Immigrants, Independence Day, and Race


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.


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.

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.

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.

Patriotism and the Church

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the partisan church

These words were penned by CS Lewis in 1942 in his work The Screwtape Letters, a fictional account of how the underworld works to subvert the Church and the Christian witness in our world through patriotism and a partisan spirit:

“If your patient can be induced to become a conscientious objector he will find himself one of a small, vocal, organized, and unpopular society, and the effects of this, on one so new to Christianity, will almost certainly be good. But only almost certainly…. Your best plan would be to attempt a sudden, confused, emotional crisis from which he might emerge as an uneasy convert to patriotism….
Let him begin by treating Patriotism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ’cause’, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent argument it can produce in favor of the… war-effort… Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours–and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms) the more securely ours.”

Your affectionate uncle,

Lewis was writing in England at the height of World War II as a groundswell of patriotism began infecting the church in England. These words, written over 70 years ago, are more timely than ever for the church in America, especially in regards to the partisan spirit that has overwhelmed our national discourse. In many corners of our USAmerican society the Church has become not only a mouthpiece for a particular political party, but has become the coveted “base” to which politicians look to secure their nomination and re-election bids. This marriage between the Church and a political party has neutered our prophetic witness, rendering the values and principles of the Kingdom of God silent in our society. This is perhaps the greatest tragedy.

Before his death at the end of World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer posed this question for us to ponder:
“Do we believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, or do we believe in the eternal mission of France [America]? One can’t be a Christian and a nationalist at the same time.”

May we, the Church, come to believe that the Sermon on the Mount is greater than the US Constitution.

What I Learned as a Church Planter: Exegete Your Culture


Church Planting Culture

This post has been republished by the Exponential Network

One of the most important things I learned early on in church planting was this simple truth: You are not a church planter first, you are a missionary first.*

Let me explain.

The current reality of church planting is such that nearly every church planter is moving outside of his or her own known cultural context. Meaning, like myself, people are moving from the confines of what they know and understand into an environment where familiarity of the people, language, culture, customs, etc. are unknown. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, if we do not do the work of cultural exegesis, how will we ever be able to properly translate the gospel and communicate in word and deed what the good news is in our new context. Therefore, I believe, as church planters, we must first take on the posture of missionaries.

Five years ago this was my journey. I moved from the Chicagoland area to the city of San Francisco to plant a church. There was, as you can imagine, a great cultural difference between the suburbs of Chicago and the city of San Francisco. Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me if I wanted to not only honor the city I was called to, but more importantly its people.

In order to take the posture of a missionary you must begin to learn the language, the customs, and the culture of the city to which you have been called. Here is a short process for how I went about understanding my culture.

The first thing you must do is listen intently to the city. This is a skill that you not only must develop, but never set aside. If you continually listen you’ll be able to hear the subtle shifts that take place within the culture of the city.

I started listening by simply sitting in the most popular coffee shop in our neighborhood. I would simply sit with a cup of coffee and a book pretending to read but really eavesdropping on the conversations around me. I heard people’s hopes, their dreams, their struggles and challenges. I heard conversations about politics and elections, ballot measures that were important to people’s hearts and which ones were frustrating and frivolous. I learned about the city’s view of children and families, of the local schools, and where people worked. I also learned what tv shows, newspapers, news programs, podcasts, music, blogs and books people were engaging.

I also listened to the news. Every night I watched the local 5 o’clock and 11 o’clock news. I listened to what was important to the city.** I listened to the newspaper columnists as well, and even browsed the comment sections of the online op-ed pages. This provided me with a great deal of insight into what the hot-button topics or important issues residents faced. I also started listening to local podcasts to get another flavor of what was happening and taking place.

Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sights were very important for me to engage with as well. These were the mouthpieces for my culture. You, undoubtably will find similarities in your context and other avenues that are the major mouthpieces for your culture. It is important to listen well and synthesize the wealth of information you ingest in order to create a better understanding of the city and culture you are called to.

Listen to the city and listen well.

Talk a walk regularly and often. (Couple this with prayer… just don’t close your eyes and bow your head–you’ll miss a lot and probably run into things.)

Every afternoon I would venture out on a nice and long walk throughout my neighborhood and simply observe everything that was taking place. I looked at new construction projects, what people were wearing and the types of accessories they held with them from tech to fashion. I looked at what people were reading, the types of cars that were present in the neighborhood. I looked at the types of businesses, coffee shops, whether they were local or chains. I looked at the types of people in our neighborhood, whether there was a presence of homelessness or not, whether there was a visible economic disparity, what political signs people displayed in their windows or on their cars, how many churches and what types of churches, what other religious communities are around, etc, etc, etc. Look around regularly and see what you can see.

The things you observe may begin poking holes in your preconceived notions… and that’s okay, and a good thing. Make sure you have a teachable posture, an observant posture and make sure you’re paying attention to what you’re seeing.

Learn about your neighborhood as best you can. The NY Times recently put on their site a tool called Mapping America that consolidates some of the 2010 census information. It is a great help to a church planter, giving you a great ethnic breakdown of not only your city, but your neighborhood. I also would recommend taking a look at the Barna Group’s Cities Report for your area. Pay attention to their detailed “theographic” breakdown. There is a wealth of current information regarding your culture.

Take your time pouring through statistics on to help understand your context and city from a birds-eye-view. You’ll get a good sense of ethnic breakdown, educational breakdown, age categories, and other indicators that will help you paint a picture of the make-up of your city. There are services out there that will run reports for you that can be helpful and will consolidate all of this work for you, but if you’re cheap like me it’s easy to put in the legwork yourself and you can do it for free.

Take time to learn from those who have come before you. Sit down with other church planters that are recent entries into the city and ask them about what they’ve learned, their successes and their struggles. Sit down with established churches and pastors who have been in the city or area for 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, or more. Ask them what they’ve seen in the life of the city and how it relates to the church in their time. Be a good student of the city and learn from them.

Take time to learn the intricate history of your city, from its founding to major turning points, what drives people to your city and what causes them to leave, study the economics of your city, the cultural hubs and hot spots, the religious history and movements that have come and gone. You should know everything there is to know about your city… meaning take some time to sit down with a city historian–there’s always someone who knows the history whether they have that title or not. Find them.

Take time to learn from leaders in the city. Hang out at the local firehouse for an afternoon or two, or seven. Do a ride along with police officers in your precinct. Work to schedule time with your neighborhood association, your district supervisor/alderman/council person, the Mayor, with your State Representatives, Congress person, whomever you can. I would suggest shooting for a 15 minute meet and greet with one or two really good questions that you’d love to hear their perspective on. In a city like SF getting together with any of these people is a really difficult proposition, our Congress people are Nancy Pelosi in the House and Feinstein in the Senate… not a likely possibility even though both of them know SF really well (Feinstein used to be the mayor of SF.) However, I can say that I tried really hard to get a sit down to no avail.

If you do get an opportunity to sit down with your city leaders, make sure you are prepared and respectful. You’ve got 15 minutes, a lot of good learning can take place in 15 minutes. I’d suggest taking these steps after you’ve learned as much as you can in other arenas of the city.

The bottom line is that you should be the best student of the city to which you have been called.

Finally, you should love the city. If you have done all of this research, taken all of this time to know the ins and outs of the city and you haven’t fallen in love with it, then perhaps you missed your calling. All of these steps not only should help you figure out ways to communicate the gospel in the most effective way possible in both word and deed, but should create within you such a deep love and longing for the people to whom you have been called. This love becomes a stark reminder when the going gets tough of just why you are there in the first place.

Are there other ways you’ve found to be invaluable to exegeting the culture to which you’ve been sent?

* Honestly, this could be said of any individual. We are all called to be missionaries wherever we go.

** In our area there are 5 major news outlets: NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, and KRON4. It was important for me to find the one that covered San Francisco news more often than the others. I quickly discovered that NBC detailed mainly San Jose and FOX mainly covered Oakland. ABC, CBS, and KRON 4 were your main sources of San Francisco news. I settled in on ABC as my local source of news after checking the three SF area broadcasts because my impression was that they were handing SF issues better.

Regarding Gay Marriage


Gay Marriage Equality Logo

I have been asked on several occasions about my reaction regarding the Supreme Courts decision on DOMA and the same courts indecision on California’s Proposition 8, a proposition that I was able to vote on and had many conversations about during my time living in San Francisco. I have taken a great deal of time and have had many conversations with LGBT friends, LGBT advocates, pastors, clergy and others to think through the theological, cultural, and social implications. As a result, I have come to a fairly nuanced view of Gay Marriage, a position that I believe warrants further conversation and an open mind for consideration.

The Entanglement of the Church and the State
In the United States there has been a long history of separation between the institutions of Church and government in our country. The debate on ‘how’ and ‘where’ and ‘if’ they should intertwine will undoubtably rage on well into the future. However, the realm of marriage is the one place where, in practice, the line between Church and State are erased and both institutions are joined in tandem to accomplish a single goal: matrimony.

In every other area of life the Church (institutionally speaking) and the State (institutionally speaking) are separate. This was, in my opinion, a beautiful corrective to what the Founding Fathers experienced in England (see: The Church of England). This was meant to not only protect the institution of government, but also to protect the institution of the Church. Neither would intervene in the affairs of the other. Later on down the road this has played out in the non-profit status of the Church (there is a debate in some circles arguing that churches should pay taxes and donations should not be exempt. I would argue that to revoke this status from the Church would actually work to weaken the barrier that is in place that keep the two separate. But that’s another discussion for another time.)

In regards to marriage there is a blending, I believe, that is both unhealthy for the Church and for the State.

What is marriage? First and foremost, marriage is a sacrament. Meaning it is a religious institution. It derives its meaning, it’s purpose, its form, and its function directly from Scripture (specifically Judeo-Christian Scripture). However, in our USAmerican society this has been lost. Marriage is now understood as a right, and along with this right, it brings a bevy of benefits. However, nowhere in Scripture is marriage seen as a right. Marriage is a sacrament. This leaves a very blurred line in our society.

Let me give you an example: Every time I perform a marriage ceremony, I am required to play “agent of the State”. Meaning, my signature (in tandem with the County Clerk’s signature) is required on a legal document to “solemnize” the marriage. I step outside of my role as pastor and into the role of legal officiant for the State. As a result, my signature bestows the rights of marriage to a couple. Nowhere in our society is the separation of church and state more non-existent.

This is the reason why the debate surrounding Gay Marriage is so difficult. There is an entanglement in this realm that should have never come to fruition. Someone fell asleep at the wheel.

Let the State be the State
The issue for the State is one of rights. The Church should not be put into a position of granting civil rights to people. Should we be prophets who speak with prophetic voices into the government, as citizens, by all means! That is our governmentally granted right. But we should not grant rights. As such, we need to step back for a moment and recognize (specifically Christians) that the government is not the Church, the government is not a Christian/religious organization. (If you think otherwise, you might have some serious study ahead of you. This is a fundamental and foundational perspective for my argument.) As a result, we (the Church) should Let the State be the State.

This means, allowing the State to grant civil rights to whomever the State deems appropriate and for whatever purpose it so chooses, and we should recognize we may not always be comfortable with the governments choices/actions*. Government is a temporary reality. Unfortunately, many Christians do not see it this way (as evidenced by a great deal of the doom and gloom responses to the last two Presidential elections.) The Government is not the Church… and the Church is not the Government.

Now, does this mean that the Church should be silent? No. We should be active participants with our voice and our actions in our government. But hear this: The Church should use our voices and our actions for good, not evil. Meaning, we should actually stand up for and with those who are being treated as outcasts and as second-class citizens. This is the same sort of justice that drips from the pages of Scripture.**

Let the Church be the Church
The issue of Gay Marriage should actually be taken out of the realm of civil rights and placed squarely back into the quarters of theology. The entanglement of Church and State has done a great disservice to the Church in this realm. This has actually produced a great schism within the church regarding the question of gay marriage. A discussion of Civil Rights vs Theology has ensnared us and divided us. Neither is completely correct and neither is completely wrong.

We (society as a whole) need to let the Church be the Church. This means allowing every church to come to a position on where it stands theologically. Without the question of Civil Rights and justice, this should allow us the proper space and perspective to talk constructively. And without the question of Civil Rights looming large, society should then step up and respect each Church’s decision. This, however, will never happen as long as a pastor’s signature bestows rights on a couple whether gay or straight.

A Way Forward that Honors the Church + the State
The question then is how do we disentangle the mess we have inherited? I think there is a two-fold solution to this.

  1. Civil Unions for everyone. That’s right, I think whether you are Christian or not, religious or not, everyone should have to apply for a Civil Union license. This allows the government to give or rescind legal rights to couples however it chooses on the basis of equality. This puts everyone in the same boat. Now, to help untangle the mess, there should be an added step to this process: No one gets grandfathered in. Meaning, if you are currently married you need to go and apply for a Civil Union with everyone else. This allows for a clean slate approach. Everyone is on level, equal ground. The second thing this does is puts a bit of revenue into your local economy (a $20 filing fee with the County Clerk could do a lot for your city. Call it a Civil Unions tax if you will.)
  2. Marriages for the religious. To separate Civil Unions and Marriages allows for several beautiful things to happen for the Church. First, it can be treated once again (more so in the Protestant Church) as a sacrament, a special God-ordained moment in the life of the couple. Secondly, this gives the Church the opportunity to elevate the importance and meaning of marriage. It places choice and a stricter vetting process into the hands of the Church… if it so chooses. It is no secret that the divorce rate among those who call themselves Christians is higher than that of non-Christians. We have trounced the meaning of marriage in our own right. Perhaps its time for us to do our part to actually increase the meaning and value of marriage.

This solution is not perfect, I am well aware of that. However, I believe the benefits far outweigh the negatives. I believe it allows us (the Church) a good way forward in recapturing the word marriage from society as nothing more than a civil word and begin its reintroduction as sacrament. As it relates to the question of Gay Marriage, a solution like this allows each individual denomination or church community the opportunity to wrestle with what to do from a theological perspective if a gay couple asks to have their Civil Union solemnized in the eyes of God. It opens up opportunities for grace and love to abound and hard conversations to be had for all involved.

This is an entangled mess, but I do think this is a strong way forward. Simply put: in the question of Gay Marriage, we need to get the Church out of the business of granting rights to citizens of the State.

* I am always uncomfortable with the decisions of war that our government engages in.
** If you need a list of such Scriptures, just ask.