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Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Amy Bost Henegar

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I am a New Yorker. Not by birth, but by adoption. My husband and I moved from Los Angeles to New York City in 1999 with big eyes and big dreams. I loved California, but ever since I was ten years old and saw the musical Annie on stage in Los Angeles, I dreamed about what life might be like in N.Y.C. We thought we would stay for three years, maybe five, but this year we will celebrate twenty years in New York, complete with five children, two dogs, and three moves since that initial one bedroom apartment in midtown Manhattan. And we love it here. The hustle and bustle of the city, the leaves in the autumn and the blossoms in the spring, the smell of hot dogs and pretzels at the park during summertime and roasted chestnuts by Rockefeller Center in the wintertime. And while we will never be true Mets fans, or Yankee fans, we respect how much New Yorkers love baseball and love their teams. But there is this practice among Yankee fans that I will always find curious…

“Boston sucks! Boston sucks!”

This is the chant that rings through the hollowed halls of Yankee Stadium when the Yankees are winning. Or perhaps it’s when the Yankees are losing. Hard to tell. But Yankee fans often find their way to shouting these words in unison at the top of their lungs. (Note: I went to a Boston game last year — bad memories, let’s not talk about it — and Boston fans do the same thing in reverse “Yankees suck! Yankees suck!”) And I have to ask myself, “Why?” Why would thousands of people gathered to cheer on their team choose to spend their voice and energy insulting another team? The answer has to do with tribalism and competition and has implications that reach far beyond the baseball field.

Let’s think about Yankee fans for a minute. They love their team. Why? Because the Yankees are THEIR team. Maybe their parents loved the Yankees. Maybe they have memories of cheering for the Yankees when they were children. The players on the field are different. The stadium is new. The uniforms have changed (okay, just a little). But they are the Yankees, and Yankee fans cheer for the Yankees. And Yankee fans root against enemies of the Yankees. Who are their enemies? The Boston Red Sox. So Yankee fans want victory for the Yankees and defeat for  the Red Sox. And it’s all in good fun. Right? Most of the time. But sometimes our pride and our egos are so tied to our teams that we experience true personal failure and shame when our team loses. Sometimes there are insults, verbal and physical, that cross a line and someone gets hurt. Then it’s not fun any longer.

Now think with me for a minute about the many tribal rivalries in our culture. Our sports culture alone is filled with thousands of tribal rivalries. From multi-million dollar sports franchises to little league parents who are asked to leave the field because their cheering is just a little “too intense for the children,” we gravitate toward fierce competition. And this dynamic isn’t limited to sports. Our philosophical and political affiliations also take on a competitive tribal nature as well. Most Americans root for one team or the other — the Republicans or the Democrats. We root for these teams in a way that is very similar to the way we root for our sports teams. We want our team to win and we want our opponents to lose. We are glued to 24 hour news coverage searching for any minor development that may have implications for our team’s success. We treat American politics like one big game.

And that is a problem. Because ultimately politics is about people. Beloved children of God. How we govern ourselves. How we care for each other. As a country, as a world, we are dealing with hard questions — issues that are real, serious, complicated matters of life and death. The complexity of these issues can be overwhelming and frightening. So we turn politics into a game and enjoy a false sense of simplicity. We glorify our own team and demonize our opponents, and avoid engaging with the difficult questions altogether. Rooting for your team is a lot easier, and a lot more fun, than honestly considering the questions that face our neighborhoods, our country and our world. It’s more fun, but it’s irresponsible. 

I believe God is calling Christians to lead our culture in the way of the gospel — away from tribalism and toward the love of neighbor. This means that we should be the first to let go of our political tribal loyalties and courageously look for life-giving answers to the hardest questions. The problems are huge and scary. But we are the ones who believe that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of Christ. We are the ones who believe that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. We are the ones who believe that there is no fear in love. Thus we are the ones who can show others how to courageously walk into the middle of really messy, complicated situations and work hard to find solutions. It’s not easy. And it’s not fun. But it is the way of the cross.

So root for the Yankees, or whoever your team is! Don’t hate or hurt your opponents, but have a great time cheering for your team! It’s all in good fun! But keep an eye on your heart. Look for the ways tribal loyalties can creep in and keep you from loving your neighbor. Don’t let yourself hide in the safety of competition. Be strong and courageous, willing to listen, willing to ask hard questions, and willing to humbly, prayerfully search for answers. Don’t be afraid — the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

One of the things I was taught growing up in church, over and over again, is that sometimes love doesn’t feel like love. For instance, if someone is doing something wrong that could potentially hurt them, it may not feel like love to confront them, but that is actually the loving thing to do. Or you might have to risk hurting someone’s feelings if you see them falling into sin. It may not feel like you are doing something loving, but if you keep them away from sin you are loving them. I learned very clearly that a loving act might appear to be quite unloving. 

Today I could have a long conversation with you about “tough love.” I have five children and if there is one thing I know it is that sometimes the most loving thing I can do for one of my children may not feel like love to them. Sometimes being a loving parent means making your child go to bed when she promises you that she is not at all tired. (Trust me, she is.) And sometimes the most loving thing my husband and I can do is make one of our teenagers create flash cards for a test, even though he feels very confident that he learned everything he needed to know while reviewing his notes and watching The Office. (Trust me, he didn’t.) My kids may not think we are showing love to them by insisting that they do the exact things they don’t want to do, but we are. We love them and we want what’s best for them.

If a relationship is abusive, sometimes the most loving thing to do is to leave. It may not feel like love to the one being left, but ultimately it is a loving act that may lead to change. Tough love is often about loving ourselves enough to protect ourselves from someone who is hurting us. It doesn’t always feel like love, but it is a courageous way to love our neighbor as well as our selves.  

But sometimes I wonder if the Christianity of my childhood had a preference for tough love. I wonder if we actually preferred tough love to tender love. I think we may have been concerned that any love that wasn’t tough would be mushy and lazy and weak. We felt like we needed to be careful; to hold tight to a rigorous, holy sort of love. A warm, caring love made us nervous. We worried that we might overlook dangerous sinful behaviors if we fell under the influence of compassionate, cozy, emotional love. We couldn’t imagine that God might be calling us to a vulnerable love. 

I still believe in tough love, but now I believe that most real love actually looks like love. The vast majority of the time, love looks like love, and feels like love, and sounds like love. If someone is hurting you and they say it’s because they love you, you need to think and pray really hard about whether it’s true. You must talk to someone you trust who can help you discern, because if it doesn’t feel like love it might not be love. Love is patient and kind. Love is generous, humble and seeks to honor other people. Love stays calm and does not get angry easily. Love finds no pleasure in another person’s sin, but rejoices when people are true and honest. Love protects, trusts, hopes and endures.

“This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” (1 John 3:16)

how-to-talk-about-race-at-church-picture

Photo credit: Jason Isbell

An Interview with Leaders of the Manhattan Church of Christ

The Manhattan Church of Christ has been a racially integrated congregation for a long time. The church is made of people who want to be a part of a diverse congregation racially as well as culturally, economically, politically, and in many other ways. As tensions surrounding racial issues were rising in popular culture, we wanted to be intentional about making the church a safer space for people to express and explore their experiences and feelings surrounding the topic of race. In an effort to do this we began a series of Sunday morning classes entitled Responding to Racial Discrimination with Faith, Justice and Love . I asked two of the people who led the class, Carl Garrison and Shannon Harris, to share their experiences.

How would you describe the focus of the class?

Shannon: The class was focused on exploring, addressing and dealing with race and racial justice issues in a Godly, Biblical, Christ-like manner in our personal lives and our relationships inside and outside of the church. We also explored ways that we can deal with them as a church body.

Carl: The focus of the class, as far as I was concerned, was to create a safe space in a community of faith to interact with and grow from reflections on race and racial injustice. We were also attempting to find appropriate language as a social tool to better reflect on and extend conversations about racial injustice.

It is important to emphasize that racial injustice impacts everyone, from all demographics, negatively – whites, blacks, latinos, etc. We are all negatively impacted by racial injustice and the challenge is for us to find unity in Christ.

What was the tone of the class?

Carl: The tone of the class was safe, open and explorative, which was intentional.

Shannon: The tone of the class was safe and open. I appreciate that honesty and open-mindedness were supported and encouraged.

What were the effects of the class from your perspective?

Carl: I experienced an expanded and renewed interest in looking at the social interactions of Jesus — searching to find principles that spoke not only to racial injustice but showing how a follower of Jesus should respond to racial injustice.

Shannon: It was encouraging and edifying to have these conversations in my church home. I was able to get to know members of the church who I didn’t know and deepen relationships with folks I already knew.

If you were advising a congregation that wanted to take steps toward providing support for racial injustice, what advice would you give?

Shannon: A good place to start would be a weekly time set aside to start the conversation as we did.

Carl: I would advise that a church be very intentional in setting a specific space, place and time for discussing and engaging the subject of racial injustice, reconciliation and healing. I would also be very specific about why such conversations are important. It is important to set a goal to engage in these discussions for at least six months. Six months (to a year) is the amount of time required to develop new habits, norms and expectations. Community building takes time and this is true especially when it comes conversations on racial injustice.

Many times conversations about race, even on the national level, are short-lived. Racial fatigue, discomfort, fragility, defensiveness, anger and guilt all contribute to the conversations ending before they do much good. When people become impassioned and emotional, the intensity of the emotions tends to scare members of the group. Thus the conversations are stopped before they have the chance to achieve any sort of social comfort level. Unfortunately, this is precisely the point at which they have the potential for significant breakthrough. This dynamic creates a sense that race is an unmentionable issue. Therefore it is very important to be intentional, consistent and to persevere through the difficult and uncomfortable feelings.

I’d also like to emphasize the importance of prayer in these reflections. I think it is so important to ask God specifically to help us to be the kind of people who respond like Jesus to issues of race and racial injustice. We prayed these specific prayers in real time, sometimes right in the middle of a class, to help us stay open to the Spirit’s leading.

What do you think the role of racial healing and reconciliation should be in the local church?

Shannon: Racial healing and reconciliation is a need like other needs; so there is a place for it. That said, the manner in which one church chooses to address it versus another may differ depending on the congregation.

Carl: I think the role of racial reconciliation and healing is central to the Gospel and not merely a positive attribute of it, thus racial reconciliation and healing should be included as normative in all aspects of a local congregation’s community life. The manner, in which this normative behavior is practiced practically, will depend on the cultural DNA of that local congregation.

Why is the church a good place for engaging in issues of race and racial injustice?

Carl: The church is not only the best place to discuss and engage in issues of race and racial injustice, it is quite frankly the ONLY place that is unequivocally designed by God to function as the incarnation of the body and function of Jesus in every way, including reconciliation and healing in regards to racial injustice. Because of that specific incarnational design, the church is the only place in the universe that has, embedded in her very essence, a narrative and ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). Thus, the church provides the only antidote available for racial injustice, offering the potential for true healing and reconciliation. Disciples are by definition learners of reconciliation, healing — being seeing salt and light to a world in need.

Shannon: Church should be the best place to discuss these issues because, as Christians, we are called to love one another, to bear with one another, and to forgive each other. Of course, we are human so the challenge to be Christ-like in these ways is still there. However, if we make a decision and a commitment to listen to one another, even when we disagree, and to be gracious with one another as needed, there is great potential for healing and reconciliation on multiple levels and in multiple areas of life.

What scriptures have shaped your thinking as youve wrestled with the subjects of racial injustice and reconciliation and healing?

Carl: This is an interesting question. My background and tendency has always been to find particular scriptures that specifically deal with controversial issues. But as I wrestled with the issues of racial injustice, reconciliation and healing, I found that far more scriptures that helped shape my thinking were texts that communicated principles consistent with the mission and character of Jesus. So I actually began to re-read texts with Jesus in mind, and in doing so, texts dealing with racial injustice, reconciliation and healing were easier to come by. After a while, everywhere I looked I was finding scriptures that dealt with reconciliation, healing, justice, empathy, and compassion in some way or another.

Some of the scriptures that have been meaningful to me are the following:

1 Corinthians 12:12-27 (One body many parts, the parts the viewed with less honor, treat with special honor)

Matthew: 5:13-16 (Being salt and light to the world)

Philippians 2:1-8 (Humility, the proper use for privilege)

Matthew 25:31-46 (“When you did to the least of these you did to me”)

John 4:1-40 (Woman at the well, Jesus spoke to her marginalized reality and from her truth empowered her mission as preacher)

Luke- 2:1-20 (The incarnation, word became flesh, breaking down every barrier between God and people, therefore  breaking down every barrier between people, racially, socio-economically, in terms of gender, etc.)

Shannon: So many. In one class we asked participants to bring scriptures that shaped their thinking on race and racial justice related issues. These are the two that I shared:

Matthew 6:33 (Bringing our consciousness and action regarding race and race-related issues under the dominion of the kingdom)

Matthew 25:14-15 (Praying about, reflecting on, how God speaks to/can use you specifically – according to your personal bandwidth, etc. regarding these issues)

Conversations about race are difficult. They are very personal and often involve a lot of pain and fear. By definition they are highly emotional. But the gospel is all about reconciliation. As Christians we have been reconciled to God and to each other through the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore the church is the best place for these difficult conversations to happen. If we can encourage each other to courageously listen, even when we are uncomfortable, and to courageously share, even when it is hard, our churches can become sacred spaces where people feel known and loved for who they really are. And with Gods blessing we will be able to lead our culture in the way of kindness and peace, participating together in the kingdom of God. – Amy Bost Henegar

One of my favorite tasks as a minister of the Manhattan Church of Christ is leading our annual women’s retreat.  Last year our theme was “Space to be Still in the Chaos of Life.”  We spent a lot of our time talking about the way technology has taken away the free spaces in our lives and the negative implications for our emotional and spiritual well-being. I went home feeling convicted and resolved to reclaim some space in my life by curtailing my use of technology, especially social media.  I was practically longing for the good old days when there were no iPhones, Facebook updates or podcasts. Given my newfound convictions, it is surprising, in retrospect, that my iPad was in my bag the day Cara died.

Cara was my new friend.  By the age of 43, she had suffered through breast cancer, a brain tumor and the sudden death of her husband.  As her health continued to deteriorate, she began a spiritual journey, and I was one of the women she graciously invited to accompany her. I was blessed to sit in a small circle with Cara and a few other women, reaching out to a God we were struggling to understand, but finding peace in God’s promises. When Cara entered the hospital for the last time, I prayed that nothing would separate her from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

My first five years in ministry were spent in hospital chaplaincy so I had been there before.  Life support was removed and friends and family gathered to say good-bye.  Old friends and new alike came to see her, some having driven all day long. Our suburban New York hospital bent every rule to allow as many as possible to enter the room after the machines had been removed.

A hospital room is a sacred space, especially when someone is dying. It is in this space that the temporal and the eternal meet; life and death and hope for life anew. As a chaplain I always strove to be a non-anxious presence any time I was in a hospital room. I would lean against the wall in an effort of blend in, while at the same trying to remain aware of anything I could do to make the situation more comfortable, more appropriate, more sacred for the patient and his or her loved ones. Without thinking, this was the posture I assumed in Cara’s room, taking the familiar role of hospital chaplain as a means of managing my own emotions. I leaned against the wall near the top of the bed. Cara’s mother sat by her side holding her hand.  Friends surrounded them both, whispering words of memory and comfort.  There were minutes of silence as we watched her breathe and wondered how long she would labor.

Someone mentioned music and the conversation turned to the hospital’s television options.  Perhaps there was a music channel we could access through the TV.  But no one moved to turn it on. As she mused through a haze of grief and memories, Cara’s mother said, “I wish we could play Dancing Queen. She loved Dancing Queen.”  Cara’s college friends laughed and began to tell stories about the girl they knew — the girl who loved to be that dancing queen.  I didn’t know that girl.  She had been so sick when I became her friend.  But I’d seen the pictures and I was hearing more and more stories; I could imagine her broken body healthy and young and dancing.

Then I remembered the iPad in my bag.  I quietly pulled it out, opened my Spotify app, and searched. Sure enough, there was Dancing Queen, the 1976 hit song by the Swedish pop group ABBA. I hit play and turned up the volume.  I will always remember the joy in her face as Cara’s mother sang along to her dying daughter. “You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen.”  I’m sure for this grieving mother, her daughter was still just seventeen, twirling around the room, dancing and singing. As she sang to her daughter we all longed with her for healing for this beautiful woman.  We longed for her journey to end in the warm embrace of the God who created her, who gave her the will and the energy to dance so many years ago.

After the funeral Cara’s mother spoke to me.  She told me she had spent years worrying about her daughter’s death. She didn’t want her daughter to die, but if she was going to die, she wanted it to be painless and peaceful. She was relieved that Cara’s death had been so beautiful, peacefully surrounded by those who loved her. Then with a gleam in her eye she told me how happy Dancing Queen had made her. She thanked me, and I was so grateful to have been able to provide that memory for her.

So you can never put God in a box.  As soon as you preach about the evils of technology, God will stick you in a hospital room and ask you to use the internet to his glory.  And sometimes, even the quietest spaces in our lives need a mobile device with just a little bit of streamed music.