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

But They Are Sinners!

 Yes, God has forgiven all people, for all time (and you can read that post here if you missed it).

I know this may sound different than what you have heard from preachers and church people in the past, but the forgiveness and embrace of God is so much deeper and so much wider than any of our finite minds can even comprehend. And there are many people who struggle to understand a God who unconditionally and preemptively forgives everyone, even when they don’t ask for forgiveness.

But that is who this God is.

Too many times, the religious try to create God in their own image. And this little god ends up being as stingy and conditional in doling out grace and mercy and forgiveness and love as those who created it. This little god ends up being a sad projection of their own disunion with God.

In his second letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul makes an appeal to this church by telling them that the motivating force that compels them is the love of the Christ. And it is this singular force that has, not only changed them, but has changed how they view everyone in the world.

Again, the motivation for those in the Christ is love and it changes how we live and how we see others.

He says that since the Christ died, all have died. And since Christ was raised from the dead, we should all be raised to a new brand new life.

Therefore, in light of this new reality, we no longer view anyone from a worldly point of view. We no longer hold a single trespass against anyone. We no longer have enmity or hostility toward others. Because the old ways have gone and new ways have come. All things have been made new. This restoration has already started. And we are all invited into that reality as we are.

God’s peace has already been given to all. Past tense.
God’s forgiveness has already been given to all. Past tense.

And all we can do is receive it, be immersed in it, be restored to God in light of it, and be transformed through it.

To the religious, the major obstacle to God’s unconditional, preemptive forgiveness is their belief that sin can only be forgiven when a person is repentant, or when one confesses their sins. But it is this misunderstanding of sin by the religious which has created an incredibly finicky god who has the audacity to tell us to unconditionally and preemptively forgive everyone, including our enemies, but who can’t quite live up to that standard himself.

I find that god inconsistent and unbelievable. So there must be more to the story.

Interestingly, close to eighty-percent of the time the word sin is used in the New Testament, it is used as a noun.

This is interesting because we typically hear people talk about sin as a verb.

They describe all of the bad things we do that make God angry at us. And inevitably, when people focus on sin primarily as a verb, they get obsessed with saying this sin is worse than that sin, this sin can be overlooked but that one can’t, and this sin is unforgivable but that sin is okay (since we are all doing it).

But the original Greek word for sin, as a noun, is hamartano and it means to be without a share in, or to miss the mark, or to stray.

Sin is a position in which we find ourselves. It is a position out of alignment with God, or in disunion with God. And in that place of disunion, we are the opposite of shalom, the opposite of wholeness, completeness, and harmony in all things. It is the road that leads to destruction.

And this begins to open our eyes to the central issue.

It’s not that we are horrible wretches for committing all of these terrible sins every day. It is that we are in a position of disunion with the Divine. And when we live out of this disunion, out of this broken relationship, it very naturally begins to look to unwhole, incomplete, and inharmonious. It is the natural consequence of us living out of shalom.

That is why God’s intention has always been to get rid of sin, or to remove the relational barrier between us, because we were always meant to be in union with God, to be in relationship with God. We were always meant for wholeness, completeness, and harmony with God and with all things, because that is where life to the fullest is found.

That’s why the wisdom of Paul ought to be so eye-opening to each one of us today, because he echoes this exact point when he says that we all fall short of God’s glory. We are all in the same position, equally. We are all in a position of disunion from God, equally. There is not one single person who has a position that is any better or any worse than another. We are all in a position of disunion and have missed the mark of the Divine. And in this position, we are not presently sharing in this shalom. That is sin, as a noun.

So when religious people begin creating these crazy hierarchies of sin and telling us that certain people or groups are worse than others, telling us who’s in and who’s out, all it does is alienate and devalue people. It sends a message that the religious are good and righteous and all the rest of us sinners are bad and unworthy. And all that does is create more judgment and condemnation and anger and hostility. All it does is build up more walls of division between us all.

The point is that when the religious view sin primarily, or exclusively, as a verb, they fall back into that old way of labeling, categorizing, ranking, and then dividing. And it completely misses the big picture that we are all in the same position and that the heart of God has always been an invitation back into relational union with every single one of us equally.

Every. Single. One. Of. Us. Equally.

So when we begin to see sin correctly, as a place of disunion, we more accurately understand that we all stand in the exact same place together and there can be no hierarchy of sin or worthiness. We are all disconnected from the Source of Life, and we are in that place together.

Hard stop.

And once we begin to understand this simple truth, it is the place where humility and grace can begin to come to life and shine. It is the place where everyone is welcome to the table of invitation together without exclusion. It is the place of remarkable beauty and breakthrough. It is the place where all the broken pieces of the world can begin to come back together as one.

It’s possible that all this talk of everyone being forgiven is giving you heartburn, because you keep thinking of Acts 2:38-39, which specifically states that God’s forgiveness is conditional and is only given when a person is repentant and baptized. I get it. But I want to share something very eye opening with you about that passage.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter is preaching to the crowd and says, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

From the outside looking in, it sounds like Peter is telling the people that in order to be forgiven, they must first repent and be baptized and then, and only then, will they be forgiven by God.

And that is the way countless numbers of Church leaders and Christians have taken that verse over the centuries. It is viewed as a conditional transaction between God and a person. In essence, the forgiveness of God will only be given when you say the right words, have a repentant heart, and are baptized in the water.

But here is the crazy part.

In that verse spoken by Peter, the word translated as for is the Greek word eis.

Eis means a motion into, penetration, union.

So what many have always read as this conditional transaction between people and God is actually a movement we make into something that is already there, something that has already been given, something that already surrounds us. And our acts of repentance and baptism are the faithful movements we make that penetrate into, and find union with, a forgiveness that had been given long ago.

God’s forgiveness is not being withheld like a stingy miser. Nor is it dependent upon you being good or perfect, or going through the right steps. God’s forgiveness is already here. It has already been extended to all. It is right in front of you. The invitation into shalom was sent long ago. All you have to do is enter into it.

If this truth has been withheld from you, or if you have received something very different than this message of radical invitation and inclusion, please let me tell you that the grace and love of God has always been surrounding you, even in your disunion, even when you have felt disconnected, and has always been inviting you back, as you are, into loving union with the Source of Life.

But there may be some of you, maybe a lot of you, who are reading these words and still carrying around so much pain and so many wounds from past church experiences or past dealings with religious people.

I am sorry and I understand.

But.

No matter what you may have been told.

No matter how badly you may have been treated.

No matter the judgments and accusations that may have been thrown at you.

No matter if you may have been told that you are not worthy or not redeemable.

No matter if you may have been told that God will never forgive you.

Let me tell you emphatically, once and for all, that you are loved and you are already forgiven, as you are.

Every one of you.

Past tense.

Done deal.

God loves you and has always been inviting you, as you are, into shalom. Inviting you, as you are, out of the wreckage and into a new beginning of life and love and beauty and wholeness and completeness and harmony. Inviting you, as you are, into the full immersion of an entirely different present reality. And God is speaking your name to let you know that you have always been loved as you are, that you have always been worthy as you are, and that in this embrace of the Divine you are being made whole.

I rarely say this, but when I do you know I mean it. Praise God!

Brandon

All Are Forgiven

I remember talking to a lady several years ago who had been abused by her father as a young girl and who was, understandably, still dealing with the mental anguish of the abuse as a middle-aged woman. She had reached a point in her life in which she no longer wanted to live in the bitterness and anger of her past. And she was ready to forgive her father.

But he had died a decade before.

I explained to her that forgiveness can happen at anytime and that it does not require two people to come together, agree with one another, or for the other person to accept the forgiveness. In fact, the other person does not even need to be alive to forgive them.

Forgiveness is, very simply, a change in one’s heart disposition toward another, that moves from a place of anger, bitterness, and resentment to a place of compassion and mercy. It is a heart posture that no longer holds enmity or hostility or condemnation toward another, but that manifests from a place of compassion and mercy into a loving grace.

And to that end, forgiveness is never dependent upon another. Forgiveness is always self-generative. That is why forgiveness can never be transactional, or an “if you do something for me, then I will forgive you” proposition. It is only, and always, the posture of one’s heart toward another. And to that end, forgiveness is always a one-sided affair. It begins and ends with you and you alone.

That understanding of forgiveness was a huge revelation for her (and it may be for you as well), as she was then able to forgive her father, even though he was no longer alive. Through her forgiveness, she was finally released from the hostility that had been consuming her for decades.

But it seems that, like my friend, many people do not fully understand forgiveness and do not understand the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. In fact, my explanation of forgiveness may be different than how you have always understood it.

You may have always thought of forgiveness as a verbal sentiment withheld until an adequate measure of contrition, remorse, or tears have been poured out by another. And that is completely understandable, because that is the model of forgiveness we have been culturally-conditioned to understand, especially in our churches. Within that model, forgiveness is conditionally given in exchange for one being sorry, with one side holding the ultimate power of forgiveness or unforgiveness and the other side needing to prove they deserve it.

But what we find in Scripture is actually something very different than the conditional, reactive forgiveness that holds power over another. In story after story, and account after account, we discover that the forgiveness of God, demonstrated through the life and teachings of Jesus, is unconditional and preemptive. It is always unmerited and given before anyone ever asks for it. And there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to earn that kind of forgiveness. Again, it is birthed out of compassion and mercy that becomes a loving grace which is given regardless of one being sorry. And it is precisely this unconditional and preemptive forgiveness, this kindness of God, that can lead to repentance, or a change in one’s mind that leads to inner transformation.

But many miss God’s unconditional, preemptive forgiveness because they project their merit-based value system on to God and/or look at the Bible as a mechanical process to be exactly followed, or a mathematical equation that only equals forgiveness if all of the numbers are added up correctly. That completely misses the heart of God’s forgiveness, and the forgiveness we are to emulate. Forgiveness is neither a mechanical process to follow nor a mathematical equation to get correct.

God’s unconditional, preemptive forgiveness has always been God’s first move toward restoring a relationship with each of us. And if you have missed that then you have missed the entire point of forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is not, as many believe, the essential head nod of God given to grant us access to a future heaven. God’s forgiveness is the first step toward a whole and healed relationship with us. Forgiveness allows for the repairing and mending work in our relationship to begin. For the two to become one. For that which has been divided to come back together. For wholeness, completeness, and harmony to be realized in our relationship. That is what reconciliation is. It is the process that slowly begins to build trust, heal wounds and divisions, and make relationships whole again over time.

But while forgiveness can happen immediately and is always one-sided, reconciliation takes time, maybe a lifetime, and necessitates the willingness of both sides to work toward reconciliation in the relationship. But there is no guarantee that both sides will be willing, or able, to work toward a reconciled, whole and healed relationship in this lifetime. But that is always the hope and longing of God- that in light of God’s unconditional, preemptive forgiveness, all will be reconciled, all will be made whole and complete, all things will move toward perfect harmony, and that shalom will be obsessively pursued.

Interestingly, that is why followers of Jesus are referred to as ministers of reconciliation, rather than ministers of forgiveness. Because God’s forgiveness has already happened. Every single person in the past, present, and future has already been forgiven by God. Past tense. That is the Good News. And now, in light of God’s forgiveness for all people, we are those who announce that there is no enmity, hostility, or condemnation from God toward anyone. There is only love and forgiveness and open arms that welcomes back every prodigal, to be reconciled to God, to be whole and healed in this relationship with God and then with all people. That has always been the point- forgiveness that leads to the reconciliation of all things.

God’s forgiveness is completely a one-sided affair and was demonstrated at the cross of Christ for all people, for all time. So in every way humanity has believed, or continues to believe, that a sacrifice is necessary on our part to be at peace with an angry god, it was God who finally put that faulty assumption to rest, once and for all, by giving a peace offering to us.

Rather than a power play that holds forgiveness or unforgiveness over our heads until we are contrite and remorseful enough, until we have offered enough sacrifices, or until we have shed enough tears, the forgiveness of God stands alone and is unconditionally and preemptively self-giving and self-generative, birthed out of God’s great compassion and mercy into a loving grace for all.

The forgiveness of God has never been dependent upon any single person climbing the ladder of worthiness or attaining higher levels on the fictitious relative sin scale. The forgiveness of God is here for all, surrounding us every moment, waiting for us to live in light of it, longing for all things to be reconciled. And it is that forgiveness that was demonstrated perfectly at the cross of Christ, to show that in any way we may have believed otherwise, there is no absolutely no enmity, no hostility, and no condemnation from God toward us.

There is only and always forgiveness for all.

Brandon

Read the next post But They Are Sinners!