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 West. 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.

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: 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?

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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?

Here I Raise My Ebenezer

There is a lot of fun history in our city. On a corner downtown, sits Sun Records where the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry lee Lewis, and, of course, Elvis got their start. Walk on through Beale Street where neon lights and live music fill the air any given night. Splash around with the Peabody ducks, who nabbed some name dropping on this season’s breakout TV show “This Is Us.” All of these places are fun to visit and, while there, you can take some totally boss, smiley selfies with your travel mates. Every city has landmarks that collectively tell the story of that place. With any given city, though, the fun places don’t tell the whole story.

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Some cities like Memphis, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, have some very different attractions. Attractions that most never learn about in school. In these places you will find monuments, memorials, and museums documenting the history of the mid-century American civil rights movement. The story of this movement paints the walls of these places with a mosaic of emotions. At these sites, you might see a picture, a plaque, or a statue of unimaginable violence next to a visage of great victory and freedom. In the shadows of the grave markers of children, resides generations inspired by their innocence, courage, and sacrifice.

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At the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Arkansas river in Selma, stands several monuments paying respect to a collection of the prominent figures that crossed that bridge in the marches from Selma to Montgomery. These marchers were protesting unfair voting laws across the south. Next to those monuments is an Ebenezer, a pile of large stones, an image pulled from the Bible to mark significant events in the history of God’s people. These markers help God’s people remember the story of that place, the good and the bad. Why did God think it necessary to mark our journeys with these monuments?

First of all, these landmarks help us remember. Throughout the Bible, God continuously reminds his people who he is. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, the great I Am, the Lord of all, the deliverer of God’s people out of Egypt, the creator of all things, our Father, our King, our Shepherd, and on and on, are all images God recalls for our benefit. God establishes his credibility with us by recalling the great victories and freedom he has delivered and the intense evils he has delivered us from. We need to remember these things especially in times of darkness, when we feel farthest from God, and prone to disbelief. God answers those feelings by reminding us where we’ve been.

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Secondly, these memorials act as a mirror bringing us face to face with the realities of our story. Our country was established with a broken system, one that denied the humanity of certain people. These are systems, though they have been battled, that we still feel today. Some would say we live in a post-racial society, that the images featured on the walls of these museums are from the distant past, that we’ve moved on, and we all experience equality.

But then we hear the cries white nationalists for a return to segregation, already very segregated worship services, the right to vote being challenged in certain states, racial slurs scribbled across the home of one of the world’s most prominent athletes, nooses being left at the National African American Museum, and so on and so on and you wonder have we really moved on? In some ways, yes, in others, no, but these mirror images from today and yesterday help to remind us of the work that has been done and the work still unfinished.

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The monuments, memorials, and museums of the civil rights movement are not always fun places to visit. Taking selfies might be the last thing on your mind. The truth of America’s history of oppression is hard to experience in any form. The mixture of emotions one might move through while reliving these sites takes a toll. It is exhausting, but imagine how exhausting it must be to live through it every day. The long-lasting effects created by the systematic and cultural traditions present in America’s foundation have great influence on the livelihood of many people even today. If we don’t maintain and visit these Ebenezers, will we ever remember to change? If we hear the Lord cry out for justice, and ignore it are we not the people James is talking to,

“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.”

Having hope that we are not doomed to repeat the ugliest chapters of our history begins with remembering the stories behind the landmarks.

Here I raise my Ebenezer

Here there by Thy great help I’ve come

And I hope, by Thy good pleasure

Safely to arrive at home

Jesus sought me when a stranger

Wandering from the fold of God

He, to rescue me from danger

Interposed His precious blood

Our Sunday Best

For some of us, church isn’t church without freshly pressed slacks, a necktie tied pinned with a gold chain, and shoes pristinely shined. For others, church is more like church as they feel a cool breeze through the knee hole in their jeans with their flip flops smacking and pattering announcing their entry. The term “Sunday Best” has a wide range of connotations across the tapestry of the body of Christ. As I reflect on my time touring the civil rights monuments of the American south, this term took on a whole new meaning. This new definition comes from a set of two pictures.

“And as long as I’ve got my suit and tie…all pressed up in black and white.” Justin Timberlake may have been trying to make the club a little classier with his 2013 hit “Suit & Tie” but long before one of Memphis’s favorite sons tried to bring it back, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sure was making it look good. It’s difficult to find a statue or picture of Dr. King in front of a crowd without his suit and tie. It was his suit of armor, a uniform of his vocation as a pastor, proof that whether he was behind the pulpit or in front a march, it was an act of worship.

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The fashion of the movement also became intertwined in the fabric of its protests. Downtown shopping districts in cities denying blacks their human rights relied on the profits of selling the freshest Sunday looks. In an act of protest, citizens of these cities would refrain from buying new church clothes to send a powerful blow to an economy that was supporting systems of oppression across the south. Church clothes became a way of communicating power. They, also, became a way of communicating that the cause of civil rights was a worthy one. Which leads us to the first picture.

Sprawled across the steps of the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, dozens of civil rights leaders the likes of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and many more stood tall adorned in crisp suits and dresses. Looking at the picture you might assume the group was about to turn around and enter the sanctuary for a vibrant holiday church service. In reality, this crowd was prepared for a date with a prison cell. They were turning themselves in to the police, a situation many of them were familiar with throughout the marches and protests that helped define the movement. They gladly went to jail for their rights and the rights of their sisters and brothers. This was an occasion that called for their Sunday best. It is a picture filled with dignity, honor, and hope. The second picture is a different story.

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“Daddy let me watch from his shoulders,” is etched across the sculpture of a fancy hat in a style you might see in an episode of Mad Men. The others in the collection feature similar sentiments. One hat boasts about being excused from school. Another describes packing a picnic. To the right of the hats are a series of screen printed ties. Printed on each one is a group of people decked out in their Sunday best. Hats, ties, smiling children on shoulders, and a fresh picnic packed with all the summer favorites, this is the second picture. As the art exhibit seen at the Rosa Parks Museum explains, this was a common scene at a lynching.

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Letters on the wall explain that the time between the decades prior to the turn of the 19th century and on through the late 60’s saw thousands of known lynchings. Black people were hung from trees, burned, beaten to death, etc. for charges such as talking to the wrong person, eating at the wrong restaurant, or trying to register to vote. As informal mobs brutalized human beings, thousands would gather to watch with smiles and laughter all while wearing their Sunday best. Isn’t it interesting that these spectators were covered by layers of fine clothing, but they stand in that crowd exposed for future generations to see? No amount of expensive material can hide evil from God’s sight.

Throughout church history, high priests and pastors often wore elaborate outfits for everything from holidays to your average Sunday. Some were prescribed by scripture like that of Old Testament temple priests. When it came time for Jesus to enter the scene, though, he saw that these ceremonial clothes had become a way of trying to hide the sins of the religious elites like the Pharisees. Looking at Matthew 23, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Not long after, Jesus was beaten, stripped naked, and hung upon what scripture often calls a tree. He became clothed in all of our darkness, guilt, and shame and died for our sins. Then he rose, conquering death and assuring that we would have access to eternal robes of righteousness.

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As I look at both of these pictures, I need to cling to the robes Jesus has wrapped me in. It was humans that stood in those lynching crowds with smiles on their faces. It was humans that hit children with high powered fire hoses and vicious dogs. It was humans that sent a pastor and a seamstress to prison for trying to live with dignity. Humans are capable of unspeakable evil even while wearing the nicest threads. I am human and the painful past of America is terrifying to me because it reminds me that I am capable of evil.

Fortunately, Jesus redefined our Sunday best and established his own high fashion. He sees our broken heart behind anything we try to cover it with and offers us his love anyway. He not only covers us with his Sunday best but gives us the ability to clothe others in his love. Jesus saves me from evil and inspires me towards good. In stripping down their victims, the people in those horrific lynch mobs exposed their own sinful hearts that will define their history. Jesus’s robes of righteousness defined Dr. King’s legacy and I pray they’ll also define mine.

 

For more information on the history of lynching in America, the Equal Justice Initiative led by Bryan Stevenson has created this website: lynchinginamerica.eji.org