The Pope and Challenging Both Sides of the Spectrum

PopeFrancisThe pope’s speech, inasmuch as he addresses the big issues, should reflect Christianity. Christianity does not allow for ideological complacency. If I, as a red blooded American right winger, want to be a true Christian, it is going to create friction with my nationalism, capitalism, and my ethnocentrism. If I am left wing, generally speaking, Christianity is going to call me out on homosexuality, abortion, monogamy, chastity.

The trendy thing to do is if you disagree with a doctrine, you write it off as cultural, the bigotry of Paul, etc. You fashion a Christianity that pretty much leaves you alone and comfortable. Anyone who is serious abut Christianity will encounter this challenge with reconciling faith with culture, ideology etc.

Pope Francis has been blunt in his attacks on wealth and power, which is generally speaking what he should do. If anything, I think the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity was its intertwinement with the power structure of Western European civilization. The big question is if he’ll fold on the social issues.

If the pope makes two thousand years of theology turn out to precisely match politically correct culture in Europe and America in the year 2015, that will be a major disappointment and a major loss of credibility. I hope the pope will be where he needs to be, challenging everybody, not letting anybody off the hook. We shall see.

Engaging in Cruciform Scandal, the Gospel and the Need for Racial Reconciliation

cross_in_a_cemeteryBy the time the first century rolled around race was quite the hot button issue in Judaism. The Jewish people were living under Roman (read foreign/Gentile) oppression and occupation. Before that it was the Seleucids and before that the Ptolemies of Egypt. Under Seleucid rule they faced tremendous persecution for their faith by the notorious Antiochus Epiphanes that sparked the Maccabean revolt.

Antichochus was part of a larger movement to secularize and Hellenize Jerusalem. The goal was to make Palestine a more relevant and viable political and economic power. The fastest track to success on the world stage at that time was Hellenization (taking on more Greek culture – adopting the Greek language, adding agoras, a gymnasium, etc) that was met by stiff resistance by the Jews. In retribution for their resistance, Antiochus punished the Jews in Jerusalem by attacking the city and threatening death to any who observed Judaism (think circumcision, Kosher, etc). If that wasn’t enough, Antiochus defiled the temple in Jerusalem by offering pigs on the altar and dedicating it to Jupiter, allowing Gentiles to come to the temple and worship there. To make matters even worse the priesthood was also desecrated by taking it out of the lineage of Aaron and placing up for grabs to the highest and most corrupt Hellenized bidder. This was an all out effort to render Judaism obsolete and impossible to practice.

What was the result of all of this? This resulted in a zealous crystallization of Judaism…a resistance and uprising by Mattathias and Judas Maccabaeus. Mattathias was a priest who was ordered by the Seleucids to offer sacrifices to the Greek gods but refused. After refusing to do so himself he killed both the man who stepped forward to offer the sacrifice and the official who ordered it. The Maccabaen revolt had begun. This revolt would overthrow Seleucid rule, cleanse the temple, re-establish the priesthood and set in place the Hasmonean dynasty in 152 BC that had a priestly (think need for purity and holiness apart from the nations/Gentiles) emphasis in the new monarchy.

This had a tremendous impact on the Jewish psyche and identity. Purity and culture came to the forefront of their thinking as they had been so shamed by the Gentiles that they felt an ever pressing need to further insulate and inculcate themselves from Gentile culture and impurity. It is likely that around this same time came the rise of the Pharisees who were not priests themselves but who believed, as their name states, that God’s people were to be truly separate from the people of the world and the best way to do that was to impose priestly purity laws (normally used by priests in the temple) by people other than the priests outside the temple. Given the history stated above you can see why holiness and purity were important to them. The nations had proven themselves worthy of the separation their uncleanness warranted.

There were a number of other factors that weighed heavily on the Jews during the first century most of which played into the cultural/religious markers of Judaism (in other words markers of what made one Jewish) like circumcision, Kosher/dietary laws and holy days (Sabbath, Passover, etc). Each of these things put further racial and cultural tension on the Jewish people in the first century:

  • Jews were monotheists living in a world of polytheism. What complicated matters even more was the syncretization of Roman Emperor worship with the regular mix of Greco-Roman gods and goddesses. In other words, it was one thing to be a monotheist when the gods were Zeus and Athena but quite another when being a monotheist was a rejection of the Emperor himself. Monotheism resulted in a rejection of civic/community events because the ceremony and celebration of the community often centered around worship to various gods. This led to the belief by the pagans that Jews were unpatriotic and that they didn’t have the best interest of the community at heart as they didn’t seek divine blessing of the local gods upon the community. Because of their rejection of all gods but the One true God they were seen as atheists.
  • Circumcision was seen by the Gentiles as a barbaric act.
  • Sabbath was seen as laziness.
  • Kosher and table fellowship rules restricted them from the primary place of deep social connection in their world (both Jewish and Gentile), the table/table fellowship.
  • The temple and the theological ties to Jerusalem and holiness/purity codes resulted in a group that was hard for polytheist pagans to govern with much rub.

Ever wonder why table fellowship with a Gentile was a big deal to a Jew? No wonder.

This is the backdrop for much of the racial divide we see reflected in part in the Gospels but more fully in Acts and the letters of Paul. There were hints that this chasm would be mended as far back as the covenant promises to Abraham, that he would be a blessing to the nations. We see hints of it in the Gospels where Jesus has other sheep, where the Gospel is spread by a once demon possessed man into the Decapolis and where Jesus himself is found in Gentile territory feeding the masses in the wilderness. The echoes of this racial and cultural reconciliation grow louder in the post-resurrection narratives we find in Luke’s writings. We catch is directly in Luke’s outline for the book of Acts in 1:8 where the Gospel is to be preached from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, even through Samaria (that is another racial/religious story for another day). It grows even louder in Acts 10 when Peter is told to kill and eat things he deemed unclean but were now being proclaimed clean and the principle given that what God calls clean is clean…followed by a knock on the door of some Gentile soldiers who want to take Peter to fellowship with a centurion named Cornelius. The final clue is given when the Holy Spirit comes upon Cornelius and his household just as it did on the disciples in Acts 2. God had clearly accepted them just as he had the Jews and both on the basis not of lineage but of faith.

As the list goes on and as we begin to dig a little harder into this from a scriptural/theological perspective what actually begins to emerge is that the issues they faced were racial in the sense that it was typically the descendants of Abraham who were the ones following Torah and being observant of these things and non-compliant toward pagan activities. At the same time this goes beyond race to the Jewish faith because not all Jews were descendants of Abraham…some were proselytized and evangelized in and so what we find here is the outgrowth of the original promise to Abraham coming to fruition in that God was starting something in and through Abraham’s descendants to be a blessing to all nations that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit which was poured out on all flesh (Acts 2:17/Joel 2:28).

So what we see growing out of this, particularly as Jesus comes on the scene and the Gospel message goes beyond Jerusalem and Judea…into Samaria and to the ends of the earth is that faith doesn’t just supersede race…faith begins to reconcile the racial divide that had been demarcated by Torah/ritual impurity and the separation from which holiness required. In order for it to accomplish that task well, the commonality of faith must begin to deconstruct the traditional, cultural/racial walls that came with the holiness/purity codes of religious/cultural Judaism in favor of what should have unified all people from the beginning…the same type of faith that Abraham had before he was circumcised that was credited to him as righteousness.

This is where Gospel comes in. Jesus Christ, a descendant of Abraham, has opened the way to take all of the division and all of the impurity that once separated two groups (one as holy and pure and the other as unholy and impure) and made all clean…”do not call unclean what God has made clean.”

Paul says over and over that this is the very mystery of the Gospel, not how sins are to be forgiven or how we are to achieve or attain or receive eternal life…no, the mystery of the Gospel for Paul is how God has taken two desperate groups and unified them into one new humanity. Let’s let Paul say it for himself starting with Galatians,

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” – Gal 3:23-29

Now through Christ they are ALL children of God…not just the ones circumcised under the Law but all of those who have faith in Christ.

There are two key points I want to make in regard to this:

The first is that we breeze right over how absolutely stunning this statement is because we are not often familiar with their history and the actual enmity that came between Jews and Gentiles given the backstory mentioned above. We breeze right over this because we were not under the oppression and occupation of the Romans of whom Cornelius was a key player and now convert to Christ. We miss the BIGNESS and BOLDNESS of this unity because we don’t bleed and hurt as they bled and hurt and so the division that was present in their day is not as evident to us 2000 years later as free people who have never been slaved to anyone.

Here is how Paul said it in Ephesians,

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” – Eph 1:7-10

Bringing unity to all things very much includes racial reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles…let’s read on,

11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—

Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” – Eph 2:11-3:6

Having the Lord’s supper in the home of a Gentile with Jews and Gentiles alike gathering around the table in non-hierarchical fashion in the Greco-Roman world was outrageous. It was a bold statement of defiance and of a new kind of living that was no longer defined by traditional boundary markers but defined instead by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. God had defanged the serpent. God had disarmed the powers. God had taken the wind out of the sails of the corrupt and arbitrary clean and unclean lines that had permeated society and had put the burden of who is clean and in and who is impure and out solely and solidly on his own shoulders, reminding us that we are not in the business of self-righteous discrimination against those who are different in our eyes and by our standards. No, it is Christ who is Lord and it is His wounds that heal us but also reconcile us because the One who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world. And so He has given us the ministry, not of division (although you might think that was the mission of some Christians) but of reconciliation…especially when it comes to race.

That doesn’t mean Jews and Jews and Gentiles aren’t Gentiles. Read Romans and see how Paul recognized that coming from either of those positions resulted in various advantages and disadvantages in his day. But it does not mean that we are in race-based hierarchical relationship for the very fact that we are amongst brothers, sisters and children of God where our value is attached exclusively to Jesus Christ. All other boasting is in vain!

Second and last is the application. Christ has reconciled two seemingly impossible groups to reconcile by the scandal of the cross. The question for us is this, how might we mimic the scandal of the cross to be a scandal today in reconciling things that seem impossible to reconcile? How might the various Christian denominations be reconciled by people willing to engage in cruciform scandal? How might our churches become more racially integrated by Christians who are willing to engage in cruciform scandal? How might we be harbingers of love in this world even when it might appear to some as scandalous but we do it because we know that the cross is scandalous and that none of us deserve any of what Christ has scandalously done on our behalf!

Seeing Color and Intentional Outreach

I don’t see color!

I heard this from a Jesus loving member of our church a few weeks ago and I responded “wow that must make your sunsets very boring.” “I don’t see color” is one of the dumbest things I have ever heard. I know that he meant that “he loves everyone the same.” That he doesn’t see “a difference” between people. But there is a difference. Race has become such a challenging topic that it is difficult (and uncomfortable) for even church people to talk about. We don’t know what to say and we are afraid hurt someone’s feelings that we don’t talk about it.  Twenty Five years of recovery has taught me that before you can fix a problem you have to admit there is a problem.

Race has been a taboo subject for years in America. The recent hatred and senseless killing of innocent people, the killing of police officers and riots have made it easier to see how America is divided. Divisive attitudes and how to fix them are far beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that there is a problem, it’s going to be difficult to solve, and it’s going to take a long time!

But I think we have to start with the recognition that we are different. Not being able to acknowledge that gives us little chance of fixing this problem. If we can’t talk about the elephant, we will never be able to get it out of the room! If we can’t laugh at ourselves, at our differences and our idiosyncrasies – how can we find a solution that offers each other a feeling of safety and trust? We are different because God made us different.

A minister I know in Houston was reflecting on the prayer walk his church coordinated after the tragic and senseless shooting of Sheriff Deputy Goforth (a member of his church) – he said “Everyone is scared! The white community is scared. The Latino community is scared. The black community is scared. The police officers are scared! But there was some of each of those communities at the walk and the prayer walk brought a peace to everyone, for at least a few hours. Everyone felt united.”

That got me thinking of something I heard a while back – Sunday is the most segregated day of the week in America. Of those Americans that go to church most blacks go to black churches; most whites go to white churches and most Latinos go to Catholic churches.

So a simple question is “Why is it that way? Why don’t most of our churches reflect the demographic of their community?” Is it because it’s hard to change? Just because something is hard is not enough reason not to try to change. Is it because we don’t care? Is it because we are lazy? Is it because we have not educated ourselves of the changing face of America? If those are the reasons, aren’t those a form of racism?

Two years ago I noticed that our church was baptizing a lot of English speaking Latinos (2nd and 3rd generation- yes there are a lot of us- by 2060 Latinos will be 1/3 of the population) and I wanted to know why. We arranged a luncheon to ask them the question (among others) “how did you get to our church?” We had 35 folks in the room. What we found was not rocket science.  While a few came through special programs (like sports and vacation bible study for the kids) the vast majority came because they were invited. Who knew? Despite the programs, the outreach, the signs and advertising, the most effective way to get someone to know our church and introduce them to Christ is to invite them.

That raises another question. If it’s that simple then why are we still so segregated? Could it be that if you are one race you only have friends, acquaintances and coworkers of that same race? I don’t think so. Is it because we speak a different language. Nope- even 95% of second generation Latinos are either English dominant or bilingual.

So I think we have to ask ourselves, are we a church or are we a social club? Are we charged with getting together with folks that look like us, think like us and act like us for a couple of hours a week, or are we charged with changing the world. Maybe God knew how busy Americans would be in 2015- too busy to go on mission trips and take the good news around the world. Wanting to give us an opportunity to partner with Him he sent a mission field to America! While America is the greatest country in the world (maybe ever) – it’s not the promise land. That is coming! But for today I think we need to get out of our comfort zone and invite those of different color and heritage to church. They are easy to find, they are the ones that don’t look like you! It’s not an original idea but it has to be intentional.

We have to make our churches look more like our neighborhoods –and how heaven will look like later.

Running Away From the Mission Field

sixtoThe Reality:

The reality in metropolitan areas such as Houston and Dallas – Fort Worth is that there are English-speaking churches dying for lack of change. As funeral services to members continue, the list of church funerals also grows. Texas and other states like California and Florida have many cities where Latinos are a majority.  It’s in these cities where churches are dying for a lack of change.

There are two reasons these churches are dying. One reason is that the membership is homogeneous and monolingual.  The second reason is that the demographic has changed around the church building into a growing Latino community. Sadly, the leadership of these churches usually chooses not to adapt but rather to run away from a mission field sent to them.

Many times the leadership of these churches lacks vision in missions. As the Latinos move into their communities, instead of church members getting to know their neighbors, they often move away. When this happens the church is relocated, which is actually not as bad as churches who choose to stay but not adapt, and eventually die. But in both scenarios, when the church relocates or when the church dies, a mission field is left behind.

A leader of one of these churches where the Latino population is 40% and the Anglo is 27% said to me; “We are not going to do any specific ministry for Latinos. If we do it for them, we would need to do it for other ethnic groups.”  What is very interesting is that some of these churches send teens and members on short-term mission trips to Latino countries. Yet, when these teens and members come back, they have to sit and wait for the next mission trip. For these churches, a mission is something done far from home where they send money and people, it is not reaching out towards their new neighbors from different ethnic backgrounds who are moving into their neighborhoods.

Yet, in these churches the doors of their buildings are open to anyone on Sunday morning. Even more interesting, some of these churches have around them an English-speaking Latino community. It is a fact that 62% of Latinos in the USA were born and went to school or are going to school at the present time in the USA. This means they are English-speaking and language is not an issue.

This same factor is present in our Christian universities. Although they have their doors open to any ethnic group, the percentage of Latino students in their state or the nation is not reflected on campus. Yet, when I have talked to recruiters and administrators of these institutions, they reply, “We welcome Latinos.”

So, how is it that we are not meeting each other in our neighborhoods, our churches, and our universities?

Like Samaritans

Samaria was conquered by the Assyrians (2 Kings 17) and consequently became a mixed people of other ethnic groups that resulted in the Jews rejecting them. The quickest way to Galilee was through the valley in Samaria. However, most Jews crossed east over the Jordan and traveled around Samaria, which was in fact, a much longer route. It was the route, however, that avoided the racial tension that came with traveling through Samaria.

Jesus changed that tension by going through Samaria. He not only went through Samaria but talked to a woman and many others. As a result of his conversations, He ended up staying in Samaria for two days. Later, Jesus commanded the disciples to witness about Him to the Samaritans (Acts 1:8).

Latinos likewise are a mixture of different races due to conquests by the Europeans. Also, because of culture and in some cases language, Latinos are not eager to walk through the open doors of church buildings on Sunday mornings. Neither are the churches willing to go to them, mainly due to the cultural differences. As a result, the white members move out from these communities and cities, and the church leadership looks to sell the church building and relocate, or the church does not change and dies. Consequently, many church buildings are becoming empty and for sale, and a mission field ready to reap is left behind.

The Latinos in the US are not a small number to ignore; there are 55 million Latinos. The USA has the second largest Latino population after Mexico and the number is growing faster than any other ethnic group. According to the present Latino growth, it’s expected that by the year 2050 Latinos will account for 30% of the total US population, or about 130 million people.

It is time to pay attention to our own Samaritans, a mission field sent by God to our own backyards.  Running away from the mission field does not reflect the spirit of Jesus, which was to go to all people.

____________________

For more information on Sixto’s ministry at the Highland Oaks Church of Christ and the Genesis Alliance click here.

The Stories We Tell

16th street 2-smallThe continuing plea from the epistles is to allow the Gospel story to override all other stories.

But we haven’t let that happen!

The American church has a problem. We have a narrative problem. Each one of us is born and raised into a larger story, a narrative. Just as the infant Moses was drawn out of the Nile, each of us are drawn out of stories that make sense of the world in which we live. These narratives quickly and effectively help us make value judgments, moral decisions and determine right versus wrong. We are aware of some narratives, but others are less obvious, even hidden. The problem is not that we have narratives, but rather we are increasingly entering into narrative feedback loops that reinforce our own views and dismiss others who do not share our stories. Our tendency is to expose ourselves to voices that only reinforce our personal narratives and disallow or dismiss the stories that would help us understand those who differ from us.  Our Bible classes and home groups can contribute to this problem. Scrolling through Facebook and Twitter timelines builds this problem. Watching only the news channel of your choice fuels this problem. Reading links from only your favorite extremist blogger or your favorite extremist politician fuel this problem. We surround ourselves with people who only say what we want to hear. We are losing our ability to sense the image of God found in all people.

To say it straight: Good-hearted church going people are allowing these feedback loops to trump the call of the Gospel to love one another as Christ has loved us.

If we believe the Gospel, we believe that Jesus fully entered our stories to completely understand us. This is Incarnation. He was not content to stay outside of our narratives but to completely immerse himself in our conditions. The call to listen deeply to another narrative is an incarnational movement!

Jonathan Storment invited me to journey with a group of ministers, 10 of us Black and 10 White, to historical Civil Rights Movement sites in mid-August. Standing at these important locations and reflecting upon the events was a time of both learning and renewal. As meaningful as this was, the lasting benefits of the trip were the meals we ate together.  Each evening we divided into groups of about 6-7 people who could visit around a table. As I listened to many of my Black brothers share, I became aware I did not understand what they were saying. It wasn’t that I didn’t comprehend their words, but I felt like I was only picking up one side of a phone conversation. The words didn’t have meaning for me because I wasn’t in the flow of their narrative.  I had a lot of listening to do in order to begin to understand.

One man talked about the hatred and resentment he carried for almost 50 years. Another talked about the shame he has born all his life because of his race. Still another shared about what it was like to talk to his son about how to get pulled over by the police. The stories came forth and began to weave a narrative. I learned one man witnessed the aftermath of a lynching when he was a boy and because of that he never felt safe around white people in his small hometown. Another shared how he struggled to reconcile the respect his father received as a senior NCO in the Army with the disrespect they received at home. Still another friend talked about the meticulous training his parents gave him about how to prevent being perceived as a threat to any law enforcement agents. I heard how many Blacks learned to trust the Federal government more than state and local governments because the Federal government freed slaves, integrated the buses and schools, and granted the right to vote over the objections of local governments.

The more I listened, the more I began to understand not just the events that happened, but also why unfolding events are happening. One cannot begin to understand the story surrounding Michael Brown without first understanding the narrative of Emmitt Till. One cannot understand Emanuel AME Church in Charleston without also knowing the story of 16th Avenue Baptist in Birmingham. Understanding the narratives of those with whom I differ for any reason opens the narrative loop and restores our ability to see people as people to be loved instead of problems to be solved.

So how do we go about this discovery of narratives? Stop reading and listening to opinions that simply reiterate or amplify your own stories. Break out of the narrative feedback loops. Read authors whom you would not normally read. Be aware of times when you feel like you do not understand an individual or a group’s actions. Engage people outside of your normal circles. And above all, share a meal or two with someone different than you. Ask questions and learn from him or her. Ask the question behind the question. Listen well. We don’t have to agree with someone even after understanding that person’s narrative, but if we want to be ambassadors of the Gospel we must attempt to understand.

Listening to understand narratives is difficult. We might have to check our own narratives or admit that there are multiple ways of interpreting the world around us. We might discover things we’ve never considered before. It can be unsettling. It can be tough.

But don’t we want to do for others what Jesus has done for us? Listen well.