Preparing for Advent

We approach the strangest Advent that most of us can ever remember.

This season is already a challenge, if we’re honest. Advent is a time where we discipline ourselves to wait expectantly for the coming of the Messiah. During these weeks we’re supposed to try to capture some of the longing and hope that God’s people lived in for centuries as they waited for God to fulfill his promise.

The problem for us is, we hate to wait.

Right? We have become (or have continued to become) very impatient people. Microwaves cook our meals. We watch whole seasons of TV shows at once.  We want our technology to work right when we’re ready, even if “user error” is often the cause when it doesn’t. We set our appointments too close together, so that we leave one early to be only slightly late to the next.

This COVID crisis, for all of its awfulness, has forced us to slow down. Cooking and baking from scratch is on the rise (no pun intended) all over the country. Students are taking classes from home. For most of our meetings we don’t drive anywhere—we just switch on our computers or tablets. Among the many things we’ve learned during 2020, we’ve learned that it’s OK to slow down—that the world won’t crumble around us if we take our foot, ever so slightly, off the gas.

Waiting for the virus to go away.

Waiting for a vaccine to be available.

Waiting to be able to worship together.

Waiting to see our families again.

Waiting to go back to our favorite restaurants.

Waiting for the all-clear.

This past year has taught us a lot about waiting. It’s preparing us for Advent.

And so what are we waiting for in Advent? New Testament scholar Daniel Kirk helps out, in his book, Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul?

“We will anticipate that not only our hearts but also our bodies, our communities, our justice systems, and our use of the earth will all become increasingly conformed to the pictures of self-giving, restorative love by which God has made himself known to the world in Christ.”

That’s quite a list. Dr. Kirk is nudging us to see beyond just our own lives—to see past our own relationships with God and even our own salvation—Kirk is reminding us that the coming of Christ is meant to remake and renew everything.

Everything.

This was written in 2012, but look how closely it addresses the needs we have this year. Maybe in every year. Yes we want Jesus to transform our hearts, but that’s just the start.

In the midst of this pandemic we need Christ to protect and transform our bodies.

As we ride the rollercoaster of this presidential transition, we want Christ to heal our communities.

With our awareness of racism in our nation broadened, we cry out for Christ to show us a better, fairer way to manage our justice systems.

And as we fight through the politics to understand the unmistakable ways we do damage to the earth, we need Christ to teach us healthier and more sustainable ways to enjoy its provision.

What we’re waiting for is a restoration of shalom, what one writer called “the webbing together of God, humans and creation, in justice, fulfillment and delight”.

What we’re waiting for is exactly what God has been calling his people to long for since the earliest days of the biblical record: for God to make things right again.

Friends, it’s been such a hard year in so many ways, some familiar and some completely new to us. If we can learn one tiny lesson from this year as we move through Advent it’s this: we’re learning all over again how to wait for something that isn’t in our control. That may sound like a bad thing, but it’s exactly what Advent is meant to be about.

The joy of Christmas is coming. We can see if far off on the horizon. But for now we wait.

Welcome to the Advent season.

A Letter of Lament and Resolve

My heart is broken these days.

I grew up in a town where I felt safe, where no one attacked or challenged me because of the color of my skin, and where the police were the good guys. But by the time I went to college, and increasingly as each year has passed, I knew that my experience wasn’t shared by everyone.

I grew up in a town in Southern California where “Sundown Laws” were enforced, even if they weren’t written. Black people could work there, but they better not be caught outdoors after sundown. In 1964, the good people of my hometown voted more than 3 to 1 to repeal a recent state law which made it illegal to discriminate in real estate transactions according to the buyer’s race. That law wasn’t fully repealed until 1974. It took until 1979 for the first African-American student to graduate from my high school, the same high school that had graduated both of my parents and one of my grandparents.

As I watch and listen to the anguish of my black brothers and sisters as they tell of their experiences growing up in this country, I’m aware that I knew a lot of the details already. That right there is the experiential definition of privilege: it doesn’t directly affect me, so I don’t really have to think about it very much. It doesn’t have to invade my consciousness every single minute. I can leave it alone to think about happier things. I can even grouse about the intense reactions of the victims, because it disturbs my peace and my sense of order.

That’s over now. Today I pledge these things:

I will work to make sure the issue of racism moves to the center of my expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ. White Christians have been silent for too long about the persistent marginalization of people of color, and sinfully selective in the ways we share the love and acceptance offered to everyone through God’s saving work. No gospel is complete if leaves out any of the people Christ came to redeem.

I will listen not only to the multiple ways racism impacts its victims, but also how it debases and perverts the lives of those who actively support it or passively allow it to continue. The stories of racism in this country are violent and shocking and difficult to hear, and that’s precisely why they are necessary. We are broken and diminished when we look the other way, and in any case, it has never been the calling of the church to avoid issues of justice and peace and love.

I will choose to defer in public gatherings to speakers who are persons of color, who understand and have experienced racism first-hand. My role is to support those who are abused directly by words and institutions and systems that have kept them from full participation in this nation’s protections and opportunities.

My heart is broken these days, but I believe in a God who mends hearts, challenges minds, and strengthens the resolve of faithful disciples.

I’m counting on that God today. Join me.

Something for Absolutely Everyone: Pentecost 2020

This week we celebrate Pentecost.

I know it’s hard to imagine celebrating anything right now, but this is such an important day in the life of the church—it’s the beginning of the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ beyond Jerusalem, and over the centuries across the entire world. Pentecost is the day that is meant to unify all of us in Jesus Christ. During this season of health concerns and viruses and protective distancing—of anger and unrest and the ugly face of racism—in the middle of all that, Pentecost gives us a chance to reflect on what God has done to draw all the people of the world together.

That’s the meaning of Pentecost—the gift of the Holy Spirit joins all of us into God’s family, even as it preserves what makes us unique and different and precious.

Like I said, I know it’s hard to imagine celebrating anything right now—we’re in the middle of a pandemic, we have a contentious presidential election coming, and now we’re facing yet another death of an African-American man, Mr. George Floyd, killed as we watched on our screens. I grieve with other fathers of sons who fear for their kids’ lives in a way that I never had to. We pause to pray for calm in the streets, for real justice to be done, and for a season of reflection and action in our country on our real and persistent plague—the insidious plague of systemic racial hatred and abuse.

But for today, just for a moment, we pause to celebrate Pentecost—the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. We do this not to escape from the world, but to be reminded of what God has done to redeem and transform it, and even in these challenging times, what God has done to offer us another way.

As you might imagine if you know me, my version of the Pentecost story begins with a history lesson. It begins with the story of Hellenization, the period when Greek language and culture had its greatest influence on the western world.

When Alexander the Great conquered his part of the world in the 4th century BC, he imposed the Greek language on everyone in his empire. For the history geeks among us that’s what we mean by Hellenization: Alexander required a common language—it’s even called “common Greek” or “Koine Greek”—it’s the language of the New Testament. And his empire spread from Greece to India, and across the Near East to North Africa.

There has never been a more complete adoption of a culture in the history of the world—not before and not since. Even when the Romans conquered the Greeks 300 years later, they kept the Greek language and culture. The influence of Greek culture lasted until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Now alongside that we need to know a little about Jewish Diaspora—the story of the migration of Jewish people to other parts of the world.

Jews had been moving around the western world since the 7th century BC. That includes the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. They left for a whole range of reasons: economic opportunity, to escape wars, or sometimes they simply stayed and made homes where they had been in exile. Tens of thousands of Jews settled in Egypt, but they spread in every other direction, too. In the first century 90% of the world’s Jews lived outside of Judea.

One result of this spreading out was that just about every Jew in the diaspora could understand three languages. Thanks to Alexander they knew Greek for public and commercial life; they used Hebrew in the synagogue; and then there was the language they spoke in their region of the world—the language they spoke before Alexander came to town. Even Jesus would have been able to speak Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, which was his local language.

From Greece to India, to the Near East and into North Africa, each region had its own home language, the one they spoke before Alexander’s armies gave them Greek. It was the language of their families, their ancestors—it was their heart language—the one that was most tied to their history and family and identity.

This is the world Jesus came into—the world his disciples would have to navigate to begin and spread the gospel and grow the church.

That gets us ready to hear the Pentecost story in a new way.

Acts 2:1-13

2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

There are three main parts to this story.

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.”

On previous Pentecost Sundays we could pass this by, but today it’s so important. “They were all together in one place.” We’ve probably taken that one for granted over the years, but now that we can’t gather in our churches for a while, now that we can’t be all together in one place, this part of the story pops out at us. Fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, and a week or two after Jesus disappeared into the clouds, the earliest Christians were gathering and sharing meals and wondering what was going to happen. “When the day of Pentecost came, there were all together in one place.”

That brings us to the second part of the story—the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Whatever they were all doing together is interrupted by a violent windstorm inside their house. Little flames rested on all of them, and as if that wasn’t strange enough, they started to speak in other languages.

It’s like that moment on a roller coaster when you’ve been going uphill slowly, listening to the clicking of the chains that take you to the highest point, and then whoosh! Everything picks up speed and you start tearing through turns and being thrown around. Wind in the house, flames on everyone’s heads, and now they’re all of a sudden speaking languages they never learned in school.

They spilled out into the public square in Jerusalem, and then we see the reactions of the people there. That’s how we get to part three of our story.

There were these Jewish visitors to Jerusalem, part of that diaspora of Jewish believers throughout the Greek-speaking world—they were in town to see family or to offer prayers at the Temple, and they start to hear something strange. A crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Luke goes into some detail here about the people of God from across the western world who could hear the gospel not in Greek, not even in Hebrew, but in their heart language—the language of their history and family and identity.

“Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

All of these years later we get to pause and ask the same question they did on that first crazy Pentecost: What does this all mean?

I think this story of the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the church is making both a theological statement and a political statement. Here’s why:

Alexander conquered the world and imposed a standard language on every person as a way of controlling his Empire—of extending his rule over the world of his day.

Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so that every person could hear the gospel in their own language. It was God’s way of blessing his creation—of extending his loving reign over all people and places and times.

Alexander’s conquest and imposition of Greek tells us a lot about Alexander.

The sacrifice of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit teaches us a lot about God.

And so what do we learn from the story of that first Pentecost?

First, it is in the DNA of the church to learn new ways to communicate the gospel.

From the very first day, God empowered people to find the heart language of their neighbors, so they could share the gospel in meaningful ways.

Second, as long as the core message of the gospel is intact, there are as many ways to communicate it as there are people or languages or cultures. The call on us is to learn how to share the gospel message with the world around us. There are all kinds of cultures and subcultures out there. They’re represented by language and music and literature and film. Pentecost reminds that it’s our job to go to them, not the other way around.

Listen to author Dave Gibbons describe the call on the church in his book, The Monkey and the Fish:

“Each generation must create a new language that connects with the soul and life of their community in their era…So while the message may stay the same, the forms do change. Jesus himself modeled this; the Word, which had always been, became flesh.”

Jesus became human, and showed us that there isn’t any length he wouldn’t go to share his saving message and welcome creation into his arms.

And finally, we learn that the saving message of the gospel is meant to unify us—to bring us together no matter what divides us. That message is always important, but especially during a time of isolation and distancing.

And what about today?

How much more do we need the healing, unifying work of the Holy Spirit as we bear witness to yet another violent death of one of our brothers of color?

How much more do we need learn the heart languages of our neighbors as we see the violent release of pent-up anger and frustration at the cheapness of black bodies in this nation?

We need Pentecost, today more than ever.

We need the Holy Spirit at this moment in critical moment in our history.

We need the Spirit to teach us the heart languages of our brothers and sisters who might not trust the gospel of Jesus Christ in the language of conquest and domination and power.

It’s a good thing that God has already come through.

God started this work through the ministry of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Now it’s our turn.

Alexander conquered the world and imposed a standard language on every person.

Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so that every person could hear the gospel in their own language.

Now God calls us to take that message, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to a world that needs to hear those words and see our love more than anything else.

Pentecost isn’t about conquering the world for Christ.

Pentecost is about going out into the world that Christ has already redeemed, and introducing it to the God who made them and died for them and loves them always.

That’s what Pentecost meant on that very first day.

That’s what Pentecost means for us.

May God bless you and keep you.

May God wrap holy arms around you and heal you.

May God bring health and reconciliation to this troubled world.

May God fill you with the Holy Spirit so you can tell this story wherever you go.

Amen.

An Open Letter to Mandy Moore

me with ian and mandy moore

Dear Miss Moore,

I’m writing to thank you for a kind thing you did at the Dawes concert at the Orpheum last week.

My son and I were there to see the show, and you let us take a picture with you out on the street. It was a double win for us. We have listened to Dawes for almost 10 years now, and “This Is Us” has become special viewing for our whole family.

What you didn’t know is that we had just come from his grandmother’s (my mother-in-law’s) funeral that afternoon. I was the minister leading the memorial, and my son spoke at the service, too. It was a very tough day.

We were emotionally exhausted that evening and thought about selling our tickets, but we had been looking forward to the concert for so long and decided to go for it.

Then we saw you and did something we wouldn’t normally do—we asked for a picture.

You were gracious, and the picture was a fun memory of a great night. We’ll be seeing Dawes in Philadelphia next week, too, near where my son goes to college.

So, thank you very much. You helped a dad do something special for his son at a very hard time. I wish you all the best.

Blessings,

John A. D’Elia

jdelia@glenpres.org

 

 

We Are Called to Listen

This past week has been a painful one in American politics. If you’ve been following the Senate hearings, then you don’t need me to rehearse the details for you. If you haven’t, then what I’m about to say may not matter to you.

The ugliness of the public spectacle in our nation’s capital threatens to obscure something very important that is taking place in our society: people are telling their stories. Women and men are feeling the courage that comes from having fellow travelers, and they’re sharing the stories of the traumas they have suffered silently and alone.

This is a holy moment.

Literally, this is a season we should set aside and protect as special, because it is in the telling of these stories that our neighbors, and maybe even ourselves, are finding healing and peace. This is a holy moment, and it’s in danger of being missed because of some partisan wrangling in Washington.

One temptation is to dismiss the stories we’re hearing because there seem to be so many. Where did all of these people come from? Why didn’t they say something before?

The answer is that some people carry a wound that is so painful, so personal, that a significant part of their daily energy is spent trying to conceal that the wound ever happened in the first place. When a brave person shares their story, it’s like a weight has been lifted and those who carry that heavy burden are freed to talk about it. It’s as simple as that. There really is, as it turns out, safety and comfort in numbers.

How do I know that? Because I have a story, too.

Now before I start, I want to say that my story turned out not to be traumatic—I was one of the lucky ones. Things worked out for me, so well in fact that I didn’t even recall this story until I started listening to what people around me were sharing.

When I was 9 years old I went to a public pool with a friend. It was hot and so the pool was very crowded, and while we were splashing and swimming an older man waded over to us and started to talk to us. In the course of the conversation he reached out and asked if he could touch us—he specifically asked if he could touch us under the water level, in our swimsuits. We said no and swam away.

When my mom picked us up we told her what had happened. At home she called the police and a squad car came to our house and I gave a statement. Two days later the police called and told us that the man was serial predator, but that he’d been caught and we didn’t have anything to worry about.

I know now that it could have been so much worse, but in my case everything worked as it should have. My parents believed me. My parents protected me, the police did their jobs, and in the end there was no lasting trauma or damage.

Why tell that story now, almost 50 years later? Because not everyone was as fortunate as I was. Some kids weren’t able to swim away. Some parents weren’t in a position to step in and protect their kids. Some predators were never caught and prosecuted.

Those are the stories we need to hear.

Now you might say that there are false accusations out there, and you’d be right. By most studies’ count about 3-5% of sexual assault accusations prove to be lies.

You might also say that what’s happening in Washington is all about politics and not about finding the truth. Maybe—I don’t think any of us knows for sure.

You might add to that your skepticism that someone can remember the details of something so long ago. To that I say this: Put me with a sketch artist and I can still describe that man in the pool, from his face to his ingrown toenails. I can also describe the police detective who came to my house to hear my story. This happened in 1972.

Here’s the point: If you set aside the single case we’re seeing on TV, and the small fraction of accusations that turn out to be untrue, that leaves 19 out of 20 stories that people desperately need you to hear and believe.

How do I know that?

Hi my name is John. I’m the pastor of Glendale Presbyterian Church and the president of the New Seminary of the West. I just barely missed being molested in a public pool when I was 9 years old.

If I have that story to tell, with a fair amount of precision and detail, why not take a chance and believe your neighbor when she or he tells about their own painful history?

It’s what the gospel requires. Jesus modeled that kind of listening with the woman who touched his garment, with the father who struggled with unbelief, with the woman who was about to be stoned (we note with interest that the man was absent), and with the woman at the well and the men who had abused her. Our God is a listening God, and he calls us to listen to his people.

If we want to be like Jesus.

If we want to be the Body of Christ in the world.

If we want to be decent people who love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

If we want to help, we should begin by listening to the stories.

A Letter from Pastor John D’Elia

(This letter was sent to our congregation on August 27, 2018)

Dear GPC Family,

As you read this we are away taking our son to start his first year of college. It’s a time of hope and new beginnings, even if there is a small amount of sadness as we mark another step in his growth into adulthood.

We have been celebrating the work of Stephen Finkel and Ashley Myers this summer. Our Houseboats trip saw several students become Jesus followers, while the rest deepened their faith and commitment to serving Christ and his Kingdom. Working with students is one of the blessings and holy tasks of local church ministry. It’s hard to imagine GPC without our students giving us energy and excitement and hope.

That’s what makes what we’ve heard in the news these past weeks so deeply disturbing. The abuse of children and the protection of the priests who committed those evil acts have led to criminal charges and some deep soul-searching among our Catholic brothers and sisters. Their agony is a good thing. No one should hear even the smallest details of this scandal without feeling their stomach turn and their heart break. It’s far too soon to feel anything but anger, revulsion, and a desire for punishment for those responsible, and for those who helped them cover their offenses.

It’s precisely at a time like this when we look to Jesus for guidance about how to respond. His sacrifice for our sins cools our reckless vengeance—we are reminded that it is our own separation from God that made a Savior necessary in the first place.

But we’re also compelled to remember that Jesus called for special protections for the children in our care. Jesus said: “If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea (Matt. 18:6). And later he added: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt. 19:14).”

We are called to protect and care for our children.

I want you to know that our Presbytery requires that every pastor be trained to identify and report a wide range of abuse and harassment. I have completed this training, and will be sharing that information with Stephen and Ashley, who will in turn make sure that each person who works with kids is prepared to protect and serve them well. We are, as the law describes, “mandated reporters”, which means that we have a duty to stop and to report abuse whenever and wherever we see it take place.

I also want you to know that we already have safeguards in place to protect our kids. This is not new to us, and you can be confident that the team of leaders in our children and youth departments are up-to-date on policies and procedures. Still, we can always do more and better. (We will be happy to share our policies with you if you like.)

My promise is this: I will do everything I can do to make sure that our kids are safe and secure while they’re in our care. That’s a responsibility that I don’t take lightly, and our team will work hard to make sure that we are faithful to that calling.

In the meantime, please keep our Catholic brothers and sisters in your prayers. Pray that the victims will find both healing and justice. Pray that those responsible will never again be in a position to commit these crimes. Pray for churches and schools everywhere, because this isn’t a problem that is limited to any one denomination.

We will have some discussion about this among the staff and leadership of our church, and if necessary, we’ll take this conversation public. It won’t be easy or comfortable, but comfort and ease were never promised to any of us.

We’re going to learn to be vigilant without being afraid. I believe that’s just how God wants us to approach these issues.

Blessings to you and yours, and I’ll see you soon.

In Christ,

Pastor John

Lent Blues (Already?)

Here I am a week after Ash Wednesday, and already I’m feeling as though I’ve lost any momentum for Lent. There are challenges in my life that make me feel less than spiritually switched on, and then there’s my own heart, which feels a little bruised and resistant to introspection.

How do I slow down and take hold what Lent is offering?

Each year I struggle to read through Henri Nouwen’s Lent reader, Show Me the Way. One entry is forcing me to re-think my expectations of what this time of the year means and teaches. I hear the words “reflection” and “repentance” and I promptly give in to the temptation to make Lent about me—about my sin, my needs, my struggle to live a life of hope. I step into Lent and feel as though I’ve simply given my self-absorption a new, fancier name…a spiritual, church-sanctioned name, no less.

See what I mean about losing steam for Lent so soon?

The first sentence of Nouwen’s reading says: “A life of faith is a life of gratitude—it means a life in which I am willing to experience my complete dependence upon God and to praise and think him unceasingly for the gift of being.”

Oh, boy.

The very first line pierces me to the heart. Is my life of faith a life of gratitude? In my living and praying and studying and working and loving—in all of that, am I aware that it all revolves around being thankful to God?

The rest of the sentence helps me make sense out of where I want to be this season. I really am grateful to God for my life. I’m thankful for my family. I’m amazed at the friends and colleagues God has given me. I still wake up most mornings a little surprised that I get to be the pastor of a church and president of a small seminary, places that I love with people who are teaching me far more than I’ll ever be able to give back. I really am thankful, when I take the time to think about it, that God’s grace reaches into the darkest parts of my life, turns the light on and says, “I think we can do something with this mess.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

The reminder today, as we look ahead to the Lenten season, is to be grateful to God for the gift of our very being. Whatever prompts you to “praise and thank him unceasingly”, I encourage you to make that the focus of the time between now and Easter. Whatever else you might do during this season of Lent, remember to pause and be thankful as often as you can.

We might just survive these 40 days after all.

Welcome to Lent

This is my favorite introduction to the season of Lent, taken from a book by Henri Nouwen called Show me the Way. Lent is a hard season for us because it represents a call to repentance, reflection and a handful of other things we’re not so good at. Still, taking 40 days or so to think about Christ’s work in our lives before we dive into the happy hymns and chocolate bunnies of Easter can’t be a bad thing. Here’s the quote:

“God’s mercy is greater than our sins. There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but to self-preoccupation. Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failures and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says: ‘I am too sinful to deserve God’s mercy.’ It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride.

Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: ‘Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God’s mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?’

The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God’s mercy.”

Isn’t that beautiful and haunting and challenging all at the same time? I tend to think so much of my own failures that I forget that my sin is not the point. God’s grace, given to us through Jesus Christ, is the true point of my life’s story, and yours…and yours…and yours.

We live out that struggle between the seasons on a daily basis, between the cold and death of winter and the restored and rediscovered life of spring. Between the awareness of just how far we stray from God, and the shock at what he has accomplished in order to draw us near. Lent is our time to pause and take notice of what is happening around us and in us. It’s not just for self-reflection, though that’s a key part of it. Lent is a time to sharpen our focus on Christ and his world, on the needs of people around us, on the gifts we’ve been given to meet those needs, and to discover all over again the hope that we have because of the Easter miracle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Easter will come, but for now we try to re-create the sense of conviction that being in God’s presence prompts in each one of us. To repent and ask for forgiveness. And to anticipate that day when life wins the battle once and for all.

Welcome to Lent.

Neck-Deep in Privilege

Let’s get into it.

The events in Charlottesville deserve the special attention and sense of immediacy they’ve provoked over the past week or two. Why? Because the issue of racism in America is persistent and destructive, of course, but also because so many of us have the option of turning our face away when it doesn’t directly affect us. Maybe that’s the most important new lesson I’ve learned in this—I may bristle at the jargon that litters the rhetoric of social activism, but I have no doubt about this one fact:

My life is an example of what it means to be a privileged white American.

I’m a 54-year-old white guy from a nice suburb. In the dictionary under “privileged”, there could be a picture of me with my family. A few months ago I was pulled over for speeding while driving with my teenaged son. As the officer came toward the car I showed my son what he should do if this ever happened to him—I put my hands on the wheel and I narrated everything I did before I moved a muscle. When the officer went back to his cruiser I told my son that black dads had to have a very different conversation with their sons—that a simple ticket for speeding could lead to some pretty awful outcomes. I tried to communicate how unfair that was, which doesn’t always ring true when you’re on the lucky side of unfair. But it’s more than that.

The simple fact that I can turn my focus to something else if I choose is what the concept of privilege is all about. As a seminary president and pastor of a church, if I chose tomorrow to launch a series of talks or articles on what it means to be a Christian, without reference to the call to take up the cause of the marginalized and oppressed, the overwhelming majority of the people I serve would be just fine with that.

The essential privilege of being a white American is the freedom to choose what outrages me, and to look away from the rest.

It’s not enough for me to say that my privilege is accidental. Of course that’s partly true, just as it’s true for those who are born tall or smart or pretty or strong. But my accidental privilege has its roots in something intentional and evil. We still need to be reminded that the African-American experience in this country is different from other immigrant narratives. My grandparents came to America from Italy to build a better life and to escape from the Second World War. Most blacks in this country are the descendants of men and women who were kidnapped, sold (and re-sold), and bred for lives of brutal slavery. It’s for that reason alone (though there are others), the only proper Christian response to being unfairly privileged is to recognize it and wherever possible, surrender it. At the very least I believe the call on me is to exploit my privilege to benefit someone else.

All of this is rooted in the Christian faith. We believe as Christians that the person we know as Jesus existed eternally with the Father and the Spirit as an expression of God. The choice to become human—the Incarnation—was also the choice to give up the benefits of being God; in Jesus, God “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant”, and through that sacrifice showed what God was really like—who God really is. (See Philippians 2:1-11)

It is the Christian’s task and calling to show the world what God is like. We share the words he spoke and we try to live by the ethics he taught, but we can’t in the process forget the example he set. Christ emptied himself in order to love fully and to restore completely. Our calling is the same.

Faithful Christians have been trying to address these issues for years. Back in 1973 a group of evangelicals reaffirmed the Christian responsibility for creating a more just and loving America. At the heart of the statement is this critical line:

“We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism, and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the Body of Christ along color lines.”

I know that it’s hard to reconcile the evangelicals who wrote that sentence with the odious vandals who desecrate the faith in our own cultural moment. But they were real and that confession is every bit as true today as it was 44 years ago. Where the church of Jesus Christ—you know, the one who gave up being God for us—when the Church of Jesus is responsible for dividing the faithful by color, it’s tempting to want to tear the whole thing down and start over. But that would be missing out on what the transforming power of the gospel can do in our churches and in our lives.

It’s not enough to deplore our sinful history. We’re called to repent that sin and allow God to show us a better way. That begins with learning to see the world through another person’s eyes. It’s about asking questions—it’s about reading people you might not normally read. It’s about letting your guard down long enough to hear someone else’s story. It’s about surrendering the choice to turn your attention—and your heart—away.

It is astounding to me that there are still white supremacists in this country, and that their history is tolerated as casually as it is. The thing is, it’s been easy to ignore them because, well, they weren’t coming after me. But maybe they are. Maybe when a Confederate flag waving hatemonger attacks my black neighbor, my Jewish neighbor, or my Muslim neighbor, that violence is being done to all of us.

Until I learn to see it that way, I will be living neck-deep in my swamp of privilege.