The Regathered Church

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(Artwork: “Returning to Church” by Eunhye Cho)

It is an anxious and exciting time.

Many of our churches are preparing and planning for a congregational regathering that will make it possible for people of faith to return (with several added precautions) to some kind of in-person worship and spiritual formation.

The temptation is to see the regathering as a return to “normal.” My suspicion, however, is that “normal” was one of the very first casualties of the global pandemic. In the post-pandemic  church (or, perhaps more accurately, the “regathered church in the continuing pandemic”), “normal” has given way to “untraveled,” and “business as usual” has become “building the plane as we are flying it.” For the Church to see its situation rightly, I believe it to be essential for the Church’s people to look upon their regathering, not as a return to what was, but as a series of sacred opportunities for newness.

Here are some of the opportunities that I am envisioning.

Regathering is an opportunity to redefine and reconfigure our relationship with our buildings and facilities

For several months, we have confirmed with unprecedented clarity a truth often affirmed in our theology but forgotten in our practice. The truth to which I am making reference is this: The Church is not defined, limited, or governed by its architecture.

Since mid-March, this important truth has found fresh expression and validation in the church’s ministry outside of its buildings and facilities. We have had to let go of our architecture for a season in order to become, in the deepest sense, a church without walls. For the last three months, we have been a church in mission and ministry through our online connection; through the nurturing of deeper relationships with family members, friends, neighbors, and other congregants from whom we are physically separated; and through our compassionate attentiveness to the most vulnerable members of our congregations. In short, it has been a season for rediscovering the Church’s heart—a heart that beats, not in the maintenance of our architecture, but in the unfettered and unhoused work of praying and being prayed for, ministering and being ministered to, loving and being loved.

As we regather in our sanctuaries and fellowship halls, my heartfelt hope is that we will be mindful of what we have learned or relearned over the last few months and that this mindfulness will help us to re-enter our architecture with these freshly-clarified convictions:

  • That church buildings are sacred spaces (because of the activity that occurs there) but not the definers of the church’s ministry
  • That church buildings are resources to be stewarded, not sacrosanct shrines to be revered
  • That Trustees are entrusted primarily to be facilitators of ministry, not landlords
  • That a commitment to keeping the doors of the building open is neither an adequate vision for ministry nor a sufficient justification for a church’s continued existence

As we regather, I pray that our spirits will be elevated by the beauty of our sanctuaries, the grandness of our altar spaces, and the familiarity of our stained glass windows and time-tested furniture. I pray that we will also re-consecrate our architecture with the kind of petition that clarifies a right relationship with our facilities—a petition that might sound something like this:

O God, who is worshiped in our building but who is in no way contained by it: Pour out your Spirit upon every room of our facility, that you might be glorified by the ministry that takes place here. Regather us in this sacred space, but also deliver us from every temptation to deify our architecture. Make it possible for authentic songs of praise to resonate in the sanctuary and hallways, but also set us free from every tendency to treat our building as the object of our worship. Set apart this sacred space for your purposes, but, more than this, set apart your people to be your Church more faithfully.

Regathering is an opportunity to reshape liturgy and expand doxological creativity

For decades and maybe longer, the church’s conversations about worship have all too often been reduced to liturgical arguments and unnecessary dichotomies, the end result of which has been the frequent stifling of creativity and the elevation of personal preference over liturgical diversity. This season of regathering, however, opens the door to revisiting congregational worship with fresh eyes and hearts, having been away from typical orders of worship for a number of months. Perhaps it is time for pastors, church musicians, worship leaders and worship planners to commit themselves, not only to the incorporation of what is familiar, but also to experimentation with what may feel completely new.

How might the offering of testimony, for example, become part of worship, so that important stories of faith, pain, healing, and redemption might be told?

How might congregational prayer become an interactive practice, so that the experience of prayer is more communal and less monological?

How might the proclamation of the Word be reconceptualized, so that, on occasion, it might become less of an extended presentation and more of an unscripted congregational conversation about how Scripture is being heard, understood, and applied?

How might the presentation of our tithes and offerings become an intentional coming forward (a different kind of “altar call,” if you will) instead of remaining a routine passing of the plate?

How might the congregation be invited to experience a wider variety of music so that worship becomes less about personal preference and more about the glorification of a God whose majesty deserves and demands nothing less than musical diversity? (This question, of course, takes on a new level of depth and complexity in light of recent concerns about congregational and choral singing and their connection to the spread of infection. Perhaps this is the related question to ponder: What new and safer methodologies might congregations need to employ in order to help a congregation to “sing” even when singing is not permitted?)

I do not pretend to know what reconfigured worship might look like in each specific context. But my sincere hope is that those who are responsible for the creation and organization of congregational worship will utilize this season of regathering as a unique opportunity to reimagine the way we worship instead of simply settling for a return to patterns that may no longer be sufficient for the new song of praise that the post-pandemic church longs to sing.

Regathering is an opportunity to streamline and recreate the Church’s administrative leadership

I heard a pastor phrase it this way recently: “The ‘shelter in place’ restrictions forced our committees to focus on more strategic agendas…Our Zoom meetings led to some of the most fruitful and meaningful conversations that our committees have ever had. I want to keep that going when we go back to meeting in person.”

I believe that this pastor was articulating an important point—that the regathered church affords to us a unique opportunity to reimagine our ecclesiastical administration. For some churches, that might involve a transition to a single board governance structure. For other churches, it might involve staff reconfigurations and new job descriptions. For all of us, it will involve more intentional meeting agendas, so that our administrative conversations are more focused on missional priorities and less on institutional maintenance.

Regathering is an opportunity to re-ground ourselves in our unifying Story and reframe our often divisive sub-narratives

Granted, there is not complete agreement on what constitutes the Church’s “unifying Story” and “divisive sub-narratives,” which makes it difficult to treat this point as anything more than a vague hope. But, for me, it is a hope that is worth naming, embracing, and nurturing.

What do I mean by our “unifying Story?” I mean the Story of the Triune God as told in our Scripture and Creeds—the Story of a Parent who creates and recreates, a Son who saves and redeems, and a Spirit who transforms and equips. It is the story of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus, whose invitation into a saving relationship is as unmerited as it is beautiful. It is the story of sanctification and discipleship, in which the grace of Jesus Christ is magnificently at work to bring our lives into alignment with who God created us to be.

Our often divisive sub-narratives are not insignificant, to be sure. In fact, one churchperson’s sub-narrative might be another churchperson’s significant priority. It is not my desire to downplay the complexity and difficulty of navigating this territory. But my sincere hope is that this season of regathering will become a time of theological recalibration during which congregations might re-learn the deeper Story that unifies; re-clarify what might constitute both our defining non-negotiables and our “think and let think” negotiables; and recommit to the life of discipleship to which our Story calls us.

Regathering is an opportunity to re-ignite the Church’s missional relationship with the world

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that our world is yearning more deeply than ever for the hope and truth that the Church is uniquely equipped to offer. Hungry people need healthy food. Addicted people need ministries of recovery. Struggling students need tutoring. Community institutions (like schools and hospitals) need strategic institutional partnerships. Lonely people need relationships. Disenfranchised people need advocacy. Voiceless people need a voice. Lost people need Jesus.

This season of regathering is a clarion call for churches to rediscover their missional commitment to their communities and to reinvent their presence in their neighborhoods so that the regathered Church becomes known for its risky outreach, its missional experimentation, and its stubborn refusal to settle for isolation and self-preservation.

Indeed, the Church’s people are planning and preparing for regathering.

May the regathered Church’s prayers be fervent.

May the regathered Church’s worship be vibrant.

May the regathered Church’s discipleship be faithful.

And may the regathered Church’s ministry be a ray of hope to a hurting world.

A Sickening Story and the Injustice It Illuminates

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Truth be told, I do not know exactly what to write or how to write it. But I feel compelled to write…

…something.

As I process a story from Brunswick, Georgia that I almost never even heard, my soul feels both sick and complicit.

I refer to the story of the pursuit and fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old black man, during what, for Ahmaud, was a Sunday afternoon jog in a neighborhood that should have felt like safe and familiar territory to him.

The shooting took place on February 23rd, 2 ½ months ago. I am processing the story now only because of the recent emergence of a video that has placed Ahmaud’s shooting starkly and graphically in our country’s consciousness.

“We don’t know all the details,” some will be quick to declare. But we know enough to be reminded of this inescapable truth: It is not the same America for Ahmaud Arbery as it is for the men who had both the agency and falsely-perceived justification to arm themselves and confront him. The shooters and the victim lived in the same geographical vicinity. But, in terms of their standing in a nation that is still plagued and driven by systemic racism, Ahmaud and the men who pursued and shot him were light years apart.

I hear it from so many of my white colleagues, even in the church: “Enough with the racism talk! It’s only an issue because you are making it one!” Some are inclined to make their rejection of the conversation even more pointed: “There is no such thing as ‘white privilege.’ It is nothing but an artificial social construct designed to perpetuate a liberal agenda and to manipulate the conversation.” I have heard such sentiments. I suspect you have as well.

But the tragic story of Ahmaud Arbery reminds us of how wrongheaded and dangerous such sentiments are. The moment I am tempted to believe that systemic racism no longer exists or that white privilege is not a reality, I simply have to spend a moment telling myself this truth: That, as a white male, I could travel to any suburban American neighborhood right now, park my car, even put on a mask (given the COVID-19 dynamics), and take a leisurely jog without giving a single thought to either my wellbeing or the possibility of being presumed guilty of a crime. If that is not a societal privileging based upon whiteness, what else could we possibly call it? To ignore or deny such privileging’s continued impact upon the moral dynamics of our nation compromises and even corrupts the integrity of our nation’s very identity.

The story of Ahmaud Arbery brings all of these things and many others into quick and unnerving focus. It is a story not to be minimized, not only because of the depth of its tragedy, but also because of the urgency of what it illuminates.

As I write these words, I am keenly aware of the fact that I write them from a place of privilege. All that I have to worry about is the possibility of being misunderstood or mischaracterized or tuned-out or resented, none of which is life-threatening or even remotely risky. But I want this privileged voice to speak about the stories that matter most, and the story of Ahmaud Arbery is one of those stories.

It is a story that matters to his family and friends.

It is a story that matters to a nation still burdened by the weight of a racism that produces such a story.

It is a story that matters to faith communities, including the Church, where narratives about justice and the sacred worth of all people must frame Ahmaud’s shooting as an agonizing affront to any theological worldview grounded in Truth.

It is a story that matters to the broken heart of this writer, who, while not always knowing how to write or how to speak, longs for his inadequate words to be interpreted as both an outcry against the injustice that Ahmaud experienced and a call for a shared recommitment to the dismantling of the systemic racism that makes such injustice all too common.

I will say it once more—As I process this story from Brunswick, Georgia that I almost never even heard, my soul feels both sick and complicit.

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Redemptive Weeping and Wondrous Resurrection

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(Artwork: “Jesus Wept” by Jordan Douglas)

 

Some preachers this weekend will focus on John 11:1-45.

Check out the story. It is a stunning illumination of the heart of God.

Lazarus.

Death.

Weeping.

Jesus.

Life.

What does Jesus do when he finds out that his friend Lazarus has died? Well, to put it as simply as Scripture does, he weeps. We weeps over the sadness that death causes. He weeps over death’s unparalleled ability to silence voices and to break hearts. Jesus…weeps.

And please, do not overlook or minimize these tears. The tears matter. They reveal the nature of the Divine Heart.

Jesus, after all, is the incarnation of the God we cannot see. In him, we are told, all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. If we have a Jesus who weeps, then we must also have a God who weeps. Not a God who orchestrates misery and then watches our pain and death and cancer and quarantines from a safe emotional distance, but a God who enters with us into the depths of our suffering and who allows divine tears to commingle with ours.

That is why the tears of Jesus are so vital to our understanding of God. They saturate our deepest consciousness with the compassion of a God who takes everything we experience personally and feels it all deeply. Everything. In Jesus’ tears, we find a God who has invested so completely and so passionately in our journey that this God cannot help but internalize the joys and sorrows of our vulnerable pilgrimage. When we grieve, the heart of God grieves. When we suffer, the heart of God suffers. When we weep, the heart of God weeps.

Where is God in the face of COVID-19? God is right here, in the mess of it all. God is in the anguish of the addict who is desperate for community in a time of social distancing. God is in the despair of the grieving widow who cannot experience the physical embrace of loved ones in her loss. God is in the fear and dread of those vulnerable souls who have grown weak and weary with a sense of isolation.

Where is God? God is right here. Closer to us than our own breathing, more intimately connected to us than our own thoughts. That is who God is—a vulnerable, scandalously-intimate, deeply-feeling Parent who does not cause our suffering but who enters it, embraces it, and weeps over it.

But the weeping is not the end of the story. It never is with Jesus.

“Lazarus, come out,” Jesus shouts. And the dead man, leaving death behind, comes out.

Yes, God tenderly weeps. But this God also resurrects and restores! It is the story of Lazarus. The story of Jesus. The story of the church. The story of a hurting people who are heartbroken over a nation quarantined.

God is weeping, and God is resurrecting! Weeping over our devastation, but resurrecting us into bold new hope. Weeping over our sorrow, but resurrecting us into unexpected joy. Weeping over the rhythms of death, but resurrecting us into a grand and glorious newness of life.

So, be encouraged, friends. You are not weeping alone. There is One who cares about your pain more than you do who embraces you in the midst of it and weeps with you in a lifechanging intimacy. Best of all, when the weeping is finished, this same One will bring you forth into a new life where viruses lose their governance and where death itself relinquishes its authority.

Seriously, check out the story. It is a stunning illumination of the heart of God.

Lazarus.

Death.

Weeping.

Jesus.

Life.

The Lord’s Supper and Virtual Worship

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My spirit soars with particular energy whenever the people of the church spend time in the depths of authentic theological conversation. Presently, such theological conversation is happening robustly around the church’s virtualization (i.e., the church’s movement to online settings) in these days of quarantine and social distancing. It may be that the current theological searching and wrestling is part of God’s creative redemption of these difficult days.

Perhaps some of the most compelling recent theological discourse revolves around the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The driving question in much of the conversation is this: Can we celebrate the Lord’s Supper virtually? Or, to put in another way, can we share the sacramental bread and cup when we are connected online but not physically present in the same geographical space?

(Note: I address these matters as a United Methodist clergyperson, speaking from a United Methodist perspective. I will honor other denominations by allowing their voices and leaders to speak out of their own sacramental theology and tradition.)

Allow me to cut to the proverbial chase: In the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, our Bishop—Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi—has made it clear that United Methodist Churches in Western Pennsylvania are NOT to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in virtual settings. My sense is that the Bishop has issued this directive for no other reason but to guard both the theological identity and the ontological integrity of the sacrament (which is precisely what we count on our Bishop to do). I am grateful for Bishop Cynthia’s clarity and leadership in this regard.

Beyond this practical and clear directive, however, the theological conversation around the Lord’s Supper and its proper celebration continues to find compelling expression. Some have been quick to articulate their strong opposition to “virtual Holy Communion” on the grounds that such a practice would constitute the “disembodiment” of the sacrament—i.e., the removal of the sacrament from its necessary concreteness and its physical community. According to this argument, the act of virtualizing or digitalizing the Lord’s Supper would dangerously distort both the sacrament’s incarnational nature and its celebration of a fully-embodied Christ whose living presence calls for a fully-enfleshed community.

On the other side of the argument are those who believe that the Holy Spirit is hard at work to redefine and reconfigure “embodiment” in this season of crisis where disembodiment (i.e., social distancing) has become a necessary norm. According to this line of thought, the Holy Spirit’s sacramental work cannot be confined by the church’s physicality and is just as efficacious in a virtual connection as it is in physical congregation. Those who espouse this perspective are likely to suggest that prohibiting a virtual celebration of the Lord’s Supper irresponsibly elevates the physical over the metaphysical, thereby generating a truncated sacramentology in which the Holy Spirit is not given adequate space in which to usher an isolated people into a transformational communion with the real presence of Jesus and with one another.

So, here we are.

I would suspect that neither “side” in this sacramental discourse is comprehensively right, and that both perspectives (and other perspectives between them) articulate important priorities that help to illuminate what is ultimately best for the church’s practice. Wherever it is that you land in the spectrum of the discourse, I encourage you not to allow your position to become so soundproof that you fail to hear what is right or helpful from other voices.

My personal conviction is that the entire conversation is helping the church to develop and clarify what might be called its theology of embodiment. What do I mean by “theology of embodiment?” I simply mean the church’s understanding of how God coordinates the mystical territory between “essence” and “substance;” between “in-person” and “online;” between the corporeal and the virtual. In other words, a theology of embodiment wrestles with this question: “What truth and illumination does the Incarnation—the “in-the-flesh-ness” of God in Jesus—bring to our understanding of physicality, virtual connection, and the sharing of the bread and cup?”

The church’s current theology of embodiment does not permit the church to validate or sanction an online or virtual celebration of the Lord’s Supper. To put it simply, the church has a long history of interpreting the Lord’s Supper as the celebration of a living Christ who is embodied in the bread and cup, the consecration of which demands a physically gathered community whose corporeality bears witness to the very flesh that the Incarnation redeems. Will that interpretation change over time as our experience of virtual community continues to expand? Time will tell. But an altered sacramental interpretation would require a substantially reworked theology of embodiment.

Again, Bishop Cynthia’s instruction to the United Methodist Churches of Western Pennsylvania not to celebrate virtual or online communion is both clear and helpfully binding, which is essential to remember in our development of a unified sacramental approach.

If you are a pastor or church leader, I encourage you to continue to offer creative and safe ways for your people to experience connection, worship, prayer, and community. Utilize the telephone with new urgency. Livestream and record your worship where possible. Set up phone and video conferences for your meetings and Bible studies. Consecrate the chambers of cyberspace so that they might become tabernacles. Help your people to embrace the truth that not even a necessary social distancing can prevent the church from being the church.

In this temporary abstinence—or fast—from the Lord’s Supper, consider celebrating an online “Love Feast.” The Love Feast is a communal meal that has a rich history in the church. While it is not to be confused with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, it is a meaningful way for a congregation to experience a shared meal on those occasions (such as this season) when it would be inappropriate for the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated. I smile at the thought of the churches of my district and conference enjoying a small meal safely in their own homes while at the same time seeing the faces and hearing the voices of other church members with whom they are connected online.

Here is a link to a page with more information about the Love Feast and how to celebrate it as a church:

https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/the-love-feast

It hurts to be taken out of our normal practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, to be certain. And yet, it occurs to me that, while we are not able to share physically the bread and cup, we are finding remarkable ways to honor one of our most important eucharistic prayers:

“…Make [the bread and cup] be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we might be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”

Through the creative ministry efforts of our churches in recent days, we may be doing our best-ever “eucharistic” work in “BEING” the redeemed body of Christ until such time as we are able to share the bread and cup once again. In a sense, the Holy Spirit is making our risky and innovative ministry into a metaphorical sacramental bread that we are breaking with our desperately hungry communities. I am encouraged by the thought of that. I hope that you are as well.

When we return to the table of the Lord’s Supper soon, we will be hungrier for the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation than we have ever been. What a celebration that will be!

A Blind Man, COVID-19, and the Good Heart of God

The Healing of the Man born Blind. Museum: PRIVATE COLLECTION. Author: Russian icon.

This weekend, many of my preacher friends (in their online and technologically reconfigured worship experiences) will be focusing on a pivotal moment in John’s gospel (John 9:1-41).

Jesus and his disciples encounter a blind man—blind from birth, in fact. The disciples ask a question that emerges from their long-established and deeply-held way of looking at the world:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The question reveals a starkly equational way of looking at things, and the equation goes like this: If people experience hardship or suffering (like blindness; or cancer; or Alzheimer’s disease; or MS; or natural disasters; or COVID-19), it must be the result of God’s punishment for some transgression. In this equation, the man’s blindness is not merely the result of malfunctioning eyes. It is an existential penalty assigned by God to a sinner. Likewise, according to the equation, something like COVID-19 becomes the blunt instrument of a God with a substantial ax to grind.

The disciples were not halfwits, by the way. They were espousers of a theological system that was undergirded by a long and painful history. (Check out the chapters of the Old Testament book of Job if you need evidence of that history.) In this worldview, suffering has to have an initiator, a causal agent. And that causal agent is none other than our sovereign God, orchestrating suffering as a means of divine punishment for the sins of the past and present. The disciples, in this moment of Scripture, are not asking IF the man’s blindness is a punishment. They are simply trying to identify the guilty party:

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question is something beyond what the disciples are prepared to envision or receive in the moment. It is the kind of disruptive response that begins to alter the trajectory of the church’s understanding of the world and its suffering:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus says. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

What?! What are you saying, Jesus?! Are you asking us to believe that human suffering is something other than divine punishment? Are you suggesting that this man’s blindness—or this woman’s cancer; or this child’s heart condition; or this world’s coronavirus—is something other than the work of a retributive deity? Are you really putting before us the idea that our suffering is not a penalty that God initiates but rather a brokenness that God willingly engages and eagerly redeems?

Jesus eventually heals the blind man, to be sure. But I do not believe that the blind man’s healing is the most profound miracle in this story. Rather, I believe that the most profound miracle is Jesus’ transformation of the disciples’ inadequate system of thought. Jesus incarnates a new worldview in their very presence—a worldview in which blindness and cancer and coronavirus and tornadoes and hurricanes can be looked upon, not as God’s means of punishment, but as the groaning of a world that yearns for a restoration not yet realized. In such moments of suffering, God is not the orchestrator of our hardship but its redeemer—not a punisher with questionable aim, but a compassionate Parent who vulnerably walks alongside a hurting human family, all the while providing the kind of healing and sustenance that bear witness to the goodness of the Divine Heart.

My sense is that people are asking deep and important theological questions about God’s relationship to COVID-19 (whether they realize it or not). I hope that the church will respond to those questions, not with manufactured platitudes and inadequate equations, but with the assurance of God’s good and gracious heart—a heart that heals suffering instead of causing it; a heart that will not rest until every portion of suffering finds its redemption.

Prejudice, Privilege, and the Ongoing Work of Dismantling Racism

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As Black History Month 2020 nears its conclusion, I was inspired this morning to spend some time re-reading Peggy McIntosh’s essay from the late 1980s entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” I am asking all of the United Methodist clergy and lay leaders on the Butler District to read or re-read this essay and to reflect on its content. I also hope that church leaders on my district will continue to seek out additional resources that will help them in the work of dismantling racism (such as the book “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi).

This morning, I found these words from the “Invisible Knapsack” essay to be powerfully convicting:

“In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.”

McIntosh’s words compel me to acknowledge how frequently I have been guilty of minimizing (or, worse, ignoring altogether) both the unearned privilege I experience as a white male and the oppressions made possible by the continuing existence of systemic and institutional racism. Too often, I allow my passion for dismantling racism to be quelled by my self-satisfaction with my own avoidance of individual “acts of meanness.” In so doing, I often become inattentive to the “invisible systems” of racial dominance that continue to exploit, disenfranchise, and oppress.

I once heard a United Methodist pastor offer what I think is a popular viewpoint concerning the issue of racism. Here is the pastor’s viewpoint, offered with the pastor’s permission:

I don’t know why we have to keep making racism such an issue. Most of us have been delivered from racism…But when we keep making racism a point of focus, all we’re doing is beating a dead horse and highlighting an ugly thing that doesn’t deserve to be highlighted.

Shortly after my conversation with that pastor, I heard the following comment made by a United Methodist lay person (offered, again, with permission):

People have told me that they don’t want a black pastor at our church. They’ve told me that they would leave if that kind of thing ever happened. Truth be told, I might leave too.  I guess I just wouldn’t be comfortable with that kind of thing. I would feel like I couldn’t relate to my own pastor.

Those two viewpoints help to illuminate the painful complexity of the issue of racism in the church. Racism is as real as it ever was, but we are tired of hearing about it. A pastor’s racial identity is still important enough to inspire a parishioner to leave a church, but the last thing that we want to hear is someone highlighting the issue of racism. We prefer to comfort ourselves with the shallow belief that, because we have been delivered from our individual racist “acts of meanness,” our commitment to dismantling racism has been fulfilled.

Concerning the matter of white privilege, some have gone so far as to suggest that white privilege is nothing but an artificial social construct created to further a social agenda. My own personal journey has led me to conclude that this perspective is dreadfully misguided. I have experienced far too many instances in which people of color have been confronted with racially-driven presuppositions and antagonism from which I, as a white person, am automatically exempted. As a District Superintendent, I have listened to newly-appointed clergy of color address a committee’s concerns about how the church’s first non-white pastor will be accepted, all the while knowing that I will never have to experience such scrutiny as a white United Methodist pastor in Western Pennsylvania. I have participated in far too many group conversations in which I have suddenly realized that people are making steady eye contact with me but not with the person of color standing right next to me.

Much could be added to this list. All of it bears witness to a privileged access to an unearned collection of advantages. That privileged access is decidedly white.

When one begins to take seriously a racism that is thoroughly undergirded by institutional injustices and white privilege, one is compelled to move beyond defensive rhetoric such as this:

“Those people of color are just as prejudiced as I am!”

Or this:

“People of color need to stop playing the race card in every situation, because nobody wants to hear that anymore. It’s time to get over the past.”

The danger of this kind of rhetoric is that it overlooks or, at the very least, oversimplifies the complexities of systemic racism. Moreover, such rhetoric often discounts the most crippling racism of all—specifically, the kind of racism that can only be generated and perpetuated by people in power.

I have no easy answers in the midst of all of this. This much, however, is certain: United Methodism’s emphasis upon dismantling racism is, first and foremost, one of the many necessary consequences of both the sin of racism and the fervency with which that sin has been perpetuated by both the American culture and the American church. The aftermath of this particular sin is an environment in which Christ-followers will have no choice but to be creatively and prayerfully engaged in the messy tensions that often exist related to this issue: tensions over how to create ethnically and culturally diverse communities of faith; tensions over the fact that there are so few racial/ethnic United Methodist clergy in Western Pennsylvania; tensions between those who see racism as an ongoing problem and those who simply want people of color to “get over it;” tensions over what it means to have a church that makes tangible its belief that “red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in God’s sight.”

These tensions are not going away any time soon, nor should they. They are tensions emerging from the unsettling presence of a Holy Spirit who stubbornly refuses to allow a church to settle for being less than what it has been called by its Savior to be.

Personally, in my life and ministry, I want to live into an ever-deepening sensitivity to the sin of racism and all of its manifestations. Even more importantly, I want to lead by repentance. I want to name and confess all the different ways in which I have perpetuated the kind of racist presuppositions and patterns of behavior that have simultaneously fractured human community and broken the heart of God. Only then will I become a suitable laborer in the work that the dismantling of racism demands.

The Blessing Beyond the Scandal

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I had planned to read more of Matthew’s Gospel than I did this morning.

One  verse, though, unexpectedly captured my contemplation in a manner that prevented me from reading past it. It was this verse:

“[Jesus said] And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6).

The phrase “takes no offense” is one way of translating the Greek word σκανδαλισθῇ (skandalisthē), from which we derive the English word “scandal.” (This verse, by the way, is part of the reason why I am so often inclined to describe the grace of God as “scandalous.” It is a grace that can offend the sensibilities of those who wish to evaluate it by typical metrics.)

There it is, then. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at Jesus and who does not see his countercultural priorities as a stumbling block. The richest blessing of God, in other words, is to be found in a refusal to be scandalized, offended, or put off either by the grace that Jesus incarnated or the discipleship into which he calls us to live.

Matthew 11:6 took me back in my memory to a small newsstand in Grove City, Pennsylvania where I would often stop with my mother after church to pick up a Pittsburgh Press for my dad and a comic book for me. As we walked into the newsstand, I would be carrying both a Bible (which I had just spent time reading at church) and a spirit of eagerness, both of which were weighty in their own ways. On our walk home from the newsstand, as I carried both the Bible and the new comic book at my side with one hand, I remember intentionally putting the comic book on the outside and the Bible on the inside (closer to my leg) so that the Bible would not be easily visible to anyone who saw me.

Why? Why would I make such a choice? And why do I remember it so clearly today?

I am not certain that I can answer those questions definitively. But I suspect that my effort to conceal the Bible had something to do with the fact that, even as a 7-year-old, I had already learned that there was something scandalous about the life of Christian faith and the Way of Jesus. Even at that age, I had learned that risky love is often ridiculed; that the church is often perceived as foolish; that peacemakers are often marginalized; that pursuing a holiness that honors God is often seen as weakness; and that those who walk alongside outcasts are often criticized or dismissed.

Even at that age, I had come to understand that it was far safer to hide my deepest Story beneath a comic book. 

Decades later, I am less inclined to hide my Bible. This morning’s experience with Matthew 11:6, however, compels me to consider the very real possibility that I am concealing my discipleship with a more sophisticated methodology. How often, for example, do I hide the work of speaking truth to power behind a safer contentment with maintaining a superficial peace? How frequently do I  conceal much-needed repentance behind a narcissistic self-righteousness? On how many occasions do I bury the often-subversive priorities of Jesus beneath the more comfortable impulses of my personal preferences?

I may no longer conceal the Bible behind a comic book (at least on most days). And yet, I cannot help but wonder how frequently I am so “offended” or put off by Jesus’ call to a scandalous and comprehensive discipleship that I choose to hide the life to which he calls me behind the life that I am content to live.

Still, God is patient and gracious with me and makes certain that these words of Scripture resonate with power in my consciousness:

“Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

I long to experience that blessedness more deeply this Advent. It is the blessedness of a grace that brings beautiful new life to those who refuse to be offended or scandalized by the truth that Jesus illuminates—specifically, the truth that a person’s best achievements and self-reliance are not the means by which we will be saved.

For proud and independent souls like us, such an idea is almost offensive.

Even scandalous.