the love that overcomes (in anticipation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day)

13 If I speak in the tongues“[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,b]”>[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in partand we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes,what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is just around the corner (Monday), so I’ve been been listening to his speeches, and remarks from witnesses of his time from Martin Luther King: The Essential Box Set: The Landmark Speeches and Sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr.. This morning I listened to his message, Paul’s Letter to American Christians.  And from that comes this.

We look back on him and what he did, and we see him as a kind of prophet from God for his time. Although true prophets are for every time, which is no less the case with him. But what marked him above all, and gave power to his prophetic words was the love which marked all of those words and actions which followed.

People nowadays say (and it’s on car bumper stickers), “Love Wins,” but it’s the love of Jesus Christ found in the gospel that wins, period. Other love might win in some ways, but only the love of God in Jesus is victorious against all the hate and wrong in the world.

We get on our bandwagons, and we might give lip service to certain causes, one quite noble cause being the integration of all peoples, so that no one ethnic group or category is marginalized. But is there heart and hand service to go along with that? It is noteworthy how some of us can be so zealous for political positions, but our personal lives calling into question our professed allegiance to such causes.

But this is where the church through the gospel of Christ is to make the needed difference, or more precisely, to show the difference that the power of God for salvation is to make in the world. 1 Corinthians 13 quoted above is in the context of church relations, so that it is not really about this love in the world, but in the church. Only in and through Jesus can God’s love be manifested in the way described by Paul. Paul is pointing out that all of the spiritual gifts spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 are empty and mean nothing apart from this all pervasive love. And he even suggests when you consider the end of 1 Corinthians 12, that love is a way that is superior to the gifts. I don’t think in the end he’s making the case for either or, but again that love is to pervade all that is done in the church. How we love each other demonstrates to us and to the world the power of the gospel.

Racism is a grave and serious sin. It is to have no part in our hearts, and particularly in our churches. But we need to begin with the truth that we are all prejudice in that we all hold to certain myths which affect our view of others (listen to the January Series talk by David R. Williams, “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?”). Myth used here in the sense of ideas which may or may not hold some water generally speaking, but fail at a most basic, needed level. Racism is especially bad because it flies in the face of love; it denies love, and in fact stands in opposition against it. And most often it is not blatant, but subtle. And it’s evident in our neighborhoods, and even in our churches– sad to say.

The love of Jesus Christ through the good news, the gospel in him is the only hope to heal all of the wounds, and help us begin to live well together. All barriers are broken down by that gospel, so that we can learn to love and listen, listen and love. And that should begin in our neighborhoods, and at our workplaces, so that the power of that gospel can have its full effect and be seen in our churches. Different cultures brought together in ways which impact us all for good. In this way we are more human, since inherent to our humanity are relationships marked by love which sees us through the thick and thin; the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. So that we’re committed to each other, and to the gospel for all peoples in a humility marked by this love.

We are all surely on a learning curve, some of us on a steeper one than others. So we have to pray and think, and work at this. We don’t bale out when we fail or see just how far we miss the mark. Instead we use that as a means of seeing God’s salvation through our commitment to ongoing confession of our own sin and change through repentance into a new way of thinking and living. No less than in the way of love in and through Jesus.

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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.

racism and the church

Yesterday there was a most interesting discussion on Joshua Johnson’s show, 1A – Speak Freely, entitled, Big Tent Revival: Southern Baptists Challenge A Racist History. Racism is not an easy topic to broach for me as a white American Christian who has roots and fellowship in the evangelical movement. No one is free of the demon (literally, or I mean here, figuratively) of racism, it seems to me. We can’t just wash our hands in innocence and go on as if nothing has happened, or is happening. We need instead to listen to our African-American sisters and brothers, their story, and what they experience to this day. And that includes Christians right where I live in a conservative Christian belt.

I am grateful to be part of a ministry which is working on diversity and integration in the work force. To say the church hasn’t been involved in racism over the years, even within my lifetime, is to have a profound ignorance of history and culture. Whether or not we think all the complaints of racism today are just, we need to consider that many blacks, including Christians, believe that is the case. And we need to understand just how blind we are to what has been called “white privilege.” This is a sociological term, made political, as nearly everything is nowadays. But there’s no question that more is stacked against African-Americans in this nation, than any other ethnicity.

The gospel in Jesus brings together, and even unites those who otherwise would be enemies. It breaks down and destroys barriers. But it isn’t automatic. The faith requires faith which includes repentance and hard work over time to overcome the prejudices so deeply embedded and ingrained in our psyches. We naturally like to be around people who think, act, and like the same things we do. And who don’t shake up the status quo. But the gospel opens us up to something different. The salvation in Jesus is as big as creation, not only about the individual person, but about all of life. Ultimately to fill all things when Jesus returns, but now to be present and at work in the church. In and through Jesus.

the sin of racism and the gospel

February is Black History Month. I met an African American lady who is past 100 years of age at the nursing home I visit on Sundays. I would like to visit her and listen to what she might want to say about her own experience. And as a young girl, she certainly would have known a few who actually were slaves in the Old South.

Of course the ending of slavery, as great as that was, was not at all the end of racism as is all too known by history. The Jim Crow laws were experienced by many who are still alive (I was around 9 years of age, when they ended). Strict segregation from the large things, including churches and schools, down to the smallest things like restrooms and drinking fountains was strictly enforced in the South. And blacks who fleed to the north, if anything found just as strict a segregation in practice, if not overtly, still definitely in place in private and community practice and I think government policy. The most segregated places in recent decades have been in the north.

I’m sure this next part would be criticized by some, and labeled liberal or whatever, but the United States is far from being a Christian nation when one considers that humans were stolen and made slaves, looked at as less than the whites who enslaved them. Of course I’m sure there were examples of slave owners who mistakenly saw the practice as parallel to the practice of slavery in the Bible, which actually was indentured and temporary, or at least was quite different as a rule, in Bible times. The idea that we have to get back to some utopian idea of early Christian America is pure fiction in my opinion, and at best is not without problems.

The gospel is the one solution that helps everyone overcome the sin of racism. Of course there is a tendency in the best within humanity made in the image of God to see through the wrong of racism, and call it what it is. But to think that most of us haven’t struggled with prejudice toward each other in some way, is surely to live in denial of the truth.

In Jesus, there is neither slave nor free, male nor female, we can say neither black nor white: we indeed are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). And yet our rich diversity is not lost, as we see in the last book of the Bible, Revelation. In the end, all cultures of humanity worship together, and are enriched by each other. We worship the God who through the Cross brings forgiveness and healing, and indeed has broken down the hatred existing between various peoples. Through the cross there is complete reconciliation to God and to each other. All in and through Jesus.

And so let us endeavor in some seemingly small way as a first step, if we haven’t done so already, to reach out in listening and learning from a black sister or brother. Let’s be open to the reality that racism is still very much alive even in the least expected places, sadly including Christian institutions. Most all of us need to repent. Let’s pray that an essential part of our witness of the gospel, needed just as much as any other part, will be fulfilled: how in Christ not only do the old divisions end, but how we’re one family in him. We should at least pray that this will be seen in the demographics of our churches, including the leadership.

The needed change comes through the grace and kingdom of God which is present with us now in and through Jesus, and the good news in him.

color blind?

I wonder what it means to be color blind, as in not really prejudice. All of us carry prejudice, that’s part of the human condition in our sin. We compare others with ourselves, setting ourselves up as the standard, while others do the same thing, looking at us. In that scenario, we all find each other lacking in some way.

But in Jesus, there’s a better way. We learn to quit comparing ourselves with others, as if we are all to be the same. We learn instead to ask questions, and learn to appreciate all the good in the richness and diversity of other ethnicities and cultures. While forgiving the shortcomings and sins in others, even as we hope they do for us.

The dream that Martin Luther King, Jr. had was an important one for America, and important to be pressed on American society. As he knew, the way of working toward that dream would be the way of peace and non-resistance based on the teachings of Jesus and the gospel, as he understood that.

If we’re to be the witness God has called us to be, we need to become more proactive in intentionally both fellowshipping and working together with other ethnicities. I’m especially thinking of whites and blacks (as my generation at least used to put it), but this includes along with African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and all the rest. The church should be known for its rich diversity. Instead, all too often, we’re divided up into this and that kind of churches. Some of that may be understandable. But by and large I’m afraid it reflects our lack in really reaching out to each other, in crossing cultural lines, which are not always easy to cross.

In Christ there is no wall between peoples, thanks to his death. In all our diversity we are one in Christ, one body in him. May we pray and work to that end until the day comes when perhaps we won’t be color blind, but will love all the colors God has made, expressed in his people in Jesus throughout the earth.