how the face I was trying to save had ended up breaking relationships.  What I didn't realize was the chasm it would create in my own soul. 

Jemar Tisby writes:

[Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech] was August 28, 1963. More than fifty years later, how far has the American church come in terms of race relations? The “Whites Only” and “No Negros Allowed” signs have been taken down, but schools remain segregated. People of color are incarcerated at disproportionally hight rates. Black unemployment remains double that of whites. Most poignantly, churches remain largely segregated. The reluctance to reckon with racism has led to a chasm between black and white Christians in theology, politics, and culture. This chasm only makes it harder to productively communicate and take effective action around racial issues.  (Pg. 192)

I was still struggling with this chasm when, a few months later, another opportunity for the church and me to do the right thing emerged.  I received a phone call from a bride-to-be who said she was looking for a church building to rent, for their upcoming ceremony.  She explained to me that she was a member of a local congregation, but their facility was too small to handle the crowd she expected.  "We've always driven by your church and thought how pretty it was, and we're wondering if it's available."  I told her that I didn't make those decisions, that we had a committee that handled bookings of our facilities.  I told her I'd talk with the committee and have them give her a call.  I did just that, and once I had passed the job on to the committee chair, I thought nothing else of it.

Some time later, the chair called me back, her voice quavering anxiously.  "Did you know that the couple is Black?"

I was glad that she couldn't see me rolling my eyes through the telephone, but I don't think I disguised my feelings as telegraphed through my own voice.  "Well, first of all, you can't see what a person looks like through the telephone, so no, I didn't know that they were Black.  But, second, so what if they are Black?  Why does that make a difference?  This is, after all, the twenty-first century."

That ruffled her.  "I...well, I... you don't understand," she said.  "We don't rent our building to their kind.  The committee is going to tell them no."

That pissed me off.  I knew very well that we did not have a discrimination policy, and that it was only the intent of the committee, or perhaps only the chair of the committee, to keep people of color out of our building.  So I told her this had to be decided by the church at large.

By the time our church business meeting came up, word had spread through the whole congregation that one of the things on the agenda would be a decision whether or not we would allow this particular couple to rent our building.  People came with their proverberial guns loaded for bear.  However, as we began to look into the date the couple had requested the use of our building, we discovered that the church already had a major event planned for that entire weekend.  So it was decided that we would contact the couple and say that we were sorry, it was nothing personal, but the building simply wasn't available for their wedding.

That pacified a few people, but it just made me even more angry.  I had come to the meeting prepared to settle this matter once and for all.  Instead, the missed opportunity to decide for inclusion seemed like one more nail in the church's racist coffin.  So, at our next business meeting after that, I came to the church with a well-drafted nondiscrimination resolution that I wanted the church to pass.  After reading the resolution and allowing time for discussion, I asked for the vote to be by show of hands.  And, to my surprise, the resolution passed with only a few dissenting votes.  What a cause for celebration!

In The Color of Compromise, Tisby writes:

In the Bible, James 4:17 says, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them”…The church today must practice the good that ought to be done. To look at this history and then refuse to act only perpetuates racist patterns. It is time for the church to stand against racism and compromise no longer (Pg 212).

I was so proud that my church had known the good that needed to be done, and then had the courage to act on its convictions.  I was so delighted with the decision that I framed the nondiscrimination policy and nailed it to the wall in the sanctuary, in a spot where every passerby would see it.  It was only later that I learned that not everybody who had voted for the policy actually agreed with it.  When asked why they had supported it, one grumbler stated, "The vote was by show of hands--I wasn't going to be publicly racist."

And isn't that just the thing?  The church doesn't want to be publicly racist.  That's why the deacon took me aside in private to say I shouldn't preach at the Black church.  That's why everyone breathed a sigh of relief when our building just happened to be unavailable for the wedding.  That's why the few African Americans who have entered white churches in the South have done so with a sense of dread--not because of what's said to their face, but behind their backs.

Don't get me wrong--overt, malicious racism in the church is rare, in my experience.  But I have wondered why do-nothing members were nominated for deacon, when the Black deacon who had joined us from another church was never mentioned.  I have had to explain why it's offensive when farmers refer to the migrant workers they employ as "Our Mexicans," (especially when some were from Honduras).  And I have heard the loud silent gasps of the congregation when a person of color ascended the pulpit to preach in my place.  

Racism has been a pernicious thorn in the flesh of the Southern, white, evangelical church for a long time.  I confess that when I was younger, I compromised my own non-racist beliefs to keep the peace.  I didn't realize at the time that it's not enough to be non-racist.  Only an anti-racist stance from church leadership can break the cycle of overt hatred and violence, as well as covert undercuts and bigotry.  Ephesians 2:13-15 says:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has torn down the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing in His flesh the law of commandments and decrees. He did this to create in Himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace…

Christians, if we believe that's true, then it's not enough to defend our perceived non-racism by proclaiming that we have Black friends.  It's not enough that we try to be fair and equitable by declaring that "all lives matter," rather than singling out the significant pain of one particular group.  Instead, we've got to come to terms with the systemic racism present in our society and in our churches.  We've got to have courage enough to face our own racism, because it's there, whether we want to believe it or not.  We've got to educate ourselves, and gain perspectives we've never had before  (Jemar Tisby's book is a good start).  And we've got to become proactive rather than reactive.

Remember the old tradition of "testimony night" in many evangelical churches?  In the absence of a sermon, church members would get up and tell their own stories of God's goodness.  At testiony night, we heard tales of miracles, of broken relationships restored, and of blessings.  But the ones that always moved us the most were the confessions.  When a brother or sister stood up and said, "This is how I've failed, but this is also where I've learned, where God has given grace, and where I can do better."  I think its time that we had testimony night.  I've gotten the ball rolling, with my confession.  Now, it's your turn.



Saturday, December 12, 2020

"Are You Religious?"

"Are you religious?" he asked me.  

"Damn, I hope not," I said--and I meant it.  Because religious people are more concerned with the fact that I used that word than the fact that I instantly diffused any tension there might be in the conversation, in order to have a deep conversation about Jesus.  But we didn't begin there--we started out talking about tattoos and whiskey, and how I, as a follower of Jesus can enjoy both of those things.  He talked about how he'd been hurt by religion, and I assured him that God doesn't want us to be religious, anyway.  God just wants our hearts.  The problem was, it was an uphill conversation, because the church had convinced him that religion was all about putting on a righteous appearance, and looking down on people who didn't fit the standards of the Christian culture.  So I told him a story...

Jesus said, “But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go. “Which of the two obeyed his father?”

They replied, “The first.”

Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins (Matthew 21.28-32 NLT).

The man shook his head.  "Yep, I've known a lot of Christians who said they followed Jesus, but you'd never know it."

"So have I," I said, "And I worked with them for years.  I've also known a lot of people who were closer to following Jesus than some church folks were, even though they'd never call themselves Christians."

"That makes sense," he told me.  "I've always thought life was about knowing that God is love, and trying to live like God.  I never thought it was about going to church and trying to impress people by how good I am.  Is that right?" he asked.

Giving him a fist bump, I said, "Damn straight."