Rhythm and Snooze

blues drummer

“You ain’t got no rhythm, White Boy.” (“White Boy” is what my friend James used to call me. It was a term of endearment. I think.) And it wasn’t true. I did have rhythm. I just couldn’t dance. Dancing aside, there is a pandemic of rhythmlessness that causes all sorts of problems in our lives.

Gloria Estefan tried unsuccessfully to address our cultural rhythmlessness in 1987. She misdiagnosed the issue. For some reason she thought rhythm was out there looking for people to infect with itself. In her magnum opus she and her esteemed Miami Sound Machine declared:

 O eh, o eh, o eh, oo ah… O eh, o eh, o eh, oo ah… Yah yeh goh…

 The rhythm is gonna get you tonight
No way, you can fight it every day
But no matter what you say
You know it the rhythm is gonna get’cha

 No clue, of what’s happening to you
And before this night is through
Ooh baby the rhythm is gonna get’cha

Rhythm is gonna get’cha
Rhythm is gonna get’cha
Rhythm is gonna get you
The rhythm is gonna get you tonight

Gloria Estefan is a liar. The rhythm is not going to get you or me or anyone else. However, she was astute in observing the human propensity to “fight it every day”.  And she rightly asserts that most of us have “no clue of what’s happening” to us.

As a pastor, I get a chance to listen to people tell me about their lives or their take on the state of our world. A lot. Like, a lot, a lot. I was on the phone recently with a dear friend who was seeking some advice from me for one of our mutual friends. And I found myself offering up the same diagnosis my friend James had after watching me attempt to dance. I said, “Sounds to me like he ain’t got no rhythm.” I offered the same diagnosis to another friend recently who is just exhausted by life- parenting, work, responsibility, passion. “You ain’t got no rhythm, man”

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A couple of months back I was visiting a pastor friend in Mobile, AL. We went out to grab a beer a bar called Callaghan’s Irish Social Club. (It had just been named Southern Living’s best bar of 2017. My first thought was, “There is no way this dive is the best bar in the south.” But that’s neither here nor there.) We grabbed a table outside and talked about doing a podcast together. We talked about our churches and how we see God at work in the communities we serve. Then he asked me about my dissertation topic for my doctoral work.

I won’t bore you with the details, but it boils down to this: We ain’t got no rhythm. God created all things and it was all good. There was perfection and balance and order and structure- a symbiosis of environments and the light and life that occupies them. And then upon this beautiful harmony God set a rhythm- a six to one Sabbath economy of time that was to govern all things.

“And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” And there it is. The seventh day. The downbeat of God’s rhythm. And he told those whom he made in his image to honor the rhythm like it is holy.

So, as I’m sitting with my friend explaining how poorly we as pastors honor a Sabbath rhythm in our lives I hear the band playing inside. It was a bluesy four-piece, soulful for white-boys ensemble- kind of a Wide Spread Panic meets Muddy Waters type of thing. And I’m talking about Sabbath as I’m listening. I can’t make all of it out because the band was on the other side of the wall but I can feel the kick drum in my chest. And it’s holding this rhythm that everyone has to answer to. The guitarist starts going nuts on this solo but he has to answer to that kick drum. Then the trumpet starts in on a solo but even still, he ain’t free from the rhythm of that drum. Then keyboard guy starts in on some run but he can’t run off because that drum is keeping time. And then the drummer, well, the drummer himself even answers to his own rhythm.

And as I’m talking to my friend I realize that a lot of our problem is that everybody is a solo artist but nobody’s listening to the kick drum even though it is the Almighty himself that is keeping time with it. We ain’t got no rhythm.

God looked upon his people during the days of his prophet Isaiah and noticed that they didn’t have any rhythm either. Everybody was doing his or her own thing. It was like a Jr. high jam band with no drummer. He said through Isaiah:

“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,  from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
 then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth.”

I’m certainly not suggesting we fall into the ceremonial law of Old Testament Sabbath observance. I am simply suggesting that there is a rhythm to which God designed us to walk. Sabbath is the Lord’s holy day. Jesus called himself “the Lord of the Sabbath.” Through Isaiah God tells his people that they are trampling on the Sabbath by seeking their own pleasure rather than his own glory.

Fear not!  The rhythm is not going to “get us”. God is not going to punish us for not keeping a holy Sabbath that Christ fulfilled for us. But we miss out on the delight that comes with allowing God’s rhythm to keep time for us. We miss out on “riding the heights of the earth.” Discontentment, stress, anger, covetousness, weariness, worldly ambition, workaholism, pleasure seeking, and general angst are all symptoms of people who can’t hear the kick drum. Hearing that downbeat of God’s design is a present, steady, unfailing reminder to a world in chaos that God is in control. But too often it is the world’s noise we wind up listening to that shapes the rhythmlessness of our own lives.

So what does Sabbath look like? I don’t know. It’s not sheet music. But it doesn’t look like the other six days. It looks different, holy even. It looks like it’s not about you. It looks like worship, not work. It looks like rest, not labor. It looks like saying no to some things and saying yes to other things. It looks like Christian community. It sounds like singing. It feels like stillness in a world of hurry. And it acts like going to church every week.

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Speaking of my white boy-ness, I was in South Dakota recently on a Pheasant hunt. On Saturday night I told the men I was with that I planned on going to church the next morning. One man commented something like, “I thought you were off this weekend.” “I am,” I replied, “But I worship with God’s people on Sunday whether I’m in the pulpit or not.” I wound up at a little Methodist church (it doesn’t matter to me so much where I go so long as I am in the company of believers). It wasn’t great. It was all just… meh. But on Sunday mornings I belong with God’s people, with a liturgy that reminds me I’m not the center of my universe. Sure, I could have been walking fields of milo while dogs worked, chasing up pheasants for me to shoot at that morning. But then it would have been just like my Friday morning. And just like my Saturday morning.

As I sat in that little church with no air conditioning sweating while a less-than-inspiring praise team sang simple songs and a preacher misapplied Exodus 17, I took the Lord’s Supper I thought to myself, “This is exactly where I need to be.” The whole morning was a reminder that it wasn’t about me, my pleasure, my time off, or my own theological leanings. It was the Lord’s Day- a day for me to remember what time it was. It was the downbeat around which my life orients itself. To honor the rhythm is to honor the One whose foot is on the kick drum. Sabbath practice is what brings balance to our lives. It is a gift of God’s common grace in a swirling chaotic world that helps us remember he’s in control.

Sure, we’re free to shoot at pheasants, or lay in soft beds, or tee the ball up, or plant tulip bulbs, or watch our kids kick soccer balls or hit baseballs in some tournament out of town, or get out on the boat early, or go into the office for few hours, or tailgate at the stadium before the noon kick-off, or treat our Sunday at Disney just like we treated our Saturday at Disney. God’s rhythm is not “gonna get you.” The Lord of the Sabbath won’t love you any less for not honoring his Lordship. But know that as long as you step on God’s Sabbath while “going your own ways” and “seeking your own pleasure” you will never know the sweet simplicity of taking delight in the Lord as you learn to live your life within his time signature. Otherwise you will continually be swept up in the unsatisfying carnality of the world’s rhythmlessness.

A musician doesn’t play within the rhythm because it is convenient or “they get something out of it”. The rhythm is a gift that keeps them from sounding a hot mess. So don’t ignore the kick drum. Listen until you can feel it in your chest. Then orient everything in your life around it like it’s a gift. Because that’s exactly what it is.

Grace and Truth,

-SBC

Marriage: It’s Not About You

broken-marriage

It’s not about you.

If there is one thing people need to hear in regard to marriage it is that. I’m not talking about non-Christian marriage. I am talking about marriage founded upon the biblical ideal that God has joined two people together to become one flesh through his covenant work. (If that previous sentence doesn’t make sense to you then nothing else in this post will either).  This concept of covenant marriage is the picture we see in Genesis 2.  It’s the picture Jesus affirms in Mark 10 and Matthew 19.  It’s the center of Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 5.  And it’s the image at the heart of the eschatological vision in Revelation 19.  Christian marriage is not to be downgraded by secular, cultural appropriations that reduce the sacred institution to some trite, legal arrangement based upon the feelings of affection or self-fulfillment a person derives from their spouse. How trivial!

As a pastor I get a front row seat for watching many marriages. In this season, in my context, it is clear to me that marriages are under attack by God’s enemy. The cultural foothold of self-seeking narcissism perpetuated by the elevation of the individual through the vanity of cultural relativism that has given rise to the pandemic of self-focus highlighted by the prevalence of personal expression (Thanks, social media!!) is the very foothold Satan is using to destroy marriage. We live in a culture that repeats, “It’s all about you. It’s all about you. It’s all about you. It’s all about you.”

That’s a lie! It’s a lie from the Devil himself forged in the fires of hell. It’s the lie Satan first sold Eve and Adam and it’s the lie that Cain believed when he killed Abel. It’s the lie that is destroying our marriages. It’s the lie that makes husbands (or wives) focus on their careers and personal empires and aspirations. It’s the lie that makes wives (or husbands) focus on their physical appearance from fashion to facelifts. It’s the lie that has allowed pornography to become so prevalent in homes and in phones. It’s the lie at the heart of the justification and allure of un-checked lust and extramarital affairs. It’s the lie that allows the lack of one’s personal happiness to become an indictment of their spouse opening the door to seeking fulfillment outside of marriage. It’s the lie that created helicopter parents who live vicariously through the popularity or success of their children.

Marriage as God intended was to be the cornerstone of human civilization. It was to be the foundation of functional society that celebrated and multiplied the image and glory of God through human flourishing. It was to be the sacred and holy space in which the brilliance and beauty of human sexuality was to be preeminent. Instead we have ripped sex from womb of marriage, ignored the image of God in one another, and profaned the glory of God by turning the covenant of marriage into a compost heap of self-gratification. This is not marriage. It’s something else. We need a different name for this cheap plastic imitation that is so easily broken.

As a theologically orthodox evangelical I have heard my corner of the church bemoan what is happening to marriage in our culture. But the Church’s great battle with marriage is not what our secular society is reducing it to through no-fault divorces and same-sex unions. The Church’s fight concerning marriage is not with legislators and lawmakers and the SCOTUS. The Church’s fight is within itself. The Evangelical Church has no integrity with which to speak to society’s reduction of the institution of marriage. All society has done is ratify the evidence of what they have seen in the Church. We cry out that marriage is sacred. But in truth we have made it sanctimony. We are letting Satan steal God’s priceless gift of marriage within our own house and yet we have the gall to muster indignation at how secular society treats it?   We point at the dumpster fire of marriage in our culture and ignore the fact that we do so from atop the smoldering remains of marriage in our own yard. Put down your picket sign and pick up sackcloth.  We need to repent.

Do I sound a little harsh? Intense? Well, Satan himself is speeding away with the covenant God forged at the center of your marriage, which he plans to destroy in order to profane the name of Jesus Christ through you. So yeah, I am a little passionate.

So what should you do?  First, foremost, and finally, remember and never forget that it’s not about you. YOUR MARRIAGE IS NOT ABOUT YOU. The natural aversion you have to reading that and the argument you are formulating against that is precisely why you have to remember that. For you, marriage should be about the glory of Christ first, your spouse second, and yourself last of all. Your rejection of this idea cannot be supported with scripture and can only be rooted in the fake version of marriage you have purchased from the sordid trench coat of our society.

How do you stop the heist of your marriage in your own home?

  1. Center yourself on Christ. If Christ is in the sidecar of your life you have dishonored the gospel. Personally repent, asking him to be Lord of all of your life.
  2. Do your part in making Christ a priority for your family- not by becoming self-righteous but by serving your spouse with his grace. Yes, that means making church- Christian community- a priority, not a convenience.
  3. Seek to meet the needs of your spouse with the best of your energy and imagination. Cease living in frustration because your spouse does not meet your needs and actively sacrifice your wants by loving your spouse in the same way you want them to love you.
  4. Stop making their reciprocation of service a prerequisite for your own.  Marriage is not a balanced ledger sheet.  You give 100% of yourself 100% of the time.
  5. Don’t pray that God will change your spouse until you are weary from asking God to change you. Don’t believe the lie that your marriage problems begin and end with your spouse.
  6. If you are in danger or being abused do not excuse your spouse’s behavior. You profane marriage by tolerating your own abuse within marriage. Seek help.
  7. Stop your sin. Confess your sin. Seek restoration from your sin. Looking at porn? Having an inappropriate emotional relationship with someone? Having an affair? Is your primary focus making money or having fun? Living in bitterness or resentment toward your spouse? Stop. Confess. Seek restoration.
  8. Fight for your marriage not against your spouse. You cannot change your spouse or your feelings. You can only change your behavior. So change it.

-SBC

Asleep at Sea

Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee

There is a picture of Rembrandt’s painting “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” that I keep on my desk. The seas are chaotic and violent. The bow is thrust upward as the stern dips. The disciples in the bow are clinging to lines and mast and sails. There is a disciple straining in futility at the rudder. One disciple in red is leaning over the port stern gunnel in the throws of seasickness. Another disciple is simply holding on for dear life. And there is one shaking Jesus awake. Rembrandt has painted the moment before Jesus has said a word. He imagined Jesus in that odd instant when a person is no longer sleeping but they are not fully awake.

I love that moment in this painting. It looks like chaos. If a person did not know the biblical account but they looked at Rembrandt’s imagination of it they might wonder the end of it all. The painting itself begs the question, “Did they make it?” The only reason I can bear the unresolved tension in this painting is because I know the end of the story. I know the next frame. Jesus rebukes the storm, “Peace! Be still.” And he rebukes the storm in order that his disciples might hear his rebuke of them: “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they marvel and they wonder at what they just saw asking among themselves, “Who then is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The wind and the waves knew better the voice of their Sovereign than did his disciples. Would that we, like wind and waves, quit our furies and tantrums at the simple word of “Peace! Be still.” But we do not respond as well as tempests and we are not as obedient as the sea. Rather, we rattle the Lord awake with our urgent prayers prayed not with faith but with desperate doubts and sincere uncertainty about whether everything will actually be okay.

That is why I keep this painting on my desk- because at some point between the storms in my life I forget what I learned the last time. I ask myself in the fresh peace of God’s provision, “Who then is this?” I keep this painting on my desk as reminder to myself on nights like tonight that the sovereign God of all things is with me.

Christ the Lord is in the middle of every single circumstance in every single moment. If we could see him we would see that he does not share our anxiety. He doesn’t share our uncertainty about how things will turn out. He does not live in the tension of our worst-case scenario. Our raging sea doesn’t stir him. Who can sleep in the midst of a violent storm that boils a little boat on Galilee in the middle of the night as twelve grown men shout and pull and push and puke? The one who sleeps in that moment is one who knows that the storm is just a storm. He’s not worried about not getting to where he is leading them to go. The one asleep is the one who knows that the wind and the waves are subject to him and not the other way around. The one who sleeps is the one who would silence the storm not in order to save those who were in it, but rather so they could hear him better as he rebuked their fear and their lack of faith.

As your storm rages…

Consider how it is that He can rest

And gently lay your head upon His breast.

O to sleep when others toil and shout,

To find peace while those are tossed about.

Who then is this that wind and sea obey

And calls fearful night to faithful day?

Him whose voice made darkness bright

And brings men from shadows into light.

-SBC

 

Silence and Suffering

suffering picture

Last Friday I sat in a theater with my father-in-law to watch the movie Silence based on the book of that same title written by Shusaku Endo. I had read enough about the movie to be anxious. I knew that it dealt with a bloody era of Christian history in 17th century Japan. (Endo’s book Silence is semi-fictional but historically accurate.) I knew that it came out of Hollywood and dealt with questions of God and faith. I was at once intrigued by an explicitly Christian story told by Hollywood and nervous that Christianity would be shown as the weak, intolerant, foolish faith that it seems is often portrayed by those who critique it.

Good art interrupts monotony with beauty or tension. Or both. It forces reflection and wrestling instead of offering plain meaning. Good art leaves an impression that the mind can’t quickly dismiss or define. The story of Silence is good art (reading it now).  Scorsese’s film version was beautiful. It was hard to watch at times. It was comforting. It was uncomfortable. It didn’t answer questions so much as it presented them. I walked out of the theater reflective, convicted, emboldened, repentant, prayerful, moved, and questioning.

Silence deals with Christian suffering in a raw way. Much of the story is a look at what 17th century Christians in Japan went through when Japan decided to rid itself Christianity. They were imprisoned, tortured for long periods of time, crucified, drowned, burned alive, and beheaded. Believers could have escaped it all by apostatizing. Simply denounce Christ and be set free. And yet many chose suffering and martyrdom. In this way it felt very biblical. The forbearers of our faith, the apostolic generation and patristic fathers of the first two centuries of our faith understood suffering as the natural byproduct of following Jesus. They expected it.

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you… If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” -Jesus Christ, John 15:18-25

“We are fools for Christ’s sake… To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” -The Apostle Paul, 1 Cor. 4:10-13

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings… Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” -The Apostle Peter, 1 Peter 4:12-19

The rejection of Christ and his church by the world while we bear witness to Him is a basic premise of the Christian faith. What bothered me so much after watching Silence was how little I identify with suffering in my own faith. The church in American culture does not have a theology of suffering. Christians in our society whine when we feel our “rights” are being threatened by Washington or our faith is being attacked by Hollywood. When Evangelical Christians in America sense they are being disenfranchised they appeal to what the constitution promises to protect rather what the Bible tells them to expect. They demand rights promised by a secular rule of law rather than resigning that that they deserve no more rights than a crucified Christ whom they supposedly follow.

A church that understands power more than it does persecution and security more than it does suffering has missed the mark. There is an evangelical perversion of Christianity in American culture being passed off as authentic by those who claim to have a high view of scripture. And this perversion is no less an affront to the gospel than the poisonous aberration of the Christian faith perpetuated by protestant liberalism.

What the American church lacks on both sides of the aisle is a theology of suffering. The church in America operates from the faulty foundation of possessing rights which the gospel doesn’t promise and a concept of security in life which the gospel only assures believers in death.

What Silence left me with was the conviction that I stand guilty of this very accusation. I do not know what it means to suffer for the sake of Christ. Which I am convinced means I do not fully know what it means to follow him. I am too content with a version of Christianity that gives everything to me and demands little of me.

Domine, miserere.

 -SBC

Our New President Will Be…

Here is what I know. The United States is about to elect a new president next week. The new president will not be a faithful follower of Christ as defined by scripture. The new president will not value all human life. The new president has displayed both unethical and immoral behavior as normative for their character. The new president will be a polarizing figure in American politics and culture. The new president will fill many with a hope that is not warranted. The new president will fill many with a sense of despair that is too hopeless. The new president will widen even more a divide that is racial, economical, social, and cultural.

Sigh…

Being that the above is true, it would seem that for Christians, regardless of their political affiliation, a biblical perspective would be welcome. Let us then consider the scriptures.

Praise the Lord, my soul. I will praise the Lord all my life. I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save… The Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord.

                                                                                                            From Psalm 146

 The Psalmist is fueled by praise and is not distraught with despair. He encourages us to not put our trust in human rulers because God reigns. Whoever you feel compelled to vote for, don’t put your trust in them. They cannot save you. They will over promise and under deliver. The Lord who reigns, on the other hand, keeps his promises which he has made known to us through His word.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 

                                                                                               Romans 13:1-2

 All authority is the Lord’s. Apart from God’s gifting of his authority there is none. Our democracy was allowed by God. The authority we exercise as we vote was allowed by God. The authority held by those in elected office is allowed by God. Any exercise of authority in the universe that exists under God’s authority must be a reflection of his supreme authority. This is what is meant when we speak of God’s sovereignty in matters of governance and politics.

We discover in many places throughout scripture that God gives wicked rulers to his people as an act of judgment in order to lead them to repentance. The same is true of God when he allowed foreign rulers to conquer and subjugate his people Israel. God is sovereign and he gives all authority wherever it is found. Whether those authorities are a means of blessing or a means of curse are God’s concern. To this point John Calvin reflected, “They who rule unjustly and incompetently have been raised up by [God] to punish the wickedness of the people.” (Institutes, Book 4, chapter 20).

We should not be confused about this. One of my former mentors used to say to me, “Every organization is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets.” We produce what we value. Let us have no doubt that we will elect the president we deserve. And that president-elect will, by God’s permissive will, take office and rule exactly the way that is warranted. As surely as a tree is made known by its fruit a nation will be exposed by its politics.

As Christians, as God’s redeemed children, as citizens of God’s glorious and eternal kingdom, we would do well to remember these things. Whatever path America walks down, God’s kingdom is steadfast because his rule is certain. Christ has not relinquished the throne or the scepter given him by the Father. As the church, it is our privilege and responsibility to seek the welfare of our nation and to consider the welfare of all nations. But we mustn’t conflate our country’s trajectory with God’s kingdom purposes.

Whoever your candidate or party, even as you vote, do not put your trust in them. Whoever wins will win by God’s sovereign allowance for God’s ultimate purposes. If we suffer under poor leadership let us take heart that God is chastising us that we might repent. Church, our citizenship, our mission, and our great hope will not be affected in the slightest of ways when the election results come in. That’s what I know.

-SBC

The Following Is Not a Story About My Son and Me Playing Nerf Basketball… and If You Can’t Figure Out What It is About You May Be Part of the Problem

Sometimes my sons and I will invent games to play. Usually these games involve my boys making up the rules as they go to ensure they always have an advantage over me.

Just yesterday my youngest son and I were playing a game with a Nerf hoop and basketball set up in our living room. I had to shoot the ball from the couch. He had to try to block it. I got three points for a make. He got two points for a block and one point for a miss even if he didn’t block it. Fair? Nope. But I’m money at Nerf basketball so I wasn’t worried about it. I thought I might have a chance because in theory I could score points. However, before long he started hit the goal as he tried to block my shot which guaranteed that I couldn’t make it.

I was like: “That’s not fair. You can’t move the hoop. ”

He was like: “You just got to make it.”

I’d shoot. He’d hit the goal.

Eventually I was like: “I don’t want to play like this anymore.”

And he was like: “Then I win.”

It pretty much boiled down to me playing by the rules he set up and changed for his perpetual advantage. If I play by the rules, he wins. If I quit, he wins. I’m happy there was nothing at stake in that game. I mean, right?

 

-SBC

Mississippi House Bill 1523: Helpful or Hateful?

As a pastor I get asked my opinion on various political topics from time to time. Sometimes people want to know how I see certain issues from a biblical or theological perspective. I am more than happy to have those conversations. To that end, I have had a number of discussions with individuals recently about MS House Bill 1523- also known as the “Religious Liberty Accommodations Act.”

I have read the whole bill a few times. Simply put, the bill seeks to offer protection for those who have a traditional view of marriage whose convictions would lead them to deny certain goods or services to homosexual persons or couples (Section 3). For instance, this bill protects a Christian adoption agency from getting sued for denying an adoption request from a same-sex couple (Section 4.2 and 4.3). It also protects people with rental properties from getting sued for denying applicants whose lifestyle differs from their religious convictions (Section 4.1c). Many other protections are detailed that are pertinent to caterers, florists, tailors, or any industry that affects the “celebration or recognition of any marriage, based upon or in a manner consistent with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.” (Section 3.1a)

Based on the reactions I have seen to the bill, the above paragraph might have you nodding in approval of HB 1523 or gritting your teeth in angst over it. I have heard the terms “hateful” and “bigoted” used to describe the bill and its supporters. I have heard the word “un-Christian” to describe those who are against it. That is the very reason I generally save commentary about political issues for conversations rather than congregations. Our congregation has people on both sides of the aisle; none of whom would I describe as “hateful” or “un-Christian”

However, what bothers me the most in all of this is when Christian people forget that there are two kingdoms: the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God. That being said, it is right and good for Christians to seek the manifestation of the principles of the Kingdom of God within the kingdom of man. For example, William Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian, used his influence as a member of Parliament to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire because of his Christian convictions about the dignity of all persons. Even still, we mustn’t confuse man-made government with the invisible Kingdom of Heaven, or man-made law with the gospel.

The truth is this world and its kingdoms have never and will never mirror the in-breaking Kingdom of God. The true Church will always fall outside the margins of earthly governments. In following Christ we will always be led to walk across the grain of the culture we find ourselves in be it communist or democratic, secular or theistic. There will never be a Supreme Court, Senate, Congress, Legislature, Governor, or President that works for or speaks on behalf of the Kingdom of God.

HB 1523 does not speak for God. The Supreme Court does not speak for God. The true Church has never needed a man-made government to legislate on its behalf or to validate its convictions. Let us not forget the lessons of church history wherein the community of Christ thrives in the midst of persecutions from the kingdoms of man and loses its way when it is declared the religion of state, empire, or nation. Every time.

That is not to say that the laws of our earthly kingdom have no impact on our Christian living. We are, after all, in the world even if we are not of the world. For example, in Acts 22 Paul appealed to the privilege of his Roman citizenship so that he didn’t get killed for preaching Christ. He was grateful to be born a Roman citizen and thankful that it provided protection for him in a time of need. To that end, HB 1523 “protects” my church (and me for that matter) from a lawsuit that might stem from our conviction about marriage. The leadership of our church affirms what the scriptures teach regarding marriage; that it is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman whereby the two are made one flesh (Gen. 2:24, Mk. 10:8, Eph. 5:31). As a matter of faith, our leadership could not condone a same sex union in our church and I could not conduct a same-sex marriage. We have refused to host or conduct weddings of certain heterosexual couples based on that same biblical framework as well. HB 1523 was an effort to protect congregations like the one I serve and people like me from being sued for making decisions consistent with that conviction. As a reminder, the First Amendment of the US Constitution offers us those same protections. At no time, however, do these protections relieve us of our obligation to love and welcome all people with the radical hospitality of Jesus.

That’s why to Paul, being Roman was a secondary citizenship. Paul reminds the Philippian church, though they too were part of the Roman Empire, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” He wrote that from a jail cell that he was in for preaching a gospel that the world hates. His heavenly citizenship trumped his Roman citizenship. Every time.

Because of that truth, we as Christians are not to condemn, ostracize, marginalize, de-humanize, or reject those who live in a way that is not consistent with our convictions. Christian, need I remind you that you do not live in a way that is consistent with your conviction either! We follow one who loved, walked beside, served, and forgave all manner of people whose lives opposed the kingdom he came to establish. As followers of Jesus we need to welcome, love, honor, and be gracious toward all people. As business owners, owners of rental properties, restaurateurs, and laborers in service industries we need to extend the same hospitality that Christ extended to all persons. Never once did he water down truth. Never once did he withhold extraordinary grace. God’s kingdom does not afford us an either-or answer in this regard, but rather an other-than.

I am glad to live in a nation where I can preach the gospel of Jesus Christ without threat to my life and that I can stand on my convictions as a matter of law. Even still, I don’t need Washington D.C. or the State of Mississippi to protect my religious liberties. I am an American. I live in Mississippi. I am sincerely grateful for both but certainly needful of neither. Paul was happy to appeal to his Roman citizenship for protection and yet sang hymns at midnight in a prison where he was bound by Roman shackles.

HB 1523 has not relieved me of any burden I bear for following Christ in a world that rejects him. Undoubtedly, many who support this bill will find my openness, hospitality, and love toward homosexual persons an affront to their convictions, just as many who are against this bill will find my convictions regarding covenant marriage narrow-minded and bigoted. “Pick a side!” they say. “Are you for it or against it?” they ask. It all grieves me. I’d like to think one can live with conviction and compassion. At the same time. All at once. That might just be my dual citizenship talking though.

-SBC

Decisions, Discernment, and Direction

In my house we don’t always fall into stereotypical roles. For instance, my wife hates to ask for directions. Even from Siri. I don’t hesitate to ask for directions. In fact, I enjoy asking for directions. I’ll roll down my window in traffic, ask the gas station store clerk, or talk up the guy pumping gas next to me about the best way to get where I’m going. Usually I just ask my wife though and she’ll tell me the way. She’s not nearly as lost as I am most of the time.

In my ministry life I will often get people asking me for directions. Relationally, vocationally, emotionally, and spiritually people can feel stuck. Sometimes folks ask for a meeting. Sometimes folks roll down a window in traffic.   Sometimes it’s at the gas pump. They just want a little help; some perspective or angle that I may have a vantage point on.

crossroad

I received one such text message yesterday from someone I hadn’t seen in a few years. They were stuck. It had to do with calling and vocation. I called them and it went something like this:  “I’ve been studying and training to do this certain thing. But some people are questioning whether I should be studying and training for this certain thing. I want to do God’s will and I thought this was it but I’m not sure anymore. I don’t know which way to go. What do you think?”

I find myself coming back to the same basic answer when people ask me for directions. This same answer applies in most circumstances simply because rarely do I have the kind of specific insight they are seeking. There are times when I sense a “word from the Lord” for someone but those times are rare.

These are the directions I give:

  1. Check your heart. Are you open to being led by the Lord or are you dead-set on something and are looking for someone to tell you that it’s ok? Sometimes our “hearts” are led to things that are not of the Lord. I don’t trust your heart. You shouldn’t either. My heart told me to eat that third donut that was suffering in the box all alone this morning. Bad heart. Repent.
  2. Wait on the Lord. If you are not sure whether to do something or not, stay put. God delights when we seek His will above our own and God will make his will known. Trust that he has a plan for this and wait on it to be revealed. Godly discernment always precedes godly decisions. Wait. Listen. Obey.
  3. Seek the saints. I don’t care what your mama says about it. Who are the godly, wise people who speak truth to you? What are they saying? If you are not in committed, accountable, Christian community then you cannot discern God’s voice.
  4. Read the word. God speaks through his word! Are you listening to God in the scriptures? Don’t wait on a Post-It note from the Almighty, read the word he has already spoken. And when you think he’s speaking, seek the saints to confirm it!
  5. Take a knee. Pray for God’s will to be done in your life. Combine fasting with prayer. Invite others to pray for you and with you. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” If Jesus told us to pray for God’s will to be done it would stand to reason that God would then reveal his will to those who know and love him. Remember, seek God’s will, don’t just spend time asking God to bless yours.

Do these things and you will be following the Spirit, not your heart. One will show you the way the other will lead you astray. Every time.

-SBC

#ERTD

hashtag

“Easier read than done.” I think that is a phrase that I’ll coin. Perhaps it’ll become a popular phrase. It’ll earn it’s own hashtag #ERTD. Christian people around the globe will twitter their tweets of various bible verses and end them with #ERTD.

We say we believe in Jesus. We claim to believe in the sovereign grace and goodness of God. We claim to believe that scripture is infallible and authoritative- the only rule of faith and life for those who believe. We profess faith in that which we cannot see and yet still trust it. But some things in the Bible are just easier read than done.

I often worry about things. Regular things. Things like, “Am I messing my kids up?” Or, “Have I gone too long without an oil change.” Or, “What if my brother’s brain surgery doesn’t go ok?” Or, “Why doesn’t so-and-so come to church any more?” Or, “I want new shoes but some people don’t have any shoes. Is that wrong?” Or, “What if people don’t know what a hashtag is?”

I mean, we all worry, right? We worry about the significant and the insignificant. We worry about money and if it will last. We worry about relationships and if they will last. We worry about decisions and the implications of making the wrong ones. What if I don’t get the job? We worry about our health and the health of our loved ones. We worry about America. We worry about the world. Did I leave the oven on? And we worried about all of those things before smart phones, the twenty-four hour news cycle, and social media! Now we have even more stuff we can worry about. #worryabouteverything

This is what Jesus says about worry: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious 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?” (#sermononthemount).

This is what the apostle Paul says about worry: “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (#Philippians4).

This is what King David says about worry: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” “When I am afraid I put my trust in you.” (#Psalm55 #Psalm56).

This is what Jesus’ right-hand-man Peter says about worry: “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (#fishermanwroteabookofthebible).

It seems that the scriptures have much to say about worry. Basically it just says, “Don’t! Because the God in control of all things loves us more than we can imagine and he’s got it all figured out.” Scripture seems to indicate that we can actually live worry free lives when we trust God with our lives. How do we do this? Well, I think we may need to deal with our anxiety with repentance. That means acknowledging our worry as sin and confessing it, re-believing the gospel all over again.

#ERTD,

#SBC

 

Footprints on My Ceiling

There was an old, rural church in the Florida panhandle I visited a few times. It was quaint and unremarkable save for its overt simplicity. However, if one were to look at the wooden ceiling, they could see dark footprints on the pine planks. It was said that those were the footprints of the slaves that built it. Ceilings shouldn’t have footprints on them.

As I read the first headline I saw about the massacre at Emmanuel AME in Charleston my heart physically hurt. I knew the story before I read it. I knew a young white male did it. My mind in a moment flew over the various outposts of racial tensions that have been the 1 and 3 of America’s rhythm. Everything in me just wants it to be over. From Dr. King’s dream to Rodney King’s plea I desperately want a post-racial America. But that is like wanting water that’s not wet. If there is such a thing as America there will be issues of race and inequality. The steel of this great nation was forged in part by the mill of dehumanization.

That acknowledgement is one of the reasons I liked Rachel Dolezal when I first met her. My junior year was her freshman year of college in Jackson Mississippi. She was very much white. “Whiter” than me. She was a homeschooled kid from Montana.   She was very plain looking. There wasn’t much style to her at all.

Her plain whiteness was what made her art something to behold. There were a few artists at our college making decent contributions. But Rachel’s art was just better. It connected more. It conveyed more. Her installations were the ones people stopped and stared at. Her subject matter was exclusively the capturing of the struggle of people of color. To see this nondescript white-girl telling the story of the pain and pride of black folk through remarkable art was ironic. At the same time, her art was real. It was soulful. It was legit.

dolezal pic

I got to know Rachel beyond simple acquaintance. She and I were white members of the Black Student Association of our college. She and I were part of a push to get an African American history class taught for the first time at our school. We both attended a church whose mission, in part, was to be a community devoted to racial reconciliation. Rachel was relentless in her pursuit of understanding and conveying the hardship and beauty of the black experience. I recall the time she told me about driving north of Jackson toward the delta until she saw a cotton field. She pulled over, climbed through the barbed wire and picked cotton for hours. She wanted to know the struggle.

My brother, like Rachel, was studying fine arts. He had gifted me a portrait of my best friend James. It was a small drawing done with black and white pencil on a green matte board. It hung on the wall in his studio. James was black. Looking for my brother in his studio space I found Rachel instead. She was staring at the portrait of my friend James. She was crying. She explained to me that what my brother captured in that intimate portrait was always what she was trying to convey through her own art. I gave her the portrait of my best friend. I had him. I didn’t need the picture.

Little did I know that James would get arrested a number of times- for robbery, aggravated assault, and grand theft. He’ll get out of prison in 2019. A handful of years ago I reached out to Rachel to see if I could have James’ portrait back. I wanted my kids to know about my best friend growing up. She offered to sell it back to me. I wasn’t interested. Shortly after that she moved to Washington. Shortly after that she unfriended me on Facebook.

And then, out of nowhere, she filled the internet. I couldn’t believe it. Then I could. It made all the sense in the world to me. For as much as Rachel tried to understand and convey the truth of the struggle of the black experience, it was never close enough. What James’ portrait had in it that Rachel’s work lacked was relationship- not a subject matter but a personhood.

Ultimately, I think Rachel became her own canvas. Her life became the medium of her magnum opus; her identity the means through which to capture and tell the story she was so desperately drawn to. She became immersed in telling a history of struggle that was not her own. Her brushes gave way to hair extensions, paints gave way to skin pigments and like any art she became the representation of something she wasn’t. It was earnest. But it wasn’t real.

I understand it though. As wave after wave of headlines poured in about Charleston, everything in me wanted to excuse myself from my whiteness. I wanted the Charleston tragedy to be a story of some crazy, racist kid who was an aberration. But that’s not true. The truth is that our culture is woven from the loom of white supremacy. Dylan Roof was incubated in a culture that didn’t put him in check. I hate that truth. I hate the idea that my life benefits from that truth. I want to make it not so. I want to identify with and stand in solidarity with the struggle of my brothers and sisters of color. That’s what Rachel Dolezal and I have in common.

What we don’t have in common is that she hid. In the wake of Charleston I would love to distance myself from my whiteness by claiming that I self-identify as black. I would love to claim solidarity with those who suffer at the hands not just of hateful persons but at the hands of a system put in place by hateful persons and perpetuated by those who have benefited from it.

As the country watched Baltimore burn a couple of months ago I asked a black man who is a member of my church to go for a walk with me. I told him I needed his help. I asked him to help me interpret these events from his eyes. I asked him to help me understand. I said, “James, I want to walk a mile in your shoes.” I was dead serious. I was hurting. And James laughed. He’s a big man. It was a big laugh. He said, “Scott, you don’t want to walk a mile in my shoes. You’d get a few steps out of my door, take my shoes off and hand them back to me.” He was right.

Charleston doesn’t need me to distance myself from who I am as a white person. Charleston doesn’t need me to claim solidarity. Charleston doesn’t need me to denounce racism as though I am an enlightened one. Charleston doesn’t need me to self-identify as black making the suffering of others a work of self-art. Charleston needs me to be honest about who I am. Solidarity may come, but it comes as the fruit of repentance; repentance that is born of an honest assessment of self and society.

Can I be honest? I am shielded from the hot sun of racial oppression. I am kept dry from the driving rains of inequality. I am protected from the damaging hail of functional segregation. I am not stung by the sleet of assumed inferiority. There is a pine ceiling over my head and there are dark footprints on it. And I like it. I hate that I like it. But I like it.

James was right. I would bring his shoes back because I have the privilege of not having to walk in them. That’s the truth. That’s where my repentance needs to begin. The first flag furled needs to be the one that flies over the foot-printed ceiling of my privilege.

Earlier this week I walked with my children through the MLK Memorial complex in Atlanta. That kind of thing is of value. More valuable for the people they will grow up to be however, will be making them see the ceiling of our life and explaining why there are footprints on it.

-SBC