Words of a Christian White Man

Growing up in church as a young boy I would occasionally hear people say, “If I make it to heaven one day I would be happy to be a doorman, just so long as I am there.”

The implication was that the joy of being in heaven would far outweigh even the lowliest position.

While the people who said this were unfortunately more concerned with the end goal of “making it to heaven one day,” they unknowingly stumbled onto something I think we need to revisit today in our churches… the desire to become humble, meek, and lowly servants.

While Jesus never gave any indication that a person ought to wait for the future to become a servant (or that becoming a servant is somehow a future consolation prize of heaven), he did have quite a bit to say about the importance of lowering ourselves and becoming humble in the present.

In fact, all of Jesus’ teachings were rooted in the idea that humility and weakness in the present actually brings heaven to earth. According to Jesus, there was something profoundly divine in the death of our ego, in dying to oneself, in taking on the character and disposition of a servant and lowering oneself below others.

Think about it.

Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the peacemakers.

When you give to the needy, do it in secret.
When you pray, do it behind closed doors.
When you fast, do not draw attention to yourself.
When you are invited to a banquet, do not take the place of honor, but take the lowest place.

Whoever is humble like a little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Whoever sells their possession and gives to the poor will have treasure in heaven.
Whoever wants to become great must become a servant.
Whoever has been last will be made first.
Whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Whoever is the least among you is the greatest.
Whoever wants to follow me must first pick up his cross daily.

For Jesus, the pathway toward greatness was always about humbly giving of oneself for the benefit of another without expecting accolades or special attention.

I know this kind of mindset is radically contrary to our Western mentality. Our culture and society are consumed by notions of ascent, status, and power. And these Western values have crept into our churches, even though they are antithetical to the actual teachings of Christ.

Yet Jesus’ words continue to beckon those who claim to follow him, not toward the wide road of ascent but the narrow path of descent, not toward the wide road status but the narrow path of humility, not toward the wide road power but the narrow path of weakness.

If you are wondering why I started in this place… here is the reason.

The wide road of ascent, status, and power perpetuate inequality and injustice, while the narrow path of descent, humility, and weakness are the foundational characteristics of reconciliation. And to the extent that churches pursue the former to the latter… they will never be effective at reconciliation.

I know that the word reconciliation is difficult to understand, but it is a word that every single Christian in the world ought to know better than anyone else.

Understanding and practicing reconciliation is absolutely essential for those who follow Jesus. One writer of the New Testament even says that followers of Jesus are to be servants of reconciliation. We sacrificially and voluntarily work on behalf of people, relationships, communities, and the larger world to help piece them back together and help restore them. But while reconciliation is an integral and essential responsibility of the Christian, I am not sure many understand what it is or how it ought to happen.

The word reconciliation (Greek katallage) means an adjustment of a difference, a restoration to favor.

Reconciliation is the patient work that removes hostility between people and God, between individuals, between people groups, and works to alleviate inequities in systems so that right relationships are restored.

As those who follow Jesus, it is obvious that we work to help restore people’s relationship with God. We hear that in our churches all the time. But it goes even further than that in how we are to humbly and selflessly work for reconciliation between people and within societal structures.

As Christians, when we see inequity and injustice (a difference in treatment, favor, or privilege), it is our responsibility to actively work on behalf of those who suffer injustice to make adjustments so that people and systems are restored and work rightly for all.

If you did not know it before, reconciliation is essential and absolutely paramount for anyone of any race who follows Jesus.

But for the white Christian… you and I especially have a huge responsibility in working for racial reconciliation in the United States.

When I look at the history of my black brothers and sisters in America, I see a system that created a difference in treatment, favor, and privilege. I see a system that created brokenness, hardship, and immense pain. I see a system that is still broken in many ways and has not been fixed or restored. I see a system that has not fully made adjustments in the difference.

I know you may be thinking that you personally did not create the problem and that you are not currently perpetuating racism. I understand. I have not personally owned slaves. I have not discriminated against people of color. I do not demean or dehumanize black people. Even more, like me, you would probably say that you have black friends.

But that is not the point.

As those who follow Jesus, we have been given the important and humble work of reconciliation. We have been given the responsibility of identifying differences and working to make them right. This is not a matter of opinion. This is literally the point of Christianity- to be reconciled to God and then to work for reconciliation in our relationships and communities.

But I have to tell you, reconciliation is impossible when your mind has already been made up about who is right and who is wrong and have already taken sides. It is impossible when you only care about preserving your own rightness and privilege. It is impossible when you refuse to see injustice and then lack empathy toward those who are suffering.

That is why so many white Christians in America have such a hard time working toward racial reconciliation. There is more interest in holding onto and preserving the Western values of ascent, status, and power than embodying the way of Jesus in descent, humility, and weakness.

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, racial reconciliation would be one of the most essential tasks of the white Christian.

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, we would be first in line asking our black brothers and sisters to forgive us for our past and present racism. (Again, you may say you didn’t personally cause the problem, but descent, humility, and weakness tells us that asking for forgiveness is the right thing since our ancestors are not here to do it for themselves).

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, we would not just take a knee with our black brothers and sisters, we would wash their feet and then lie prostrate to the ground before God in remorse for what they have suffered in hopes of beginning to restore trust between us. (No one is asking you to take a knee or lie prostrate for the political organization #BlackLivesMatter. But for flesh and blood black people).

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, we would tell every black man and woman we see that their lives matter and have immeasurable value. But it would not just be evident in our words, it would be evident in how we work to restore their communities with our time, energy, effort, and resources.

If we were really serious about picking up our crosses daily and becoming servants of all, we would begin working in the present for what we envision in the future when all is made right and all races live, work, eat, and worship together, while celebrating the God-given beauty and uniqueness of our cultures in peace and love.

The work of racial reconciliation is possible, but it must begin in humility and weakness, contrition and forgiveness. What does that look like for you as a white Christian? What does that look like for your all-white church? I would love to hear what you are thinking/doing in the comments.

Peace and love…

Brandon

What Really Matters

No one needs another opinion right now, right?

It seems as if social media has inadvertently made everyone an expert in politics, social issues, and now infectious diseases.

God bless us for our good intentions.

I am not interested so much in offering another opinion on our current global pandemic. I know my skill sets. I will instead leave that for those who actually spend their lives researching, doing clinical work, and treating patients. They are the ones to whom we should be listening right now. And we are grateful for the important work they do.

Many of us have studied the words of Father Richard Rohr over the years and have always come back to one of his most profound insights- that great love and great suffering have the ability to create the potential for spiritual listening and larger seeing. And it is along these pathways by which a person, a family, a community, or even a world may be transformed.

There is no question that we find it so much easier, and so much more desirable, to move along this pathway when it is by the means of great love.  Conversely, we have a much more difficult time discovering anything redeemable, or of value, when it is found down the road of great suffering. Suffering can very easily break us down and move us into a place with varying degrees of worry, anxiety, helplessness, or despair.

This isn’t a judgment on how any of us individually process suffering, or even a judgment on those who suffer emotionally or psychologically. Six weeks ago, I went to my family doctor because I was experiencing anxiety for the first time in my life. Changing variables in my work life had produced a tightness in my chest and a feeling of being strangled. Fortunately it wasn’t a heart attack, but the reality of how anxiety can consume a person and it was a real experience for me. So I truly understand how deeply situations and our mental health can deeply affect us.

But despite where we may be internally, learning to listen and see in our suffering, or choosing to be fully present in our suffering, there is always a continuous invitation of the Spirit open to everyone, all the time, even and especially to those who have been deeply affected at the physical, emotional, physiological, or even spiritual level.

So no matter who you are, where you have been, what trauma you have experienced, or what you are currently experiencing in your life, this invitation welcomes you into a safe and quiet space where you are allowed to breath and then patiently listen and see amidst your suffering.

But while many of you may already be suffering, the potential for greater suffering always exists, which will necessitate more safe spaces and more patient guides to walk with people through the chaos and along the path of suffering.

There is no question that closings and cancellations, limitations on social functions, the loss of business or savings plans, the loss of employment and mounting bills, and the potential hospitalization or death of loved ones who have been infected will all certainly create varying degrees of suffering among us.

You may know exactly what I am talking about right now.

But I wonder if in this suffering, we will begin to walk together, truly walk together, to discover opportunities to learn, serve, and be transformed, rather than be consumed by our collective despair and antipathy.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not the canceling of events, large social gatherings, and other disruptions as personal assaults or attacks on our personal liberties and livelihoods, but as selfless moves we can all make together to protect our most vulnerable.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not all of the services that have been disrupted or how we no longer have everything at our fingertips or how inconvenienced we have become in some things, but all of the great opportunities we have to come together and use our resources to help our brothers and sisters who have reduced hours, who have lost jobs, who are losing business, or who are having a hard time making ends meet.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not all of the ugliness and divisiveness of politics and everything that works to divide us in our most difficult times, but all the ways we can unite without labels or affiliations to serve the greater good.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not all of the ways we have been, or will soon be, isolated and quarantined from each other, but all of the ways we can still be with one another and creatively reach out to talk, encourage, pray for, or maybe even sing with one another, like our brothers and sisters in Italy.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see, not lives with significantly limited options, isolated at home and on social media all day, but the opportunity to spend real face time with family around the table or to breathe fresh air in nature, while rediscovering our hearts and natural rhythm once again.

I wonder if we will be able to listen and see that this time is teaching us, through abstinence, to appreciate all the things we had previously taken for granted.

It’s true that not every experience of trauma or suffering can easily be diverted by perspective or prayer. We will have to endure the anguish and pain of some traumas and sufferings head on. But in even that, we will have hopefully learned that we are not alone in this thing and that we truly have each other. We will have come to the realization that there is so much goodness in our lives and we will see it differently moving forward. And maybe, just maybe, through this suffering, we may learn to see each other differently, to learn to respect each other despite our differences, and to uncover a humanity below the surface that we may have forgotten was there.

Walking with you in this,

Brandon

Praying for the President

By this time, you are probably familiar with Laurel and Yanny.

Didn’t expect me to start there, did you?

If you aren’t familiar with this maddening sound byte, just know that some people hear Laurel and some people heard Yanny when the audio clip was played. For me, I heard Yanny consistently for two weeks and now can only hear Laurel.

What gives.

Anyway, just google it, listen to it with your friends, and then let the arguments begin.

But how we perceive the same stimuli differently doesn’t just happen with audio memes.

Have you seen the picture of the gray and teal (or is it pink and white) sneaker? This meme is continuing to divide everyone on the internet. Half of the people swear the shoe is gray and teal, while the other half are absolutely convinced it is pink and white.

Perception, or what constitutes perception, is absolutely fascinating. Two people can literally listen to the exact same sound clip, or see the exact same picture, and interpret it two entirely different ways. And these differences in perception may be influenced by our upbringing, our unique culture, our life experiences, or our individual biology.

All of these factors taken together may help us see things from a certain perspective, but may also keep us from hearing or seeing something from a completely different perspective, as well.

None of this makes us bad people. It simply means that we see and interpret the world a certain way, because of our own unique inputs that influence our own unique biology. That then molds and shapes us into the person that we are and then influences how we perceive the world.

Of course this can be seen in any area of life, but one place where our diverse perceptions are significantly evident, for better or worse, are in faith communities. But instead of the differences being as trivial as hearing Laurel or Yanny, or seeing the color of sneakers, the differences in how we perceive and interpret faith actually impacts how we see ourselves, other people, and the purpose for which we exist in the world.

For example, there is a biblical passage that has become increasingly prominent over the last couple of decades, but has kind of gone viral over the last few weeks since Franklin Graham asked the country to pray for the president and since the president unexpectedly showed up at David Platt’s church to be prayed over during their Sunday worship service.

The passage is from 1 Timothy 2 and reads like this:

First of all, therefore, I encourage petitions, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings to be made on behalf of all human beings, on behalf of kings and of all who hold preeminence, so that we might lead a tranquil and quiet life in all piety and solemnity.

How have you always understood that passage? Is it possible for two people to perceive that passage in two completely different ways?

Before answering those questions, let me offer my standard disclaimer. I despise politics. I am not a Democrat, nor a Republican, nor a representative of any other political party or persuasion. When I make commentary on the adulterous relationship of religion and politics, I am not trying to prop up one political side or the other. To me, the way of Jesus ought to speak to power rather than be in bed with power, or interested in becoming the power. Focusing on the way of Jesus, as it subverts power, is my only concern.

So with that being said, you may be thinking that 1 Timothy is pretty straight forward in what it is saying- That we ought to pray for those in authority, including our President, so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.

But our unique history and background as Americans have significantly influenced how we perceive and interpret that passage.

For many Evangelical Christians, the United States was once a Christian nation that has now turned from God. They believe that God wants to restore America as a godly nation through the guidance and leadership of godly leaders in the Church and governmental system. But they also believe that there are “enemies” who are trying to keep that from happening.

With this background shaping the Evangelical perception, it is easy to see why they interpret 1 Timothy as the reason why they need to pray for the president. Because from their perspective, he is the godly man who God is using to restore a Christian nation and push back the enemies, both foreign and domestic, that are trying to keep this restoration from happening.

And for the vast majority of Evangelicals, this is the straight and honest reading and understanding of 1 Timothy within an American context.

But before we dig deeper into this Evangelical perspective, there is another way that this same passage can be read by those, like me, who perceive it differently.

Being that the author of 1 Timothy was likely the Apostle Paul and that this letter was likely written after he had been imprisoned in Rome, most scholars date its authorship at 65 AD or later. This is interesting and sheds a bit of light on how the passage could be read differently based on the historical context in which it was written. At that time, Christians were being persecuted and martyred by the Roman Emperor, Nero, who blamed the Christian community for the Great Fire of Rome, which destroyed two-thirds of the city.

And as you can imagine, in this context, “praying for those in authority that we me live peaceful and quiet lives,” takes on an entirely different meaning. Paul was encouraging Timothy to pray that those in authority might change their hearts and posture toward Christians so that the Christian community would no longer be tormented and killed by the governing authority.

But while the historical context in which Paul was writing was different than 21st century America, I am certain that Paul would still want the Church praying for the governing authorities, so that their hearts and posture may be more like Christ-like.

But, he would absolutely not be encouraging the Church to get in bed with the governmental powers or to use the government for religious purposes.

To be really honest here, Paul’s invocation to pray for the governing authorities is a far cry from the carte blanche prayers many Evangelicals offer for the president. Paul’s was a plea to the Christian minority group to pray for the powerful and hostile aggressor to change heart. He was literally instructing them to pray for their enemies.

The Evangelical prayer, however, is a prayer of protection for a man who represents a fallen system that they are trying to Christianize. And “praying for those in authority” has come to mean praying for a political party (and a president) to carry out their moral agenda without interruption from the enemy.

So should we pray for the president?

While I believe it is essential that we pray for all of humanity, including our president and governmental leaders, it is for the transformational peace and love of Christ. And to that end, I will unapologetically pray for anyone at anytime (yes, even when it happens unexpectedly onstage during a church service), because each of us, even the vilest offender, need prayer for that kind of peace and love. For it was Jesus who, again, said that we should pray for our friends and enemies alike. So to the extent that Progressive Christians will not pray for the president, so that his heart might change and, at a minimum, be more peaceful toward all people, they are mistaken.

But let me be clear.

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom, not made of buildings and laws and governments and politicians, but of people who have abandoned the inferior and limiting values of those systems and entities.

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom that, does not try to control or legislate a person’s behavior through laws, but transforms hearts, minds, and souls through the Spirit.

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom that, is not a divided and fearful hierarchical system that opposes people, but a loving movement that unites nationalities, ethnicities, races, genders, and orientations into a united Body.

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom that, does not minimize, dehumanize, belittle, or bully people, but that loves and serves all people, even those who oppose and fight as enemies.  

What Jesus initiated was a kingdom, not dependent upon a single man or a certain political party, but comprised of a people, a new humanity, that is rising up to show the world the way of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

And it is only this kingdom that will help us see and perceive clearly, despite our past experiences, our histories, and our unique wirings.

So yes, I pray for the president. But I pray that his heart would be transformed into the likeness of Christ. And until that happens, and so long as his, or any other president’s, actions and behavior oppose Christ and his kingdom, my prayer will be one of speaking the truth of Christ to power.

Peace…

Brandon