What Will Become of the Church?

There was a time in Ancient Israel when the Israelites were worshipping the god Molek. He was one of many pagan gods they were worshipping, but he was distinct in his sacrificial requirements. Molek demanded child sacrifice. The idols of Molek were hollow iron statues with outstretched arms. A fire would be built within the base of the idol, making the entire statue red hot. Then children would be placed in the fiery arms of Molek, sacrificed to grant the desires and prosperity of their parents.

It was this abhorrent practice that contributed greatly to God’s punishment of Israel in the form of the Babylonian Exile.

33 They turned their backs to me and not their faces; though I taught them again and again, they would not listen or respond to discipline. 34 They set up their vile images in the house that bears my Name and defiled it. 35 They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin. – Jeremiah 32:33-35 (NIV)

After centuries of unheeded warnings from Deuteronomy to the prophets, God acted to put a stop to Israel’s abuses and sinfulness. The global superpower of Babylon swept in and laid siege to Jerusalem. An initial wave of Hebrew captives was taken to Babylon, as chronicled in the books of Daniel and Ezekiel. Daniel and his friends are just teenagers, captives in a foreign land, paying the price of centuries of selfishness and disobedience from their ancestors. They were separated from their faith community and their central expression of worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. Their faith was in shambles, their society was in ruins, their reputation on the global stage was in tatters.

And yet at the very same time that the Israelites continued to sacrifice their children in the arms of Molech, a last-ditch effort to save themselves, God was rescuing teenagers from the fires of Babylon. The faithful young people who refused to worship the king of Babylon, who incurred the punishment of the fiery furnace, those young people saw the faithfulness of the Lord. God has always protected the future of His people, even when their elders do not.

I cannot speak for every young Christian today, but I know I have felt very alone in the last four years. The generations that raised me to value character and integrity, to pursue absolute truth rather than moral relativism, to do what is right even when it is difficult and unpopular, so many in those generations have fallen into idolatry. The idolatry of Christian nationalism, of political power and control, of party affiliation over ideology, of selective moralism, of adherence to what one wants to believe rather than what is true. And the future of the Church has been the attempted sacrifice. Young Christians have felt abandoned on the front lines of culture, trying to still proclaim the truth and beauty of the Gospel even as our elders dismantle so much of our collective witness. There have been many times when I have felt despair for the Church since 2016, and I felt it deeper than ever on January 6th, 2021. Who will believe our claim to absolute truth now? Who will view us as compassionate and intelligent people that seek the common good? Who would want to be part of our faith communities when what we are projecting is foolishness, ignorance, violence and blame?

Then I remembered the teenagers in Babylon. All must have seemed lost to them too. And yet God shielded them from death. God gave them unexpected favor with those in power. God visited them with His presence. God honored their risky faithfulness when it seemed like nothing mattered anymore. God fulfilled His promise to give them a future and a hope.

If you are a young Christian who relates to what those young exiles were experiencing, you too have a future and a hope. Jesus has never and will never allow the Church to die. A lot of things are in tatters, maybe including our faith. We are dealing with a fallout that has been many years in the making, much of which was not our direct doing. But we must not give up, for the hope of the Church lies in our generations. God has always called His people back from exile, back from the precipice, back to a place of restoration.

Rest in this truth, that God will be our Defender and make a way forward for us. Because the story of the exiles did not end in Babylon. It culminated in a star rising in the East. Bible scholars believe that the Wise Men who followed the star to Jesus were Babylonians. How and why would they have responded to a star that rose over Israel? Perhaps because God gave a legacy to the exiles. Perhaps because one generation’s faithfulness in the midst of conflict and alienation planted seeds of curiosity, of Biblical scholarship, of wonder. Seeds that lay dormant for several more generations until the time was right to spring forth. If those teenagers had never been carried to Babylon, the Gospel might not have been carried there 400 years later. The Lord can use one generation to transform the Kingdom of God. One generation with a future and a hope.

What will our generation’s legacy be? That will be up to Jesus’ guidance and providence, but there is much reason for hope. So I encourage every young Christian to take your discipleship and growth very seriously. Invest your time and energy into learning the Bible and being deeply rooted in God’s Word. Find faithful mentors who are displaying the Fruits of the Spirit to support you and encourage you. Build up your peers and those younger than you to keep persevering, keep sharing the Gospel, keep seeking the common good, keep connecting with a church. It may be rocky for a while. There may be more fiery furnaces coming our way. There may still be loneliness and conflict, relationships beyond repair. But we know that we are protected by our Eternal God, and we can move in hope that perhaps ours will be a Kingdom-changing legacy. Crazier things have happened before.

REVIEW: “Reading While Black: African American Biblical Exegesis as an Exercise in Hope”

“Black people are not dark-skinned White people.”

This was a mantra used over and over again by Tom Burrell, the first Black man to work in advertising in Chicago. He began his career in 1961 when all advertising was targeted at White consumers. As the field began to realize the potential market of appealing to Black consumers, initially the strategy was to make the exact same ads but with Black models/actors. The assumption was that the things that speak to and motivate White people are universal. But Burrell knew that Black culture was a unique expression, the ads that captured White consumers would not connect with Black consumers in the same way. He revolutionized his industry by tapping into his own experience and perspective and translating that into marketing products in a way that reflected his culture and his context.

The belief that the White experience is universal is not limited to advertising. This attitude has pervaded American society, and the Church has not been immune. In my own experience at least, the Bible is typically interpreted through the lens of White culture, nearly always by White men. These interpretations and emphases are perceived to simply be “normal” and universally applicable. Rather than acknowledging that we all bring the lens of our historical/cultural moment to scripture and that is a normal aspect of the human experience, we have assumed that what stands out to us and resonates with us is the only way to understand the Bible. This at best limits the impact of God’s Word to speak, and at worst leads to misinterpretations that have contributed to gross injustice throughout history. It has the potential to foster idolatry. To put ourselves at the center of the story and to believe that the world revolves around us is an idol that has tempted humanity from the beginning. This has played out all too often in our reading and application of scripture, to the exclusion of our brothers and sisters in our communities and around the world.

This is what makes Rev. Dr. Esau McCaulley’s book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, particularly timely. Dr. McCaulley is an ordained Anglican priest, an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and an Opinion writer for The New York Times. He is well-qualified to write a book about Biblical exegesis but Reading While Black is much more than a scholarly endeavor. The book is motivated by a deep desire to let the Bible speak, and a deep belief that all of God’s children may see themselves reflected in God’s story.

Reading While Black begins with a portion of Dr. McCaulley’s own story. He grew up in a Black conservative tradition, and then was educated in institutions that pulled him in different directions. Like many Black Christians and theologians, he sensed a disconnect between his lived experience and the ways the Bible was presented. It often felt like he either needed to view the Bible as a story about only the salvation of souls, or reject it as a tool of destruction that could have no bearing on the pursuit of modern justice. He sensed that there must be more than these two stark choices. It is this hope and belief that drives the rest of the book.

Each chapter seeks to address the struggles and unique experiences of the Black community by honoring the Biblical text in its fullness. The chapters range from topics such as the Bible and policing, the Bible and politics, the Bible and slavery, Black identity, and Black rage. The chapters dive deep into scripture and historical context, not doing hermeneutical backflips to arrive at a desired interpretation, but genuinely seeking God’s voice. Dr. McCaulley effectively shows that where the Bible has failed to come alive for marginalized communities, it has been a failure of emphasis and not a failure of presence. The Bible is more than able to speak on its own in powerful and heartening ways when we allow it to do so. Reading While Black is a profound illustration of the truth that the Bible is indeed alive and active, able to transcend culture and time to connect with and guide all of God’s people.

For BIPOC readers, I believe you will find tremendous affirmation and love in these pages. Where you have struggled to believe that God’s love is equally extended to you, where you have read passages about slavery and been filled with anger and confusion, where you have wondered if Christianity really is a White man’s religion, this book may be a healing balm. It is not filled with easy platitudes or interpretive avoidance; it is filled with hard-won truth that will speak to your soul. I hope it will strengthen your faith and renew your heart in ways you may not have thought possible.

For White readers, parts of this book will feel strange and confusing. It will reveal to you the ways that we have been unknowingly conditioned to view ourselves as the heroes of the story. The ways where our teaching has assumed that Black and Brown people are just White people in different skin. Pay attention to what makes you feel uncomfortable or what makes you want to push back and question. There were junctures where I felt defensive or wanted to doubt the conclusions in the book. After self-reflection, I believe this was because I was not used to being a guest in the reading of scripture. So I hope you will come with an attitude of generosity and humility, ready to rejoice with your brothers and sisters in the way that the Gospel of Christ can resonate in ways you were not imagining.

When we only want to read the Bible through one lens, we make God small. This does not mean that the Bible should mean whatever any given reader wants it to mean. Dr. McCaulley is not urging us all to just live our truth. But nor does it mean that the Bible has only a monocultural application or that our culture has no bearing on how the Good News can resonate. Rather, we affirm the goodness and glory of God when we read the scripture as a global community. We serve a Risen Lord who is able to embody timeless and universal truth that can also come alive in specific ways. Seeing the ways that the Bible applies to each of our lives enables us to better understand a vast Savior. Reading this book for me was a beautiful experience which prompted me to praise God more joyfully because He is the God Who Sees, Emmanuel who joins with all of His children more intimately than I could ever realize on my own. Please read this book. See yourself in God’s story. See your neighbor in God’s story. Be reminded that we serve a Sovereign Lord who reigns over all things, and in Whom all things hold together.

Reading While Black is available Sept 1, consider ordering from this terrific independent bookstore Hearts and Minds Bookstore

A Biblical Case for the Removal of Racist Monuments

Our country has been having this debate for years now. Quietly in the 20th century, but much more extensively in the last few years since 2017. How should we view and understand monuments built to honor Confederate and other controversial figures? Should they be removed? Are they an important way to remember our history, or a hurtful way to prolong racial discrimination? If they are taken down, will we doom ourselves to repeat the mistakes of the past?

It is first crucial to discern why and when these monuments were erected to begin with. If you look at a timeline of Confederate monuments being erected, you’ll notice two big spikes.

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You might be surprised to find that the majority of them went up at the turn of the 20th century, several decades after the Civil War. This was a time when Jim Crow, segregation, and racially motivated violence were increasingly high. The statues were intended to be a sign of intimidation to Black Americans and a reinforcement of White supremacy. These images were not meant to be a cautionary tale of the dangers of slavery and division, or even just to honor veterans of an American war. They were part of a systemic movement to silence and control Black communities. This is further evidenced by the second spike in the 1960s. Not the 1860s, but in the 1960s during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. There can only be one reason why cities and towns would choose to erect new Confederate statues at the same time that Black citizens were organizing and demonstrating for equal rights. It was another attempt to intimidate and assert power. For a deep dive into the history and geography of Confederate statues, check out the Southern Poverty Law Center’s analysis.

In light of this I would argue that Confederate statues in particular, as well other monuments honoring racist figures like Columbus and Spanish conquistadors, are not mere historical emblems. They are symbols of idolatry. The idolatry of greed and exploitation that has long held this country captive. They are preventing us from honestly reckoning with our history by perpetuating a false narrative of heroism and honor. Removing them is not what prevents us from learning from the past, leaving them up is what keeps us stuck.

When we look at Israel’s relationship with their symbols of idolatry, they display a similar pattern. When they first prepare to move into the land, God commands them in no uncertain terms:

Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. – Deut. 12:2

Idol worship was performed on the “high places” where it was elevated and revered. God commanded them to rid the land of all traces of idol worship as they entered in for a fresh start and a clean slate. However, God’s people did not remove the high places. This wasn’t out of an abundance of caution. They weren’t concerned with preserving their history to avoid repeating it. These dangerous Idols maintained their grasp on the people’s hearts because the people saw them as a source of power and control. Why put all your faith in God alone when you can hedge your bets and have multiple options for security and prosperity? Not surprisingly, Israel continued to struggle with idolatry for centuries.

If you look through 1-2 Kings a clear pattern will quickly emerge. King after king refuses to tear down the high places. You start to get déjà vu thinking you are reading the same passage over again:

The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there. 2 Kings 14:4

The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there. 2 Kings 15:4

The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there. Jotham rebuilt the Upper Gate of the temple of the Lord. 2 Kings 15:35

Some rare instances emerge when kings tore them down, but the next king would put them right back up. The nation remained locked in a cycle of exploitation and sin because of their refusal to remove the means and symbols of their idolatry.

If you compare Kings with 1-2 Chronicles, you will notice something interesting. Kings was written at the beginning of the Babylonian exile when the people are finally being forced to come to terms with their centuries of violence and greed. The question they are asking themselves is, “How did we get here? Did we get here because God is weak and could not protect us, or because we are sinful?” The answer of course is not that God is weak, but that they had brought it upon themselves. So the theme and tone of Kings is a grim recounting of the moral failures of the kings and the peoples’ unwillingness to repent and change. 1 Kings has 10 references to high places, 2 Kings has 17 (that’s a lot). It is essentially a laundry list of their sin and idolatry. Everything they did wrong that they now had to confront and acknowledge.

By the time we get to Chronicles, the tone changes. These books were written at the end of the exile when their fundamental question had changed. Now they were looking towards returning and rebuilding and were asking, “Is God still with us? Did we burn all our bridges or are God’s promises still for us?” Chronicles answers that question by focusing on the things King David did right in his pursuit of God, and the things the other kings did right to honor Israel’s covenant with the Lord. 2 Chronicles has 15 references to high places, but they are not found in God’s continued warnings but in examples of the few intervals where a king did remove them. These intervals were always followed by periods of obedience in Israel. Chronicles serves as a reminder that Israel was capable of being faithful to the Lord. God’s forgiveness and grace were always there when they turned to Him. Their periods of rest and joy came when they tore down their idolatrous symbols and gave their whole hearts to following God.

And that is the other exhortation Israel’s history offers to our grappling with modern idolatrous symbols. It is not enough just to take them down. Their removal must be accompanied by genuine honesty about our sin and heartfelt repentance. It was only when Israel came face to face with the fruit of their sin that they embraced lasting change. (For a beautiful example of individual and corporate confession, read Daniel’s prayer in Babylon in Daniel 9.) Our society has a similar opportunity during this period of public reckoning. All is not lost; God desires so much more for our society and can and will equip us to change and grow. Our monuments are holding us back with false narratives and misplaced honor. They have not preserved our history; they have rewritten it. Let us remove them with hearts that desire to follow Christ alone, our true and only source of security and power.

 

 

Crashing into Whiteness

There is a scene in the 2013 Martin Scorsese movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” that depicts Jordan Belfort, the film’s main character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, so high from a dangerously dosed and expired super drug that his body is completely shut down. The problem is, Belfort now has to get home to stop his associate from unknowingly sharing incriminating information with law enforcement. Belfort literally crawls to his expensive, white sports car and, using his years of experience of living under the influence, carefully makes his way down the road. In what appears to be a miracle, he makes it all the way home without damaging himself, any other property, or his beautiful car. Or so he thought.

The Wolf of Wall Street Wrecked Car GIF

Once he is arrested, the police take him outside where Belfort sees his car mangled and covered with foliage and debris. The film then shows that Belfort didn’t get home safe and sound but hit nearly everything he possibly could from the moment he started the car. It’s a comedic beat in the movie, but I have been thinking about this scene a lot as I’ve somberly reflected on our current moment in the world. The shock that Belfort was experiencing as he reflected on his tumultuous ride home is, in a small way, what many white people are feeling in this very moment. For many, their lives up to this point, all of the working, earning, and relating they’ve been doing, are suddenly being called into question as the scales of privilege fall from their eyes.

The world seems to be, at least right now, seeing through a different lens on the state of race in America and the world. The pain felt by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery is being met with a new level of compassion and empathy that wasn’t as present as our black brothers and sisters grieved the murders of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many more. Compassion and empathy are powerful tools, but as they pull white people into the lives of their neighbors it brings new awareness to the fears and trials people of color experience in America every day. It doesn’t take long as white people examine the lives of people of color around them, before they begin to examine the systems around them as well. Then it doesn’t take long as they examine the systems before they begin examining themselves. All of a sudden, you’re standing on your steps staring at your dismantled sports car.

This is a feeling I am very familiar with. There have been many moments in recent history when I realized I had not been navigating the world, and, particularly, issues of race flawlessly. I hadn’t been zipping around these twisty turns with great expertise, but I was banging down the road high on woke arrogance and oblivious to my racial blind spots. The shock I was feeling comes from having to reevaluate so many aspects of my life and identity. How many friends and neighbors had I blindly hurt with insensitivity and ignorance? Was I taking the hardships they had shared with me seriously? Would they ever forgive me? How do I even pursue that reconciliation? Did I really earn any of the achievements I held deep-seated pride in or was there some level of advantage based on my skin color? Questions like these were not in short supply but it all led to one big question. Have I failed?

Have I failed to do so many of the things I believe in as a follower of Christ? Have I been denying the image of Christ in others? Have I failed to love my neighbor? Have I failed to care for the widows and the orphans? Have I failed to help Jesus usher in the Kingdom of God and participate in the restoration of creation? These questions were disorienting and painful. Thankfully, because of my faith, I already had rhythms of humbly seeking wisdom and then honestly practicing repentance, but now I had to apply that rhythm to my role in pursing racial reconciliation. I don’t know if you’ve ever repented before, but it’s not easy.

Sometimes it feels like your conscience has turned you into a punching bag throwing haymakers of guilt. This experience is similar to that described in Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s seminal work on white fragility. “Via this discourse [on issues of race], whites position themselves as victimized, slammed, blamed, attacked, and being used as “punching bag[s].” The way Dr. DiAngelo describes white fragility sounds to me like any instance of sin being revealed I’ve ever felt or heard about. Defenses go up and blame goes everywhere but where it belongs. Look at how quickly Adam’s fingers point to Eve and God when asked about the original sin. If you are feeling like a punching bag, I would encourage you to ask yourself if it’s actually your conscience doing the punching?

This process is long and nuanced. It involves the complete reevaluation and reordering of our lives. In the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes of a time immediately following his conversion when he went to Arabia. Some see this time as a season for Paul to learn the Gospel directly from Jesus, but I like to think it was more than that. Paul, who was Saul, had a worldview driven by completely different motivations than the life he would live with Jesus. Paul had to look through his life and bit by bit seek forgiveness for the atrocities he committed and redirect every area of his life so that he could now reach out to the very people he had been hurting. This season lasted three years and, even then, Paul had work to do. It is a hard process, but is the only way we are ever going to change the world. One by one the scales need to fall and hearts need to soften. So if you’re in that moment of shock right now, that is a great place to be. Maybe you won’t be able to repair all the damage you’ve done but you’ll do better next time if you just keep driving.

Graduation Advice from an Elder Millennial

I graduated college in 2005. That means by the time I was a senior I had already experienced the Columbine school shooting as a high schooler, 9/11 as a freshman in college, and one of my brothers was killed right before my 22nd birthday while serving in Iraq. I limped out of college into my first job, after three years of which I felt called into grad school and campus ministry. So I started a new job working for the CCO, which meant fundraising my salary, in the summer of 2008. That’s right, I entered a career that depended on raising financial support and then the market immediately crashed.  Not the rosy future I had envisioned for myself.

We always ask graduating seniors “do you know what you’re doing next?” We assume that they should know the answer and we rarely warn them that one’s early-mid 20s are often extremely tumultuous and unpredictable. That is only heightened for those who are graduating this year in the midst of a global pandemic and likely recession. As someone who can relate, here is what helped me survive and grow in challenging times.

Say yes to random opportunities

I had an entry-level job in Student Affairs after I graduated. It did not pay a lot, it was not glamorous, and I could have done the minimum requirements for it. But whenever additional opportunities came along, I took them. I volunteered as a faculty/staff advisor for the women’s club rugby team. I attended our annual professional conference and the second year presented a workshop on supporting students in trauma. I collaborated with other offices across campus to offer campus-wide events. When my church gave me opportunities to lead and serve, I jumped in. When a friend and coworker invited me to the CCO’s annual Jubilee Conference, I said yes. All of these experiences helped me grow personally and professionally, made me more competitive for grad schools, and eventually led to my next step. Whatever job you get, even if it does not seem impressive, make the most out of it. And if you cannot find a job, look for involvements in your community. The need for service and support is significant right now. Invest in your area and you never know what networks and connections you will make in the process.

Invest in a church family

I was an emotional wreck after college. I was processing the trauma of losing my brother, I was trying to adjust to a new town and new job, I was lonely and depressed. I bounced around to different churches for about a year, and then landed at a small Anglican church plant nearby. That church became my home for the next 7 years. They invited me to join the leadership team after a year. I did not know how to help lead a church plant but I was committed so I said yes. I had the chance to be a lay delegate multiple times at our annual church network conference. It meant sitting through a long day of Robert’s Rules and not understanding half of what was going on, but it shaped me to see myself as an active agent in my local congregation and in our global denomination. Beyond interesting leadership experiences, the church gave me a family. We were in a small college town which means I had very few peers to hang out with, but I had older couples that took an interest in me, and young families that invited me over. I did not have many other young professional friends but I was far from alone. Those people loved me and supported me and cheered me on during an otherwise untethered season in my life. It can be hard to find a church. It takes time to build relationships and to open up. But it is the best investment you will make.

Cultivate your mental/emotional health

I think a lot of us feel like a train wreck after college. Whether you go to college or not, our 20’s are a time when we are working through family dynamics and past hurt. We are continuing to discern who we are and what we are supposed to do next. It is often a lonely time with a lot of transition in friendships and community. And it is a time to lay a healthy foundation that we can build on for the rest of our lives. Investing in our mental/emotional health during this season is an investment in a stable future. It will be stressful at first. To face past trauma, to confront unhealthy patterns, to address areas of sin/idolatry in our hearts is never easy or quick. But ignoring those struggles does not mean they go away; it only means their presence in our lives is prolonged. Now is the time to grit your teeth and go to counseling. Find a mentor who can encourage and guide you. Meet regularly with a pastor or trusted spiritual guide. That may have to be online for the foreseeable future, but do not let that stop you. It will get so much better and getting to a place of greater inner stability is invaluable.

Ask for and accept help

I had no idea what I was doing in my 20’s, and that is ok. I think actually most people have no idea what they are doing most of the time. I had SO many people that gave me needed advice, who answered my ignorant questions, who shared their life experience, who were patient with me. There is no shame in needing help and needing to ask questions. Some of my most frequent advice for anyone starting a new job is to ask lots of questions. It is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of proactivity. Do not let embarrassment of pride get in the way of allowing others to walk with you and give you any support that you need.

Be patient with yourself and the process

When we graduate we think everyone is expecting us to have it all together and find our one true path that we will pursue forever. Especially in our age of technology where we see our peers with viral YouTube channels, or creating apps, or being social media influencers, we think we have to be an immediate success when we are young. But Maya Angelou was 41 when she wrote her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Betty Friedan was 42 when she wrote The Feminine Mystique. C. S. Lewis was 52 when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was published. Jesus was 30 when He started His public ministry. Do not compare yourself and your timing to everyone else. You are not “behind” where you think you are supposed to be. Focus on being faithful to each opportunity and each relationship in front of you.

“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” (Luke 16:10)

This is not a time when you have to achieve huge success, this is a perfect time to learn faithfulness in small things. And that foundation of small-scale faithfulness, small-scale trustworthiness, will eventually be honored by the Lord in increasingly impactful ways. Be patient, stay faithful, stay hopeful. As a wise friend of mine told me, “The way we make decisions in current circumstances is how we are likely to make decisions in the future. A ‘yes’ to God today increases the likelihood of a ‘yes’ to God tomorrow.” Say yes to God today, and trust that He will provide the next yes and the ones after that.

REVIEW: Burden

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…,” John writes in the first of his pastoral letters. This letter, in fact, has a lot to say about love. It continues, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Thankfully, John doesn’t stop there because while it’s nice to know that God is love, how does this love play out among us humans? He goes on to explain that that love is best expressed unconditionally and sacrificially pointing towards the example of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Love is costly. You may think, then, that such a costly act would be reserved for those closest to you, but The Bible leans further in to the unconditional.

Gospel authors like Luke recount the words of Jesus writing, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” These are passages that would prove challenging to Rev. David Kennedy of New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church in Laurens, South Carolina. Rev. Kennedy and his congregants and fellow black citizens of Laurens are confronted daily with their enemy. This is an enemy fueled by fear and expressive in its hate. This is an enemy that lynched Rev. Kennedy’s uncle. Laurens is a town that has been defined by white supremacy. Its name comes from a well-known 18th Century slave trader, and it is home to the infamous Redneck Shop, a monument to the town’s shared history with the KKK. The shop itself is housed in what was formerly a segregated movie theater.

Burden Forest Whitaker

Rev. Kennedy entered into the tension of his town armed with passages like those in John’s letters and the war he waged, with weapons of unconditional, sacrificial love, are the subject of the film, Burden, starring Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as the reverend. One of the main battlefields in Laurens, wasn’t in the street in front of the shop where many tense protests were held, but it took place in the heart and mind of a young man named Michael Burden played in the film by Garrett Hedlund. Burden fits the mold of many young men that have been indoctrinated by a white supremacist worldview.

In his local chapter of the Klan he found easy access to housing, work, resources, and drugs. The closest thing to love he had experienced came from the owner of the Redneck Shop. Burden rose to the rank of Grand Dragon, and, in a sign of respect, was given the deed to the shop. This was around the time Burden met his wife, Judith, who was also involved with the Klan but had already begun questioning their practices and worldview. This lead Burden away from the Klan and to the doorstep of Rev. Kennedy where he’d find an opportunity for love to be redefined.

Burden Garrett Hedlund Usher

The true story of Rev. Kennedy, Michael Burden, and the Redneck Shop is impossibly complex, and the film version makes it slightly more idyllic in order to tell a more concise story. Burden tells a beautiful story of pain turned to healing, of hate turned to love, and of hopelessness turned to redemption. Hopefully, the film does inspire people to practice perfect love in the face of fear. Hopefully, like another recent film, Skin, we begin to see a prevailing narrative that people’s hearts can change and that leaving white supremacy behind is possible. To truly appreciate the complexity of this story, though, it’s worth digging into the ongoing true story.

Rev David Kennedy

The real life Rev. Kennedy in front of the Redneck Shop.

Rev. Kennedy is still battling to remove the Klan’s presence from his town. Burden is now separated from his wife and re-associated with some of his former Klan family. White supremacy has an overwhelming hold on people and systems that are in our lives every day. The work of dismantling such a pervasive system is exhausting but made easier if we are motivated by a higher power. The initial success of Rev. Kennedy’s sacrificial love showcased in the film is a testament to what is possible if we heed Jesus’ words, but as the fight against white supremacy continues in the hearts of men, the streets of Laurens, and all over our country, its worth acknowledging that love is often a burden that gets a little lighter because Christ first loved us.

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” – 1 John 4:9-11

Wondering what to do for Lent?

Some of us have grown up in churches where Lent was an annual practice and a core part of our worship and rhythm of our year. Many of us are hearing about Lent for the first time or are familiar with it but have never engaged with it in an intentional way. Wherever you find yourself, I believe that Lent can be a vibrant time of spiritual growth, repentance and soul-searching, discipline and focus.

What is Lent?

This is a practice that the Church has been observing for centuries. It is meant to mirror the experience of Jesus fasting in the wilderness for 40 days, preparing for His earthly ministry and ultimate sacrifice. It is a time to seek the presence of Christ in intentional ways in preparation for Easter. It can be a spiritually rigorous and intense experience at times, but one that is meant to make the joy of the resurrection that much sweeter and triumphant! You can read more about the themes of Lent here.

How do I decide what to do during these 40 days?

Before you choose a specific practice, start by reflecting on what’s going on in your life recently. Do you have a big decision or new chapter coming up? Are there unresolved emotional wounds in your life that you’ve been avoiding dealing with? Is there a fractured relationship that you want to mend but don’t see a way forward? Are you wrestling with habitual sin? Have you struggled with consistency in your pursuit of Bible reading and prayer? Are you feeling distracted and distant from others? Determine what you are feeling most urgently and where you need to invite the work of the Holy Spirit to join with you.

From there, consider adding something positive into your routine and/or taking something away. The goal of a Lenten fast is not to be perfect and to “do better” as a Christian. The goal is to insert disruption into your normal routine in a way that will allow Christ to be more at work within you. By shifting your habits and schedule, you can more readily make room for Jesus in new ways. With that goal in mind, here are some practices to consider:

Prayer focus

Particularly if you are anticipating a decision and new chapter, wrestling with unhealed emotional pain in your life, or habitual sin you can’t conquer, this may be a good place to start. Make the decision to pray about these things regularly and open your heart to God’s working in those areas. This will need to be marked by willingness to then actually let God lead and move! It is ok if you are hesitant and scared at first. It is ok if you have to start slowly in opening up to God about what you are really dealing with. It is ok if it is deeply unsettling and you feel vulnerable and exposed. Be brutally honest in prayer, don’t think you need to give God polished prayers of what you think He wants to hear. Be open about what scares you in this process, where you’re wrestling with distrust, where you don’t want to let Him in, where you’d rather keep hiding or relying on yourself. The more you are honest with God, the more you’ll allow Him to meet you in authentic ways. There will be days where you want to shut down and give up, keep your eyes on our hope of the resurrection and the promise that Jesus makes all things new!

Food or device fast

Last year my husband and I fasted from gluten and dairy. That is the most extreme fast I have ever done, and it is not necessary to do something like this every year. It definitely disrupted our normal habits very extensively and just the act of doing something different as a gesture of faith was very impactful. You can consider fasting from one form of food such as sugar, soda, caffeine, chocolate, meat, etc. If you give up a food, try to use it as reminders to pray and seek the Lord throughout your day. When you are tempted to consume the thing you have given up, turn to prayer and invite the Spirit to help you and work in your mind and heart. Remind yourself that you are empty apart from Christ and that you need the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit to sustain you and truly satisfy you. If you are struggling with feeling like your life is chaotic and unfocused, something simple like this could be a good choice to bring focus and discipline into your days.

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Many people choose to fast from their devices in some form. This could mean being off social media, being off one specific platform, limiting the time of day you are using devices, setting your phone to grayscale to curtail it’s impact on you, etc. Perhaps you are always playing music on Spotify or other streaming.  You may need to close those apps for set times of the day and be in silence with your thoughts and allowing Christ to be with you in the stillness. One suggestion would be to adopt the practice of “scripture before screen”, reading your Bible before you open your phone. It could also include putting your phone away during meals and when you are with others. If you are dealing with feelings of disconnection and anxiety, this might be a good option for you.

Introduce a positive new habit

I will ALWAYS recommend spending more time in God’s Word. Set a goal of being in your Bible/Bible app every day. Pick a book of the Bible that you want to gradually work through and start simple with one chapter a day. Find a friend who wants to do the same so you can encourage each other. The more you are immersed in the scriptures, the more you will know God and recognize His guidance and wisdom in your life. If you’re wanting to grow closer to God during Lent, Bible reading is an excellent strategy.

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You can also make intentional time for reading other books you know will be encouraging and formative. Maybe it’s being disciplined to attend Sunday worship and Bible study/small group every week. Think about opportunities you have that you know will help you learn and grow but that you have a hard time doing consistently. Lent is a great time to make them a priority and to give the Lord your time and focus in a new and sacrificial way.

Don’t give up

It is very likely that you will not be perfect at your fast. If you slip up and forget something or slip into an old behavior, don’t give up! Keep going even if you make mistakes. The Lord desires our hearts not our perfect behavior. If your heart is wanting to pursue Christ during Lent, God will receive that and meet you in ways you might not expect. Take this step of faith and obedience, keep going, and have an open heart before the Lord to see how He wants to reveal Himself to you along the way.

REVIEW: The Two Popes

Comedian John Mulaney hosted Saturday Night Live earlier this year and joked about the idea of his Jewish wife converting to Catholicism, “How would I even have that conversation? What, do you come home with a brochure, and you’re like, ‘Hey, honey, allow me to tell you about an exciting not-new organization. Don’t Google us!’”

And so the joke has gone for many years now, especially since the early 2000’s due to the string of articles from The Boston Globe’s investigative journalism team. The Catholic church has a marred reputation that has been rooted in scandal and the unimaginable trauma of thousands of victims. Even more recently, a 2018 investigation conducted across the dioceses in Pennsylvania revealed 1,000 victims involving 300 priests in that state alone. There are big questions about the health and future of this global organization. Netflix and Oscar nominated director Fernando Meirelles are asking those questions in their new film, The Two Popes.

The Two Popes Anthony Hopkins

In the film, Meirelles and The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten imagine several conversations between Pope Benedict XVI and, then, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio who would go on to be Pope Francis. The conversations in the movie, that are shot with an almost documentary style, are based on some meetings that did take place between the two figureheads, but they are also based on a huge cultural turning point within the church.

The Vatican needed more than a change in leadership, though that did happen when Benedict renounced his position and Francis was elected. They needed more than a return to charity and service, though Francis has made it a focus. They also needed more than addressing issues like climate change and sexuality, though Francis has shown incredible compassion in those arenas. What the Catholic church needed was something far more powerful, repentance. The church needed to clean house at the top and clean house in their hearts. Confession is, ultimately, what Two Popes is about.

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Whether they are protestant or catholic, church leaders are supposed to reflect Christ to those they serve. The Apostle Paul calls them “ambassadors” for Christ. The goal is that as someone meets you and experiences your love and service they are, in a way, meeting Jesus. How can you be anything but grieved, then, by the idea that, for thousands, Christ was an abuser? That grief is painted all over Jonathan Pryce’s face as he portrays Cardinal Bergoglio. The whole film is a delicate, nuanced dance between the two popes and Pryce’s dance partner is the legendary Sir Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict.

The two popes take jabs at each other’s stances on doctrine, tradition, and the direction of the church. Their conversations disturb the birds in the gardens of the Pope’s summer estate and echo against the painted walls of the Sistine Chapel. Hopkins’ Benedict snorts and scowls with guarded fear that Bergoglio desires to see the whole institution torn down. The Cardinal pleads and cries with desperate urgency that the culture Benedict has created is driving people out of the pews. They both are wrestling with being a part of something that has caused so much harm and become the butt of the world’s joke.

The Two Popes Jonathan Pryce

When the film shows you the global scale of the Catholic church or takes you into the mysterious election process, when you see the thousands of people gathered to stare at a chimney, it is easy to feel the authority the Pope has. Both Benedict and Bergoglio brought great authority into these conversations. They had served for decades. Benedict very much had his mind set on the past while Bergoglio had his feet planted and eyes focused on the future.

Jesus has the greatest authority in the universe. Being Christ-like takes authority, but they get absolutely nowhere by swinging their experience and knowledge back and forth. Being Christ-like also takes profound vulnerability. Jesus could heal the leper and make the blind man see but at the end of the day he hung on the cross exposed to the world. To end the stalemate in the film, that’s exactly where the two popes have to go, to the cross. The third act of the film is one of vulnerability and confession.

While watching the film, I found myself laughing at the joke. That’s all we can do with our pain sometimes, right? Laugh at it. Take away its power by making it a joke, and the pomp and the arrogance of this ancient tradition played right into the comedy. By the end, though, as these two men are baring their souls to one another, my eyes were on the cross and the reconciliation I’ve seen in my own life. I’m not sure if the world will ever forgive the Catholic church for their grave injustices, but I do know one way to find forgiveness is to ask for it.

REVIEW: A Hidden Life

There is a lot of flashy, star-studded content about World War II out there. Rightfully so. It was an era when the world stood up together against a very obvious and treacherous evil. The conflict begs to be adapted again and again. Just this year, Jojo Rabbit approached the time period with humor and heart and Amazon Prime’s sci-fi series Man in the High Castle, that depicts how the world might have been different if the Axis Powers won, entered its final season. Over the years, audiences have followed Patton, banded with brothers, and saved Private Ryan through tons of explosive battles and even more explosive Tom Hanks performances. Now, into the catalog of World War II fare, comes the quiet and contemplative A Hidden Life.

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Director Terrence Malik has been to WWII before with the fondly remembered The Thin Red Line, but this time he avoids the traditional trenched and barb-wired battlefield. That often-used setting is traded in for the Sound of Music-esque Austrian countryside. Malik adapted this story from the personal letters between farmers Franz and Fani Jägerstätter. He uses his signature style of frenetic edits and wide-angle lenses to pull the audience into this family’s quiet opposition to Hitler’s regime.

As the story winds tighter and tighter, Fani and Franz share these letters that are so rich with faith and love. Austria has never looked so lush with deep greens and bright blues, but soon it becomes a frigid, isolating prison. All I could think of were those infamous sweeping shots of Julie Andrews spinning while taking in fresh air and music from the hills. In A Hidden Life, Fani claws with her bare hands screaming her suffering into those same blades of grass as their village ostracizes her. Franz, eventually, finds himself behind actual bars locked away from any color at all. The world has left them both pale, cold, and empty. Yet they reach out to each other with warm, comforting blankets of scripture. This is where they find their freedom.

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In order to do what Franz and Fani did, you would have to have a foundational belief that nothing on this Earth can take away the freedom we have in Christ. They deeply loved each other, their life in the rolling hills, and their beautifully precocious daughters, but, once their consciences flare in the face of true evil, they have to put their hope in an eternal good. Friends, neighbors, family, priests and lawyers tell them that they could compromise a little and be set free. To that Franz replies that he’s already free.

Another frequent appeal to get Franz and Fani to give in is that no one will ever know the stance they took. What they are doing won’t change the course of the war or send the population of Austria into revolt. If Franz doesn’t give in he will die just as he lived, quietly. What an interesting question for today. What makes a protest worth it?

What comes to mind for you when you think about modern social activism? Much of our social activism is criticized today because so much of it takes place online. On the surface, it often feels like the ability to post online or, as many call it, to hide behind a keyboard, doesn’t cost the tweeter anything. If only we could ask journalist Jamal Khashoggi if posting his opinions came with a cost. Even though the face of modern day social activism is a tiny blue bird on our phones, there are so many people behind those birds screaming to be heard and often dying silently in the dark. But they continue to tweet. Why?

A Hidden Life Franz Arrest

Franz Jägerstätter (played beautifully and stoically by August Diehl in the film) couldn’t compromise. His beliefs planted him and his family firmly into the ground where he made his stand. Fani Jägerstätter (played with intense strength by Valerie Pachner) couldn’t ask her husband to pledge allegiance to evil even if it would bring him home. Even if their protest came with a cost, the cost of their very souls was greater and, they believed, the reward on the other side of righteous suffering, on this plane of existence or the next, was even greater still.

It had to be a challenge to tell the story of a family stoically making a stance. World War II has a lot of flashy stories to tell, but this is a very bleak and colorless one. Yet, Malik tells it in vibrant colors with a style that gives this small protest a grand scale. There isn’t a beach to be stormed or a rousing high note to be sung, but there is an incredible internal battle taking place not just on this farm in Austria but in the hearts of every person confronted with how to respond to true evil. Malik gives you time between the breaths of levity and punches of grief to ask that question of yourself. What is the cost of making a stand and what is the cost of not?

Is Self-Care Just Self-Absorption?

If you are ever on Instagram, you know what I’m talking about. There are guides for self-care activities. Pictures being posted of ways people are pursuing self-care. Encouragements to others to make time for self-care. There are many ways in which these are good and healthy trends. God created a day of rest for all of us to take a break from working and to allow God to be sovereign in all things. Jesus periodically retreated into solitude to pray and rest. Space to rest and rejuvenate is a Godly thing.

As with anything, there are ways it can become selfish. It is very possible for self-care to turn into a lack of responsibility or engagement. To be more focused on our comfort than on working through hard things with others. To be an excuse to avoid commitments that we do not want to deal with. But behind many expressions of self-care is a deeper question of whether others can be trusted to care for us. A latent despair can underlie it where we feel the only one we can depend on is us. That requires much more than a face mask to remedy, it requires empathy and Christ-centered connection.

Who is most often seeking self-care?

In my observation, those who post about it the most on social media are women and/or people of color. We could resort to snap judgements and say these groups are “snowflakes” and lacking resilience. Or we could take a moment to look at the times when their posts are going up and what that may reveal about their/our experience of society. As a white woman my purview has limitations, but I will start with what I know. I most often see women talking about the need for self-care when topics of discrimination and sexual abuse have been prominent in public conversation. It ranges from accusations against public figures, a new television show or movie being released that features themes of gender-based issues, new legislation being passed that ignites debate, etc. These topics hit close to home for a lot of women and strike nerves that may be very raw. This can result in feeling emotionally drained, experiencing increased anxiety and depression, and having hard conversations with others. In these instances, self-care is often sought because we feel uncared for by our environment. The space we occupy feels threatening and so it is up to us to care for ourselves.

Similarly, these same types of struggles can emerge along racial lines (often intersecting for women of color). When there is a police shooting of an unarmed black man, or racist comments made by a public figure, or when church leaders exhibit a lack of support for justice issues, when co-workers are thoughtless and prejudicial, these events can have a very hurtful impact.  An understandable reaction is again to retreat into self-care practices. This can simply be to recharge after a draining day, and can also be a symptom of feeling alone in society. At times self-care can be an expression of isolation if it feels like you are the only one you can count on.

Take-Care

From Self-Care to Communal-Care

The Church of all places must be an environment where everyone can feel known and loved. That does not mean we all think exactly alike, or that there are not guidelines and boundaries for healthy relating, but it does mean that when one of us is grieved, we are all grieved.

So bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Gal. 6:2

Humans are inherently selfish, and Christians are no exception. Even in the Church we struggle to care about situations that may not directly affect us. Sometimes we doubt whether the situation is real, or we are so removed from it that we forget it exists. Either way, that contributes to our brothers and sisters often feeling as though they are in it alone. But if we start with a posture of loving curiosity, we will be much better positioned to join with one another in our joys and sufferings. How might this cultural moment be impacting someone who is different from me? How would I be feeling if this was happening to me and to people who looked like me? What are some questions I can ask to better understand the ways others are reacting that may feel strange to me? How can I share my time and resources to meet the needs of the Body of Christ? If we all started with these questions, then very few of us would be alone for long.

Communal-Care driven by Christ-Care

The only way we can sustainably join with each other is if we are animated by the love of Christ. In our own power we will very quickly become frustrated or impatient, we will very quickly feel attacked or misunderstood. But through the unifying presence of the Holy Spirit, we can care for each other in ways we did not think possible.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. – Eph. 2:13-17 

It requires the power of Christ to show generosity to one another, and it requires the power of Christ to let others know our struggles and support us in them. It is a humbling experience to share our stories, to share our wounds and vulnerabilities. And it is a humbling thing to be an instrument of Christ’s healing and assurance. Both are part of the Christian life because Christ first demonstrated both. Jesus was wounded for our sins, and was raised to life again to bring us eternal healing. We follow His example in acknowledging our pain and in seeking wholeness together. May we paint a picture for the world of what it means to be a people that are honest about our suffering and fatigue, and who never allow anyone to recover alone.