A Mother’s Day Homily

May 22, 2019

This homily was delivered by Melanie Smith at the All Saints Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 12, 2019. It was her first time to sermonize before an assembled people of God. She is a public school teacher. Characteristic of her heart, she will spend a month in Costa Rica learning Spanish so she can communicate better with her students.

It brings me great joy – and I’ll be honest, it also brings me nervousness! – to have the privilege of speaking to this community of believers today. I never thought that I would be preaching a sermon, and I probably wouldn’t have guessed I would have called it a homily, either.  For a long time, I never even questioned that I as a woman would never speak in church, only felt a vague, distant sense of disappointment that it just wasn’t even an option for me to consider.  So it still feels a bit surreal to be doing this today. I must begin by thanking you, All Saints, for the community created here, for Becky who first suggested to me that I could preach one day, and for Claire who reached out to ask. I want you all to know that I consider these next few minutes sacred, and holy, and that I will remember this day for the rest of my life. Thank you all for sharing this day with me.

I’m sure by this point in the afternoon that we have all remembered that today is Mother’s Day. I have mixed feelings about these “Hallmark holidays,” as we sometimes call them. After all, shouldn’t we regularly love and acknowledge all the people for whom these holidays have been created? Surely we need more than just one day a year for the people we celebrate on Valentines Day, Mothers or Fathers Day, our even Bosses Day, Nurses Day, or Administrative Assistants Day. This past week was Teacher Appreciation Week; I work in the public school system, and I often find myself frustrated on behalf of teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, oddly enough: while I do really love that we have a week to “appreciate teachers,” do we really expect that one day or week of free pizza for lunch is sufficient when the rest of the year is spent overworking them and holding up unrealistic expectations for them? But, I digress; that’s another topic for another day.

Of course, it is good and right and special to pause and take a day each year to honor these people, and I’m so glad we do it. I am especially grateful today for my own mother: it is truly because of her that I know what unconditional love is, and I’m so lucky she’s mine. And I’m grateful for all of my aunts, my sister, my grandmothers of whom I have sweet memories, my friends’ mothers, women in the church, women at work, my friends, women whose writing I’ve read for years but never knew personally, and other women in my own life who have been a mother to me in some way.  I know you all have those women in your lives too, and I am so glad to spend this day honoring them. It is right and holy to do so.

I guess I just mean that it’s difficult to live up to all the hype of these holidays. To begin with, how can we possibly express all of the love, appreciation, respect, admiration we have for mothers with the traditional card and flowers and brunch? This day can be such a joyful celebration: celebration of a lifelong friendship with our mother, gratefulness for how well they have and continue to love us and take care of us. It’s a celebration of dreams realized and prayers answered as we become a mother or a grandmother; I have been told that your heart explodes with love you never even knew was possible when you become one yourself. It’s a day of celebration for all spiritual mothers, stand-in mothers, big sisters in the faith, and important women in our lives. How can we possibly fit all of that joy into one day, or into our one greeting card?

But besides this dilemma of one day feeling almost too small, perhaps what is most difficult for me about days like these are the complexities it brings. It’s another one of our days where joy and grief must coexist.

I was so thankful to see at the very beginning of our liturgy today the acknowledgement of that complexity, the recognition that for many, today is not simply the happy brunch and flowers. This day is marked by grief, perhaps even marked by dread. We might will it to pass as quickly as possible, if it’s marked by emptiness, or marked by longing.  We prayed as we began our service today: We come before You now, acknowledging both our joy and sadness. We grieve with those who grieve this day, missing their mothers and grandmothers, aunts and sisters and daughters. We ask for the space to comfort as You comfort us, those who have challenging relationships with their mothers. We pray in silence with those for whom this day is difficult, who have lost children, who have faced infertility, who have painfully crossed off this day year after year. We sit now in silence, acknowledging disappointment, grief, and pain.

I believe our Scriptures are consistent with this idea too, the acknowledgment of the complexity surrounding motherhood. The phrase “year after year” jumped out to me in our liturgy today because it’s also noted in 1 Samuel in the story of Hannah. I often gloss over phrases like “year after year” in the Bible and don’t pause to think about what is actually happening for so long. I am so influenced by our culture, after all, and I often want to just jump ahead to the good stuff. We are told that Hannah’s husband went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord “year after year.” Year after year, we’re told, he gives Hannah a double portion of the sacrifice because the Lord had closed her womb. Now, it is far beyond my understanding or theological knowledge as to why God has done this, and to be honest, these are the kinds of verses in the Bible that really trouble me.  We are told that Hannah’s husband has two wives, and the other wife has many sons and daughters, but because Hannah’s womb is closed, the other wife, her “rival,” the Bible says, provokes her in order to irritate her…and it says again, this goes on “year after year.” We’re told that Hannah wept and would not eat, and she prays for a son, as we know in the story, and she prays in “bitterness of soul.” What might “Mothers Day” have felt like to Hannah, “year after year”?

In Scripture we have several stories of women who long for children, like Sarah and Abraham, and Elizabeth and Zechariah. And even in the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, we have a story of motherhood that has some very difficult factors. Yes, we clean it up big time for Christmas and present a sweet little story, but let’s face it: Mary is unmarried.  Her announcement of pregnancy and motherhood won’t be met with joy by everyone.  She is at risk for divorce, shame, a life of being an outcast and resulting economic instability, and perhaps even her life. I wonder what “Mothers Day” would have felt like to a young, pregnant Mary?

I am thankful that our Scriptures don’t skip over the complexities of the story. I am thankful that our Scriptures tell us that Hannah prays in bitterness of soul, and it doesn’t just skip ahead to her son Samuel becoming the important prophet that he is. I am thankful that we’re told that Sarah (and Abraham too) laughs at God when he tells her she will have a child. I am thankful that we are told repeatedly that Elizabeth is “well along in years” before she becomes pregnant with John. And I’m thankful that Mary speaks up and questions an angel, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?” God doesn’t skip over the stories of mothers, and he doesn’t skip over their complexities. After all, God could have chosen to enter this world in absolutely any way we could imagine, and God chose to be born of a woman.

Now I certainly don’t want this to become a lesson of “if you just wait long enough, and pray hard enough, then God will give you what you want.” That is another topic that is well above my theological knowledge and understanding. Maybe one of you with advanced Bible degrees can solve that dilemma for me. But, we have all personally lived too many stories of disappointment to know that it doesn’t always turn out that way. And that brings me back to my complicated feelings about this day. For every proud and joyful mother today, who can wholeheartedly sing along with Mary that “my soul glorifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior”, or with Hannah that “my heart rejoices in the Lord…I delight in your deliverance”, there is another mother who grieves the loss of her child. Another who continues to hope for a family and children of her own with seemingly no answered prayer in sight. Another who has just learned her body is unable to have her own biological children. Another who has a complicated, to say the least, relationship with her mother.  And another whose life was turned upside down by his mother’s death. I know this is true because I know these people. They’re my friends. And very likely, you know them too. How can we fit this all of this joy AND grief into just…one…day?

Of course, this is bigger than just Mother’s Day, isn’t it? To me, simultaneously holding space for grief and joy is one of the biggest complexities about our faith, about our human experience, about our God. We are told to rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. We seem to do a much better job rejoicing with others than we do mourning with them. What we often don’t acknowledge, I think, is how frequently in life we find ourselves rejoicing and mourning at the same time, and how difficult that can be too.

I definitely don’t have the solution here. I don’t have an outline or a three point sermon or a foolproof plan on how to do this. For me, one of the most powerful words I’ve learned to embrace in the last few years is the simple word “AND.”  Well, I really should say I’m learning to embrace it; I haven’t mastered it in the slightest.  We celebrate AND we grieve. We hope, but oh, AND we despair. We hold joy AND sadness. We laugh AND we cry. We love fiercely AND we have our hearts broken.  I used to think that the point of all this was to get rid of the hard part, to connect those statements with the word OR instead of AND, and then move to the happy side of the OR statement as quickly as possible. Now I know that it doesn’t really work that way, or at least not always. But now I believe that the word AND is holy and sacred. To me, that simple word AND represents the mysteries of being a human, that holding space for both the grief and joy is in the very nature of God. God doesn’t ask us to get rid of our grief or sadness; instead, like a loving mother, our God promises simply to be with us in it.

We are still in our Easter season: today is the fourth Sunday of Easter. I did not grow up with Liturgical calendar, but I am so glad it found me, because I appreciate so much that it sets aside the time for the longing, for the grief, for the sacrifice, before the joy and celebration.  The holidays of Christmas and Easter have grown incredibly more meaningful to me because of the seasons of Advent and Lent. It holds us to a rhythm that reminds me that we are all in constant cycles of death, burial, and resurrection.  We don’t just skip straight to the end of the story, but rather we experience all of it…AND, sometimes even at the same time. Our God is a God of redemption, of making all things new, of new creations, of hope…even when we pray in the bitterness of soul, laugh in the face of God, or ask God “how can this be?” And so today we honor the women in our lives who have mothered us, who have been instrumental in making us new creations, or making all things new in our lives. After all, mothers literally bring new life into the world. May our Mother God bless you and keep you today… in your joy and in your grief.


God Builds a House

May 20, 2019

When Israel agonized over what sort of house or temple they should build for God, God clarified something for them.  “Thus says the Lord,” Isaiah 66:1-2 testifies, “the heavens are my throne, and the earth is my footstool; where is the house you will build for me, and where is my resting place? My hand made all these things, and all these things belong to me.”

The God of Israel announces some fundamental truths about creation. It is the house God built, it belongs to God, and God lives in it.

The divine hand made everything. This echoes Genesis 2 where it says that God rested from all that God had made. Everything between Genesis 1:1 and God’s rest in Genesis 2 is the object of God’s creating and making. Everything in the universe—including the cosmos itself—is the product of God’s loving power. Whatever began to exist, God made it.

Moreover, God is enthroned within the heavens and the earth.  The “heavens” do not refer to some celestial divine sanctuary beyond the glimpse of the Hubble telescope or to a dwelling place outside of the cosmos. God does not construct a house out of brick and mortar but out of earth and sky. The sky is God’s throne, and the earth is God’s footstool. The cosmos is God’s palace or temple, a cathedral of God’s own making. It is God’s house.

And God dwells in that house. It is the place where God came to rest. This is temple language, as we know from Israel’s history. When God came to dwell in Israel’s temple, it was called God’s resting place (Psalm 132:14). The temple is where God dwells, and creation is God’s temple. When we say God rested within the temple, we do not mean God became a couch potato or a passive observer. Rather, God dwells within the creation in order to enjoy it and share life with it.

While God was graciously present in Jerusalem’s earthly temple, God does not—first and foremost—dwell in houses made by human hands because God dwells within the cosmos itself. God is so present to the creation that every breath is the movement of God’s Spirit, and every breath is communion with God. Though, as Creator, God is transcendent to the creation and is not dependent upon the creation, God is nevertheless graciously and immanently present within the creation to sustain life, commune with it, and enjoy it. God loves the creation.

Perhaps we should remember that we live in God’s house, and therefore we should treat the creation with respect and care. And, at the same time, God invites us to commune with God within the creation and revel in its joy and beauty. 

Perhaps God is like an AirB&B owner who says, enjoy my resting place but don’t trash it. This is God’s temple, so let us enjoy it with reverence and respect.


Why Did God Create the World?

May 19, 2019

TThis question stretches across all age groups, from toddlers to graduate students.

To be sure, it is precarious, even presumptive, to answer this question. We cannot get into God’s head and identify motives. However, the theodrama does not leave us clueless. But before we enter the world of the drama, let’s consider a few ideas. 

On the one hand, some suggest God was needy. In other words, there was a hole in God’s psyche.  Perhaps, for example, God was lonely, or God needed companionship, or a playmate, or—worse—someone to control. I remember my daughter, for example, wanted my wife and I to have another child, and her rationale was that she needed someone she could boss around. In effect, this sort of God is co-dependent, a God who needs the divine ego stroked or a deficiency healed. Here creation arises out of self-interest rather than as a gracious gift to us.

On the other hand, some suggest that God acted arbitrarily. God had no reason to create. It was a bare assertion of sovereign power or ego. Sometimes people worship God simply because God is powerful, and in that case. God may be worshipped, but God is not adored because terror drives that worship. 

Reading the whole story—from beginning to end—suggests an answer to the question. While creation is the first act of God, we learn something about God’s motive by reading the rest of the story.

Christians confess that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is not lonely. Rather, God enjoys a communion of love within the Triune community. God does not need someone to love because, as Jesus prayed in John 17:24, the Father already loves the Son, and the Son already loves the Father even before the foundation of the world.

Further, the purpose of redemption suggests the purpose of creation. Jesus prayed that disciples would come to know the Father so that the love with which the Father loves the Son might be in them and Jesus in them (John 17:26). In other words, God acts, whether in creation or redemption, to include us within the orbit of God’s own communal love. God created a people to share God’s own loving communion, a community that predates the creation itself.

Perhaps an analogy might help. Why do we have children? There is no economic benefit, and it does not relieve family stress. However, in the best of circumstances, we have children because we want to share our love with them. We want to include others in the orbit of the family’s love. We love, and therefore we create.

In a similar way, God does not create because God is lonely or needy. God creates to include others in the communion of God’s own loving family.  God loves, and therefore God creates.


Theodrama in Five Acts

May 18, 2019

The video is available here.

The Bible tells the story of God. There are many threads within that story and many rabbit trails which one might pursue, but there is one overarching plot to the drama. There is, in essence, one story.

This story has an arc that begins with creation and moves to new creation, the goal of the drama. The arc has a climax, but the climax is found in the middle. That climax is Jesus the Messiah, who is God in the flesh. This same one who was present at the beginning and through whom God created all things is also the same one God raised from the dead as the beginning of new creation. The first and final acts of the drama are performed in the person of Jesus. Jesus, then, is the pinnacle of the arc, the one in whom both the beginning and the end find their meaning and fulfillment.

Between creation and Jesus lies the story of Abraham’s descendants, Israel. They are the people of God whom God led into a new Eden, but they did not embrace God’s mission. God invested in Israel the hope of the nations, but they did not pursue this hope. Nevertheless, God pursued them and accomplished that hope in Jesus. 

Jesus, the instrument of God’s creative work in the beginning and now the reality of the new creation at the right of God, descended from Abraham. Jesus is a Jew, and through him, God will bless and give hope to all nations.

Jesus invites the nations into the community of Israel. This fourth act in the story is the church, which is the renewal of Israel’s identity and vocation in the world. Moreover, it is the renewal of human identity and vocation. God recreates humanity in order to give the world hope. Through the church, God will bless all nations.

This divine drama has five acts.  It has a beginning and a goal, and it has a means.  Creation is the beginning, the first act of God. New creation, the new heaven and the new earth, is the goal, the fifth act of God. Jesus the Messiah is the means, who is the third act of God. Between the first and third acts, and between the third and fifth acts, God creates community. The second act is the story of Israel, and the fourth act is the story of renewed Israel, which invites all peoples into the life of Israel.

I call this a theodrama because it is God’s story. It is the story of God’s work, of God’s acts.  God creates a good world!  God elects Israel as a people for the sake of the nations!  God becomes human for our salvation! God calls the nations into the life of Israel in the church!  And God renews the creation!

Over the coming weeks, we will retell this story, and through it God will invite you to make it your own, to participate in the life and mission of God, the one who created you, loves you, and redeems you.


Woe to You Who Are Rich (Luke 6:24)

February 24, 2019

[Message by Jared Randall at All Saints Church of Christ, February 17, 2019, in Nashville, Tennessee.]

Today, I want to start by listing the basic ideas that make up Darwinian thoughts about Survival of the Fittest. Don’t worry, you’ll see why later. There are three basic ideas.

  1. Domesticated plants and animals show a tremendous range of variation. That sounds right, my cats are both cats yet only one feels the need to bite my toes in the morning to make sure I’m up.
  2. A similar range of variation exists in nature among wild species. Kinda simple, elephants in India are different than Elephants in Africa. There’s variation.
  3. All living things are engaged in a struggle for existence. X2. Everything wants to survive for as long as possible, that’s obvious. And if we need the same things to survive, we’re going to have to share; and if there’s not enough to share than one of us is going to have to die, and who ever dies doesn’t get to make more mouths to feed.

That’s basically it. That’s basically what Darwin noticed that no one else at the time did. Something that any gardener here instinctively knows, that there’s a web of dependence and competition that makes sense of everything that we do.

One of my favorite parts of Richard’s book, Myths America Lives By, is the section on the Gilded Age, where social Darwinism is on full throttle. I love that section because it basically shows how people applied those three building blocks of natural selection to an entire economic system that crushed the weakest people in society and wrote it off as “only natural.” It’s only natural- this is how the world works: you eat the same food as me, I need all the food, you fend for yourself.

People like Andrew Carnegie in 1889, one of the earliest, strongest millionaires, recognized that this is how nature was set up, which means this is how God had set the system up, which meant that those who were at the top of the pile were the ones living by God’s system.

Let me read this quote, “While the law of competition may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore, as condition to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment and the concentration of business… in the hands of a few…” and then later “Such, in my opinion, is the true Gospel concerning Wealth, obedience to which is destined someday to solve the problem of the Rich and the Poor, and to bring “Peace on earth, among men Good Will..”

This is the game that we play- in America especially. Because there are only so many jobs. There only so many seats in the University lecture hall- only so many spots in the parking lot. There are only so many offices at the Capitol building in Washington DC.

So I got a headache today after reading Luke chapter 6 over and over noticing that no one is going to put these words across the doorways of the admissions building. No one’s going to move their family across the country because the company offered a smaller paycheck. No doctors have asked me if I have considered taking medication that would make me more sad.

I don’t know what world Jesus is living in. You know, Luke has this way of just shoving it in our faces. He just wants you to know. Reading Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, he’s kind of content to let you figure it out for yourself- but Luke just holds it up: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Doesn’t that give you a headache? I can imagine Andrew Carnegies head popping off if someone read him that text. I can imagine my own head popping off if I could understand it. I don’t know what world Jesus is living in, but it’s one that doesn’t make any sense. I guess it’s just one where The Origin of Species hadn’t been written yet. Because now we know about how the game works.

I think that I’m realizing lately that Jesus isn’t just the best hope for the world, but he’s the only hope for the world. And it’s because he’s the one who barges in on game night, clears the table and rips up our precious little rule book. Jesus is the only one with the guts to check the soil and taste the salt. Jesus looks around and says that surely there is some river where we can plant our shrubs.

Luke points to us and he says that either the poor are blessed or Andrew Carnegie is. It can’t be both. But with that said, Paul writes the scariest thing that we’ve read today. I got a headache when I read Luke, and I got shivers when I read Paul. Because he makes it clear; we are either living in a world where Christ is raised from the dead and the poor are blessed, or we aren’t. Jesus either flipped the board and cleared the table, or we lost the game. Jesus’s death on the cross was either the new way towards new life, or it was the non-survival of the not-so-fit.

We cannot be sure which is correct. But we can trust. And blessed are those who trust in the Lord, even between the headaches and shivers. No, better yet, as Jeremiah says, blessed are those whose trust is the Lord. Blessed are the poor and the hungry and the sad, for they shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream that only the trusting can taste.


“I Will Not be Silent”

February 1, 2019

MLK Day Sermon 1/20/19
Robert A. Jackson, Jr.

At the All Saints Church of Christ, Nashville, TN

The Text

Isaiah 62:1&2 (CEB) & Luke 10:29-37 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Isaiah 62:1&2 (CEB)

For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent,
    and for Jerusalem’s sake I won’t sit still
    until her righteousness shines out like a light,
    and her salvation blazes like a torch.
Nations will see your righteousness,
    all kings your glory.
You will be called by a new name,
    which the Lord’s own mouth will determine.

The Parable of the Samaritan

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[b] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three,do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Introduction

The following is an excerpt of Dr. King’s last speech (I’ve Been to The Mountaintop) that he gave in Memphis Tennessee on April 3, 1968.

“In the Human Right Revolution, if something isn’t done and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty,their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”

“Whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting amongst themselves.”

“But when the slaves get together, something happens. When the slaves get together,that is the beginning to getting out of slavery.”

“Let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants who happen to be sanitation workers. We got to keep attention on that.That’s always the problem with a little violence.”

“All we say to America is be true to what you said on paper.”

“You know what’s beautiful to me? It’s to see all of these ministers of the gospel.It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow, the preacher must have the kind of fire shut up in his bones and whenever an injustice is around, he must tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos who said, “When God speaks who can but prophecy?” Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus,“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me and he has anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.”

“So often, preachers aren’t concerned about anything but themselves. And I’m always happy to see a relevant ministry. It’s alright to talk about long white robes over yonder and all of its symbolism. But ultimately, people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s alright to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey. But God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and his children who can’t eat (3) square meals a day. It’s alright to talk about the New Jerusalem. But one day, God’s preacher must talk about the New New York, the New Atlanta, the New Philadelphia, the New Los Angeles, the New Memphis, Tennessee.”[1]

Sermon Text

Like King, I stand here today as a messenger of God who is tormented by the pain and agony that is afflicted upon the disinherited of our society. Sometimes I experience that “Nathan Moment”. Have you ever experienced a “Nathan Moment”? That’s the moment when it is revealed that you have caused some of the affliction that is experienced by the disinherited.Nevertheless, I am learning the humbling art of preaching to self before and while preaching to others.

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!

Dr. King was a man who wrestled with his demons. And,he was also a man who was not silent about the injustices towards the disinherited. If we are honest with ourselves, we are also dealing with demons in our individual lives. I stand here today better understanding the inner conflict within us. The Apostle Paul said, when he wanted to do the right thing he didn’t. When there was something that he did not want to do, that’s exactly what he did. Our pride, arrogance, and idol worship keep us from acknowledging the humanity within our neighbors and even our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!

There are plenty of times that we have taken a selfish approach to life. I got mine and you get yours the best way you can.Too many times my white brothers have made comments about pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. I believe that it was Dr. King that said what is a person to do if they do not have any bootstraps? Too many times, white sisters have spoken up about the injustices towards women who looked like them but failed to see life from the aspect of all women of color. Black brothers have failed to prophetically preach against the sin of “whiteness” and failed to empower Black Women to speak into their calling of being prophets for the Kingdom especially within the confines of the American Empire. When I say“whiteness” it probably offended someone. They will not hear the rest of the sermon become of this one term. But, why? When I say “whiteness” I am NOT talking about skin color. I am NOT talking about an ethnic group of people. However, I AM talking about the imperialistic ideals of the Empire that have infiltrated the fellowship of the believers[2]. Some Whites, Blacks, and Latinos who reside in this country have allowed“whiteness” to tell those from outside of this society that they do NOT belong. Has “whiteness” become your religion?

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!

The institutions that claim to be of the Christ that want to truly make a difference must open their pocketbooks and their wallets. They must get out of their air conditioned and well insulated buildings. They must genuinely show up in the communities that are needing help. Don’t get me wrong,money is important to this conversation. It was important to further Jesus’ ministry. He had some financial donors. But, if we read closely, we see that his donors did not sit behind in their air-conditioned buildings. It seems that many of us want to go out of the country to do mission work. We will live in uncomfortable situations to do the work of God. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with this work. However, I am saying that there is work to do at home. We debate over whether or not to build border walls, but when was the last time that someone who did not look like us get invited to cross to the inside of the walls of our houses to share a meal, coffee, or a conversation? We argue about the elephant and the donkey but fail to remember that these are two sides to the Empire’s politics. The politics of the Kingdom transcend both of them. Too many of us have fallen prey to idol worship because we have allowed the Empire to determine how we view humanity versus allowing the Christ to be the example to follow. When people are struggling to feed their families and pay their bills because the Empire decides to through a temper tantrum, do we just shrug our shoulders because of our hatred towards those whose politics do not match ours? Are we seeking to justify our apathetic response to the suffering of others? Who is my neighbor?

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  

Dr. King was encouraged by the number of ministers that were in the audience during his speech. My pain is always the lack of preachers that are in attendance when matters of justice are being discussed.It has happened to me at church and school. Too often, the preachers in our faith tradition are either absent or silent. There will be plenty of events to get involved in matters of justice on tonight and tomorrow. But, how many of our preachers will show up? I have had several conversations over the years with preachers, both male and female, about us living out and teaching the people of God about the things that mattered to Jesus in Luke 4. I have asked them, “Are you willing to die for the cause of Christ”? Maybe, I should reframe the question. “What are you willing to give up to answer the calling that God has upon your life”? Will your sociopolitical ideologies allow you to continue to verbally and ideologically oppress, your black, brown, LGBT sisters and brothers? Will you continue to allow your socioeconomic status to cause you to overlook the poor of all races and nations? Will you continue to allow the traditions of your denominational tribes restrict you from living out the gospel? Will continue you allow those “in charge” to hold a paycheck over your head instead of attempting to be true to the Mission of God? Will you allow your patriarchal and misogynistic thinking to silence women and continue to add victims to the #MeToo and the #ChurchToo movements? Will you allow the idol worship of the “whiteness” in your life to control your thinking of who is or is not desiring of the Love of God? Will you continue to allow the cognitive dissonance and willful ignorance of your cultural upbringing to overshadow who the Spirit of God wants you to become? I believe that Dr. King was correct in his assessment that the preacher is more concerned about himself or herself that he or she is with others. However, I would conclude that the American Christian is more concerned about himself or herself than for others who do not look like him or her. He or she has replaced empowered empathy with anemic sympathy. He or she will acknowledge other followers of Jesus as fellow believers but will NOT acknowledge them as sisters and brothers. This negligence makes it easier to mistreat and overlook a sister or brother in Christ. 

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  

The justice of the Bible is not a social secular movement. This is a Jesus movement. It is not the theoretical and lackadaisical teachings of “whiteness”. It is the gospel in action. We have to be honest with ourselves that we all have some sort of evil and sin in our lives. But the question becomes… Have we allowed them to overtake us? Has it become our God?

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  

Now that we have dealt with the individual, lets deal with the community. The American Church is living in sin. It needs to repent of its idolatry and its adultery. It has taught the world to hate, it has taught the world to segregate, it has replaced the Apostles with politicians, it has replaced the Spirit with guns, it has replaced Jesus with Presidents, it has replaced God with the Supreme Court. The Bible has become a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Just like the Rich Young Ruler, it refuses to acknowledge the dignity of the disinherited by referring to them as “illegals”,“aliens”, or “those people”. It has silenced victims in order to protect the power structure. It practices a theology that is Anti-Christ when it tells disinherited people HOW to feel instead of asking them HOW they feel or instead of asking to see WHY they feel the way the feel. It seeks to be understood instead of seeking to understand. It has played the harlot with the Empire. The American Church needs to reclaim the mission of the ecclesia. It needs a rebirth. It needs to rededicate itself to Jesus.

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  

Who is my neighbor?

Remember these words of Dr. King…

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“The time is always right to do what is right.”

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”[3]

For the sake of the Good News, I will NOT be silent!  


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” (lecture, Mason Temple, Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixfwGLxRJU8.

[2]Willie James Jennings, “Can “White” People Be Saved: Reflections on Missions and Whiteness” (lecture, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA, February 24, 2018),  https://youtu.be/SRLjWZxL1lE

[3] I have italicized and putDr. King’s words in quotations in an attempt to fully give him credit.


When Jubilee Sounds Like a Threat (Luke 4:14-21)

January 28, 2019

[This sermon was preached by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler at the gathering of the All Saints Church of Christ in Nashville, TN, on January 27, 2019.]

When I was a little older than my daughter, Hannah, I used to go to my mom and dad,begging them to tell me a story. And it couldn’t be just any story—it had to be me-centric. “Talk about the Kaitie, Talk about the Kaitie!” We laugh about it because that’s just such a toddler thing, right? Your world is so small.Everything is centered on you and your needs. I was told yesterday that the kinetic sand in our sand table was for me to “look at, mama, not play with”because it was not mine. I was invited to the table to play, but when I started, I was not welcome. Ideally, over time, we learn that sand is for sharing and the world is big and needs outside our own exist and other stories are important even if they don’t include us. Ideally.

This lesson of a “bigger-than-you” world and learning the patience to hear stories that don’t include you is harder the closer in proximity one is to power or privilege. For toddlers, the response may include tantruming or pouting, but for adults, the response often becomes violent. The older one is, the more de-centering work challenges one’s safety, status, and self-concept. Violence,then, is just an emphatic rejection of wanting to do that work. It’s a lazy and entitled response to a call for empathy. I’m setting us up to understand this before even diving into the passage, because I think it is vital for us to put ourselves in the Nazarene’s shoes. Especially the shoes of the local religious leaders.

The gospel writer sets this up so perfectly.

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.”

In verses 14 and 15, Jesus is a star. He is the standout, the wunderkind, the prodigy, the MVP. He was teaching in their synagogues and everyone praised him. There’s most likely a lot of hometown pride that bubbled to the surface when people heard Jesus was coming to the Nazareth synagogue. I can see Jesus sitting in the synagogue, surrounded by the men who he grew up around. Older men, his father’s age, and their sons, possibly childhood friends of Jesus.Maybe there was a mixture of pride, maybe some jealousy. He stands up, and they hand him the scroll. I’m not sure what they anticipated he read, but Jesus unrolls it, and looks for something. For all we know, this could have taken thirty seconds or five minutes, but I would bet the anticipation was thick.

He finds what he is looking for, looks up, and says the following:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. Listen to this:  The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.  He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

There’s so much to unpack here—I don’t think we can cover it sufficiently. This divine mic drop was basically God’s thesis statement for sending Jesus to humanity. He takes two passages in Isaiah, combines them, and uses them as a declaration of ministry and purpose: “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”Jesus’s first hometown sermon is a decidingly political one: in it he declares dominion over the sacred and secular. And this IS Good News.

For the poor, the prisoner, the oppressed, this is FINALLY God saying, “I’m here! It’s happening! Your Jubilee Year is finally come, all your debts are paid, you are free!” For the marginalized, Jesus is not only giving a word of hope and promise, but a word of finality. He’s here, y’all. Our troubles are no longer unheard and unseen.

With this word, Jesus basically confronts two institutions: the religious and the political. The Year of the Lord’s Favor Isaiah referred to was also called the Jubilee Year, and it was the responsibility of the government to enact and recognize it. Obviously, by the time Jesus came along, Rome was in charge, and “Jubilee” seemed more like a folk tale than a reality. It is a very pointed criticism that Jesus lobs at the political structures of his day when he chooses this particular passage. “Yeah, I’m here because you can’t do it.” And this Is Good News.

Everyone is amazed at his words and speaks well of him. But he doesn’t stop there.

See,it’s interesting to note that if you read ahead, the religious men in the synagogue don’t get mad because he says that he’s there for the poor and the oppressed. They get mad because he says that the poor and oppressed aren’t them. They are happy to hear of his healing until his healing heals those on the outside. They get so mad, in fact, they try to kill him. When the story shifts from centering them, to centering others, their violence overtakes their goodwill. They would rather kill the Messiah than join in the work with him.

And it’s not like Jesus is someone who withholds healing from those who need it. The fact that he chooses to reveal his mission in this way and then say later,“by the way, this isn’t about you,” tells me that he knew this community needed to be reminded of what it’s all about.

I titled this sermon, “When Jubilee Sounds like a Threat” because in 2019 America, I wonder how we would respond to the brown Nazareth preacher claiming freedom for the oppressed? I wonder if, depending on our social location and proximity to power and privilege, would it lead us to feelings of violence or feelings of joy?

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to

Proclaim good news to those with poisoned water in Flint, Michigan,

He has sent me to proclaim freedom to Cyntoia Brown,

And recovery of land to indigenous people,

To set the undocumented immigrant children at the border free,

To proclaim health and healing to any sick person, regardless of ability to pay.”

Are we the local Nazarene religious leaders, so believing that we are entitled to Jesus and his words that any call to lift up the oppressed and marginalized is threatening? How can we tell if we are about to throw God off a cliff because we can’t handle the focus being off of us and on the systematically disadvantaged?

Does Jubilee sound like a threat or does it sound like Good News? What is our litmus test for whether we have perpetually centered our stories OR welcomed a bigger world and a bigger God who challenges us to look to the oppressed and marginalized for signs of His salvation work?

Church, we are being called into something great. We are can either proclaim Good News and do Good Work, or violently reject the God of the Outcasts. It starts with listening to stories in which we are not the subject and it ends in participating in the Great Narrative that rightly centers the oppressed.

May we be ever aware of our power and privilege, and learn to live empathetic, justice-seeking lives.


Millennials and Churches

March 5, 2018

This is a guest post by Jeff Wischkaemper, who holds a Ph.D. electrical engineering, and he lives in Knoxville, TN, where he attends a relatively new church plant that is affiliated with Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

**********

It’s been six years since my wife and I left the Churches of Christ. Shortly after we left, I wrote extensively about some of the reasons for our departure, and some of the problems I thought Churches of Christ faced moving forward. In a recent discussion with John Mark on the topic of what churches (of Christ) can do to navigate multigenerational contexts – specifically those where Boomers are in charge and millennials make up an increasing number of congregants – I had the opportunity to revisit those posts and reflect on how I see connecting with millennials in a somewhat different faith community.

A note before I begin: Jeremy Marshall’s post here is absolutely worth reading. Because he’s already covered a lot of things I would want to say, I’d encourage you to reflect on his thoughts before reading this. Instead of rehashing everything he covered, I’ll try to supplement what he wrote with a few thoughts of my own.

First, a bit about myself by way of introduction: I was born in 1980, a member of the “micro-generation” that straddles Gen X and the Millennials. I spent 12 years earning both undergraduate and graduate degrees at a state university with a large campus ministry, and actively participated in leadership during that time. During my time in college, I overlapped with friends ranging from the college class of 1996 to the college class of 2013. And yes, I do see a significant shift in the social, political, and religious attitudes of people who are just a few years older than me compared to the people who are just a few years younger than me.

Why do they not want what we wanted?

Because the initial question was addressed specifically to congregations with Boomer leaderships, I’ll start with a pretty bold declaration of what I think the problem (still) is not, namely worship styles. I spent a lot of time beating a dead horse on this when we left, but loud, flashy instrumental music will not help you retain millennials.

My sense is that church leaderships have a tendency to look at worship styles as a solution to millennials leaving the church for a couple of reasons. First, they remember the time when they were young adults who thought worship was bland and stale. For Boomers, creating a dynamic worship experience was a major priority, and to be perfectly fair, a lot of the changes they made were both welcome and needed. But believing millennials are primarily interested in instrumental music is, in a very real sense, Boomers projecting their own desires for increasingly dynamic worship onto millennials, rather than an actual groundswell of desire from millennials themselves.

The more practical reason I think leaderships often gravitate to changes in worship style is that these changes are relatively easy to implement. Most changes to the way we do worship are straightforward, so long as the political will and capital exists. Worship services are something we plan and can exert some measure of control over. Consider the relative difficulty between 1) changing your worship service to include “newer” songs or 2) creating a broad culture of hospitality at your church. The first is a matter of planning and execution. The second requires a new imagination about your church’s identity. It’s easier to preach a sermon about kindness than it is to be kind.

Unfortunately, many of the changes I see as necessary for engaging millennials are changes of the second type. They are changes that aren’t easily controlled or executed, take a long time, and require a lot of introspection both from leadership and laity. To be frank, they are changes many of our churches simply aren’t equipped to make.

Keeping millennials in church requires more than turning down the lights and turning up the volume. Millennials are not adolescents who need to be placated with highly stimulating environments – and ironically, treating them that way tends to push them away, rather than drawing them in.

Three challenges

Difficulty connecting with changing demographics

If you grew up in a Church of Christ, attended a Christian college/university, were married when you were 19-21, and had your first child when you were 22-23 (or at least 3 of those things are true), there is a good chance that you feel accepted and at home in a Church of Christ. Churches know what to do with you. You’re likely to have a group of peers in most congregations you attend. There will be people in most life stages whose experience is/was more or less like yours, and the programs of a typical Church of Christ are oriented around being attractive and enriching to people like you. You are, we might say, on the fast track for eldership.

If you are in the 18-40 age range and you don’t fit this template, though, most churches really don’t have a good idea of what to do with you, other than try to get you “back on track.” If you happen to be single, for instance, most singles ministries – where they exist at all – are structured to be dating factories (because obviously singles’ primary goal in life should be to get married). Most adult classes for married couples under 50 in Churches of Christ tend to be oriented around parenting (because obviously all married couples should have children). And we haven’t even started to discuss a lack of awareness of single mothers, or people recovering from a divorce, or any number of other groups that traditionally haven’t been on our radar.

The challenge going forward is that demographic trends are moving away from the traditional template: 1) people are not getting married until later in life 2) married couples tend to be waiting longer to have children and 3) couples, even within churches experience divorce at higher rates than in the past. In spite of these trends, churches continue – overtly and covertly – to message that if you aren’t happily married by 25 with one kid in the nursery and another on the way, there is probably something wrong with you that needs to be fixed.

Ironically, a survey of Church of Christ members isn’t likely to pick up on this. Most churches would self-report as inviting and welcoming for young people, and church leaderships often cite the abundance of young families in their churches, along with the overcrowding of nurseries and children’s classes as evidence that everything is just dandy. And from the inside, this makes sense. People who “fit” this narrow profile and know the secret handshakes find Churches of Christ to be welcoming, friendly places with people who are warm, caring and understanding.

But people who are even a little bit away from an expected template often feel so unwelcomed and unvalued that they leave before they are noticed at all. The result is that many Churches of Christ have become culturally homogeneous, and increasingly unable to understand, care for, or even notice people whose lives aren’t on a similar trajectory.

“Gospel” as “sin management”

The traditional story most churches have told for several generations goes like this (forgive the huge oversimplification): “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But God, in the person of Jesus Christ, died so that our sins might be forgiven, and we might be able to live in heaven with God after we die.” The goal of churches, then, is to help people transition in status from “sinner” to “saved,” and then to help “saved people” manage their sin problem until they can go to heaven. (We would never say this so crassly, of course, but I think that’s a fair characterization of how many churches operationalize their purpose and mission.)

Now, there’s a sense in which that story may be “true,” but it’s a story that presents a solution to a singular problem that an increasing percentage of the population isn’t convinced they have. It’s a story that’s only “good news” if you can first convince people they are sinners in the hand of an angry God. Not surprisingly, the first move in the standard church playbook is to convince individuals of their personal guilt before a righteous and judgmental God – an approach which turns out to not work very well with people who didn’t grow up as nominal Christians.

Notice how much Jeremy in his article talks about story (spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about it below too). Think about how the same series of events and characters can be transformed by what Hayden White calls different modes of emplotment. For example, consider how differently the narrative of the French Revolution can look when written alternatively as a romance, a comedy, a tragedy, and a satire.

The story of God – told primarily as a tale of how to be forgiven and go to heaven after you die – isn’t an epic that captures the hearts and minds of many millennials. That’s not to say they aren’t interested in the story of God; far from it. But we need to take a step back and consider the mode of emplotment we bring to the text and ask ourselves whether a different approach to storytelling might resonate more in today’s world.

Justice, equality, hospitality

Justice, equality, and hospitality are words that Christians ought to have no problems with. And yet, if you ask non-Christians, the church is the last place they expect to find these virtues lived out. In an increasingly pluralistic society, faith communities are judged not by their benefits to insiders, but by how they act toward their non-adherents – those who do not believe.

How does your church (and its members) act toward immigrants (documented and undocumented)? How does your church (and its members) act toward members of the LGBTQ+ community? How does your church (and its members) act toward people of other faiths, (e.g. Muslims, Sikhs)?

Unfortunately, if we take an honest look, I think we will all find that our actions and intentions as Christians fall well short of the challenging words of Jesus: “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did it for me.”

In the wake of World War II, European philosophers and theologians struggled to understand what had gone so horribly wrong with ethics and morality that millions of “good Christian people” in Germany – in a church that was in many ways more theologically articulate than the American church has ever been – could have been quietly complicit in the deaths of millions of their fellow human beings. One French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas – who survived the Holocaust only because he was protected as a prisoner of war – tried to reground ethical discussions not on an abstract notion of human rights or contractual political arrangements, but on our obligations to the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.

I don’t believe churches are at the point, yet, where we have been forced to undertake the same reckoning with regard to our complicity in the suffering of others. But we should be aware that even now, we are judged by a watching world on how we respond to the least of these. To the extent that our religion functions as a way to preserve and extend our cultural power at the expense of outsiders, particularly the marginalized and oppressed, we are weighed in the scales and found wanting.

Three ways we can do better…

If you change your story, you change your life

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his prophetic work After Virtue (1981) said this: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” Millennials don’t need another self-help book. They know how to listen to TED talks. But they are a generation whose apparent life trajectory is not optimistic; they will likely be the first generation in America to not enjoy a standard of living greater than their parents.

What they want, desperately, is to be part of a community with a story of hope – and we have a story that speaks to that desperation. Scripture tells of a story that says, “God is doing something amazing in the world! God wants to repair all of the brokenness you see around us and set things right again! You have the opportunity to join in a community that is partnering with God to bring about justice and peace and restoration and wholeness?” It’s story that says my identity is not wrapped up in how much I earn, in what my job title is, or in how much I consume; that it doesn’t depend on my gender or race or economic status. Instead, the story of God promises that my identity is grounded in the reality that I am created by God, and that God wants me to be part of something bigger than myself. That’s a story people want to be a part of!

The recently deceased Yale theologian George Lindbeck argued that in a pluralistic age persuasion involving fundamental beliefs and ultimate concerns is not simply a matter of dispensing information but is, rather, an invitation to participate in an alternative story. Part of the reason millennials are so turned off from many churches is that the story most churches tell by their lived existence is basically indistinguishable from the story told by the world. At most churches, “being a good Christian” doesn’t look all that different from a vaguely spiritualized version of “living the American Dream.”

If the “good news” your church preaches is, in the words of one Christian author, “primarily information about how to go to heaven after you die, with a large footnote about increasing your personal happiness and success in God, with a small footnote about character development, with a smaller footnote about spiritual experience, with an almost illegible footnote about social/global transformation,” you are going to have a very difficult time retaining people under 40. You can be hip, cool, and high-quality in your programming while at the same time offering an incoherent and disconnected story. It’s the spiritual equivalent of a Michael Bay movie; possibly entertaining, lots of explosions, action and special effects, but very little substance.

Millennials are looking for a story. The story of God is an epic that has the capacity to animate their lives. But we need to learn to tell that story in a way that connects with their passions and desires, anxieties and fears.

Embracing women

To quote Sojourner Truth, “I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again.”

Let me pose a hypothetical to you. I know someone who is an expert in couple’s therapy. Literally wrote the book on helping couples get past an affair. They lead seminars all over the world about how to have a better marriage, how to communicate better as a couple, about how to forgive those who’ve wronged you. They’re a past-president of the Division of Couples and Family Therapy at the American Psychological Association. And they are a person of deep faith. And for the cost of gas, I could probably get them to spend a morning strengthening the marriages and relationships of anyone in your church who wanted to come.

How in the world could you say no to something like that?

You could (and many of our churches would) say no, because that person is a woman.

The recent, attention-grabbing Nashville Statement included the following sentence in Article 3: “We deny that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth.” One of my female friends replied, “You wouldn’t have to explicitly deny that females are unequal in dignity and worth if it weren’t implied by the entire history of [your organization].”

I know that for this audience, addressing this issue is poking a bear, and I know there are a lot of complementarians who will push back against me on this, but as a husband, brother, and friend of dozens of highly educated women let me make this abundantly clear: when you argue that women aren’t “less than men,” but that they “just have different roles (like teaching children’s classes and baking casseroles and sending sympathy cards),” these women would reply in a similar way to my friend above – you wouldn’t have to assert that women aren’t less than men if it weren’t implied by the rest of your doctrine and practice. 

I want to say that again: you wouldn’t have to assert that women are not less than men if it weren’t implied by the rest of your doctrine and practice.

My wife and I will never attend another church that doesn’t respect her talents and gifts, and the talents and gifts of other women, and doesn’t give women the opportunity to use the talents God has given them in settings where men are present. And we’re far from alone. In my small group, there are two women with Ph.D.’s (one of them a New Testament professor) and one medical doctor. Each of them grew up in small, conservative churches where their talents were dismissed and devalued, or worse still appropriated by boys who passed the girls’ work off as their own. Each of them has a story of hurt and resentment that is not only a barrier between them and most Christian communities, but sometimes a barrier between them and Christ.

You can jump up and down on any verses you like, but I will tell you that the lived experience of an increasing number of women suggests that the way complementarian theology is enacted is frequently damaging, not only spiritually, but on a deeply personal level. If you ignore that pain, or worse still perpetuate it, you will find an increasing number of millennial couples who will be unwilling to listen to you about anything else.

Our churches have to find ways of recognizing, valuing and listening to the talents of all members of God’s family. Spiritual wisdom, teaching Christ, and congregational leadership are not the sole domain of humans with a Y chromosome. Or at least they shouldn’t be.

Stop trying to be relevant. Start thinking about formation.

Too many churches get caught up in a never-ending quest to be “relevant.” If you want to connect with people under 40, think instead about how your church changes the people who are in it. Klyne Snodgrass writes: “[W]hen people asked Jesus ‘What do I have to do?’ he asked in return, ‘What kind of person are you?’ The answer to the second question answers the first.”

Stories are identity-forming. They are how we organize the world around us. Again – if you change your story, you change your life.

MacIntyre’s phrase for people who live without a grounding story is “anxious, unscripted stutterers.” Because of a long series of choices I don’t have space to go into, many churches have lost their organizing story, leading many of their members to become anxious, unscripted stutterers.

Imagine if you asked your church the following three questions:

1) Who do you/we believe God is?
2) What do you/we believe God is up to in the world?
3) If God is doing something in the world, what should your/our response be to that?

My guess is that regardless of whether your church is “conservative” or “progressive,” your members would have a difficult time answering those questions without resorting to “Sunday school” answers (e.g. “God is love!”). These questions are a good baseline for understanding the direction that your church is headed, and the direction your members are being formed. James K.A. Smith has written extensively about how all of us are constantly being formed. It’s worth asking in the context of this question, “What is the direction of formation in most Churches of Christ?” Or, as I asked myself when we were in the process of leaving, “If I take the values and beliefs of this church to be my own, what kind of person am I going to be in 5 or 10 years?” Ultimately I didn’t leave because of personal disagreements, ineffective leadership, or vapid teaching (though those things were all present). I left because when I took a hard look in the mirror, I didn’t like the person being formed by the values of that church.

Wrapping up

I was listening to an interview with the CEO of a tech startup a couple of weeks ago, and he made a very interesting statement: “You get the investors you deserve. … If you’re trying to attract investors by going around saying, ‘We’re going to blow it up on every street corner!’ then you’re going to get investors who have those expectations of you. On the other hand, if you say, ‘We’re trying to build something that’s going to survive for the long haul,’ you’ll get investors who are more patient and willing to let you take time to do things right.”

My general observation is that many times, churches get the members they deserve. If your church is trying to attract people based on your flashy worship service, it shouldn’t surprise you when you lose members to a flashier worship service. If you’re trying to attract people because you have good preaching or children’s programs, it shouldn’t surprise you when those people jump to the next church that comes along and “out churches” you. But if you’re building for the long haul – and if you’re really taking the time to create a community around an identity-forming story, a story that changes the world – then you have the potential to not just weather the storm, but thrive within it.


The Segregation of Black and White Churches of Christ in the Postbellum South

February 26, 2018

S. W. Womack (1850?-1920), father-in-law to Marshall Keeble and a leader in the African American Church in Nashville (particularly the Jackson Street Church of Christ, which he helped plant in 1896).

When A. B. Lipscomb, who was the managing editor of the Gospel Advocate at the time, asked Womack whether he would help put together a special issue of the Advocate “for the colored people,” he agreed and hoped “it would help to correct the attitude that now exists in some places toward blacks.”

Womack continued: “I think a more friendly attitude by the white people toward us would help [in the present, JMH]. I will never forget the grand privilege that the white church of Christ at Lynchburg, Tenn., gave the colored people during their first protracted meeting just after the Civil War, in 1865, held by Brethren Brents, Lee, and Trimble. We were invited to attend and seats were found for us. In this meeting I heard my first gospel sermon and a lasting impression was made on my heart. A short time after that, in the fall of 1866, I was baptized by a white preacher, old Brother T. J. Shaw–‘the man with the old Book in his head,’ the people called him. We were allowed to meet and worship with them for a number of years. In partaking of the Lord’s Supper, we were all waited on just alike; the wine and bread were not brought to us at the same time it is brought to us in some of the churches that I meet with for worship now. The attitude of the white people of that church toward the colored people was then, and is now, a great uplift to me” (GA, 1915, 1326).

At the conclusion of his article, he wrote: “Only a few of the whites have much or any confidence in the black man, and so many have none; and the blacks seem to stand that way toward the whites. I am proud to say, however, that it is not that way with the writer. When I begin with the year 1865 and think of such men as Dr. Brents, Lee, Trimble, T. J. Shaw, Darnell, Dixon, Bolding, Barrett, Fanning, the Sewells, the Lipscombs, and many others, who, in holding their meetings, would ask for room and seats for the colored people, and, after preaching would come around and shake our hands, I am made to feel very grateful. These things were a great help to me; and what has been helpful to me will be helpful to others also, if put into practice. I hope you will not only write and say many good things, but do as those good old men did—show your faith by your works” (p. 1327).

In other words, something happened between 1866 and 1915. Apparently, churches were more segregated, and there was more animosity toward African Americans.

American history helps us a bit here—the reconstruction South and the Jim Crow South dramatically shaped the story of black and white churches in the South.

In 1874, Daniel Watkins, an African American from Nashville, TN, asked David Lipscomb to publish his request for the use of “meeting-houses” so that he might teach Christianity to “the more destitute of my people as are willing to hear and receive the truth” (GA, 1874, 281). Unfortunately, to the dismay of Lipscomb, “white brethren in some places refused the use of their houses at times when unoccupied by themselves.” “We do not hesitate to say,” Lipscomb added, “that such a foolish and unchristian prejudice should be vigorously and eagerly trampled under foot, and all persons who are driven from the church because the house is used by the humblest of God’s creatures, in teaching and learning the Christian religion would bless the church by leaving it” (GA, 1874. 282). Further, “If the houses are too fine for this, they are entirely too fine for Christian purposes” (GA, 1874, 283).

Later that year, on October 9, a “consultation meeting” was held by disciples in Murfreesboro, TN, which included one African American named Daniel Watkins, who was commended as a preacher and church planter, among the thirty or so participants.

On the morning of October 12, the “ordination” committee proposed this resolution: “Resolved, that we recommend to our colored brethren who have membership with whites, whenever practicable to withdraw themselves and form congregations of their own, believing that by so doing they will advance the cause of Christ among themselves, and when it not practicable so to do, that they receive the attention of their various congregations” (GA, 1874, 1017-8, to which Michael Strickland alerted me).

There is no indication that the resolution was adopted, but the resolution itself reflects a movement among white churches to encourage segregation.

David Lipscomb, who was present at the consultation, took exception to the segregationist resolution. “The resolution in reference to colored brethren forming separate congregations we believe plainly contrary to the teachings of the Scriptures. The Jews and Gentiles had as strong antipathies as the whites and blacks. They were never recommended to form distinct organizations. The course we believe to be hurtful to both races and destructive to the Spirit of Christ” (GA 1874, 1020).

When, in 1878, David Lipscomb heard about an African American who was refused membership in a white church, he wrote this: “Nothing is more clearly taught in the Bible than that Christ came into the world to break down middle walls, family prejudices, natural animosities, race antipathics, and to unite the different kindreds, tongues and tribes into one undivided and indivisible brotherhood. The race prejudices in the days of the Savior and of the apostles were just as strong as they are to-day…We believe it is sinful to have two congregations in the community for persons of separate and distinct races now. The race prejudice would cause trouble in the churches we know. It did this in apostolic days. Not once did the apostles suggest that they should form separate congregations for the different races. But they always admonished them to unity, forbearance, love and brotherhood in Christ Jesus. We believe it sinful to do otherwise now..For the whites to reject the negro is to make the whites self-righteous, self-sufficient, exclusive and unchristian in spirit…[Those who resist the participation of African Americans in white congregations] show a total unfitness for membership in the church of God. A church that will tolerate the persistent exhibition of such a spirit certainly forfeits its claims to be a church of God…Our treatment of the negro at best is that of criminal indifference and neglect. To discourage and repel him, when, despite that cruel neglect on our part he seeks membership in the church of God, is an outrage that ought not for a moment to be tolerated.”.” (GA, 1878, 120-1).

While Lipscomb opposed segregated congregations, he also had a paternalistic and assimilationist attitude toward African Americans in those congregations. He thought, given their proclivities to “over-much religiousness or superstition” created obstacles to their “knowing the truth,” and it was “a misfortune” that “the colored population ever attempted separate religious organizations or separate worshiping assemblies,” which he regarded as “unscriptural” despite the “difficulties” that “might have arisen in their worshiping together” (GA, 1874, 281). Indeed, “the negroes needed the care, the counsel, the oversight, the instruction of their white brethren” (GA, 1874, 282). Since “in the providence of God they were freed,” it is a Christian “ambition and desire to encourage, instruct, and elevate them” (GA, 1874, 283).

In other words, even Lipscomb—who was beloved by many African Americans in Nashville and in other places—was shaped by the assimilationist and paternalistic racism of his time (see Kendi’s history Stamped from the Beginning). That is quite a somber warning for all of us, especially if we claim there is not a racist bone in our bodies.

Lipscomb, nevertheless, has harsh words for the whites who encouraged separate congregations. It seems to suggest that northern whites encouraged and promoted this tactic as part of their agenda during Reconstruction, and then this was continued during the Jim Crow era. “The whites who came into the country to use the blacks for selfish ends, encouraged the forming of separate churches that through these organizations they might control the blacks. The white members of the churches of this country, when themselves not guilty of a narrow and unworthy prejudice against church association with the colored members, gave way to a cowardly fear of the prejudices of others.”

By 1915, times had changed. Womack noted that “only a few of the whites have much or any confidence in the black man, and so many have none.” African Americans now worshiped in congregations segregated by the attitudes that formed by the Jim Crow south.

There were, of course, segregated churches before the Civil War, including Nashville where the first African American congregation in Nashville was planted in 1859. But these increased throughout the lifetime of David Lipscomb and S. W. Womack and much to their disappointment. The influence of Reconstruction and Jim Crow shaped how churches segregated themselves into white and black.

We are still dealing with the effects of that history today.

May God have mercy!


Millennials and the Oregon Trail Generation: Suggestions for Doing and Being Church with Them

February 8, 2018

This is a guest post by Jeremy Marshall who is the Minister of the Word at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA. He is married to Megan. He holds a B.A. in Bible and M.A. in New Testament Studies from Freed-Hardeman University, Henderson, TN. He enjoys exploring the intersections between biblical theology and popular culture, especially music and film.

I commend these suggestions for your consideration, and they are open for discussion rather than prescription.

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In recent years there’s been ample discussion and debate about how churches can reach and retain Millennials—those born from about 1984 through about 2001. A neglected micro-generation in these discussions is the so-called “Oregon Trail Generation,” or Xennials, those born roughly between 1977 and 1983—a cohort of which I am a member, and which I believe has significant gifts and a helpful outlook that can be very useful to the church moving forward. Many in both of these cohorts have fled their churches in recent years. But now some of those who’ve left are considering a return to some sort of church. Below are fourteen observations for doing ministry and life with and among Millennials and Xennials, many of who could rightly be classified as “Nones” and “Dones” when it comes to church experience.

1) You can’t assume they know “basic” Bible stuff. Even some of them who’ve been “in church” their whole lives. You may meet who grew up in church who don’t know Noah from Moses, or the story of Elijah and the ravens, or that Hebrews is a book in the New Testament. Don’t look down on them for this. And never put down their previous church experience, deficient as it seems to you. Something about Jesus has captured their imagination, and we ought to celebrate that.

2) Number 1) is actually a blessing. First off, it means they may be coming to us with less baggage, in terms of old denominational and hermeneutical squabbles. But it also means God is blessing us with an opportunity to tell our story afresh–to tell God’s story afresh. Isn’t that awesome? This permits us to be simply who the church was always meant to be: a people with a wondrous story to tell. A story as old as the heavens and the earth, and which will echo in the new heavens and earth.

3) If you’re blessed enough to have God guide these contingencies into your congregation, know that they do want to hear a story that makes sense to them; that makes sense of their lives and their world. They’re longing to be part of a larger story in a world that has forgotten the stories that make us truly human. I’d suggest you get a copy of Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Read it. Meditate on it. Internalize it. These Xennials and Millennials, these Nones and Dones, are rabbits looking for a safe and supportive warren to build their lives in.

4) It’s really time to brush up on the best of historical theology, because the questions these folks will bring to you have already been answered well by faithful saints of old. some titles I’d suggest up front include: Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and the Resurrection; the Anabaptist martyr stories in The Martyrs Mirror; Augustine, Luther, and Calvin on the Psalms; Jonathan Edwards on Religious Affections; Alexander Campbell’s The Christian System; and the Unspoken Sermons of George MacDonald. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find them incredibly relevant, and you’ll probably learn a few things, too. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Remember observation 3), above: they want to be part of an ongoing story, a long-standing conversation about things that really matter.

5) Related to all of the above: I’m finding that they don’t like topical sermons full of proof-texts. They don’t want or need scattershot preaching. But they do want to be led into a story by a tour guide whom they can perceive as a peer. Not as an “authority” telling them “what to do.” Detailed eschatological timelines (complete with maps) and waxing didactic and pedantic over the intricacies of the psallo argument will tend to turn off folks from these cohorts.

6) Related to 5): Why don’t they tend to appreciate topical sermons? Because they’re smart enough to know how easy it is to manipulate the text to favor a preconceived idea. These young people–especially the ones who might come with church baggage–have been trained well in the hermeneutics of suspicion. Proof texts just don’t work on many of them. Thank the Lord!

7) Related to all of the above: I’m not saying to be an exclusively “expository” preacher, either. But I am strongly suggesting preaching textual sermons. Gently guide them into the old, old story. Make helpful observations along the way. And maybe give them one application to take home with them based on the story. And then let the story and the Spirit do their work.

8) Related to all of the above, but especially 1). This might be especially a paradigm-shift for those of us in Churches of Christ, though I’m thankful to observe this practice has been waning the past couple of decades. “Turn in your Bibles to …” used 20, 30, 50 times in your sermon will not work anymore, because you can’t even assume they know where Genesis or Esther or 2 Thessalonians is. It really wasn’t a great strategy to begin with. Probably we should thank the Lord for this: it means God has given us a generation that renders moot the strange idea that the more you quote from the Bible, the more “biblical” a sermon is. It’s not “biblical” when you’re ripping many of those passages out of context; ignoring whole swaths of scripture because they don’t fit your “pattern”; and overloading people to the point that they can’t be noble Bereans who search the scriptures to see if these things be so. Why should they have to look up 40+ scriptures and make sure you were preaching them correctly?

9) Preach the whole Bible, even the weird parts. Even especially the weird parts. I recommend using a lectionary–at least for a season. And deliberately preaching the unfamiliar passages. (I prefer Luther Seminary’s Narrative Lectionary, but the Revised Common Lectionary is also great for preaching all the Bible. Both also get the church back into the discipline of the public reading of scripture having an essential role in the church’s worship.)

10) Put the scriptures in their place. They’re supposed to lead to Jesus (through the nudges of the Spirit), who shows us the Father. Make sure you say that out loud from time to time, if for no other reason than to keep yourself honest.

11) They neither want nor need propositions, a checklist, or a list of demands. They need a story to live by, and they need a supportive community to live it with. They may ask difficult questions about this story, and you may be tempted to just “tell them what to do.” Please resist that temptation. (I’m preaching to myself first, because I’m wired to be a “fixer.”) They will come to you (or someone else in the congregation) with the questions provided they experience the church as a safe place to explore, with safe people to explore with. Be that safe place. Be those safe people.

12) The church will need to provide a more casual, family-like environment for these folks. However, that doesn’t mean circle up the wagons and be all insular. Should the church be a “haven in a heartless world”? You bet! But we also must be open to the world. Sometimes there’s a very fine line between a church that feels like family, and cult. Don’t be culty. (Hint: sectarian is culty.)

13) Because of student loans and the general gutting of the middle and working classes, the Millennials and Xennials will probably not be able to contribute nearly as much financially as previous generations. This is a reality we’ll all need to accept. I’m going to be rather blunt: This is the new normal. Deal with it. But here’s the upshot: These cohorts are also generous with their time and talents and whatever possessions they have provided you send them on a compelling mission. The church of the 21st century will need to be lithe, streamlined, efficient, supple, pliant, and not program-heavy. So give them a compelling vision. Equip them. And crowd-source the dickens out of your ministries. Tips: be simple. Collaborate with other churches, ministries, non-profits, and even local government to do good. Focus on people, not programs. Be situational. Focus more on one-time or ongoing, simple, contextual, local opportunities for ministry that make sense for your church and arise organically.

14) Above all, resist the temptation to present the Bible as a source for “life-hacks.” We’re finding out now that most “life-hacks” don’t actually make your life better or easier, and can actually cause harm. Real life is messy and complicated; and so is scripture, sometimes. When I say resist the temptation to Bible-based life-hacks, resist trying to craft one-size-fits-all “solutions” from the scriptures. Resist theological platitudes. For every Matt. 7.14 (“the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult”); there’s also a Psalm 119.45 (“I will walk around in wide-open spaces, because I have pursued your precepts”). Is the way narrow and difficult; or is it wide-open spaces? According to scripture, the answer is somewhere between, “Yes”; and, “It depends.” Tension is life-affirming.

This isn’t meant to be read as an exhaustive or systematic checklist. It isn’t Fourteen Simple Steps to Reaching Millennials. These are suggestions and starting points, based on my own experience as a minister; as a member of one of these generational cohorts; and dozens of hours of conversations with people of these generational cohorts, both within and without the church. To put these into practice may take considerable work, sacrifice, and a willingness to examine our churches and make changes. But I’d also add, I believe it’s worth it. Because I don’t intend these fourteen observations just as a gimmick to reach and retain a certain generation. I believe many of these are simply best practices for a healthy, functioning church.