Scripture for a Pandemic

Over the years, God seems to provide us followers with scripture passages that carry us through various seasons of life – anchors we can cling to. For my 18th birthday, toward the end of my senior year in high school, I was given a little Hallmark book entitled Consider the Lilies: Great Inspirational Verses From the Bible. It actually served as my bible for the next year or so (sad as that seems today). It pointed me to a few scriptures that served as anchors through my first couple years after high school. The scripture that resonated the most with me can be found in Matthew 6, part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Especially helpful were verses 25-34…

25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?

28 “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (NKJV)

Looking for a go-to scripture on which to focus as you figure out how to navigate a pandemic such as this? You might want to think about this passage from Jesus’ teaching to his first century followers. He was preparing them to live in a pandemic of sorts. He was preparing them to be kingdom people in a time of uncertainly – a season laced with anxiety, hardship, and persecution. He was telling them clearly that God is bigger than anxieties, hardships, and persecution. And he’s bigger than pandemics, I suspect.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet they thrive during a pandemic. Lord, help us to not simply survive this pandemic, but maybe even thrive a bit. Help us to surthrive, as my friend Mick would say.

If I keep on doing what always done…

There’s an old saying that goes like this: If I keep on doing what I’ve always done, I keep on getting what I’ve always gotten.  Albert Einstein is attributed to having said something similar, coming at it from a different angle: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

This is great advise and not necessarily rocket science (no disrespect to Mr. Einstein).  Then how come behavioral change is so doggone difficult, especially when sin rears its ugly head?  How often have we been determined to change our behavior, to change what we do so we could realize a different outcome?  And the outcome?  So often the same old results.

The Apostle Paul spoke to this in Romans 7:18-19…I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Paul reminds us that this is the frustration we live with while we are in the process of being transformed into the likeness of Jesus.  Paul also reminds us of God’s grace and deliverance: Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Vs. 24-25)

Paul never suggested that we concede to living this life of frustration.  Nor did Jesus. Jesus said he came that we may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10). The answer, however, isn’t to simply change what we do. It doesn’t seem to get us there. Consider the following trustworthy saying:

If I keep on thinking what I’ve always thought,
then I’ll keep on perceiving what I’ve always perceived.
If I keep on perceiving what I’ve always perceived,
then I’ll keep on seeing what I’ve always seen.
If I keep on seeing what I’ve always seen,
then I’ll keep on doing what I’ve always done.
If I keep on doing what I’ve always done,
then I’ll keep on getting what I’ve always gotten.

I became aware with this saying half a life-time ago in a Fuller Seminary class.  It changed my life!  I was under the assumption that if I simply changed my behavior – what I was doing – then all might be well.  But all wasn’t well and I knew it.  And, just like Paul, trying simply to change what I did left me frustrated.

This saying reminds us that change in behavior comes from a change, first in our thinking, not just addressing the behavior.  Granted, we can change our habits for a while, but if our thinking and perceiving is the same, we will revert back.

Jesus reminded the Pharisees (with strong language) of the danger of trying to address the behavior without changing our thinker/perceiver: What miserable frauds you are, you scribes and Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, while the inside is full of greed and self-indulgence.* Can’t you see, Pharisee? First wash the inside of a cup, and then you can clean the outside. (Matt. 23:25-26)

Jesus continued his critique of the Pharisees by calling them whitewashed tombs.  (I don’t think I would ever want to hear Jesus call me a whitewashed tomb!) 

We do want to change don’t we?  (I’m assuming a response in the affirmative, but I could be wrong). But change doesn’t happen by merely changing what we do.  This is probably what Paul was addressing when he suggested we are transformed by the renewing of our mind – our chooser/thinker/perceiver (Rom 12:2). Change comes from the inside. Change comes with the transformation of how we think and why think the way we do. The good news: God does the heavy lifting. Our job is to show up. But show up we must!

* The Kingdom New Testament translation suggests “moral flabbiness” in place of self-indulgence.

Smoking Pot in the Old Testament

In the previous post (Dot-to-Dot) we discussed a theme woven throughout scripture: “I will be your God and you will be my people” stated in some manner, shape, or form. This was God’s covenant promise to the people he called (Abraham and his decedents) to to be a blessing to the world and participate in his project of “putting creation back to rights” (NT Wright).

One of the most obscure, unknown stories in the Old Testament is probably one of the most significant stories.  In Genesis 15, Abram (soon to be renamed Abraham) asked God a question we all ask from time to time: “How do I know what you are saying is true?” So the LORD (Yahweh) said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”  Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.

Wait!  Abram cut the animals in two and arranged them in two rows?  God didn’t tell him to do that!!  Why did he?   Because in Abram’s world 4000 or so years ago, this was how contracts were signed.  The parties would each bring and split animals in two, arrange them in rows, putting the birds together in a single pile at the head of the two rows.

The two parties would then each take a smoking pot or torch of some sort and simultaneously light their respective rows of animal parts on fire.  They would meet at the end of the rows and together light the pile of birds afire.  Basically they were saying, “If I should break this covenant, may I be drawn and quartered and burnt in a similar fashion.”  They took their contracts pretty serious!

Abram apparently knew that God was about to sign a promise or covenant with him.  What he didn’t know was how the signing would take place. As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.  Then the LORD said to him, “Know for certain…” and then went on to describe the future and His commitment to Abram and his descendants.  When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking fire pot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.  On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram.

GOD SIGNED BOTH SIDES OF THE AGREEMENT WHILE ABRAM SLEPT!  That’s a covenant, Yahweh style.  God did/does it all.  All Abram did was show up.  God did the rest. It was all about God and not so much about Abram. God was serious when he said, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” He is the promise-maker. 

And he is also the promise-keeper. Fast forward a couple thousand years and we witness God as promise-keeper, this time through Jesus. God’s first promise was to Adam and Eve.  He promised them everything (including the tree of life) but their desire to become like God cost them their life.  They chose death over life. God honored their choice and death reigned – ultimately resulting in His own son’s death.  With Jesus’ resurrection, death was defeated and the original promise was again on the table. Humanity didn’t hold up its end of the promise, but God held up his end of the covenant and fulfilled our part! “I will be your God and you will be my people.”

In Jesus, we see the smoking pot all over again. Jesus did it all. We just show up. It’s that simple. Imagine our world if we remembered to just show up and give him permission to hold up his end of the deal! It’s really all about God, not so much about us.  “For God is at work within you, helping you want to obey him, and then helping you do what he wants.” (Philippians 2:13, TLB)

Dot-to-Dot

When I was a kid, I always enjoyed the coloring books with “dot-to-dots.”  It might have been the first indicator that engineering would be in my future.  When first learning to connect the dots, I paid close attention to the numbers, ensuring the figure that was developing was correct.  In short order, I discovered that if I “stepped back” and observed the arrangement of the dots, I was able to envision the figure that was about to emerge.  Since I knew what the ultimate figure was likely to look like, I could stray from using just straight lines, ending up with a more artistic version of the picture.

One of my top five CliftonStrengths is Connectedness.  When I am able to connect dots in life, things make a lot more sense to me (I’m guessing I’m not alone in this).  This is especially true when connections lead to a better understanding of Context (another of my top five Strengths).  I’m guessing I’m not alone in this, either.  I think it’s an important consideration when it comes to practical theology, to our understanding of who God is and what he is up to.

Dot-to-Dot

As previously discussed, theological understanding comes through the reading and interpretation of scripture in context.  The greatest context, of course, is all of scripture.  As we continuously spend time in scripture in its full context, dots get connected and themes begin to emerge – themes that allow us to “step back,” giving us a better understanding of who God is and what he’s doing in his creation.  One example is the theme of Justice that threads throughout scripture (see What is Justice?).

About 35 years ago, through an Old Testament seminary course, I was introduced to a theme that has helped me connect biblical dots, giving me a context that has informed my reading of scripture ever since.  It’s a theme woven throughout scripture.  That theme?  “I will be your God and you will be my people” in some manner, shape, or form. 

The theme first appeared in the book of Genesis when God called Abram (Abraham) and his descendants to be a blessing to the world, to participate in His project of “putting creation back to rights,” as N.T. Wright would say.  After changing Abram’s name to Abraham (meaning father of a multitude), God told him of a covenant that he was about to establish with His people (Abraham and his descendants).  The covenant was to include land and the inclusion that “I will be their God” (Genesis 17:1-8).  For the restoration project to succeed the people needed to follow God’s lead, letting him be God.

The people seemed to like the idea of being God’s chosen, but not so much the idea of following his lead.  Hundreds of years later, we find his people in captivity as slaves in Egypt.  As God was about to rescue them from captivity, he said through Moses, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:6-7).  At this pivotal point in human history, God reminded the Israelites that he was God (and presumably, they were not), promising that he would lead and care for them.  As the people followed his lead, God provided for them and reminded them of their covenant relationship to him – e.g., “I will put my dwelling place among you…I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Leviticus 26:11-12).

As we watch the story unfold, we see a recurring pattern. The people strayed from letting God be God, got themselves in trouble, requiring God to repeatedly rescue them. As we watch the story continue to unfold, God repeatedly reminded his people of this covenant relationship to him. We find the theme in both the Old and New Testaments:

  • I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart. (Jeremiah 24:7, NIV)
  • And they shall know that I am the Lord their God with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, declares the Lord God.  And you are my sheep, human sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Lord God.” (Ezekiel 34:30-31, ESV)
  • The Apostle Paul, drawing from Leviticus 26 and Ezekiel 37 – For we are the temple of the living God. As God said: “I will live in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (2 Corinthians 6:16, NLT)
  • The author of Hebrews, drawing from Jeremiah 31 – This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord.  I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Hebrews 8:10, NIV)
  • And from the book of Revelation – I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21:3, NIV)

Since this theme threads its way throughout the entire Biblical narrative, it translates to us as Christ-followers today.  God wants to be God (which he is very good at, by the way) and has invited us to be his people.  If we live in that relational understanding, “all will be well” (Jeremiah 7:23, NLT).  I’m not intimating that following Jesus is easy or simplistic.  But I do know this: God wants to be our God and he wants us to be his people. This is bottom-line stuff. It’s the stuff that helps us connect dots.

What ELSE Can I Do?

My dad used to say that I was a charter member of the “Do Daddy” club. Always a curious person, I bombarded him with questions about what he was doing or going to do and why – “Whachya gonna do, Daddy?” He would then let me watch and listen as he explained what he was doing and, equally important, why he was doing it. Of course, that only led to more “do Daddy” questions. As I got older, I was able to participate, joining him with the never-ending farm work. I loved doing stuff on the farm and often looked for more things I could do – “What ELSE can I do, Daddy?”

A couple weeks ago in the posting, What Can I Do?, I addressed the question that many woke white Americans are now are asking. Beginning to realize that there are such things as unjust racial policies and white privilege, we all want to know what we can possibly do to make a difference. I directed us to Jesus as a start point, reiterating that “I am in no way implying that reading the Gospels is the only thing we can do, but its the right start. There is more, much more, that we can/need to do to affect long-lasting systemic change.” So we correctly ask, “What ELSE can we do?”

I have been privileged to spend some time the past ten years with Dr. David Livermore, a social science researcher who has devoted his career to helping people develop their cultural intelligence. He helps clients objectively discover their cultural intelligence, describing it as one’s Cultural Quotient (CQ). As a Christ-follower, Dave has the privilege of helping people all over the world develop their CQ.

According to Livermore, the development of one’s cultural intelligence starts with their CQ Drive (see graphic). CQ Drive is asking me how much I really care about developing my cultural intelligence. Am I willing to put in the work necessary to let God create in me a heart for those who are racially or culturally different than me? Am I willing to spend time with Jesus to let his heart for the other permeate my own heart? Am I willing to listen, learn, and understand?

As God draws our heart into alignment with his, the next thing we can do is learn and gain an understanding of the culture and the world of another. This requires me to listen and learn from those who live in that culture. This cannot happen without intentionality, effort, and humility. It’s the next step in answering the question, “What ELSE can we do?”

How do we do this? The best way, of course, is to learn directly from someone from the culture that we want to understand. We also need to know the story behind the story – the history. Right now, many of us want to better understand the world of our fellow Black Americans and fellow Black Christ-followers. We want to understand, Why are people angry? Why so upset? Didn’t we elect a black president? Pass civil rights laws? Isn’t racism illegal now? These are the tough questions we ask and were posed by Phil Vischer (creator of Veggie Tales) in his podcast Holy Post.

So what ELSE can we do? Certainly we can watch Vischer’s video! And if your CQ Drive pushes you to know and understand better, let me suggests some resources worthy of your time and persistence:

  • Coming of Age in Mississippi, Anne Moody
  • Cultural Intelligence (Youth, Family, and Culture): Improving Your CQ to Engage in a Multicultural World, David Livermore
  • Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland
  • Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith
  • Do All Lives Matter? The Issues We Can No Longer Ignore and the Solutions We All Long For, Wayne Gordon and John Perkins
  • I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World of Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson (the movie as well)
  • Many Colors, Soong-Chan Rah
  • The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas (also a movie)
  • The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
  • The Minority Experience: Navigating Emotional and Organizational Realities, Adrian Pei
  • The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander (Vischer’s video addresses some of her content)
  • The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (an old classic)
  • White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo
  • Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, Beverly Daniel Tatum  (This is the only book from this list I can’t vouch for personally.  It’s next on my reading list.)

We start by allowing God, through Jesus and reading books like the ones above, to develop in us a CQ Drive, followed by CQ Knowledge. Then we can begin to move toward action that can make a difference within our spheres of influence. And we all want to make a difference, don’t we?

Meet My Friend Pete Paulson

I want you to meet Pete Paulson, Associate Regional Director for Young Life in the North Star Region (MN, ND, SD). He provided this word of encouragement to Young Life staff of the region last week. With his permission, I want to share it with you. It is an excellent, thought-provoking treatment of the abundant life Jesus promised us all…

Peter Paulson
A word of encouragement from Peter Paulson

John 10:10
How do I live “Life to the full”?  I want it.  I want it so badly.  When my time comes to go home to Jesus, I want to know that I experienced everything that this world has to offer.  We talk about this abundant life a lot in Young Life.  We even promise this to kids.  Life with Christ is life to the full.  However, I’m starting to realize that what I thought “abundant life” is, might in fact, be found in a different way.

Mark 10:17-31
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the young man asked.  It’s the same question I asked, just framed in a different way.  “You know what the Bible says” says Jesus.  “I do, and I follow what it says” the rich young man replies.  “There’s a deeper way than the rules…let go of what you have, give it away to those who need it, and come spend time with me” Jesus offered.  He offered him life to the full, but the man’s eyes looked down, and he slowly walked away not willing to give up his previous dreams. 

Jesus looked at those with him and said basically, “see how hard it is to live a different way?  See how hard it is to go against the status quo and look at a new way?”  Peter said, “ but we’ve followed you!”  Jesus looked at him with compassion and concern and encouraged him, “Yes, Peter, you are right, and the things you left at the fishing boat pale in comparison to what you have!  Life with me, and life in true community!  Hundreds of times better than what you left, but don’t forget, with it comes persecution and pain. You can’t have one without the other because my way isn’t just about you, its about life for everyone”.  

Life to the full only matters for any of us if it is possible for all of us.  God has rigged it to be just so.  Our lives are linked together and also linked with Him.  Those who are rich and privileged, though, can be owned by their possessions; physical possessions as well as their self-ambition and dreams can get in the way.  So those with much must let go, and give to others, so everyone can have abundant life together.  They must see that the old way only worked for the few, because it took advantage of the many.  

Jesus offers us an opportunity to change and do life differently, by letting go of what we cling to, and instead cling to one another and to Him.  This is what eternity looks like, and we can live it now.

I pray we do not walk away.

What is Justice?

This is a continuation of conversations started a couple weeks ago in the postings My Journey Into Racism and What Can I Do? As we continue this conversation, let me be clear as to the reasons why I decided to address racism in a blog-site focused on practical theology. My reasons are (1) to not remain complicit through silence, (2) to work through my own understanding of systemic racism and the role I play, and (3) to invite fellow Christ-followers to do the same.

The term Practical Theology implies an understanding of God, his worldview, and how that informs the way we live our lives – the way we relate to others.

What could be more practical than gaining an understanding of God’s heart for all people, not just the predominant group? We do not need to spend much time in scripture to become aware of God’s desire for justice and mercy is for all his people, not just the predominant group (thus Micah 6:8 – And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God). We do not need to spend much time with Jesus to see that he walked away from the predominant group in order to seek the outsider (see Jesus’ Mission Statement).

We cannot act justly, let alone love mercy, if we do not have a clear biblical understanding of justice. But what is the biblical/theological understanding of justice? Fortunately, the BibleProject has created a six minute video that paints a very clear picture of the biblical understanding of justice. Enjoy – it’s captivating. Then be watching for my next post, What ELSE Can I Do?

 

What Can I Do?

“What can I do?” is the question that I’ve heard repeatedly in conversations since May 25, the date of George Floyd’s death at the hands of former police officer, Derek Chauvin. Floyd’s death has launched world-wide protests and conversations related to systemic racism. While a segment of our society refuses to believe that systemic racism exists, an even larger segment has come face-to-face with its reality and ugliness. And its left us stunned, numbed, and in a quandary about what we can do to thwart such rampant oppression. It’s a natural response to injustice. We are passionate about a need for change and want to do something.

My confrontation with the ugliness of racism came to a head twenty-five years ago (see My Journey Into Racism). I was outraged and immediately wondered what I could do? What could one outraged and frustrated Jesus-following engineer do to have any impact on systemic racism? It’s a natural question. But maybe we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “What can I do?” maybe we should be asking, “Who can I be?” When confronted with issues like systemic racism, the first response of Westerners, and certainly Americans, is to jump right to doing. And there certainly is a place for that. However, as I read scripture, it is increasingly evident that God is primarily interested in actions that are natural extensions of who we be.

All during his ministry, Jesus was confronted with groups that focused primarily on outward actions, disregarding the inward being and its attitudes. This was especially true of the group known as the Pharisees. We tend to imagine them as an evil group of oppressors, kind of like those racists, of which we assume/hope are not. In truth, the Pharisees were a grassroots group that wanted to address the issues of a nation gone awry, that had moved away from God’s vocation as a called people. So they banded together and asked, “What can we do?” For a century or so prior to Jesus’ arrival on the scene, the Pharisees worked hard to get the Israelites back on track. In doing so, they focused on actions (doing) and missed the opportunity for God to address and transform their hearts.

When Jesus arrived on the scene, they had lost sight of their original intent of systemic change, actually becoming a systemic problem in and of themselves. Today we might refer to this as Mission Drift, which occurs when one’s passion for a cause outruns their passion for Christ. The Pharisees were passionate about the re-institution of the Mosaic Law into Israel’s life and practice. Over time, the Law became more important to the Pharisees than God himself, which is idolatry in it’s truest form.

As a result, they did not know God’s heart for the “other” which led them to become an oppressive separatist group, focused on their tribal rights and neglecting the needs of others. They missed God’s heart to such a point that they could not recognize Him when he stood right in front of them (Jesus). Jesus called them out on their miss of God’s heart – Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders (Matthew 9:13, Jesus quoting from Hosea 6).

What can we do? We can find ways to let God’s heart for the outsider permeate our heart. Right now, many of us are incensed with the injustice we’ve recently witnessed, and rightly so. We are passionate about being participants of change, and rightly so. We cannot, however, let our passion for justice outrun our passion for Christ or we might someday also hear Jesus say, “Go figure out what this Scripture means…”

Actually, that’s exactly what we can do right now – go bathe in scripture and figure out God’s heart. The best way to do that? We can never go wrong by focusing our attention on Jesus. As the visible expression of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), he can give us a clear understanding of God’s heart.

I’m going to be frank here: I am continually amazed at how few of us who call ourselves Christ-followers have ever completely read through the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). We settle for bits and pieces here and there, learning about him without really knowing him. Continuing the frankness: if we aren’t willing to do this, then how serious are we really about affecting systemic change?

As we get a clear understanding of God’s heart, we are better equipped to speak into the lives of people in our circles of influence. It gives us credibility (who is more credible than Jesus?) when in conversations with Christian friends that display racist tendencies (unfortunately, many exist). We can point them to Jesus – who he is, what he did and said. They can argue with us, but they can’t argue with him (though they might try). Our job is not to change minds. Our job is to point people to Jesus and let him do the heavy lifting. If people have ears to hear, they will.

Note: I am in no way implying that reading the Gospels is the only thing we can do, but its the right start. There is more, much more, that we can/need to do to affect long-lasting systemic change. Stay tuned for more thoughts on this worthy topic.

My Journey Into Racism

I want to (need to?) write about my journey toward an understanding of racism. The events of the past few months – the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd – have caused me to reminisce about my journey with God in trying to understand racial injustice, especially as a white man of privilege.

My journey began in the mid-60s. As a high school student I struggled to understand the Civil Rights movement and its off-shoot events. I was enamored with Martin Luther King Jr.’s work as he attempted to bring the country’s attention to the plight of the Negro population. I don’t remember hearing the term “racism.” What I do remember was this: There is something radically wrong, though I couldn’t name or articulate it. I wanted to understand, but did not have anyone to process with me. Most of the people in my life wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. off as a trouble-maker. I could not. His assassination in Memphis had a profound impact on me, a farm boy in rural Minnesota.

1968 – My freshman year of college at NDSU. I lived in a dorm made up of 2-room suites. One of my “suite mates” was Leon Carroll, a sophomore from the South side of Chicago. I’m sure I “whelmed” him with questions and wonderments about life on the south side of Chicago. He helped me understand the life of a young black man in America. Though I didn’t know the term, I began to understand systemic racism. Kids of means could go to college and avoid the military draft and thus the Vietnam war. Most of Leon’s high school friends were drafted and already serving in Vietnam. Leon helped move my understanding forward.

Late 70s – As a volunteer Young Life leader, I was privileged to attend a national conference where Young Life staff wrestled with the makings of a of a new Mission Statement. The final Statement included an incarnational commitment: To seek out and welcome all those whom God directs to our ministry, male and female of all races, salaried and volunteer, with a diversity of Christian traditions linked in our common purpose, and to honor their calling and encourage the fullest expression of their gifts. Young Life was making an unprovoked statement about women and minorities in ministry. No other evangelical organization dared touch such topics. I was proud of Young Life, though I could not articulate why. I was still trying to understand.

1980s – We moved to Muskogee, OK, for an engineering job. It was my first time experiencing economic disparity. And the disparity ran along color lines. Whites were privileged to live in the newer parts of town. Our realtor – a white, “upstanding, Christian man” – steered us away from older housing developments that were being “invaded by the Blacks,” jeopardizing future home values. The factory where I worked was on the “wrong side of the tracks.” I saw serious poverty for the first time in my life. I began to understand that something was amiss, something greater than simply personal prejudice.

1994 – We found ourselves in the heart of the South (Memphis, TN) when my position was relocated to the company’s corporate headquarters. What we experienced in Oklahoma was mild compared to Memphis, located at the head of the Mississippi delta where manual cotton-picking reigned supreme through the 19th century and into the mid-20th century. I watched my kids wrestle with extreme prejudice and racism at school and among their Christian friends. It was confusing for them. It was confusing for me!

We attended a church in a white suburb, started by a couple former Young Life staff. Though both white and leading a predominantly white congregation, they determined not to be a typical southern church, encamped in the the suburbs, distanced from the plight of the city. They were intentional about educating people with an understanding of God’s heart* and how such an understanding might affect the way we lived. A few times a year, they hosted an Urban Plunge, where participants spent several days in the heart of Memphis, living at the downtown YMCA. The intent of a Plunge was to prick consciences and educate the participants. Plunges always began by spending several hours at the National Civil Rights Museum located at the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated (which most white Memphis native had never visited), generating robust and emotional discussions.

To this point in my life, I, like most white Americans, viewed racism as simply prejudice fueled by hatred. I think many still do today. What I didn’t understand, but learned during my Urban Plunge experience, was that racism isn’t just a derivative of personal prejudices. I learned the sociological description of racism – the ability and wherewithal of a dominant social group to suppress and keep subservient another sector of society. I began to understand. Racism, by its very nature and definition, is systemic. As we continued to live in the Memphis area, the systemicness of racism became clearly evident everywhere I went. Black people had to prepay at the gas station. I never did. Black people did not get to sit in the prime seats at high school sporting events. We didn’t have to bag our groceries. Black people did. I was told, “We have to provide jobs for the those people.”

I will continue to describe my journey in subsequent posts. For now, this is what I would like us to consider: We cannot treat racism as simply a personal ideology with the assumption that we can’t possibly be racist, referencing the adage, “I don’t hate anyone.” As part of the privileged and dominant group, I, as a white male, am part of a system that suppresses and keeps another people subservient whether I like it or not. Once we begin to understand and accept this, we can begin to make a difference.

Here’s the rub for us: The problem is so massive and pervasive that we feel there isn’t anything we can do or say to make much difference. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to say. So we retreat into doing and saying nothing. However, silence is complicity. Silence can speak volumes.

* And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Gratitude

The core of the Young Life ministry, of which I have been a part going on 47 years, is the volunteer leaders that invest in the lives of teenagers. I am privileged to help train younger staff that lead the volunteer troops. Several years ago, while in a discussion during a training time, we deliberated the make-up of the best leaders. We decided that what separated best leaders from average leaders was this: they get “it.” As the discussion progressed, we attempted to quantify and define “it.” This is where we landed:

“If someone gets “it,” no definition is necessary; for those who don’t, no definition will suffice.”

In the context of practical theology, I suspect this is a truism that crosses all aspects of faith understanding. I suspect it was central to Jesus’ repetitive quote from Isaiah 6 addressing the Israelites – people that kept on listening, without perceiving; that keep on looking, without understanding. I think this describes our journeys of faith as we try to figure out this phenomenon of following Jesus. We wrestle with an aspect of faith for a time – reading, researching, discussing – seemingly to no avail. Then, all of a sudden, something happens and it makes sense. We get it. We cannot explain it yet – we just know we get it now and we see everything through a new lens…

We hear two distinctly different responses during this pandemic – gratitude or censure/blame. Gratitude* is a core virtue of the Christian life. It’s one of those things I didn’t get for years, but became clear in the middle of a personal crisis. I finally got it, though I couldn’t have explained it to anyone for a time. But I knew it was a life-changer.

From the New Oxford American Dictionary, gratitude describes the quality of being thankful and readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. During these days, grateful people are coming out of the woodwork to serve others, even the ungrateful. Grateful people get it. They don’t need to work at showing gratitude, its second nature.

One of the best books I’ve ever read was Brennan Manning’s Ruthless Trust (a book I HIGHLY recommend). In Ruthless Trust, Manning described how he might determine if someone truly trusts God:

“Let’s say I interviewed ten people and asked them each the same question – “Do you trust God?” – and each answered “Yes, I trust God,” but nine out of ten actually did not trust him. How would I find out which was telling the truth? I would videotape each of the ten lives for a month and then, after watching the videos, pass judgment using this criterion: The person with an abiding spirit of gratitude is the one who trusts God.” my emphasis)

During his message on Sunday, April 26, Bjorn Dixon of the WHY Church (Elk River, MN) made an interesting and telling statement: “What you thought about God before the pandemic is how you will relate to God in a pandemic.” If gratitude was core to my trust in God before the pandemic, then gratitude is the natural response during the pandemic. For those of us struggling to be grateful right now, here’s the very good news: God uses interruptions and crises to transform us, to help us get “it” (whatever “it” we might be in need of “getting”). I have observed people “get” the virtue of gratitude these last few weeks. Others will get it before this is over. If you aren’t there yet, there’s hope.

“God is the creator, redeemer, and consummator of all that is. Human beings live in a relation of inescapable dependence on God to which gratitude is the appropriate response.” (Miroslav Volf, “Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in the Christian Life”, my emphasis).

* Interestingly, the Greek word used in the New Testament and translated as gratitude is eucharistía, the same word from which Eucharist is derived. (See Colossians 2:6-7, 1 Timothy 4:4-5, Hebrews 12:28 as examples of gratitude used in the New Testament.)