Baltimore Burning

Yesterday morning I was in a hospital with the family of a man who lay dying.  We prayed together for a miracle, for peace, for hope.

After leaving, I waited for an elevator and a man introduced himself to me. He had seen me praying with this family. He was also a pastor. We looked to be the same age. We both wore light khaki pants and blue golf shirts with brown belts and slip-on loafers. It was like looking into a mirror except for the fact that he was black and I’m white. His church is run out of a storefront in McGee, MS. He told me God had called him years before to minister to drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes. He asked about my ministry. I told him that God had called me years before to the Presbyterian church to minister to educated white people. He said, “Amen. Everybody needs the gospel. Nobody needs to stay the same.”

We wound up spending around fifteen minutes together talking ministry. As we spoke my mind kept thinking about what is happening in Baltimore. Once again a line is being drawn between the urban poor and those in law enforcement. Commentators pick a side. We side with the oppressed! We side with law enforcement! Stop killing people! Stop breaking the law! On and on… gas canisters and bottles fly. Civil unrest.

Baltimore

We have a problem. But that problem goes deeper than systemic injustice and white privilege. That problem goes deeper than crime incubated in under-served urban centers. The problem is what it always has been. Sin. We have a sin problem. It is the problem at the center of every human heart that makes a man want to serve himself and better his own station over and above that of others. It is the fuel of both prejudice and pride. It is the fuel of the power and position that leads to oppression. It is the fuel that rebels and rages against authority. It is the enemy of patience. It is the foe of self-control. It is the thing that wars against human decency. It is the hungry fire that seeks to consume life and beauty. It laughs when one group blames another group for the brokenness around them ignoring the root cause of it all.

As the unrest in Baltimore weighed heavy on my heart God chose to speak a word of peace to me through a man who was nothing like me and just like me.  With the weight of death and civil unrest and racial violence overwhelming my heart God spoke to me through a pastor that had never darkened the door of a seminary.   “Everybody needs the gospel. Nobody needs to stay the same.” Paul wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes…” That’s true for black people, white people, rich people, poor people, lawyers and pimps, nurses and prostitutes, drug dealers and drug reps, preachers and patients, them and us.

One of the tragedies is that in situations like Baltimore each side demands change in the other.  “Stop acting violently!”  That’s like me telling that man in the hospital to just start making his heart work better and his lungs to breathe stronger.  Rage in the human heart is a symptom of a spiritual problem.  Systems can be improved.  Policies can change.  Cultures can shift.  Those things need to happen.  But if people don’t change then the root problem remains.

Now, one of the issues is that no one wants to believe they are part of the problem.  Sin, if there is such a thing, is the other person’s problem, not mine.  Jesus in his ministry stood on behalf of the sinful and marginalized against oppressive systems (John 8:1-11).  He also dined with the oppressor and fellowshipped with those who perpetrated systemic injustice (Luke 19:1-10).  In both of these stories Jesus desired heart change- individual, internal change.  This internal change would be the key to systemic, external change.  One thing that would end the woman’s oppression in John 8 was for her to understand that she was loved so that she would stop sinning.   In Luke 19, the one thing that would end the financial exploitation of the poor was for Zacchaeus’ heart to be transformed from selfishness to selflessness.  The key to both kinds of change was the love of Jesus.  His love was big enough to stand with the marginalized against the oppressor and big enough to tell her to stop sinning.  His love was big enough to break bread with the oppressor without accusation until the oppressor’s heart broke enough to change the system.

Everybody needs the gospel.  Nobody needs to stay the same.

-SBC

 

Tilt-a-Hurl

tilt-a-whirl

There is nothing quite like a 25 year old Tilt-a-Whirl being controlled by a 17-year-old Ukrainian boy named Yosyp at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Crawfish Festival. No one was in line so he just let that purple rust monster run on and on. I’m not sure how many G-forces were involved but I’m pretty sure that NASA would have been impressed with me and my sons as we shifted our weight from one side to the next and whipped that oversized metal football helmet around like a spin cycle.

It was fun until it wasn’t. Little man’s stomach was full of funnel cake and Tiger’s Blood snow cone syrup. He was maxed out. All the sudden little-man stopped having a good time. Middle-man and I could sense it. Little-man had this blank stare on his pale face- paler still in contrast to his Tiger’s Blood red lips. I tried to get the young Ukrainian’s attention. But he was too busy practicing his English by trying to read the tramp stamp of a walking Marlboro in a halter-top. “Tate, it’ll be ok,” I lied. At this point I was just trying to buy some time. “Yosyp is going to stop it soon,” trying to buy more time. And I’ll be darned if Yosyp didn’t know. Could he sense it? One does not leave the Ukraine to become a carny in America without being able to intuit such things. Not only that, Yosyp stopped our hurl-inducing bucket right by the exit gate. He had a gift.

We got farther than I thought we would before it happened. Little-man’s carnival food took a ride of it’s own. My teenage daughter had a gag reflex of her own and I thought it was about to become a family affair. Middle-man and I thought it was awesome that we rode so hard it made his little brother throw up. Little-man was not amused by our high-fives and cheering. My wife, the tireless nurturer, was the good parent- whispering gentle things like, “Spread your feet so it doesn’t splash on your shoes.” Then the seagulls came and began to eat what had not splashed on his shoes. At that, Little-man began to find the humor that his brother and I had already discovered. My daughter was nowhere to be found. She had emancipated herself from her embarrassing family.

The truth is that we rode too long. We pushed that Tilt-a-Whirl cart just a little too hard. At some point every good ride feels too short. But they’re not. The good rides are just the right length. Then they end. Then you stand in line and you go again. You live to ride another day. But Yosyp was content to let it whirl on. And we were content to whirl it. Machines may rage on. But 8-year-old tummies have their limits.

I sat with a man last week that shared with me that he’s had 3 weeks of vacation in the last 7 years. Round and round. The longer we do it the better we get at spinning it. But there is a limit. And at some point it’s not fun anymore. Our eyes stare blankly from the pale canvas of a sweaty face. And we hobble away. And we lose it. And seagulls come and eat it up. And some laugh. And some leave. And we’ll clean our shoes later.

We were made to need rest. We are finite. God made us this way- made us with limits- hard-wired into us the need to stop, to get off, and to stand still in the world that He keeps in motion quite apart from anything we may contribute. I see too many men enthralled with their turn on the ride to the point that they have ceased to enjoy it and have lost touch with the world that exists outside of it. They don’t know how to stop spinning.

In the Bible God’s designed rest is called Sabbath. God designed it to happen for one day of every week. It happens multiple times for weeks during the year. Every six years a big one happens. Every 49 years an even bigger one happens. Then Jesus came along and brought about access to a Sabbath rest that lasts all of eternity. To ignore this design is to deny who we really are- whose we really are. Not resting ruins a man every time.

Sure, we had one of the most epic Tilt-a-Whirl rides ever. But there was a whole festival we missed out on because Little-man puked in his Sperrys.

“There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.  Let us therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish…” -Hebrews 4:9-11

-SBC

If You Read My Letter to Jameis, Read This Too

so… i wrote a stupid letter to ‪#‎jameiswinston‬ yesterday. it basically says, “i’m awesome.” i discovered today that in 24 hours 50,000 people have read it. if you know me, you took it for what it was intended to be. funny. maybe a little true, too.  it was definitely more “bacon” than soul”.  truth is, i do not take myself that seriously. it’s all grace- beginning to end. i got nothin’. i am nothin’. but in sorting through the trolling comments, i wish i could print a retraction. or at least hope those people will read some other stuff on my blog that captures my serious thoughts on grace more than my silly thoughts on gridiron…

“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”  1 timothy 1:15

-SC

An Open Letter to Jameis Winston

text from tboz

 

Dear Jameis “Jaboo” Winston,

You are really good at playing quarterback.  You put your team first.  You make good decisions.  You inspire people.  You win every time.  However, in real life you do the opposite of all of those things.  I don’t think you’ll wake up one day and ever wish you were better at football.  I do think you’ll wake up one day and wish you were better at life.  That’ll be a sad day for you I think.

Jaboo, you are not a role model to my kids.  But it’s cool.  I don’t need you to be.  I don’t want you to be.  (Mainly, because I’m pretty awesome myself.)  But I will need to explain to my 12 year old daughter why you are not starting Saturday.  Not cool, Jameis.  That’s kind of sad actually.  You see, I can’t teach my kids how to read a nickel defense or a two-deep zone.  But I am teaching them about how to love people.  And because of that, at some point my kids are going to wonder why we cheer for you.  They understand that life is more awesome than football.  They will intuit that being good at football doesn’t mean you get a pass for being bad at life.  They’ll read that quicker than you can spot a safety blitz.

My son made a pinewood derby car- garnet and gold- with your number on it.  That car did not win, by the way.  He’s going to ask me why I’m not wearing your jersey any more on game day.  And I’ll tell him why.  And he’ll get one of my many lessons about how to be awesome at life.

Personally, I thought the crab leg thing was funny.  That never bothered me.  I had a buddy in college that worked at a restaurant and he brought me free stuff all the time.  It was cool to have a hook-up like that when I was a kid.  And I couldn’t even throw a football!  He just liked me because I was pretty awesome.  So I give you a pass there.

Here’s the crazy thing though about all of this.  I’ll watch you play football on Saturdays because I’m a Nole and you’re awesome at it.  But my life will not change one bit because of you.  But if roles reversed and you could watch me play life for a season, your life might just change because of me.  After these first two games this year I might even argue that I’m better at life than you are at football.  I put my team first.  I make good decisions.  I inspire people.  (Strikes Heisman pose…)

I’m putting an autographed T-shirt in the mail to you.  That might be an NCAA violation.  But let’s be honest, neither of us care too much about that.

See you in the third quarter, bro.

SC

P.S. Jaboo, the screenshot at the top was a text exchange I had with my daughter.  She texted me right as I was looking for a picture to accompany my letter!  Told you, man, I’m pretty awesome.  (Strikes Heisman pose…)

A Prayer for the Church in August of 2014: The Month Everything Was Viral

The Michael Brown Shooting in Ferguson, MO … The Suicide of Robin Williams … The Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Awareness Campaign… The Brutality of ISIS as They Exterminate People-groups… The Continuing Volley of Rockets in Gaza Between Palestine and Israel…

Lord, forgive your church.

Lord, forgive us when we justify injustice.  Forgive us for being blind to the systemic prejudice that oppression, subjugation, and marginalization are predicated upon.  Forgive us for our silence when violence is used as a means of stopping violence.  Forgive us for fueling hate instead of finding humility.

ferguson

Lord, forgive us when we deny the condition of sin by calling it illness.  Forgive us when we put our trust in chemicals to heal what Christ in his suffering conquered.  Forgive us for settling on platitudes rather than wrestling openly with complex realities.

robin-williams

Lord, forgive us for when awareness is our end goal.  Forgive us for when simple tasks with little cost are seen as the best we can do.  Forgive us for insulating ourselves from the suffering you have called us to share with those who mourn.  Forgive us when we throw money in order to keep our distance from suffering.

als

Lord, forgive us for when we see the suffering of Christians and it seems odd.  Forgive us for forgetting the cost of being your followers.  Forgive us for a faith that has fed on the false gospel of both freedom and comfort in this world.  Forgive us for replacing solidarity with rage.

isis crisis

Lord, forgive us for taking sides in war.  Forgive us when we justify the rockets of one and condemn the rockets of another.  Forgive us for looking through the lens of politics that blurs the outline of peace.

IronDome_2

Lord, forgive us.  Forgive us for justifying hurt.  Forgive us for silence when we should speak gospel.  Forgive us for the false gospels we cry out through the megaphones of our revenge.  Forgive us the ironic claims of personal clarity when in fact we are blind.  Forgive us for refusing to walk a mile in the shoes of those we have deemed our enemy.  Forgive us our condemnation of those whom we have judged guilty.

Lord, you have called us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors.  We choose instead to kill our enemies and condemn those who threaten us.  You have called us to be salt and light.  We have chosen to be bullets and fire.  You have called us lambs.  We have chosen to be lions.  You have called us to take up the cross.  We have chosen to take up the sword.

Lord, forgive us for we are prone to wander.  But you, Lord, are the one who seeks.  We are prone to get lost.  And you are the finder of lost things.

Lord, forgive your church.  We are the body of Christ but we are lame.  Help us to stand.  We are the body of Christ but we are blind.  Help us to see.  We are the body of Christ but we are deaf.  Help us to hear.  We are the body of Christ but we are mute.  Help us to speak.  In a world run ragged with the wages of sin, help us to become the bringers of the gift of life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

SBC

We Come to Thee, Iona

iona selfie

Last fall I went to spend some time on the Isle of Iona in Scotland.  Iona is part of the Hebrides islands off the coast of Scotland.  It is remote and rough.  There is a monastery there that was established almost 1500 years ago by Saint Columba.  He sought a sacred seclusion and found it on a small island warn smooth by the violent north Atlantic.

My official purpose there was to study worship and liturgy.  My unofficial purpose was more like Saint Columba’s- sacred seclusion.  I wanted to rest my mind in the Sabbath of a simple place where it seemed God’s presence might not be so interrupted.  Though I lived in community with other pilgrims while there, in the quiet times I was treated to too rare a glimpse of the proximity of the Almighty.  God was made known to me in the rolling hills and driving rains and swirling winds of Iona.  It was in the places between mountains where sheep sought stillness that I found some stillness too.  As I prepared to leave, I wrote about Iona.  Even still, you kind of had to be there…

iona-abbey

We Come to Thee

O, Hebridean Jewel

     Of interrupted sea

     And harsh beauty

     At The Father’s decree

 O, Clefted Rock

     Where sheep have fed

     And pilgrims fled

     To the Son who bled

 O, Mythic Wind

     Of sightless sky

     With echo’s cry

     Of the Spirit’s sigh… Iona

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 O, Stony Shores

     Of Vikings raid

     Where kings are laid

     And seekers prayed

 O, Misty Hills

     Where green is blessed

     And faith finds test

     And Sabbath rest

 O, Leaning Grass

     By howling team

     Of force unseen

     As the hungry glean… Iona

cross-iona-4

O, Celtic Roods

     Of stone-hewn face

     Of hard, earthen grace

     At redemption’s haste

 O, Cloistered Halls

     Of mystic singing

     Of hallowed ringing

     And burdens bringing

O, Pilgrim Folk

     With longing pleas

     From bruised knees

     We come to thee… Iona

Inside-Iona-Abbey

-SBC

A Black Man’s Shoes

Shoes

There was a show on Mtv called The Real World that I never watched in my teen years because we didn’t have cable.  The premise was pretty simple.  A bunch of people who didn’t know each other would live in a house together.  What made it work was that the cast was all over the map; rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, city, country, 18 to early 20s, good looking, and better looking.  With such an odd mix of people the show was rife with tension and conflict.  Worldviews collided like a slow-motion train wreck.  It wasn’t so much about watching TV as rubbernecking.  (Rubbernecking: a term used in the Deep South to describe driving by an accident slowly in order to see what’s going on.)

I was on the Real World.  Not the one on TV, mind you.  But in the summer of 1996 I lived in Atlanta in a house with strangers.  There were no TV cameras.  We didn’t drink (officially).  But we were rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Caribbean, 18 to early 20s, and normal looking.  We were there to host summer camps for kids who lived in various public housing projects in inner-city Atlanta.  It was called The Atlanta Urban Project.  I thought the “project” was to help poor, black kids through Christian ministry.  As it turned out, we were the project.

I was the only white dude there.  That didn’t bug me.  I loved black people.  I enjoyed black people more than white people a lot of the time.  My best friend was black.  (And no, I’m not that white guy saying that to mask some racist sentiment.)  James lived one house away and we were literally best friends.  We spent the night at one another’s houses and raided each other’s fridges.  I remember James taking a jar of artichoke hearts out of my fridge and asking, “What’s dis?”  I told him an artichoke was a kind of bird.  And as was his custom he would just slowly shake his head and mutter, “White people…”

My senior year of high school a good friend of mine moved in to our house after his mother’s boyfriend was shot in front of their house.  Rod was black.  He was a brother to me.  He still is.  I was a member of the Black Student Association at Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi.  I was elected their chaplain.

I bring all of this up to say that when I went to Atlanta in 1996, I saw myself as part of the solution; as a reconciler; as one of the good guys.  Olatunde didn’t necessarily see me that way.  (Olatunde’s name used to be Dante.  Dante changed his name while at Morehouse College in an effort to embrace and celebrate his African roots.)  It bugged the hell out of me that Olatunde seemed to live in the past.  It bothered me that he didn’t treat me like one of the good guys.

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One night our “Real World” group watched a movie together.  It was a movie that dealt with issues of race.  When it was over our group leaders facilitated a discussion.  It went something like this:

Group Leader:  So, what did you think?

Me: I loved it.  (I really did enjoy the movie.  To me it was a story of restoration and unification.  Who wouldn’t like this movie!?)

Olatunde: (under his breath with disdain) You would.

Me: (more than a little annoyed) What’s that supposed to mean?

Olatunde: The white man saves the day again, huh. 

Me: (standing and yelling) I’m sick and tired of you making me feel guilty because I’m white!

It didn’t get better from there.

Here’s the thing.  I knew racism was real.  I knew that race played an unfair role in the way our world works.  I knew that my best friend James spending four years in prison while I spent four years in college wasn’t as simple as he made bad choices and I made good ones.  What frustrated me was that Olatunde treated me like a “them.”  I wasn’t them.  I was me.  I was different.  I was like that white kid in the movie The Power of One we just watched who was a catalyst for change in Apartheid South Africa.

In my mind it was guys like Olatunde that had the problem, not me.  He was the one that was making race an issue, not me.  For us to be reconciled, he needed to stop allowing the past to define the present.  It was unfair for Olatunde to hold me to account for sins I hadn’t perpetrated and atrocities he hadn’t personally experienced.  How could he not see that?  I understood the lingering wreckage of systemic racism in American culture.  I wasn’t arguing for him to see the world through a different lens.  I just wanted him to see me through a different lens.

And that, in general, is how a lot of white people view the race issue in our culture.  We’re past all of that.  Dr. King’s dream about an America where opportunity and relationships would be rooted in the content of one’s character and not the color of one’s skin is our heart-felt assessment of the way it should be.  And that’s what Olatunde didn’t seem to understand.  I was like, “Bro, I’m with you.  I get it.  Please stop punishing me for being white.”

_____________________________________________

It was shortly after our colorful movie discussion that the whole Real World cast and crew of our Atlanta Urban Project loaded up in a few vehicles and headed west to Birmingham, Alabama.  We were there to visit the Civil Rights Museum which is across the street from one of the horrific scenes of the Civil Rights Movement.  The museum overlooks the historic 16th Street Baptist Church where 4 black girls were killed on September 15, 1963 when it was bombed by racists.16th street

I didn’t really want to go through the museum with anyone.  I waited long enough in the entry way for my housemates to make their way through a room or two before I went in.  Having come up in the South I was historically and academically aware of American slavery, the war that helped to end it, and the subsequent struggle for personhood, dignity, and freedom that reached a public crescendo through the civil rights movement.

As I walked through that museum, room after room, looking at pictures, reading Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, I began to feel uneasy.  I remember seeing a picture of a black teenage boy who had been lynched and hanged from a tree.  Standing underneath him stood three white boys smiling, arms crossed, like they had just killed an eight point buck.  I recall staring at picture of a black woman who was nine months pregnant sweating in a Mississippi cotton field; her sack overflowing with cotton.  I remember a series of pictures of the scarred backs of slaves.  I had seen images like this before. We all had.  But they seemed personal this time.

I went into a small, darkened room in which a loop of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” was playing.  I sat against the wall with my head in my hands.  Gravity held my heavy heart- shackled, as it were, with the weight of ignorance washed away.  It was a hard day.  It was also beautiful, in a way.

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I realized something important as I sat in the room and that seminal sermon continued on and on.  You see, my basis for understanding racial reconciliation in my own life was based on a simple idea:  I am not my great-great grandfather and you’re not your great-great grandfather.  For me that meant we didn’t need to be defined by their ideologies or oppression- whatever they may have been.  I saw the color of people’s skin, but I judged them on the content of their character- just like Dr. King dreamed aloud.  But that is precisely what led me to misunderstand a man like Olatunde.king's dream

Olatunde is not alone in that when he sees those pictures of our history, he sees them differently than me.  Whereas I see three boys standing under another who is hanged from a tree and I say confidently and honestly, “That isn’t me.”  Olatunde looks at that same picture and with a sincere solidarity says honestly, “That is me.”  And here’s the difficulty- we’re both right.

It’s easy for a lot of white people to say, “America has changed.  The civil rights movement worked.  We’re continuing to repair the wrongs.  One of my best friends is black.  We have a black president.  I just downloaded Alicia Keys’ new single.  Can’t we move on?”  In one sense, no we can’t.  For Olatunde, who he is as a man is based on the history I just wanted to move on from.  What he derived strength and pride from I would strip him of for the sake of us “moving past that.”

That’s what I never understood until that day.  Racial reconciliation wasn’t going to come because I could prove I wasn’t racist.  Reconciliation with a man like Olatunde could only come when I was willing to see the world from his perspective; to walk a mile and perhaps another in his shoes.  And this will make many of you uncomfortable, but what I realized that day was that if Olatunde could look at the scarred back of a slave and say, “Those are my scars,” then I could look at the whip that made them and say, “That’s my whip.”  Olatunde was a representative of his history and heritage.  For me to be in relationship with him meant I would need to be a representative of mine.  Understand I never felt like I owed him anything.  He didn’t owe me anything.  But we were in the Real World together and something had to give.

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My eyes adjusted from the dark room of King’s dream to the bright reality of Birmingham’s sun.  I walked over to Olatunde who was looking at a sculpture on the grounds of the museum.  I told him what seemed like the only words I had left for him.  “I’m sorry.”

I think I had come as close as I could to understanding him- to seeing the world from his perspective.  For some privileged reason I thought this whole time that my subjective lens trumped his; that my perspective on our common history was somehow truer; that “moving on” would be equally good for the both of us.  I was wrong.  If his were the scars then mine was the whip.  For our sake, I could own that.  I couldn’t change it.  I couldn’t erase it.  I couldn’t ask him to cease to be who he was in order to accommodate who I am.

Olatunde hugged me.  It was real.  Reconciliation didn’t happen because he forgot his past.  It happened because I owned mine.  The summer ended.  He and I never spoke again.  But I learned a lot looking at myself through his eyes.  And for that, I will always be grateful.

I have told this story a few times.  Most people don’t really understand it I don’t think.  I am not saying every black man is Olatunde.  I’m not saying every white man is me.  I’m not saying that relationships between black people and white people ought to be predicated upon a sincere apology.  I am saying that real reconciliation is rooted in things deeper than a lack of racism, music tastes, political affiliations, and who we count among our friends.  True reconciliation comes from walking in someone else’s shoes even when your feet begin to blister and bleed because they are rubbing you the wrong way.  Frankly, most folk ain’t got time for that.

It’s tough to own up to the whip.  Then again, my whole life is rooted in the belief of a God who was willing to endure the whip and hang from the tree for me.  Over every foul misstep of my broken life, Christ says, “That is me.  Hold me to account for that.”  In light of that great hope, the least I could do was blister my feet for a mile or two in a black man’s shoes until I could understand why he’d call himself Olatunde; which means “blessings have come again.”

-SBC

Sons Again

If a person’s theology cannot be retold in hymnody then it may captivate their thoughts but will never capture their heart.  And a theology that does not capture the heart, though it be true in one regard, will never be true enough.  True theology is always beautiful for it brings us to the majesty of God.
In a recent assignment I was given the task of explaining the apostle Paul’s theology of adoption and its implications on worship.  But rather than give a brief lecture, I wrote a poem about a story Jesus told.  The poem is a re-telling of that story through the lens of Paul’s theology of adoption.  It’s also an autobiography.

return-prodigal-son

Sons Again

That hurtful road from home
As a son sets far in the west
With pockets full of hunger and money
Restless to find drink and breast

But bottle and whore need buying
And coins cannot get unspent
As a son becomes an orphan
Under the weight of his discontent

Even slaves are of good account
And dogs eat full of table’s crumb
To the house where he killed his father
He would return but not as a son

Laden with rags and repentance
Weeping a prayer he’d not end
As shame interrupted by mercy
Running farther than ever his sin

Held strong in the arms of this man
For which tryst with flesh he had fled
Yet with sandal and robe and signet
The son rose, the orphan dead

And table was set before him
With bounty like none other
Brimming with song and deep pleasure
Yet missing the joy of a brother

To whom song sounded like taunting
And fat smelled like Abel’s own
As the rage of Cain beheld him
Who himself became orphan at home

“Why have you withheld from me
Even less for the sake of my joy?
But this wretch who’s broke with his whoring
You adopt as though he’s your boy!?”

“I know you have always been with me.
I have not that which is not yours.
Delight in the feast of your Father
And let Sonship replace your chores.”

Rough Around the Middle

Rough Around the Middle

My wife couldn’t hide the sadness in her face.  I’m not sure if she even wanted to.  We were about to go out and get yogurt with our three kids after dinner to celebrate the kickoff of another new school year.  However, I spent that evening in an apartment with someone else’s kids whose mother had been arrested earlier that day.  Her children had been home alone for hours.  The confusion on their faces when I opened the door of their apartment was sincere.  When the four year old saw me he said, “It’s Jesus!”  His older brother corrected him, “It’s not Jesus.  It’s Pastor Scott.”  “What are you doing here, Pastor Scott?”  The truth is I was there to wait with them until their mother made bail and could make it home.  So I had come with Happy Meals in hand and a little lie about their mother’s car trouble.

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I kept staring at his Tag Heuer watch.  It was a beautiful watch.  I thought to myself if I could have any watch, it’d be that one.  I was looking at his watch to avoid looking at the tears coming down his face.  Less than four years in and his marriage was teetering somewhere between joylessness and divorce.  This handsome, very educated professional saw those as his only two options.  I saw him and his wife the next Sunday though sitting across from a man and woman that had been married twice as long as this young couple had been alive.

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“You need to come to church with us one Sunday.  They take that $h!t f#*king serious.  It’s awesome.”  I had never quite heard someone invited to church like that before.  But that’s how my buddy, who up until the last couple of months had never been to church, invited a mutual friend of ours.  I kept my mouth shut as this buddy of mine described the “Time of Preparation” we have in between our welcome and announcements and the beginning of our worship.  In this time at our traditional service our organist will play for a minute or so allowing everyone a chance to focus their hearts and minds on God.  I always assumed that nobody really understood what that time was for.  But in describing it he said, “At first it’s all like, ‘Hey everybody!  Welcome to church.’  And then they’re like, ‘Before we start though, we need to get f#*king ready.  We’re about to worship the God of the universe so prepare your hearts.’”  At this point our mutual friend looked at me as if to say, “Is he serious?”  To which I responded, “Yeah, it’s kind of like that.”

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We have a large Sunday School class that recently had a high percentage of African Americans in it (30% or so which is high for Presbyterians).  I was told that while in that class a white man weighed in with a very conservative take on the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman verdict.  There was disagreement.  My first thought was, “Uh oh.  Can we handle this?”  I was worried about the potential fallout.  Could we handle that kind of issue and stick together even with differing opinions?

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Preaching gives one a unique, visual vantage point.  I see it all.  Two weeks ago I saw a man who doesn’t believe women should hold positions of authority in the church sitting a few feet away from a woman who believes very strongly in gay marriage.  In that same service I saw a Congressman sitting a few feet away from a person who would never vote for him in a million years.  I saw a tattoo artist sitting next to a 90 year old matriarch of the church.  I saw a family sitting next to a felon.  There are people who can’t afford to go to the doctor sitting feet away from those who have elected to undergo cosmetic surgery.  Dirty blue jeans, Armani suits, people who hitch rides, people who leave multiple cars at their second homes- this is all part of a shift that has been taking place over the past few years in our congregation.

From the pulpit I love to look up and see these diverse stories gathered under a common roof.  It feels like the kingdom of God.  But in worship it is easy to be smooth around the edges.  We have enough in common to be there together.  But what happens when the family knows it’s sitting next to a felon?  What happens when the grandmother realizes that the nice girl that has been sitting in front of her for the last few weeks is an addict?  What happens when folks discover the stuff that’s just below the surface- that we fundamentally disagree about Trayvon Martin or gay marriage or our president?  Do we shake the hand of the man any differently when we hear him use the “F word” to describe how excited he is about preparing to worship the God he has just come to know and love?  How will the blue collar worker who puts in 55 hours a week treat the single mother of three on food stamps when he finds out she’s not even looking for a job?

The reason most congregations are homogenous is because true community is rough around the middle.  Once we start to move centripetally from the smooth edge of cordiality we’re in for a bumpy ride.  Real people are messy.  The only way for a community to handle the rough middle is to believe in a gospel that’s bigger than our baggage; to trust that a greater truth than our uniqueness is the commonality that we share in our redemption.
I think that’s what Paul is getting at when he writes to the church in Philippi, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with one another in the Lord.”  (Philippians 4:2).  We may not agree about personal issues or social issues.  We may have problems with too much wealth or with what leads to poverty.  We may struggle to value an addict or criminal.  Our politics and preferences will run afoul to each other.  Our neighborhoods and incomes may be the difference between night and day.  But if we agree with one another in the Lord, then these differences need not divide.  Beware of the homogenous church.  It’s the community that is rough around the middle which believes in a gospel big enough to sustain it.  If our gospel isn’t bigger than our politics then it’s a false gospel.  If our gospel isn’t bigger than our tax bracket then it’s a false gospel.  If our gospel isn’t bigger than breast augmentation or prison tattoos then it’s a false gospel.  At the end of the day, if we can’t agree with one another in the Lord, then our Lord is too small.  And a Lord that small isn’t worthy of our gathering together to worship him anyway.

-SBC