Notre Dame’s shock soothed by rescued relics. What commemorates your faith?
What could assuage the shock of seeing the Notre Dame Cathedral Paris amid roaring, uncontrollable flames?
Raging devastation paralyzed the faithful few who worshipped there. Even the secular touring public, for whom Notre Dame’s flying buttresses, Gothic-era gargoyles, and gorgeous rose windows are a Parisian must-see, stood transfixed as the catastrophe unfolded.
Before the inferno claimed the roof of the 800 year-old international landmark, a priest, part of a human chain, rescued the sacraments, and the relics, including to the relief of so many—one Crown of Thorns.
Yes, that Crown of Thorns. By way of quick background, here is what legal evidentiary practice calls the “chain of custody”:
• The “Crown” appears in the Bible’s, account of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. It was placed upon the brow of Jesus as He is mocked for claiming to be the son of God. He was derided for being “The King of the Jews.” Matthew 27:29, Mark 15:17, John 19:2. John 19:5 indicates: “Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!”
• The loss and subsequent absence of important evidence for 400 years would surely render the evidence problematic in a court of law, yet in this case some people believe the crown of thorns resurfaced by 409 A.D.
• From there, according to the Catholic newspaper The Compass, the Crown’s whereabout are traceable, and “can be unbrokenly traced back only to Constantinople, where many of the church’s treasures originally in Jerusalem were transferred to the Byzantine Empire between the fourth and the tenth centuries.”
• In a humiliating episode, the relic was pawned, in a sense, by the Latin Emperor Baldwin II to raise funds in 1238.
• Shortly thereafter that King Louis IX of France paid the Venetian bank holding the relic, and claimed it for France. Because the monarch claimed it and other relics, then in humble celebration, is said to have walked barefoot and in a simple tunic behind the crown into the then Sainte-Chapelle, the Catholic church canonized him. Incidentally, Louis’ tunic is one of the relics saved in Monday’s fire.
• The Crown of Thorns survived the French Revolution, hidden away in the National Library for safekeeping. Even though the bloody conflict ended with the fall of the pope in 1798, by 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte I executed a treaty with the Catholic Church, returning the “Passion relics” to its custody at Notre Dame.
• The Crown of Thorns has been at Notre Dame since, offered for worshippers on the first Friday of every month, and each Friday during Lent, until it was saved from the fire on Monday by Jean-Marc Fournier, a priest.
Money Where Your Mouth Is
Social elites, wealthy business owners, and concerned parishioners around the world chipped in to rebuild the Cathedral—growing its pre-fire $6 Million renovation budget to $1 Billion after the fire. And, this feat of reconstruction will be completed in five years, according to the optimistic French President, Emmanuel Macron. But, now just two days away from the day that Christians around the world commemorate the Resurrection of Jesus, this event highlights the power of a relic over real religion, especially as some see money diverted from human suffering to religious architecture.
Human intervention is what turns an ordinary inanimate object into an artifact, said Alfred Williams, Jr., Ph.D., a Paine College professor of Religion and Philosophy, an expert in biblical archeology. Throughout the centuries, religious relics emerge as a result of the subjective religious meaning and value attached to them. And, it is unlikely, that the objects revered were at all considered to be worthy of such at the time of their creation or use. Hence, Roman soldiers and Pilate certainly would not have viewed a crown of thorns as holy, or valuable. Their intentions were just the opposite.
Centuries past the Age of Enlightenment, and well into our post-modern world, tangible evidence and visible revelation is critical to the faith of many believers.
“Faith has become a lot more challenging to have” said Williams. “We seem to desperately need something. Faith should be enough, [but] humans seem to want to have something to hang onto. What is more important, rather than the relic itself, is your belief and your faith. At the end of the day, a relic doesn’t mean very much, but your faith is everything.”
In France, at least, a fascination with form rather than actual function of faith seems consistent with the findings of Pew research released in December 2018. Pew examined religious practices across Europe, ranking European countries according to the self-reported experiences of adherents. In a list of 34 countries, France ranked 26, with only 12% of its population identifying themselves as “highly religious.” To be “highly religious” was defined as “attending religious services at least monthly, praying at least daily, believing in God with absolute certainty and saying that religion is very important to them.”
Maybe they need to feel close to an artifact. And, they are not the only ones, Williams concedes. It is very human to be struck with inspiration at an object that ties us to our faith. So, what about us? The question is, what assuages our faith as we watch the world on fire, the rolling catastrophes of each news cycle, and our sense of powerlessness in the reflection of it all?
The Bible points us to three events for commemoration, (see this article from our Vault by the late evangelist Earl E. Cleveland) all of which, upon reflection, have the power to usher us directly into the revelation of God’s glory and grace: 1. Communion. 2. The Resurrection, and 3. The Sabbath.
Why not meet Jesus there, at the scene of His prayers for you in Gethsemane? Meet Him who endured the crown of thorns, not in veneration, but in humiliation. Meet Him who rose again with all power, and came looking for you and me. Meet Him, whose passion for your will last for eternity.
Crisis Care and Support from Everyday People
Friends, family and the faith community learn to be first responders for people in need of mental healing
It was subtle at first–expressing “odd ideas” during casual conversations, ideas that did not fit within the discussion. Then Jennifer noticed her friend Rafael displaying emotions that were inappropriate to the situation: laughing while discussing something sad, or, showing no emotion when she shared news that would usually be followed by his uproarious laughter.
Jennifer was unsure of what was going on with her friend. He started missing work, and when he did show up he was not appropriately dressed, often looked disheveled, and appeared not to have taken a shower in some time. He was not himself. Yet, it was not immediately obvious to family and friends exactly what was wrong.
Both 24, Jennifer and Rafael became friends when they met at their historically black college three years ago. They immersed themselves in the fun and culture in their school, famous for soulful marching bands and exquisite drumlines. The became “besties” from day one.
Over the years the pair spent a lot of time together. They attended the same church, went to the movies every Saturday evening, and shared Sunday dinners. They supported each other through tough times and celebrated one another’s successes. So, Jennifer knew her friend well enough to know that he was in some sort of emotional pain, but could not get him to open up about it. He also began to isolate himself.
Spiral of Realization
Jennifer realized that something more serious was happening to Rafael than him just feeling tired or overwhelmed. He was usually intelligent, thoughtful, and energetic, and an especially stylish dresser. Lately, though, he grew distant, suspicious, unusually sullen, uninterested in social activities he once found fun and exciting, and paid little to no attention to his personal hygiene. The easy-going, fun-loving exchanges Jennifer once enjoyed with Rafael seemed to disappear suddenly and without warning.
Rafael’s family noticed the change in their son as well, and was scared and confused. They did not know what to do so they asked their pastor to come over and pray for Rafael. The pastor prayed for him and his family, but also suggested professional counseling. While he was grateful for the prayers and support, Rafael refused to go to counseling. Jennifer was heart-broken as she watched her friend slowly deteriorate into someone she no longer recognized.
A Different World Now
Rafael was in the throes of psychosis and deep depression. At first he denied anything was wrong. He later confided that he was “not sure what was happening” to him. “The world is different now” he simply said.
Rafael’s world truly was different now. However, it was not so uncommon, as the following data from 2015 National Prevalence Rates of Serious Mental Illness (SMI) and Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Diagnoses indicate:
Anxiety: 18.1% (42 million people)
Depression: 6.9% (16 million people)
Bipolar: 2.6% (6.1 million people)
Substance Use Disorder: 20.8 million people
Sources: National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Substance Abuse and Mental health Services Administration (SAMSHA)
As the data above indicate, behavioral health challenges (mental illness and substance use disorders) are far more common than most people realize. Experiencing mental illness, and or, substance use disorder is also no respecter of persons, as it impacts all races and ethnicities, gender, age, social economic status.
Research shows (and as you can see on the graph above) that mental illness affects young people at an alarming rate. NAMI research indicates that “one half of all lifetime cases begin by age 14 and 75 percent begin by age 24”. Even more astounding is that even after an onset of symptoms, “the average young person does not get treatment until 8-10 years after onset of symptoms.”
Community of First Responders
Several health seminars teach everyday citizens how to support those suffering from mental illness or substance use disorders, and those experiencing behavioral health crises. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is one such resource that my city (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) and many other cities, countries, states, and local communities have adopted to support people in crisis or experiencing behavioral health challenges until professionals can step in.
According to the National Council for Behavioral Health (NCBH): “One in five Americans has a mental illness or substance use disorder, yet many are reluctant to seek help or simply don’t know where to turn for care. Recognizing mental health and substance use challenges can be difficult, which is why it’s so important for everyone to understand the warning signs and risk factors.
What is Mental Health First Aid?
“Mental Health First Aid teaches how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. The 8-hour course introduces participants to risk factors and warning signs of mental health concerns, builds understanding of their impact and provides an overview of common treatments. Through role-playing and simulations, it demonstrates how to assess a mental health crisis; select interventions; provide initial help; and connect people to professional, peer and social supports as well as self-help resources.” Mental Health First Aid USA is operated by the National Council for Behavioral Health. Read more about the program in their special 5th Anniversary edition of National Council Magazine. In Philadelphia and other places around the country MHFA has been taught in faith-based organizations, churches, masjids, and synagogues to add behavioral health supports as a ministry in those communities.
“I was able to use what I learned to help my mother in a crisis situation,” said one participant. “My mother was expressing thoughts of suicide and I was able to use the right words to assess the situation and convince her to seek treatment. I saved my mother’s life!”
Fortunately for Rafael, Jennifer took the MHFA course a few weeks after she noticed her friend experiencing difficulties. Even more fortunately, Rafael trusted Jennifer as she put to work the “ALGEE” acronym she learned in the course:
A – Assess for risk of suicide or harm
L – Listen non-judgmentally
G – Give reassurance and information
E – Encourage appropriate professional help
E – Encourage self-help and other support strategies
Rafael trusted his friend’s support, which encouraged him to seek professional help. Because of Jennifer’s compassion, support, and training, Rafael received the help he needed, was diagnosed with a mental health condition, and is responding well to treatment.
This situation could have resulted in a negative outcome like in so many cases with similar challenges. However, there was an additional, unanticipated positive result in that Rafael and Jennifer received permission from their pastor and church leadership to start a behavioral health support group for young people ages 14-24. Their church also signed up to receive training to become a “trauma-informed” congregation, thereby embracing behavioral health support as a legitimate and much needed ministry for their community.
The positive outcome for Rafael and others in the community was the result of a domino effect that all began with Jennifer putting her faith and friendship into practice. She is a great example of what the scripture says in Ephesians 4:32, of how we should treat one another: “Be kind and helpful to one another, tender-hearted [compassionate, understanding] …” (AMP).
Because mental illness and substance use disorder are becoming more prevalent in our communities, in our faith-communities, and in our families, we must be prepared. Showing kindness, love, and support to people in need is what being “Christ-like” is all about (Matthew 25:40).
Jean Wright II, PsyD, is a Clinical and Forensic Psychologist for the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Remembering Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president of the United States, one who was “unbought” and “unbossed,” and believed she belonged at the table.
Shirley Anita Saint Hill was born to immigrants from Barbados. Shirley Chisholm (her married name) was an educator and advocate for children and the poor. Eventually she entered the arena of politics and became the first black woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968 and represented the 12th District of New York until 1983. In 1972, she became the first Black woman to run for President of the U.S.
Throughout her political career, Chisholm saw herself as “the people’s politician.” She was determined to be Unbought and Unbossed (the title of her autobiography) and that was one of the reasons much of the Democratic power structure tried to deny her a seat at the table during her presidential run. Other reasons, of course, were that most didn’t believe an African American or a woman could become president—let alone someone who was both!
Whether running for office or pushing legislation, Chisholm often had to work outside the party apparatus and gather support as she blazed her way along the “Chisholm Trail.” She was as quick to challenge Democrats as well as Republicans when it came to representing the have-nots. As you’ll see below, she also didn’t shy away from challenging the church to see people as “integrated wholes” and to act upon that belief. The following excerpts from “The Relationship Between Religion and Today’s Social Issues”[i] provide a glimpse into her heart:
“It is exceedingly difficult to explain one’s inner feelings and motivations especially when it seems that one’s actions defy current policy and standards… Philosophically I remain involved because it is the only way in which I can express my love toward a different America, an America that does not yet exist in time and space…
“In 1st John 3:18 we find the following word: ‘My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth’
“Quite often the church gives the distinct impression that it is concerned exclusively with its own self-preservation, but the clergy must assume a strong role in preparing young men and women to function meaningfully as religiously oriented citizens who are able to cope with the economic, social, religious and political problems of the day. The church can no longer be mute and expect the young to be satisfied. The Bible touches upon every phase of life and our lives are supposed to be integrated wholes, for unless religion is all of life, it is none of life. The rights and wrongs of political issues cannot be sidestepped…
“There are those who claim that the gospel is opposed to the changing of priorities I have described and they stress the inner, individualistic, formalistic aspects of religion and obedience to authority and tradition. But I believe that we must reconcile those who are oppressed, alienated, rebellious not by conditional handouts which perpetuate servile dependency but by giving to them access to the reins of decision making and to the resources needed for growth in freedom and maturity…
“Remember that biblical faith is oriented towards a new future not a static past. When Israel’s faith faltered, Christ came to free a new community to carry on God’s work in history…
“Are we ready to learn to deal with others as God has dealt with us? God gave us life at the risk of our rebellion and paid for reconciliation at the price of the cross.”
As the preachers used to say, “The doors of the church are open.”
[i] Quoted from Religious Education LXIX/2 (March-April 1975): 117-123, by Marcia Y. Riggs (editor) in Can I Get a Witness? Prophetic Religious Voices of African American Women, 183-7.
Mis-Education of the Church
Dr. Carter G. Woodson insisted that the contribution of “the Negro” be recognized year-round. What about the contribution of people of African descent as seen in the Bible?
Dr. Carter G. Woodson birthed the first Negro History Week on February 7, 1926. Why February? Because of his admiration for Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, who were both born in February. So whether you call it Black History or African American History Month, it wasn’t bestowed upon us by another race. Nor does the length of the month have anything to do with its designation.
The Harvard educated history professor never intended Black History to be confined to one month a year. Its study was to be a liberating force throughout one’s life that helps elevate all aspects of society. To get started, why not peruse a few passages from his most famous work, The Mis-Education of the Negro? The pagination for the following quotes are based on the 2016 edition by Watchmaker Publishing.
Sampling of Woodson’s Observations
“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.” Mis-Education, 9
“The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples.” Mis-Eduction, 9
“The conditions of today have been determined by what has taken place in the past, and in a very careful study of this history we may see more clearly the great theatre of events in which the Negro has played a part.” Mis-Education, 15
“In the teaching of fine arts these instructors usually started with Greece . . . but they omitted the African influence which scientists now regard as significant and dominant in early Hellas. They failed to teach the student the Mediterranean Melting Pot with the Negroes from Africa bringing their wares, their ideas, and the blood therein to influence the history of Greece, Carthage, and Rome.” Mis-Education, 20
“In medical schools Negroes were likewise convinced of their inferiority in being reminded of their role as germ carriers… Little emphasis was placed upon the immunity of the Negro from diseases like yellow fever and influenza which are so disastrous to whites. Yet, the whites were not considered inferior because of the differential resistance to these plagues.” Mis-Education, 21
“Taught from books of the same bias, trained by Caucasians of the same prejudices or by Negroes of enslaved minds, one generation of Negro teachers after another have served for no higher purpose than to do what they are told to do. In other words, a Negro teacher instructing Negro children is in many respects white teacher thus engaged, for the program in each case is about the same.” Mis-Education, 22
“Real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better.” Mis-Education, 25
“The education of any people should begin with the people themselves, but Negroes… have been dreaming about the ancients of Europe and about those who have tried to imitate them.” Mis-Education, 27
So called “biblical” perpetuated this mental enslavement. According to the Bible, Moses and Paul looked like Egyptians (Exodus 2:19 and Acts 21:38). Yet, strangely, we see them portrayed as if they were Norwegians. We know then, someone is trying to place unbiblical, unhistorical, un-geographical shackles on your mind.
How is it, on the other hand that the artists always seem to depict the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8:27 and Simon of Cyrene of Mark 21:15 as black? Any map will show that Libya (home to Cyrene) is on one side of Egypt and Ethiopia is on the other side of Egypt. Why depict these people so differently?
From a racist and sexist standpoint, the Ethiopian eunuch is an emasculated servant. He would be accountable to a woman—so there’s nothing exemplary about him. Although he’s literate, he doesn’t understand what he is reading until Philip (always depicted as white) is sent to enlighten this lost soul from the “dark continent.”
The Romans singled out Simon of Cyrene to fill his divinely mandated role as a burden-bearer. Both men have been consistently depicted in this manner because such artwork is a tool of mis-education. Again, ask yourself why the Ethiopian and Libyan are depicted as dark-skinned Africans, while Moses and Paul are mistaken for Egyptians yet portrayed as white?
Supremacy That Seeped in
Moses was the premier freedom-fighter, law-giver, and prophet of the Old Testament. He is credited with writing the first five books of the Bible and setting the tone for the rest of the
Bible. Even in the Gospels, Jesus’ critics use the writings of Moses to accuse Jesus of wrongdoing. Paul is the premier apostle of the New Testament. He was highly educated, multilingual, a persuasive speaker, a leader’s leader, and proficient writer of approximately half of the New Testament. To be consistent in their artwork of Africans by portraying these men according to their biblical description would have undermined the white supremacy inherent in the colonization and enslavement of Africans.
Realistic biblical artwork would force some cultural and historical introspection among Europeans. European people and places aren’t referred to in the Bible until the book of Daniel. That is when Greece overcame Medo-Persia. Europeans don’t actually interact with the biblical narratives until the four Gospels discuss Roman census and taxes, a handful of Greeks visiting Jesus, and a centurion that seeks Jesus’ healing power. The vast majority of the Bible takes place at the junction of Africa and Asia, with the main players being Africans and Asians.
Read the Bible for yourself and free your mind from religious mis-education.
Bryan Stevenson’s Monumental Task
HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATE, DEATH PENALTY ADVERSARY, BRYAN STEVENSON
Sees healing on the horizon but not before we do the hard work of remembrance and. repentance
Lord, How Come We Here?
Election night, 2018 in Montgomery, Alabama. Sports bars, restaurants and hotels flickered with scrolling results on television’s Fox News. Downtown streets were quiet except for a lounge singer covering 80s hits on a hotel patio.
Confederate statues and the Confederate White House sat just a block away. Gentrified buildings and swank food joints inhabit the spaces under Montgomery’s famous archways and over its tunnels that used to accommodate slave trafficking. But, in the city where Rosa Parks sat down to take a stand, and Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, the lights at Equal Justice Initiative were on.
It was an act of Congress in 1994 that propelled EJI founder Bryan Stevenson to open the organization in Montgomery, Alabama. Alabama was the only state that failed to provide legal defense for people with death sentences.
Since then the Harvard Law School graduate successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court that it is unconstitutional to give children 17 years-old and under life without parole—basically a sentence to die in prison. And, in 2016, the court decided it should apply the rule retroactively, giving more than 2000 people who grew up in prison, a chance at review and release.
The organization’s most lauded cases helped spring innocent men, at least 125 of them, from death row. He captured his life story and early work with EJI in the acclaimed 2014 bestseller, Just Mercy, which makes it to the big screen in 2020 starring Michael B. Jordan.
Like the mythical Sisyphus, Stevenson finds himself in a punishing, uphill struggle for justice. Because systemic problems such as policing bias and lack of representation result in mass incarceration, disproportionately affecting black and brown people, he has found it necessary to address the myth of racial differences, white supremacy and the enduring effects of enslavement. To do this, he sought funding for and built the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.
The memorial’s visually arresting and massive iron monuments, suspended from the rafters, “bleed” in the rain. The museum in a small, but powerful U-shaped exhibit, hammers the point home: this isn’t over yet.
“Even in our communities we haven’t wanted to talk about it,” Stevenson said for an exclusive interview with Message. “We felt as if our survival required us to be silent in our coping with this. That’s where our fore parents made the biggest difference. They taught us to stand up, when people said sit down. Speak up when people say be quiet. You have to find the courage to tell our truths.”
From the time one walks into the Legacy museum, Stevenson’s point is easy to access. The museum starts with a short walk down a dark hallway, the end of which confronts the spirit with ghostlike figures whose eyes peer through history and whose voices sing the question on everyone’s mind: “Lord, How Come We Here?”
Stevenson draws a straight line from genocide of Native peoples to our history of enslavement, racial terror, Jim Crow, voter suppression, the “war on drugs” to today’s racial profiling and racially imbalanced mass incarceration. We’re here because we haven’t dealt with the consuming disease and public health threat of racism.
“We gotta talk about the fact that we live in a post-genocide society: that what happened to native people when Europeans came to this continent was a genocide. And we didn’t deal with it as if it was genocide. We said ‘no, those Native people are savages.’ We used this rhetoric, that’s rooted in race, to justify that violence. And that’s why, for me, the great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude. It wasn’t forced labor. It was this ideology that we created that black people weren’t like white people. It was this myth, this narrative of racial difference.”
Old South Romanticism
The corrupt narrative makes romanticizing Old South history possible, while ignoring the effects of domestic terror, and the Great Migration of black people away from it. The narrative ignores the trauma and humiliation of “White” and “Colored” iconography that cemented the ideas of racial differences in the psyche.
“And today, we still live in a country [where] this infection, this disorder, this disease continues to manifest itself,” said Stevenson. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a person of faith, doesn’t matter whether you’re a bishop, minister or elder, a kind person. [It] doesn’t matter if you’re a great student; doesn’t matter if you’re an architect; doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer or doctor. If you’re black or brown, you go places in this country, and you’re going to have to navigate presumptions of danger and guilt. We unconsciously are doing things all the time to manage these presumptions that we have to overcome, and it’s exhausting.”
Observe the 59 markers to the confederacy in Montgomery, two high schools named for Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, and a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., shared with Lee. This is a far cry from the remembrance and attempts at healing, visible across the landscapes in South Africa, Rwanda, and Germany. One cannot be there without being confronted by chilling, shameful results of hatred.
“There are no Adolf Hitler statues in Germany. There are no swastikas. But, in this country, we haven’t talked about slavery. We haven’t talked about lynching. We haven’t talked about segregation. We have confederate symbols everywhere.”
Confession—not punishment, not guilt-mongering—leads to repentance and redemption.
“There’s something that comes after that—that is cleansing, that is emerging. That’s how redemption happens. And we haven’t done that as a society. So yes, we want to talk honestly, directly, about the pain, shame, and the heartache and the brutality of enslavement. We want people to see these monuments and understand the trauma and terror and the taunting and the menacing that people of color had to go through. And then we want them to tell the truth. I really do believe after truth comes redemption, comes reconciliation.”
Old Rugged Cross
Speaking of a “come to Jesus moment,” it is time for the faithful to revisit the “fixation and fascination with the death penalty.” And, though the Bible permitted capital punishment, Stevenson argues, Biblical principles of fairness and humility must also be applied, and in doing so, people of conscience cannot support the death penalty today.
“For me, it’s not about the morality of the death penalty, the propriety of the death penalty. I think, at least in this country, the threshold question is not do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed; I think the threshold question is do we deserve to kill?”
Fact: for every 10 people sentenced to die in the United States, one of them is innocent, Stevenson said. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty clarified this statistic a few years ago. “As of October 2015, we have executed over 1,414 individuals in this country since 1976. 156 individuals have been exonerated from death row—that is, found to be innocent and released —since 1973. In other words, for every 10 people who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the U.S., one person has been set free.” ( http://www.ncadp.org/pages/innocence )
What Does The Lord Require?
Such a high error rate leading to death would not be tolerated in any other setting. Further, the historical track record of racially motivated policing and prosecutions, and a lack of access to sound representation also creates unfairness. “And,” said Stevenson, “we have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty, then if you’re poor and innocent.”
What does the Lord require? Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God, (Micah 6:8). Yet, in a system of justice that fails so often, it is arrogance to continue to exact life as a penalty, Stevenson argues.
Of Hymns and Hypocrites
Further, and better, the prophet’s message supports lives of the vulnerable and at-risk populations if the faithful internalized it. That’s what Stevenson thought while listening to strains of the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross,” while sitting across the table from a condemned man. The man was completely shaved and prepared for the electric chair.
I couldn’t help but think, ‘yeah, where were they when you were three and your mom died? Where were they when you were six and you were being abused? Where were they when you were nine and you were being sexually assaulted? Where were they when you were 13 and you were experimenting with drugs? Where were they when you came back from Vietnam and were traumatized from that injury? I know where they were when you were accused—they were lined up to execute you.
Not only does mercy say, ‘No,” mercy understands that each individual—including those condemned in the system—is worth more than the worst thing he or she has ever done.
Bryan Stevenson doesn’t look like what he’s been through. Fit and trim, youthful and well-rested just isn’t how one pictures a tireless, overworked CEO and legal advocate. It is not how one imagines a person burdened with the task of saving people from death row, and uplifting humanity. As Rosa Parks once told him, “You’re going to be tired, tired, tired.”
Stevenson grew up in poor, rural Delaware, and attended “colored” schools until Brown v. Board of Education made it possible for him to access public school education. He excelled in his academics and sports, even playing the organ and singing with the church choir. Yet, to Stevenson, his social consciousness—developed partly through hearing the constant struggle of the men and women during testimony time at their African Methodist Episcopal Church—found no outlet in his Harvard Law School experience.
Stevenson turned to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and resigned himself to being a policy wonk, or, yet another unfulfilled dreamer in a dreary law career. It was when he worked as an intern for the Georgia Southern Prisoners Defense Committee that Stevenson met a man condemned to die. Nervous, and fearing he could only disappoint his client with his inexperience, he sat down for what would have been an hour interview. That hour turned into a three-hour life-changing experience.
Seeing himself in that young black man, Stevenson bonded over the conversation, learning about the case, the man’s family, and his life. When guards burst in to end the session, angry because it had gone on so long, they grabbed his client. They pushed and shoved, chained and shackled, and pinched his flesh with handcuffs, leaving Stevenson stunned at the violence.
“Bryan,” said his client, “don’t worry about this. You just come back.”
“And that young man closed his eyes, just put his head back and started singing: “I’m pressing on, the upward way, new heights I’m gaining every day, still praying as I’m onward bound, and he said, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground. . .”
Stevenson knew then he found his mission, one he says now animates his life and engages his heart, and that is to help condemned people to find higher ground.
“When you are mission-aligned, when you actually get to do the thing that fulfills you and makes you feel like you’re serving the way you’re supposed to serve, you wrestle, but you don’t wrestle with God. You wrestle with the challenges, the obstacles and complexities of what it means to be as effective as you possibly can.”
Remembrance: bring a marker and memorial to a county near you.
Watch for the movie Just Mercy starring Michael B. Jordan
Carmela Monk Crawford, editor of Message, with David Person the owner of David Person Media, LLC. Since 1986, he has been working as a broadcaster, journalist, documentary director, and media consultant.
God’s New Year Resolution
Listen Up “Caterpillars”: What God has done for the butterfly is only a hint of what He wants to do for us.
Ropes of Sand?
According to a YouGov poll, only about 26% of Americans plan to make any New Year’s resolutions. Those most likely to do so are between 18-34 years-old (33%). The likelihood of resolution-making decreases with age, with 30% of 35-54 year-olds likely to make resolutions, and only 17% of those 55+ likely to do so.
Why do so few engage in this tradition and why is there less participation as people age? Don’t we usually think of older people as being the ones attached to tradition, especially when it comes to the holidays?
Could it be a track record of broken resolutions that jades people against even planning to accomplish anything new, exciting, empowering, and uplifting? Have the yearly reruns of unused gym memberships, expanding waistlines, unfulfilling jobs, and increasing debts pulled the plug on idealistic initiatives? Has it become less painful to surrender to apathy than to overcome inertia?
Teaching old caterpillars new tricks
Have we been going about change and growth in the wrong way, the wrong order? Perhaps we need to focus more on being than doing? I’ve heard it said, “If you want to do what you’ve never done, you must become what you’ve never been.” We can see a powerful, down-to-earth, example of this truth in the life of the caterpillar.
Caterpillars can’t fly. They don’t have the wings or the shape. Caterpillars can’t sip. They don’t have the equipment nor discernment to delicately extract nectar from the interior of a flower blossom without destroying it. Caterpillars commence their destructive appetites (from a farmer’s point of view) by devouring the eggshells they hatch from. The only time they pause from eating is to molt (shed their skin), so they can eat and grow some more. After molting, many caterpillars resume their frenzy by eating their old skin!
To soar and sip, caterpillars must undergo a transformation—a metamorphosis. They must acquire new tastes and new tools. They have to become new creatures. In order for that to happen, they have to stop chomping, cease the persistent pursuit of more green, and halt compulsive consumption.
Caterpillar soup, anyone?
To become butterflies, caterpillars have to make a clean break from the past by literally going out on a limb. They must position themselves for the miracle of metamorphosis by sealing themselves away from the world for a while. They are vulnerable and appear unproductive, but the stillness of the chrysalis is God’s means of unlocking their potential.
Caterpillars bring no building supplies inside their silken construction tarps. This isn’t a DIY project. Only God can transform sideways-munching jaws into straws (yeah, I know, it’s called a proboscis) and bring wings out of seemingly nowhere. This is a messy process, as Scientific American describes, “First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out.” Later, that “protein-rich soup” will “fuel the rapid cell division required to form the wings, antennae, legs, eyes, genitals and all the other features of an adult butterfly.”
Once the transformation is complete, the butterfly can see things with their compound eyes that are impossible for caterpillars to envision with their simple eyes. They flutter through the air instead of fumble around on the ground. Butterflies have active appetites, but disseminate life from one flower to another as they dine. The self-indulgent search and destroy missions of their former lives are forever behind them.
God’s New You Resolution
What God has done for the butterfly is only a hint of what He wants to do for us. God’s resolution is to provide newness of life for each of us (Romans 6:4; 2 Corinthians 5:17). He wants to give us a new song (Isaiah 42:10; Revelations 14:3), show us new things (Isaiah 43:19; 48:6), give us a new heart along with new names (Ezekiel 36:26; Isaiah 62:2; Revelations. 2:17), and bring us into the new heavens and new earth (Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter. 3:13; Revelations 21:1). It all begins with us renewing our minds:
“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2, KJV).
3 R’s to a New You
God has a three-step process for us to enter this newness.
Recognize that we have an either-or proposition from which to choose: be conformed or be transformed.
There are people, customs, and other forces in the world seeking to mold us, shape us—conform us to their image. However, there is also a path available for personal transformation that resists being defined by anyone or anything outside of God. Either we choose to be transformed or we will be conformed by default.
One tricky fact about this choice is that both actions in Romans 12:2a are passive, meaning that we’re not in charge of the processes of being conformed or transformed. What can we do about the situation?
“What you need to understand is the true force of the will. This is the governing power in the nature of man, the power of decision, or of choice. Everything depends on the right action of the will. The power of choice God has given to men; it is theirs to exercise. You cannot change your heart, you cannot of yourself give to God its affections; but…You can give Him your will” (Steps to Christ, p. 47).
Remember that being transformed isn’t a once and done decision.
Romans 12:2b says we must undergo continual renewal of the mind for our transformation to stick. Just look at the word: RE-NEW-ING. The prefix “re-” has “the meaning of… ‘again and again’ to indicate repetition.”Adding the suffix “-ing” to renew “indicates continuing action, something going on now” and “can suggest that an action is going to happen in the future, especially with verbs that convey…movement from one…condition to another.”
The point is that the Bible writer has realistic expectations. He is encouraging us on a course of continual progress, not instantaneous perfection. There’s no need to give up on ourselves, our high ideals, or God. Keep praying. Keep getting acquainted with God’s promises. Keep positioning ourselves for the miracle of metamorphosis. Keep yielding ourselves to the One who began the good work in us, because He has made Himself responsible for completing it (Philippians 1:6). This may sound corny, but remember, “Big shots are only little shots who keep shooting.”
Rejoice that you’re not alone in your efforts.
Romans 12:2c affirms that your transformation is His will, His resolution. It’s God’s good and perfect will for you and me to be what we’ve never been and do what we’ve never done. It’s His good and perfect will for us to see things from a newer and higher vantage point than possible before (Ephesians 2:6). It is God working in you and me to bring about the lasting transformation that so easily eludes us (Philippians 2:13). In the words of Darwin Hobbs:
God is able to do just what he said he would do
He’s gonna fulfill every promise to you
Don’t give up on God, cause he won’t give up on you!
What Does It Mean When God Doesn’t Intervene?
An age-old Bible story of abuse re-emerges in today’s context with full force and frankness. Will you follow up?
“’Here, let me bring out my virgin daughter and the man’s concubine now. Abuse them and do whatever you want to them. But don’t commit this outrageous thing against this man.’…the man seized his concubine and took her outside to them. They raped her and abused her all night until morning. At daybreak they let her go…When he entered his house, he picked up a knife, took hold of his concubine, cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and then sent her throughout the territory of Israel…Think it over, discuss it, and speak up!” Judges 19:24-25, 29, 30b
Grappling with God
Have you ever felt like God had an opportunity to show up for you and He didn’t? Have you ever felt like He had the opportunity to intervene and stop something bad from happening to you, but He didn’t? Well you aren’t alone. In Judges 19 we’re introduced to a woman from Bethlehem whose story causes us to ask that really hard question: what does it mean when God doesn’t intervene?
Many of us remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but for those who are unfamiliar, Sodom and Gomorrah was a city that was known for its affinity for immorality. Homosexuality, drunkenness, and perversion was rampant throughout the city. The city had sunk so deep into degradation that God alerted Abraham that He was going to destroy it:
“And the Lord said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me; and if not, I will know” (Genesis 18:20-21).
So God sent angels disguised as men to check out the city and see if its destruction really was necessary. Lot, a resident of the city and Abraham’s nephew, encouraged the men not to stay in the square. He insisted that they stay with him instead.
It wasn’t too long after that men from the city got word there were visitors staying with Lot. Soon they surrounded the house demanding that Lot release the men so that they could have sex with them (Genesis 19:5). Lot pleaded with the men not to disgrace his guests. He even offered his two virgin daughters to the angry and aroused mob.
But they declined the girls and pressured Lot for the men. They pressed so strongly the Bible says, they “came near to break down the door” (Genesis 19:9). At that moment, the men who were really angels pulled Lot back into the house, shut the door, and struck the men outside with blindness so that they became tired trying to find the door (Genesis 19:10-11). That night the power of God stepped in and prevented the depravity of humanity from abusing and killing the men and Lot’s daughters.
In Judges 19 the story is the same, but the outcome is very different. A Levite was traveling with his concubine and servant and decided to rest in the city called Gibeah. It was an Israelite territory belonging to the tribe of Benjamin. They chose to stay in Gibeah because they believed they’d be safer among their own rather than in a foreign city with unbelievers (Judges 19:12).
When they entered the city an elderly man welcomed them to stay with him. As they were enjoying their visit with the old man, the men of Gibeah surrounded the house demanding the old man give them the Levite so that they could have sex with him (Judges 19:22).
The old man pleaded with the men, “I beg you, do not act so wickedly!…do not commit this outrage” (Judges 19:23). To assuage the crowd the old man even offered the mob his own virgin daughter along with the concubine.
When the Levite saw the old man wasn’t really persuading the crowd he seized his concubine and threw her out of the house for the mob. Judges 19:25 relates the grievous details: “they raped her and abused her all night until morning. At daybreak they let her go.”
When the Levite found his concubine on the ground in front of the door, unresponsive, he picked her up, put her on his donkey, and carried her home. There he cut her body into twelve pieces and sent each piece to the twelve tribes of Israel.
God, And God’s People
In my opinion this is one of the hardest stories in the Bible. The sexual abuse is extremely hard to stomach. Her dismemberment is immensely difficult to fathom. But for me, it’s God’s inactivity that is most difficult to understand. Why is it that God intervenes and protects Lot’s daughters from evil men in the world, but He doesn’t intervene to protect this concubine from evil men in the church?
Hanging on a cross I believe Jesus was faced with the same question. With a crown of thorns pressing into his skull, I see Christ hanging from splintered wood, struggling to breath, writhing in pain as His lacerated flesh pressed against the wood; His hands and feet pounding from the nails; His body chilled as it hung naked and exposed. I see my Jesus hanging there on a cross looking up to His Father wondering if He was going to intervene.
It’s such a hard truth to receive, but I believe the reason God didn’t intervene on behalf of the concubine, on behalf of Jesus, and sometimes on behalf of us is because God understands this extremely hard truth: broken bodies save nations.
Just like the broken body of Jesus Christ saves us from sin and grants us the gift of eternal life, I believe women and men whose bodies have been broken by sexual and physical violence can save our communities from the psychological, physical, and spiritual death that abuse brings. I believe our communities can experience emotional, physical, and spiritual life from the stories of women and men whose bodies have been broken from sexual and physical violence.
The Bible says the crime at Gibeah started a war against the Benjamites because instead of burying the concubine’s body the Levite displayed and distributed it. Survivors have the same power! They too can start wars against sexual and physical violence when they refuse to let their stories be buried, and instead allow their stories to be distributed.
The story of this unnamed concubine ends by saying, “Think it over, discuss it, and speak up!” I believe it’s time we think on the stories of survivors of sexual and physical abuse and allow their stories to ignite a righteous rage within us that activates us to war against such violence.
Brittany Cooper in her book Eloquent Rage says, “we should not have to rely on supernatural acts of God to keep women safe.” The story of the concubine along with Cooper’s statement provides a plausible answer to the question: what does it mean when God doesn’t intervene?
What if God doesn’t intervene in some cases of sexual and physical violence because God is waiting for the broken bodies of the abused to send us to war? What if God is looking upon the Earth waiting for humanity to enact justice? What if God doesn’t intervene in things that He believes humanity has the power and responsibility to handle on their own? What if while we’re waiting on God to intervene, God is waiting on us to intervene? What if God is waiting on us to be the justice we’re constantly waiting for Him to provide?
(The Church and Sex)
The Church is still really queasy about sex. This is a strange thing since the Church claims the Holy Scriptures as its foundation of faith. The Bible tells us the story of humanity’s origin, which includes human sexuality. So why would the church and sex seem so awkward?
The initial reason would have to be that the Church still has some vestiges of archaic thinking that still influences the way we see and understand sex today. In the early days of the Church, there was a great influence by Greek philosophy and ideas, one of which was the idea that all matter was inherently evil. Flesh was considered something to be abhorred. This translated to anything that brought pleasure.
This idea permeated from the Church’s theology to its practices. Sex was viewed as a necessary evil in order to produce children. The Church has long since officially abandoned this kind of view.
We have come to understand that this view is false. We understand that God created flesh. He called everything He made, “good” and when He made human beings, He called His creation, “very good.”
The entrance of evil into this world did not change the very nature of flesh. Flesh is not evil because there is evil in the world. Neither is sex evil because it has been corrupted. However, there still remain a few reasons that hinder the Church’s ability to communicate about sex.
Nothing Like The Real Thing, Baby
I think one of the reasons why the Church doesn’t like talking about sex is because sex is too human. It is too real. It is too earthy and natural. While the Christian faith talks a lot about helping people, human relationships, and communal responsibility, it also places a great deal of emphasis on the spiritual and supernatural.
One of the reasons why Christians struggle to fully embrace the beauty and duty of sex is that we are oriented in transcendent thinking when sex is rooted in the here and now. Sex reminds us that we are indeed, at the end of the day, human. Sex reminds us that while we live looking forward to eternity, we live in a natural world that requires attention to our natural needs.
This is hard to grasp for so many Christians who believe that a true pursuit of the transcendent is to minimize the duty of the present. Our inability to be real and transparent about our struggles reinforces an idea that we are not supposed to be human. But let’s be clear. Spiritual transformation is not the eradication of humanity. It is the perfection of all that it is to be human. In other words, to be spiritually transformed is to be the best human you can be. This includes your sexuality.
THE TRUTH IS
that honesty and transparency never make you look worse.
Failures and Flaws Impede Discussion
Another reason for the Church’s inability to talk about sex is the idea that due to the human failures of its leaders and membership, the Church is not able to speak with any authority about sexuality. This is an extension of the idea that Christians are superheroes.
Somehow we think that our sexual sins and struggles disqualify us because people will think we are “hypocrites.”
Christians need to be honest about our sex lives. The truth is that honesty and transparency never make you look worse. It always reveals the truth of who you are, and the truth of who you are is what helps people to be set free.
The Church has a confession to make. We sin in every way that others do. That’s the truth. So maybe the Church should stop saying “you sinners” and start saying, “we sinners” need God’s grace.
Some people don’t like to remember their past. The past reminds them of terrible decisions they made. One-night stands that led to months of pain. Hook-ups that led to break ups. Sexual passion turned into heartbreak. The Church struggles with the conversation of sexuality today because church people don’t always like to recall their own sexual histories.
The Bible says, “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory”. None of us are perfect. Neither our past mistakes nor our present struggles should silence us about the truth of our human pursuit of spiritual redemption.
The Church Must Speak About Sex
You might wonder why we need the Church to speak up about sex. Don’t we hear enough about sex in the media, music, and every kind of communication format? We need the church’s voice because we need to hear a different perspective. No society is healthy by simply hearing one perspective on a subject.
The Church needs to share why monogamy is an achievable and viable option. The Church needs to share why sexuality should be viewed as sacred and not hedonistic.
Society may not always know it, but we need the Church’s voice. The problem is not that the Church does not have anything meaningful to add to the conversation on sex. The problem is the church’s tone as it relates to sex.
The Christian Church has had a lot to say about sex and sexuality in the last decade. The Church has led campaigns against alternative sexual lifestyles. The Church has been vocal on issues of abortion and the choice of a woman. The Church has spoken out against marriage equality efforts.
THE REALITY IS
THAT EMPATHY SHOILD BE OUR DEFAULT.
Use Your Inside Voice
The problem I have with the Church is our tone. We can sound so hateful. We seem so angry. Where is all the rage coming from? Why can’t the Church share its views without being so condescending and judgmental? We are told to “speak the truth in love”.
The truth is that the Church has not always been “loving” about its views on sexuality. This negative tone has caused the message to be lost in translation. While I believe that the Church’s biblical message of sexuality will never be popular, we cannot blame its lack of acceptance solely on cultural hedonism.
What Good Love Looks Like
Finally, the Church must begin to talk about sexuality not only changing the tone but by speaking in a different way. The Church has talked too much without truly communicating its message. Let me explain. Most people don’t want to hear another sermon about some Biblical ideal. They want to see it lived out in practical ways.
One of the greatest enemies to the message of monogamy is the rate of infidelity in the Church. Why would I want to listen to a group of people who espouse one thing and practice the opposite? The Church talks about marriage between a man and a woman, and yet the rate of divorce among heterosexual Christian couples is the same as those outside the Church. The Christian Church does not necessarily need to speak out more on these crucial issues. The Church does need to communicate more effectively, however.
Through Example: Jesus said, “Let them see your good works and they will glorify your Father which is in Heaven.” Our good works are God’s best marketing tool to share His message with the world. People will not believe us if they cannot see that monogamy works. There is no validity to the Church’s biblical message if we don’t stop covering up sexual abuse in the Church.
Through Empathy:We all deal with sexual temptations and sin. Therefore, Christians need to be more empathetic. The reality is that empathy should be our default. Arrogance or delusion blinds so many Christians to the fact that they are guilty of the same sins they point out in other people’s lives. If the Church would stop seeking to be understood and seek to understand then we would be in a position to partner with people to deal with their issues because their issues are our issues.
Our common recognition of our humanity is what builds bridges of trust. The Church is made of flawed, finite people. The Church has to look in the mirror and recognize that we are just as human as everyone else.
C. Wesley Knight, D.Min. is author of Thirst: Quenching Your Deepest Desire.
What to Do With This Stuff: Lessons from Lil Jon’s Crunk Christmas
I’m telling you right now, whenever I get bored during the Christmas season, I’m clicking on “All I Really Want for Christmas!” Overplayed traditional songs are dumped down the drain as Lil Jon empties the eggnog in the sink and replaces it with Kool-Aid. His “carol” is energetic. It’s hilarious. It’s got kids dancing and laughing. It’s got gifts galore and an overflowing buffet. Kool-Aid Man and DJ Santa throwing a party with Lil Jon in someone else’s house!
Most of all, it’s got honesty.
There’s no pretense of spirituality. There’s no allusion to the birth of Jesus. Not a hint of contentment, gratitude, or humility. There’s nothing suggestive of it being more blessed to give than to receive. Instead, there’s the contagious chorus:
All I really want, really want for Christmas
All I really want, really want for Christmas
All I really want, really want for Christmas
Is everything on my list, baby, yeah!
Bearing Gifts, We’ve Traveled So Far
Lil Jon freely admits that he’s been planting seeds all year about what people should buy him. Something about that is religiously refreshing, even if detrimental. To be shamelessly selfish isn’t a virtue. However, to cloak our selfishness in spiritual garb is a much more dangerous vice. Just ask King Hezekiah (you can read about him in 2 Kings 18-20; 2 Chronicles 29-32; Isaiah 36-39).
Hezekiah wasn’t one of the many bad kings of Judah. He was one of the few good ones! He cut down idols, refurbished God’s temple, brought reformation to the priesthood, restored people’s faith in the “church” of his day, and his prayer for Judah’s protection was answered with the swift, supernatural defeat of an enemy army. Hezekiah was doing so well, until…
Hezekiah became deathly ill. After humbly praying for healing, the prophet Isaiah promised that God would restore the king’s health and lengthen his life by 15 years. The king asked for a heavenly sign to confirm the prediction would come true. The sign God sent was to move back time—to turn back the sun (2 Kings 20:8-11).
Neighbors Who Notice
A prince in the neighboring kingdom of Babylon heard about Hezekiah’s sickness and healing (2 Kings 20:12). Since Babylonians were known for studying the stars (Dan. 2:2), the timing of the healing and the seemingly backward movement of the sun got Berodach-baladan’s attention. He sent messengers with gifts and a letter in order to find out if there was a link between Hezekiah’s new lease on life and the disruption of heavenly bodies.
It was at this moment, God did a strange thing: “Howbeit in the business of the ambassadors of the princes of Babylon, who sent unto him to enquire of the wonder that was done in the land, God left him, to try him, that he might know all that was in his heart” (2 Chronicles 32:31). Did God abandon the king? No, he just allowed him space without the intervention of prophets or voices from heaven to specifically guide his thoughts and actions. God wanted to know how deeply His grace in Hezekiah’s life had penetrated the king’s heart. How would Hezekiah respond when the Babylonians came from the East to Jerusalem after seeing a sign from the heavens?
From Showrooms to Stocking Stuffers
Hezekiah got caught up in the moment. Pride blinded him from seeing the opportunity to share his faith. Instead, he showed off his stuff—all his stuff (Isaiah 39:2-4). He turned their minds from the supernatural to the natural. Isaiah announced that the king’s mistake of showing off his riches would lead to the Babylonians returning to plunder those riches and march his people into captivity. The Babylonians were shown someone’s house that seemed to have everything on their carnal Christmas list.
These visitors already had material riches, but thought Hezekiah’s spiritual riches exceeded theirs. It wasn’t Babylonian gods that moved the heavens to save their king, it was the God whose temple was in Jerusalem. They left spiritually unimpressed. Rather than learning more about God, they learned where they could get more gold. How might history have been different if Hezekiah had emphasized the things of God during that show and tell tour?
Greatest Gift of All
Fast forward a few hundred years. A couple with a baby played show and tell when some astrologers from the East came to Jerusalem after seeing a unique movement in the heavens. This sign was a mysterious light that was neither a fixed star, nor a planet. It seemed to urge them to play follow the leader, until they ended up in Bethlehem. The show and tell Mary and Joseph played was a humble game. There were no palaces to tour or delicacies to sample. There was only one main attraction: a baby wrapped in very plain blankets.
God chose where His Son would be born and ordained that there would be nothing about the surroundings that would overshadow His glory. When they saw Jesus, the wise men showed their wisdom by offering their earthly treasures at the feet of the heavenly treasure. For as one author wrote, “In giving up His Son, He [God the Father] has poured out to us all heaven in one gift” (E.G. White, Our Father Cares, 65). The wisdom of the wise men was that they recognized their stuff was nothing compared to Jesus.
Jesus’ parents were regular working class folks without the means to jump up and move to another country to start a new life. However, God richly rewarded them when they shared the one thing on their visitors’ that couldn’t be bought or sold. The material gifts from the Magi of the East enabled Jesus and his parents to seek asylum in Egypt, thus escaping Herod’s murderous rampage (Matthew 2:11-18).
Good Gifts All from God
The lessons from Lil Jon’s Crunk Christmas remind me that it’s easy, whether a rapper or a biblical king like Hezekiah, to lose focus on what’s important. Stuff can crowd Christ out of Christmas. Yet, stuff can be a blessing—depending on how we use it and share it. And we will share it more readily when we remember our stuff really isn’t ours. Just like the house Lil Jon, Kool-Aid Man, and DJ Santa were partying in wasn’t theirs, we have to remember that every good and perfect gift we receive comes from our Father above.
When Church Unfriended Me
As messy and painful as God’s people can be, Jesus and His people are a package deal.
I was too exhausted to roll out of my bed and cover my puffy eyes with concealer. It was too much to force my throbbing feet into heels with my Sabbath best. The last place I wanted to be was a place where my current spiritual reality was unwelcome or misunderstood.
I simply wasn’t feeling the corporate worship vibe. That hollow feeling stretched from one week, to two weeks, into months. And just like that, I found myself rarely attending worship.
I cannot deny that even now that as a Worship Pastor the desire to commune with other Christians languishes sometimes. Don’t get me wrong. I love God, and love to worship Him, but sometimes I struggle to love spending time with His people.
Searching for Love Among 4,000 Imaginary Friends
I suspect that I am not alone. Churches of all sizes are emptying out. A 2016 Pew Forum report on church attendance reported that only 32% of Americans attend weekly. A Gallup survey then asked the group that seldom attends the reason for low attendance, and 44% of Americans said they prefer to worship on their own.
Yet, we know everyone wants to belong, to feel connected. We can just look to the booming world of social media to know that. As of June 2017, according to the Pew Research Center, 2.01 billion people have a Facebook page, and 79% of Americans use this social media platform daily.
I have 4,665 Facebook friends, most of whom could be imaginary, since I’ve never met the majority of them. Having thousands of Facebook followers is considered being well-connected and friendly. But unlike real relationships, when people conduct themselves in a manner we disapprove of, or find uncomfortable, we effortlessly “unfriend” them.
It’s simple to opt out of online friendships because of the emotional detachment in relationships only accessible by WiFi. Detachment to our faith community is serious, though. When we feel disconnected from people there, we should courageously oppose the desire to remain in that detached space. True community is worth the fight!
It was Jesus who prayed, “…I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one” (John 17:20 ESV). Here are three actions I intentionally undertake when I sense that twinge of disengagement threatening my connection with the body of Christ.
Fall in love with Jesus to fall in love with His people.
“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13 ESV).
Often my lack of desire for community is a byproduct of my feeble passion for the Lord. And when my love for God is faulty, my lack of love for his people follows. But as messy and painful as God’s people can be, Jesus and His people are a package deal. They cannot be separated. So when I’m struggling to find true connection, I spend more time with God to inspire me to spend more time with His people.
When I pursue meaningful moments with God, I see how He’s merciful, patient and gracious to me and the people from which I feel disconnected. I dust off old prayer journals to refresh my memory of the specific things God has done for me, and those for whom I’ve prayed.
Remembering my initial love relationship with the Lord rekindles the flame. I also aim to bring the habits back that kept the passion alive. It may not happen overnight. By God’s grace, as my love for God grows, my love for His people grows exponentially.
Move from anonymity to accessibility.
“Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near,” (Hebrews 10:25 ESV).
Social media affords us the luxury of hiding behind our profiles. We can limit our interactions, and the amount of information we share. But, when we desire an authentic space for connection, we have to intentionally burst our anonymous bubbles. When we make our lives accessible so that we can be held accountable, we can be encouraged and truly loved.
Similarly, we as digital natives can’t compartmentalize our identity and expect to be fully known by those we worship with on a weekly basis. To fight this, I do one of two things. I go to a church event, and with the Holy Spirit’s prompting I share. Instead of keeping to myself, I intentionally unpack parts of the real me to a minimum of three people each week.
I may talk about how I messed up my first attempt at vegan mac and cheese. Or, I mention how YouTube University rescued my protective natural hairstyle experiment from failing. I may even get more serious and talk about just how difficult it was to make it through the week. I have also opened my home to have someone over for a common meal. When I commit to this, I have found that it’s difficult to disconnect and disappear when people know the real you.
Never forget that church goes with you wherever you go.
For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” Mark 10:45 ESV.
Through Jesus’s example, we know the pinnacle of the gospel is achieved by denying self. My role, as the church, correlates strongly with my willingness to serve others wholeheartedly. I can’t expect to experience Jesus’ love within a faith community if I have not done all that I can to help others experience Jesus. Therefore when I am feeling far away from the family of God, it’s imperative for me to find opportunities to serve. I need to be the community someone desperately needs. You will be surprised how your perspective quickly changes when you’re serving others.
The concept of community was birthed in eternity between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We were created to replicate this beautiful image on earth.
So, with the help of the Holy Spirit, when we feel unfriended in our own churches, may our prayer be: “Lord, may these feelings of disconnection lead me to strengthen my desire for community simply because it is the will of God concerning us.”