General Thoughts

Let’s Make America Great… for Once

Charlottesville, Virginia is one of my favorite places on earth. I have such fond memories and associations with that place. As a long-time Virginia Cavaliers fan, I think of the few times I’ve partaken in UVa football games at Scott Stadium and shot hoops in UVa’s basketball arena alongside one of their players at that time (Jeff Daniel, a 6’9” forward… it’s not often I feel small). The mountains, the trees in the fall, the historic roots… it’s such a cool place.

However, in recent days and weeks, the thought of Charlottesville has become a not-so-pleasant stimulus. Instead of drawing my heart toward the blue and orange, the Rotunda, or Mincer’s, it has begun to take me to much darker places. It has become a battleground on which the so-called “white nationalists” have taken their stand against, you know, basically anyone who doesn’t look like them. The “Alt Right”/KKK element among us has chosen this beautiful city as the place to demonstrate their ugly, evil hatred.

Why Charlottesville? Well, it has to do with a statue/monument of Robert E. Lee. A short while back, city officials decided to take the monument down, because of the connotations it carried for many of its citizens. The pulling down of this monument became the rallying cry for those who want America to be as white as possible and who treat non-whites as less than human.

I was recently reading a Facebook conversation about all this. During this conversation, one person blamed the conflict in Charlottesville on the city officials who removed the monument, stating the ever-present argument that it’s a part of American history and we can’t ignore it. Now, that’s true, of course. We should never disregard or ignore history. However, I would argue, remembering history and learning its lessons are entirely different from facilitating a monument to the Confederate general who led the charge, practically, against the freedom of black people in America. Whatever other factors may have played into General Lee’s allegiance to the Confederacy, this fact remains: his leadership, if successful, would have led to the continued enslavement of blacks in the American south.

So, when someone says, “It’s a part of our history and we cannot ignore that,” I want them to recognize that such a monument is not about remembering history. It is a monument such as would be erected for a war hero or great political leader. It’s not just a statue commemorating something that happened in the distant past. It is a memorial, honoring the man whose efforts would have kept black people in chains.

I can’t help but think that the people who get caught up in the whole “history” of such monuments must be all or mostly white. In fact, I can remember how much my mother revered General Lee. She talked about him being a good Southern gentleman, “God-fearing” even. I can only imagine that sentiment coming from white folks. And, I can’t imagine a statue of General Lee having any kind of positive association for black folks. As the father of a black child, it certainly makes me uncomfortable. How do I explain to my son why, here in 21st century America, we have a monument built to the guy who would have kept black people in slavery?

The statue had to come down, just like all such statues. We should not honor people or organizations who seek to oppress others. Its why Confederate flags should never be flown on public buildings (what people fly at their own house is up to them… although it’s a pretty sure sign of racism living in that house). To over 30% of our population, such things represent oppression and their ancestors being treated as less than human. General Lee had to come down.

To the folks who say such monuments are important and should be left where they are, I ask you to consider who is using this event as their rallying point. The KKK… the Alt-Right… Neo-Nazis… white nationalists… you know, the fine upstanding individuals who think America is for whites only. Doesn’t that demonstrate what that statue really means? The razing of General Lee’s monument became the occasion for the evil, racist element in that area/region to raise its ugly head.

But this isn’t just about General Lee and Charlottesville. No, not by a long shot. For those of us who think we are reaching some kind of new low point or are incredulous that such racism still exists in America, the black community has been trying to tell us for decades that the sentiment of white supremacy is alive and well. And, by and large, white America has remained silent, perhaps even choosing ignorance rather than engaging in what our black brothers and sisters are seeing and experiencing. No, racism is in full effect in America. It expresses itself in the young boy who wouldn’t play with my son because of his brown skin and it expresses itself in a white supremacist driving his car into a bunch of anti-racism protesters.

Honestly, we are not used to seeing such brazen displays of organized racism these days. On July 4th, as usual, my family and I visited the Chippewa Valley Museum. And, as usual, we paused at the corner of the museum in which historical KKK activity in the Valley is mentioned. The only thing that makes that conversation manageable with my boy is to tell him that activity was short-lived (although the KKK is likely still active in western Wisconsin). However, here we are, with white hoods, swastikas, and tiki torches on our television screens and Facebook feeds…today… in 2017.

So, why are we seeing this now? What has emboldened such brazen displays of organized racism? What has empowered the American cockroach of white supremacy to come into the light instead of scurrying into the dark corners of our society? There is a reason the cockroach stays in the shadows. It’s because it’s afraid. So, what is behind this explicit racism in Charlottesville? Why have these racist groups, the KKK, Neo-Nazis, the Alt-Right, etc. become so visible? They are no longer afraid of the light. Suddenly, they feel safe to come out of hiding and flex their muscles. Why?

Make America Great Again… Yep. I think that phrase and its connotations are the fuel for the burning crosses’ (or tiki torches’) flames. There were so many voices who tried to bring attention to President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric during his campaign. His blanket statements about Muslims and Mexicans horrified many, but not enough of us to keep him from gaining the most powerful position in the world, other than God’s. But it’s not really those blatant statements I find so problematic in this moment. No, it’s this one: Make America Great Again.

On the surface, Mr. Trump seemed to leverage that statement to talk about things like bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States. But it’s not that connotation that’s the real problem. It’s the whole idea that America has been great in the first place. In regard to that concept, my guess is one’s perspective on America’s so-called greatness is dependent upon their experience of America. When I look back on American history, the only people group for which America has truly been great, from the beginning, are white men of European heritage, and especially those with some significant measure of wealth.

I know this will ruffle some feathers, but I need to say this right now: America is not, nor has it ever been, great from any kind of holistic perspective. Let’s be honest. Europeans may have founded colonies that would eventually become the United States, but the “New World” did not belong to them. There were peoples already here, native to the land. The early Euro-Americans drove the Natives from their land, virtually killed their cultures, and devastated their populations. And before we were even an official sovereign state, we were brutally enslaving Africans, buying and selling people as if they were livestock.

It is clear that when “our” Founding Fathers bought into the idea of “all men are created equal,” they didn’t actually mean all men. What they meant was all men born of European heritage are created equal (not women, not Africans, not Native Americans…). However, they didn’t sweat the details with that statement. They must have understood that all of their colleagues and fellow land-owning white men would have understood what they really meant by all men.

And our history falls in line with this understanding. All people are, in fact, created equal. We are all made in God’s image. We have inherent value as human beings. But, that’s different than how the Founding Fathers interpreted humanity. And because this is the case, minority groups in America have not experienced the reality of all humans being created equal, which is their birthright. And if someone thinks this is only the past, that things have changed and this is no longer reality… I beg to differ. Research wage inequalities between genders and between white men and everyone else. Take a look into how many unarmed blacks are shot by the police (especially as compared to unarmed whites). See the events in Charlottesville.

Now, don’t get me wrong… there are great things about America. I am incredibly grateful that I even get to write this without fear of reprisal from the government. I get to meet with my church and worship freely. I have opportunities for advancement in life that many, many people around the world could only dream of. I do not take these things for granted. But, NONE of these things can overshadow how people of color have been treated throughout American history. For most people of color, I would surmise, America has never been great.

So, when President Trump talks about making America great again, what is he actually saying? All I can tell you is what I hear from my perspective: “We are going to go back to a time when white supremacy was understood and celebrated among the American people.” That’s how that phrase sounds to me. And, I’m pretty sure there’s a fair share of white Americans, whether consciously or subconsciously, who hear the same thing… and want that.

Most certainly, I believe these Klansmen, Nazis, etc. have received that message through those words. They see President Trump as their comrade in arms. Don’t believe me? Ask David Duke. They see him as being in the fight with them. And him not calling out the acts of these people in Charlottesville as racially driven terrorism only exacerbates that dynamic. They continue to feel empowered and emboldened to make their presence known and to intimidate those who would oppose them.

However, frankly, I am glad they feel so empowered. Why? Because we are seeing the truth. There are white people living in this country who have been oblivious to that heart of bigotry still living in America. And some of these are good people who, for whatever reason, have not seen it. I think in the past I was one of them. Acts such of those seen in Charlottesville this weekend are helping us to see the truth. The reality of what lives in us, and I mean Americans when I say us, is coming to light. The truth is being shouted from the rooftops, if you will.

For the overt white supremacists, they have crawled out of the shadows and we can see they are still around, still active, and still dangerous. For many of us other white folks, this is a wake-up call to the realities of what is not only around us but what is living in us as well. If we have ignored the voices of our black brothers and sisters as they have cried out about injustices, why have we chosen that ignorance? What is it in us that makes us think the victims are the bad guys? What is it in us that chooses to believe racism is something from the past when the black American community has been consistently telling us otherwise?

And, as for President Trump, I believe he bears personal responsibility for what happened in Charlottesville. While he didn’t don a hood, tote his assault rifle, or bear the dreaded tiki torch, he has done literally nothing to condemn the organized racism which caused the event nor the blatant act of terrorism perpetrated by the white supremacist driver of that car. If the Alt-Right folks, including the driver of that car, had been Muslims, all hell would have broken loose. But no, what we get from our President is how responsibility for the events fell on all sides. No, Mr. President. The violence was perpetrated by one side, which seem to comprise some of your voting base. It was a white supremacist who killed a protester and injured others. And you, Mr. President, are the one who gave him the “courage” to do so.

So, what now? I don’t know. Let’s love on each other. Let’s make friends with people across whatever lines divide us. More than anything, let’s repent of our roles in facilitating and perpetuating institutional racism in America. Let’s ask God  to show us the dark crevices of our hearts where racism lives. Let’s humble ourselves and learn how love self-sacrificially. And, let’s see the truth for what it is. America is far from great… but it can be great. The story is not finished yet. We can, by the grace of God, actually make America great… for all Americans.





General Thoughts, Music and Healing

It Might Be Over Soon (But It’s Not Likely)

It doesn’t matter that the album was released seven months ago. Nor, does it matter that I first heard these songs eight months ago at a concert. No matter how many weeks and months pass, all I have to do is start listening to the opening few seconds of 22 (Over Soon), from Bon Iver’s 22, A Million and I’m pulled right back in. I am virtually powerless against its tractor beam. It’s like an invitation back onto a musical and emotional rollercoaster. I have a feeling this dynamic isn’t going away.


General Thoughts, Music and Healing

A Day of Grief and Tension

Silent Saturday. Jesus is dead. His broken and mangled corpse has been removed from the cross, wrapped up in burial clothes, and sealed up in a cave. There will be no miraculous healing today. No poignant teaching. No confrontations with the religious elite. No, today marks the time in which the world experienced life without Jesus. And for the first time in three years, his closest friends and followers experienced life without Jesus.

Perhaps they had faint memories of him saying something about coming back from the dead. But it seems as if such memories faded in light of what they’d just seen at Golgotha. Jesus, the One to whom they had pinned their hopes, the One to whom they had committed their very lives, who they believed was the Son of God, was dead. Like any other human being subjected to the treatment of the cross, he died. He was gone. It would seem their hope had been extinguished.

The grief must have been overwhelming. Perhaps they felt lost. Destitute. Left wondering how things were allowed to happen the way they did. Again, they likely remembered Jesus’ multiple predictions regarding his suffering and death. But hearing him talk about it and then seeing it or knowing it actually happened is another thing entirely. Now that Jesus has actually been humiliated, tortured, and executed like a common criminal, their worlds have been turned upside down.

Some of them likely were feeling grieved not only by Jesus’ death, but by how they had abandoned him as he faced into the ordeal from the previous day. When the temple guards came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane, his closest followers ran away. He was left alone and walked through the rest of the events of Thursday night and Friday by himself, isolated from everyone who cared about him. One of his inner circle, Peter, had even verbally denied he knew Jesus at all, not once but three times. And the whole ordeal was initiated by the betrayal of one of his friends. As the disciples sat there on that silent Saturday, maybe they were thinking about how incredibly unjust it was that he willingly endured the shame and pain of the cross for them, in the wake of their infidelity to him.

In hindsight, knowing how this story ends, those of us who know Jesus know that his death and burial is not the finale. We know the cliché: “Sunday’s coming.” We have the great benefit of knowing that Jesus would rise from the dead on Easter Sunday. But, his first disciples did not have that luxury. They were left in the tension of their grief, the knowledge of their own unfaithfulness to Jesus, and, if they were even thinking about the possibility of resurrection, wondering if it could actually happen. In their minds, there had to be great doubt. And so, on that silent Saturday, they were left to their grief and attempts to muster enough faith to believe that it wasn’t all over.

You and I know it wasn’t over. Jesus’ story was still being written. So, we don’t have to sit in that tension today. However, we still have the opportunity to consider the injustice of the event we remember on Good Friday. Jesus, blameless and perfect, took on the humiliation and punishment that was on the docket for me… and for you. He set his will toward suffering the shame, pain, and separation from God that I deserved… that you deserved. Despite our vast infidelity to him, his faithful love drove him to suffer and die to make a way for us to know God.

So, perhaps before we quickly jump into the celebration of Easter Sunday, let’s take a moment to reflect again on the injustice of the cross and what it really means for you and me. Let us consider the great love of Jesus that moved him to suffer and die for unfaithful you and unfaithful me. Let us reflect upon the unfathomable mercy of God on full display as Jesus died on that Roman cross and was laid to rest. Indeed, worthy is the Lamb.

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

The Injustice of the Cross

I can’t get the sound out of my mind. The forceful clang. The clash of hammer and nail. And as I hear the banging in my mind’s ear, I mumble curse words under my breath. This is wrong. This is just wrong.

He gave himself over to the authorities. He endured mockery, humiliation, and false accusation. He was flogged. And, he was nailed to a cross. This is wrong. This is just wrong.

He did all this, endured all this, suffered all this… for me. It was my sin that led him to the cross. I am responsible for what he went through on that hill outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago. I should have been the one on that cross. This is wrong. This is just wrong.

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us… God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God…

Thank you, Jesus. WORTHY IS THE LAMB.

The playlist below is loosely based on the “Stations of the Cross.” If you would like to know more about this tradition, click here. I invite you to put on some headphones, shut out the rest of the world for a bit, and engage with the moods, flow, and emotion of this set of songs/pieces. As you listen, consider what Jesus willingly and courageously endured for you and me.

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

The Heart of Jesus’ Courage

When I was in college in the mid-90s, I discovered the wonder of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time. It had always been a bit taboo because of some serious doctrinal issues. Regardless, once I began watching the 1973 movie adaptation, I was enthralled. The music is funky, some of the individual vocals are amazing, and the creators’ take on the last week of Jesus’ life was pretty intriguing.

For me, the penultimate moment in Jesus Christ Superstar happens when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples. This particular part of the movie incorporates the three elements mentioned above: funky music, incredible vocals (Ted Neeley’s voice, especially when he belts out the “Why?!”… still gives me chills), and “interesting” doctrine. Take a moment and watch the video below:

Jesus Christ Superstar‘s version of Jesus knows he is heading toward suffering and death and he is struggling with this reality. Now, as compelling and emotive as that scene may be, that ain’t the real Jesus. In this scene, the identity crisis Jesus seems to be having throughout the movie comes to a head: “I’m not as sure as when we started.” When pleading with God to change the plan, he leans on how well he has performed in his role: “Could you ask as much from any other man?” But the real Jesus knew he was not just “any other man.” And he was certain of his mission that night in Gethsemane 2000 years ago.

However, the largest divergence between Ted Neeley’s Jesus and the real Jesus is his attitude toward God the Father. Superstar‘s Jesus is defiant, blaming the Father for everything. He sings of finishing what he started and then his attitude noticeably changes and he accusingly alters his statement to “what you started.” This defiant spirit may make for compelling drama, but it is a far cry from how that evening in Gethsemane actually played out.

As Jesus looks ahead to the cross on the night he was betrayed, the Gospel of Mark records the following (Mark 14:32-34):

They went to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and Jesus said, “Sit here while I go and pray.” He took Peter, James, and John with him, and he became deeply troubled and distressed. He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

About the only thing doctrinally correct in Superstar‘s “Gethsemane” is the deep emotional struggle Jesus experienced that night. The real Jesus felt that struggle too. He was “deeply troubled and distressed.” The following words from Jesus pierce my heart: “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death.” I’ve tasted a glimpse of such grief before. It was almost unbearable at times, but nothing compared to what Jesus was experiencing that night. But, in response to that almost debilitating grief, Jesus does not turn to defiance.

Instead of getting angry with his Father, Jesus is honest with him about how he feels. He shares his heart with his Father, asking if there is any other way to accomplish his mission. Is the cross really necessary? The picture I see here is one of intimacy between Son and Father. Theirs is a relationship of deep trust. Jesus knows he can bare his heart. While we don’t know what the Father was thinking or may have said to him in those moments, my guess is that he grieved with his Son. He is not the taskmaster holding “all the cards,” standing back unaffected, pulling puppet strings. He is a loving Father who shares deep intimacy with Jesus.

It’s in the context of this intimacy, this deep love, that Jesus determines: “Not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus knew he would suffer and die, but then he also knew he would take up life once again. But in that moment, with betrayal, humiliation, suffering, and death nipping at his heels, he was feeling through the reality of what was to come. No human being can ever truly stand in his shoes and feel what he was feeling in that moment, but I can imagine it would be hard to see what’s supposed to happen on Sunday when your Friday looked like his would. I think it would be natural for trust to be challenged in that moment. Sheez, my trust has been shaken in the face of much lesser adversity.

But Jesus, standing on the foundation of his intimacy and experience with his Father, acquiesces to his Father’s will. And he doesn’t do so in some kind of backhanded “I guess you can have it your way” manner. No, the Jesus I see in Gethsemane, according to the Gospels, actually wants to do what his Father wants him to do. If his Father wants him to die on our behalf, to take on all of our sinful baggage, then Jesus wants to die on our behalf and take on our sin. Such is the seamlessness between Jesus’ heart and his Father’s heart.

I hope to experience more and more of that seamlessness with God’s heart. When I  consider what Jesus was willing to endure based on his intimacy with his Father, it makes my heart ache for such intimacy. My prayer (for both you and me), is that, no matter what our circumstances are, no matter if we feel great or our souls are being crushed, we will find the closeness with God that lends itself to deep trust in him.

And, as we look forward to Good Friday, I am grateful that the real Jesus was willing to take the penalty for all my sin. His willingness to endure the cross is what affords you and me the opportunity to not only know God, but to experience deep intimacy with him, the kind of intimacy that leads to deep trust.

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

Being the “Amen” to Jesus’ Prayer

I’ve always been an idealist. As a child, I was told  I would grow out of it, but as it turns out, that wasn’t the case (at least not yet). Recently, I took the StrengthsFinder assessment from Gallup, and the results only confirm that orientation… “strategic”, “ideation”, “futurist”… No wonder I get discontent easily. My heart is always longing for things to be better, to be the best they can be.

Even so, like everyone else, my senses can be dulled and my vision of the ideal can be diluted. It’s kind of like how a pitcher in baseball will intentionally throw balls that are high for the batter, just to change the batter’s line of sight. That way, the pitcher can throw a pitch that’s lower in the strike zone to the hitter and the hitter will think it’s too low to hit. The hitter’s perspective on the strike zone has changed and he or she cannot clearly discern when a pitch is a strike or a ball.

This happens to me on a regular basis. Life throws me some high heat and I lose sight of the strike zone. When disappointments come my way consistently enough, if I am not vigilant, I will lose focus on the ideal or the goal. I think this happens to all of us from time to time. When it does, we are in need of calibration. We need our vision reset to the standard. My hope is, as you read this, our vision will become more aligned with Jesus’ vision.

On the night before Jesus was executed, he shared a meal with his disciples. In that context, he prayed for them and for all the disciples who would come after them. Now, before I mention any more about that prayer, let’s be reminded of the context. Jesus is in the middle of a very intense week. He entered Jerusalem to the praise of people who wanted him to be their political liberator and leader, people who would soon be disappointed. He wept over the fickle hearts of those people. He violently confronted the ethnocentric money-changing and animal sales practices in the Temple. More importantly, he knew where the week was taking him. He was about to be betrayed, humiliated, tortured, and executed.

It’s in the context of all these significant and emotive events, surrounded by his closest followers, that Jesus prays about a variety of things. But there is one element of his prayer I specifically want to hone in on in this moment. These words are recorded in the Gospel of John:

I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me… May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.

“I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one…” Church friends, let’s let that sink in for just a moment. Theologians and pastors will tell you that Jesus and his Father have lived eternally in perfect harmony with each other. Jesus’ words and actions, as described in the Gospels, bolster that claim. He was always about his Father’s business, seeking do only his Father’s will, speaking only what he heard from His Father. That relationship is typified by oneness.

In this moment, as Jesus is looking forward to the cross, one of the most urgent issues on his heart is unity in his church. He longs for his followers to be one, to love each other so fiercely that we would lay down our lives for each other. He longs for us to experience real harmony. And why? Based on my understanding of Jesus, I am sure at least part of that longing is based purely on his love for us. He wants us to experience real deep connection with each other as he has experienced such with his Father. In and of itself, such a connection is rewarding and a worthy end. However, there is another compelling reason: “May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me…”

“…that the world will know…” Jesus regards unity among his people as such a big deal that the world will take notice. In fact, such unity would be convincing evidence of who Jesus is to an unbelieving world. It doesn’t take much consideration to recognize why unity within the church would be such a powerful force of conviction. It’s all about those fickle hearts of ours.

Human beings will divide over anything… political persuasion, border walls, ethnic background, denominational background, gender,  sports team allegiances… this list could go on and on. It’s not that we shouldn’t be able to disagree with one another. Certainly, diversity of opinion on non-essential things is good, and frankly, almost everything is non-essential. It’s not about that, it’s about letting our disagreements divide us. It’s about letting such things create “us vs. them” dynamics. Our selfish natures and fickle hearts lead us that way on a regular basis, to our shame.

I think this is why Jesus prays for unity. He knows that “perfect unity” in his church would be unique and miraculous, dare I say even holy. It would be set apart from anything the world has ever experienced. As such, this kind of oneness would be an incredible testimony of who Jesus is to those who don’t yet trust him.

In recent weeks and months, I’ve been considering these things quite a bit. I’ve come to a conclusion, one based on my own very limited human understanding, but I believe it is valid nonetheless. Here it is: Perhaps the largest barrier to people coming to Jesus is the lack of unity in the church. Ouch. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” and yet our lack of oneness hinders the world from experiencing that love. And when it comes right down to it, we don’t have unity because we don’t really love each other very well, at least not enough to disagree without separating from each other. Just like the rest of our human compadres, we divide over any and every little thing that comes between us.

Yes, this is heavy, friends. I’m sorry… It’s heavy for me personally, because the truth is I’m part of the problem. I have let non-essential things come between me and my brothers and sisters. And I believe the reason I’ve done this is because I’ve lost sight of the strike zone. I’ve seen (and contributed to) so many dividing curveballs and sliders over the years that a fastball right down the middle is out of my scope. I haven’t seen things clearly and I’ve lost sight of Jesus’ vision for his people. I need calibration. We need calibration.

My hope for you and me, today, is that we will join with Jesus in his prayer from the night he was betrayed. Let us pray for unity along with him. May we go humbly before the Father and plead with him that we may experience the oneness he experiences with Jesus. And once we have said our “Amen”, let us then become that “Amen”. Let us live out the vision Jesus casted for real unity in his church. Let us learn how to disagree well, and love each other fiercely and self-sacrificially, honoring the One who sacrificed himself for us.

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

Turning Tables and Attitudes

Jesus was on fire. He was downright angry. His anger was directed at the commerce taking place in the Temple during what we call Holy Week. Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem just shortly before this moment to great fanfare and excitement. But just moments later, he was weeping as he considered the hard hearts of that city’s inhabitants. He knew they had missed the point of his arrival. And now, he storms the Temple grounds with a whip and ferocious zeal, virtually decimating the currency exchanges and animal markets that had set up camp there.

In the first century, Jewish worship was oriented around the Temple in Jerusalem. It was the hub for prayer, sacrifice, and connection with God. The Jews traditionally saw the Temple as God’s house, meaning, in their minds, God actually resided within the confines of the Temple to some extent. The Temple was “holy ground”.

But, there was something those folks missed about the Temple. Access to God in the Temple was not intended only for Jews. There was a section of the grounds devoted solely to those of non-Jewish descent who desired to worship God. It was known as the Court of the Gentiles. From the very beginning of Temple-centric worship, God carved out a place for all people, regardless of their ethnicity, to connect with him at his Temple. Unfortunately, by the first century, God’s chosen people, the Jews, had forgotten or ignored God’s heart for non-Jews.

We know this because the exchanges and markets Jesus railed against were set up in the Court of the Gentiles. The exchanges were set up for Jews who had made pilgrimage to the Temple from other lands and brought with them foreign currency. The sales were to facilitate animal sacrifices by those same people as well as local Jews. And it is likely those moneychangers and animal salesmen were corrupt. But, aside from any corruption, the fact that they had set up shop in the only space in the Temple grounds which Gentiles could enter seems to be the real issue. As Jesus turned over tables, he proclaimed, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves,” according to the Gospel of Mark.

My guess is that the practice of selling animals for sacrifice and offering currency exchange likely started out from noble intentions. Like most good things, selfishness can get in the way and corrupt. And, sometimes we can be distracted by something seemingly good to the point in which it becomes more important than what is essential. I believe this is what happened to the Jews. And this “missing of the point” is was led them to become the object of Jesus’ righteous anger that day.

Perhaps the saddest part of the story for me is how they responded to his confrontation. Jesus spoke truth to them. He loved the people of Jerusalem enough to confront them with the truth of their egregious behavior. Repentance would have been the appropriate response. However, their hearts just got harder. And it is very likely that this event, Jesus’ confrontation of this offense to God, was a flashpoint moment in the transformation of attitudes toward Jesus that week.

I have compassion for those folks. Certainly, I hate that they were shutting non-Jews out of communion with God in order to conduct business. But, frankly, like them, I am a professional at missing the point. I too can get incredibly distracted by something which seems good, but is only diverting my attention from what matters most. More poignantly for me, I can relate to their hard-hearted response to Jesus. Honestly, I’ve responded in the same way.

Jesus loves you and me enough to point out where we are missing the point (or the mark). He longs for us to embrace his way, so we can experience real peace and a better life. When he tries to correct our courses, he does so from that longing, knowing the more our lives are aligned with the way he built them to be lived, the more we will experience such peace and life. The question for you and me, in this moment, is will we listen to him? Will we trust his heart for us and align ourselves with him? Peace and life await on the other side of that choice.

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

The Way to Peace for the Troubled Soul

When I think of the ways I have sought peace over my 45 years of life, I’m reminded of the old Johnny Lee song, “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.” I’ve housed a troubled soul in this body of mine more times than I’d like to admit. And for most of my life, my instinct has been to look for peace in a variety of sources that have no lasting peace to offer. For over twenty years, pornography was a regular go-to for me. Emotional eating has certainly been rampant as well. Distracting myself with various kinds of media has also been one of my ineffective salves. These things, and others, may have offered momentary relief, but they never offered any kind of lasting peace. Going to them for peace is like going to an empty well for water.

I know I’m not alone in this. I think we all have our ways of dealing with soul-trouble that are not effective or beneficial. Yes, drugs, alcohol, cutting, or any other variety of self-soothing may offer momentary relief, but such relief does not really address the troubled soul. Such relief is not the same as peace. Again, empty wells.

After Jesus entered the outskirts of Jerusalem on “Palm Sunday,” there a came a moment of quiet. The crowds had thinned out and the shouts of “Hosanna” had stilled. Jesus looked out over the city, and he cried. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace.”

This is a heavy statement in the afterglow of his triumphal entry just a few moments before. The thing is, Jesus was not fooled by the joyful celebration that ushered him into Jerusalem. He knew what was going to happen there. Various times, according to the Gospels, he shared with his friends that he was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. He also knew of the peoples’ fickle hearts. He knew they wanted him to take political power and overthrow the Romans. He knew they would turn on him when he did not live up their expectations.

More importantly, Jesus knew that a political messiah and a confrontation with the Romans were not really what the people of Jerusalem needed: “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace.” They thought peace would come through home rule, through political liberation. But Jesus knew different. He knew that such things would offer only temporary relief and not address the central issue: their troubled souls. And at the end of that week, just as Jesus predicted, they would refuse the way to real peace, reject Jesus, and hang him on a Roman cross.

This moment in Jesus’ journey toward the cross serves as great encouragement for me. First of all, it’s pretty easy to see that I’m not the first person to look for peace “in all the wrong places.” I think it’s a common human foible. God prescribes a way to peace, but we reject it because we think we know better. I’ve got a lot of company in this boat of troubled souls. We look for peace in every place except the one place it can actually be found: trusting God’s way over our own.

The greater encouragement for me, however, is in the picture of deep love I see in this moment in the biblical story. Jesus deeply loves the people of Jerusalem. Not soft, gushy love… but strong, self-sacrificial love. And while he knows they are about to betray him, torture him, and nail him to the cross (with the help of their Roman complicitors), his heart longs for them to experience real peace, the kind of peace only he can provide.

“How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace.” I’m pretty sure this is Jesus’ heart now for you and me as well. He loves us in the same way he loved the first-century inhabitants of Jerusalem. He longs for us to discover the way to real peace and to find rest for our troubled souls. As we look forward to the events of Holy Week, let’s purpose to seek peace where it can actually be found.

General Thoughts, Music and Healing

Palm Fronds and Fickle Hearts

As a kid, I was consistently thrown for a loop by the events of what Christians have traditionally called “Holy Week.” On one day, throngs of Jews are celebrating Jesus as he rides into Jerusalem. A few days later, they demand his death. And my immature little brain could not grasp what happened during that week.

On the Sunday before the Jewish celebration of Passover, Jesus entered Jerusalem, according to the New Testament. His arrival came on the heels of him raising a man from the dead, and the requisite hubbub that would accompany such an event followed him into the city. Jerusalem’s people were beyond exciting about his arrival and welcomed him by waving palm branches (a nationalistic symbol) and shouting messianic phrases. They saw Jesus as their new, conquering king. They expected Jesus to take control of Jerusalem and liberate them from Roman oppression.

However, as the week progressed, Jesus did not live up to their expectations, at least not in the ways they hoped. According to the Gospels, Jesus had multiple conflicts with the Jewish leaders during the following days. He confronted and decimated the institutions which hindered non-Jewish people from worshipping in the Temple. He did not take up a physical throne. He did not overthrow the Romans. He did not live up to their expectations.

In my adult years, I have become convinced this is the reason they turned on him by the end of that week. Jesus was not who they wanted him to be. And because he didn’t fulfill their short-sighted expectations, they, along with the Roman authorities, had Jesus executed. He was what they needed, not what they wanted. So, they killed him.

Over the past few years, Palm Sunday has become and important occasion for personal reflection for me as I consider these things. I am challenged by how quickly and severely the people turned on Jesus, specifically how they did so due to him not fulfilling their expectations of him. As I reflect, I don’t do so from a place of removed judgment. I don’t think less of those people for their fickle ways. And this is because, truthfully, that same fickle heart lives in me.

How many times have I questioned God’s faithfulness, goodness, or love because, in some way, he didn’t fulfill my short-sighted expectations? How many times have I “thrown him under the bus” for not giving me what I want? Too many to count, honestly.

Now, I don’t ever wish harm on God. I am not a first century Jew living under Roman oppression, desperately waiting for a messianic king to show up and save the day. No, my fickleness looks different. It looks more like letting myself fall into a funk when Jesus does not do what I want him to do for me, when life doesn’t appear to be lining up with how I think it should be. My fickleness looks like the times when I isolate myself from connection with him and others in order to waddle in my self-pity. And while my childish, selfish responses to not getting what I want may not look like cries to crucify Jesus, they are every bit as ugly. I hate that this is the truth about my heart.

I hate to tell you this, but that fickle heart lives in you too. I invite you to join me in reflecting on this dynamic God comes to us and longs to give us what we need, and that does not always align with what we want from him. Let’s choose to live in that tension today. Let’s ask God to have his way, regardless of our desires.

Such a request is an act rooted in trust, and trust is the ultimate issue in this entire dynamic. The Jews turned on Jesus because they did not trust that he knew what was best for them. They wanted what they wanted. We have fickle hearts because we don’t trust that God is good, that he is for us, that he loves us deeply. As we reflect upon these things, may we see God more clearly and may our trust in him grow deeper roots. May we then wave our palm fronds as we welcome him into our moments, the hard, easy, bad, and good ones. And may we then learn to bow the knee to the coming King, knowing full well that he is worthy of our trust and our whole hearts.

General Thoughts, Uncategorized

Do Black Lives Actually Matter? A Personal Question

I was born among racists. Perhaps, in the 1970s, that was the status quo for a boy growing up in the heart of the Confederacy, the great Commonwealth of Virginia. I had friends and family members who called black people “niggers” on a regular basis. I had family members who overtly expressed their desire for a re-segregation between blacks and whites. Racist, hateful jokes and comments were a regular part of my childhood experience.

Apparently, I was influenced by those racist sentiments as a young child. I still recall watching a boxing match with my father when I was ten years old or so. It was a white man fighting a black man and I told my dad I was rooting for the white guy because he was white. He reprimanded me for that, which was honestly a little ironic. Around that same time in my life, I made up a song called “Tyrone and Ramona” to the tune of Jack and Diane by John Cougar. It was filled with racial stereotypes and ugliness. My parents still celebrate how funny that song was. It breaks my heart that I ever came up with it in the first place.

Racism would not gain a permanent grip on me, at least not in the ways it did for so many others around me. I attended Indian River Junior High in the mid-80s and went to school every day with blacks, Asians, and whites. Some of my best friends were black. I started being influenced by hip hop culture, especially by Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, and Whodini. Eventually, I began writing my own raps and performing them. These relationships with black kids and interaction with elements of their culture impacted me deeply. As I grew into my later teens, I began confronting racism when it surfaced around me, which was often.

When I was about 19 years old, I was actually the victim of a race-based attack. Some friends and I (all white kids) were leaving our city’s annual celebration, the Chesapeake Jubilee. A group of black teens walked up to us and started interacting with us. It felt awkward, but I chose to believe the best and just keep chatting. One of my friends was not able to play it so cool. He was obviously nervous. One of the guys saw my friend’s tension and preyed upon it. He brushed up against him, saying “We found the hard one.” He and my friend began pushing each other. The rest of us intervened and broke it up. As soon as things settled, my friends and I walked away and headed toward our car. However, those boys weren’t through with us yet. They ran after us and started throwing punches. I got sucker-punched in the jaw and hit the ground. None of us were injured. But, my heart was broken. In the days after that event, I got anxious around groups of young black men. But, in time, that anxiety subsided and I was back to normal… confronting racism and desiring unity.

As you can see, racial tensions and relations between blacks and whites have been a part of my experience since childhood. But, somewhere in the mix, a deeply-seated apathy began to emerge in my psyche and my sensitivity toward racism and inequality waned. In my late 30s, a personal event took place that changed not only my feelings about race, but my entire life: my wife Charlotte and I adopted our baby boy from Ethiopia. We immediately became, quite literally, an African-American family.

Having a black son has reinvigorated my sensitivities around race issues, as have our various brushes with racism since bringing him home. There was the way people would look judgingly at my wife and son when just the two of them were out together. There was the boy at Carson Park who told my 4 year old Joshua he wouldn’t play with him because he’s brown. There are the multiple times my boy has told me someone doesn’t like him because of his skin. So, racism is not just something to which I am opposed; it has become intensely personal for my family and me.

This is why my heart is broken in light of recent events. When Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, I grieved. But when I saw the video of his 15 year old son breaking down uncontrollably at a news conference the following day, I broke with him. That boy’s daddy is gone forever. His life has been altered forever. Alton Sterling’s son put a face to this tragedy, a real, human, brokenhearted face.

The video of Philando Castile’s girlfriend trying to talk to the police with Castile slumped over and bleeding out beside her in the car, and a four-year old child witnessing it all from the backseat… this tragedy had faces as well. That woman and her young child are forever scarred by what happened right before their eyes. I will not forget their pain. It has marked me.

But, my goal here is not to create some kind of emotional plea. No, there’s been plenty of that, and it hasn’t always been helpful. The events of the past few days, the killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas police officers, have left many of us angry, grieved, and/or bewildered. It is understandable there would be emotional responses to these events. It is only right. After all, anger is an appropriate response to injustice.

However, emotional responses alone will not generate any meaningful change. I certainly want to keep in the forefront of our minds the real human beings involved in these unjust tragedies. However, my desire is not to focus on what some may see as “isolated incidents,” sensationalized by the “liberal media”. No, my heart is to try, as best as I can, to show the broader context of these events.

Before I go any further, I need to get something out of the way. I stand with those who have declared you can be both pro-black and pro-police. I hate that anyone would feel like they have to choose a side. That dichotomy is false. I am passionately for equal rights, equal pay, equal treatment, and seeing black folks (and every other kind of folks) live out their God-given potentials. At the same time, I am deeply appreciative of the public servants who do their best, with integrity, to uphold the law on a daily basis, risking their own well-being to do so. So, let’s not think lazily about these issues. We don’t have to choose between black people and the police. In fact, such a choice is contrived and ultimately illogical.

Having gotten that out of the way, let’s move on. In light of the killings of Sterling and Castile, I want to start with a look at police shootings resulting in deaths. In April 2015, the Washington Times published an article about this subject, specifically about the racial statistics around police killings. The title was misleading: “Police kill more whites than blacks, but minority deaths generate more outrage.” I’ve heard that idea from more than one source in the recent past, and it is a statement in desperate need of some context.

On the surface, that headline is true. It is a fact that police kill more whites than blacks, but that’s not the whole story. Within that article, the author, Valerie Richardson, offers some much needed clarification. Quoting Peter Moskos of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, she writes, “The odds that a black man will be shot and killed by a police officer is about 1 in 60,000. For a white man those odds are 1 in 200,000.” Why is that the case? Because the raw totals of people killed by police does not take into consideration the racial make-up of our country.

In 2015, whites made up about 62% of our population, whereas blacks comprised about 13%, according to the US Census Bureau. In the same year, according to The Guardian (as cited by The Society Pages), the police killed 578 whites and 301 blacks. Proportionally speaking, the data shows that black people are about two and a half times as likely to be killed by police officers as white people. According to the Washington Post, “Although black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police (in 2015). In the majority of cases in which police shot and killed a person who had attacked someone with a weapon or brandished a gun, the person who was shot was white. But a hugely disproportionate number — 3 in 5 — of those killed after exhibiting less threatening behavior were black or Hispanic.” We cannot ignore the clear message this data is painting. If you are black in America, you are over twice as likely to be shot and killed by a police officer than are you white fellow Americans.

You are also significantly more likely to be imprisoned. In March 2016, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, about 60% of the prison population was white. About 38% were black. Once again, when the population breakdown is taken into consideration, blacks are three times as likely to go to prison as whites. The data seems to clearly show that blacks are incarcerated at a significantly higher rate than whites.

While it seems clear that blacks are much more likely to be killed by police or sent to prison, these are not the only signs of racial inequality. The U.S. Census reports that white peoples’ (not including Hispanics) median income for 2014 was $60,256, while blacks’ median income was $35,396. In other words, whites, on average, earned 60% more than blacks. That is a significant difference. Some of this, presumably, is due to blacks not being afforded the opportunities whites have for higher end jobs. However, even when black and whites have the same jobs, there is still inequality. In October 2014, USA Today reported, “In the same high-skilled positions such as computer programmers and software developers… blacks (earn) $3,656 less than whites…” That same article also discusses the regularity with which minorities in high tech jobs are passed over for promotions more often than whites.

When I consider these three inequality dynamics, my heart sinks. First of all, I find myself needing to repent for my own apathy in these matters. I have willingly worn my racist blinders for too long, and have been okay as my black brothers and sisters have suffered. That’s not okay. Lord, forgive me…

My natural inclination when thinking about problems or challenges is to ask “Why?” Why does something need to be done? Why are we facing this problem? To a great extent, the “why” doesn’t even matter. The simple, painful truth seems to be evident: in America, black lives do not matter as much as white lives. Certainly, we can discuss the history of blacks in America. I could talk about the enslavement and subjugation of Africans in American slavery. I could mention Jim Crow, the KKK, and the “40 acres and a mule” lie. For many of us, that would be rehashing what we already know. No, I won’t spend an abundance of time discussing history.

I’d rather talk about the more central “why”:  the heart issue. One of the great lessons I’ve learned personally over the last couple of years is how intense pressure can reveal one’s true colors. We are a lot like fruit. When a piece of fruit gets squeezed, juice comes out. The taste of that juice shows the quality of the fruit. We Americans are being squeezed in the vice of obvious racial problems and inequities. What kind of juice is coming out of us right now. Is it the sweet juice of peacemaking, justice, and reconciliation? Or, is it the rancid ooze of deeply-seated racism and/or willful apathy?

The continued oppression of black people in American certainly doesn’t look the same as it did in 1950 or 1850. But it is oppression nonetheless. It is injustice. We must respond. But, acts of violence and vengeance are not the best course of action. The fruit they bear is of the rancid variety mentioned above. No, the best initial response is for each of us to look deep inside ourselves to see what is living in us.

Honestly, I have heard, from a variety of people, the same ugly racism that justified slavery for hundreds of years here. We’re simply more polite about it now. Let’s be real about these things. And let’s repent. For me, my only hope is to invite God to come in and show me where my racist tendencies are and repent when I see them. I am doing that.

And then we need to get together. We must find ways to connect across racial lines and learn how to love each other. We’re not all the same, and we shouldn’t act like we are. I love the contrast of my son’s beautiful mocha skin on my fair white skin when he puts his hand on my arm. The differences are a gift, but we will never experience that gift fully unless we choose to do life together. Fear and racism get diffused when confronted by real relationship.

The truth is this: blacks lives matter. It is equally true that all lives matter. However, as I have read from other folks of late, until black lives actually matter, it is disingenuous for us to say “all lives matter.” Because black lives do, in fact, matter and in light of the terrible inequalities which still persist in America between black and white, action is required. And I propose a two step strategy: let’s be real about what lives in each of us and let’s have real relationship and dialogue, especially between black and white. I suggest this is the most logical path to racial reconciliation, equality, and justice.