Hope for Improved Race Relations Starts With Us

Growing up during the 1980s, I recognized the advantages I had from being an American citizen — freedom of religion, freedom of speech, etc. The living conditions of the average human on the planet, as well as the restrictions placed on citizens behind the Iron Curtain, made me extremely thankful for “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. But, I was largely unaware of the challenges many children in my own city faced. It never occurred to me that I had many advantages simply because I grew up in a two parent home in the suburbs. As a white male, I’ve never feared that a traffic cop would single me out for my race. I was never worried that my neighbors would be suspicious of me because of my color. I never noticed that band-aids always matched my skin. As Peggy McIntosh wrote, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”

My perspective started to change when I became a member of a minority group as an adoptive parent. Adoptive parents don’t have a history of slavery or being viewed as sub-human, but the naive assumptions of the majority culture were still quite aggravating for me. My kids’ bad behavior was excused by well intentioned friends, “Do you think they’re not sharing their toys because of insecurities related to adoption?” (Maybe they’re behaving like all kids sometimes do. Take yours for instance.) “Who is the real father?” (I think you mean birth father?)  “How could any parent abandon their child?” (You mean choose life and sacrificially place their child in a loving family.) For the first time in my life I carried a pain invisible to most — the cost of widespread misinformation, bias and misrepresentation of a whole segment of society (adoptive families).

Loving Our NeighborRecently our campus ministry, DiscipleMakers, invited Dr. Scott Hancock from Gettysburg College to teach at our winter staff conference about African-American history and the challenges of doing cross cultural ministry well. At breakfast I asked Dr. Hancock several questions:

“What’s your opinion on reparations?” (A state sanctioned recompense to descendants of American slaves).

“Why do you ask?” Scott asked. “If you want to write a check, I can tell you where to send it.”

“Uh, well.” I stammered. “I have mixed feelings about reparations. I don’t think you can unscramble scrambled eggs. I believe we are morally obligated to give sacrificially and generously but how do we justify penalizing the innocent descendants of abusers. Besides, it seems politically impossible to implement a program of reparations at this late stage. However, the gracious giving to those in need, whether through government welfare programs or charity seems doable.”

“Well, I wouldn’t characterize the welfare system as gracious giving and you should know that the majority of people on welfare are white.” Scott replied. “But concerning the issue of reparations, I think you have to settle the moral question first. As Christians we must first ask, ‘Does God demand we make reparations to those who have been victimized?’ If the answer is yes, we must work to find a way to fulfill that moral duty.”

“But in this case it seems undoable.” I said.

“Well, Americans take pride in their ability to solve problems previously thought impossible.” He retorted.

“What scripture verses would you use to argue that reparations are a moral duty once the generations that grievously sinned have passed away?” I asked. “The Year of Jubilee commanded reparations and required Israel to address the problem before that generation passed away. But, we are several generations removed from slavery in America.”

“In the Old Testament, God held people responsible for the sins of their forefathers, meaning several generations and not just their immediate parents.” Dr. Hancock replied. “And in Old Testament law, repentance of sin always entailed making recompense to the victim. Repentance was never limited to admitting wrong but included doing whatever you could to right the wrong.”

I had more questions, but my comments left me feeling embarrassed and possibly misunderstood. At each point Dr. Hancock offered clarifying comments that felt similar to the rebukes I usually give to those unschooled about adoption issues. I kept thinking to myself, “But, I have bi-racial children. Some of my best friends throughout my life have been people of color. Please don’t think me a racist.”

Before my breakfast conversation with Dr. Hancock, I merely assumed that white people, like me, deserved more credit than we’ve been given. As I finished the remains of my sausage and eggs, I realized I was guilty of racial bias in ways I had not previously acknowledged. Who knew whites were the largest recipients of welfare? I didn’t. But was my naivety the same as racism? If I admit racial bias but not racism am I telling myself a white lie? (Pun not intended initially.)

The DiscipleMakers winter staff conference forced me to think more carefully about the advantages I have received as a white man — though unavoidable and unearned — and how they have created self-righteous blind spots in me that hurt my friends and acquaintances from various ethnic backgrounds. There are countless ways to take responsibility for healing the racial divide in our culture, but below is a first step that I identified with the help of my co-worker Jordan Eyster.

This semester, the staff working at Mason-Dixon area campuses will launch a new teaching series through the book of Exodus. As a white protestant, I’ve heard (and preached) many sermons about the Exodus that quickly equate the Israelite’s deliverance from Egypt to the Christian’s deliverance from bondage to Satan, sin and death. While this is a good application of the text, it happens to skip past painfully obvious issues that I doubt African-American preachers miss — the defiling enslavement of an entire people group; the lasting psychological damage from seeing people dehumanized for generations; and the just anger of a loving God committed to save, heal and vindicate the oppressed. Previously, I barely touched upon these critical points when preaching through Exodus. I shudder to think how such neglect has affected minority students who continue to feel the sting of oppression and racism that I simply don’t experience as a white man (and am therefore tempted to assume doesn’t still happen).

God, forgive me for my sins. Though often unintentional they dishonor you, My Lord, and grievously wound those made in your image. Help me (help us all) know how to take greater responsibility to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Conversation printed with the permission of Dr. Scott Hancock.

Featured Picture Credits

Clarify Your Hope This Election Day

When I visited Israel, I went to the ruins of Meggido, a fortress city that guards the most important ancient trade route of the Fertile Crescent known as the Via Maris. Meggido is not a natural mountain but a hill formed by many generations that lived and rebuilt on the same spot. At least 8 levels of habitation have been discovered. Each level represents an entire civilization that lasted hundreds, even thousands, of years. Like America, these civilizations faced challenges and hoped for a better future. Their ruins put things into perspective for me, especially on election day.

This will be the seventh time I cast a vote for the leader of our nation. Like the previous times, this election has been characterized as the most important one of our generation. That may be the case, but experience warns me to doubt it. History shows that even if this election is that important; much can be undone and forgotten. Like the great civilizations at Meggido, our civilization will be remembered as one very interesting layer of rubble and ash. Of course, this should not keep us from staying involved in our political system, but it should cause us to reconsider the nature of the hope we place in it.

To be clear, I really care about our nation and my children’s future. I confess that it’s easy for me to get caught up in all the hoopla of the 2016 election. My natural inclinations lead me to suspect that the most important thing happening on November 8th will take place in voting booths. But the more I study God’s Word, the more I am convinced that is not the case. Voting is important, but nothing compares to the lasting influence of those who seek God’s kingdom.

Jesus clarified that his kingdom would advance through spiritual power, not political force. He told the Roman governor Pontus Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews…You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:36-37)

Pilate responded like the typical politician, “What is truth?” Truth was negotiable for him. Even though Rome would wield its power against Jesus and his followers, eventually Christianity would overwhelm the entire Empire; not through military might but through spreading the truth about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It only took Christians 300 years to totally change the Roman Empire from within.

The Bible has always taught us to place our greatest trust in God, not politics. My personal experience is finally catching up to the Bible’s perspective. So, let’s view this election cycle with the eyes of faith and worry less about political outcomes. Whether the candidate we vote for wins or looses, the greatest thing God is accomplishing in our day won’t be limited by election results. The best work of God will continue, often invisibly, as His people live and pray as Jesus showed us —  “Our Father in Heaven, Holy Be Your Name, Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Featured Picture Credits

A Savior To Rescue Us

Jesus is the best teacher to guide us and truest friend who comforts us. But to make it through life’s hardships we need more. We need a savior to rescue us.

According to popular opinion, God promises not to give us more than we can handle. While Hallmark may promise this, the Bible does not. As strange as it may sound, this should come as a relief to you. First, history and experience vividly illustrate that God does give us more than we can handle. Imagine giving the Hallmark promise to a Jew in Auschwitz, or a parent who just lost their only child, or a person with stage four pancreatic cancer. Who wouldn’t be tempted to punch a person for giving such encouragement? Second, it should relieve you that the Bible is for people clobbered by reality, not just those so sheltered that they naively fall prey to sentimental well wishing. Third, identifying this promise as false will help you more easily recognize the real Jesus. He came to earth precisely because we’ve failed to handle what God has already given us.

So yes, God gives us more than we can handle.

In fact, Jesus seemed intent on putting his disciples in impossible situations to teach the most important lesson — to rely on Him, not themselves.

“Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side. . . [the boat was] beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them and in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass them by.” (Read the full event in Matthew 14:22-25 and Mark 6: 45-52)

When a dangerous storm hits, where is the last place you want to be? Flailing about the sea in a tiny fishing boat might qualify. Yet, that is exactly where Jesus sent Peter and the disciples after they helped him feed 5,000 hungry people. Why would Jesus send his exhausted friends into a devastating storm? Jesus even lingers on the shore until the last watch of the night before He walks by their sinking boat. Yes, you heard me correctly. Jesus intended to pass them by.

Children’s Bibles gloss over these details. As a child, that’s probably why I confused Mr. Rogers and Jesus. Mr. Rogers would never give us more than we could handle. But the real Jesus is not so tame or predictable.

He seems fine overwhelming us with more than we can handle so that we see our need for Him.

Think about Peter’s experience with Jesus in just one day. After working all day, Jesus asked him to feed five thousand people. With what? Five loaves, and two fish! Really? Then Jesus sent him into an unyielding storm. Peter strained at the oars all night long, unable to bring his boat to safe harbor.

When Peter realized he could not handle his situation, something dawned on him. He cried out to Jesus in desperation and Jesus responded. He enabled Peter to walk on water. But Peter, habitually self-reliant, turned his gaze from Jesus. As Peter sank into the depths, Jesus grabbed him.

Even in Peter’s best moment, he was clearly in over his head.

In a specific situation, we may never completely understand why God gives us more than we can handle. We will feel frustrated and terrified when it happens. But God will use it to replace our self-reliance with a fuller reliance on Him.

Having a teacher and friend are helpful but not sufficient for lasting hope. So many things can go wrong which we cannot fix or even understand. They are simply beyond our comprehension and our abilities.

But they are not beyond God’s wisdom or power. God understands the nature of every poison that ruins, as well as the nature of every antidote that heals. He alone can provide the healing we require.

Most often, antidotes are developed from the same poison that kills. So in order to heal us Jesus Christ consumed every toxin known to bleed humanity of life: betrayal, mockery, loss, cruelty, abandonment, loneliness, sickness, pain, and death. He drank the poison during his life and emptied the bottle at his death. Through consuming the poison he has rescued us and also developed the only elixir capable to heal — his saving blood.

Featured Picture Credit

(This is an edited version of my post from August 2015 titled Does God Give Us More Than We Can Handle?

Warning: Don’t RSVP to This Invitation

Self-pity sends out invitations to its party every time good things happen to others but not us. Invitations tend to arrive around weddings, baby showers and the holidays when we are struggling with singleness or infertility or the loss of a loved one. More invitations arrive when we have lost financial security, or good health and we notice nearly everyone else living carefree.

At the worst moments, self-pity appears like a stalker that refuses to take no for an answer — showing up unannounced with yet another invitation to its lame party. When we are forgotten by friends, passed over at work or under appreciated at home; this persistent wooer offers the hand of friendship. But, self-pity is not a friend worth having.

No one recognized this more than Helen Keller, who became deaf, blind and mute before turning two years old. Pity seemed Helen’s only friend. Yet she discovered Self-Pity’s defiling and unappeasable character only after a real friend, named Anne Sullivan, entered in with a truer compassion — one tough as nails and reliable as the North Star. Keller concluded, “Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it we can never do anything wise in this world.”

Jesus never offered his hand in friendship to self-pity. He told a story, in Matthew 20:1-16, about a wealthy landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After the laborers agree to work for a denarius a day he sends them into his vineyard. Three hours later he finds people standing idle in the marketplace and says, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” He repeats the same thing at the sixth hour, and ninth hour. At the eleventh hour he finds people standing about and asks, “Why do you stand here idle all day?…You go into the vineyard too!” When evening arrives, he gathers all the laborers together to pay them their wages beginning with those hired last. When he pays them a denarius, those hired first believe they will receive more, but each also receives a denarius. On receiving their pay they grumble, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat!” But the landowner replies, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I chose to give to the last workers as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

This story irritated me for a long time. First, the story seems to reward laziness and irresponsibility. Second, Jesus appears unsympathetic toward the the community of laborers provoked to jealous strife by the landowner. Third, the behavior of the landowner seems really unfair! But as much as I hated to admit it — the landowner did nothing unjust in the story. Those who labored the longest were still given a fair wage for their day’s work — even one they had agreed to. Rather than praise the landowner for his abundant generosity toward the least deserving, I was inclined to criticize him for his merely legitimate treatment toward the most deserving.

I knew I shouldn’t continue to feel irritated after logically working it out, but I was and I didn’t understand why exactly. The only answer I could come up with was not flattering. I realized that I considered myself a first hour worker, not an eleventh hour worker. Thinking otherwise I would not feel irritated but grateful. Self pity can only grow in the soil of self righteousness but gratitude grows in the soil of humility.

Jesus is no fan of self-pity. First, as a teacher, he tells parables like this one that leave no room for it. Second, as an example, he refuses Self-Pity’s invitation at every turn. Even on the night Jesus was betrayed, He never once felt sorry for himself. He knew Judas would betray him. Instead of having a pity party, he hosted a foot washing party to show his disciples how they ought to love one another. Jesus even washed Judas’ feet at the last supper. Third, as a redeemer, Jesus was really the only first hour worker…ever. John said, “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” Jesus has been working faithfully from the dawn of eternity. Unlike the first hour workers in the parable Jesus rejoices that we, who are much less deserving, get the same eternal inheritance as he does. Forth, as abiding savior, Jesus offers us His Holy Spirit, the truest comforter who pursues us at all hours of the night even after we’ve foolishly entered the deadly party of self-pity and can’t find our way home.

Featured Picture Credit

You Always Have A Choice (Part Two)

In Part One, I argued that we always have a choice in how we respond to terrible situations simply because, as humans, we are created in God’s image. We are not brute beasts, so we can choose to transcend our condition and our conditioning. We have “response-ability” — meaning the ability to choose our response. As Steven Covey wrote, “Our unique human endowment lifts us above the animal world. The extent to which we exercise and develop these endowments empowers us to fulfill our uniquely human potential.” 

If we are moral and rational creatures capable of making choices, and not merely animals limited by instinct; why do we often feel helpless to make the choices we should? Jealousy, anger, resentment, addiction and depression seem unconquerable. They hold us down like a lion devouring its victim.

To understand our sense of helplessness we must go back to the beginning. At creation we reflected God’s image perfectly, like a mirror. But after humanity’s fall into sin that reflection was fractured. Now when we look at ourselves, in the shattered mirror of sin, God’s image is distorted. We see heartbreaking brokenness and feel helpless.

Our capabilities appear totally ruined, and yet our responsibility remains. When God appeared to Cain after rejecting his offering God said, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6) God explained to Cain that sin is a ravaging beast; crouching at the door, desiring to consume. He warned Cain not to give into this inner beast (jealous anger) but to rule over it.

Did God ask Cain to do the impossible? No, He asked Cain to claim his identity as a man, made in God’s image; responsible to reflect God’s goodness, wisdom and truth. He warned Cain not to let rage devour his humanity. God implored Cain to exercise reason and trust his Maker, not his anger. Cain chose poorly. His jealousy ravaged him, so he murdered his brother. The beast prevailed.

We always have a choice how we will respond to situations we don’t like. However, we must be careful how we define this ability.

On the one hand, if we over-estimate our ability by failing to account for the devastating effects of sin; we will wrongly assume we don’t need God’s help to see clearly and respond wisely. Like a person who has only looked into a shattered mirror, we are prevented from seeing ourselves accurately. Arrogance keeps us from seeing our sinful ugliness and we think ourselves more beautiful than we are. Any choice we make will appear justified, simply because it is our choice. On the other hand, if we downplay our ability to choose our response; we neglect the common grace God still provides all people. Even after the fall, we retain God’s image. Like God, we evaluate, reason, problem solve, and apply solutions. But ignorance about common grace emboldens excuse making. Like a man pleading insanity, we think we’re beyond judgement because “I can’t help myself” seems a credible excuse. But we are still culpable.

After the fall, human nature was corrupted comprehensively. Everyone’s core shifted from a God focus to a self-focus. We became by nature: self-reliant, self-righteous, and selfish. Our loves and desires, even our fears, shifted from godly to ungodly. Of course, sin hasn’t turned most people into criminals. Most sinners haven’t committed felonies, abused children or raped women. But history proves, again and again, that when God’s providential care is blocked by war, famine and ignorance even the noblest people devolve to brutality.

Yet common grace enables us to still recognize God’s image in all humans. Though the reflection is shattered by sin, every person maintains shards of God’s image. So Christians should not be surprised when they meet non-Christians who are: more thoughtful as friends; more patient as parents; or more generous as neighbors. An aspect of God’s common grace is that He gives good gifts to the godly and ungodly alike. Some people are simply born with better temperaments.

Common grace may be sufficient to enable people to respond well in bad circumstances. But its sufficiency is limited by time and degree because God’s image remains fractured in every living human. Common grace will only keep the shards of the mirror from tearing away from its backing and crashing to the floor in this life.  But in the next life, those who ultimately reject God will lose this restraining grace. Then their beastly nature will roam freely.

Thankfully Jesus offers special grace. He came to restore the broken shards so that God’s image will be reflected perfectly in His people again.

He began our restoration by imaging God perfectly. No matter how bad the situation, Jesus always responded well. Religious leaders collaborated against him. Soldiers beat and mocked him. Disciples betrayed and abandoned him. Yet Jesus responded from the cross with courage and love as He cried out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” (Luke 23:34).

He continues our restoration by giving us His power. When we choose Jesus, His Spirit enters our lives and we are doubly empowered with grace (common and special) to respond well no matter the situation. The remarkable thing about special grace is that it is never limited by time, nor degree because it is God’s Spirit working in us! So the same power that flowed in Jesus — enabling him to overcome betrayal with forgiveness and vice with virtue — flows in us.

So choose how you will respond! By God’s grace may it be with hope!

Feature Picture Credit

(Personal Note: I took a break from blogging to be with my family after my dad passed away from pancreatic cancer on April 28, 2016. Lord willing, I hope to return to posting bi-weekly.)

When the Pursuit of Wisdom Disappoints

I recently taught through the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. The class sparked lively discussion about life’s most troubling experiences and unsettling questions. When asked for their initial impression after listening to the book read aloud, people repeated the words: Confused, Frustrated…Disillusioned.

Ecclesiastes’ sobering introduction decries, “Meaningless! Meaningless…Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (1:2). When a teenager bursts out with similar sentiments we wonder if adolescent hormones are to blame. But when a seasoned sage declares it, we are deeply troubled. Ecclesiastes was written by an elder statesman — “the teacher, the son of David, king of Jerusalem.” Traditional scholarship credits Solomon as its author.¹

God offered Solomon anything he wanted (2 Chronicles 1:7) and praised Solomon when he did not ask for wealth or honor. Instead, Solomon heeded the advice of his father, King David, who taught him, “My son…get wisdom… never forget wisdom… wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom! (Proverbs 4:1,5-7)

When Solomon asked for wisdom God gave it abundantly! Royal court officials and foreign dignitaries marveled at Solomon’s wisdom. “[Everyone] perceived that God’s wisdom was in him.” (1 Kings 3:28). Though Solomon never asked for wealth and honor; wisdom landed him on top of the world — financially, politically, and socially!

It’s remarkable that the person most qualified to sing Wisdom’s praises instead warned us about its limitations. Solomon wrote, “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business… a striving after the wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:13,17-18)

Wisdom’s limitations present unsettling news for hope seekers. I saw it on the faces of people in my class.

The mentors in my life taught me to get wisdom, just as David taught Solomon. I have enjoyed the benefits of pursuing wisdom as well as suffered the pain of ignoring it.

When I discovered wisdom offered me exceptionally valuable things, I’ve wrongly assumed certainty was part of the offer. Unfortunately living wisely will not guarantee: a healthy marriage, faithful children, financial security, vocational advancement, or good health. Those who confuse absolute guarantees with general principles are prone to misjudge the benefits of wisdom. For example, Proverbs 22:6 has paralyzed faithful parents with false shame after an adult child has gone off the rails. But Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart”) is not a guarantee. It is a proverb, not a law. It is generally true but there are exceptions. Many factors outside of bad parenting can cause people to ruin their lives.

When people ignore the limits of wisdom and grab for certainty, they cause wounds that even the best of intentions cannot salve. They will be exposed as naive, self-righteous or just plain wrong — like Job’s friends.

As a young adult, a few people tried to warn me about wisdom’s limitations. When they suggested my search for understanding might lead to frustrated uncertainty, I thought them jaded or faithless. But then life’s unexpected twists and turns led me to the precipice of my vain assurance and I fell to humbler ground. I realized I might never understand why certain bad things happen. Soon afterward, Solomon became my empathetic friend. He shared my sense of futility — “Meaningless, Meaningless…utterly meaningless!” 

Unexpected comfort comes when we realize the Bible doesn’t conveniently dismiss life’s most troubling dilemmas. In fact it often silences those offering easy answers to allow space for frustrated voices to wail. Even Jesus wailed, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” from the cross (Matthew 27:46).

Jesus’ suffering and death proved there were no easy answers for life’s most disturbing troubles. The solutions we need could not be delivered through a book. But, they could be incarnated in a person. So God sent Jesus. He is the person of exceptional wisdom² who entered our troubled darkness, absorbed it, and conquered it. In Jesus, God crushed despair and meaninglessness and replaced it with resurrected hope!

Jesus may not explain your darkness away, but he has shared it. Eventually he will pierce it again and bring you into new light. Trust Him, even when your best efforts to understand things leave you disillusioned. Though frustration and despair rage, wait on him. He is powerful to deliver!

¹ Strictly speaking the writer of Ecclesiastes is anonymous since no personal name is attached, but the evidence strongly indicates Solomon is the author. 

² See 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

Featured Picture Credits