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

Picking Up the Pieces: Our New Cultural Reality

The rain intensified as we stared out the large windows into the darkness and talked about our next hiking trip to Alaska. We were killing a few moments while waiting for one more guy to show up to our weekly confession group.

It is worth noting at the outset that our gatherings are never without incident. The building in which we meet is nestled quite conveniently in a downtown residential area where substance abuse, domestic violence, and crime is commonplace. We have rushed outside on various occasions to play peacemakers by breaking up fights, to pray with those who are high and/or drunk, to give food to those who are hungry, to offer shelter to those who are homeless, and to comfort those who have been abused. While we show up weekly for our own benefit, to confess our sins one to another, there is no doubt that we are really there for the ministry of the neighborhood.

And on this particular rainy night… it would be no different.

The door opened and a completely soaked young man, about 20-years old, walked in and threw himself down on one of the vacant 1970’s sofa chairs, as if we had been expecting him.  And by our response to him, he may have thought that we were indeed expecting him, as we greeted him with the delight of a long, lost friend.

“I’m drunk,” he stated, almost expecting us to be horrified.

We didn’t take the bait. A drunk guy walking into the church building seemed like the best dry place to be at that moment. Plus, we had all rattled the bottle at some point in our lives, so we were no different than our wet acquaintance.

“What’s going on man? Just wanting to get in out of the rain?”

Reaching for a sober thought he said, “I walk by this place all the time and want to come in to see what’s going on. I guess the alcohol gave me the courage to come in this time.”

We were certainly glad he came in… and we told him as much. Whether the conversation was Vodka-induced or not, it just didn’t matter.

This guy was clearly seeking something.  And we were privileged to be the ones who could potentially help him find it. We just didn’t know how desperate he was to find it.

“I’ve been thinking about killing myself lately.”

“Oh yeah, why have you been thinking that,” we asked gently.

“Because I don’t have a purpose in life. I think about it all the time and I have come to the conclusion that since I have no purpose, there is no reason to live.”

He continued with his line of thinking.

“My friend told me that if God wants us to be at peace… and if death will give me peace… then God wants me to die so I will be at peace. So I have thought about killing myself.”

All I could feel at that moment was a deep and profound sense of sadness.  Yes, for him, but even more so for the millions and millions of people in our country who are just as confused and hopeless.

There is no question that we live in an incredibly unique time in history in which there is a strange mass collision of shallowness, superficiality, competing narratives that try to explain our existence, and depersonalization wrought by technology, all accompanied by a growing disdain for spirituality, in general, and religion, in specific, from a hyper-rationalistic culture.

And it is my belief that this collision is leaving a growing number of people, especially younger generations, questioning their worth, their value, and their purpose in life.

The truth is that, whether some like it or not, humans have a longing to know that their lives matter and that there is a purpose for which they live.

And on that rainy night, we were witnesses to both the wreckage and the longing. The cry amidst the scattered parts was for someone, anyone to help make sense of the devastation.

From that vantage point, all one can see is rock bottom.  All one can feel is utter hopelessness.

Who can help me?  Who can save me?  Who can help me make sense of my life that is falling apart?  Do I not have a purpose?

He was asking the right questions, at the right time, to the right people.  But, too many times, I wonder if those in the same exact situation as this young man are left completely alone in their brokenness and alone with their unanswered questions.

It makes me wonder about the church and what we are doing and how we are doing it. With more people than ever abandoning faith, and the wreckage of lives continuing to pile up, I wonder when we are going to come to the realization that something needs to change?

As those who have been in the wreckage ourselves, and as those who have asked in the past about our own identity and purpose in the devastation, we know that the real beauty of the wreckage and all the broken and busted parts is that they can be pieced back together by a Restorer.

And that is the greatest news one could ever hear. But I wonder if we ever get a chance to share that with anyone on a daily or weekly basis?

For it is God who thoroughly restored us in Christ and gave us a new identity.  But even more than that… God gave us a purpose for which to live- that we may continue the task of restoring the lives of others.

And if that is where we have found our worth and our value. And if that is what wakes us in the morning and has our hearts and our passions throughout the day. And since we have found life in Christ and have been given the ongoing ministry of restoring people to God, of picking up the pieces and slowly, and lovingly putting them back together, ought that not be the task of the church?

Don’t miss the point here- I am not talking about this abstract, generalized idea of the church in which we each can agree that there is a problem, but easily hide and take no responsibility ourselves.

If there is a problem, we as individuals are the problem.

And you… yes you… not your pastor, not your church staff, not someone more educated in the Bible… YOU… have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ for the purpose of being a minister of reconciliation… a minister whose task is the restoration of people to God.

And that was our purpose that night as the church.

“I don’t think that God wants you to die.  In fact, God wants you to live…and to live a full life.  And I am not quite sure that a full life and peace is found in death.”

I had his complete attention.

“There are two ways,” I started.

“One way is full of life, love, joy, kindness, unity, peace, turning the other cheek, forgiveness, mercy, service, grace, and hope… and it is beautiful and our hearts long to be a part of something so exquisite. That is the way of Christ- it is our true identity and our true purpose in this life.  Christ gives us a new identity and then our purpose is to take that new kind of life to others.  And that is what you are being invited into right now.”

I could see his eyes beginning to tear up as if he could never imagine that such a life is possible. Restoration was taking place in the rubble. And then I continued.

“But there is also another way.  There is the way of death, hatred, bitterness, revenge, retaliation, division, self-centeredness, rage, resentment, judgment, pride, and despair. This way is not of God. And it is this kind of existence that strips away our true identity and true purpose in this life.”

“I don’t want that,” he said.

We all stood together, embraced as brothers, and began to pray.  And it felt as if the prodigal son had come home.  Home to the open arms of the Father through the embrace of a few guys who realized that we are all ministers who God is using for the restoration of others.

And these open arms are wide enough to hold together all of the broken pieces and loving enough to help put them back together.

It was a beautiful moment for the church, the people, that night.

And we were honored to be a part of what God was doing.

Questions to Consider:

Being that our country has changed and is continuing to change so rapidly and so dramatically, with more people than ever abandoning faith but searching for identity and purpose in their lives, how are you, as a minister of reconciliation… as a minister of restoration… realizing your purpose amidst the wreckage?

Church Leaders, how are you equipping your congregation to understand their identity and then to realize their purpose as ministers of reconciliation outside of the church building?

How does your individual church need to change in order to begin ministering to people in the midst of our cultural wreckage?

I would love to hear your feedback!

Brandon

If Death is Not the End

My grandma died when she was 62 and that was way too early.

Our rides in her beat up old red car that we lovingly referred to as “the Klunker,” our hot summer evenings talking on her front porch, and our quick trips to the local restaurant with the best milkshakes in town… were all cut short by an insidious and dreadful disease called Alzheimer’s.

She would never get a chance to meet my beautiful wife or hold my kids in her arms.

Neither would my grandpa who died of cancer when he was 80.

When I held his hand as he lie asleep in his hospital bed just a couple of days before he passed, I thought about the countless nights I spent at his house, the smell of breakfast and pipe smoke each morning, his flat top haircut, and either a Bible on his lap or Andy Griffith on the television.

Some memories never fade.

But while there is immense joy in being able to remember all of the time we spent together, it is coupled with the haunting reminder that our lives have absolutely no power over death. Whether it is my grandma, my grandpa, me, or even you, our end is certain.

And that reality, our powerlessness to death, is one of utter sadness and despair, because death is our final ending.

So much for family and friends and relationships.
So much for our pursuits and endeavors.
So much for parties and celebrations and having friends over for dinner.
So much for art and music and creativity.
So much for sunsets and mountains and shooting stars.
So much for the smell of breakfast in the morning and sitting on front porches in the summer.

It all comes to a crushing, brutal, and inconsequential end in death.

And you can’t help but feel as if we have been short-changed somehow, like it all should have meant something.

All of this time on earth for absolutely nothing in the end… except for the assurance of death.

But if death is our end and our end is meaningless and inconsequential… then wouldn’t all things leading to that end be meaningless and inconsequential as well?

Said another way- if death is the end toward which all life is moving… then why does anything in our lives matter at all?  Why ascribe any purpose to it whatsoever? It is all death in the end anyway.  

Yet we live and breathe and act each day as if it matters, like it has some sort of importance or significance.  We ironically fight for life as if it is worth something, like it has meaning and value. We grieve when loved ones die. We treat cancer and search for the cure for AIDS and go to the family doctor and try to eat healthy… because we prefer life over death. We spend our time, energy, and resources protecting and defending life and standing for those who cannot defend themselves.

But why do this if it is all death in the end… and life is of no consequence?  Why do we even have a preference for life over death?  Why involve ourselves in any pursuit or endeavor while we are alive?  Why waste our time on anything at all?

Why should we paint and design and build? Why should we continue to create and imagine and dream?  Why play music and write stories and cry when there are happy endings in movies and plays if it all just tragically ends?

Why?

I think the answer is simple:  Death is not our end.  

And if death is not our end, and if there is actually a purpose toward which we are moving, then all things leading toward that purpose is full of meaning and is well worth our time.

That is precisely why the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so important for humanity… because it gives us hope and assurance that, while we were powerless against death, only God has the power to defeat it.  Therefore life, not death, is the purpose toward which we are moving and everything we do to that end is valuable.

That is the very foundation of faith.  It is the belief that God is working toward the renewal of all things, and by virtue of asking God to be the active and present center of our lives,  we begin participating in that renewal right now.  It is a life that looks like Jesus in everything we do.

And it is that reality, God’s power and victory over death demonstrated in Jesus Christ, which is the pinnacle of human happiness and joy… because life prevails and gives us meaning and purpose today.

Family and friends and relationships all matter.
Parties and celebrations and having friends over for dinner is a foretaste of how life will be one day.
Art and music and creativity is a reflection of what we were made to do and what we will continue to do at the renewal of all things.
Sunsets and mountains and shooting stars are a present glimpse of new creation when death is finally exhausted.
And yes, the smell of breakfast in the morning and sitting on front porches in the summer with everyone we love is just the beginning of how good life will be when Christ returns.

No more pain. No more tears. No more death. No more decay.

So live and breathe and act each day as if it matters, like it has some sort of importance or significance… because it does!

For in Christ’s resurrection… all things are made new…. even and especially you.