“we shall overcome”: Martin Luther King Jr. Day

We Shall Overcome” was a beautiful anthem of the American Civil Rights Movement. It was sung by the African-Americans of that time, and those who stood with them in their cause for justice in equal rights in the United States. It was more than a push back against the Jim Crow laws of the south (not to mention the segregation in the north), but a stand in saying, “We will accept, and take no more of this.” Rosa Parks was a key person in getting the movement started, and there was no more prominent leader in it, in fact he is considered the leader of that movement, today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The song expresses a stand rooted in God’s image within all humanity. That we are made for relationship and love, and an understanding that we are in this life together. And that we all have our part in it, both in relationships, and in vocation. And it’s a song of commitment to overcome injustice together, but not in a violent way, but with a commitment to nonviolence. Martin Luther King Jr. was impacted both by the life and example of Mahatma Gandhi, and preeminently by Jesus himself who taught his followers to love their enemies and turn the other cheek. King over and over again preached and spoke in these terms, and with the words of Jesus. And he and many others put those words into practice again and again.

We do need to stand up for what is right, particularly when it affects others. And we who in the United States live to this day in a privileged condition, especially compared with our African-American sisters and brothers need to be sensitive to how we might play in that ourselves without realizing it, as well as develop sensitivity to how society itself is bent in this direction. How we are all, each and everyone impacted by prejudice in prejudging others through some stereotypes, instead of really getting to know them, and becoming aware of their difficulties and plight.

And we need to remember what was done to them: They were stolen from their nations in Africa, and forced to be slaves with no possibility of freedom, at least not under the normal circumstances. And to this day are discriminated against in the criminal justice system, and before that, all of this lending itself to the fallout which would occur with any of us. And a deep wounding which can only be healed through much time, leaving its scars behind.

As in all things, and as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew and preached, the one hope for all humankind and against all evil is found in the gospel of Christ. Through that good news we are reconciled to God and to each other. Sin is dealt with, and all the injustice with it through the atoning sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, the resurrection bringing the new life of love into the here and now, to break all the chains of injustice, and bring in nothing less than the freedom of God’s children.

We are all in this together. Today I celebrate and remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and of all those who stood with him in love against the hate of that time. And remember that though some most significant changes came through that movement, we have not yet arrived to the place where we fully love and accept each other, and have the best interest of the others in our hearts. We’re not there yet.

Laws of the land can help and actually are crucial against corrupt systems, but what is especially needed is the change of hearts through the gospel, and an acclimation toward justice which we find in scripture fulfilled in the gospel, as well as in other places where this ethic is taught on earth through God’s image within all humankind. But there is no place where it is so thoroughly taught with the hope of being fully realized as in the gospel of Christ, to begin in the church.

This is an essential part of the heart of our calling as witnesses of Christ and the good news in him. Something we wish to carry on in the love and compassion of Christ, in and through him.

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the dignity and destiny of all peoples

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign[b] on the earth.”

Revelation 5

As we draw near to the day on which we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in light of the present time, we do well again and again to reflect on the dignity and destiny of all of God’s created children.

That means we need to accept and learn to appreciate every culture. We might not celebrate or live out life like others do, but we need to see their strengths and our weaknesses. We need to look for and find the good in their way of life, and the not so good in our way. And we need to learn from them, and be open to appreciate ways in which God’s image is uniquely reflected in them.

We enslaved peoples from the African nations, on what pretext, I don’t know. Just because we could. And supposedly good people stood by, and ended up even participating, maybe trying to put a human face on this inhumane evil. And even the church stood by, either saying nothing, or at times, even justifying it.

And to this day there are people who see dark skinned people as somehow inferior. Today we have the scourge and lie of white nationalism. As if somehow we who are white are better, as if God created us a notch above the others. And in fact some have even argued that certain “races” (there is actually only one: the human race) are subhuman.

God’s word gives the lie to all of that in the truth that all whom God has created, God intends to redeem into the new creation. That all humans are made in God’s image. And that such are going to reign on earth.

What does all of this mean for us now? And especially where I live in the United States of America? I’m sure it means quite a lot, but from my perspective, I’ll name two. It means we need to live differently right where the rubber meets the road, in our relationships with others. That we need to go out of our way not to judge what ought not to be judged. One example from my own life: I am a worker, and while I can relate to people, I am a down to business person, who doesn’t like to “waste time.” But I notice that people from other ethnicities like to spend more time and visit, which for me cuts into the time during which I should be working. I leave room, and actually want to make room for such times when I can, but work itself is the priority.

I can learn from others to stop here and there, and appreciate the other. While also noting that these people work just as hard, and do just as well on that end, in fact they might make some contributions to the work itself which helps us do better. In other words, I need to see everything in its entirety and put the best case on everything, even if I may not be able to see it at the time.

For us, this means we have a learning, and more precisely a growing curve. The point I’m making here is that we need to stop putting others down, just because we don’t live the way they do. We need to ask what God’s values are. They have to put up with us, with our blind spots, and how often we put work over people and relationships. I’m sure work was important to Jesus. But never at the expense of relationships for sure.

My other point would be the church itself. How are we doing in showing the world the dignity and destiny, indeed, the beauty of all humanity? I wonder. Overall, with some exceptions I don’t think we’re doing all that well. There are white churches, black churches, and then other churches of other ethnicities right in the same city. And to some extent that’s understandable, and we’re not to force the issue, but be in prayer over it. But especially us white folks need to take it on ourselves, considering history, to purposefully open the door for a multiracial witness. That would mean taking people of other ethnicities onto the pastoral staff, and into the leadership of the church.

This is a part of our witness to the truth and reality and power of the good news in Jesus. In which we’re to live, and be committed to. Accepting others fully, just as God in and through Christ fully accepted us.

United States Declaration of Independence

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation upon such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are long accustomed. But [our grievances are neither light nor transient, and a list of them follows….]

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good people of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Source: Jesus Creed

United States Declaration of Independence

the ideal church in the US in the present

First of all, right off from the top, there is no ideal church. Unless one is going to push their denomination or way of being church, there are a number of differences, which actually was the case even in the earliest days of the church, once it expanded beyond Jerusalem. And so I’m going to accept those differences which are many, today. As long as we’re united by the gospel, the good news about Jesus, we can live with those differences. I believe that’s the case between Catholic and Protestant; Calvinists, Pentecostals and Anabaptists, etc., etc. As long as the good news in Jesus is intact, the teaching of his incarnation, life and teaching, death and resurrection, ascension and promise of his return, even the details surrounding that we can see differently, provided that we accept salvation by grace through faith with works following. I am not one to quibble over justification with the Catholics, though I myself accept the solos which became theologically prominent through the Reformation. But now to the main point of this post.

We live in a nation which to a significant extent has been built off the backs of slaves. And even after their emancipation through the Civil War, you tell most any black or African-American that they are free, and they will qualify that. And we lived through one hundred years of segregation along with the Jim Crow era. There have been other prejudices, too, and all of that can fit into the point I’m going to make next, but given the history of this nation, and the current controversy over police and race relations, I will put a clear emphasis on blacks and whites and the church.

I believe that in order to be the witness the nation and the world needs from a church here, there needs to be a deliberate change and commitment to a racial reconciliation in which the African-Americans have just as much say and leadership in a given church as the white largely European Caucasians such as myself. In a small church, that might look like a black senior pastor, with a ethnically mixed board of elders and deacons (or deacons, if that’s the way your church runs). In a larger church, it might ideally somehow be two or more associate pastors who share the teaching and pastoral role, black and white, white and black, not in any particular order. But to be sure that the church is not still really run by whites, there ought to be an emphasis given to black leadership.

Of course there are many black churches and denominations. When I was young, blacks weren’t even allowed to step inside of Southern Baptist churches, and I’m sure they were marginalized in many places. But maybe black churches need to pray about their witness, as well. Maybe it’s time for them to purposefully integrate. But I can’t speak for them. If we’re to overcome what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the most integrated hour of the week, Sunday morning, than your normal church, made up of whites with a few blacks and African-Americans here and there, must take the lead. We are the ones on the side of history of the oppressors. They are on the side of the oppressed.

To be color blind doesn’t mean we just remain comfortably in our place. It means we purposefully integrate, not from some law or order from government, but as part of the heart of the call of the gospel. To express by the Spirit the unity we all have through the good news in Jesus. Regardless of our ethnicity, background, political views, etc. But in the case of blacks and whites, this will require more.

Given our history, this unity is not just something we blithely put in place, even with some hard effort to accept and learn to appreciate our cultural differences. There must also be at the heart of all of this, reconciliation. And this reconciliation must include forgiveness on both sides: the blacks and African-Americans forgiving the whites for slavery in the first place, and all the mistreatment which followed. And the whites forgiving African-Americans and blacks for any and every sinful response that followed. And all of this, while it should be put into place in a church through the gospel, is a process in which we can’t imagine at a given point we’ve arrived. The wall of hostility is broken down through the gospel, through Jesus’s death, but the unity of the Spirit which follows requires every effort to maintain, and grow in. As we grow up together into the mature body of Christ that we’re called to become. A growth that is ongoing, and something we already are in Christ by the Spirit, but learning to live by and into the implications of all of that.

This is a great need in the church today. The way we do church just won’t do, I’m afraid, or at least it will be lacking, if this isn’t a priority well beyond just hoping others who are different might begin to trickle in. All of this in and through Jesus.

a good picture of the God of the Bible who comes to us in Jesus

Psalm 106 is a good picture of the God of the Bible who comes to us in Jesus. Glenn Paauw’s book, Saving the Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well helps us see the importance of reading scripture and considering its entire historical narrative before we start claiming its promises. That might be a bit overstated, but I think the point he makes in the book is an excellent one, and sorely needed.

I ran across the sentence perhaps in that very book, which makes the point that God’s wrath in judgment is directed against human machinations, and even against humans themselves, whose actions make not only a mess of things in this world, but bring much harm to others. Of course God is the God of mercy as well. And not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (1 Peter). Not desiring the death of the wicked, but that they might repent and live (Ezekiel). That’s the God of the Bible who comes to us in Jesus. The God who is to be feared, who is holy, righteous, just and good, essentially love, that love not cancelling out the rest, all else actually being an expression of that.

God is not the God so many seem to want to see as the soft, cuddly teddy bear who simply affirms all we do, the point a Christian brother (who happens to be Eastern Orthodox) was making yesterday. God is a God to be feared, as he would say, and yet all of what God is in all its awe and wonder is encapsulated in love. God is love. That comes across to us in Jesus, but beware of watering down what the Bible makes plain, even in the account of Jesus, including Jesus’s own words.

Psalm 106 in its entirety is an account of the picture scripture gives us of the God who comes to us in Jesus.

Praise the LORD.

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.

Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD
or fully declare his praise?
Blessed are those who act justly,
who always do what is right.

Remember me, LORD, when you show favor to your people,
come to my aid when you save them,
that I may enjoy the prosperity of your chosen ones,
that I may share in the joy of your nation
and join your inheritance in giving praise.

We have sinned, even as our ancestors did;
we have done wrong and acted wickedly.
When our ancestors were in Egypt,
they gave no thought to your miracles;
they did not remember your many kindnesses,
and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
to make his mighty power known.
He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up;
he led them through the depths as through a desert.
He saved them from the hand of the foe;
from the hand of the enemy he redeemed them.
The waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them survived.
Then they believed his promises
and sang his praise.

But they soon forgot what he had done
and did not wait for his plan to unfold.
In the desert they gave in to their craving;
in the wilderness they put God to the test.
So he gave them what they asked for,
but sent a wasting disease among them.

In the camp they grew envious of Moses
and of Aaron, who was consecrated to the LORD.
The earth opened up and swallowed Dathan;
it buried the company of Abiram.
Fire blazed among their followers;
a flame consumed the wicked.
At Horeb they made a calf
and worshiped an idol cast from metal.
They exchanged their glorious God
for an image of a bull, which eats grass.
They forgot the God who saved them,
who had done great things in Egypt,
miracles in the land of Ham
and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.
So he said he would destroy them—
had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him
to keep his wrath from destroying them.

Then they despised the pleasant land;
they did not believe his promise.
They grumbled in their tents
and did not obey the LORD.
So he swore to them with uplifted hand
that he would make them fall in the wilderness,
make their descendants fall among the nations
and scatter them throughout the lands.

They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor
and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods;
they aroused the LORD’s anger by their wicked deeds,
and a plague broke out among them.
But Phinehas stood up and intervened,
and the plague was checked.
This was credited to him as righteousness
for endless generations to come.
By the waters of Meribah they angered the LORD,
and trouble came to Moses because of them;
for they rebelled against the Spirit of God,
and rash words came from Moses’ lips.

They did not destroy the peoples
as the LORD had commanded them,
but they mingled with the nations
and adopted their customs.
They worshiped their idols,
which became a snare to them.
They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to false gods.
They shed innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan,
and the land was desecrated by their blood.
They defiled themselves by what they did;
by their deeds they prostituted themselves.

Therefore the LORD was angry with his people
and abhorred his inheritance.
He gave them into the hands of the nations,
and their foes ruled over them.
Their enemies oppressed them
and subjected them to their power.
Many times he delivered them,
but they were bent on rebellion
and they wasted away in their sin.
Yet he took note of their distress
when he heard their cry;
for their sake he remembered his covenant
and out of his great love he relented.
He caused all who held them captive
to show them mercy.

Save us, LORD our God,
and gather us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise.

Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.

Let all the people say, “Amen!”

Praise the LORD.

biblical illiteracy and the United States

Scot McKnight has a most interesting post on the Bible’s place in the founding of the United States, and in US political, presidential rhetoric. If you read this, and stop there, you would do well.

My thought is on the great loss of being biblically illiterate, though if you’re into US politics heavy, you will still do better to read Scot’s post. Just a bit long, but well worth it.

The Bible is such an important document in the founding and fabric of the United States, though that’s a complex topic by itself, and I’m in no way suggesting that the United States was meant by its founding documents to be a Christian nation. Only that the Bible certainly significantly contributed to what the United States was and at least to a significant extent still is. But to get back to my own point for this post, I think it would be good and wise for those becoming citizens to have to read a shortened version of the Bible, maybe kind of like a Reader’s Digest condensed version, which would help people understand something of the values and structure on which this nation was founded and built.

We don’t do well as Christians to not be people of the Book. Yes, Christ is our center, who brings us into the life of the Triune God, and is the Savior and Lord of the entire world. But that faith, while centered on the gospel, the good news of God in Jesus, is found in scripture, in God’s written word. To say God’s written word opens up plenty of misunderstanding, but it is sufficient for now to say that the fulfillment of it all is in Jesus. But to understand that fulfillment and what it means from cover to cover, we need to read and reread and become steeped in the entire Book. And like a friend reminded me, the Bible itself is complex. A simple, child-like faith opens one up to the beauty and power found in its pages. But it can leave one gasping and grasping for answers. The Holy Spirit is our help together as we read scripture, meditate on it, and if you wish, commit some of it to memory. But there’s no doubt that we’ll be stretched in the process, which surely is part of the point of scripture, God’s written word.

But we’ve fallen on hard times when it comes to actual knowledge of the Bible. People still buy it evidently, but there are other ways to occupy time now, many. We’ve maybe read it through once, or at least heard large parts of it read, some of that over and over again. So we think we have it, that we really don’t need to read it at all. I hear that we need to do it, not read it. Well, I believe we need to both hear and obey God through it. We need an interactive relationship with God through scripture, and we need to come to it again and again to let its truth break through to us and soak in our bones over time. All of it, not just the precious promise parts of it, but the hard and seemingly mundane in it. The Bible mirrors real life, right to its very depths. But with the one good news for the world in Jesus.

Whatever we are doing, or out and about, we in Jesus, let’s lead the way in serious study and contemplation of scripture.Yes, certainly hoping the better for the United States and all nations on earth. But committed above all to what is mandated in scripture as followers of Jesus.

 

 

black history month, why it’s important, and what our witness ought to be

February in the United States and Canada is designated Black History Month (October in the United Kingdom). It is important to remember the history of African-Americans, whose recent ancestors were stolen, enslaved, and all too often killed. It is a great error to see this as being “politically correct.” We need to recognize the achievements of those in our family who are African in their origin, as well as the difficulties and evils they encountered, more or less front and center at one time, but now often much more hidden, yet just as real. An example of what is especially a hidden, subtle form of racism is the part of the story in the film Hidden Figures, which wasn’t told.

At the heart of the outcome of the gospel is the destruction of all divisions within humanity, while celebrating the differences through God’s creation (see the book of Revelation, in which every tribe and nation in all their diversity worship God together). The fact that the church seems to make either little or nothing of this at all seems to me to be a grave mistake which needs prayer and correction. The good news of God in Jesus and through his death means a completely open access to God, and also to each other in the sense of living out our oneness as one family in him. There is only one human race, and the difference in ethnicities among us enhance humanity. We need each other, every part of the whole of the one family of humanity.

This should be fulfilled in Jesus, in which through the new birth and new creation, we are all one in him, in all our differences. The best witness of a church in that regard is to include different ethnicities on the staff, particularly in positions of leadership, certainly including the pastoral. The world needs that witness, and we actually need this as well, to break down the sin of racism, which is the hidden elephant in still too many places. When we overlook the hidden, or not so hidden racism among those around us, we can inadvertently make a place for it in our hearts, while never wanting to. We excuse something for which there is no excuse, and which brings grave harm to humanity, and is an affront to God, and above all grieves the heart of God.

So let’s do something if we haven’t yet, before this month ends, to both remember and celebrate our black brothers and sisters. And let’s pray that this can somehow be worked into our lives on a practical level so that we can enter more fully into the salvation which is ours through the good news in Jesus our Lord.