Emmanuel: So what?!

As we come to the end of yet another Christmas season where we remembered the birth of Jesus who is Emmanuel – “God with us” – perhaps we are asking one very profound question as the new year looms ahead of us:

So what? What’s the big deal?

What difference does it make to us, dear saints? What difference does it make in our families, in our community, and in the world if Jesus is Emmanuel? Life goes on doesn’t it? Tragedies occur. Friends face illness. Loved ones die. The obstacles we face haven’t changed. The world looks no different than it did yesterday or the day before.

Where is Emmanuel: the God who is with us and for us?

Sometimes coming off the high of Christmas where we’ve spent all this time building up to Jesus’ birth only to have it abruptly end, can take the breath out of us. Our energy can begin to wane, and the cold, dark winter trudges slowly onward toward the faintest hope of light and warmth. Everything turns normal again, and the mundaneness of everything seems to drown out every last spark of the divine that might be present.

Where is Emmanuel?

As I’ve thought, and prayed, and studied the birth narratives of Jesus, I’ve often found that the story, as beautiful and divinely inspired as we make it, is a testament not to God’s divine power that arrives with miraculous, supernatural doings. Instead, God chooses to enter into the chaos and the messiness of both the world and human relationships. God chooses to enter into the mundane things in a quiet, behind the scenes, very ‘human’ way.

Think about it. God enters through a pregnancy that occurs out of wedlock, to a young teenage girl. God has a man wrestle with an impossible relationship situation: a wife whom he’s never been intimate with who now carries a child. Then the couple gives birth in a barn because of worldly circumstances. The young family flees their home and into Egypt as refugees when a raging, power-hungry dictator threatens Jesus’ life. God doesn’t enter this world with might and power through thunder and lighting, but in the mundane, messy, chaotic relationships and circumstances that we all know so well.

Maybe that’s the powerful message of Christmas: that God enters into the chaos and messiness of our own lives and relationships – into the normal, everyday world we know. God didn’t come to us just for big, supernatural, miraculous workings, but to be with us in the small, mundane, chaotic, and messy everyday things.

I don’t know about you, but when I think of God being born into this world to be with us, it wasn’t for us to have a few major conversion experiences in life where we are born again, though that can and does happen, but God came for every mundane moment of our lives to be one incarnational moment after another, where the presence of God transforms us little by little, time and time again, to be a new creation, and about the new creation that God is up to in the cosmos.

To profess God is Emmanuel, is to profess that we are defined not by ourselves, but by a present relationship with God who is actively & lovingly at work in our lives. We are not alone in life and our lives are only made whole and complete in relationship with Emmanuel.

What is God doing in you this coming year, dear saints? How is Emmanuel transforming your life? God comes into every the moment and detail of your life to make all things new and whole.

What will you do in this new year to grow in your relationship with Christ? Like so many other things in life, investment is a key to growth. It doesn’t mean that God’s presence is contingent on our faithful investment in life for God is always with us, but the more we invest and seek to grow in our relationship with Jesus, the more the gifts of Christmas – love, and hope, and peace, and joy – become real, and the more we are able to see God in every detail of our lives.

Blessings in this new year, dear saints.

With Joy & Peace,
Pastor Adam

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Living Everyday in Gratitude

In this season of Advent, waiting is the name of the game! During this season we spend time focusing on our space in history; this time between Jesus’ first coming and the 2nd. We’re in this kind of limbo where the Kingdom of God has both been ushered in by Jesus and yet is not quite fulfilled until he comes again. And so we wait. And wait. And wait…

But how do we wait? Do we live life as if there is nothing of importance or significance to do? How do we live in this in-between time? The answer rests and is restless in Jesus. Jesus changes everything. Costly grace (Jesus dying for us) changes everything; our whole lives.

The theologian Karl Barth wrote that grace and gratitude “belong together like heaven and earth. Grace evokes gratitude like the voice an echo. Gratitude follows grace like thunder [follows] lightning.” If the essence of God is grace, Barth explained, then the essence of human beings as God’s people is our gratitude or thanks.’”

At essence of the Christian life of waiting is gratitude. The Apostle Paul says as much in his letter to the church at Philippi: “From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9).

As Christians our call is not to wait idly by for Christ to come again, but to live out a life of gratitude focusing on that which is true, holy, just, pure, lovely, and worthy of praise. So often in our world, we focus on scarcity: what we don’t have. Our consumeristic society implores us to want more, and more, and more, never complacent and never able to appreciate what we already have to be thankful for. We learn to not only forget to be thankful, but we begin, instead, to fill our lives with a sense of ingratitude. Ingratitude is often marked by a sense of entitlement, of envy, of complaint, of dissatisfaction, of presumption. Ingratitude in and of itself hinders relationship building and can destroy community. In his letter to the church at Rome, the Apostle Paul goes so far as to say that ingratitude toward God is, itself, idolatry (Rom 1:20). 

As Christians, we have to reorient ourselves as children of God who are responding in gratitude for the grace of Jesus Christ; grace that defines who we are. Grace is at the root of our existence, of our lives, of our hope, of our salvation. We have to reclaim the essence of our Christian life lived out in gratitude, because its not just who we are, its a part of how God changes the world through us. It’s part of “the way” of Jesus.

We also learn from leading psychologists that gratitude is linked inextricably to stronger health, both mental and physical. Those who continually are thankful tend to be healthier (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201504/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-gratitude ).  There is something about gratitude that is not just about spiritual well-being, but at the heart of being holistically healthy in all aspects of life.

The esteemed theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, shared with us that we have to practice not just being grateful for the big things, but also the small things. He writes: “We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly to the highest good…. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things? If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.’

Gratitude is an everyday way of being in the world. And it takes more than continual reminders from family, friends, and our church communities, but intentionally practicing thankfulness for the seemingly small and insignificant things: waking up in the morning, a place to live, a family that loves us, a church family willing to help us grow in Christ, jobs to go to, shoes to where, a kind word from a stranger, a hug from a friend. The list goes on and on. But the more we practice, the more it becomes a habit, a virtue, and a way of being.

This Advent season, be thankful, dear saints. Remember time and again the grace of God that claims your life and defines who you are. Choose time and again to give thanks throughout your life, even for the small things that seem insignificant. After all, how can God trust us with the big things if we are not even thankful for the small ones?

With Hopeful Anticipation,

Pastor Adam

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Christian Discipleship & Gun Violence

I was sitting in the church office when I heard the news: another school shooting had occurred. A young man had brought his assault rifle to school and begin shooting teachers, students, and administrators at will. Amidst the horror, pain, and shock of yet another horrendous act of violence against the innocent, the same questions and calls for action began almost immediately. Why so quickly? Because, though this continues to happen with greater frequency, very little has been done to address the meaningless violence. People are frustrated, angry, hurt, and scared. We want answers. We want a fix to the problem and are united in our desire to stop these acts of mass violence from occurring again.

But that’s where we get stuck. Our solutions tied to our ideology are as divided as our polarized political system. All you have to do is watch the posts on social media where liberal and conservative ideologues go back and forth NOT simply arguing matters of political ideology, but attacking each others’ intelligence, values, patriotism, faith, and the like. How can we ever really talk about a solution to these important issues when there is no respect, no listening, no valuing, no caring for one another. The “I’m right,” “You’re wrong,” and “if you don’t think like me you’re a ‘stupid-head,’” approach to discussing these issues is not only meaningless, but continues to divide us.

The question we face as followers of Jesus Christ, is this: “What are we called to do in the midst of and in response to this mass violence?” Do we ‘pick a side’ in the gun control debate? Do we advocate for legislative action to curb the violence? Do we pray every time one of these horrific events happen and leave it at that? There’s a meme going around social media that assumes that the Christian response should be to put prayer back in the schools. But the reality is that your right to pray at school was NEVER taken away. Forcing those from other faiths and those who are non religious to pray to a Judeo/Christian god is what was removed and rightfully so.

So what do we do as Christians? There are legislative actions that can be taken in both the areas of gun control and mental health care – the two areas that are at the top of the national conversation – that can help curb mass violence, but these actions are not solutions to the increasing violence. They can help alleviate some of the symptoms and make these occurrences less frequent but they are not the fix. The root cause is embedded in our culture. There is no ‘one thing’ behind the violence.

For instance we live in a society that glorifies violence in our movies, our games, our heroic stories. We are captivated by the drama of Game of Thrones, love our first person shooter war games, and idealize the strong, violent, vindictive hero who’s idea of justice is death to his enemies. We think the stories are harmless…but are they? Watching my son spend day after day shooting people in his video games, or watching battle scenes in the latest movies, and telling me that he wants to one day be a special forces soldier because it ‘looks awesome’ is something that I am concerned about. Killing another human being looks awesome? I can control what he watches and the games he plays, talk to him time and again about the inherent evil of violence, try to discredit the notion that war (whether viewed as just or necessary) is glorious and patriotic, but the ideology I work to parent against is engrained in our cultural ethos.

Or what about the fact that we have a particular view of what it is to be a “Man” in our culture. If you’re too feminine, too empathetic, seen as weak, or not athletic, or too emotional, anything that departs from the “John Wayne,” tough guy image somehow your masculinity is called into question. As most of our perpetrators have been white men who have acted out their anger in violent ways, I wonder how our cultural view of masculinity might play a role in acts of mass violence?

There is no one cause to the incidents of mass violence and no easy solutions. Changing aspects of our culture is SOOO much harder than passing any legislation.

So what can we do as Christians?

At High School Linkage last night, the youth explored their ‘call’ from God. At the end of our gathering I asked them the question, “What is our call from God in response to these mass shootings?” We stepped away from the political debate and talked about what we knew; that many of the perpetrators of these violent acts seemed to have some commonalities. They were outcasts, often ostracized by their peers. Some came from broken homes. They were often those left out, chosen last, ignored, bullied (or perhaps became the bully themselves due in part to past trauma and neglect). Their violent attacks were, in their minds, a response to their being attacked first. Most were NOT mentally ill by clinical definition, but were acting out their anger with violence.

An important observation began to surface in our conversation. Where were the friends and family in the lives of these people? Where were the bringers of hope and peace for these individuals? Where were those who bent over backwards to love these often neglected children of God? Where was the Church of Jesus Christ, the bringers of good news? We’ve watched as our country has continued to grow farther and farther apart as community has been devalued and the individual has been put on a pedestal. Social media exacerbates this reality even as it seemingly connects more people than ever. We don’t look for the left out, the lost, the broken, the outcast, at least not with the eyes of God’s grace, but rather with judgment and perhaps apathy. We don’t see all people as children of God, but only some. Our concept of personal responsibility has blinded us to our inherent communal responsibilities.

The church should be on the forefront of portraying a different ‘way:’ the way of Jesus. We should be on the forefront of de-glorifying violence and war and should lift up the sacrificial giver and the cross bearers. We should be promoting a masculinity that is not about a concept of physical strength or being the ‘tough’ guy. We should be looking out for the lost, broken, and the lonely not so that we can report these children of God to the authorities, but so that we can love them, and invite them to belong.

Can we abate evil altogether? No, of course not. But evil has a tendency to grow and fester when people have been cast aside and left alone in their pain. We are social beings, even introverts like this pastor. Being created in the image of God is inherently a communal identity. And the farther we grow apart from each other, separating ourselves from each other, the greater the foothold evil has to grow within us and amongst us.

How about we choose to live in the light of Jesus Christ. How about we choose to see the “least of these” amongst us and build up our relationships and our capacity to love. How about we practice listening to one another, valuing one another, and being with and for one another. Unless we change our culture and our ‘way’ of being together, no amount of legislation will prevent these violent tragedies from continuing. And I, like you, am united in my desire to never see another mass shooting again.

Blessings to you, dear saints. I am ever in prayer for our nation, for our children, for our society. May God transform our lives each and every day to be more Christ-like, for in our savior we are given light unveiling a different way in this world – a way of selfless giving, of hope and love.

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Light in the Darkness

A response to the Sutherland Springs shooting.

God, listen to my cry;
    pay attention to my prayer!
When my heart is weak,
    I cry out to you from the very ends of the earth.
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I am
    because you have been my refuge,
    a tower of strength in the face of the enemy.
Please let me live in your tent forever!
    Please let me take refuge
    in the shelter of your wings!” –Psalm 61:1-4

Such has been my prayers of late in the wake of yet another mass shooting. This time, tragedy struck in my childhood home state of Texas…in a small town church…during worship. Friends and family were gathered in the name of Jesus Christ; in the name of God, their refuge and their strength; God of peace, and love, and hope. And they were gunned down dozens at a time. With no remorse. With no mercy.

Friends, I confess that until now I have been unable to respond to this atrocious, murderous act because I have been lost…stuck… in absolute shock…devastated by such evil in our midst. I have had no words to offer, either pastoral or otherwise. I have not had the energy or the will. There have been long moments in prayer where I have said nothing, where I have let my random, nonsensical thoughts and emotions do the talking for me.

Like the Psalmist, my whole being has cried out to God absent any words, “Listen to my prayer, God!! Listen!! I am weak, I am broken, I am lost. What should I do? What should your church do? What can we do in the face of such evil? Lord, be my refuge and my strength. God of peace, and love, and hope.”

I have watched as other pastors have been quick to comfort those who mourn and those who suffer. Some have inferred that this event was some part of God’s divine plan so that God could use it for good. And to that, I say, “then your God has some explaining to do for what is inherently blatant acts of evil and destruction.” If you think this act was God’s plan, then you confess that God is the instigator of such evil or at best knowingly complicit in allowing it to happen. From what I have come to know and believe in Christ, I could never accept that. This act was not of God, but was irrefutably of evil. A theology of God’s divine ‘plan’ holds strength only insofar as it refers to God’s ultimate plan for creation and humanity NOT necessarily for an individual’s ‘destiny.’

But I digress. I don’t want to offer token Scripture verses, empty or hollow promises, or try to spiritualize this tragedy to mask the horror. Evil. Is. Real. I’m not talking about some mystical, mythological devil or some figment of our literary and cinematic imagination. But acts of evil with no rhyme or reason happen, and they have throughout the long history of humanity. They will continue to happen. We are a broken and sinful people.

So what do we do? As Church (individually and together)? Oh I have no doubt the gun lobbyists will call for more guns and more armed citizens, the gun opponents will call for stronger gun regulation, the two will talk past one another, and nothing will happen but bitter, partisan polarization. Some will scapegoat the mentally ill, the political deviant, the religious extremist all looking at who to blame and how to stop it as long as it doesn’t point the finger back at themselves, or threaten the systems we are part of that keep us comfortable, or require much in the way of personal sacrifice. I have no doubt in my mind that there are legislative steps we CAN and SHOULD take to help prevent these kinds of events from happening as frequently as they do. These conversations MUST take place.

But…let’s you and me talk about us, the ordinary everyday people. What can we, the Church, do in the face of such evil aside from political lobbying? I suggest two things that we can do:

First, I am of the camp that believes there is great power in prayer. But the power of prayer is different than what most assume as miraculous, supernatural wish-granting by God. In prayer we encounter and converse with God from which all good comes; from which our very being is given life. We enter into communion with God. When I talk about prayer, I’m not just talking about voiced words of sympathy and comfort absent of relationship with God. You see prayer should shape our lives in Christ, not be magical incantations that we use for healing, wish granting, offering sympathy, or getting our way. Prayer flows from our relationship with God. Prayer inevitably leads to action as our lives are transformed into the image of Christ. Prayer connects people with God and with one another. Draws people together. Opens hearts and minds to listening to one another. Prayer is not a passive, meaningless spiritual discipline that lacks praxis, rather God shapes our action, our vision, our mission as the Church in prayer. That is power of prayer that so often goes unrecognized. Prayer is not an individual act, it is a relational act with God and with others.

Faithful prayer shapes lives and leads to action. So the question this begs is how should we pray? The disciples asked Jesus this question once. And a part of his answer was this: “Our Father, who art in heaven…Your kingdom come. Your will be done…” In all that we ever pray, it is God’s will that we are after. Not ours. God’s ultimate plan for creation, God’s kingdom, is what we long for. Not ours. And God’s kingdom is a vision of COMMUNITY that embodies GRACE.

And so authentic prayer inherently draws disciples together into community; draws us to worship together, to engage God’s Word and participate in God’s table, to live into God’s kingdom here on earth. Authentic prayer builds community centered around God’s grace.

And this leads to the second thing that we can do. The Church has to be the Church of Jesus Christ, not the church of a political party or of a political ideology, or of capitalism, or of nationalism, or of consumerism, or of empty, sympathetic gestures devoid of grace-filled action, or of social obligation, or any other self-centric ideology that we happen to prize. The time of insular ministry solely within church walls needs to end. The church doesn’t need to arm its members, it needs to share the gospel farther and wider with the world. Grace needs to become our modus operandi. The time of discrimination against people because of race, gender, sexual orientation, and any other means needs to be finished. The time of clubbing people over the head with Scripture needs to die.

The time to gather in community together in the name of Jesus Christ regularly and often needs to become the norm, even if in new and unique forms, not because of some sense of duty or obligation but because where people gather together in Christ’s name, God is there to mold us and shape us together. In our gathering together, our lives are shaped by God in community as God works through the community itself. Building and strengthening community, seeing and valuing the image of God in everyone needs to become the norm not the exception to the rule.

The Church needs to model faithful community defined by grace, the very place that authentic prayer leads. More than ever, the Church needs to lead the way with the gospel, with ‘good news’ in the midst of tragedy. Evil should be responded to with an overwhelming outpouring of grace and love that only comes from Christ. Not with violence. Not with meaningless, overly spiritualized platitudes. Not with empty words and hollow sympathy. God’s love is needed outside of our churches and in our communities. I’m not talking about forcing Jesus down the throat of anyone and everyone, but a purposeful self-giving for the sake of others (particularly those we don’t even know) that models the self-giving of Christ is what we need more of. It’s a model our kids should see and mimic; that those in leadership positions should adopt and uphold; that should shape our communities and neighborhoods. It’s God’s story of grace and love that needs to play out more and more and more overshadowing all other narratives of self-centeredness, or evil and destruction. God’s story needs to shape our story together as communities.

The Church needs to be the Church of Jesus Christ!

Will that solve the issue of evil in the world? The answer, sadly, is ‘No.’ Evil will always exist. But shining light in the midst of darkness ALWAYS brings hope to the world; hope that can transform our lives in the midst of tragedy. Hope in community that can even transform the life of one tempted to commit an evil act.

What will congregations do? Buckle down, buy weapons, live in fear, and continue to become more individualistic and less connected at the expense of the community? Or will churches arm themselves with the grace of Jesus Christ, live into God’s kingdom together like there’s a joyous tomorrow, and face down evil with all of God’s heavenly might. Authentic prayer shapes our life together, draws us into community, and reminds us over and over again that we are the Church, the Body of Christ in the world called to embody love in our thoughts and actions, led by the Holy Spirit.

Let’s be the Church of Jesus Christ.

With Grace & Peace,
Pastor Adam

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I’m Not Black

I’m not black.

I grew up on the east side of Fort Worth in north Texas, the side of town where predominantly middle to lower class folks lived. It was the part of town known for its racial diversity, and it would experience what has been labeled “white flight” throughout my childhood. My best friends in grade school were white, black, and hispanic. Sometimes I used to think that I could identify with people from other racial backgrounds because of my diverse relationships and interactions growing up…but I was wrong.

I’m not black.

Sometimes I try to put myself in the place of my friends. What must it feel like to have a history in which my ancestors were enslaved for over 250 years and then discriminated against for the next 150? What would it have been like to come home from WWII as a black veteran to be told I couldn’t buy a house in certain neighborhoods? Or to have one of my greatest heroes, a civil rights pioneer, a pastor, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. be shot and killed standing up for not just my freedom and safety, but my status as a human being. How might that affect my outlook of the history I learned in school, the influential figures I’m told are heroes, when I know my ancestors might have been their property?

But I’m not black.

What must it have been like on inauguration day in 2009, regardless of politics, to have the first black President of the United States sworn in? Inspiring? Uplifting? Dream-fulfilling? Was a racial barrier finally crossed? Would this mark a new chapter in racial reconciliation in our country? And then to see the antagonists rise up to question even this man’s citizenship.

But I’m not black.

What must it feel like to see report after report of young black men killed in suspicious circumstances? Or to see statistics that show that black people are incarcerated at a staggeringly high rate in our country? Or to see white supremacists rising up in greater frequency in our country their sole aim to put me in my place, to get rid of someone like me, to be about the mass genocide of my race? Would that be terrifying? How could this be allowed?

But I’m not black.

What must it feel like to go to the movies and notice that in most major films produced in our country, people of color are portrayed as villains, tough guys, ‘thugs,’ comedy relief. Of course there are exceptions, but wouldn’t this reality enter my subconscious time and again? The hero is never me.

But I’m not black.

What must it feel like to see a black football player take a knee during the national anthem because he sees something wrong in our country? He tries to make the country aware of something…of systemic racism that is still present in our country in ways both explicit as well as subversive. Maybe I would think, ‘Finally! We’re going to address racial inequality!! I don’t have to be afraid anymore.” And then, instead of coming together united against inequality and discrimination, the issue is bypassed altogether, and instead a national dialogue begins about the symbol that is the national anthem. The manner of the protest is used to avoid its content and then to make the protestor, the black man, the villain.

But I’m not black.

I cannot pretend to know what it is to be a black person in our country. I can empathize, sympathize, try to put myself in another’s place, try to put my privilege aside, but I can never know that reality. It is not mine. And my guess is that most people that read this article can never really know either. And it would be really hard for any of us to understand what it would be like to experience racism in our lives.

As a pastor, I have struggled to watch the line in the sand that people have drawn in response to Colin Kaepernick’s protest. As seems to be our new reality in this country we have set up a dichotomy; an either/or. And in doing so we have groups of people talking right past each other. Real national issues are never fully discussed or addressed. And I have to ask, why? Why do we do this time and again?

As Christians, we cannot fall into the trap of this false dichotomy. Why? Because there are issues at stake that have to do with Christ’s call for us. We cannot afford to talk past one another and not listen, for when we do we choose to ignore Christ speaking through our brother and sister. We choose to remain blind. We choose to remain divided while giving lip service to unity.

Racism, as much as we might assume it is a minor issue in this country, never really went away. It has gotten better as the years have gone by and much of what was overt, Jim Crow racism has been pushed below the surface, but it is still here. As a white male, in a society created by predominantly white people, a society in which I have never once had to think about what race I belong to, I would be hard pressed to even see racism or discrimination. The system works in my favor and so I assume it works in everyone’s favor.

But to be black? I cannot know what that’s like. As much as I might try, I cannot know.

And so, I have to listen. I MUST listen. WE must listen. Because I know I carry my privilege with me, my colorblindness to the systems I am a part of. I know the system works in my favor. I live in a predominantly white town, in a predominantly white state. I know enough from my childhood to know that our country is much more racially diverse than my current contextual norm, and that racism is much more widespread. I’ve heard it in the racial jokes told by middle and high school youth I’ve work with. I’ve seen it on social media when members of our community heard a rumor that we might have a refugee relocation center in town. We even witnessed racism at a local high school football game a year ago when the crowd’s chanting belittled and looked down upon the opposing predominantly hispanic team.

Racism is real and it divides us; makes us weaker as human beings and as a nation. And it is not of Christ.

I know that when I see a black man kneel during the national anthem at an NFL game protesting against excessive violence against young black men, I cannot dismiss it. I cannot ignore the content of the protest. For the content of the protest has to do with my call as a disciple of Jesus Christ and my citizenship of this great country in which we have a shared vision that “all [persons] are created equal.” And my privilege might just be blinding me from injustice in our midst.

This is a time to listen, not to talk past one another. While the nature of the protest – namely that it was during the national anthem – has consumed so much media time, if anything, almost all people have come out and expressed their support of our military service people, and their love of this country. We all stand for the principals and values this country was founded upon. And together, we cannot let racial injustice continue. We need to continue our work towards racial reconciliation. It’s a part of what our brave men and women have fought and died for; the dream that is our country of freedom and justice where all people of all races are united together free from discrimination, oppression, and fear for their own lives.

We have the same goals, my friends. Unity. Justice. An end to racial discrimination and violence. But we have to listen to one another to make these goals a reality. Don’t buy into or fall into the trap of the false dichotomy that we have created. Don’t choose a “side.” There is no “kneeling” vs. “standing.” There is no “disrespect” vs. “respect.” There is no “us” vs. “them.” Together we are working to realize the dream that is our nation, and until we understand and address the racism in our midst, that dream cannot be fully lived into, and we will remain divided.

I am not black. Maybe that realization is where we start our dialogue.

With Grace & Peace, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
Pastor Adam

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God Demands the Impossible!

The following is sermon that was preached on September 18, 2017. The Scripture referred to is Genesis 22:1-14.

After all that God had done for Abraham, and after all that Abraham had done to be faithful to God…God decides to test Abraham again.

And this test is not just any test, Abraham is doomed to fail in whatever he chooses. On the one hand, he could follow God’s command and murder his only son, the very son that was a miracle for him and Sarah in the first place. And on the other hand, he could go against the very will of God that had granted him life, a family, the promise of descendants so numerous they would overshadow the stars in the sky.

There is no right answer to this test.

It’s passages like these that cause non Christians and Christians alike to question the efficacy of Christianity. I mean, what kind of God tests God’s children like this?

We all know what happens in the end of this tale, that God provides another sacrifice, but that doesn’t mask the horror of this situation; the hell that Abraham had to go through; the pain that God causes.

This seems so contrary to the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ; the message that says that God doesn’t throw life away, but loves so much that all life matters.

So what are we to do with this disturbing story. Can we just dismiss it and move on; conclude that God provides and overlook the brutality and cruelty of the test?

I turned to the commentaries this week both Jewish and Christian, and do you know what they conclude? That nobody agrees on what to conclude. There is scholarly work that suggests that Abraham does in fact sacrifice his son Isaac, after all the text seems to suggest that Abraham comes down the mountain alone and that Isaac’s role in Scripture is so much less than Abraham or Jacob. On the other hand other scholars suggest that God’s plan was always to provide another sacrifice and these interpreters tend to overlook or at least minimize the messiness and dirtiness of the passage altogether.

So what do we do with this passage?

I think we have to wrestle with it. If we take seriously that God is speaking to us through the Holy Spirit in Scripture, we can’t ignore it. God is there. God is speaking. So let’s wrestle together, dear saints.

I think that texts such as these, particularly texts from the old testament, serve an important function for us as Christians. I think they slap us across the face, shake us to our very core, and cause us to look at the world around us, and at ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, Jesus does this too, but I think we too often look at the love of Christ, get so caught up in the power and comfort of grace, that we sometimes forget the God who is God over our lives. Our lives are never just ours. They belong to God, they belong to God’s creation. We too often domesticate Jesus. We work to fit Jesus into some little box of our own making that is love and forgiveness heavy, and “carrying our own cross” light.

Will Willimon, a bishop in the United Methodist Church once taught a lesson on this story. He expected to be teaching other congregation members how to interpret this passage assuming they would struggle with it. And what he learned was that he became the student in his encounter. When asked what the sacrifice meant for people, one gentleman stood up and said,”…when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel I’m near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club god we chatter about here on Sunday mornings. Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more. I want to know that God. A real God.”

I think this gentleman was on to something. In our “me and Jesus” culture we want to make God who we want God to be. We want to tame God, to think that life should be easy, to think that God doesn’t demand anything of our lives. We want God to be the God of American idealism, of capitalism, of materialism. In the words of the country pop band, Florida Georgia line, “We wanna pray on Sundays, and cuss on them Monday.” In other words, we wanna pay homage to God in some little, hollow way, and then live life any way we want; in ways that offer very little in terms of worship to God and love of neighbors, and more about me, myself, and mine. And then we want to still claim to be followers of Christ.

This passage, my dear saints, is the bucket of icy cold water dumped over our heads. It is the icy, frigid, drenching reminder of our baptism in Jesus Christ; our baptism in which we are made a new creation, grafted to the body of Christ…We belong to Christ. We are God’s.

This God we worship and serve is both the loving, merciful God we see in Jesus Christ, but is also the God of Abraham, the demands the impossible from our lives. I know you’ve heard it said, God never give you more than you can handle. Well that’s a load of BS. God gives us more than we can handle all the time. We are called to make sacrifices in our lives all the time in the name of following after Jesus Christ. And the choices we are given are near impossible to make sometimes.

Do we let go of a loved one on life-support? Do we quit our high paying job to because we feel a call to be a teacher? Do we let our grown child make a life-altering decision even if we know it could be devastating for them? Do we interrupt our busy schedule to help another person in need? We are sooooo busy! Could we stop to help another in need? Do we make time, yes, make time to be with God; to worship with the community of faith we are in covenant relationship with?

Look at the impossible decision we have before us as a congregation. Do we use a large monetary gift to invest in expanding our church facilities so that we can better educate our church disciples (both young and old), better serve the needs of the community, better share in fellowship, present new opportunities for ministry?

I think too often we relocate our faith to fit in some small segment of our lives, when God’s call is so much broader, and wider, and bigger, and loving, and encompasses so much more of our lives.

This passage is not a me and my Jesus passage – just a side note, the Christian faith can never, ever, Biblically or any other way, be justified as an individualistic faith alone. What we learn in Scripture is that God calls the Church, collectively, in relationship together, to transform the world. Humanity, created in the image of God, an image that reveals God’s nature as being relational (Trinitarian), is the Body of Christ together – it is a reminder that God demands from us (that’s all of us in the plural) the impossible, and that in the midst of our remaining faithful, God will always…ALWAYS provide for us. The Holy Spirit is always with us, always helping, always encouraging, always challenging, ALWAYS loving. But that doesn’t change the fact that God is real, and our faith lived out, is not a walk in the park, but is a seemingly impossible relationship we engage in together, and ultimately it is how God is transforming the world. Through you and me, the body of Christ.

God is REAL, my dear saints. We do not control God. We do not make God into our image. We cannot mold God to fit into some shallow understanding we want to have giving ourselves the freedom to live any way we choose. God is God, and we are not. And that, my dear saints, is VERY good news. For the God who demands so much, also LOVES so much, and will provide for us over, and over, and over again.

Hallelujah! Amen.

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A Response to Racism

Racism – ‘Discrimination of another person or group of persons because of their race founded upon a belief that one’s own race is superior.’ (paraphrased from Webster online).

Today, in the 21st century, we think we are above such bigotry and hate-filled discrimination. We know our history as a country is a history enmeshed with racism. It is a regretful reality of our national identity. From the displacement and murder of Native Americans, to seeing dark-skinned Africans as less than human and therefore acceptable slave laborers, to pseudo-scientists in early America who dabbled in eugenics, to putting people of different races on exhibition at the turn of the century World Fair, to Jim Crow laws of segregation, to Japanese internment camps, to redlining practices following WWII that prevented African American soldiers and families from obtaining housing in certain neighborhoods, to white flight, to the racist chanting that took place at one of our local high school football games last year, to the racist posts and comments (both overt & subversive) plaguing social media day in and day out.

Racism, particularly in the form of white supremacy, is a part of our country’s story though often ignored, masked, or at the very least minimized. Our story of democracy, and freedom, and equality should include a footnote that clarifies, “for those of the accepted race.” For much of our history, this has been true.

We like to think we have overcome that dirty, ugly part of our past; that somehow racism has been dealt with and we have all been reconciled together across racial lines. But our past still affects our present. Racism never disappeared. The dream that was (and is) the USA has never been fully actualized and lived into. While racism has become less prevalent, particularly in overt Jim Crow ways, it has endured. The real difficulty in today’s world is that racism is much more systemic, subversive, and difficult to put a finger on: from color-blind racism, to perceived reverse racism, to racial stereotyping, to racial profiling, to the seemingly harmless racial jokes that float around schools and work places, to the portrayal of people of color in film and media. Racism never went away but was buried in the complex systems in which we operate day to day. For those of us who are white, we might not even notice systemic racism because it does not affect us in noticeable ways, but to people of a different race the reality is quite different.

But the overt racism that was on display in Charlottesville, VA in mid August was not subversive or difficult to identify. It was reminiscent of our dark past that many people thought we had moved on from. The torches, the marching, the words of hatred: “Blood and Soil!”, the violence. While many were quick to condemn this frightening display, at the highest level of our government the response fell flat, and even left the window open for these white supremacist group leaders to send messages of gratitude and support for our commander and chief’s middle-of-the-road, share-the-blame-with-others response.

The problem with this is simple: when a group’s sole ideological end ultimately leads to the ethnic cleansing and/or enslavement (in any form) of other groups based on race, there should only be one response, and it should be loud and clear. There should be no lessening of the egregious, toxic sin, no “yes, but its not completely their fault.” There should be no “blame the counter protesters, or any other group, or the removal of a confederate general’s statue,” no political pandering and game-playing for those at the far extreme of one’s political constituency. There should be no, “this is a two-way street.” Racism. Is. Wrong! It Is Not the Dream that is America! It Is Not of Christ! It Is Immoral! It is based on a lie even on the genetic level.

I do not play partisan politics and those who know me know I do not support one political party over another, but the very fact that these white supremacist groups have been emboldened to rise up in very overt, public ways in the current political climate is not an accident, but a direct result of what they see as things politically moving in “their” direction. And to me, that calls for a strong response not just from the highest levels of our government (from all political parties), but from you, and me, and especially the Church. Racism itself denies the resurrection of Jesus Christ and ignores the presence of God through the Holy Spirit. Racism is not bad theology, racism is apostasy and goes directly against God.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we are what is called a confessional Church. The first half of the constitution of our denomination is a Book of Confessions. At particular times in history, the Church has found it necessary to confess its faith in light of what’s going on at a particular time and place. These confessions help guide our Church even today as we seek to live into our mission as God’s people in the world. These confessions do not supersede Scripture, but are faithful expositions of Scripture in light of what is happening in a particular time and place in history.

In the late 1960’s, the Confession of 1967 was fashioned as the Civil Rights struggle raged on the midst of a segregated America. Different denominations came together to confess that in light of God’s work of reconciliation (God’s bringing us back together with God through Christ), it is our call to be about the work of reconciliation bridging the divides that separate us from one another. I think, in light of current events, it is important to remember our call as ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation in the world and to confess again what this Confession lifts up so powerfully:

“God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.” (Confession of 1967, Section 9.44a).

As a nation we have made progress against racism, but we still have a long way to go. Recent events have brought to the national spotlight what many had hoped would never be seen in our country again, and it is a reminder that racism is still here; still enmeshed in our national DNA.
The question is, what are we going to do about it? We could brush it away, minimize what happened by projecting blame somewhere else (a political party, a politician, provocation by counter protestors, or the removal of a confederate statue, etc.) hoping this will all just go away.

But perhaps it is time to stop sweeping things under the rug hoping they never surface again. Every last person in the Church of Jesus Christ should stand up and say, “No more in the name of Christ! No more hate. No more domination over another. No more belittling, or denouncing, or ignoring of another’s ‘image-of-God’ness and their identity as ‘Beloved of God.’” This is true regarding race, nationality, or even of religious belief.

I call upon the the Church in all of its theological diversity to stand up and together in one voice denounce all that racism stands for, and in word and action seek to “bring all people to receive one another as [children of God] in all relationships of life…” (Confession of 1967). There is no middle-of-the-road for us, dear saints, for we are the Body of Christ, and racism goes against all that we are and stand for.

So how are you going to work for racial reconciliation? How are our churches going to work? How are we going to work collectively in our country regardless of what our highest level of government thinks or does? This is not a question simply for diverse, urban churches, but even for the predominantly white, rural churches who think this doesn’t apply to them. This is a part of our call as Church. This is about living into God’s work of reconciliation for us. And it is work that is needed in our country.

Blessings, dear saints, as we stand together and work against racism and for racial reconciliation. Be bold. Be courageous. Be about Christ.

Rev. Adam Smith
First Presbyterian Church in Dallas Center, IA

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