Sunday, December 25, 2011

Giving Freely, Freely Given

I was quite troubled recently upon reading an article about a church in downtown Washington, DC experiencing financial crisis because, among other reasons, the payroll was usurping the church’s budget. How did we come to the point that nobody wants to serve their community of faith unless a financial transaction comes along with it. Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages” (I Timothy 5:18). It has become common practice for pastors to draw a salary and benefits package even in modest congregations. However, that was not always the case nor is it required. Jesus and the disciples had jobs.

Now, everyone wants to get paid from the collection plate. Musicians in large churches command six-figure salaries, although they hold outside employment and serve on their own terms. It is not uncommon for singers in the choir to likewise be compensated. Callista Gingrich, wife of presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, was recently profiled for her participation in a church choir for which she is paid $80 per service.  Can that reasonably be considered sacrificial worship? Not anymore than her conversion from mistress to wife can be considered honorable.

I have even heard of Sunday School teachers without any investment of formal training trying to shake down churches for compensation. If a gift has been given to one freely from above, can it be commoditized and billed in good conscience? I’ll bet the old ladies of yore are turning in their graves. The church is spending so much having church that it does not have much left to be the church through outreach and missions.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). The gospel is free. There is no requirement for receiving it and certainly not an incumbent financial burden. The converse is that upon accepting the grace so freely given to you, all that you are and all that you own are at the disposal of the kingdom.  So if no one ever pays you to do what God has endowed you to do, do it anyway.

Erotic love has been reduced to sexuality in the modern era.  Its true essence lies in receiving some form of gratification in return for what one offers. Forget “a good deed is its own reward.” Like Lucy in A Charlie Brown Christmas, “I want what I’ve got coming to me; I want my fair share.”

Benevolence, or agape, is the highest form of love. It does not expect anything in return. It is no respector of persons. It will give itself even to those who do not deserve it. Sound familiar? That’s how God loves and requires us to do the same.

So when you leave the family gathering today, don’t calculate how much you spent on others and got shortchanged in return.  You have no idea how much your sacrifice meant to the recipients or the generosity it will consequently inspire are. It may not come back to you, but it will make the world better.

In the same manner, think of ways you can give of yourself to your community of faith without considering it an investment in anything except eternity. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21). The aforementioned church was able to execute its mission more effectively after members forfeit their so-called right to market-rate compensation and offered their service sacrificially. Imagine what the church could be if we all did the same. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Living a Lie

One of the hardest things for the church to accept is that there are a lot of people with a legitimate gripe against it. We like to talk down to people who do not participate in organized religion. However, for some people, it is in their best interest not to do so. Think about the boys molested by priests, girls impregnated by their pastor, men and women who were shunned because they would not tow the party line, or adults scarred by bad teaching and cultish behavior to which they were exposed in childhood. The list goes on.

The conspiracy to conceal the criminal behavior of Jerry Sanduskya, former football coach at Penn State, have left me speechless. How can a person witness the atrocity of a ten year-old being raped and walk away? How could university administrators value the illusion of honor over the sanctity of children’s innocence? Why would they not only continue to allow the perpetrator to be present alone with children and use the institution as cover?

The most valuable book for me as I recovered from my trauma drama with the church was People of the Lie. It is a disturbing account of the psychology of religion and how evil permeates the religious realm as we become increasingly organized.  Of course, no one in the church recommended it.  You won’t hear of any group studies of it. If you’ve ever been through anything in the church (if not, keep on living), you will recognize the wreckage and be healed by the analysis.

The author, M. Scott Peck, postulates that we do things as part of a whole that we would never do individually. There is something about being part of a group or wanting to do so. Anyone who pledged a fraternity or sorority (old school) can attest to the insanity of desiring to belong. On the front-end, we draw the line for how far we would go in pursuit of popularity, status, and networking opportunities. Once a person is in the mix and the prize is in view, there is little that they will not do as liability litigation has revealed.

Evil loves institutions.  “So as they become larger and larger, our institutions become absolutely faceless Soulless. What happens when there is no soul? Is there just a vacuum? Or is there Satan where once a soul resided?” When people get locked inside them, they lose sight of their own values and adopt those of what they consider larger than themselves. The illusion of success supersedes moral integrity.

The same goes for Mike McQueary, the graduate assistant who witnessed a prominent coach raping a child. Under any other circumstances, he would have dialed 911. However, the prize of a coaching job was in view and he sacrificed all of his decency and self-respect to keep it attainable. Had he reported Sandusky to the authorities, his career would undoubtedly have been toast. Edmund Burke said “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” Evil apparently has a better record at Penn State than Joe Paterno for this was not an isolated incident.

This brings to mind when my pastor was sexually harassing and withholding ordination from me. It pained me to no end to see people I loved and respected as passive bystanders. “That’s just the way it is” was the common refrain. For that reason, more than a few women have slept for their papers because no one was going to help them get them any other way. So much for the Good Samaritan. Help a victim, forget future preaching engagements, pastoral appointments, and other perks of the position.

Well, like Paul, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14). Fifteen years after entering the ordination process, I still have no papers but my integrity is intact. My preaching engagements are few and far between and I cannot be a substitute Sunday School teacher in my original denomination. However, I sleep well at night.  For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? (Mark 8:36). There will be preachers and self-satisfied religious types in hell and they will have a lot of familiar company.

People confide in me quite frequently that they don’t get very involved in their communities of faith because they don’t want to know about the evil that lurks within. That’s no different than turning a blind eye, thus aiding and abetting said evil. It is incumbent on you to confront evil if you know, or even suspect, that evil lurks about you. If you cannot do that, then you must leave lest you too have blood on your hands. Be not deceived, bad company corrupts good character (I Corinthians 15:33).  

The good news is that not all churches or organizations are evil. However, they present the conditions for evil to flourish when they become institutionalized. We make choices as a part of a collective that we would never do singularly, especially when there is a reward involved. It can me money, a promotion, elevated social status, or something as simple as recognition.

The most shameful thing is that people have created gods that they consider higher than the crown of Christ. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen (I Corinthians 1:25). This played out at Penn State with more questions about preserving Coach Paterno’s legacy than ensuring human safety. The rub is not that we all sellout on some level on a regular basis, but most of us have not been offered enough for our souls.
Again, Mike McQueary rose from the lowest rung of the football ladder to a comfortable perch within the program as compensation for being complicit in an evil system. It happens every day in institutions everywhere, including the church. Officers, ministers, and those in other tony roles are usually most adept at doing the bidding of church leaders than discerning and obeying the will of God. Only the Lord, their partners in crime, and unfortunate victims know.

Before feeling too smug about how you would have responded in that Penn State locker room, or in any given situation, be sure the cock is not crowing thrice for you. Peck says further “Triggers are pulled by individuals. Orders are given and executed by individuals. In the last analysis, every single human act is ultimately the result of an individual choice.” Remain conscious of the systems you participate in socially, professionally, and spiritually. Strive not to do the work of the devil even as it parades as the higher good.
So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!  No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it (I Corinthians 10:12-13).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

New Attitude

Every now and then, I hear a sermon that changes my life on the spot. This past weekend, I went to hear Fred Craddock, professor emeritus of homiletics at the seminary where I earned my degree. In the course of his well-crafted, yet inspired sermon, he shared a prayer he says daily:

“Lord, thank you for work
that is more important
than how I feel about it
on any given day.”

In an instant I experienced prototypical repentance. Repentance is derived from the Greek root metanoia, which means to turn around. It does not simply mean “I am sorry for these my misdoings.” It connotes a dramatic change in disposition.

Fifteen years have passed since I discerned my call, preached my initial sermon, and entered the candidacy for ordained ministry. However, I only serve when I feel like it and on my own terms.

Never for a moment have I been able to deny the call, but God’s people sometimes leave me a bit indifferent about their eternal destiny.  “Let them go to hell for all I care.” Imagine if Jesus prayed that in the garden of Gethsemane. Instead he said Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).

While he prayed in anguish, his boys who were supposed to be watching his back had fallen asleep. He returned to the garden to pray again after undressing them verbally. Yet, they fell asleep again. Y’all better be glad I was not the Messiah. Good Friday would have been so called off.

Then comes to mind the prophets of old whose cruel fate it was to deliver news that more often than not (spoiler alert) got them killed. Modern prophecy has become incredibly dilute and uninspired. True prophecy would be the antithesis of a Dale Carnegie course. Its primer would be “How to Lose Friends and Offend People.” Such messages would never pack arenas consistenly or facilitate the development of a megachurch.

I cannot count the number of times that God led me to say things that resulted in people never speaking to me again or becoming my mortal enemy on a dime. Jesus warned his disciples:  
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19).

So if you leave service every Sunday feeling like you just left a pep rally or multi-level marketing meeting, you are not being fed. The gospel and committed service unto it are hard pills to swallow. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come (John 16:13). The world—and ironically the church—will not love you more for it.

Nonetheless, I have been repeating new prayers these days:

“Lord, thank you for work
that is more important
than how I feel about it
on any given day.”

Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Please pray with me and let’s see where the Lord leads. There is so much more at stake in our obedience than we can ever imagine.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Tanned, Rested & Ready

One of the most assuring features of modern computing is that the vast majority of problems can be resolved by simply rebooting. It used to pain me when technical support representatives would ask me whether I have rebooted my computer when it became inoperable or restarted my modem when I could not establish a connection. Of course I did, just not right before I called.

It has been a long time since I had the pleasure of speaking with a technical support representative because I have gotten into the habit of shutting my systems down on a regular basis. This prevents the cache from becoming too cluttered to allow processing to occur efficiently and keeps the memory from becoming overloaded.
In the same manner, we must clear our calendars and rest our bones. Doesn’t matter whether we take a staycation or traipse the globe. What is important is that we all maintain a cycle that gets interrupted on a regular enough basis to keep us functional.
We can run from the modern workplace, but we cannot hide. We remain tethered to the office virtually 24/7 with smartphones, laptops, and cool tablet computers that blur the lines between work and play. Some of us insist on it seemingly thinking “who’s gonna run the world while I’m away?” He that keepeth thee will not slumber. (Psalm 121:3b).
I have news for you: there are no indispensible people. Workers drop dead every day and the show goes on. How many Thanksgiving turkeys have been ruined because the host insisted on slicing it upon removing it from the oven rather than allowing the required twenty minutes for the juices to redistribute? Just chill!
God was proactive in creation in modeling the necessity of taking a breather.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made (Genesis 2:1-2).
God took a day off and the whole of His creation remained intact. God has ordered us to do the same with far less at risk.
I have experienced stress-related illnesses several times in my life. Sadly, they are considered badges of honor in the circles I travel. “I’ll take your chronic insomnia and raise you an ulcer.” “Wait a minute, Bob had a heart attack at 44 despite his healthy diet and vigorous exercise routine.” “Point and game.”  I say this tongue-in-cheek because there are no winners in the burnout game.
No profession is more prone to burning out than pastors. Congregations think they can’t do without them and some spiritual leaders perpetuate those sentiments. I am happy to live in a city where absence is expected in the month of August (except for the first Sunday, funerals, weddings, guest appearances, and crises). The church likewise scales back its level of activity. This increases overall productivity as it is impossible to reflect on the redemptive nature of routine things while they are still being engaged.
In the end, none of the things we use to drive ourselves into an early grave are worth the gravity we place on them. This is evidenced by the shift in priorities by those who live to tell about the effects. Go ahead and spend more time with your kids, plant a garden, play with the dog, go to the game, read a book, or simply sit in your favorite chair and vegetate.
In the same way that God provided for humans to be restored, God also ordered us to return the favor to the rest of creation.
Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; But in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of rest unto the land, a Sabbath for the LORD: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard (Leviticus 25:3-4).
If you have not taken a vacation this year, plan one. If you returned from vacation more exhausted than when you departed, use your Sabbath privilege for which it was intended. And even if you find yourself in an involuntary Sabbath, take it for the blessing that God intended: rest in Him to be conformed to His likeness and will.

So give it a rest. Your family will thank you. Your friends will thank you. Your co-workers will thank you. And God will bless you.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Summer Madness

More familiar to me on the Fourth of July are the words Frederick Douglass delivered on this day in 1852 than those penned by our Founding Fathers.

Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?... Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.

While the words of the Declaration of Independence are filled with lofty ideals of personal dignity, individual freedom, and the fulfillment of dreams, they were inconsistent with the order of the day in which hundreds of thousands of men and women were excluded from their vision. They didn’t even bother to explain the discrepancy away.
I cannot tell a lie and pretend that I am not patriotic to the core. Growing up in the nation’s capital amidst politics, monuments, pomp and pageantry fashioned me into one who believes the founding ideals can become reality. I can recall no grander time than the nation’s Bicentennial when the city celebrated all year long like I have never seen since. People came from far and wide displaying a unified euphoria that we had made it that far.
To remain on message, I have to examine how the society that has emerged this side of the pond corresponds to the demands of the Gospel. Do I believe in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny that seeks to justify theft, murder, and exploitation on a level the world has ever seen? Heavens no!
What I do believe is there is an indomitable spirit that will allow us to achieve whatever is in our hearts to do. The Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (2 Corinthians 3:17). Not only that, we are free to exercise faith—or not—without interference from the government. The fact that we can do all these things without state-sponsored force or oppression should at least elicit a “hallelujah.”
In spite of its ignominious beginnings and present shortfalls, America is as good as it gets on this terrestrial ball. Nowhere else on earth can a person of modest birth even imagine that they too can one day be President.  Or if politics is not their fortè, then they can aim at entrepreneurship, education, public service, entertainment, or a myriad of fields of personal endeavor with a reasonable chance of arriving where their natural talent, hard work, and good fortune propel them.
The following hymn captures the sentiments of the day:
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the county where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
Americans are not the only ones God wants to be free. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some barbeque and fireworks in my near future.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Who's Your Daddy?

It is quite unsettling that we have come to a time in our society where over half of the children are being raised without their natural father in the home. In the particular area of Washington, DC where I reside, a startling 8 out of 10 children do not have their father in their life. Regardless of the reason, many children are struggling with God’s revelation of Himself as our Heavenly Father because of the strained or non-existent relationship with their earthly daddy.

I remember one of my seminary professors lecturing on the appropriateness of using gender-neutral language to reference God. Her rationale rested on the high rate of absentee fathers and negative role models in some communities. She looked at the angry little black woman on the third row for what she thought was a certain confirmation of her point. And I told her it didn’t bother me because I have a good daddy.   

The following is a passage is from the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well (who the writer did not see fit to name).
"Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."  Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. (John 4:19-23)

She was from a people called the Samaritans who had general knowledge of Israelite religious practices, but maintained their own social and religious systems.  The woman wanted to know who had it right. She asked Jesus whether the religious practices of her fathers, the Jewish fathers, or even somebody else’s fathers were more acceptable to God.

Jesus revealed that the geographic location of worship and social constructs around them are inconsequential. Genuine worship of God emanates from the spirit of whosoever recognizes and responds to God’s gift of redemption. In the same way, our society gets hung up handing down religious traditions more than spiritual legacies.

Jesus asserts here and throughout this gospel that it is the relationship between each person’s spirit and the Spirit of God that matters. You must be renewed from above, not from the pew. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman is significant because her relationship with Christ and not her birthright established her status in the eyes of God.

Fathers fill an important role in families. That is why God revealed Godself using the metaphorical imagery of father in scripture. It’s not that God has a set of male genitalia.  But that God relates to humanity the way a man should relate to his children.  Sigmund Freud said “at bottom, God is nothing more than an exalted father.”  Earthly fathers are challenged with the duty of modeling the characteristics of our heavenly father and eventually leading their children to faith.  Therefore, fatherhood is an extension of a man’s discipleship.

The most traditional role of father that God appropriates are first as protector. That’s why the psalmist calls God his refuge and his fortress a deliver and shield. A very present help in a time of trouble (Psalm 46:1).  The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear. The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?  (Psalm 27:4-5).

The world deals with you differently when you’ve got a daddy.  When I was growing up, boys in my neighborhood wouldn’t even date me. They envisioned my daddy standing by the door with a shotgun.  While he was more than likely nodding off on the sofa. But it doesn’t matter, It’s the perception. When I was attending graduate school at a fancy university, the children of the rich and famous were known for selling wolf tickets. If they got a C on a paper, they would storm into the professor’s office saying “Do you know who my daddy is?” If they got pulled over for speeding, they would likewise say “Do you know who my father is? And trust me, it worked!

Secondly, God has absolute authority. God has established order in creation. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. That’s why God’s children do not walk in the counsel of the wicked nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of mockers. But their delight is in the law of the Lord and in God’s law they meditate day and night. They will be like a tree planted firmly by streams of water which yield its fruit in due season and its leaf does not wither. And whatever they do, they prosper (Psalm 1:1-3).

Right after my grandmother died, my father came to me and said “I need you to do such-and-such”. I said “I hear you, but I was planning on doing thus-and-so.” He looked at me again and said:  “I need you to do such-and-such”.  And I looked at him again and said “that’s not really convenient for me because I had planned to do thus-and-so.”  He looked at me a third time and said “I need you to do such-and-such.”  And then I got it! Even though I’m grown, I did such-and-such. That’s the same way we bargain with God. However, God’s plans for us are not negotiable.

We love to speak of God as provider. That’s why Charles Wesley wrote:
Father I stretch my hand to Thee
No other help I know
If thou withdraw thy self from me
Oh wither shall I go.

Psalm 27:35 tells us, I have been young and now I’m old, but I have never seen the righteous forsaken nor his seed begging bread. When you are a child of God, you have a blank check drawn on heaven. Nothing that you need to fulfill God’s purpose for you will be denied.

As disciplinarian, God chastises those whom God loves. Discipline is not simply about punishment. Discipline comes from the Greek root ascesis from which we get the word “ascetic”.  It implies training and was used frequently to describe the rigorous training required for preparing for the Olympics. The net effects of living the ascetic life are physical purity, mental focus, and preparedness.  Knowing God as Father renders the believer impervious to intimidation because they are prepared to withstand any trial and have far more fear of God and the consequences of disobeying Him.

Discipline is also about commanding respect. As Father, God does not owe us answers. Recall the story of Job demanding explanations for why he was suffering so much loss.  The Lord replied to Job out of the whirlwind for four long chapters about God being sovereign and having done all these wonderful things and Job being a mere mortal who had no idea. Yet, God did not in those four long chapters give Job a clue as to the cosmological nature of his trial.

That account reminds me so much of my dad because he can lecture you for hours and have no idea what his point is. But in the end, like, Job, you simply respect the position.    That’s an important point because we as children can be disrespectful to our fathers, but we must maintain that respect because fathers slip up just like everybody slips up. By your respecting him, and his role in your family, you remind him that he has to live up to that.

Most importantly, God is our trust. God can do anything, but fail. Sometimes it feels like God has made a mistake or forgotten about us when things don’t  go our way. God never sleeps nor slumbers. Rest assured that God is working things out for good, although the details may be concealed from you at this time.

God is all these things to us, but our children do not recognize it despite a church on every other corner.  Jesus said:
Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:43-44).
I John 3:10 describes Satan’s children as those who do not do what is right as well as those who do not love their brothers and sisters. We have got to free our communities from the lie that they are not children of the King.

You give control over yourself to whose voice you incline your ear. If you follow the natural order of this perverse world, then you are the offspring of the devil who is the ruler of this world. If you transcend, by faith, consistently taking hard rights over easy wrongs, then you demonstrate by your fruit that you have been born again by the spirit of God. 

There is no separating the disposition of the heart from the act of recognizing God for who and what God is .  Each miraculous change in our behavior makes God that much real to us and hence worthy of praise. Anything short of that is mere hypocrisy. The good news is that God is accepting children for adoption daily. And desires genuine praise from them. Choose your daddy today!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Morality Matters

So many people have been asking me to weigh-in on the Eddie Long’s settlement that I feel compelled to respond in violation of the purple code of silence. In the immortal words of Cadillac Kimberly “God said ‘touch not my anointed, and do my prophet no harm (I Chronicles 16:22).’ He ain’t say nothing about no Eddie Long.” We should not have to resort to a comedienne to hear an inspired assessment of the situation, but receive the message nonetheless.

Well, the Eddie Long sexual abuse case has been settled, but is far from over. Though the legal proceedings have been sealed, what was done in the dark shall be brought to light. The public statement by one of the victims has left an indelible image in those who have viewed it. The young man expressed how he felt violated by one in whom he placed his trust and struggled to get Eddie Long's scent off his skin.

This is the same Eddie Long who proclaimed publicly and fervently what an abomination homosexuality is. If that is the case, them Eddie needs to remove his abominable hindquarters from the pulpit for he has disqualified himself for approaching the sacred according to his own standard.
Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully (Psalm 24:3-4).

Some followers believe that he and those like him simply need prayer. Well, scripture never calls for us to pray for false prophets.
This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

The word warns us not to follow such leaders lest we receive the wrath of God that is certain to fall upon them. Sounds counterintuitive for a God of love and forgiveness. That same God also has a sense of holiness and justice.

Jesus himself did not pray for those outside the kingdom I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine (John 17:9b-c). The purpose of prayer is to conform the subject's will with God's. God will deal with those working against him. Hypocrites will receive a double portion. Don't go soft on them.

So whether your pastor is molesting children, exploiting women, embezzling money, or otherwise abusing his or her authority, your responsibility is not to save them, but to get yourself to a place of safety. It is amazing how some get caught up in the cult of personality so much that they are willing to go down with the pastor (no pun intended). Save yourself!

If the one who is leading you is not of good moral character, then you are following them on the path of destruction whether you know it or not. You are under no obligation to follow any person in the flesh or their sinfulness. The quality of life that the person professing to abide in Jesus is a reliable indication of who they are actually following.
Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire (Matthew 7:16-19).

So many times have I wondered why the words delivered by certain individuals, although eloquent, have no potency. Simply put, they ain't living right. As Psalm 24 illustrates, one has to have moral standing to ascend to the high places in the Lord to receive words with quickening power. Anything less is simply noise. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded (James 4:8).Let those who have ears hear.

Eddie Long’s teachings never jibed with my spirit and I discussed why in Good Preacher Gone Bad. I attended seminary in Atlanta and felt a certain revulsion to him from the beginning (this was even before the ratty wig and muscle shirts). It’s a shame that my fellow preachers are so bound by a professional ethic that they refuse to speak prophetically about his ministry. The sheep need not only to hear what they should expect from a good shepherd, but also how to hold their spiritual leaders accountable.

Moreover, the community at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church refuses to denounce what happened to the victims or eliminate the system that led to their exploitation. Why is there an assumption of entitlement for Eddie Long to remain at the helm? Why are they so worried about how they will pay their bills in the absence of their mortal leader?  Why are innocent souls so dispensable? But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and [that] he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6).

Communities of faith need to be more concerned about the coming of the Lord, which will make recompense for what was done. In the meantime, (b)eloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world (I John 4:1). Likewise check yourself to make certain you are following God and not man. People will always disappoint on some level, but God never fails.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Break Me Off

TThe first Sunday of the month means many believers will observe Jesus’ command to partake of his body and blood to commemorate his suffering and sacrifice.
After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you.  For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes. “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:17-20).
I have one question. How many of you shared the same elements? Churches have gone from the communal partaking of the bread and cup in the same manner it has adopted the individualistic values of Western culture. Prepackaged synthetic wafers and a shot of diluted grape drink have replaced the loaf and chalice. What’s really being celebrated?

This realization did not strike me until my first experience of the Eucharist by intinction as a seminarian. The celebrant held a whole loaf high, broke it, and served each participant a piece. Another celebrant held a chalice of wine in which each participant dipped their portion. For the first time, I truly felt part of something not only immensely beyond my comprehension, but also in solidarity with those engaging the observance with me. True to form, I cried like a baby and was in good company of others who shared those feelings.

It was a wonderful way to initiate those of us who were entering a new phase of life filled with mystery of how God would form us anew and use us to advance the redemption of the world. The broken bread was a stark reminder that Jesus gave himself to be persecuted and killed at the hands of men. What sacrifices would we endure? The potency of the wine conveyed the power of his blood to forgive sin—ours as well as those of the world.  The wine itself was a surprise because quite some time had passed since churches in my denomination at the time had replaced it with grape juice. Now it’s been reduced to Kool-Aid in the same manner the gospel has been watered-down.

I left the service realizing “it’s not about me and I’m not in this alone.” God certainly requires us to become broken bread and poured-out wine for the world and the gift keeps on giving. But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you (Philippians 2:17). 

Upon graduation, I had an even higher experience with the Lord’s Supper during a Benedictine Experience in which participants submit themselves to monastic order for a period of time. We lived communally, worshipped seven times a day, and celebrated the Eucharist daily. The difference was we actually drank from the same cup, which my mother locked in my brain at an early age never to do with anyone. I found myself thinking of creative ways to avoid partaking in this part of the rite. The first time the chalice was passed to me, a calm came over my spirit and I sipped.  Immediately, I felt closer to my brothers and sisters sharing the experience. The rest of the week was nothing short of transformative and nobody caught typhoid fever.

Self-reflection is another important component of approaching the extension of this grace. The Apostle Paul warned the church at Corinth
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.  For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.  (I Corinthians 11:27-29).
To the credit of my upbringing, we had love feasts the day before the first Sunday to reflect on our sins, repent, and restore relationships. They took the form of conversations over a shared meal with all of the candor of a family reunion. Surely, some things are better confessed to God privately, but we could at least approach the chancel rail with a clear conscience as the pastor issued the collect: 
Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling.
The General Confession helped us to acknowledge that we do not merit the sacrifice or sacrament in Wayne and Garth fashion. “We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy! We’re scum!”  Wholesaling of the gospel has resulted in mechanical routinization of what should be a personalized and reflective moment.

Preparing and providing the elements was also once a ministry unto itself in mainline churches. Members baked bread, carefully selected the wine, and dressed the table with expert care and reverence. Self-service Communion instills a sense of entitlement to the grace being offered. Christ gave his life; they didn’t take it.
Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”  Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above (John 19:10b-11a).
As you partake of what has been broken for you, receive the power that transforms you into the sacrifice that breeds new life.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Keeping it Real

There is a common retort when people in the hood feel caught with a Hobson's choice: "I ain't gotta do nothing but stay black and die." Well glory be to God that we are not bound by either.  First of all, For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). Scratch off death. Secondly, God is no respecter of persons (Romans 2:11). Natural affinities and cultural affiliations must be secondary to identification with Christ. Off with the blackness.

One of my pet peeves is when race is given primacy over faith. As a result, any practice is considered acceptable in the church if it has roots in Africa or a descendant thereof. If Farrakhan says Jesus was just a prophet, pastors fall in line and let him proclaim it from their pulpits.
No one denying the divinity of Christ has any business feeding his sheep. Period. Shame on any pastor who allows them to do so. I remember being seduced by Farrakhan's rhetoric when he used to visit my college campus. He had me worked up until he got to the part about Jesus. He never came out and said it directly, but would lead excitable coeds astray if they were willing to go the distance with his brand of Nationalism. Pastors also need to check so-called Christian ministers who do not affirm the trinity regardless of how many spectators (and $$$) their visits attract. 

More recently Negroes hearing of African traditions of throwing money at the altar go wild, pulling money out their wallets with reckless abandon, and fling it at the preacher. Have they not that God is a not a God of chaos, but of order (I Corinthians 14:33)?

Don't get me started with the syncretic teachings of celebrity spiritualists that babes in faith soak up like sponges. Everything that feels good is not good for you. Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil (I Thessalonians 5:20-22). Hold every teaching in the light of the gospel. If it fails that test, it's got to go. I don't care who is delivering the message or what their complexion is.

Christ is sufficient for faith with no additives, fillers, or substitutes. There is no need to pick up a Koran, perform any unbiblical rituals, or watch Oprah to become enlightened. There is also no need to have your intelligence insulted by bad theology that is nowhere to be found in bible or to tolerate all manner of malfeasance and tomfoolery because the preacher’s robe is adorned with kente cloth.

As we close another Black History Month, I implore you to keep it real with the One who has brought us this far by faith. It was the risen Christ who affirmed the humanity of slaves and empowered blacks throughout the Diaspora to transcend their plight. How is it that we have gotten so weak in our realization of the redemption? If you keep it real with him, he'll keep it real with you.  Continue to fall for the okeydoke and you will keep getting what you have gotten.

One of my darkest seasons came as I was being oppressed in the black church for not succumbing to sexual harassment and social control. I was caught in the trap of thinking that I needed not only to align myself with those with whom I shared culture and history, but also to protect my oppressors because they too were the victim of oppression. In hindsight, it was classic Stockholm syndrome. No one has the right to oppress anyone. Jesus said "For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). When a community breaks faith with you, it’s time to bounce.

I recall as clear as day the moment God called me out of my all black denomination while attending seminary in Atlanta and led me to a all white congregation that I had passed many days without a second glance. I didn't have much expectation of the experience. These old white people in Georgia can't be holy. Look at what they did to Martin Luther King. 

However, my soul was nurtured back to health by a preacher who broke the bread fresh like he was breaking it off just for me.  I was also skeptical of the members motives for accepting me, not recognizing Jesus enrobed in differently-hued flesh. When I returned to DC after graduation, it was like I had been to spiritual detox.

America has made great strides in racial integration in my lifetime. Unfortunately, the church has not led the way. How diverse is your congregation? Blacks do not have a lock on the gospel, though some would like to lead you to believe such. And no, the white man’s religion is not holier. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. (John 4:23). That, my friends, is real!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Agony of de Feet

It is very telling how one of the things Jesus explicitly told us to do is the one thing that almost never gets done in the church.

“You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.  Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:13-17).
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus knelt down and washed his disciples’ feet. These were dusty, crusty, don’t bathe every day, walk everywhere in sandals, first century-Palestinian feet. He even washed the feet of the one who was going to betray him immediately afterwards.

Footwashing is a real act of humility. The first time I had it done to me was on Maundy Thursday during my first post-seminary church. The pastor had already impressed this skeptic to no end, then he got down after service, along with the ministerial staff, and washed his parishioners’ feet. Even those who were conspiring to have the bishop transfer him received the sacrament. That had to be transformational on both ends.

Yes, I called it a sacrament, although the institutional church has conspired to exclude it from our routine practice. A sacrament is defined as a visible sign of an inward grace, especially one of the solemn Christian rites considered to have been instituted by Jesus Christ. The Protestant church considers only baptism and the Eucharist as fitting that standard. Those are two occasions that attract significantly more attendees to worship. The Catholic Church includes several other rites that do not have a biblical mandate because business is business.

The level of exposure footwashing produced was unprecedented for me. I had no time to get a pedicure or to bathe to ensure my dogs wouldn’t offend the pastor. Fortunately, my piggies were polished and I had not done much walking that day. Therefore, I was not terribly self-conscious. But I began praying for the ministers' sake about what they might experience with others. 

This occurred following an evening service. For the most part, the worshippers came straight from work and were thus not freshly showered. Not only that, we had homeless members of the congregation with cracked heels and overgrown toe nails that no rational person would volunteer to approach. It’s rare to observe high-ranking officials worshipping alongside the forsaken of society, even more so that they receive the same consideration. James would have been proud for he wrote:
If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,”  have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you? (James 2:3-6a).
That’s what makes this act so astounding. Jesus—God incarnate—performed what is considered the lowliest of tasks. John the Baptist described Jesus asHe who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie”(John 2:27). In some early Christian societies, footwashing was considered a prerequisite for service—ancient day hazing, if you will. How different would our communities of faith be if we returned to humility and sacrifice as the central focus of our relationship with God and one another?

Martin Luther criticized religious leaders of his day for washing feet, but demanding greater acts of humility in return from others. Not only do religious leaders not wash feet today, they typically prefer to be elevated above those they serve rather than relate to them as Christ did his disciples. Ironically, the Greek word diakoneo, which  is translated “to minister,” means “to serve” or “to be an attendant.”

Being among the called, I must struggle with what God requires of me. Responding to the call must not be reduced to a set of tasks. Rather, it is a change in disposition, identity, and world view. No form of service is beneath me when it comes to God’s reconciling work in the world. However, I am not yet ready to be great as I still have not washed any feet and am in no hurry to do so. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Dream Diminished

Another year has come where we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday. I remember the day always being significant as a child. Television stations aired footage of his speeches the Civil Rights struggle for the better part of the day. Stevie Wonder composed a song expressing outrage at those who fought against a day of observance for his contributions. We had programs in the schools and churches expressing our thanks. It was a pretty big deal. The significance of Martin Luther King’s life was not lost on me. Being an age he never lived to see makes it all the more poignant.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first march to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a federal holiday and the 25th anniversary of its observance. We have gotten so comfortable that school children now view him as a mythical figure with merely great oratorical skills.

I cringe a bit every time I hear the famous sound bites from his “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s not because of anything inherently wrong with the speech. It was pure genius. My discomfort is because America had reduced him to a spiritual Rodney King beckoning us to “all just get along.” He was interested in greater things than having white people like black people.
If the Negro is to be free, he must move down into the inner resources of his own soul and sign, with a pen and ink of self-asserted manhood, his own Emancipation Proclamation. Don’t let anybody take your manhood.
The heart of Martin Luther King’s mission can be summarized in the following quote from him:
The Christian religion must not be concerned only with saving the individual soul, but also dealing with the social evils that corrupt the soul.
His mission was more prophetic and profound that anyone could have imagined at the time. This was a man who clearly heard the voice of the Lord cry out over the land in the way of Isaiah saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?" Then he said, "Here am I. Send me!" (Isaiah 6:8).  As with the prophet Isaiah, God does not address Martin Luther King in particular. The Lord announced over the entire land that the dehumanization of His children had to stop. Martin Luther King responded, as did thousands more.

God prepared him of head and heart to lead the movement. The dexterity and depth of his speeches and writings demonstrate that he did not have a vanity doctoral degree. Martin Luther King was a thinker par excellence. He addressed social evils beyond racism, examining them with keen sociological, economic, and theological insight. His speeches on structural poverty and the Vietnam War cut to the bone and marrow of American ills.

The messages resonated in the hearts of many of all races not just because the brother had game. They struck so deeply because he was truly one of God’s anointed messengers.  That’s the nature of real prophecy. It stops you in your tracks, calls you to repentance, and compels you to pursue God’s will in earth as it is in heaven.  

It’s amazing how woefully absent the footage of the Civil Rights movement is in the media today. The images of peaceful marchers being beaten brutally by officers of the law were partly responsible for bringing global shame to America.

The courage that it took for men, women, and children to rise to the challenge with their dignity intact is astounding. Martin Luther King expressed the core of his method as:
Nonviolent resistance has two sides. The non-violent resister not only avoids not only external physical violence, but he avoids internal violence of spirit. He not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he refuses to hate him. He stands with understanding and good will at all times.
America doesn’t like its ugly past. Not only that, it has not truly repented. Repentance has three characteristics: recognition of sin (woe is me), restoration from sin (your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven), and retreat from sin ("Here am I. Send me!").

Don’t get me wrong, America has made great strides in improving its racist heritage. However, it’s a far cry from genuine repentance. Case in point: a group of newly-elected members of legislators read from the Constitution during the opening of the 112th Congress claiming to want to honor the nation’s roots. However, they conveniently omitted the section considering slaves three-fifths of a person.

Unfortunately, prophecy moves God’s enemies to steal, kill, and destroy all means of promoting the advancement of God’s will. Like prophets of old, Martin Luther King was murdered. His blood still cries out from the land proclaiming the inherent worth of all God’s children that cannot be denied. 

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

What would happen if we were subjected to an annual spiritual review similar to a performance review on our jobs? Would we be kicked out of the church for dereliction of duty or placed in remedial classes for not applying ourselves? Most of us would be able to pass marginally because we have the routine down, but are not challenging ourselves to attain new heights in the Lord. Is that good enough for God? Thus says the LORD:
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.  (Revelation 3:15-16).
God not only reviews us constantly, God also urges and empowers us to corrective action by the Holy Spirit.

What are God’s performance standards?
He has told you, O man, what is good;
         And what does the LORD require of you
         But to do justice, to love kindness,
         And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

What amuses me in scripture is that whenever people find themselves at the judgment, they are utterly astounded at their final destination. Will we marvel at the grace extended to the homeless and crackheads we looked down on as church goers and evan-publicans find themselves in hell with all their self-righteousness?

"But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.
"All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.

"Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

 'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.'

 "Then the righteous will answer Him, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?'And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 'When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?'

 "The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'

"Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.'

"Then they themselves also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?'

"Then He will answer them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.'

"These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matthew 25:31-46).

The big money question is: Who is checking up on you?

The typical pastor has not a clue about the disposition of the spirit of their congregants, but they can testify to church attendance, lifestyle, and financial contributions.  Rare is the eulogy where the spiritual leader can honestly attest to the quality of the spirit of the deceased and bless the memory of it. Usually, it’s more like a generic speech with a blank with “insert name here” printed under it at defined intervals. In the same manner, denominational leaders assess congregations on their membership rolls, finances, and activities. These are not God’s performance metrics.

I challenge you to maintain three relationships: one with a spiritual leader who guides you in the way, another with a peer with whom you share similar challenges, and one with a person growing in the faith who you disciple.  This is not about people being all in each other’s business. These relationships are to be accountable to one another, bear one another’s burdens, and being the stewards of God’s love that we are all called to be. Check in regularly with each to ensure you don’t find yourself in shock when that great day comes. Your eschatological fate is non-negotiable.

Theologian Martin Heidegger postulates that there is only one sin and that is not living life authentically. We all have something God requires of us personally. Let’s not complicate the simple with meaningless resolutions.  Losing weight is fine, but it won’t get you in or keep you out of heaven. Do you worship with the object of your faith in spirit and in truth? Do you know and heed His word? Is there another vocation you should be engaging? Are you in love and charity with your neighbor?

I remember being in graduate school in North Carolina the first time I heard a sermon that shocked my consciousness. Critical sermons were typically directed at people other than those in the pews. Down south, they give up the fire and brimstone freely. That day I realized if I met my end right then, I was going to hell. It was terrifying in the moment, but I didn’t change course right away. Thank God for sufficient life remaining to get on the path of righteousness.

Each New Year is an opportunity for a renewed relationship with God.  Let us seriously examine our spiritual direction, devotion, and disposition to develop a plan for doing better continuously. There is always room for improvement for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Do not greet the next year in the same form that you entered this one or you might find yourself short when He comes again.