The Christian Mandate

The word “mandate” has certainly garnered a lot of attention recently.  No matter what direction you turn, someone is talking mandates… either arguing for the importance of a mandate or the “unfairness” of being told what to do.  And, in the difficult, polarized culture of 2021, people are using angry words and sharp rhetoric when the subject comes up.  Some insist that mandates are the only way to make people do the right thing for the common good.  They may be right.  When left to our own choices, most of us will let human nature and selfishness overtake our more noble selves.  Sometimes, we need an authoritative voice to prod us into moving in the right direction.

If you read the Scriptures carefully, you will discover a lot of mandates.  Jesus, Himself, put a few out there for our consideration.  When once asked about the greatest commandments, Jesus replied, “Love God and love your neighbor.”  That’s pretty clear cut.  In fact, Jesus also insisted that love would be the defining mark of the Christian faith… not pious rhetoric, not words of caustic condemnation, not demeaning insults, and not judgmental attitudes.  It’s about love.  That’s the mandate.  We are to love God and our neighbors.  The two mandates are connected.  How can we claim a love for God if we proclaim a disdain for our neighbors who have been carefully created in His image?  In fact, how we respond and love others is a direct indication of how well we really love God.  If we love others, then we are forced to act on their behalf, even if it means pushing aside some of our own agendas, thoughts, and opinions.  Christians really shouldn’t need a mandate to do the right thing.  The love of God deeply imbedded within us, should compel us to think of the greater good and how we best protect the members of our society.

But there is another mandate offered by our Savior.  His parting words, according to the Gospel of Matthew, were these: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you” (NLT). Jesus gave us a faith-sharing mandate.  Go and make disciples.  Go and teach the Gospel.  It’s a mandate… not a suggestion, not a back-burner issue, not a do-it-if-you-have-time kind of thing.  Most of us are certainly aware of this mandate, even if we don’t actively pursue it with the passion, attention, and energy that we should.  But here’s the problem… we sometimes fail to understand that the mandate to share our faith and the mandate to love others are inextricably linked.  Love must motivate us to share our faith with others.  Love demands that we care about those who live without knowing the hope-giving, life-offering message of the Gospel.  Love demands that we value every person on the planet and see them as people God longs to redeem.  If we preach or teach with angry words, condemning phrases, and condescending glances, will the Gospel ever go forward through our efforts?  If we ignore the plight of the poor, the injustice of the marginalized, and the abuse of the victimized, who will hear our voices?  It is not only understanding the mandate to share our faith, but it is also understanding the mandate to do so with love and authentic acts of kindness and respect.

From the perspective of the seeker longing to ask honest questions, starving to hear authentic voices, and desperately craving a sense of community, there are far too many angry, judgmental, hate-filled, fear-mongering, people filling the pews of our churches.  Sitting in a pew, holding a Bible, and singing praise songs doesn’t make a church-goer a Christian.  It’s deeper than that.  It’s a faith in who Jesus is.  It’s a set of core values that govern behavior.  It’s a love that stretches far beyond political ideologies, personal opinion, and tribal rhetoric.  Maybe the wrist bracelet someone ought to produce is not one asking, “What would Jesus do?”  But one that proclaims, “What does love demand?”

Love is patient and kind.  It is not arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way, but rejoices with the truth. Sometimes, we need an authoritative voice to prod us into moving in the right direction.  May each of us hear the mandate of our Lord who surely expects more of His followers.

The Unmasking of America

Since the beginning of the pandemic, wearing a mask has been the number one preventative measure in slowing the spread of COVID.  Unfortunately, the topic became highly politicized and tensions arose across the nation between those who were committed to protecting themselves and others by wearing a mask, and those who chose to ignore the dangers.  Families, communities, and even churches have been bitterly divided over the topic.

As recent CDC guidelines have relaxed, more and more Americans have welcomed the ability to take off their masks when it is safe to do so.  Here on the University campus where I work, mask restrictions have been relaxed for those who are fully vaccinated.  The first day that the new policy went into place I took a stroll across campus.  It was relaxing to do so without my usual mask.  It’s been interesting to me however, to discover the self-reluctancy I and others feel about not wearing a mask in a store, restaurant, or gas station.  Even though the science says that it is safe to do so as a fully vaccinated person, it is still going to take some time to ease off the practice of always having one on.

I have found it ironic, however, that the more we were advised to wear a mask, the more “unmasked” we became as a nation.  The tensions and pressures of this past year told us a lot about ourselves and the things we believe.  What has been “unmasked,” or “revealed,” about who we are is indeed frightening.  Countless times I have heard people say when seeing a troubling incident, “We are better than this.  This is not who we are.”  The reality is that “This is indeed who we are.” We were just hoping that we were better.  Here is a list of some of the things our unmasking has revealed.

We learned that we are not a Christian nation.  For generations we have labored under the delusion that America is a Christian nation… founded on Christian principles and founded by Christian leaders.  And yet, much of the past year has unmasked how un-Christian we really are.  The Christian faith calls each of us to a high standard.  We are to live in love, respect, and compassion.  We should care about our neighbors.  We should seek the welfare of others.  We should model the love of Christ.  And yet the past year has seen Christians act in a number of profoundly un-Christian ways.  We have screamed obscenities at each other on social media.  We have chosen a fierce independence that says, “No one can tell me what to do,” rather than regard the needs and consider the fears of others.  We have cared more about protecting our rights than we have in protecting the rights of us all.  When we were in a position to model Christian citizenship, compassionate care, and peaceable dialogue, we failed the test.  Many put politics above discipleship.  Many believed that it was okay to sacrifice the “good of the nation” in the pursuit of individual rights.  Surely, we have done irreparable damage to the Christian influence in our nation.  My fear is that we are Christian in name only.  True “Christ-centered” people should respond differently than many have responded.  Millions are leaving the church and it is easy to understand why.

We also learned that racism is alive and well.  When George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, people demonstrated all across the nation and even across the world.  The ugly head of hatred was revealed once again. The frustration and anger were understandable.  People of color have continued to face unfair challenges, violent treatment, and any number of social inequities.  To deny that systemic racism doesn’t exist in our nation is a whitewash of reality.  In the summer of 2020, in the midst of the frustration and heat of that moment, I tweeted out a message indicating that every pastor in every pulpit should take on the issue of racism.  I even suggested, “Saying black lives matter does not mean that all other lives don’t.  It is a hope that black lives will matter as much as all other lives.”  A pastor in Georgia, whom I had once mentored in ministry, attacked me publicly on Facebook.  He said that if I was advocating that someone preach any Gospel other than the Gospel of Christ that I must be a heretic.  A few days later he posted this message on his Facebook page: “African-Americans in this nation should be grateful for slavery.  If it was not for slavery, most blacks would still be in Africa and would not enjoy the privileges and status that they now enjoy in America.”  I wonder if a person of color ever chose to join his congregation, if they would count that person as 3/5 of a member.

We also learned that we are as sheep led to the slaughter.  What has been troubling to me is the fact that so many well-educated individuals can be so easily led astray.  It is remarkable how quickly minds can be overtaken and thoughts diluted.  Certain media outlets and certain political leaders have been masterful at offering disinformation and distorted realities.  Many leaders bought into the notion that if you tell a lie loud and long enough, eventually it will become the accepted truth.  The “Big Lie” is only a part of the truth decay that has occurred in our nation.  Rather than follow science, we have listened to misguided opinion.  Rather than think for ourselves, we have allowed others to tell us how to think.  Rather than seek balanced reporting, we have “pulled the knobs off of our channel selector” and allowed ourselves to drink in whatever our favorite propaganda machine told us to believe.  People have blindly played “follow the leader” while certain leaders were leading them down a road of deceit, greed, and lawlessness.  Much of the violence that is currently being perpetuated against Asian-Americans is a direct result of one leader referring to COVID as the China virus.  And even now, as the clear and miraculous answer to the pandemic comes into focus with the development of very effective vaccines, some have bought into the deception that vaccines are unneeded and potentially harmful.

Finally, we also learned that right-to-life “concerns” end at birth.  There is a vast number of people in America who supported the previous administration because of promises made to fill the Supreme Court with conservative judges who would hopefully overturn Roe vs. Wade.  Many continue to view eliminating abortion as the single most important battle to be fought in our country.  And yet, those who call themselves “Pro-life” continue to support the death penalty, the reduction of Medicare benefits, the elimination of unemployment support, the lack of support for public schools, affordable housing and medical care, as well as other programs which could benefit the poor and marginalized members of our society.  We care for the unborn, but not for the children and adults those unborn babies grow up to become.

Yes, we have been unmasked, revealed, and exposed.  Where do we go from here?  The answers are not easy nor quickly offered.  My suggestion is that it starts with each of us.  We must envision a better nation, comprised of better people.  People who will care about others.  People who will seek the welfare of all citizens.  People who will love abundantly, forgive lavishly, and hope longingly.  People who will love their neighbors with the same intensity with which they love themselves.  If we dream of being a Christian nation, then it must start with our resolve to be Christian in thought, attitude, and action.

Jon R Roebuck

The God Box

The God Box

How we craft, protect, and abuse the space we create for God, theology, and others

Most of us have had some experience in constructing a box.  Whether we are folding a cardboard box along the preset guidelines or tacking together a flower box for the backyard using some leftover lumber, we know what it means to put a box together.  There is a bottom, four sides, and maybe a top.  Our attempt is to make it sturdy, secure, and able to hold a few things.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, all of us are in the process of constructing a God Box.  A God Box is how we attempt to contain our view of God, our theology, our experiences, and our thoughts about how God works in our world.  Knowing that we can never fully contain an almighty, infinitely complex, and loving God, we at least attempt to put arms around our idea of who He is, how He works, and what His plans are for our lives.  Into the box goes our “caught and taught” theology, our life experiences, our morality, our judgment, our world view, and our sense of righteousness.  It’s our personal theology, our personal interpretation, and our personal viewpoint on how things ought to be.

The materials that form our God Box have been swirling around us for most of our lives.  The Box is defined by the voices we heard while young, the preachers who offered their sermons, the teachers who taught us, and the families who raised us. It is further defined in real time by the social media that bombards us, the books we read, the co-workers who labor with us, the neighbors who opine with us, and the day-to-day experiences that shape who we are.  There are certainly similarities to our various boxes, or our images of God, but each box is also individualistic.  Though we would not say it out loud, most of us believe our box to the be the “right” box, the one with the most correct answers for all of life’s questions.  We like our boxes and feel a little threatened by the presence of other’s boxes which are not exactly like ours.

Let me tell you a little about my box.  I was raised as a Baptist in the Deep South.  The pieces that comprise my box first emerged in that context.  My box has a personal, loving Heavenly Father who listens to all my prayers and who forgives my sins.  He grants me salvation through a relationship with His son, Jesus Christ.  God calls me to love my neighbors, to be hospitable to a fault, to forgive, and to affirm the worth of all people.  Good box, right?  In my box is also a belief in heaven and hell.  I affirm the existence of angels.  I see the image of God in both male and female.  I think racism is wrong and the marginalization of any person because of economic status, skin tone, language, sex, place of origin, or ethnicity is also wrong.  The God in my box tells me to care for the widow and orphan and to welcome the stranger.  The God in my box tells me that worship is vital, Scripture is authoritative, and that prayer is an essential daily task.  My box contains an open Bible that hopefully lends itself to an open mind.

We construct our boxes well and defend them with tenacity.  But then something comes along that seeks to upset the balance of our box.  Is there room for a new thought?  Is the box forever closed?  Can we pivot on an issue or on a carefully guarded stance?  I see people’s boxes get broken open all the time.  I remember when people once argued that divorced persons were on the outskirts of grace and didn’t have much of a place in the life and work of the church.  I remember when women were second class members who couldn’t teach or preach.  I remember when a member of the gay community “came out” that it meant being “put out” of the church.  I recall a day when other denominations were to be avoided because of their heretical stances on some fine point of polity and practice.  Move the conversation forward.  Now we wonder if our box should hold space for Republicans or Democrats, anti-vaccers, or reluctant mask wearers.  Is there room for the Right to Life crowd or the Pro Choice folks?  Do we have room for other races, other languages, and other faiths in our box?  What do we do with those who still claim a faith but have rejected the church?  What do we do with those who can’t speak English, or those who have recently immigrated?  What do we do with people who claim Black Lives Matter or those who claim that such lives don’t?  Constantly our boxes are being challenged. 

Sometimes we look at another person’s box with a judgmental eye and suggest that their box is filled with the wrong stuff… the wrong thoughts… the wrong theology.  And what’s worse, is that we are so threatened by those who think differently, that we can’t wait to point fingers at them and tell them why their box is so poorly constructed.  (Just take a look at the way Christians spew vitriolic, hate-filled rhetoric on social media, believing that judging others is their birthright). And, sometimes we are so threatened by someone else’s viewpoint, that we seek to destroy their box and maybe even their lives.  A lot of really bad things have come about throughout history by those who insist on the supremacy of their box over all others.  What’s crazy is that we somehow believe that God himself would enjoy the box we have created for Him to inhabit more than He would any other box.

I must admit that this process of creating a God Box is a work in progress.  Along the way I have had to learn a few things… some new perspectives, some new insights, and maybe some new theology.  I find myself deconstructing my box and then building it all over again, only to know that something else will come along that will make me revisit the process time and again.  I’d like to think that my box is a little bigger than it used to be.  I want to believe that I have grown in someways and that my box has grown with me.  I would also like to think that my box is more tolerant, more accepting, and more loving as I grow older.  Like yours, my box has both condemnation and grace competing for precious space.  As I travel on, it is my hope that grace will become so abundant that condemnation and judgment will have no more room to dwell.

While recently reading the Gospel of Mark, I came across the passage in chapter 2 when Jesus first called Matthew into discipleship.  Matthew was a tax-collector, considered to be the worst of sinners in the eyes of the religious establishment.  Within a day or so, Jesus was discovered sharing a meal with other tax-collectors who were intrigued by His acceptance and teachings.  The “church crowd” questioned why Jesus would allow himself to eat with “those kinds of people.”  You see the problem.  Their God Box excluded such people and condemned those who didn’t share their viewpoint.  Like the teachers of the first century, sometimes our boxes hold the wrong attitudes and thoughts.

So maybe it’s time for all of us to take a close look at our God Box.  Maybe nothing needs to change.  But then again, maybe everything needs to change.

Jon R Roebuck

There’s a Bear in Left Field

Years ago I served as Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  It was a great experience for both me and my family.  Part of the joy of being there, was the opportunity to spend a lot of time enjoying the beauty of the Smokies and getting to know the local community.  One of my favorite activities in those days was coaching Little League Baseball.  Most of the games were played at a picturesque city park located within a stone’s throw of downtown Gatlinburg.   The park complex had a baseball field, a picnic pavilion, tennis courts, a playground, and even a babbling creek.  Our family has returned to that spot many times through the years to both gather the memories and to make new ones.

Just past the center field fence and down a small incline sits a large, green trash dumpster.  It almost never affects the play on the baseball field.  Almost never.  But as you might imagine, the dumpster is a favorite spot for the local black bears.  Usually they sneak their way into the park after dark, but then again, sometimes they appear in the middle of the 5thinning.  It happened on several occasions.  A large bear would lumber across left field, climb the fence and meander his/her way down to the dumpster.  When a bear appeared, we would call a “bear delay.”  All the players were pulled off the field until the bear moved on.  The first couple of times it happened, it was a bit unnerving.   But soon, the “bear delays” just became a part of life in Gatlinburg at the old ballpark.  The game would pause, the bear would disappear, and then the game would continue.

It has been my experience that sometimes big, scary things meander into our lives and we are left wondering if we will survive.  The interruptions may come in the form a health concern, a job loss, a grief experience, maybe even a world-wide pandemic.  When the interruptions come, we may want to run to the relative safety of our “dugouts” as we hope the life-storm will soon pass.  We hunker down, pray a little, and worry a lot.  We want things to get back to normal.  We want the worries to subside.  We long for the burden to lift.  We want the dawn to break and chase away the dark night.

Sometimes all we can do is wait things out.  We agonize and fret and pray for the day when the bear in left field becomes a memory and not a present-day worry.  But sometimes we can act proactively.  We can schedule that long, put off doctor’s visit.  We can wear masks and get a vaccine.  We can talk to a trusted friend.  We can come up with a plan and start down the list of tasks needed to move forward.

But here is what I find interesting.  The interruptions to our lives may be a surprise to us, but they are not a surprise to our Heavenly Father.  He is intimately acquainted with all our days.  He knows when we rise and when we rest.  He knows when we venture out and when we return home.  And not only does He know all about us, He cares about our well-being.  Because we are human, we will worry about the interruptions.  Because we are His, we are held safe and secure.  The problem we face is the age-old battle between God-dependency and self-sufficiency.  When we rely on ourselves to get through the interruptions, we fret, wring our hands, and crush ourselves with worry.  But when we place our trust in the One who loves us, we find a presence, a peace, and a provider.  The Scriptures declare, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

Please understand.  I am not trying to belittle our fears.  I am not trying to offer a flippant response to the haunting stress in our lives.  I am not even asking you to glibly adopt a “whatever is going to happen is going to happen” mentality.  But what I am suggesting is that we take some positive steps while the bear walks across left field.  We should take the right precautions.  We should listen to those who have more insight and knowledge than we do.  We should talk it out with people who love us and care for us.  And we should call on the One who has promised to be with us until the end of the age.

Bears will eventually meander away.  Dark storms will give way to brighter mornings.  Relationships will find their renewed footing.  Fears will dissipate.  If you are in the middle of a life interruption, see it as just that… an interruption and not a final ending to your story.  It will soon be time for the game to begin again.

During your bear delay, may you find strength in the company of both good friends and a good God.

– Jon R Roebuck

Nothing But the Blood of Jesus

Blood represents life.  In fact, it is essential to sustain life.  We literally cannot live without it. Blood is the life-giving liquid within our veins that carries oxygen to all of our vital organs.  It carries antibodies, genetic codes, cells and platelets.  Remove our blood, and our bodies cannot sustain life.  In any type of trauma event, it is important to “stop the bleeding” lest we bleed out and the life-giving, life-sustaining liquid seeps from our bodies.  When patients lose a lot of blood in surgery or in an accident, it is important to quickly replace that which has been lost.  It gives life.  It sustains life.  That why “blood drives” and “blood donations” are so critically important.  Blood is essential.  And because He created us, God understands the work of the blood which flows through our bodies.

Go back to the days of the Old Testament, when God was first establishing a relationship with His people.  After 400 years of enslavement, through the actions of Moses and the plagues, God brought about their redemption and freedom from oppression.  Remember the 10th and final plague?  God instructed the Hebrews to take the blood of a lamb and splash it across the doorposts of their homes.  When the Death Angel passed over the land, those homes, which were literally “under the blood” were spared his wrath.  It was the blood of the slaughtered lamb that defined the people of God as they fled from Egypt.

Move the story ahead to the days at the foot of Sinai and even later to the establishment of the nation of Israel. God declared that a special place be constructed in the midst of the people in which His presence would dwell.  In the wilderness, it was the Tabernacle… a portable, tent-like structure where the people would gather to worship.  Once the nation was defined, it was King Solomon who built the Temple in Jerusalem… a permanent and unparalleled place of worship.  When the people gathered to worship in those places, sacrifices were made to atone for their sins.  The priests would take the blood of animals and pour it on the altar in order to set the Israelites free from their oppressive sins.  Again, it was the blood that made the difference.  It was blood that washed away the transgressions and brought renewal to the people, restoring the relationship with Holy God.  Because blood represented life, the shedding of blood on behalf of the people, restored the life that sinfulness had taken from them.  The life of a lamb was offered in order to give life to an individual.  The cost of sin was paid.  As Lev. 17:11 declares, “For the life of the body is in its blood. I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the LORD. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible.” (NLT) The spilt blood of sacrifice offered life.

Move the story ahead to our day.  No one is going to get up on Easter morning and sacrifice a lamb in order to atone for their sins.  Why not?  Because that sacrifice has already been made.  When Jesus died on the cross, that spilling of blood was offered for us… for our sins… for our shame… for our transgressions.  In order to reclaim the life that sin has taken from us, we must claim the blood of Jesus offered on the cross.  The connections are clear and powerful.  Once again, the blood a lamb has been offered for us, but not just any lamb.  This time we claim the blood of the Lamb of God… who willingly offered up Himself for us.  As I John 2:2 states, “Jesus himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only our sins but the sins of all the world.” (NIV).  His blood has been splashed across the doorposts of our lives.  We who now live “under the blood” have found grace, mercy, forgiveness, and hope.  The blood liberates us.  We no longer live under the bondage of guilt and remorse.  Our sins are erased and we are set free.

Take the word “atonement” and break it apart.  When we speak of atonement, we are describing the process of being made “at-one” with God.  Sin separates us from God.  But the blood of Jesus Christ removes the barrier of sin and allows us to once again know a closeness with the Father.  As we celebrate Holy Week and claim the victory of Easter morning, may we be reminded this day of the simple truth contained in the words of the great hymn written by Robert Lowry over 150 years ago…

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

O precious is the flow
that makes me white as snow;
no other fount I know;
nothing but the blood of Jesus.

May you experience the power of the resurrection and know the joy of being set free as you celebrate Easter Morning.

The Innocent Racist

If I were to ask you if you are a racist, surely you would say “no.”  Who among us would want to even entertain the thought that we have marginalized or discriminated against races other than our own?  We’d like to think that we are more noble, more informed, more aware of the racial inequities in our nation and that we are listed among those who shine light into the darkness of such dehumanizing realities rather than add to them.  But have we been caught in a cycle of self-denial?  Are we contributing to systemic, prejudicial racism without even knowing?

For most of us, our racism was both “taught and caught” in the culture in which we were raised.  I am a child of the 60’s, raised in the deep South.  It is only with the vision that retrospection now affords me that I see some of the systems and influences that were in place.  There are memories that once seemed safe to harbor, that now make me wince a little.  I attended a public elementary school in the heart of my hometown.  My first-grade year was the first year that public schools in Georgia were integrated.  I remember that our class had several black students.  And while I’d like to think that we were progressive and welcoming of black students, and certainly our teachers did their best to teach us to treat all others with respect and dignity, the reality is that it must have been much harder to be black in those days than I would care to admit, for surely racial inequities existed in ways I could have never seen through the eyes of a 6-year-old child.  Even the numbers were skewed.  Out of 30 students, only 3 were black.  That fact alone must have made the goal of acceptability an all but impossible dream.  There were parents who didn’t care for the idea of their child sitting next to one of “those” kids.

In those days, music in the classroom was taught by a traveling music teacher who would teach music in each class for an hour or so before moving to the class next-door to do it all again.  I remember two of the songs we were taught.  One was about the Erie Canal and the horse that pulled the barges.  The other was about picking cotton.  We even had motions to the song…  “You gotta jump down, turn around pick a bale of cotton, jump down, turn around pick a bale a day.  Old Man-ie pick a bale of cotton, old Man-ie pick a bale a day.”  We never once considered that we were singing a song about the days when our ancestors thought it was ok to enslave human beings and make them do back-breaking work against their will.  And we also never considered what it was like, as an African-American child, to be required to sing that song with the baggage of pain and dehumanization it conveyed.  I don’t believe that our teachers were blatantly racist.  I think they probably never even thought about what they were doing.  And maybe that is still the problem.  Most of us don’t even think about the ways others in our world think, or feel, or are victimized by our words, actions, and conversations.

I think about day-laborers or lawncare workers back in that day.  They were always black men… mostly older, and mostly worn down by a long life of working impossible hours for pitiful wages.  Linton was the yard man for our church, which meant he was often brought to our house, (the church parsonage), to work in our yard.  He was kind and patient with my brother and me who probably always got in his way.  We just called him Linton, even though he was a grown man and we were just kids.  (I’m not sure I ever knew his last name.)  Even something about that fact rings of the racism of that earlier day.  I remember once when Linton was at our house at lunchtime.  My mother prepared him a sandwich and a tall glass of ice tea.  He was invited in to join my mother, my brother and me at the kitchen table.  But he politely refused and ate his lunch at the top of the basement stairs, separated from us by a simple wooden door, and by a very complex set of social mores and values.

On Saturday mornings, day-laborers would gather down at the old Train Depot on First Avenue.  They would stand around, shuffling their feet, maybe with a smoke hanging from their lips… talking and waiting to be hired out for the day.  Some would clutch a lunch pail in their hands.  And by and by, a white man would stop, negotiate a wage, and give them a ride to the jobsite.  And then another, and then another.  The scene was repeated throughout the morning.  (When I think back on that image, I am reminded of the Parable of the 11th hour workers told by Christ.  It’s the image of men waiting to be hired out for the day.)  It’s not that there were no poor whites in my hometown that also needed extra work on the weekends.  Many did. It’s just that none of them would have waited with the blacks for work and thus making themselves seem as equals to them.  It’s funny how people would rather go in need than put aside their prejudices.

We lived in South Rome… just over the bridge from downtown.  There was an interesting juxtaposition in that part of town.  The local country club, with a manicured golf course, Olympic pool, and well-maintained tennis courts, was situated just along the river and in a spot where every black family had to drive past the stone gates every day.  Whether it was a written rule or just understood, there were no black members at the club… just black waiters or grounds keepers.  Our house was situated about ½ mile away on a dead-end street.  There was a barrier at the end of the street.  On the other side of the barrier was the “colored section” of town.  It wasn’t just the color of skin that was different on the other side of the barrier, but different living conditions, worn out cars, run-down stores, and fewer opportunities.  I remember once, when my father used a fuel additive in an old car he was restoring, that it smoked up the entire street with a heavy, thick smoke.  One of our neighbors came running down the street with his rifle, assuming some social unrest was taking place caused by people on the other side of the barrier.

In those days we had a black student from South Rome who participated in our Youth Program at church.  Mike was made to feel welcomed and was readily accepted into our group.  He would later serve our nation as a member of the military.  Whenever our youth group went to camp, or on a retreat, we always got a strange look from folks who wondered about the black kid.  I also know that Mike took some grief from some of his neighbors who wondered about his involvement at that “big white church.”  There were signs of racism all around us in those days, but we either never saw it, or never cared enough to consider it.

Our town was prominent in the days of the Civil War.  There was a foundry that made canons for the Confederacy.  When Sherman burned his way through Georgia, First Baptist Church was spared because he stored his horses in the basement.  (Some older members claimed that some of the soldiers even carved their names in the wooden supports under the church but I never saw that personally.)  There are cemeteries, monuments, and flags that are still in place from that era and will be for a while.

That’s just the water we all swam in as kids.  It was the culture of the day.  It was the way things were done.  I don’t say that to condone or excuse it, but simply to explain it.  Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.  (I hope to God that I know better now.)  But the culture didn’t change a whole lot as I grew older.  I once pastored a church in Birmingham.  One Sunday morning, we had three folks to baptize during the service.  One was an African-American, single mother of three.  The Chairman of Deacons stopped by my office and asked in what particular order we would baptize the candidates.  I suggested that we do it alphabetically as we always did.  “I was just wondering,” he said.  And then he added, “Afterall, who would want to get in that water after that black has been in there.”  That was 1993.  In another church I had a church member berate me after a sermon on MLK weekend.  He said, “Call him what you want, but some of us refer to him as Martin Lucifer King.”  That was 2012.

I was interested in thinking back to college and grad school experiences.  Never once did I have an African-American professor.  I never had a class on African-American studies or history specific to that topic.  I may be well-taught, but not well educated all at the same time.  The task for me has been that of learning perspective, learning with a different mindset, and seeing who we are as a nation through a different lens.  I’ve learned a lot in recent years, but not nearly enough.  I read.  I listen.  I host conversations, lectures, and seminars on race.  But still I have such a long way to go.  A couple of years ago I took the Harvard University Implicit Association Test on race.  I discovered to my dismay that I still have a lot of blind spots that need some attention.

If I once had the right to call myself an innocent racist, I no longer possess that right.  It’s far too late in my personal life-story to claim ignorance.  And so I must be intentional about learning, about understanding, and about equipping others to see the realities of racism in America and particularly in the American Christian experience.  Any privilege that I have does not give me the right to remain unaware of the needs, injustices, intolerance, and inequities that others face.  In fact, it must force me to engage the struggle even more deliberately in the hope of building a better culture for all of us.

Jon R Roebuck

Is Your Church a Super-Spreader Organization?

This article is not just about COVID19 protocols, although it certainly could be.  A number of churches have done a notoriously bad job in managing the pandemic.  When faced with the decision to suspend in-person worship, or at the very least to require masks of those who do come to services, church leaders have acted in their own self-interests and in so doing, have compromised the health and well-being of their communities, not to mention the damage made to the Christian witness of their congregations.  We could have been the light to the rest of the world.  We could have practiced safe protocols and insisted on being good neighbors, but instead, we have gathered in our worship spaces, without requiring masks, and have helped to spread and keep the virus going.  Churches are not being faithful when they flaunt CDC protocols… they are being foolish and some have died because of it.  Many have argued that in-person worship is critically important to the church, and certainly it is the heart of what we do.  But to insist on singing, preaching, and praying without taking thought of our neighbors who need the church to lead the way, not stand in the way, is simply selfish.  It is putting “our wants” ahead of what the community needs, and that’s wrong.  In case you haven’t noticed, you can preach and sing and play pianos and guitars while wearing a mask.

But beyond the pandemic, it’s the other super-spreader tendencies of the church that get my attention.  Let’s talk racism for a moment.  The racial unrest of the past year has certainly been felt, heard, and seen by everyone in our nation.  Whether we speak of Civil War monuments, unequal access to goods and services, hate crimes, police brutality, or disproportionate numbers of incarcerations, no rational person can deny the systemic racism that permeates our nation.  The church has had the platform to address the issues and decry the hatred of racism.  And yet, many churches I know have remained silently on the sidelines.  It seems very few pastors have dared to wrestle with the issue or even acknowledge that it exists.  By being silent, churches have been complicit.  Unwittingly, or maybe knowingly, churches have acted as super-spreaders in giving a wink and a nod to the marginalization of Black Americans.

Let’s also talk politics for a moment.  The rhetoric has been corrosive, caustic, and damaging.  Many have traded in the Gospel Narrative for nationalistic prose that sets aside decency, morality, and kindness for the sake of promoting a fear-driven political agenda that marginalizes anyone who doesn’t get in lockstep with right-wing ideology.  We have draped the Cross with the American flag and declared that they are equal in terms of our allegiance.  Many have said “God and Country” so loud and so often that they sometimes say, “God is Country,” and never notice the difference.  The very ones who declare that our nation was founded on Christian values are the ones who are willing to trample on those values for the sake of winning at all costs.  And rather than offering a clear message about the grace, dignity, and acceptance of God’s coming Kingdom, we have clearly told many that they are not welcome.  Churches have been co-opted into become super-spreaders of anti-Christian rhetoric and they have become tone deaf to their own message.

Can we also talk about the sanctity of human life?  The battle for the Right to Life continues on.  In their zeal to protect the unborn, many churches have affirmed and praised those who are willing to support their viewpoint, even to the extent of ignoring other ethical missteps or  sinful behaviors exhibited by those in leadership.  I am not bothered by those who believe that life begins at conception and are willing to defend that position.  I am bothered, however, by those who stop their crusades the moment that child takes his/her first breath.  The sanctity of life should be extended to every child, regardless of race, gender, or country of origin.  Don’t claim to value human life if you deny healthcare to millions of impoverished children.  Don’t claim to value human life when you vote to underfund public education.  Don’t claim to value human life when you are willing to sit idly by when children are kept in cages at the border.  Don’t claim to value human life when you don’t support local food banks or give to organizations which clothe the naked.  Life is precious and should be fiercely defended.  Churches who preach that the battle is all about anti-abortion legislation and don’t include life-long health and well-being initiatives are super-spreaders of narrow-mindedness.

Here’s the tragedy of it all.  Churches… comprised of flesh and blood representatives of Jesus Christ, have been commissioned by God Himself, to truly be super-spreaders.  We are called to spread hope.  We are called to spread grace.  We are called to spread kindness.  We are called to spread love.  We are called to spread compassion.  We are called to spread forgiveness.  We are called to spread acceptance.  We are called to spread welcome.  We are called to spread understanding.  We are called to spread dignity.  And yet somewhere in the swirling storms of COVID19, racism, politics, and even the climate debate, we have lost our bearings.

It is time for us to reconsider who we are and recapture the reasons why we exist.  We don’t have to defend our faith… Christianity is strong enough to survive our insipid displays of loyalty.  What we must defend however, are our hearts which we have allowed to be overtaken by falsehood, deceit, and darkness which betrays the very light that Christ died to place within us.

Jon R. Roebuck

But what do I know of such things…

Recently, I spoke to an aged friend who is slowly slipping away.  The doctors say that his life is now measured in months and not years.  I have told him not to fear, to be confident in his faith, and courageous in his journey… that death is nothing more than to find oneself in the warm embrace of God.  But what do I know of such things?

I stopped the other day and handed the homeless man standing on the corner, a few bucks from the abundance of many in my wallet.  I told him that I would be praying for him and that hopefully his lot would improve soon.  I told him to keep up his hope as he looks to better his life.  I can often speak on such topics… those of helping the marginalized and giving to the poor who need our support.  I act as though I know what it is to be hungry and cold and without hope.  But what do I know of such things?

I have a black friend with whom I often speak.  Recently we talked about systemic racism and hatred and the evils of our misguided culture.  When she told me about a recent afternoon walk when she was verbally assaulted with angry racial slurs just because she dared to smile and say hello, I thought, but what do I know of such things?

I pulled in behind an old, beat-up, van at the gas station last week.  I watched as 3 young children spilled out of the side door.  The father handed each a single dollar as they headed for the convenient mart with their mother.  Their faces lit-up with the excitement of all that a dollar could purchase.  3 bucks… a treasure for them, but surely a sacrifice for an over-worked and weary father.  He squeezed off the pump handle when it tallied $10.  He must live with the dog of scarcity constantly nipping at his heels.  But what do I know of such things?

I adjusted the thermostat last night, to provide a little additional warmth to the house.  I curled up in a warm bed and watched a little cable tv before I went to sleep.  I watched a news report about some refugee families that gathered everything they owned and packed them in a few cloth bags to carry on their backs as they walked to a strange country, where the language was foreign and the people unwelcoming.  I wondered what such a moment must be like… But what do I know of such things?

I have a friend who has suffered with a cocaine addiction for nearly decade, another friend who is a slave to alcohol, and still another who lost his job, wife, and health because of his inability to separate himself from the lure of gambling.  It’s easy to think, “Just quit drinking! Hang around people who will lead you to make better decisions.  Count the cost of what gambling has done and walk away from it.”  It’s easy to recognize the demons in the lives of others and offer a glib response.  But what do I know of such things?

I heard a report this morning on NPR about a man who lost his job because of COVID19.  His employer could no longer make ends meet and the decision was made to close the business.  This man has courageously tried to fight through the downturn.  He’s been able to find a few odd jobs here and there, but nothing that is lasting or sustaining.  He’s worried.  This past week, he started selling items from his home out on his front sidewalk.  “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” he jokes.  Imagine selling your possessions to buy food for your family because there is no work.  But what do I know of such things?

Here’s what I do know.  I know that it’s hard to understand the lives of others, when you haven’t known their life experience.  I know that judging others is never the way forward.  I know that having the world’s goods while seeing your brother in need is egregious to Holy God.  I know that a spirit of generosity is one of the gifts I have to offer but fail to extend often enough.  I know that hope is forged on the anvil of human kindness and contact.  I know that I can make a difference if I choose to do so, or I can stand in the ever-dimming light around me and curse the on-coming darkness.

The world can be made better by acts of kindness, grace, and understanding.  But what do I know of such things?

Jon R Roebuck – Nov. 2020

 

Fish & Loaves: A COVID Response

Over the course of the COVID pandemic, I have taken on the discipline of a careful reading and reflection of the Gospel of Matthew.  Knowing that the Word of God is both “living and active,” I thought such a discipline might allow The Word to speak to me in fresh ways as I examined the text in the midst of this season of challenge.  I have slowly poured my way through the Gospel, line-by-line, making notes, recording insights, and listening for the whisper of the Spirit to speak with new insight into my heart and mind.

In Matthew’s telling of the Gospel, Chapter 14 begins with the account of John the Baptist’s death.  Herod had John imprisoned because of John’s forthright preaching about Herod’s relationship with his brother’s wife.  Because of a foolish promise made during a poignant moment at a party, John is beheaded and his head is presented to the party guests as a gruesome trophy.  The disciples of John take his body and bury it, offering a meager sense of dignity in the midst of a horrific moment.

Coming on the heels of that story, Matthew offers his version of the Feeding of the 5000 (the only miracle recorded by all four Gospel writers).  It begins with the simple phrase, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.” (Matthew 14:13).  The antecedent of the word “this” refers to the death of John.  Jesus, feeling the weight of his own sorrow, goes to a distant place to grieve, ponder, pray, fortify, and rest.  He needs a moment of respite and reflection. Matthew then tells of the response of the crowds… “But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.”  Mostly, as we read this passage, we assume that when Matthew says “when the crowds heard it,” we think that the crowds are responding to the news that Jesus has departed the region.  But what if they too, are responding to the news that John is dead?  What if that’s the “it” to which Matthew is referring?

Suddenly their pursuit of Jesus is seen in a different light.  Their pursuit is that of seeking solace, answers, hope, and relief from their own sorrow.  The death of John the Baptist would have been a devastating loss.  His preaching, his powerful presence, his prophetic shining of truth into the political space of his day would have been so powerful, so hopeful, so meaning to his generation… and suddenly his life is snuffed out.  Perhaps Jesus feels the weight of their sorrow and bewilderment and that is the reason why he leaves the solitude of his boat and steps out onto the land to engage these desolate people.  In fact, maybe it is not the place that seems so desolate, as much as it is the hearts of the people who are so much at loss.  As you would expect, Jesus gives himself away in that moment.  He preaches, he touches, he heals the broken… both those who are broken emotionally and those who are broken physically.  And then, of course, he feeds them with the miracle of the fish and the loaves.  They leave with hearts and bellies full.  They leave with a renewed hope, a reclaimed faith, and a restored joy.

Understand that John’s death was not forgotten on that single day.  The pain and sorrow were still felt by Jesus.  But his grief was lessened through a sense of community, a sharing of a meal, and willingness to serve the needs of others.  Jesus found his footing again, not simply in the solitude of a quiet moment, but also in the company of his trusted followers and in the act of meeting the needs of hurting people.

Read in the context of this COVID moment, perhaps there is a word for all of us.  Like Christ, we find ourselves a little bewildered, a little stressed, a little “struck down” by the weariness of protocols, the ever-increasing numbers, and the grief of things taken from us… not just lives, but moments… moments that we long to share with loved ones and friends.  How do we regain our footing?  How do we step out onto the shore once again and face the challenges of each day?

First, we must seek the distant place of reflection.  We need to sit quietly and reflect on our confusion, our angst, our anger, and our need for renewed hope.  Most of us have churned our way through endless months of work and worry, trying to stay ahead of the virus and its impositions on our lives.  We all need a little rest… a little break from time to time.  It’s okay to step away for a moment and catch your breath.

Second, we need the comfort of community.  Obviously finding community is challenging in the midst of social distancing.  Finding community is hard, but it is not impossible.  Phone calls can still be made.  Letters can still be written.  Stories can still be told.  Laughter can still be shared.  If nothing else, the pandemic has reminded us of how important it is to be in community with others.  Though it may not be as easy to create community these days, it is still vitally important.

Third, share a meal.  There is something mystical, special, and even healing that comes when we sit together at a table.  We feed both body and soul.  Please do not miss understand… I am not advocating in-person dining in a closed-in space.  It’s not safe.  But maybe a socially distanced picnic, or backyard cookout, or a delivered pizza you share with someone 500 miles away as you meet on Zoom, can provide a chance to kick back, talk, and find solace.

Fourth, remember that Jesus found strength and renewal in meeting the needs of hurting people.  There is great healing when we are able to focus on the needs of others and act on their behalf.  Maybe this is a season to practice generosity… a generosity of wealth, of resources, of time, of patience, of kindness.

For most of us, it’s not a question of “if” we will live through the pandemic… it’s a question of how well we will survive.  May we find strength, hope, and renewal for the facing of this hour.

 

 

It’s Just the Color of Skin…

It’s just the color of skin, Lord, that’s all.

And we boast about our shade as though any one shade is better than any other.

We boast about our color as though we had one single bit of control over who we are, or where we were born, or into what race we were placed.

We’re all just people… made in Your image and precious in Your sight.

Remind us as your children, that the Kingdom is not about color, not about privilege, not about gender, not about politics, and not about economics.

The Kingdom is all about the condition of heart and the content of character.

Your gaze is always upon the person within, and so ours must be as well.

Teach us that there are no limits to the embrace of Your Kingdom.

For in Your Kingdom, there are no lines of color that will segregate, no walls of heritage that will divide, no fences of prejudice that will draw distinctions, for ALL are one in Christ Jesus.

We’ve built enough walls, instilled enough hatred, and passed along enough bigotry.

Forgive us.  Change us.  Empower us.  Make us better and make us bolder.

Teach us to stand united, hand in hand, heart to heart, as children of a Greater God.

Father help us to build the Kingdom and not to destroy it.

Remind us that that which sometimes divides us is just the color of skin, that’s all.

-Dr. Jon R. Roebuck