Racism should not be normal in 2020 America

Former President Barack Obama in his recent statement regarding the murder of George Floyd at the hands (knee) of a policeman in Minnesota, said “This shouldn’t be ‘normal’ in 2020 America. It can’t be ‘normal,’…. If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better.” I agree 100%.

Mr. Obama ended his message calling for justice for Mr. Floyd’s death and reiterating that violent acts of racism can no longer be tolerated in America and beyond. Amen!

“It will fall mainly on the officials of Minnesota to ensure that the circumstances surrounding George Floyd’s death are investigated thoroughly and that justice is ultimately done,” declared Obama. “But it falls on all of us, regardless of our race or station—including the majority of men and women in law enforcement who take pride in doing their tough job the right way, every day to work together to create a ‘new normal’ in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts.”

I must be honest here and ask, “what does it mean to work together to create a new normal?” There is no question that we have a legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment in this country that is systemic and infects our institutions. It keeps happening over and over and I can understand the frustration of the black community. You would think that police departments around the country would have figured this out by now. Why haven’t they? What needs to happen? This needs to be fleshed out and not shoved onto the back burner until the next time.

Then there is the last part of Mr. Obama’s statement where he mentions the bigotry infecting our hearts. What can police departments do about that? Is there any kind of training that can change the human heart if racism is already there? ? It has been my observation that while education, training, and racial justice legislation have cleared the way for many significant rights, freedoms, and protection for racial and ethnic minorities, they have at the same time, threatened and inflamed the hatred of many in the majority and those in positions of power. In my anecdotal studies, I have never seen anyone converted by such training or legislation whose heart was already hostile by racial prejudice. By no means am I saying that we stop legislating against injustice or do away with cultural and educational training, I’m just saying that we are naive to think that it will deal with the bigotry that springs from the human heart.

A few years ago, I had the privilege to be in Selma at the 50th Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the civil rights march led by Dr King in 1965 across the Edmond Pettis Bridge to Birmingham. President Obama was there at the anniversary and asked me to walk with him- just kidding. Actually, I was there with 12 football players from Wheaton College—I was the interim chaplain at the time. We spent the week working with a church and helping some start-up businesses by doing grunt work and heavy-lifting. I observed that the local golf course was still “whites only.” The Civil War memorials were still divided between whites and “coloreds.” The local cemetery was strewn with confederate flags and had become the meeting place of white supremacy groups. And talking to older black folks in coffee shops, I got the distinct impression that while laws have produced change, racism was/is just beneath the surface waiting to raise its ugly head again.

A few years before that, I took a bus trip with a group of black and white clergy from the Chicago area, following the route of the civil rights protest movement, and ending up in Birmingham. (This was the first time I visited Selma, worshiped in an African American church, and walked across the bridge.) My seat-mate and roommate on the week long trip was a minority pastor from Uptown, Chicago. All of us interacted, watched movies on racial issues, had lively seat discussions on the bus. We visited a slave museum and “experienced” the de-humanizing process of being herded like cattle onto a slave ship and then sold into slavery when we arrived in America. We worshipped at the 16th St Baptist Church in Birmingham where 4 young girls were killed in 1963 by 15 sticks of dynamite exploded in a church bathroom during Sunday school.* We also visited the MLK museum in Atlanta and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968 .

In all our heated and energetic discussions, we kept coming back to the gospel. It is only through the work of Christ in the human heart that love can replace hate and reconciliation replace separation. Granted that there are many white supremacists who also claim to be Christians. But just as being born in a garage doesn’t make you car, neither does being born into the Christian religion make you a follower of Jesus. “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:15)

I keep coming back to the powerful example of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, whose members forgave the young white supremacist, Dylan Roof, after he killed 9 church members at a Bible Study back in 2015. I was humbled, and still am, by these followers of Jesus “bestowing grace” and not hatred upon this white boy whose intent was to start a race war. Such an action is a stunning example of the gospel, which I believe is the only thing that can deal with Mr Obama’s concern for the “bigotry of the heart.”

In no way am I am I placing the burden of responsibility on African American believers here. As a white believer, I do not know the risk and fear of the black American who is a victim of a routine traffic stop, or who simply goes for a jog through a suburban neighborhood like Ahmaud Arbery, or out for a walk like Trayvon Martin, or bird-watching in a park. The gospel must penetrate my heart as well, digging out the putrid prejudice which is there through years of growing up in a predominately white America, being ignorant of the history and plight of its black citizens, and even being separated from worship with my minority sisters and brothers by our mono-cultural churches.

I am in constant need of God’s forgiving and transforming grace to continue to make me into a Jesus-man. And I believe that a part of this grace is found in a desire and sincere interest to learn more about the history of the African American people, the great contributions they have made to our country, the beginnings of the horrible slave trade, the heroic work of the Abolitionist movement, and especially the importance of the Christian faith that not only sustained the oppressed in their suffering, but also motivated their major movements toward freedom. It also means learning that most of the inalienable rights granted to me by the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would not be granted to one of my black friends if we lived back in the day. While education cannot change the human heart, it can help to shape a heart renewed by God’s grace.

While the world searches for an antidote for Covid-19, let us not we shun the only proven medicine available for the sick hearts of humanity—the gospel.

*A well-known Klan member, Robert Chambliss, was charged with murder and buying 122 sticks of dynamite, but a month later he was cleared of the murder charge, received a 6-month jail sentence, and fined $100 for the dynamite. The FBI identified 3 other men as co-conspirators of the crime, but Director J. Edgar Hoover shut down the investigation without any charges being filed. Doesn’t that tick you off? However, Alabama’s Attorney General re-opened the case about 14 yrs. later and Chambliss was sentenced to life in prison, and in 2002 the only remaining co-conspirator that was alive and sane was also sentenced to life.

Walking worthy…

I have always been intrigued with this phrase in the New Testament Letters; used five times by Paul and once by John: Eph 4:1, worthy of the calling; Phil 1:27, worthy of the gospel; Col 1:10, worthy of the Lord; 1 Thess 2:12, worthy of the God who calls; 2 Thess 1:11, worthy of his calling; 3 John 1:6, worthy of God.

“Walking worthy” does not focus on striving to deserve or earn the favor of God, but just the opposite. It means to live in such a way that is fitting or consistent with the gracious nature of God who called us and with the gospel that saved us. It not an encouragement to prove myself worthy (how could I ever do that?), but to live in keeping with the worth of all that God has given to me by his grace. When John the Baptist said, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt 3:8) he meant that those who had received his baptism should live in such a way that was in keeping with their repentance.

Paul expands on this in 2 Thess 1:11, “that our God will make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith.”

So, as we walk in a worthy way, we should learn to cultivate those little pieces of fruit called “desires for goodness.” You can recognize them by the fact they would not be one of your normal desires apart from that fact that God’s Spirit dwells in you. “I want to love my wife more selflessly; I want to be a more responsible parent showing God as my priority and not my career; I want to be more generous and to share what God has given me; I desire to trust God in this situation and not be overwhelmed by fear.” We need to act upon these desires for they are evidence of the life that is worthy of God and that pleases him.

Also, as we walk in this worthy way, we need to cultivate those other pieces of fruit called “every deed prompted by faith.” These represent those actions or deeds done in faith simply from the motive of glorifying God.” Let me give you an example of what I think this means. Many years ago when most of my kids were still in high school and two of my boys were playing football, I was in my office looking through a brochure advertising Bibles and other Christian resources. I saw that a new sports Bible had just published containing not only the text of the New Testament, but also full page testimonies of Christian athletes scattered throughout the book. My very first thought was, “I want to buy these and pass them out to the football team at its end of the year banquet so these young guys will come to know Jesus.” I immediately ordered 85 copies so make sure they would arrive on time.

I knew this prompting was a deed of faith because it came out of nowhere and I didn’t stop to argue with myself. I just did it because it was the right thing to do and I knew it would honor the Lord. When the Bibles came I went to the football coach, whom I knew, gave him a copy and asked if I could make them available to any player who wanted one at the banquet. (By the way, he was also the assistant principal of the school.) He loved the idea, kept the Bible, and asked me to give the opening prayer at the dinner and explain the gift. And so I did—every player and coach took a Bible. The next year I did the same thing and was able to invite to the banquet (with the coach’s permission, of course) a young college athlete who went to my church. He was an All American football player from The University of Massachusetts, Amherst who was well known to the high school players. I asked him to present the Bibles and briefly share why he read the God’s Word everyday.

These were not earth shattering acts of faith, but I look back at them as examples of small pieces of fruit done in faith that were borne of my trying to walk worthy of the Lord. Fast forward to today: we are at a completely different stage of life and live in a new state and in a new neighborhood, but we still get these promptings of faith. We held a “socially-distant” Easter Sunrise Service in our driveway on Easter Sunday, and last Sunday we have invited our neighbors to an Ascension Sunday Service, also in our driveway. We have been asked by some of our neighbors to do this more often.

So, may you walk worthy of the Lord today; simply wanting to live life that is in keeping with the marvelous grace that he has bestowed on you…and watch for those promptings of faith and pay attention to those little pieces of fruit as they develop.

COMING SOON: Pilgrim’s Progress, part 2!

Pandemics and the Throne of God…(Ascension Day)

I have finally finished the Book of Revelation in my latest read-through of the Bible. To say that Revelation is hard to interpret is about as helpful as saying that an elephant is a rather large animal. It may be difficult, but not impossible and it is worth the study. Don’t get bogged down with the specifics of the symbolism or in trying to chart the chronology. Also, make sure you are trying to understand it as if you are reading it in the first-century not the twenty-first. OK, I’m getting beyond what I wanted to say. Let’s ratchet things back to chapters 4 and 5, which I would contend is the fountainhead of the entire book.

If you have a chance, read this beautiful section. I have preached on it a number of times because it outlines key components of worship. However, narrowing the focus of this passage just to worship can obscure it from finding its key position in John’s vision. Simply said, these chapters describe the entire universe from God’s perspective. The phrase “the throne” is repeated 15 times. “God’s Throne is at the very center of the universe and precedes all of the symbolic description of the trials and tribulations that will follow.” (William Hendrickson)

“The throne” represents sovereignty, indicating that nothing can take place apart from the Providential Hand of God. Linger by the throne in chapter 4, along with the Holy Spirit (the seven blazing lamps), and with the cherubim, who can do nothing other than to gaze upon the glory of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. They never stop singing His praises, along with redeemed humanity (24 elders), who worship Him and lay all their achievements before His Throne.

In chapter 5, John sees the sealed scroll that no one can open, and he weeps. The scroll is the unrevealed and unexecuted plan of God for human history, and unless it is opened this Plan will not be carried out and will remain unfulfilled. The world will be out of control and evil will have its way. Then John’s attention is drawn by a redeemed one (an elder) to the Lion of the tribe of Judah (the Kingly tribe) who also looks like a slaughtered Lamb. It is Jesus Christ who takes the scroll in his role as Mediator and opens it by the power of his indestructible life —his death and resurrection. He is the only one in the entire universe worthy to do so. He then is enthroned. (By the way, today is ASCENSION DAY!) He takes his seat upon the throne beside the Father, so that it now becomes “the throne of God and of the Lamb.” (Rev 22:1) From the throne, Christ the King mediates and executes the Plan of God for all of human history and for the church.

As soon as the King is enthroned, there is a burst of enthusiasm with three separate doxologies. Now heaven is ready; now the universe is ready; now the Church is ready—Christ is on the throne. Let the trials begin, let the wars wage, let the pandemics rage—we know that they will end in victory by the Lamb who was slain! Follow the book all the way to the end and you will see that the Throne becomes the Great White Throne of Judgment before which the books will be opened and anyone whose name is not found written in the book of life will be thrown into the lake of fire. (20:11-15) And follow it further still as you will hear the one seated on the Throne say, “I am making everything new.” (21:5)

So my friend, the key to interpreting Revelation is not to begin with the pandemics and famine, the horses and battles, the Gogs and Magogs, the mark of the beast and 666—but with the Throne of God. Likewise, the key to understanding human history is to start at the same place; not with your present circumstances, your fear, or even your suffering—but with Jesus our King and Savior, on the Throne, executing our Father’s plan for those who are His (Romans 8:33, 34). Are you His?

Blessed Ascension Day!

The Night of Power

Perhaps you do not know that tonight (May 19 this year) is regarded by Muslims around the world as one of the most highly spiritual times of the year. It is called “The Night of Power” and it is believed that Allah hears prayers, forgives sin, and is more merciful than at any other time of the year. Surah 97:3 states that “The Night of Power is better than a thousand months.” The spiritual benefits that flow from Allah on this special night exceed 83.3 yrs. of normal worship!

Let us be mindful of this today as our Muslim friends and neighbors will be earnestly engaged in prayers for Allah’s mercy and forgiveness. Let us also be in prayer that the Holy Spirit will open their hearts to Jesus and to find in him the forgiveness and salvation for which their longing souls seek.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

The Progression of Spiritual Digression… part 3

We have already seen that the first step in this Spiritual Digression (Hebrews 1-6) consists of drifting away through a lack of attention. “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (2:1) This appropriate counsel is for all believers at all times and not just for the Hebrews. Any digression in our spiritual lives usually begins almost imperceptibly—not as the result of catastrophic change, but through a lack of intentionality.

We have also seen that the second step in this process consists of turning way because of an unbelieving heart. “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (3:12) The context of this section is the refusal of Israel to enter the promised land of Canaan because of their fear of the giants. Instead of trusting God and his promises, they became afraid, rebelled, maligned his motives, and wanted to go back to Egypt.

The final and ultimate step in this digression is the scariest of all; it consists in falling away from God’s grace. “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” (6:4-6) Wow! Arguably one of the more difficult passages to interpret.

Let’s look at our options. The NIV Application Commentary by George Guthrie (pp 226-230) is helpful here by listing some of the main interpretive theories.

The Pre-Christian Theory. Some believe that the text speaks of those coming out of Judaism (seekers within the Christian Community) who fall away before they are fully committed; like the seed falling on the path is snatched away before it can take root. The difficulty with this view is that the writer uses the language of full inclusion and participation, not just seeking.

The Hypothetical Theory. Some believe that the writer is using such graphic language to warn his readers of the danger that awaits them if they fall away. (6:6) In other words, the message is motivational and the writer is convinced they would never do such a thing. “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better thing in your case.” (6:9) This theory has merit and is a legitimate option.

The Lost Salvation Theory. There are some who feel that the proper interpretation is the simplest one—that the people being described are those who were genuine Christians, but who apostatized and lost their precious salvation, thereby becoming enemies of the gospel. Thus, they were Christians at one time and now they are no longer, and can never again be restored to the faith. While this option seems to fit the reality of the textual language, it fails to satisfy the test of compatibility with other Scriptures; “And this is the will of him who sent me that I should lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:39) Also, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” (John 10:27-30) Other passages to consider are Romans 5:9; 8:1; 8:29, 30: 8:37-39; Phil 1:6; 1 Peter 1:3-5; Hebrews 10:14.

The They Were Not of Us Theory. The final theory to consider is one that claims the people being described were never Christ-followers in the first place. In spite of outward appearances, they demonstrated a lack of saving faith by their failure to hold firm to their confession in Christ to the end. They were like those who left Egypt with Moses (both Israelite and Egyptian); covered by the blood at Passover, shared in the Red Sea Crossing, who appeared to be a part of the covenant community at Sinai—until they showed their true colors in the wilderness, ultimately refusing to trust God’s authority and hold fast to his Promises about the Land. The Apostle John called these people “antichrists” and described them like this: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” (1 John 2:19)

This last interpretation is one that I think best captures the reality of the writer’s thought, while at the same time passing the test of compatibility with Scripture that teaches the perseverance of those who having saving faith. In other words, continuing in the faith (continuing to remain in the believing community) is a sign of saving faith. It is the theme of the very book of Hebrews itself. “For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.” (Hebrews 3:14) This reflects the very words of Jesus, “But the one who perseveres (endures, holds out) to the end will be saved.” (Matt. 24:13)

I would like to make one last point. This passage about falling away from the faith should never be used as a tool of judgment to determine who is a true believer and who isn’t. Remember the parable Jesus told of the wheat and the tares growing together in the same field, and that they should be weeded out only by God in the day of Judgment? The reason is that we will usually get it wrong, because only the Lord knows those who are his. Not only that, but there will be occasions when true believers will drift away or turn away for a time, before the God of mercy who has begun a good work in them will bring them back to himself. In those intervening moments/months/years, these wandering ones do not need our judgment, as much as they need our prayers, our challenges, and our encouragement. Therefore, for anyone who claims to be a Christ-follower, Hebrews 6:1-6 should motivate us to make our calling and election sure and challenge us to persevere in the faith, knowing that it is those who continue to the end who will be saved.

The Progression of Spiritual Digression…part 2

In review: Woven into the fabric of a beautiful tapestry portraying the superiority of Jesus Christ, is a progression of spiritual digression which the writer of Hebrews needed to confront in chapters 1-6 —a slippery slope, if you will, of neglecting so great a salvation in Christ Jesus.

The first step in this process consists of drifting away through a lack of attention. “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (2:1) This appropriate counsel is for all believers at all times and not just for the Hebrews. Any digression in our spiritual lives usually begins almost imperceptiblly—not as the result of catastrophic change, but through a lack of intentionality.

The second step in this process consists of turning way because of an unbelieving heart. “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” (3:12) The context of this section is the refusal of Israel to enter the promised land of Canaan because of their fear of the giants. Instead of trusting God and his promises, they rebelled, maligned his motives, and wanted to go back to Egypt. Thus, the writer of Hebrews applied this lesson from history to his contemporaries by warning them against failing to trust God and slipping back into Judaism in order to escape the “giant” of persecution. Failure to hold fast to their profession of faith in Jesus Christ would be tantamount to refusing to take the promised land.

Life is filled with giants. My dad used to tell me, “Every David has his Goliath.” So do you, even if your name isn’t David. And every giant comes with its own set of fears and threats and harassment. This pandemic has provided enough giants for a life-time of fear: the fear of catching the disease or of a loved one catching it; the fear of an uncertain future; the fear of economic ruin; the fear of God not caring; the fear of not seeing your kids or grandkids again…on and on we could go. Just remember, it is at the point where we are most afraid that often shows us the point at which we are not trusting God; the same point where we risk turning away from him because of an unbelieving heart.

What is the author’s antidote to turning away? “But encourage one another daily, as long as it called Today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” (3:13) Just as drifting away is a process over time so is the hardening of heart because of the deceitfulness of sin. When we do not trust God because of a certain giant, it starts a hardening process in our hearts by deceiving us into believing lies about God—does he really love me, why did he let this happen, is he punishing me? When not dealt with properly, these lies make it easier to mistrust God for the next giant. If you look at that unfaithful generation that failed to enter the land, they didn’t become unfaithful overnight. They left a trail of unbelief all over the wilderness that culminated with the catastrophe at Kadesh Barnea.

Thus, the daily encouragement of one another to help us turn toward God is the antidote for the deceitfulness of sin and the sclerotic process of unbelief. John Piper has said, “God has appointed a means by which he will enable us to hold our confidence firm to the end….Develop the kind of Christian relationships in which you help each other hold fast to the promises of God.” Richard Phillips adds, “Like climbers roped together on a steep mountain, like soldiers teamed together on the battlefield, we must keep track of one another. We must work together if we are to reach our objective safely.” And so, the Body of Christ has been designed to protect, encourage, warn, and restore us on our spiritual journey, so that we do not becomes self-deceived and hardened by indwelling sin.

In one of the episodes in Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and his friend Hopeful, on the way to the Heavenly City, passed through an area on the King’s Path called “Enchanted Ground.” The wicked prince had placed this there in order to make pilgrim’s sleepy and stop to rest so his soldiers would capture these sleeping pilgrims and take them all the way back to the City of Destruction. And so, Christian and Hopeful began to get very sleepy (yawn!). What did they do? They encouraged each other about God’s goodness in their lives and how he proved himself faithful to each of them in spite of their unfaithfulness. The more they talked the wider awake they became, and soon they were passed the Enchanted Ground. What an apt illustration for the power of encouragement.

Social distancing should not be a hindrance to Christian encouraging. A phone call, a text, an email; WhatsApp, FaceTime, Messenger; even snail mail cards and letters are all means of being/keeping in touch and encouraging one another while it is called Today! You may never know whether your encouragement kept one pilgrim from drifting away and other from turning away.

The Progression of Spiritual Digression…

We are not sure that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews— some have suggested Barnabas, Priscilla, Clement of Rome, and my theory, Apollos. Anyway, the book was most likely written to Jewish Christians who lived in Jerusalem in the latter part of the first- century AD, who were seriously considering turning back to Judaism in order to escape being persecuted as Christians. The author sets forth a view of Jesus Christ which hallmarks his superiority over the law of Moses, over the Aaronic priesthood, and over the old sacrificial system. Why would anyone want to go back to the lesser after experiencing the better by comparison: A better Covenant; a better Priesthood; and better Sacrifice? We are not sure whether there had been a wholesale defection at that point or whether the letter was sent early enough to nip it in the bud. I believe it was the latter.

In addition to the beautiful portrait portraying the supremacy of Jesus Christ (comparable to Colossians 1), the author sets forth a progression of spiritual digression which needed to be confronted. In Hebrews 1-6, the author outlines this subtle and dangerous process—a slippery slope, if you will, of neglecting so great a salvation in Christ Jesus.

The first step of this process consists of drifting away through a lack of attention. “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (2:1) This appropriate counsel is for all believers at all times and not just for the Hebrews. Any digression in our spiritual lives usually begins almost imperceptiblly—not as the result of catastrophic change, but through a lack of intentionality. The brakes don’t suddenly fail on your car, but slowly, over time, due to inattention. Our bodies do not fail us, typically, all at once, but after warning signs that we have ignored. That is why we schedule regular maintenance checks on our vehicles and annual physicals for our bodies. If I had not gone for my annual physical a few years ago that uncovered my early stage pancreatic cancer, I would most likely be dead by now!

And so it is with the life of the Spirit. The drift begins by a lack of intentionality and regularity in the practices of faith formation and spiritual development that are needed at every point of our lives. Sometimes this inattentiveness is due to pure apathy, but sometimes it is due to paying attention to the wrong things, like fear, bitterness, disappointment, guilt and unrepentance.

I have held onto my precious faith in the Lord Jesus for over 60 yrs, but I will easily run the danger of drifting away from him if I do not keep my eyes fixed daily upon Jesus; in his Word and in repentant prayer. Age does not make you faithful; faithfulness makes you faithful!

So what do you have in place in order to prevent or deal with the drift? It is really important that you consider this, especially during this time of social isolation and, for many people, a lack of schedule. Make one; work the program; practice the disciplines; pay attention! Stop drifting away!

Next blog we will look at the next step in the digression…

(Coming soon to this blog site… the story of Pilgrim’s Progress for kids in 6 episodes)