Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Divided States of America




I have now lived in the United States for 3 and a half years. I, my wife and 3 kids are all Canadian citizens. One of the most interesting things I have discovered while living here is the sharp racial divide that exists here.

There is nothing similar in Canada. Even the systematic racism against First Nations people is not the same. There is simply not the same amount of large populations of First Nations peoples living in urban centers. There does not seem to be a very large or significant First Nations middle class. And Canada is simply not an old enough nation to have the lengthy history of race relations as America does. First Nations peoples were not brought here as slaves but they were subjugated to European colonialism in their own land.

Felicia and I just watched a very compelling documentary called 13th on Netflix. It is a history of the black experience in America since the passing of the 13th amendment outlawing slavery. It is a fascinating piece that chronicles the continued control and coercion of African Americans. The film shows the stark divide that still exists. The fear whites have of black and the suspicion blacks have of whites.

Mass incarceration is a way of controlling and segregating a significant number of African American men. A stunning 30% of African American men will have some dealing with the criminal justice system. And the mandatory sentencing laws are simply ridiculous. Years and years in prison for minor drug non violent offenses. And then once freed these people can not get jobs, live in certain areas - they are still imprisoned.

One of the most stunning statements in the film comes from of all people, Newt Gingrich who admits "no white person knows what it is like to be black in America". I have to place myself in the category of a white person. I have encountered some racism growing up in Canada - but nothing like what African Americans have felt throughout their time in the United States. What I have observed in America is that the white friends I have seem completely oblivious and ignorant of the African American experience. The races grow up segregated from one another in separate silos. My white friends would not say they are racist - they simply don't know any blacks at a deep level.

This is a divided nation that no one wants to admit too. I do not feel reconciliation and healing will come until there is a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission such as what took place in South Africa after apartheid.

America has never done that - she has never fully reconciled with her history of brutality, torture and dehumanization. Its as if a couple of laws are passed and that's that - we're all equal. We are not all equal.

You would have to be blind and deaf to say that a 12 year old boy in inner city Chicago born to drug addicted parents, without a father and with no real options except to enter the drug trade has the same opportunities as my son. In many of these communities, the drug trade is the only working economy that people see. Conservatives point to individual morality. Liberals point to systematic and institutional dysfunction. Both are true. But, I think it is hard to exercise moral choices within an immoral and broken system.

America is changing. It will become less white and more brown. And this change scares some people. I think part of this fear has led to what is called the "alt-right" movement which is a movement defending western values. A lot of these groups are fiercely anti immigration.

But the truth is, we are not going back. America will actually soon be a white minority nation. This is simply the result of living in the times we live in where mass movements of people groups are much easier than in previous generations.

We can't go back. We can only forge forward and embrace the present and coming diversity. But America still needs to come to terms with its history. And then and only then can she move forward and build upon truth and not myth.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Drug War

On Monday this week I was invited to speak on a panel about the proposed "Ithaca Plan", put forward by the Mayor's office in the city of Ithaca. This is a comprehensive proposal to treat a drug epidemic in our county which claimed 3 lives over Mother's Day weekend this year.

It was a meeting which ran from 12:30-4:30 (My involvement was about an hour long.) I sat on a panel with a clergyman from Chicago who leads a national movement of Clergy for Drug Renewal, and a former District Attorney from Washington D.C. who also campaigns for drug law reform.

Here are 2 things that I shared that I think are worth passing on to you:

My motivation to speak out -  One is the nature of God. The God of the Bible is revealed as a God on the side of the poor, marginalized and rejected. Constantly choosing the younger and weaker to accomplish his purposes. Another  motivation is the nature of humanity. Human beings are created in the image of God and because of that fact both deserve respect and love. The tragedy is we have dehumanized addicts and therefore devalued them as well.

An IV drug user has as much human worth as an Ivy League college professor.

Secondly, It is hard to see people who are far away from you. When someone is close to you, you can see them more clearly. Most middle and upper middle class people have never been close enough to speak to a street involved drug addict. Therefore, they have not actually seen them very well. The same is true of drug treatment programs - we simply have not seen them personally in action. It is easy to reject something whose impact you have never seen before.

Upon further reflection, I think we need both enforcement and treatment. Without law enforcement, we do not really have a society any more. Our communities would devolve into anarchic inhuman places. We need laws and men and women who will enforce such laws. And we need places of confinement for those who refuse to obey said laws.

But, we also need treatment. Prison itself cannot reform a heroin addict. The addict needs medical treatment, mental and emotional counseling, love, care and support to deal with the underlying trauma and pain that prompted the initial entry into the eventual prison cell of addiction.

And in treatment, in love, care and compassion is where the church can enter in. Where is the addict go to learn how to re-enter society? If convicted of a felony, many of them cannot get jobs, vote or live in certain areas. It is to these discarded human beings that the church can reach out in love, say their names and partner with God to help them see themselves as human beings once again.

Narcotics have wreaked the most harm in our society than anything else and it is a time for the church to engage this issue head on. 125 people will die of an overdose in America today.

The call to Israel that Moses shared is the same call the church today must embrace:

Life and death is set before us - we must choose life, so that we and our children will live.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The Missing Heart of Christian Leadership

I am currently teaching an adult education class in my church called "Personal Spiritual Formation". It is based on material put out by the dean of the seminary I currently attend, Dr. Ron Walborn. 25 adults signed up for the class and I ended up having to turn away others who showed interest.

As we have been working through the material someone commented to me that this class is not what they thought it was going to be. This class covers things like grieving and honesty. I think what has happened is that for many of us spiritual formation simply means learning more things - head knowledge. But, the material I am teaching goes deeper - it goes to the heart.

The reason I feel this material is important is because there is something missing in contemporary Christianity. We have lost our hearts. What I mean is is that we have absolutely excellent academic training in areas of theology, hermeneutics, exegesis and biblical scholarship. Almost anyone can now access some of the best academics in these areas. And the bulk of our seminary training is focused on these areas.

But, there has been inadequate focus on the soul of the leader. Why are you the way you are?
Can you handle criticism?
What is the level of anger that you operate under?
Why are you addicted to ......?
Are people seen as stepping stones to something else, or are they human beings that you love?

You see, underneath biblical scholarship, charismatic leadership and academic finesse lies a heart that may or may not be wounded.

What has happened in the last 3 years is 3 high profile ministry leaders have been forced out of their positions due to heart problems. All of them were theologically orthodox, excellent leaders and prolific authors - but they had hearts that had yet to be fully transformed by the Holy Spirit.

Heart work is hard work because it forces us to deal with our fears, hurts and insecurities - and who wants to deal with that?

But, the reality is, is that if these are not dealt with, we might build up big churches or ministries and destroy other human beings in the process.

Deal with your heart. Speak the truth in love to yourself.

Friday, March 18, 2016

No Longer Evangelical?


I got a Bible!

I am having an identity crisis.
For almost my entire adult life I have self identified as an evangelical Christian.
But, my identity has been hijacked.
Evangelical Christianity has been severed from its roots in the gospel and has been replanted amidst very confusing political soil.

And I don't know who I am anymore.

This dilemma traces its origins back several decades. In the 1980's progressive Christian Tony Campolo was loudly declaring that evangelicals in America no longer believed in the Jesus of the gospels, but instead they had transformed him into a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Republican.
And THAT Jesus is impotent to do anything for us. (Because he is a figment of our imagination).

Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention has renounced the label and now calls himself a Gospel Christian.

Evangelical traces its roots to the word evangel - which in turn traces its root to the Greek word euangelion - which means "good news". It was first used to refer to a herald who would travel to a neighboring city and declare the "eungelion" of the king.
Early Christians co-opted the term and used it to label the message of Christ. euangelion = gospel.

The term caught on with British and American Christians who were involved in revival movements in the 18th C. I believe there are 3 essentials of being defined as an evangelical:

1. Bible - Belief in the centrality and authority of the Bible. The Bible is the inspired Word of God.

2. The Cross - Centrality of Cross. Upon the Cross, Jesus Christ died as an atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins of all who will repent.

3. Jesus Christ - 2nd person of the Trinity. Fully God and fully human. Salvation is not found anywhere else outside of Christ's death on the cross.

There are other beliefs that evangelicals hold on to as well - but these 3 are central and primary.

I find it hard to believe that 1 in 4 Americans claim to be evangelical Christians. If they are, they must be of a nominal variety because the general culture in America is decidedly either anti-christian or simply apathetic.

And now evangelical christians are described in the news as simply another voting bloc. This group of voters appear to be white, conservative and nostalgic for a day when the Christian ethic reigned - or at least culture was more sympathetic to it.

I got news for you - we're not going back. We no longer have the biggest seat at the table. Be grateful we still have a seat. We need to learn how to play nice with others. The west is morphing into a pseudo-pluraility of beliefs and cultures.


And Evangelicals need to learn to respond. And building tall walls and banning other religions from immigrating sound like a very odd "eungelion". It is not good news to those not like us and it is not good news for us. I have also been combing my New Testament to figure out how we can possibly justify "taking care" of those Muslims with our concealed carry weapons. Haven't found anything - I did find one part where Jesus yells at one of his disciples for cutting off a guy's ear with a sword. He then heals the ear and tells his follower to put his sword away.

I don't know if I fit in with what evangelical has come to mean. Maybe I'll start something new - like Gospel Truth Christians.

What do you think?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The End of Civilization

A couple of weeks I used an illustration in a sermon concerning the anthropologist Margaret Mead. In a University lecture, Mead asked the students what was the first sign of civilization?
She held up various objects:
a bowl?
a weapon?
the forging of iron?
Mead said none of these were the first signs of civilization.
She then held up a human femur bone. Upon closer inspection, you could see that the bone had been broken and then had healed over.
She said - the healing of this bone means that someone cared for this person.
Someone hunted for them.
Fed them.
Insured their personal comfort.
.... all at expense to their own needs.
Civilization began there and is only sustained if human beings can continue to display these same acts continue on through our line.
To care for the broken among us is the sign that the body of humanity is still healthy and functioning.
This story that I have shared via my friend Selina Robinson shows us what will be part of the downward trajectory of human civilization.
Fran Flann has been forced to live in a homeless shelter while recovering from cancer surgery while her apartment undergoes repairs. She shares her days and nights with the usual broken inhabitants of such places: the mentally ill, drug addicted, recent prison released. Mainly men.
If you read further down, you will read of the desperation among social workers trying to house people like Fran. People who "fall through the cracks". With each individual descent, our culture also falls .... away from civilization, towards animalistic sadism.
Fran is homeless because of an institutional breakdown of those who have both the power and resources to expend towards her recovery.
I pray and hope someone will enter her life and help her femur heal - and we can continue to live in a civilization.

Here is Fran's plight:

Saturday, January 16, 2016

What Have We Learned? Reflections on my Doctoral Program.



My band of brothers in the DMIN program.

I got back Wednesday evening after a 10 day intensive of the first module of my Dr. of Ministry program at Alliance Theological Seminary. Classes ran from 8 AM - 5 PM everyday except for Sunday.

My cohort has 11 students and then I was in a smaller group of 4. We will study together for the next 3 years, gathering twice a year for this same immersive experience.

My journey to this particular seminary is quite interesting. I was actually prepared to study at another larger and better known seminary. But God stepped in and changed my direction. It happened through a Christian family camp in the Adirondacks that we attend every summer.  Camp of the Woods is a beautiful Christian resort that brings in top rate speakers and has an excellent children and youth program.

This year Dr. Martin Sanders of ATS was one of the speakers. He spoke on "the soul". Felicia, my parents and I were profoundly moved by his messages as he spoke about the importance of cultivating a soul that is close to the heart of God.

During the week, I spoke to him about my interest in doctoral studies in theology. He shared about the program at ATS. It piqued my interest. But, once we got back, I put it out of my mind. Martin was gracious enough to reach out to me and invite me to continue to think and pray about applying to the program.

After some time, Felicia and I felt the time was right to start the program at ATS. As I started the reading, and looked at the classes, it appeared the initial phase of the program is geared towards wholeness and health of a leader. We also start on the early stages of our dissertation which is a rigorous academic exercise.

I have to be honest - the 10 days at ATS were some of the most powerful and transformative days of my life. This is due to the fact that the classes and exercises forced us to focus down into the state of our souls - are we healthy leaders?
Are we carrying unhealthy baggage into our leadership and our churches?
Are there things we need to repent of?
How have we been wounded?
Have we grieved past hurts?
Are we walking int he spiritual authority that God has given us?

I was especially blessed by the small group I was placed in. 2 pastors from New Jersey and one from the Upper Hudson area. I love these guys - they are truly brothers in the battle as we shared openly and honestly about our lives and ministries.

It is hard for me to summarize succinctly what I walk away from the program with. I think one of the things is that I long for people to enter into everything that God has for them.
So often, we shield our hearts form God's love and the love of others due to past hurts. God has so much more for us!
So much more love!
So much more power!

We simply need to open up our hearts and choose to walk in the light and love that He has for us.

What do you believe God for? He can do it - and actually will do more than you can ask or imagine - Eph. 3:20.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Tight-Rope

Read a story about a mega-church pastor who had been cheating on his wife for the past few months.
He got caught.
He was fired and stripped of all his ministry credentials.
And then he filed for divorce.

The Christian life is a tight-rope. We can fall off either side.
What keeps us tethered and balanced is our relationship with God - nothing else.
The power of God flowing through our souls can keep us upright, when temptation screams all around us.

But most of us neglect this primary relationship. Placing the demands of ministry ahead of all else can be devastating.
Identity needs to be grounded in relational reality, not vocational reality.
We are children of God, before we are pastors, leaders, teachers, etc.