I Was Fired for Not Being a Christian

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“You’re fired.” Those are two words no one ever really wants to hear. However, when you’re fired (or politely, “let go”) for not being a Christian…and you’re a pastor…it brings things to a whole ‘nother level.

We’d been through a lot together, this group of elders and I. We expected to journey together in the care and growth of this congregation for years to come–at least that’s what they told me. In fact, despite the turbulent waters we had just experienced the church had not only grown but nearly doubled in size. By all accounts, we were through the worst. The waters were settling and we were preparing for a fruitful season ahead. That is until one particular elders meeting when they determined I wasn’t actually a Christian.

It was typical for us to have good theological conversations during our elders meetings, to talk about grace and Jesus and the role of Scripture in our church community, but this conversation in particular seemed to be one that Sam had been itching to talk about for a while. “The history of our church,” he began, “was founded upon a deep understanding of the Holy Spirit. We have, for the past 20 years, moved away from that understanding and have instead quenched the work of the Spirit here in our midst.”

As a young pastor in my mid-twenties I didn’t recognize the gravity of the situation. Instead of hearing his concern, I brushed it aside, chuckled and said, “Wow, we must be a pretty powerful people to stop the will and work of God!” Sam didn’t find it funny.

“We are raising a whole generation of people in this church who are not Christians,” Sam lamented.

My head tilted back and my brow furrowed inquisitively. I knew that we had several people in our congregation that were searching what it meant to follow Jesus and there were several new Christians, but exactly what Sam was referring to I wasn’t quite sure. As I looked around the circle I saw people nodding their heads in agreement. I sat in silence trying to figure out where this was heading.

As the conversation progressed and great laments about the lack of speaking in tongues and prophecy in our Sunday morning services filled the room, my eyes grew wide. I was startled. This was not the church nor the group of elders I had come to know. Something seemed different. Sam continued, “We need to start preaching about the Holy Spirit and the mark of salvation evidenced by speaking in tongues!”

“Sam,” I interjected with concern and a bit of a hurt ego–what was wrong with my preaching, was I missing something big?!–“what exactly are you saying? What do you mean?”

“Aaron, how can people become Christians if they don’t know about the Holy Spirit? How can they be a Christian if they cannot speak in tongues?”

I let his questions sit for a moment and I looked around the room. No one interjected. No one spoke up. They sat in tacit agreement, their silence growing in weight. Never one to be comfortable with an uneasy silence, I seized the moment and offered a clever rebuke and a teachable moment (or so I thought).

This is the moment I was fired.

“Sam, are you saying that you cannot be a Christian unless you speak in tongues?”

“Right.”

“Well, do you think I’m a Christian?”

“Of course pastor.” Sam looked perplexed.

“Sam, I don’t speak in tongues.” I could see the wheels turning as he tried to reconcile what I was saying with his statement of belief. “Sam, what you’re saying is that your pastor…” I paused for affect, “is not a Christian. Are you sure you really believe that?”

I was certain this would make a difference. How on earth could they deny their pastor was a Christian simply because he couldn’t speak in tongues? I was certain it would create enough of a dissonance that we could talk about this strange belief, point back to Scripture and understand the nature and reality of salvation through Jesus alone and the role of the Holy Spirit. I was certain.

Two weeks later, I was relieved of my duties and asked to move along quietly for the sake of the congregation.

I obliged.

Being fired is a hard experience. Being fired as a pastor for not being a “Christian”… yeah, that’s a new one. (Although it wouldn’t be the last time I’d be accused of not being a Christian–but never for a lack of relationship or belief in Jesus.) Over a decade later I am still serving the local church as a pastor. This difficult experience and the subsequent difficult experiences my family and I have endured have not changed the fact that our first priority and calling are to Jesus… and his Church. It will be messy. It will be difficult at times. However, through it all Jesus walks beside us, comforts us, grants us peace, and encourages us to persevere and press forward into new and beautiful experiences of his grace. And in the process we get to experience beautiful stories of faith and new life in people’s lives.

The Church is not perfect (yes, a glaring understatement), however it is the body of Christ. I cannot walk away from the body and I cannot walk away from the hope that it can bring into this world. May we remember well the role of the Church, and step beautifully into that role so that the world may see and know, that they may taste and see that the Lord is good. Let us be better examples today than we were yesterday.

Until We Meet Again.

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“Aaron,” my grandfather stopped me as I walked out the door. The seriousness of his tone and the look on his face caught me off guard. Grandpa was a man of few words, his faithful presence spoke volumes. On this day however, he clutched my heart and my soul with the most important words he’d ever said to me.

“Aaron, I pray for you every single day. I just wanted you to know that.”

I was in my mid-twenties and the gravity of grandpa’s words caught me completely off guard. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to respond. And so I simply said, “Thank you.” (In my memory the tone of my response was a bit sheepish, maybe even a bit imperious—as if I deserved such a grace.)

It wasn’t until a few years later that I recalled this conversation and experienced the full weight of grandpa’s words. The past, now nearly 20 years of pastoral life, hasn’t always been the easiest journey—I’ve had a few “outside of the norm” experiences that have shaped and formed my understandings of life, people, the church. And in each one of those moments, the death threats, being fired, watching a dream fall apart (as a church planter), grandpa’s words came roaring into view, washing over my heart, my spirit, and my soul like none other. “Aaron, I pray for you every single day.”

I am not sure I would have made it through those life-altering experiences without the faithful prayers of my grandfather.

For a long-time I’ve feared the day he would no longer be with us, selfishly coveting his daily prayers over my life. I had often wondered, “when he’s gone, who will take up the banner of faithful prayer over my life like he has?” I have stared at this moment for years with trepidation, and yesterday afternoon it came to pass. My grandpa passed away.

My grandpa has been one of the most important spiritual fathers in my life. He has modeled a quiet faithfulness, always quick to step in and serve the community, his church, his family, never asking for recognition or fanfare but faithfully and without complaint accomplishing the task set before him.

Grandpa chose to teach me through example more than through words. He taught me to be observant, to quiet myself and simply sit. Over the past year in the couple of visits that we would have, this was what we’d do. We’d share a few stories and then sit in the silence, grandpa modeling for me a comfortability, an ease with silence, teaching me to wrestle with the uncomfortableness and eventually settle in to this foreign space. This was his final and perhaps greatest lesson for me.

While the silence is still foreign, it is here in this space that I have come to realize that grandpa’s faithful, daily prayers for me were not his alone but rather a part of a larger network, a larger tapestry of prayers by others that spans farther than I could have ever imagined. The faithful banner of prayer over me and my life that grandpa initiated is being carried out by so many others, in different places. I’ll never fully know the full extent of that reach. That is a part of the beauty of prayer, and the legacy of my grandfather in my life. I will miss my grandpa but his memory, his legacy, and his lessons will endure.

I love you, grandpa, and I will miss you… until we meet again.

Five: A Dad Reflects on his Daughters Fifth Year of Life.

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Dad Reflections
The other day as I walked with Elliot to school she decided to skip. This is a pretty regular occurrence when we’re walking around: skipping, jumping, swinging from arms and shoulders. I think she does this because she really likes the feeling of freedom as she glides through the air–probably also why she loves gymnastics so much. She leaped into the air, effortlessly. Her curly hair tossing back and forth, side-to-side, her giggles growing louder and louder as they rolled out of her mouth. Her precious smile stretching from ear-to-ear as she implored, “Skip with me papa!” I looked at her and smiled. “Skip with me papa!” she said again, and so I obliged. We skipped hand-in-hand, smiling and laughing down the street without a care in the world. We weren’t unnoticed, however.

As we skipped, a bit carelessly, a bit out of control, a man continued his walk towards us from the other direction: sullen with a sunken face, hunched over shoulders, replete with a disheveled, and vulnerable disposition. I noticed his approach, and so began the process of slowing us down, getting our movements under control, and on to one side of the sidewalk.

As he approached us, this giggling, smiling, skipping little girl and her dad, he stopped, looked at her and said with all the seriousness he could muster, “Never ever lose that joy in your heart. Thank you for reminding me.” He took a deep breath, lifted his shoulders and continued his journey.

This is how my now five-year-old little girl interacts with the world around her. She is a little girl who has the ability to stop people on the sidewalk and remind them of joy. A little girl who can somehow leave a mark on someone’s life in only a moment. A little girl who brings laughter and excitement to the rooms she walks in, and can somehow change the atmosphere wherever she goes. And really, she’s been this way since before she was One.

This is my little girl. And I couldn’t be more proud of the person she is and is becoming. Just a few days ago as we were coloring Star Wars characters (her favorite thing, and the theme of her birthday party this year), and creating new stories and adventure of Princess Leia, Dark Vader (yes she calls him Dark Vader), Hans Solo, and BB-8 (“he’s so cute!” she says), she exclaimed out of nowhere, “PAPA! My heart is so full of love and happiness!”

I know it is my little love, I see it from you and in you all the time, and because of you mine is too.

Immigrants, Independence Day, and Race

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I walked through a sea of faces from every tribe, every tongue, every nation, all smiling wide from ear to ear. They were dressed in suits and turbans, in hijab’s, and sari’s, adorned in beautiful and brilliant colors to match the celebration of the day.

They stood in circles, smiling, lost in the joyous conversations of their native tongue while their children, playing and laughing, danced around them. Families walked hand-in-hand, swinging their arms with what seemed to be a newfound air of lightness. With their heads held high, exuding pride, families posed for pictures; two, three, even four generations on hand for this momentous occasion that could very well change their family’s destiny. As their smiles grew even larger than before, they clutched their certificates, and with a new and bright hope for a different future, they lovingly pulled their children close in a beautiful embrace. I felt as if I experienced a brief glimpse of what heaven might be like.

These refugees and former asylum seekers, immigrants, foreigners, “others”: after a long and grueling process of bureaucratic paperwork, filings and deadlines, civics and language tests, all stood together in the shadow of the American flag on July 4th and swore an oath of allegiance to this country and became her citizens, her standard bearers… fully and truly American.

“American.” There is nothing that can be done to take this achievement away, and yet somehow it’s a realization that they will never fully experience. Because of an accent, because of the pronunciation of certain words, because of a lack of pop-social history, being “fully and truly American” is something they will never truly experience: they will always remain a “they”, an “other” in a somewhat exilic existence—always American and yet known as something altogether other.

Comedian and Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj, in his comedy special Homecoming King, shared his own experiences of “othering” as he weaved together his own stories to illuminate the lived tension of being American and yet something altogether other. Born in America, he highlighted his experience as a member of an immigrant family from India and the othering he experienced on the regular growing up in California. Both laugh out loud funny and punch in the gut painful, Hasan brings to the forefront just how far we still have to go as a people–a white, American people.

And sure, for some of us it is easy to write off a Daily Show correspondent, or a comedian and say ‘that’s anecdotal’ it’s not the norm… except it is–are you listening?. I have spent a lot of time listening to the stories and experiences of people who are citizens of this country–whether naturalized or natural born–tell similar stories. Friends of mine who of Indian descent (like Hasan) have been treated differently, profiled as terrorists at worst or non-American at best (is that really the best case scenario?). Or friends children who were born in this country, yet are of hispanic origin, told by people at the mall to “go back where you came from before you breed!” or “we only speak english in this country!”–even though they are being raised in homes with two languages (a benefit, not a curse!)

I have written on race here in the space a time or two or three (even providing some resources for the conversation)–in fact, this is what my dissertation dives into–even sharing about my short-lived lobbying career for immigration reform. Mainly these writings have been about the white-black divide (I put white first in this dichotomy because we have historically been, and currently are the aggressor) and the consequences of slavery. While this has been the main thrust and focus–this was, according to founding Father James Madison (and still is) America’s “original sin” (of which we still have not yet repented)–let us not negate the fact that this is a much larger issue. Our racist proclivity, as a white, American people must change not only individually but structurally speaking. We must open our eyes not only to what we have done, but what we are still doing today. Denial is no longer an option. It is past time for us to pay attention, especially as Christians.

You see, I have this terrible feeling in the pit of my gut–hence one of the reasons why I write so often about race–that many white, American Christians will stand on the outside of the gates of heaven looking in to see a sea of faces from every tribe, every tongue, every nation only to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome at best, and at worst turn and walk away saying, “that’s not my heaven.” And while we may argue against this, saying “but I support missionaries in the Dominican or in India or in Kenya, I want to see every tribe and tongue and nation in heaven” our lived reality in our churches and our Facebook rants and Twitter posts reveal a different posture altogether. We are no better–in fact, in many instances much worse than the culture around us.

C.S. Lewis, in his book “Till We Have Faces” wrote, “No man can be an exile if he remembers that all the world is one city.” We must remember this, and turn it on its head to understand that ‘no one is an exile because all the world is one city’ (check Revelation 21). May we, white America, stop our exilic tendencies and begin to recognize and realize that this is what heaven looks like, and our role is to work towards and pray that “Thy Kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven.”

Rejection and Silence: Our posture towards race in the Church.

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Race in the Church

KKK is welcomed to a church service in Portland, Oregon, 1922. (Credit: Oregon Historical Society)

A couple of months ago I was hired to write a short article for a magazine publication answering the question: “What still needs to change within the Church?” I spent considerable time talking with people both inside and outside the Church, people with great affection for and yes even disdain of the Church. The overwhelming response from these individuals–which comprised of friends, random strangers, and my coffee baristas: Why has the church been so silent on issue of race? I was surprised this was the overwhelming response, but it also lined up well with my research interests. I listened to their frustrations, to their pain, to their hope and decided to make the issue of race the focus of the article.

I worked to strike a balance in the article between challenging what is, and a hope for what could be. The article was rejected under the guise, “We’ve decided to head in a different direction…” Once again it would seem the white church has chosen to sweep the issue of race under the rug, even though our culture is screaming for a response. The white church has chosen silence. (Yes, “white church” is a purposeful distinction.)

Professor, activist, and scholar Angela Davis is attributed as saying, “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist – we must be antiracist.” The same rings even more true for the Church. In the wake of the Southern Baptist controversy over their initial failure to adopt a resolution condemning white-supremacy (they did succumb to pressure the next day and adopt the resolution), and the continual non-humanization of black folk within our society, the Church must stand up and speak out. We can no longer remain silent.

I was encouraged by several friends to publish the short article here with a brief explanation of what took place so that silence will not win the day.

Below is the original, unedited article.

——————————

Our damning silence on race.

“I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11:00 on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated—if not the most segregated hours—in Christian America.” These were the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an interview on Meet the Press on April 17, 1960. Fifty-seven years later, has anything changed?

Of course Dr. King was speaking before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act; he was speaking during the height of Jim Crow and Sundown laws. He was speaking before the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Selma, and the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi. He was speaking during a turbulent time of heightened racial tension, school segregation, and racially motivated assassinations.

It is easy for us to look back upon that period in history and say, “Yes, absolutely things have changed.” In fact, according to LifeWay Research, over two-thirds of Christians agree that their church is doing enough to be ethnically diverse and almost three-fourths say their church is diverse enough.

But do our opinions mirror reality or does the church still occupy the most segregated hour in America?

In United by Faith: The multiracial congregation as an answer to the problem of race, the authors show that major strides in desegregation has taken place in almost every aspect of life in the United States, with one notable exception: the church. They assert that only 5 1⁄2 percent of congregations are considered racially mixed (meaning no one racial group occupies more than 80 percent of the congregation.) If that number is not startling enough, compare that with the reality that 48 percent of schools are considered racially mixed. This means that schools are eight times more racially diverse than churches.

Dr. King implored the church to take the lead in bringing about racial reconciliation in that 1960 interview. Instead we have maintained Jim Crow levels of segregation within the church–this is sinful. This must change. We must change.
It is time for the Church to step up and lean in. We must take a closer look at ourselves, our attitudes, and our posture. But first, we must repent of our segregation.

While we may no longer be in a position to lead the way in bringing about racial reconciliation, we can still make a difference. We can still be a window into heaven. But we must take the first step and walk across the street, drive to the other side of town, cross the railroad tracks of division and say “hello,” and “I’m sorry.” It is a long road towards wholeness within the church, but in stepping towards and listening to the stories of our brothers and sisters whom we have forgotten, we will find the promise of reconciliation is not as far away as we thought.

Fifteen Years of “I do”

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anniversaryWe honor the passing of time by fives and tens.
Milestones. Markers we use to bestow a greater sense of honor and praise.
Fives and tens.

Well now our marriage has one of each.

I love telling people that I’ve been married for “almost 15 years,” and always for the reactions. Wide-eyed looks of shock and disbelief, quick mathematical calculations to determine how old I could have been, “What were you 12 when you got married?”

“No that’s crazy,” I’d reply. “We were 13… but we still had to get our parents permission!”

Sure, we weren’t actually 13 but we were still young. Two kids in their early 20s staring at the unknown hand in hand, “ready for anything.” If only we had known what that really meant.

For us, those markers hold a multitude of stories and experiences that have molded us and shaped us into who we are today: Five adventurous cross-country moves, ministry experiences that went beyond intense, great heartache and loss, new friends and fellow travelers who have revealed new perspectives and ways of seeing and interacting with the world, health scares, the exhilarating birth of our daughter, and the tragic death of dreams we once gripped with a fierce tenacity only to watch evaporate in our hands. We are not the same two naive kids who said, “I do” fifteen years ago–although I still believe they’re lurking in there somewhere cheering us on, “ready for anything.”

“I do.”

Two tiny words which carried us across this threshold of life and thrust us into an adventure neither one of us saw coming. Two tiny words full of promise, overflowing with a commitment to stay faithful and true, to grow together, to challenge one another, to support and encourage one another, to go wherever God may lead us…

Fifteen years ago I didn’t have the slightest inkling of what those two tiny words really meant. Sure I knew that it was a promise, but the depth of that promise, the fullness of that promise? These were words laid out in abstract. Words of a future my imagination was unable to conceive or comprehend.

With each passing year, with each new experience, new milestone, heartache and tragedy, those two tiny words take on a richer meaning out of which a new and more profound vow emerges.

“I do.”

You, Tracy Monts, have been the adventure of a lifetime.
Here’s to fifteen more years of “I do” and beyond.
Happy anniversary.

The First Christmas Sermon – by St. John Chrysostom

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In AD 386 the first known Christmas sermon was delivered by St. John Chrysostom (aka ‘Golden Mouthed’ which is the meaning of his given surname). It is a beautiful and profound message of hope in these days of uncertainty for us to pause and consider.

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BEHOLD, a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassibility, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech. For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature’. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever. Amen.

Resources on Race and Racism

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I get a fair amount of requests from individuals asking me for resources to study on race and racism in America. I do my best to respond to each and every person who asks, and I try to tailor the resource list to their immediate questions and concerns. However, some simply want a general resource list as a place to start. That’s what this page is for, a list of accessible resources regarding race and racism in America.

I will update this list on a regular basis as new information comes in or new resources come to my attention. All of these resources are available either online, through Amazon, or through Overdrive–a great, free way to download e-books from your local library. This list is in no way comprehensive, nor does it strive to be. Rather the purpose is to be a starting point, an accessible and generalized list for you to access and expand your understanding.

First Updated: 11/21/16
Last Updated: 2/21/17

BOOKS


No Name in the Street
by James Baldwin.
Baldwin’s 1972 book is as prophetic for today as it was then. Baldwin has a tremendous ability to draw you in with his narrative style just before hitting you hard with truth. In No Name in the Street, Baldwin walks through the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X and Medgar Evers while revealing the then present state of race relations. Spoiler alert: It reads as if he were writing today. There are segments of the book that align with the new Oscar nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. When I went to watch the documentary there were segments that read almost exactly like this book. They make for great companions.

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The Fire Next Time
by James Baldwin.
This is a masterpiece of historical literature. Baldwin opens with an essay to his 14-year old nephew detailing the struggle of race and what it means to be black in America. It was, perhaps, the inspiration for Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between the World and Me (described below). It is interesting to read this essay and Coates work back-to-back to see the difference between the times. There isn’t much. Baldwin’s second essay in this book details the role of race and religion, including his own religious upbringing and the paradox he faced there within.

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The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race

Edited by Jesmyn Ward.
Ward brings together a group of important voices to speak about their experiences and their pain as black men and women in America facing the never-ending cycle of racism. These essays, reflections, poems, and insights into the reality of life as a black person in America is an emotional journey that points out the realities of our day. Ward fashions this work in the timeless piece of James Baldwin’s collected essays in The Fire Next Time. The contributors include Carol Anderson, Jericho Brown, Garnette Cadogan, Edwidge Danticat, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Mitchell S. Jackson, Honoree Jeffers, Kima Jones, Kiese Laymon, Daniel Jose Older, Emily Raboteau, Claudia Rankine, Clint Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Wendy S. Walters, Isabel Wilkerson, and Kevin Young.

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Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas.
In the wake of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin and his the subsequent acquittal of his killer, Douglas wrestles through the sociological and theological tension that exist within the black church and her own self as a black mother. As an accomplished scholar, Douglas presents the historical context of racism within America, its roots, and its far reaching effects on today’s society. She does this while wrestling theologically with the question of God’s Justice.

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The Cross and The Lynching Tree
by James Cone.
Theologian James H. Cone examines the the history of the African American experience of lynching in America through the lens of the Cross. He takes these two emotionally charged symbols (the cross and the lynching tree) and explores their interconnection in the history of black folk.

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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander.
Legal scholar Michelle Alexander examines the imbalance of the U.S. criminal justice system and its targeting of black men in particular and people of color in general. “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it,” she argues and the effects of the War on Drugs have unfairly targeted and decimated communities of color.

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The Souls of Black Folk
by W. E. B. Du Bois.
A seminal work that outlines and describes the black experience post-Emancipation, outlining both the struggles and the challenges that were foisted upon an entire people. Du Bois goes a step further in this collection of essays (first published together in 1903) to affirm both the dignity and the humanity of the black individual.

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Citizen: An American Lyric
by Claudia Rankin.
“A provocative meditation on race.” Claudia Rankin’s poetic expression of the mounting racial aggression and encounters in twenty-first-century daily life, in what is often described as a “post-racial society,” challenges the non-black assumptions and expectations of what life in America is like and how the collective effects of racism are manifest. Rankin utilizes essay, image, and poetry powerfully to give a clearer picture of the black experience.

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Between The World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden? Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences.

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Howard Zinn on Race by Howard Zinn.
This is a collection of shorter writings and speeches by Zinn that demonstrate and reflect his views on the questions and issues of race, specifically around the Civil Rights movement. During this period, Zinn was the chair of the history department at Spelman College, a historically all black women’s college in the South. He firmly believed that bringing people of different races and nationalities together would create a more compassionate world, where equality is a given and not merely a dream.
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PODCASTS

On Being with Krista Tippett
“On Being is a Peabody Award-winning public radio conversation and podcast, a Webby Award-winning website and online exploration, a publisher and public event convener. On Being opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?”

* Isabel Wilkerson: The Heart is the Last Frontier
* Vincent Harding: Is America Possible?
* Ruby Sales: Where Does It Hurt?
* Michelle Alexander: Who We Want to Become Beyond The New Jim Crow
* Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander, & Arnold Rampersand: W. E. B. Du Bois and The American Soul

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Code Switch from NPR
“Ever find yourself in a conversation about race and identity where you just get…stuck? Code Switch can help. We’re all journalists of color, and this isn’t just the work we do. It’s the lives we lead. Sometimes, we’ll make you laugh. Other times, you’ll get uncomfortable. But we’ll always be unflinchingly honest and empathetic.”

* Black and Blue
* 46 Stops: The Driving Life and Death of Philando Castile
* Can We Talk About Whiteness

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Pass the Mic
Pass The Mic is the premier podcast of the Reformed African American Network. Every month Jemar and Phillip sit down with voices from across the reformed movement with the mission of addressing the core concerns of African Americans biblically.

* Processing Donald Trump with Jemar Tisby
* Interview: Soong-Chan Rah
* Sho Baraka’s Narrative and 13th
* Current Events: Keith Lamont Scott, Terrence Crutcher, and NMAAHC

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ARTICLES

* Everything I Know About Racism I Learned in the Church by Christena Cleveland
* Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
* Could Black People in the U.S. Qualify as Refugees? by Raha Jorjani
* Why Jesus’ Skin Color Matters: That he was an ethnic minority shapes how we minister today by Christena Cleveland
* When Christians Won’t Say #BlackLivesMatter” by Kevin Wright
* White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh
* There Is No Such Thing As Race By Robert Wald Sussman
* Does Race Exist? Two Perspectives by C. Loring Brace & George W. Gill
* Race: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Michael James

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VIDEOS

I Am Not Your Negro [Documentary]

……

13th

A thought-provoking documentary on NETFLIX filled with scholars, activists, and politicians who describe and analyze the criminalization of African-Americans. The particular lens through which they examine is the exponential growth of the U.S. prison population and the “loophole” of the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Check out the trailer

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NY Times Documentary: Conversations on Race
NY Times Documentary

* A Conversation with my Black Son
* A Conversation about Growing Up Black
* A Conversation with White People on Race
* A Conversation with Police on Race
* A Conversation with Black Women on Race

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RACE – The Power of an Illusion [PBS Documentary]
Race: The Power of an Illusion
* RACE – The Power of An Illusion – Episode 1: The Difference Between Us (PBS Documentary)
* RACE: The Power Of An Illusion – Episode 2: The Story We Tell (PBS Documentary)
* RACE: The Power Of An Illusion – Episode 3: The House We Live In (PBS Documentary)

Abortion Politics: A conversation with a political operative.

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Abortion Politics
“What brought you to DC?” I asked the guy sitting next to me at the bar. He was well dressed, tie loosened, and finally off work at 9:00p.

“Politics, just like everyone else.”

I love being in Washington DC, the frenetic energy, the pace, the seemingly endless potential to make a difference in the world. In fact, that’s why I wanted to go into politics when I was in high school… and maybe that’s why I ultimately ended up in ministry. There are some interesting similarities between the two.

My single-serving friend for the evening was a political fundraising director for Congressional campaigns. He seemed to be pretty good at his job considering he’d hit all of his financial goals for the 4 previous GOP Congressional campaigns he’d run… well over $1.5 million per campaign. We talked shop for a while, I learned an awful lot about fundraising from this guy in just the 20 minutes we talked.

As we sat there talking, he looked tired; ready for this political season to be over. (Aren’t we all?)

“Do you vote for or believe in the candidates you raise money for?” I asked.

With a snort he responded, “No way.”

“Why do you do it then?”

“It’s a job.”

“I get that,” I responded. “Is it easy?”

“Yeah,” he laughed sarcastically, “if you have no soul!”

I chuckled along with him even though I think he may have actually been a little more serious than sarcastic. But I was really interested in his response so I pressed a bit deeper. “Who are the easiest people to raise money from?” I asked, wondering how predatory political fundraising is… I didn’t expect his response.

“Christians. Without a doubt. Christians.”

He had no idea that I am a pastor. No idea what I did for a living. Perhaps one of the benefits of being an evangelical pastor and not wearing a clerical collar.

“Why are Christians the easiest?” I asked.

“All I have to do is talk about abortion and they’ll support anything and anyone. In fact, abortion helps me get them to double max all the time.” (I had learned earlier in our conversation that a double max is the $10,500 total for a married couple for the primary and general election.) “And then,” he continued braggadocious-ly , “I get them to pledge a vote to my candidate, even though he won’t be able to do anything about it… And my candidate knows it. Abortion is just a GOP political tactic now for money and votes.”

“My candidate won’t be able to do anything about [abortion]. Abortion is just a GOP political tactic now for money and votes.”



You know that moment when you keep talking and reveal too much behind the curtain? Yeah. That was that moment. But I don’t think he cared… or maybe it was a moment of confession from someone who was starting to wrestle with the current reality of our political system.

I was taken back. I couldn’t believe he said what I have been thinking for nearly 10 years now.

You see, I cast a vote in my first presidential election for George W. Bush on the promise that he would do something about abortion, and more specifically about Roe v. Wade. The conservative Bible College I attended ran Pro-Life campaigns on campus, went to DC to rally against Roe v. Wade, and all of that made an indelible imprint on me–which is why I also cast my second-ever presidential vote for George W. Bush. I was a single-issue voter, and this compassionate conservative president was going to make a difference in the right way.

And then he didn’t.
And neither did Congress.
Everything stayed the same.

You see, when George W. Bush was in office, the Republicans had control of the House and Senate for 4.5 years of his 8 years in office. That’s nearly 60% of his time in office. And together, they couldn’t do it… or wouldn’t do it.

…Four and a half years…


Of course when you believe in a cause and you’re promised an action that never materializes, you tend to become a little cynical. My cynicism surrounding abortion politics began to create a few different scenarios in my mind for what was really taking place behind the curtain. Of course the one scenario that stuck in my mind was that the GOP really didn’t want to do anything about abortion because it was a source of cash and easy votes. Well, the curtain has been pulled back thanks to my single-serving friend and the darkness of abortion politics has been revealed.

So, if you’re voting for a pro-life candidate or if you’ve given to a pro-life candidate maybe start looking at the rest of their platform to see if they’ll enact legislation that will help drive down abortion rates through policies that help support women and create better environments for them and their children, like Obama has done (13% decrease according to a study done by Guttmacher). Maybe there is still a way to “defeat” abortion… but it’s going to look a whole lot different than the rallies and picket signs we were encouraged to take up in the fight.

Update |
“I’m pro-life. And I’m voting for Hillary. Here’s why. is a great blog post that was recommended to me regarding this conversation of voting and the pro-life movement. Shannon, the author, lays out a thoughtful position on pro-life and why a tacit GOP vote because of their pro-life stance may not necessarily be the best way to go.

Race, the Police, and a Dissertation. What was I thinking?

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Race Dissertation
The mess sat there on the table in between us. I had just spilled all of my struggles, frustrations, the emotional toll that was ravaging my heart, my spirit; all of it spilt right in front of us. Dr. Crumpton looked me in the eye and with both compassion and conviction she grabbed my hand and said, “Let’s pray.” I can’t even begin to tell you, but this was one of the most meaningful and even enlightening moments within my PhD journey to date.

I haven’t been very upfront or forthcoming with my dissertation topic, mainly because no matter who you’re talking to it elicits a wide range of emotion and opinion. It’s a controversial subject for a white man to talk about: racism–––but really only with other white people.

In the early summer of 2014 I decided that for my dissertation I would research and study systemic racism within the justice system. A few years earlier I had been impacted a great deal by Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and her look at systemic racism within our prison system. My eyes were open, and in the words of the activists in this new Civil Rights movement, I became “woke.” I wanted to dive deeper into this subject, I wanted to explore more of its intricacies and nuance but instead of looking at the outcome (mass incarceration) I was more interested in looking at policing, which at the front line of the justice system is its the most visible representative.

Now before I go any further, a bit of a disclaimer. It is important to note at the outset that I do not have a complicated relationship with the police. This nagging interest was not borne out of strife nor experience. I have family who are police officers, friends who are police officers, have been protected by police officers, served in a church where we took care of and served police officers throughout the city in myriad ways–including as chaplains to the police department. This research is not a “hit job” on the “cops” but rather from a listening ear and a desire to understand.

This early, nagging question about policing and race took greater shape and focus after I read W.E.B. Du Bois’s book The Souls of Black Folk. “It wasn’t so much that black people were being dehumanized,” I thought, “rather they’ve never been seen as human at all by our policing systems and structures. They have remained as something ‘other.'” That was what I wanted to study. This what I wanted to test out to see if it held water.

And then Ferguson happened.

As the protests unfolded on tv and the police presence escalated while the nation watched, as the citizens of the city cried foul and the police strapped on riot gear and unleashed tear gas, I found myself wondering if this was really the right time to be studying such a phenomenon. I called my advisor (and now dissertation chair) Dr. Crumpton. “I can’t do this,” I told her. “This isn’t the right time to be studying something like this… it’s too raw, too emotional, to present tense.” “Take some time,” she told me. “Let it sit for a bit and see where you are, you’ve got more time to decide what you’re going to do. But know, that this is an important work.”

And then 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot by police while playing in the park…
and John Crawford III by the police in a Wal-Mart and the Grand Jury in Ferguson came back with the decision not to indict Officer Wilson.

My doubts only intensified. Not only to wondering if I could do this, but would researching such a subject even be possible in this climate?

Dr. Crumpton once again told me to take some time, let it sit for a bit and see where I am. But know, “this is an important work.”

As I began the year-long journey towards PhD Candidacy, I was caught in limbo. A piece of strategy that I wanted to employ, after talking to several other PhD graduates, was using my Candidacy research towards my dissertation. Knowing I could skirt the issue of policing in my candidacy, I decided to write about Du Bois’s book The Souls of Black Folk. That would be a safe decision, and perhaps open me up to new avenues of thought in race towards my dissertation, right?

My Candidacy paper was entitled: “The Negro and the Imago Christi: W. E. B. Du Bois and The Souls of Black Folk”. In it I concluded that Du Bois is calling attention to the humanity of black people, arguing to gain their humanity in the eyes of the white world, for the presence of a soul, and countering against the theological and cultural positions of the day that black people were animals at best.

And all the while Walter Scott was shot by the police, and Freddie Gray, and Rekia Boyd, and Samuel DuBose, and Sandra Bland, and Mario Woods… and the list grew and grew.

I can’t do this. This is too much. I’ll never make it through this gauntlet. Can’t I write something different? Something emotionally easier? Something on servant leadership? This is a leadership studies PhD, who would say no to servant leadership?!

But it was too late. I had already ventured to far into the rabbit hole. The subject would not relent, it had pursued me and captured me. I was at its mercy.

Just before she prayed for me, Dr. Crumpton brought a spiritual angle to PhD studies that I hadn’t before considered. “Sometimes,” she said, “the dissertation topic is something that God reveals to you and calls upon you to study.”

Shit.

And you know, at the same time I think she’s right. I do have a sense of calling in this, and while the “what to” and “what for” are not necessarily clear at the moment, I do have a sense that something lay just beyond this.

Dr. Crumpton grabbed my hand and prayed for me. She knows that this is not only a difficult subject, but an already difficult journey has become that much harder as a result of this calling.

And so here’s where you, the reader, come in… I’m pretty sure this is outside of the norm for a PhD Candidate to ask, and it may sound strange but I need you to pray for me too. I am 8 months into my dissertation, 8 months into my research and the emotional toll of the subject has made for many sleepless nights, stress, anxiety, anger and tension in my heart and my head. I need your prayers, I covet your prayers, and I humbly ask for your prayers with both a sense of gratitude and a profound appreciation.

Grace + Peace be with you.