N.T. Wright is among the two or three most influential theologians alive today. And recently, I had the privilege of spending some time with him.
“Pastor, I appreciate that you preached about racism, today,” he said. “But, I always appreciate a good gospel sermon, too.” He shook my hand, walked away, and I moved on to speak to the next person. A small line usually forms around a pastor after his sermon, after all. But this man’s passing comment made a lasting impression on me. You see, this man probably didn’t mean anything by this phrase. I had, in fact, preached about racism that Sunday. I had also worked hard to make that sermon a gospel-saturated sermon. Yet, despite my best efforts, this man managed to walk away thinking I preached about race, and not about Jesus. There are race issues, and there are Jesus issues, with a semi-permeable membrane between them.
And that, right there, is the problem.
We white people have the luxury of thinking this way because we almost never, ever have to think about being white. We just are. Then, when confronted by our black, asian, or hispanic bothers and sisters about their experiences with racism we think, “Well why don’t they just think like me? I never think about being white, so they should stop thinking so much about being black.” When we think this way (or worse, talk this way) we do our non-white friend a double injustice: we misunderstand their experience, and we, white people, demand they change to be more like us.
Inability or unwillingness prevents us from seeing that most people of color don’t ever get a day off from thinking about their ethnicity. Why? Because we live in a culture that just won’t let them. So, we go on thinking that there are race issues and Jesus issues. “Systemic injustice may or may not exist,” we tell ourselves, “but I’m just going to preach the gospel.” And we are wrong, because race issues are Jesus issues.
A Tale of Two Scriptures
When Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus he gave some of the most beautiful words to those Jesus issues. The glory and greatness of the gospel expound in Ephesians 2:1-10 is one of those well-worn paths in my Bible.
“You were dead in your trespasses … but God being rich in mercy made you alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved…”
Yet, despite my love for this part of Ephesians, I never saw how it necessarily connects to 2:11-22.
“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.”
And as any good New Testament exegete would know (or at least, should know) these two passages are connected with the magic word “therfore” (v. 11) That is, Paul built his whole case for ethnic unity and mutual love atop the gospel, not apart from it.
A Tale of Two (More) Scriptures
Lest you think that such a connection is a one-off Pauline fluke, join me in 2 Corinthains 5. Again, this chapter contains one of my favorite Scriptures,
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
That is a wonderful bit of news: that God exchange my unrighteous sinfulness with Jesus’s perfect and beautiful righteousness. But that verse summarizes an entire chapter on reconciliation!
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 For 5:18-19)
In other words, the preaching of the message, “God wants to reconcile you to himself,” is organically connected to the message, “God is reconciling the world to himself.” So, as Paul says, “Be reconciled to God!” (v. 20)
The Cost and The Opportunity
For a long time the American church missed this connection. But God was not content to let people of color languish, so he raised deliverers out from under the white, evangelical church. But what if we white folks allowed that fact to wake us from the slumbering insufficiency of believing there are Jesus issues and race issues. If we go on thinking like that, then answers to our nation will seek answers to race issues from every other source but Jesus. That cost is too high to bear.
No, let it be said of us that we seized the opportunity to love God more, to love the gospel more, and to love our neighbors more be finally embracing the fact that race issues are gospel issues. Therefore, confronting racism isn’t an option for Jesus’ people. It’s built in to the great commission.
Paul seemed to think so. So, I wonder. Do you?
I loved my Papa Bill. This week, after 86 years of life, his body gave way to the entropy of time. When I found out the end was near I got in my car and drove to Florida from Boston. Normally I don't make that trip by car, but having just been hit with a blizzard, Boston was shut down. The 1,500 mile journey afforded me some unexpected gifts, one of which was the opportunity to reflect on my grandfather.
Those who know me know that my family is not picturesque. We're a messy patchwork with lots of frayed edges, for sure. But that hardly means that tender reflection is impossible. Of course, there are no perfect families. Yet, thinking on the life of my grandfather has produced three clear lessons I wish to learn from him. As a way of honoring him, I offer them to you.
It's About People
William Herman Hall was born May 22, 1930. Growing up in the midst of The Great Depression, he spent his days working in his father's grocery store and pinching whatever pennies came his way. Later in life, Bill would find great success in business. Yet, growing up in a depression had a different effect on him than it had on many of his time. Where lack made some miserly, it only served to show Bill what was really important — people.
As a businessman, and later on in retirement, he would become known as a relentlessly generous, jovial man who never missed a chance to be with his friends. Success was never about the stuff, it was just an opportunity to be with people.
As an achiever who often makes hitting goals more important than cultivating relationships, this is a lesson I want to learn.
Start Stuff and Mentor Men
Papa Bill went into business with his uncle right out of college. He took a small restaurant and innovated it into a career with multiple successful businesses. His entrepreneurial drive mingled with his love for people made him a business mentor for many. My own father has what he has and does what he does because Papa Bill approached my parents with an entrepreneurial idea. With capital both in money and wisdom, he did this with many young men, helping them build legacies that simply wouldn't exist without him.
I can't help but think this is incredibly Christ-like. As a dude who trying to kill his own messiah complex, I'm grateful to have the example of a man who didn't need to be the star of the show. He just needed to know that his creativity was catapulting other men into their destinies. I want to be like that.
Give Your Burdens to Jesus
Like all of us, Papa Bill had regrets. His was not a perfect life. There were particular tragedies that weighed upon him for too many years. Humans are not designed to hold the weights of our own difficulties alone. But strong patriarchs aren't quick to share pain. This is a tendency in my own heart — trying to pay forward the costs that my past follies wish to extract. But that's a bill none of us can meet, no matter how successful.
In what would be my final visit with my Papa Bill, I took him to lunch. After an afternoon together we sat in the car, talking. I loved to listen to his stories, so I'd ask tons of questions. This was also the moment where, for the first time, I got to help my Papa Bill give his burdens to Jesus. He wasn't a particularly religious man, but tears streamed down his life-worn cheeks as we prayed for the grace of God's great burden-bearer to help.
In a few days I'll drive back to Boston. The funeral will be over, families will return home, and the new normal will settle in uncomfortably, as it always must after a death. Time will probably afford me the chance to see much more to learn from my Papa Bill. But, if I can get these three lessons, I'll be a little more like him and a little more like Jesus, and I'm more than a little okay with that.
Yesterday was one of those days. One of those days you're startlingly reminded that God has a real enemy, and he hates you. I arrived to church yesterday and, for no reason at all, my back went out. I could hardly stand. On the way into the building, my daughter was nearly run over by someone fleeing the police. After church, someone hit my car. After I got home, my son and I stayed up half the night because he couldn't stop coughing. I didn't sleep.
And yet, it was also one of those days that you're wonderfully reminded that God wins, and his victories are better than you can possibly imagine. We had more people respond to the gospel than ever. After some folks laid hands on me and prayed, God healed my back and I preached four services and taught a class. Emails and texts were waiting in my inbox to encourage me.
Here are my conclusions:
- The devil is real.
- The Bible is true.
- Jesus is victorious.
- God still saves.
- God still heals.
- The work remains.
I'm a super big jerk, everybody. I don't deserve his grace. I just deserve the back pain. God's crazy, as far as I can tell. Crazy good. Crazy kind. Crazy patient. Crazy powerful. And crazy determined to bring His Kingdom to this little patch we call Boston.
The work remains. Carry on.
There's a lot of chatter on social media about President Trump's executive action. So, in an effort to turn passion into Kingdom action, I humbly submit for your consideration five steps we can take right now to be helpful toward this cause:
A lot of great, godly charities are funneling money and resources to those fleeing persecution. Because we live in the richest country on earth, our donations can make a huge impact. Consider partnering with them. Here's one, and here's another, and here's another one.
If you belong to Jesus, you have at your disposal the most powerful, history-altering resource known to humanity — prayer. Pray for the refugees. Pray for the leaders of their broken countries. Pray for our own leaders, to practice compassion for the least of these while trying to secure our borders. Pray against a spirit of fear which foments our worst natures.
There are some great organizations that serve incoming refugees. Let's be known as those who welcome them, care for them, and serve them. We Christians are pro-life people. From conception to resurrection, people matter to God. Let's find ways to serve them.
After preaching yesterday on the refugee crisis and God's heart for the nations, I spoke with many internationals who were grateful to have found a place that welcomed them. While I know a thousand things our church can do better, I was glad for the little grace of foreigners feeling welcomed in our midst. When you meet your refugee neighbor, invite them into your community, your home, and your circle of friends, and yes, your church.
Part of the responsibility of God's people is to speak prophetically to our leaders when they go astray. Protest is a longstanding American tradition and a protected civil liberty. So, when appropriate, be present to be heard. Call your congressmen and senator. Advocate for godly, compassionate, and wise rule in our land. Just remember that as you do, God hears what you say and how you say it. In these gatherings there will always be temptation to give way to the worst parts of our common humanity. So often our enemy can turn righteous anger into sinful rage. So, as a mentor once told me, speak truth in a way that you'd want to hear it if you were the one in the wrong.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. (Lk. 10:27)
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph. 4:2-3)
It was a fresh, autumn day. "Fresh" is that euphemism that Scots use to describe utterly terrible, grey, rainy weather that most other places in the world would deride. Call it a coping mechanism.
Anyway, it was fresh with a bit of sun that day.
I just moved to Edinburgh with my wife, our three-month-old daughter, our dog, and her grand piano. I was 21, she was 22, and we'd been in country for a few weeks. All our earthly possessions had been delayed, not to arrive for another couple of months. But, it was time to get to work.
We'd moved to help a team of men and women plant a new church in the city, and the work couldn't wait for my couch to arrive. So, off to the train station I went to get to Edinburgh Uni. My job was to reach out to incoming freshmen (or freshers, as they're known there. Boy, they love that word "fresh,"...) I arrived to Teviot Square. I was to tell students about Jesus. This was the moment I'd prayed for, worked for, hoped for, and raised a small pile of money for. It had all come to this. I stepped into the square, teeming with students.
I was terrified.
I probably walked around that square for an hour, praying and asking God to open a door, to give me courage — to make it easier. Then, I spotted a Georgia Tech hat.
As a graduate of FSU, I knew what that meant. I'd found a southerner — a dude who rooted for an ACC school, no less. This was my man, so I approached him. "Are you from Georgia?" I asked this dude. Confused, he tilted his head and replied, "no."
As it turned out, this fellow had gotten the hat from his roommate, who was (and is) American. He borrowed it and stepped out to play a bit of frisbee there in the square. We struck up a conversation. He attended an outreach we were sponsoring. He and I began to get together for coffee. I told him about Jesus, and about the destiny and calling on his life. After a while, he began to believe me.
Weeks later, this young man found his way to the first few worship gatherings of our newly formed church — Every Nation Edinburgh — meeting weekly at the Dominion Cinemas. He joined our setup team. Then our worship team. This young Scot became one of the first men I had the privilege of discipling. By the end of his first year at University, God had done quite a work in his life.
For the five years that we lived in Scotland, I enjoyed this relationship with Gordon. I was mentoring him in the faith, and in a bit of life, too. I played music with him (since I was the worship leader), and I did a bit of campus ministry with him (since I was the campus minister, too). I got to watch a teenage boy who wandered to university become a man of God stepping into his destiny.
Seven years ago, I said goodbye to Gordon, to Scotland, and to many other young men into whom I had the privilege of investing a bit of my life. Hope and I packed our bags, a few more kids, and her grand piano, and moved home.
This week, I got to return.
The occasion was to be one of the many men who witnessed Gordon become the Lead Pastor of our church in Edinburgh. The dream of any missionary is to hand the work over to locals, and for the many of us who invested our lives into this place, it was a glorious occasion of thanksgiving to see this young man and his amazing wife step into leadership. Missionary dream come true.
I had the chance to catch up with many old friends this week, pray with many, encourage many. Now that I'm on my way home to Boston again, I can't help but draw a few conclusions.
Discipleship is About Destiny
Twelve years ago I could have never known that Gordon would become a pastor. That's not why I spent time with him. I invested my life and faith into this young man because Jesus calls his disciples to make disciples. The fun part, only known to the Lord at the time, is the result. I'm convinced, however, that if we'll stick by our calling to make disciples we will never cease to be stunned at the destinies that are walked into.
Discipleship is Not Automatic
I'm tempted to make discipleship a class or a program. And, while classes and programs are indispensable, discipleship ends up being about relationships. Those don't just happen. They aren't automatic. They require a high degree of intentionality.
Destiny is Up to God
We don't make disciples because we see their destinies. We never know what will happen, only God does. I think it's safer that way. God wants us to be faithful to invest in others. We embody faith in the gospel and trust in the God of the gospel when we leave the results to him.
I'm proud of Gordon. I'm grateful to God. And, I'm really humbled and stunned that this is the kind of work I get to do. By grace, it's work that, for me, will never stop.