Leadership

Last night I saw Selma for the second time. The movie tells the story of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. For those who have not taken the time to see this movie, please go. It is worth the price of admission. This movie is a stark reminder of a past that many would like to forget. 1965 was a time when Jim Crow laws shaped the daily lives of our brothers and sisters of color by instituting various racially motivated economic, education, and social hardships. These laws mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation including restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains.

In the midst of all of this a leader and prophet emerges, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had always assumed that leadership came easily to King. Hearing his sermons still takes the listener to a higher place. Who doesn’t resonate with “I have a dream” or “He’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I have seen the Promised Land”? King had a way of rallying people to his cause, of stirring people to action. I imagine that just being in his presence made you a better person.

The movie dared to expose a more personal side of King; a side that questioned, doubted, and wondered. Sometimes it is easy to assume that leadership is about confidence and strength. It was good to be reminded that leaders are human beings as well. King found ways to overcome his fears and questions. In doing this he became the prophet, pastor, and spiritual leader we needed and continue to need.

Today we still need people who can move beyond their fears, questions, and weaknesses to find the courage to speak truth to power. We need people to dream, to go to the mountain and see not what is but what can be.

Judgment

I bought a new bible last week. Cokesbury is closing all its retail stores so now is a great time to get a great deal on a new bible! This whole process of looking for a new bible sent me down memory lane. I still have the bible I used as a teen. On the inside cover I found the following quote:

“No two Christians are exactly alike, some wear their hair quite long, others wear it fairly short, some Christians have black skin, others have skin that is yellow or white; some Christians have little education, others have graduate degrees; some Christians are poor, others are rich; some Christians enjoy using guitars and drums in church, other are opposed to using any instruments.”

A day or two after purchasing my new bible I was part of a phone conversation where the person on the other end of the line declared that I was clearly not a Christian. He then proceeded to pray the sinner’s prayer over me not once but multiple times. I must say it is interesting to be thought of as a person without faith.

This experience has caused a lot of reflection in my own life. Not about my commitment to Jesus, but about how many times I have questioned some else’s faith or commitment to their faith simply because it did not reflect my commitments.

I am known for telling people that God does not come to us for permission. We, humanity, are not the gatekeepers for God. Declaring someone outside of the kingdom of God has never been our responsibility. Allowing God to be God is not easy or comfortable. If you are like me you want God to be on your side. I would like to think that my values line up with God’s. This is what the church is called to do, remind us of God’s values. The struggle to be as radically accepting and inclusive as God can be disturbing.

In my work I get to see and work with Christians of all stripes. There are the patriots and those who call us to a global citizenship. I have worked side-by-side with pro-life and pro-choice believers. Some believers are convinced that the rapture is coming and others see it as the greatest scam ever pulled on Christians. This list could go on for quite a while. Here is my point, for reasons that are only known to God Christians don’t always agree. Our disagreements can seem quite significant. These disagreements should never be cause for declaring that someone is outside the kingdom of God.

How would Christianity be different if we started with the supposition that everyone is a child of God; that each person’s beliefs, political positions, immigration status, and citizenship are simply inconsequential?

Courage

During last Sunday’s sermon the pastor referred to Matthew 16:24, where Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to be his followers then they must be willing to deny themselves.  This is one of those passages that is easier to just skip.  It is much simpler and less confusing to talk about a religion that teaches us to be good “Christians” rather than to engage a faith that asks us to abandon an entire way of life. Self-denial has never been a favorite sermon or bible study topic.  Taking Jesus’ words seriously have the potential to disturb the status quo and the status quo is comfortable.  To be honest I like things to be comfortable, predictable, safe, and secure.  These are the foundations of an uncomplicated life.

Self-denial removes me from the center.  It may even move my family, church, community, and country from the center.  According to Jesus, self-denial naturally leads to cross-carrying and cross-carrying leads to aloneness.

Jesus carried the cross 2,000 years ago because carrying the cross was what needed to be done.  Without the cross there could be no Easter and without Easter there could be no resolution to the sin problem.

When Jesus calls his followers to cross-carrying it is a call to courage.  It is a call to stand-up for truth even when no one else wants to hear the truth.  It means exposing and naming the powers that have neutralized the church’s prophetic place in the world.

When we name racism as a current sin, we risk our popularity.  When the church declares that we need a president of color because another white man will just reinforce the worst of our prejudices and stereotypes, we risk being called non-Christian.  When the church stands up against the raping of the environment just for cheaper fuel, we risk being called extremists.  When the church stands for the stranger and alien in our midst, we risk being labeled unpatriotic.

Friends, this is the call of Easter; a call to self-denial, cross-carrying, and truth telling.  It will not be easy.  It will not make you popular and you may end up feeling very alone.  Know this; we serve a High Priest, Jesus Christ, who understands.

Fear, Violence and Death

This past Monday I was in Los Angeles when I received a text from my wife, “there was a fatal shooting at 29th and Franklin, it happened just as the High School was letting out.”  I live a 31st and Franklin.  The 18 year old victim died.  My son turns 18 later this year so when I hear of an 18 year old being shot to death in my neighborhood, it becomes personal very quickly.  According to my neighbors this was a gang related shooting. The news this week has also been dominated by a shooting in Florida.  An unarmed 17 year old was shot to death justifiably, according Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law.”  In what world is shooting an unarmed teen justifiable?  Can we really claim to be a Christian Nation and have laws that allow us to kill each other?

Philosophically what happened in Denver is as “justifiable” as what happened in Florida.  A gang member was simply standing his ground – protecting his turf.

I can almost understand why people without faith believe that standing your ground is important and correct, but what I cannot understand is how anyone in the faith community could even begin to endorse a law like this.

Stand your ground laws help to legitimize prejudices, assumptions, and stereotypes.  It is not surprising that both of the dead teens happen to be black.  It is this is population that has been victimized most by society’s irrational fears.

We are not going to get past things like racism, prejudice, and fear by creating space for justifiable murder.  If anything, allowing civilians to arm themselves makes these issues more contencious.

Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and Jesus had it right all along.  Swords and guns must be transformed into instruments of peace.  When we arm each other it becomes too easy to let fear dictate our actions and fear too often leads to unwarranted violence.

Drawing lines

Why is it so important to draw lines in the sand?  Too many people enjoy the illusion that the world can easily be divided into two camps - friend or enemy; republican or democrat; right or wrong; saint or sinner.  It feels good and right to declare that people are either with us or against us.  Why do things like change, diversity and difference scare us so much?  Is it possible that we are hard wired to be afraid of diversity in ethnicity, faith, politics and ideological points of view? Concepts like middle ground, compromise and grey areas are all too often seen as positions which immature or unenlightened folks take.  If the definition of maturity includes fear of diversity and an unwillingness to change my mind, then I am not interested in maturity.

Could it be that the opposite is true?  Immature people draw lines, never change their mind, and want the world to be full of people who look the same, believe the same and think the same.

Why would anyone vote for a politician who refuses to change their stance?  Why go to a church where the pastor(s) never grow in their understanding of theology, God and what the church is called to?  What fun is it living in a community where everyone looks the same or eats the same food or worships in the same way?

I like the Apostle Paul’s image of the body in 1 Corinthians 12.  We are not all the same.  As a matter of fact it is our differences that make us one!  Embracing differences (diversity) means that any lines we draw should be easily erased and moved because chances are we should not have drawn the line in the first place.

Can you imagine a world where compromise was the norm?  Church would be healthy and healing, politics would be helpful and honest, and battles over religion would be non-existent.

Unfinished

I like Jonah.  A grumpy Old Testament prophet – he was asked by God to speak to his enemy.  Jonah didn’t like the idea so he runs (sails) in the opposite direction.  God sends a storm and transportation (belly of a fish) back to Nineveh.  Jonah preaches a short sermon, the enemy responds, God forgives and Jonah is upset, mostly with God for being so forgiving. I like the messiness of this story.  The anger and frustration directed at God is almost comforting.  Jonah is 100% human.  He helps me to feel less guilty when I get mad at God.

The best part of this story is not “the miracle in the fish” but rather that it is an unfinished story.  We are never told what happens to Jonah.  Does he turn into a bitter grumpy prophet or does his heart soften?  Did Jonah and God make-up?

Like Jonah, we are also unfinished stories.  In this there is hope.  Tragedy is not a forgone conclusion; triumph is still possible.

Jonah helps us to understand what it means to be a Christian.  People who define themselves as Christian must respect the “unfinishedness” of other people.  As long as someone is unfinished there is the possibility for the story to end well.

There is a sense in which Christians are called to be eternal optimists.  Writing people off as too lost, evil or sinful cannot be a Christian option.  Yes, this has political implications.  When leaders use “enemy” as a way to define persons or countries they are acting in ways that are anti-Christian.

Jonah closes with a grumpy prophet sitting outside the gates of the city, waiting for God to finally understand that some people are so bad that they are beyond forgiveness.  I wonder who won that discussion?