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.”


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.

Four: A Dad Reflects on His Daughter’s Fourth Year of Life.


a dad reflects
She sat there with her book wide open and looked up at me with her big brown eyes and melted my heart, “Papa. I love you. I missed you.”

I cried. I missed her too.

I have been traveling for the past week leading up to her fourth birthday and in a year filled with tremendous transition from moving across the country, to working on a dissertation, to Tracy’s job transitions, to changing pre-schools and having to make new friends; Elliot has been a champion throughout this entire season of crazy. Her third year of life was full of so much change.

Change is hard and as I look at this little girl who is growing up right before my very eyes I am caught between tears of sadness for what has past—note to self, don’t look at old pictures of your daughter the day before her birthday unless you want to sob—and with joy and pride for who she is becoming. She is resilient and with the big situations in life, she’s patient. Of course she still wants her cookies RIGHT NOW! But don’t we all? I find myself at times given to sadness by the amount of change she has had to experience in such a short amount of time. There’s a large swell of guilt that I feel for creating such a monumental amount of change in her life. A guilt for not being able to make it easier on her, for ultimately being responsible for all of this. Parental guilt is hard, real hard. And yet in the midst of it all there is this sweet and kind and smart little girl who seemingly takes it all in stride.

I sat there with her as she laid in bed, her music playing softly in the background, I asked, “Elliot, what are you most excited about by turning four?”

Without pause she responded, “I’m excited to start listening to you and momma!”

You see, for a little over a year now Elliot has promised that she will start listening to us when she turns four years old… you know, when she “grows up.” And she remembers this promise… and the night before her birthday she’s excited to follow through. And so am I. But as I think about this little moment, she knows how much this little promise means to Tracy and I. We’ve talked about it pretty regularly over the past year. And here, on the night before her birthday she’s thinking about us. She’s thinking about what she can give to us instead of thinking about herself. It’s as if this promise is her fourth birthday gift to us. And that seems to be a core part of who she is as a person. In fact, just last week she was busy helping put together her birthday party goodie bags for her friends and as she put different items into the bag she would remark, “Oh they’re going to love this!” That’s my girl!

Later that night I snuck into her room. She had crawled out of bed and made a nice and neat bed right in front of the door and fallen asleep. I scooped her up, laid her back in her bed, brushed her wild and curly hair aside and whispered into her ear like I do every night, “Papa loves you.” I stood in her doorway and watched the last few minutes of her third year of life pass by. I took a deep breath and let a couple of tears escape.

She’s four. (And now she’ll start listening to us!)

Missing the Point 02: Race


We missed it. We missed an opportunity to speak life and hope; to walk with people through their questions and grief and suffering. We missed it.

This past Sunday many churches all across the country were packed. Some of them experienced “Easter-esque” numbers in their church attendance–and in the middle of the summer! (For the non-pastor/clergy among us, this is a really big deal. Typically church attendance numbers are paltry in the middle of the summer… it has been deemed the “summer slump”.) Tweets and Facebook posts rang out with, “The church is packed today!” “There isn’t a single seat available!” “Hurry up and get to the 11a, the 9:30 was full!” There was an expression of both shock and excitement. Where are all of these people coming from?! And rightly so, this is seemingly unprecedented!

But we missed it. On July 10, 2016 churches weren’t randomly full. People had come looking for spiritual guidance and wisdom for how to respond to the horrific tragedies of the past week in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas. People went expecting the church to speak words of healing and unity, to create a space where dialogue could begin, to experience a space that sought God in the midst of such chaos and confusion. But instead, they experienced silence.


We missed it*. We remained silent. We remained indifferent. And all of those people who came looking for healing, and dialogue, and widsom will turn somewhere else other than the Church.

We have lost our voice in society for no other reason than we fail to use it. When the stakes are high, when the words of Jesus need to be applied to our current cultural situation, and in the few times when people are looking to the Church for answers, we climb into a hole or hide behind the pre-determined sermon plan and say, “We’ll talk about it another day.” But we don’t. And we won’t. We have abdicated our responsibility. We remain indifferent and we misuse the platform that Jesus has given to us. In many ways I do wonder how this indifference, this abdication of responsibility mimics the one-talent servant in the parable of the talents.

If as a church you offered up A Sunday Prayer or something similar, that is a start but it is not enough. If you incorporated a line or two in your Sunday sermon and believe that’s enough, or if you said nothing at all I want to encourage you: Today is Monday but Sunday is coming. It’s not to late. We may have missed a moment, but it’s not to late to enter into the conversation. The first place to begin is to simply say, “I’m sorry.” Be a true leader and apologize for remaining silent this past Sunday. Chuck your sermon plan for this week and the following–you can always come back to them later–and do something to engage the conversation. Invite voices from the “other side of the tracks” to participate in your service. Listen to their stories of pain and suffering. Learn from their experiences.

In The Imitation of Christ Thomas à Kempis wrote:
“But if Christ is amongst us, then it is necessary that we sometimes yield up our own opinion for the sake of peace [read: shalom or wholeness or complete unity]. Who is so wise as to have perfect knowledge of all things? Therefore trust not too much to thine own opinion, but be ready also to hear the opinions of others.”

White Christians, we must drop our opinions and our limited understanding of what is happening to our black brothers and sisters. We must listen first and we must listen carefully. We need to hear their experiences and their stories. We need to turn our ears towards them with love and care, seeking after understanding. We can no longer sit idly by in silence and in indifference. It was Elie Wiesel who once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” Let us not be indifferent to our black brothers and sisters.

Church, we may have missed it. We may have remained silent but we don’t have to stay that way. It won’t be easy. This conversation will offend many white people–just as this post certainly has–but as church leaders we were never promised an easy faith or an easy road. We were called to carry the cross of Christ. And yes, the cross of Christ is offensive. Let us not lay down the cross when it matters most to our brothers and sisters of color, but stand with them arm-in-arm walking with them through their pain and suffering until change can come.

* I fully realize that there were many churches that did walk into the deep end of the conversation regarding race. There were several churches that put together spaces for healing, where fruitful dialogue happened. This is beautiful, and if you are a part of one of these churches you should be proud of your church and your leadership. You should champion them, encourage them, and write them a note of thanks. But unfortunately, these churches were few and far between this weekend.

A Sunday Prayer.


A Sunday Prayer
As we watched the chaos, the suffering, the tears, the death unfold this week in Falcon Heights Minnesota, Baton Rouge, and Dallas; as we were flooded with images and stories of pain and the terror of a nation that is seemingly coming apart at the seams, this morning we pause to pray. To pray for our nation, for our black brothers and sisters, and for the law enforcement community. To pray for healing, for peace, for unity. In a world gone mad, in a world given to hatred, Lord we pray for your love to reign supreme; that love shall overcome.

For our nation Lord, for the all-too-common violence and death we experience; for the communities that are reeling from horrific actions, for Dallas, for Baton Rouge, for Falcon Heights, for Baltimore, for San Francisco, for Charelston, for Ferguson… for Chicago. For the lives that are shattered and torn a part from needless and senseless death we pray for healing, we pray for comfort, we pray for change. O Lord change us.


For the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile we pray for your comfort. For the families of Walter Scott, Jermaine Reid, Philip White, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Sean Bell, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Aiyana Jones, Kumani Gray, Michael Brown, Miriam Carey, Sharonda Singleton, Tommy Yancy, Jordan Baker, Amadou Diallo, Laquan McDonald, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland. We pray for their families and the many others who relive the events of the past week on a daily basis. For the conversations that fathers will have with their sons, for the fear that mothers experience every time their child leaves the protection of their home simply because of the color of their skin, we pray for your protection, for your comfort, for your peace O Lord.


For the families of Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and Brent Thompson we pray for your comfort. For the officers who are fighting for their lives in a Dallas hospital we pray for their healing. For the fear that husbands and wives experience every time their spouse leaves the protection of their home simply because of the color of their uniform, we pray for your protection, for your comfort, for your peace O Lord.


Mother Teresa once wrote, “To be able to love one another, we must pray much, for prayer gives a clean heart and a clean heart can see God in our neighbor. If now we have no peace it is because we have forgotten how to see God in one another.” May we turn our prayers inward and ask that we may see God in our neighbors, our co-workers, our family members, the stranger, the foreigner, the alien. That we may see them through God’s eyes… as our brothers and sisters.

May we open our eyes to see the suffering of our brothers and sisters. May we open our ears to hear and listen deeply to their stories of heartache and pain. May we open our hearts to grieve and mourn with our brothers and sisters. May we draw nearer to them than ever before and may we open ourselves up to love. May we open ourselves to peace. May we open ourselves to unity and no longer perpetuate division. May this prayer not be the end of our engagement, but just the beginning. And may it be so through you Jesus, for as Paul wrote in Colossians, “you, Jesus, hold all things together.” For it is in your name that we pray, Amen.

Criminalizing the Black Body


Citizen Book Cover
“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the color line,” declared W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903 at the outset of his classic text The Souls of Black Folk, but it’s not a problem anymore. We have done a thorough job of convincing ourselves otherwise, of covering up the issue and believing that progress has been made and that racism is simply a relic of another time. This treacherous lie is simply not true and is eating away at the fabric of our society as we watch more and more young black men and women die at the hands of the police. We have done nothing more than glide through varying cycles of positive change countered by numerous periods of regression, producing nothing more than “temporary peaks of progress, short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance” [1, p. 74]. White privilege is real.

From the inception of America with its founding documents and societal constructions, systems and structures have been invented, implemented, and reconfigured in order to bind the black man and woman with a status of non-human. Yes, non-human. It first began through legal designations. The moment the black man, woman and child were bought and sold by slave traders and shipped around the world, they were designated as chattel–legal personal property [2]. Lasting for more than 200 years, this legal designation was abolished with the thirteenth and fourteenth amendment to the Constitution; however the non-human designation continued in a far more insidious way: The criminalization of the black body.

Criminalizing the black body was no small task, it would require a dominant narrative to take hold and the cooperation of popular culture, hard and soft sciences, and legal institutions. In 1902, bestselling and highly influential author and Southern Baptist minister Thomas Dixon Jr. would be one of the first to popularize this notion. Dixon spun a tale of post-Civil War America that depicted emancipated slaves as beastly, amoral monsters. He explained how the “Negro” had turned from “a chattel to be bought and sold into a possible beast to be feared and guarded. . . . a menace” to society [3, p. 5, 33]. Dixon continued to build this narrative of the criminal black body in 1905 with his most popular novel The Clansmen by detailing the rape of a young white virgin by a ‘Negro’ who was described as:

“half child, half animal, the sport of impulse, whim, and conceit,… a being who, left to his will, roams at night and sleeps in the day, whose speech knows no words of love, whose passions, once aroused, are as the fury of the tiger” (p. 293, 304)

Dixon brings the emotional narrative to a close by describing the act of animalistic rape itself: “A single tiger spring, and the black claws of the beast sank into the soft white throat” (p. 304). This narrative was used to perpetuate the nonhuman nature of the ‘Negro’ replacing the idea of him as property with one that is inherently criminal [4]. In 1908, sociologist Kelly Miller reviewed Dixon’s writings and detailed the building climate of opinion surrounding his fiction, “The criminal propensity of the Negro is the charge that is being most widely exploited… he is made to appear a beast in human form whose vicious tendency constitutes a new social plague” [5](p.95).

Not to be outdone by Dixon, the filmmaker D. W. Griffith continued this narrative of the black man as a predator with his 1915 film The Birth of a Nation–the first motion picture to be shown in the White House. Griffith depicted the black person as unintelligent beasts who were sexually aggressive towards white women, a threat to their life and liberty [6]. The black man was now becoming a criminal threat and a liability to society.

This criminalization of the black body went beyond popular culture and was widely supported and furthered by the medical profession. Medical journals propagated the degenerative evolutionary conclusion of late nineteenth and early twentieth century anthropologists, biologists, and ethnologists [7]. Considered the lowest species on the Darwinian hierarchy, a permanently inferior creature, predisposed to savagery, the black person possessed an overdeveloped sexual appetite which was deemed an existential threat to the very foundation of white society [4, 7, 8, 9]. This existential threat and overdeveloped sexual appetite was the result of a complete lack of morality from the black individual. One doctor wrote:

Virtue in the negro race is like angels’ visits–few and far between. In a practice of sixteen years I have never examined a virgin negro over fourteen years of age [10]

The overdeveloped sexual appetite of the black person knew no bounds. Dr. William Lee Howard surmised in a well respected medical journal, “The attacks on defenseless white women are evidences of racial instincts that are about as amenable to ethical culture as is the inherent odor of the race” [11]. George Winston painted an even darker picture of the black man’s criminal, sexual appetite for white women through a telling and cumulative narrative that embodied all of the current cultural fears:

When a knock is heard at the door, she shudders with nameless horror. The black brute is lurking in the dark, a monstrous beast, crazed with lust. His ferocity is almost demoniacal. A mad bull or tiger could scarcely be more brutal [12, p. 109].

According to Frederick Hoffman, the rise of the criminal black man was not due to poverty, discrimination, or from a lack of opportunity and education but rather an inherent and innate tendency towards crime and immorality.

This well-formed narrative of moral depravity fueled the belief of the criminalized black body. While its easy for us to say, ‘That was a hundred years ago, things are so much different now!’ this belief is what gave rise to the lynching culture in the United States, including the fourteen-year old boy Emmitt Till in 1955 for perceived flirting with a white woman in a convenience store [13]. Lynching culture was created to protect white society and deter the amoral, criminal black body. Lynching culture was not made up of vigilantes alone but were aided, abetted, and participated in by police officers who would help arrange this skewed form of justice. Lynchings were scheduled, promoted events where whole towns or neighborhoods would gather together in celebration of “justice”. People would even gather around and pose for pictures with the black victim.

While we may want to believe that lynching was something that happened so long ago, the last officially recorded lynching was less than 50 years ago, in 1968–however, many argue it was actually 1998 in Jasper, Texas when James Byrd was chained to the back of a pickup truck by three white men and dragged to his death. While we may have placed lynching in a historical context that lives outside of the confines of our lived reality, if you’re 47 years of age or older you were alive during the last lynching.

The criminalization of the black body is the second iteration of our mass project of non-humanization. I would argue that the long-standing project started by the likes of Thomas Dixon whereby we have criminalized the black body is what has led to the death of so many of our black brothers and sisters: Walter Scott. Jermaine Reid. Philip White. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Rekia Boyd. Sean Bell. Tamir Rice. John Crawford III. Aiyana Jones. Kumani Gray. Michael Brown. Miriam Carey. Sharonda Singleton. Tommy Yancy. Jordan Baker. Amadou Diallo. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Alton Sterling. (And on and on and on the list goes.) Each and every one of these black men and women were treated as criminals first, deemed worthy of immediate and swift justice at the end of a barrel instead of the end of a rope. The criminalization of the black body is nothing new, its a part of a long history of non-humanizing the black man, woman, and child. The trajectory of our history has not changed, it just looks a bit different.

[1] Bell, D. (2005). The Derrick Bell Reader: Critical America. New York University Press.
[2] Browne-Marshall, G.J. (2007). Race, Law, and American Society. Routledge.
[3] Dixon, T. (1902). The Leopard’s Spots: A romance of the white man’s burden. Doubleday, Page & Co.
[4] Fredrickson, G.M. (1987). The black image in the white mind. Wesleyan University Press.
[5] Miller, K. (1908). Race Adjustment: Essays on the Negro in America. The Neale Publishing Co.
[6] Stokes, L.M. (2007). D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation: A history of the most controversial motion picture of all time. Oxford University Press.
[7] Brandt, A.M. (1978). Racism and research: The case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The Hastings Center Report, 8(6), 21-29.
[8] Corson, E.R. (1893). The vital equation of the colored race and its future in the United States. The Wilder Quarter-Century Book. Cornell University.
[9] English, W.T. (1903). The Negro problem from the physician’s point of view. Atlantic Journal-Record of Medicine 5,459, 470-471.
[10] Quillian, D. (1906). Racial Peculiarities: A cause of the prevalence of syphilis in Negroes. American Journal of Dermatology and Genito-Urinary Diseases, 10, 277.
[11] Howard, W.L. (1903). The Negro as a Distinct Ethnic Factor in Civilization. Medicine, 9, 424.
[12] Winston, G.T. (1901). The relation of the whites to the negroes. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 18, 105-118.
[13] Douglas, K. (2015). Stand your ground: Black bodies and the justice of God.. Orbis Books.

Our Need for Lament.


We must take time to Lament.
In a world that looks for instant answers and solutions,
In a world that seeks to point fingers utilizing one-upmanship and memes,
desiring to be right more than compassionate,
We must take time to lament.

Lament takes patience.
It cannot be microwaved, or achieved instantaneously.
It cannot be swiped through, pushed through, nor sped through with haste and hurry.
Lament must be inhabited.

In lament we experience the darkness, the extinguished light of hope.
In lament we recognize the void, we listen to the void, we experience the void.
In lament we hear the created silence,
and we sit in it.
Lament must be occupied.

Lament is not comfortable.
It is not pleasurable.
It is not amusing nor delightful.
Lament is where pain is clutched,
where we look pain in the eyes, acknowledging its existence,
confronting the mayhem it has created.

In lament deep calls to deep, for what is in the depths of your being cries out to be connected with the depths of God. To be connected with his suffering, to know his suffering, and to know that he suffers with us. We are not alone.

In lament we experience the depths of God’s love for us. We are not alone.
In lament we are confronted with God’s reality,
that this is not the way things are supposed to be,
or were supposed to be,
or will be.
Huh… Or will be.

As our long national nightmare continues on, we must learn to lament. We must pause to grieve, to connect deeply and profoundly with our own pain and suffering and with the pain and suffering of others. No matter how much we desire to escape or sidestep pain and suffering we cannot, we must not. We must allow that connection and experience to others pain and to our own to change us both individually and collectively. We must be changed by our pain… because if we are not, then what is it for?

The vision of Jesus is to bring people together, meeting one another, dialoguing with one another, hearing each others stories: loving each other. Jesus wants to tear down the walls that separate us, bringing healing and wholeness… this is why we must sit in each others suffering. We must know each others pain, and from the knowing grows compassion, and from compassion grows action, and from action comes change: real change, true change–change that not only breaks down walls but breaks down the systems and structures that tear us apart. That is why we as the body of Christ, the Church, are called to be at the forefront of this mission. We have a call to make our world a place of love and peace.

It’s our move.

Empty Laments and So Many Words


Lin Manuel Miranda“Where were you when 9/11 happened?” Or Columbine… or the Challenger explosion… or Kennedy’s assassination? There are events that leave a collective scar upon the conscience of our society, that mark us deeply as a people and as a country. Will the deadly and bloody events of Sunday, the deadliest shooting in American history be one of those moments?

I woke up on Sunday morning to the giggles of my little girl, staring at me in the face. “Get up papa,” she laughed before turning around and running out of our room. I rubbed my eyes, gathered myself just a bit and thought, well I’m going to just lay here for a bit while she sprints around the apartment… why is my child such a boisterous morning person?! I grabbed my phone and was immediately met by a notification, “20+ dead, 50 wounded in mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando.”

There was no shock in my reaction. There was no surprise. There was no outrage… no sadness… no emotion. I simply thought, “Yeah, sounds about right.” There have now been 1,000 mass shootings since Sandy Hook, since we declared, “Never again!” So much for our collective will.

One-thousand mass shootings in 3-and-a-half years.


Let that sink in for a moment.
We just hit the century mark.

1,000… and just for good measure, outside of the Orlando mass shooting, there were 5 other mass shootings that weekend with 10 more being killed and 12 wounded.

As the numbers continue to grow day-by-day-by-day, I’ll admit I have become numb to these events, I have lost my ability to lament or grieve in these tragedies. They have all become numbers, statistics. There once was a day when the lament came quickly, even easily but I fear that my heart has hardened beyond repair and I wonder if our collective national heart has too.

In the wake of these tragedies, it seems that everywhere I turn is another argument full of feigned outrage and platitudinous compassion. The talking heads on the news are full of the same sentiments reading from the same worn, tattered, overused script. Social media screams out with the same sort of overused collective vitriolic scream: “We must ban guns!”; “We need to arm every citizen!”; “This is a mental health issue!”; “Guns aren’t the problem, people are the problem!”; “Muslims are the problem! Ban them!”; “Why isn’t the President using ‘Radical Islamic Extremist’? (He’s a secret Muslim you know!)”; “This is ISIS and the President isn’t dong anything to protect us!”; and on and on and on the back and forth grows.

In the wake of these tragedies we have become practiced screamers, spewing angry words from our fingertips, we trot out our trite and cliché hashtags, and link article after article to support our point, and when all else fails we become professional “Memeticians”*.** We have turned to blaming liberals for being weak and conservatives for being bigoted; liberals for being socialists who want to take away our guns, and conservatives for loving guns more than people. We have thrown blame and dodged it just the same, over and over and over in this cycle we inhabit.

And as we are tossed about in this spin cycle of our creation, we have lost our ability to lament. We have lost sight of the real tragedy that has unfolded in front of us and continues to unfold in front of us day-by-day-by-day. We are more concerned with winning the argument or maintaining our “rights,” whatever we believe they are. We have replaced lament with grand-standing and grief with self-righteousness. We see the suffering and the pain but we do not feel it, we cannot feel it, we’ve become numb, stuck in our feigned outrage and platitudinous compassion.

Monday afternoon I spent some time on YouTube catching up on the Tony’s. I wanted a break from the banality of the spin cycle. I watched beautiful performances and even caught a couple of acceptance speeches. However, there was one sonnet in particular–yes a sonnet–that captured my heart and broke the cycle for me. Lin Manuel Miranda stood in front of a theatre full of people and spoke passionate words of truthful lament into the hearts of a nation:

“When senseless acts of tragedy remind us

That nothing here is promised, not one day…

We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;

We rise and fall and light from dying embers,
remembrances that hope and love last longer

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love
cannot be killed or swept aside”

I stepped outside of the spin cycle and was reminded of what really matters in this life. It is not the argument, it is not my rights or your rights, it is not fear and terror, it is not platitudes. Perhaps what was the most surprising of all was that it only took a minute. A minute to listen to an artist call attention to the truths that surround us. That above all it is love. There is faith, there is hope, and there is love but the greatest of them is love, love is what remains. And we are implored, follow the way of love!

We are beyond the point of well reasoned arguments and logical statements and sentiments. We need our artists to help us feel again, to stir up a passion within us that we cannot ignore and cannot deny. We need our artists to call us out of our malaise, to pull us out of our spin cycle now more than ever. We need artists to employ their craft to remind us of our story, of our shared humanity.

Who will write the song of Orlando? We need you. Who will write the song that will help us grieve, that will connect us to a love unmistakeable? We need songs that help us grieve! Poems that call us towards love! Paintings that illuminate and reveal what lies beneath the story! We need sculptures and sonnets and dance! Artists we need you! Artists, let me say it again, we need you! Our culture needs you. Now more than ever. Please tell the story of Orlando, make us feel it like we’ve never felt anything before and never, never, never let us forget.

* Memetician (n) someone who utilizes memes to spread an idea, behavior, or style from person to person throughout culture.
** I too am guilty of each of these activities and behaviors.

Guns. Guns. Guns. (Yes, guns.)


GunsI was guided into my office where I was greeted by an FBI agent and a Sergeant from the city police department. “Aaron, you should sit down for this.”

I sheepishly sat down, hands trembling, palms sweating, I held my breath. “The threats are credible,” they told me with a mixture of seriousness and compassion. “We’re here to protect you and the congregation.”

Just a week before, my house had been broken into while we were away–later described as an intimidation tactic. Members of our congregation had received numerous threats, and orders of protection were issued for the church, my home, and the homes of a couple of our elders. A whirlwind of events occurring just after his felony gun charge was somehow dismissed and he was released from custody. The “he” in this story wasn’t just some random stranger, we all knew him, respected him, trusted him, loved him. He wasn’t some crazy random stranger.

I sat in silence as my mind wandered into the abyss of numb nothingness.

“Aaron,” the FBI agent said to recapture my attention. He leaned in and looked me square in the eyes with more confidence and seriousness than I had ever seen in anyone’s eyes, “I want you to know that you’re safe. If he comes into the building and he doesn’t stand down…” he paused to laser focus his words, “I will not hesitate to put a bullet in his head.”

My eyes grew big as the gravity of his statement rang long and hung heavy in the air:

“I will not hesitate to put a bullet in his head.”

I couldn’t catch my breath. The tension in the room grew unbelievably thick and painfully uncomfortable. Everything blurred and it felt like the room was spinning. My mouth dropped as if to say something, anything, but I was at a complete loss. There were no words, no sounds, no breath, only shock.

With a wink and a head nod he blurted out, “Now go get ’em preacher!”

Go get ’em?

“Go get ’em?!”

I guess this was an attempt to cut through the tension, to bring about some sort of levity, maybe some normalcy to the Sunday experience. The officers stood up to walk out of my office, we shook hands, and I stood there staring at the door… the same door that only a few weeks before served as my only protection when he came into the building and threatened me. I wanted to curl up into a ball in the corner. I wanted to cry. I was desperate for some sort of emotional response, but nothing came. The overwhelming stress and life altering fear of these previous weeks had robbed me of every last emotion possible. I was empty.

I took seven long steps to the top of the stage that morning, and with each step I felt more and more vulnerable, more and more exposed. I never realized just how high the stage was until that moment, my feet well above the tops of everyone’s head. I tried to make myself as small as possible, my only protection being the thin flimsy metal music stand and three pieces of paper containing my notes. ‘Surely this will shield me,’ I reassured (lied to) myself.

I scanned the three exits in the back of the auditorium wondering from which one he was more likely to emerge. “Hopefully the middle one,” I thought as I saw the FBI agent standing there faithfully and confidently on guard. I gathered as much confidence and courage that I could muster, looked at the nearly 400 faces staring back at me, inhaled deeply, and began.

Aaron, get your gun!

“You know, if you had a gun up there with you in the pulpit, things would have been different,” pastors and Christians have scolded me. “If your congregation had been armed,” they said, “he never would have thought of showing up in this ‘gun-free zone!'” “It is your responsibility to protect your flock, how could you not have armed yourself to take him down? How could you not tell your congregation to arm themselves? How could you have led them like sheep to the slaughter?” each statement overflowing with chastisement, rebuke, and reprimand as they penetrated my heart deeper and deeper.

I absorbed these criticisms, I allowed them to shred my heart and pick apart my soul; I was overcome with guilt. “These people trust me to shepherd them, to protect them, to care for them… why didn’t I have a gun?” I wrestled long and hard with these thoughts and allowed guilt to be my guide.

It is no secret that I do not like guns nor am I a fan of the current gun culture in America. However, that wasn’t always the case. As I stood on that stage 10 years ago, I took great comfort in having an FBI agent standing guard with a gun at his hip. While I was fearful of his words, “I will not hesitate to put a bullet in his head,” they were, in some strange way, comforting. Five years before with a group of Quakers (read pacifists) in the mountains of California I learned how to shoot a gun (ironic, I know). I learned the ways of the shotgun and the ways of a .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun. I was actually a pretty good shot (probably from years and countless hours of Duck Hunt!) I was comfortable with guns. However, as I worked through the words of Jesus, the Old Testament narratives, the Psalms–even the imprecatory Psalms, searching for answers, allowing Scripture to form my understanding, more and more my perspective on guns changed. I changed.

While all of these criticisms that were levied against me were well-meaning, asking me to consider my own self-preservation and the protection of others under my care, ultimately these pragmatic ideas missed the mark by failing to take into account what these types of actions do to our soul.

The soul, according to Dallas Willard is that which encompasses and organizes the whole person, it is the entirety of the self (the heart–or will, the mind, the body), forming one person functioning in a flow of life. Often times we like to think of the soul as a mere component of our being, an element, an aspect of who we are. But the soul is who we are.* So when someone talks of soul formation, they are speaking not of some purely mystical experience that affects one aspect of who you are but rather of a holistic experience that affects every aspect of your being—which is a way of saying your soul affects everything and everything affects your soul.

As a pastor my role is fairly clear, to guide people into a transformative relationship with Jesus. This is soul work. It is much deeper than a simple introduction to Jesus but rather the careful and intentional transformation of your soul (your entire being) into the image and likeness of Jesus. Theologically speaking this is called Theosis, or a union with Jesus (God)**.

Soul work is not about actions or behavior modification, those are the fruits of soul work, of the transformative work that is done in the very depths of your being that affect the flow or output of your life. Often times we simply want to look at our actions, at the question “What would Jesus do?”–which can be a valuable exercise–yet we miss the deeper work that is necessary in becoming like Jesus. This requires that we first understand who Jesus is–which is a long-term process birthed out of relationship–because we cannot become like Jesus without first understanding who he is: otherwise, we are simply putting on a veneer of actions and behaviors that are incongruent with our being (Matthew 23).

So, who is Jesus?

Answering this question is something that you have to investigate/discover/experience for yourself, Scripture speaks of Jesus as God, as the source of all life (Colossians 1). I love how Jesus contrasts himself in John 10: “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy, but I have come that they may have life!” Jesus, the source of life, the giver of life, the bread of life, stands in opposition to death, in opposition to destruction.

Each one of us has the capacity within us to do great good or great evil, to give life or to take life. And as I wrestled with the questions before me, I understood that ultimately this is a heart issue at play. However, the tired old adage: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” falls short. We have the tools at our disposal to take life, to destroy life, and the question is should we who are being transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus employ those tools?

In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul says that everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial. And maybe that’s why Jesus allowed some of his disciples to walk around with weapons, it was permissible. But the moment Peter deployed his weapon, using it in self-defense and in the defense of Jesus, he was rebuked for his actions. Jesus was stern with Peter for using a weapon and then he healed the man’s ear. It’s interesting to note here that in all of the recorded history of the Apostles, not one of them used a weapon in self-defense when they were later captured and killed, many with their families. They never used a weapon to defend themselves or their families. Tertullian remarked, “Christ,  in disarming Peter, disarmed every [Christian]…. The Lord has abolished the sword.” This episode of Peter’s rebuke changed everything in regards to armed Christians. It goes on that the employ of weaponry or weapons of war in the early church for any reason was forbidden. St. Athanasius would say nearly a century later as a forgone conclusion, “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.” This was the weapon of the church: Prayer. All through a transformative encounter with Jesus.

Understanding Jesus changes you, it changes your perspective, your outlook, your understanding. And if Jesus is life, and if we are to be transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus, the question then becomes: Can a gun do that? If I am supposed to be transformed into the image of Jesus, if I am supposed to be like Jesus, can I do that through the barrel of a gun? Does a gun bring life?

The purpose of a gun

The purpose of a gun is plain: to kill, injure, or destroy. While we might want to say that guns are there to protect and save life, the reality is that the only way a gun protects and saves is through killing, injuring, or destroying life in the other (or through the threat of killing, injury, or destruction). In fact, in using a gun for self-protection/preservation you are trained and encouraged, “Shoot to kill!” In this, the purpose of a gun stands opposed to the very being of Jesus. And ultimately, regardless of the situation, a gun in my hands makes me less like Jesus.

I did not have a gun.

I finished my message. It was all a blur. As I walked off the stage my hands were still trembling and sweating from the fear.

He never walked through those doors. He never showed up.

The most frequent command, or as N. T. Wright puts it, “the most surprising command” in all of Scripture is this: “Fear not!” I experienced fear that morning. I experienced fear that week. I experienced a deep seeded fear throughout that season. You see, fear is a belief; it is a belief based upon the anticipation of evil. A belief that evil will strike at any moment. Yet we are commanded: Don’t anticipate evil, don’t expect evil to happen.

And I know we so quickly want to say, “But, wait! Hold on now, evil is all around us. It’s encircling us, it’s right there on our doorstep just waiting to pounce!” I know some of us have had direct experiences with evil, many in ways not all that dissimilar from mine: we’ve been threatened, terrorized, some of you have been beaten, abused, mugged, and I know it has changed us. We have tasted fear up close and we never want to go back there again. We want to take control. We want something tangible in our hands that can give us a sense of safety, of security.

But in doing so, by carrying a gun, are we not living in anticipation that it’s going to happen again?

Are we not living in anticipation of evil?

Are we not being prepared for evil to strike?

Because if you’re not expecting or anticipating evil, then why have a gun?

“Fear not!” is not just a command, but it’s a dream that I believe God has for our lives. He doesn’t want us to have to live that way.  You don’t have to live that way. You don’t have to live in fear, in anticipation that evil will strike at any moment. We can walk away from fear—which is becoming increasingly harder to do as our current American society and culture entrenches itself deeper and deeper into fear.

Dallas Willard once remarked, “As we mature in Christ, it is actually possible to outgrow fear.” A different reality is possible when we drop our weapons of fear and instead turn into the God of peace and love and life. It is my hope and prayer that the I will continue to outgrow fear, and that my Christian brothers and sisters will do the same.

“Come, my children, listen closely;
I will teach you the ways of worshipping the LORD….
Turn from evil and do good;
embrace peace–don’t let it get away!”
Psalm 34.11, 14

* In fact, I might argue that if we are going to accept Willard’s understanding of the soul we need to drop the definitive article in front of soul and stop referring to it as “the” soul. By doing so we are making soul something other, something separate, extracting it from the self, changing its nature to something elemental, when in fact “soul” is you’re entire being.

** Michael Gorman has written a fantastic book around Theosis that I’d highly recommend.

Ted Talks: My New Single-Serving Friend


TED-TalksBefore the plane even made it to the tarmac, Ted introduced himself, made some small talk and asked what I did for a living. “What do I tell him?” I thought, “PhD Candidate or Pastor,” because whichever route I went down would determine the rest of my flight. If I’m a PhD Candidate, he’ll want to talk about what I’m studying… if I’m a Pastor, well: conversation over! (At least that’s been my experience in my nearly 20 years of ministry.)

“I’m a pastor.” I said.

Conversation over. I can sit and listen to Radiohead’s new album for the millionth time or James Blake’s brilliant new album, (I Need a Forest Fire anyone?!) catch a quick nap, do a little reading, nice and peaceful… this is a 6 am flight, mind you!

“Really?” Ted said. “That’s interesting!” His eyes lit up.

“What have I done?!,” I thought as my shoulders dropped and the slew of questions began: “Tell me about your congregation! What is a church plant? What is truth? What is your stance on homosexuality or the bathroom issue with transgendered people? How can you trust the Bible? How do you understand the Trinity? What about the apocalypse? What’s your training? Why are there so many denominations if Truth is unified? Isn’t seminary pointless in this day and age?, Isn’t God really a genocidal maniac?, etc, etc, etc.” It was an absolute onslaught of questions each from a completely different direction and in no way connected one to the other, in some ways feeling more like an inquisition.

I hadn’t had enough coffee for this! I was caught off guard, discombobulated and left wondering what on earth I had gotten myself into. Why didn’t I say PhD? Why?! We could have talked about racism, lynching, and white privilege, which would’ve lasted for only a few minutes before I could’ve made him uncomfortable enough to retire to the window.

Recognizing that I was completely off balance, Ted began to tell me his story: “I have a lot of Christian friends who don’t consider me to be a Christian… I grew up in an agnostic home before eventually joining the church.” Wait, what? Say that again? Now I’m really confused.

Ted continued his story integrating some of my fragmented responses to solidify the position of his church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. For the majority of our flight I was being slowly reeled into an evangelistic conversation with a Mormon; I had no clue. Ted presented himself as a person seeking understanding, looking for answers to some of life’s hardest questions before spinning on a dime and presenting Mormon Doctrine and belief as the ultimate answer to each and every one of these questions. Everything was now starting to make sense.

Ted was bold. But perhaps beyond his boldness was an amazing commitment to his faith, a commitment that even at 6am on a long flight he wanted to share with me, a stranger. Once I moved passed the annoyance, I was honored. I could feel his sincerity, his conviction, the urgency for me to believe in his god.

This commitment to evangelism is one of the marks of Mormonism, something ingrained early in their faith journey and not culminated but formulated deeply in a 2-year missionary experience. With a commitment like this, it’s not hard to see why it is one of the fastest growing religions.

It made me wonder, “Why aren’t Christians like this?”

I read an article in The Atlantic a few years back where those who don’t believe in Christianity said, “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.” Which makes me wonder pessimistically, “Have we really been transformed by the Gospel?” Do we really believe what Jesus said about the Good News of the incarnation, his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension–you know the Gospel that Peter preached in Acts 2… or that Paul preached in 1 Corinthians 15? Do we really believe that the Gospel changes everything, that it brings wholeness, peace shalom? Or are we, as Americans specifically, continuing to allow Christianity to devolve into an American civil religion, a political platform or voting bloc?

According to Lifeway research, while we believe that sharing our faith is important, we really only pay it lip service. The reality is the vast majority of Christians never actually act on that belief. They never share their faith or do so once or twice in their lifetime.

Penn Jillette famously said a few years back:

I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…. How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?

We could have a conversation all day about the proper tactics and strategies for sharing your faith, the right way, the wrong way, the insensitive way, the judgmental way, the sales pitch way, etc, etc, etc. And maybe that’s part of the problem. We have turned evangelism into nothing more than a bevy of criticized strategies, castigating each other for how they have chosen to share their faith (missional, evangelism explosion, relational evangelism, Romans Road, etc, etc, etc). The reality of the matter is that evangelism stems not only out of our transformation, but out of our transformed love for others. It is in our ability to see others as human beings, to see the Imago Dei in one another, and to love our neighbor as ourself.

As we parted ways in the airport, he put his hand on my shoulder and implored me to pray to his god… to feel the warmth in my heart of the truth of his gospel message. I was honored by his commitment to me. I was honored by the value he saw in me. How is it that the Mormons are better at showing this form of love and commitment than we are?

“What Two Books Would You Recommend for Young Leaders?”


Leadership Books

The other day a friend asked me this question: “If you could recommend a young leader two books on Leadership, what two would you recommend?” What a great question! But TWO? Really? That’s it?!

That made a great question really difficult to answer considering there are so many great books from which to choose!

As I let the question roll around in my head and as I noodled on it a bit  I thought, “What are the two things young leaders need to learn/know/be more than anything?” Well, that makes answering the question a whole lot easier. And so I couched my answer in those two realms.

Realm One was the easiest: Jesus. A young leader needs to center themselves and their leadership around Jesus, plain and simple. Henri Nouwen does as good of a job as anyone in talking about this in the short book “In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.” Nouwen writes:

My own thinking about Christian leadership had been affected by the desire to be relevant, the desire for popularity, and the desire for power. Too often I looked at being relevant, popular, and powerful as ingredients of an effective ministry. The truth, however, is that these are not vocations but temptations. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

“Do you love me?,” Jesus asks.  It is from there that everything flows. If your life is not built upon a foundation of love for Jesus, then your ministry will be all about you, your platform, your popularity, your power. This book hit me hard when I first read it 15 years ago, and it still speaks to me today. In fact, it’s why this is one of the books that I read every single year.

Realm Two was a bit more difficult, but pretty self-explanatory: Know Thyself. A young leader needs to know who they are, and also whose they are–which Nouwen gets into in a second book called Life of the Beloved (not the book I’m recommending in this section, but well worth your time!) Parker Palmer walks the reader through an intimate relationship of listening to the Holy Spirit and understanding your true self in the short book “Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.” Palmer writes:

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent. . . . Trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail—and may even do great damage.”

One of the greatest struggles of leaders and especially young leaders, is to model themselves after someone else and not be true to who they are, who it is that God created them to be. We keep the unique nature of our true self locked deep within as we dress ourselves with someone else’s uniqueness. Leaders, we must be true to who we are and honor that God-given nature that is groaning to be released. This is also the reason why I have read this book every year since I first encountered it 12 years ago.

I’d like to pose this question to you, the reader: What 2 books on leadership would you recommend to a young leader?