Monday, January 20, 2014

racism, the evangelical church...and the idol that divides us

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here’s something to consider: I believe the evangelical church in America has an idol to tear down that keeps us from being healed along racial lines…and it could be argued that our racial brokenness is one of the biggest barriers in Jesus’ prayer that we would be one. But first, let’s begin this story some twenty-six-hundred years ago…

“King Josiah removed all the detestable idols from all the territory belonging to the Israelites, and he had all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God. As long as he lived, they did not fail to follow the Lord, the God of their fathers.” (2 Chronicles 34:33)

Some Hebrew scholars translate the Hebrew word for Josiah—Yoshiyahu—as Healed by Jehovah. Josiah is famous in Israel for tearing down the idols Israel had created, for bringing restoration and healing, even though his father and his grandfather were wickedly violent.

In the next verses it reads that, “Josiah celebrated the Passover to the Lord in Jerusalem, and the Passover lamb was slaughtered on the fourteenth day of the first month.” (2 Chronicles 35:1)

A few verses later: “The Passover (that’s the celebration of redemption, of freedom, from slavery) had not been observed like this in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel (that’s nearly 400 years earlier!); and none of the kings of Israel had ever celebrated such a Passover as did Josiah…” (2 Chronicles 35:18a)

When idols are torn down, the healing can start…and the Real Party begins.

I believe there’s an unspoken idol in the American evangelical church that divides us along racial lines. This idol is so deeply imbedded in the white evangelical church culture that we aren’t even aware of it. It’s American Christian Nationalism.

Nationalism could be described as an excessive patriotism toward a person’s country. But the big problem is when it’s mixed up with Christianity and what that does to black-and-white relations.

I’ve been in churches where there are American flags on the podium and heard messages on how America was chosen by God, about Manifest Destiny, about our Christian-nation roots and heard choirs sing “God Bless America”. It was the American evangelist Billy Sunday who said, “Christianity and patriotism are synonymous terms…and hell and traitors are synonymous.”

I’ve also been in churches where there were rants against America along the “come-out-from-among-them” slant. That is, America was disqualified from God’s favor and His judgment was upon us. In right-leaning churches it was because of abortion, pornography, and threats against religious freedom; in left-leaning churches it was because of environmental exploitation, systemic injustice, and disregard for the poor.

In the book of Exodus, Joshua was chosen to lead the nation after Moses’ death into the land that had been promised to them by God. There was one major problem: the path was blocked by the heavily fortified city of Jericho…and Jericho wasn’t excited about Israel’s tour through their personal space.

Joshua wasn’t sure what to do and has a Twilight Zone encounter that leaves him shaken. He comes upon a soldier with his weapon drawn and asks him whose side he’s on. The man cryptically replies, “Neither. I’ve come as the commander of God’s armies.” Joshua hit the bricks face down and worshiped.

God cannot be invoked to join our side. Rather, He has a plan for His planet. The question is: will we join His purposes?

Here’s how it works. The Church has a primary purpose: to turn lost people into lovers of Jesus. Jesus’ last words were “Go! Go make disciples of all nations.” That phrase “of all nations” is important; it’s the primary thing the Church is called to do here on earth…and the Church will be held accountable for its faithfulness to that purpose. Jesus said, “You’re my associates if you do what I say.” You and I will be held accountable for our faithfulness to that purpose of bringing lost children to their heavenly Father, turning them into lovers of God.

Therefore, anything that compromises that mission is dangerous. It’s an idol. What could keep us from making followers of Jesus in every ethnicity, every nationality, every political persuasion? Are we exporting American Religion…or the Kingdom of God?

In less than fifty years, only about one-fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be Caucasian. Philip Jenkins in his book The Next Christendom writes that soon “the phrase ‘a White Christian’ may sound like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as ‘a Swedish Buddhist.’”

And so often when I see the American version of Christianity being beamed around the world via T.V., it breaks my heart. Here’s the New Reality: Followers of Jesus are citizens of a different kind of nation. Our citizenship is singular. Peter understood that when he wrote: …You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9) That’s a “called-out people with a mission”—to declare the awesome grace of God. When Paul wrote that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, he was crossing tough boundaries and scaring the daylights out of people.

I have a philosophical and scriptural problem with talking about America “returning to its Christian heritage.” For Caucasian baby-boomers it often implies the syndicated world of Leave It To Beaver (after all, it was in 1954 that the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance). For most white boomers, that sounds appealing. But let me make a crazy guess…if you’re an African-American, I’m pretty confident you don’t want to go back. Going back to that so-called “Christian heritage” is not appealing to African-Americans…and yet the evangelical church has idealized it and idolized it.

Only a few short centuries ago, in the formation of this nation, it’s estimated over ten million men, women and children were taken from the west coasts of Africa, chained, sometimes marched for miles, shoehorned into boats where several million died of starvation and disease in the four month journey across the ocean to a foreign country. Over ten million. Sold and traded like farm animals. For over two hundred years this was the systematic oppression of a single race for a new country’s economy. That’s why the Bible says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.

In 1774, John Wesley described the slave trade like this: “When the vessels arrive at their destined port, the Negroes are again exposed naked to the eyes of all that flock together and the examination of their purchasers. Then they are separated to the plantations of their several masters, to see each other no more. Here you may see mothers hanging over their daughters . . . and daughters clinging to their parents, till the whipper soon obliges them to part. And what can be more wretched than the condition they then enter upon? Banished from their country, from their friends and relations for ever, from every comfort of life, they are reduced to a state scarce anyway preferable to that of beasts of burden.. . . . Did the Creator intend that the noblest creatures in the visible world should live such a life as this?”

In a letter to William Wilberforce (the driver behind outlawing slave trade in England), Wesley called American slavery, “the vilest that ever saw the sun”

Slave-owner William Byrd—a gentleman from high-society circles in London who settled in Virginia—wrote in his diary this chilling “Christian” account:

“February 8, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock this morning and read a chapter in Hebrew and 200 verses in Homer’s Odyssey. I ate milk for breakfast. I said my prayers. Jenny and Eugene were whipped. I danced my dance…

“June 10, 1709.  …In the evening I took a walk about the plantation.  Eugene was whipped for running away and had the bit put on him.  I said my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty.

“December 3, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock and read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Cassius. I said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. Eugene pissed in bed again for which I made him drink a pint of piss…”

In talking about his slaves, Thomas Jefferson said that “…blacks are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” That’s an embarrassment to America. Let’s call it what it is: sin.

One reason it’s important to give a historical context for race relations in America is because of a spiritual principle called the law of the harvest: whatever you plant, you’ll eventually harvest. In his book The Immigrant Heritage of America, Norman Coombs writes:

“One characteristic which set American slavery apart was its racial basis. In America, with only a few early and insignificant exceptions, all slaves were Africans, and almost all Africans were slaves. This placed the label of inferiority on black skin and on African culture. . . . In general, there were five steps in molding the character of a slave: strict discipline, a sense of his own inferiority, belief in the master’s superior power, acceptance of the master’s standards, and, finally, a deep sense of his own helplessness and dependence. At every point this education was built on the belief in white superiority and black inferiority.”

My mom’s alcoholic father told her throughout her childhood that she was stupid. Every week she was told she was stupid. She dropped out of high school. To this day, my 87 year-old mother—who is saved and Spirit-filled—will refer to herself as being stupid—which is far from the truth. As a matter of fact, scripture says she has the mind of Christ.

Now try to imagine centuries of behavioral and psychological training of an entire race and culture.

Here are a few of the statistics of the harvest:
  • 45% of black children live below the poverty line, compared with 16% of whites.
  • While black students represent 16% of all public school students, they make up nearly 40% of those classed as learning disabled.
  • Right now, there are more black men in jail than in college. Why isn’t the evangelical church brokenhearted by that—regardless of the reason?
  • The median net worth of blacks is 8% the median net worth of whites. It’s clear who has the money.
  • Unemployment is nearly twice as high in the black community
  • Infant mortality is twice the rate among blacks than white.
  • African-American mothers are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers because of inadequate medical care in many black communities.
  • Nearly 60% of white people believe that race relations in their community are good; only 39% of blacks think so.
This is not America-bashing: I’m glad I live in America. It beats North Korea hands-down. I’m thrilled we have incredible freedom. I’m impressed that men and women died to advance an ideal of democracy.

But I’m not proud of parts of our history.

We can appreciate the sacrifices of the Founding Fathers without turning them into Christian icons. But let’s be honest: it wasn’t a Christian nation in the strictest sense. The Trail of Tears where four thousand Cherokees died in a thousand-mile forced march to Oklahoma is not a Christian nation. And it’s certainly not a theocracy. These are things that make me angry as a white American. It’s being honest with all our history.

Sometimes I wonder if the desire to “go back” to what was perceived as a Christian “Golden Age” has more to do with retaining a perception of power. The problem may be an issue of control, of power. One day a group of angry Pharisees got together and said about Jesus in John 11: “…If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” John 11:45-48 (New International Version)

Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t an issue of the evangelical Church wanting to retain power. The brilliant theologian Kierkegaard saw a huge danger in his own country with the idea that the purposes of God are met by some alliance of church and state. Historically, state-churches, or pseudo-Christian nations, quickly become watered down in their expression of Christianity…and the country’s purpose gets confused with the plan of God for this planet. The Church is not the moral policeman of the world; it’s the messenger of God’s grace.

The “Big C” Church has never been about earthly power. Never has, never will. The true Church has never desired to have political power, to control, because their kingdom is not of this world. One day Jesus will return and establish His theocracy, a world government based on His Lordship, with willing subjects who lead with love. But for now, the power of the Church is found in healing and serving…in bringing God’s shalom. When Jesus left His Father’s side, and became human like us, He gave us the ultimate picture of how the Church is to behave: just like Him.

Here’s the theological principle: Reconciliation is the responsibility of the people in power. In the Kingdom of God, African-Americans must extend forgiveness to me, their white brother. But there’s something vitally missing in that for me: If I don’t ask for forgiveness and show fruits of repentance by seeking systemic and individual justice, then I’m going to miss the transformational power of love in my life. It is always the responsibility of the people of privilege and power to seek reconciliation, not the other way around. That’s what Jesus did: left the privileges of heaven to reconcile the world to Himself, became a servant.

Reconciliation—by slipping into the skin and understanding the world of those not in power—is the core of Christianity. That’s the incarnation. Paul sums it up like this in Philippians 2: Your attitude should be the kind that was shown us by Jesus Christ, who, though he was God, did not demand and cling to his rights as God, but laid aside his mighty power and glory, taking the disguise of a slave and becoming like men. And he humbled himself even further, going so far as actually to die a criminal’s death on a cross. (Philippians. 2:5-8 Living Bible)

Jesus had all the power and all the privilege and rights with His Father, they were one in the same. But something remarkable happened because of love: He slipped into the skin of a slave. He knows what it’s like because He did the unthinkable: He became one of us. That’s the responsibility of the one with the power.

That’s what each one of us is called to do—to slip into the skin of someone else, so we can feel what they feel and see what they see, and so love them to the fullest. That’s real love. As Paul writes: You know how full of love and kindness our Lord Jesus was: though he was so very rich, yet to help you he became so very poor…. (2 Corinthians 8:9a Living Bible)

It’s incarnational Christianity. And it’s all about love. And when I see the “Christian Nation” philosophy—one of the biggest idols in the evangelical church—through my black brother’s eyes, then I let go of all claims, defenses and earthly power, and become one with him.

And like Josiah, we have this major idol to pull down. When the idols were torn down, Israel partied at the Passover like they hadn’t in centuries.

When our idol comes down, then we can celebrate the True Passover—the broken Body of the Sacrifice Lamb—whom Paul says in Ephesians 2:14 & 16 is “our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall . . . and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross... (Ephesians 2:14, 16)

And then perhaps we—the Church—will be like Josiah, YoshiyahuHealed by Jehovah.

My friend Ray McMillan has a great resource: Race To Unity. You can support him here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

why i belong to the vineyard movement

A gazillion years ago when I was a traveling musician, we had been touring across the country a good bit and with our second album release (vinyl, anyone?) we played a concert in our lovely hometown of Cincinnati. Through some odd circumstances that night, I ended up invited to lunch with someone named Walt, who not only was a fan of the growing Jesus-music world, but had an ulterior motive: to invite me to a new church he was a part of—the Vineyard.

It was meeting in a house in Mason Ohio, which seemed like the uttermost regions to me. I immediately went back on the road again, but my wife decided to check it out while I was touring. When I eventually got home, she said simply: I think you’re going to like this.

So on a Sunday night in 1984 we made the drive from Norwood to a house in Mason. Crammed in the living room were about twenty people and Steve Sjogren on a twelve-string guitar. As he sung some extremely laid-back unfamiliar California songs (“…change my heart, oh God, make it ever true…”), Anita and I found ourselves inexplicably crying. I don’t know if I was burned out from my then ten-year journey as a Christian—from Jesus-movement, charismatic, word-of-faith, to traveling musician—but it struck a chord in me: pared-down no-hype worship, a marriage between evangelicalism and the power of the Holy Spirit, and, as I soon discovered, a heart for the poor.

Could church be that simple? I felt like I had returned to my Jesus-people roots.

We never left. Two years later I left the band, found work at local recording studio, and began leading worship as a volunteer for the Vineyard Christian Fellowship that had now moved to a roomier hall at Scarlet Oaks Vocational School in Sharonville.

It was the transparency, honesty, the simple invitation of “Come Holy Spirit”, the laid-back approach, the lack of “religious airs”, the simple outreaches to the poor, the “kinships” (small groups), the churchplanting emphasis, the humble approach to praying for healing, and non-manipulative worship style that kept me. It was refreshingly different. Steve’s irreligious, outward-focused attitude challenged my inner cynic; he had me at hello.

And so I found my tribe.

As the years passed, while we planted dozens of Vineyard churches directly and indirectly, my understanding of our place in the larger Vineyard movement was fuzzy. We had become extremely outward-focused, struggling to maintain seven services every weekend (not to mention a midweek!) in a building that seated a little under six-hundred. The Vineyard movement seemed to have struggled through several different phases, from equipping conferences to the Kansas City prophets to the Toronto Blessing. At times it felt like we were a bit on the outs.

For various reasons, we had developed what felt to me a tenuous relationship with the movement as a whole; by 2000, I had only been to one national pastors conference in the previous sixteen years. From his Anaheim roots, Steve obviously had developed relationships with the earliest Vineyard movers-and-shakers. But whether geography or personalities or just the speed-of-life, it was sometimes an awkward bond.

That year I stepped into the senior pastor role at Vineyard Cincinnati and Rich Nathan invited me to attend the once-a-year regional leaders meetings in Columbus (though I had no formalized role in the movement). The national Vineyard had survived the death of its founder three years earlier, was redefining itself and in the unsexy throes of developing systems and processes.

We had given very little financially to the national movement over the years, but the push was stirring for a mandatory 3% of local church income to go to Vineyard USA. This was creating an issue for many churches and feeling like the slide toward a more institutionalized, denominational approach. In the free-wheeling, baby-boomer, Kingdom-oriented Vineyards, this seemed like a disturbance in the force.

But now that I was feeling the unique frustrations of leading a growing megachurch (read: herd of cats) and the tension of trying to grow outward-focused disciples, I came upon a simple realization: I could only ultimately move forward with our Kingdom mission to “love the people of Cincinnati into relationship with Jesus” if I had a certain percentage of sold-out, skin-in-the-game disciples. And in the American me-first, consumer-driven culture, letting go of money was the most difficult thing.

I quickly discovered that the people in our church who were most demanding and criticial were typically those who invested the least. In other words, it’s way easier to be an armchair quarterback on Monday night than to actually suit up and get leveled by a two-hundred-fifty pound defensive end. Multiple times if you’re Ryan Tannehill.

But I was no different at a global level.

Truth is, I found it easy to take potshots at the Vineyard movement as a whole (phases, trends, direction, etc.) when we didn’t have a lot of skin in the game. But it was the same thing that bothered me as a pastor with non-invested parishioners. And God nailed me on it.

So years ago I came to the leaders of our region at a Columbus meeting and repented. I told them we had not been fully invested and was embarrassed by it. They responded  graciously, “No, you guys have always been a big help to lots of us and led the charge in servant evangelism. Vineyard Cincinnati has always given away resources and time to us.”

“Yeah, but on our terms,” I said. “And that’s not how real relationships work. And certainly not how to respond to leadership.”

After conversations with our trustee board, we began the process of giving the three-percent. For us at the time, it really was a difficult decision and required budget cuts in other areas to the tune of several hundred thousands of dollars. But it wasn’t the “three percent” that was the issue; it merely represented something deeper than that.

At the heart of it is this: I would have said that I was a firm believer and respecter of spiritual authority. The best leaders have at some point been good followers; there’s a holistic tempering that happens in that process. I knew that in the local church there has to be leadership structures in order to have focused impact. I fully subscribed to Hebrews 13:17—“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority…”—and expected it with healthy symbiotic relationships in the local church.

But here I had been resistant to the spiritual leaders of the tribe I said I belonged to. We were a church of cowboys; stubbornly independent, unfenced and uncorralled.

There has to be more than mere tribal identification; there is the reality of spiritual authority. And there is no real spiritual authority without spiritual followership. That’s when I questioned my investment in the movement.

So I’m personally not a fan of the independent local church. And “networks” are not the same, because truthfully there’s no real sense of accountability and buy-in to something bigger than your own fiefdom. Although there’s no overpowering hierarchy in the national Vineyard movement, there’s enough relational capital and leadership investment that demands some submissive responsibility. And for me, I think that’s a tremendous safeguard for any church, even in an internal board-empowered organization. If Jesus is the CEO of the whole Church, shouldn’t it make sense that we learn the power and beauty of submissive health through earthly relationships?

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not into entrepreneurial-strangling, institutionally-heavy, bloated bureaucracies. But how do we ask our people to be fully invested and yet we leaders of local churches are resistant to it ourselves? I’ll admit it: the current trend of people attending multiple churches and never committing to one drives me crazy as a pastor: how do you lead people missionally with that consumeristic approach and have any true sense of challenge and accountability?

The Vineyard movement is my family. Yep, the one with the crazy uncle and the second-cousin-removed that makes awkward comments at the family reunion. But it’s my family.

And the leaders of the movement have the unenviable job of making ecclesiastical decisions and giving direction for a much larger herd of cats that require me to weigh…and follow.

This is my tribe.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

the problem with power

About four-thousand years ago God spoke to a nobody; only family members and relatives would have known him. His nomadic dad was traveling to Canaan but stopped at a town in Turkey and settled. It was there God spoke to Abraham and told him: “Leave what’s familiar and I’ll make a nation out of you. And here’s the Big Deal, Abraham: you will bless the entire world.” We later discover that he would do that through Abraham’s descendent.

Which recently got me thinking: what does it mean to bless an entire planet? How would I do that? Would that mean I’d have the power to make people happy? To end all wars? To eliminate disease and pain? To introduce or enforce a global shalom?

Don’t we believe we would have to have a reasonable amount of power to bless the whole earth? But even at our altruistic best, how would we keep the peace between individuals/tribes/religions/nations who want some sort of power over another? If you’re a parent of more than one child, you know this isn’t simple. Every nation and state attempts to keep peace by wielding power, as in: Who has the bigger stick? In societies, we grant power and authority to certain people (police, lawyers, military, etc.) so that hopefully bad people bent on evil are quarantined.

And, of course, not all power-holders are the good guys. If you think Wall Street is filled with benevolent boys and girls bent on creating and managing a healthy economy for everyone to enjoy, I have a bridge for sale. From the drug lords of Juarez to politicians in high places to the pimp in the alley to the aspiring VP wanting the corner office, power is the drug of choice. As John Stuart Mill smartly observed, “Men do not desire to be rich, only to be richer than other men”. And even in our best moments, we think of power as the way to manage peace in a world of bent and broken people.

If you’re a Jesus-worshipper (and doing that presupposes him as God), then you automatically buy into the idea that he’s God-come-in-the-flesh. And it’s Jesus who shocks everyone when he says, “Come to me—all you who are tired and weighed down—and I’ll personally give you rest.” Notice he doesn’t say, “Follow my seven habits and life will be better, but simply, “Come to me.”

But then he follows that up with:  “…for I am gentle and humble in heart.” Seriously? The One with all the power?

It freshly struck me the other day that I’ve never really thought of God Himself as being humble. After all, he’s omnipotent, not to mention omniscient, omnipresent…omnieverything. If you believe in a personalized First Cause of any sort, it’s hard to not be awed.

But humble? Really?—God is humble?

If the Second Adam came in the shape of God, then He—Creator, Judge, Savior, Sustainer, Reconciler, God—says with simple, nakedly-honest self-awareness: I am humble. Think about it: no one can do that but God. Try it yourself and see where it gets you with your co-workers.

Suddenly Abraham’s promise followed by centuries of prophetic announcements regarding the “great and terrible day of the Lord” are shaded in radically different colors. Matter-of-factly, Peter confidently states on Pentecost that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is what God was really describing when He spoke of the “great day of the Lord.” In other words: it’s already happened and happening.

Translation: God looks at power very differently than we do.

It also means that the way to bless the world will never be by power. Be honest: in our most benevolent times when we dream about how we would rule the world if we were king, we still have to admit that all the power in the world can’t change the human heart. And that’s the power of Jesus.

Maybe it’s time we Christians reconsider how we think about power. In relationships. In politics. In culture. In organizations. In every way.

I’m not talking about abdication. But wouldn’t it behoove us to take some time to wrestle with this question: How did Jesus bless the world? Wouldn’t that be worth emulating? And is the servant (us) ever above the master (Jesus) in terms of practice or priority? That’s a rhetorical question.

How serious are we about blessing the whole world?

I’m not sure.

“Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the LORD Almighty. (Zechariah 4:6b)