Author: Jon Roebuck

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

Listen to the Last Words – John 15:12-17

As we communicate, our conversations can be filled with lots of words that have both nuance and meaning.  Some conversations are long and composed of many words, while other conversations can be extremely short with maybe a single word used to convey our thoughts.  “Go!  Stop!  Look!”  Usually our conversations have a little pattern to them.  They begin with a greeting, followed with the main idea we long to convey, and then maybe we close with a word of farewell.  But there is one thing that I have noticed over the course of many conversations with many people.  Sometimes it’s the last word that becomes the important word.

For example I have had folks come to my office to chat.  We may converse for 5 or 10 minutes.  Finally they get up to leave and with their hand on the door to head out, they will finally get around to saying the thing they have really come to communicate.  “Preacher, my mom’s not doing well and I am worried.”  Or, “I discovered some drugs in my daughter’s car and I don’t know what to do about it.”  Or maybe something like this, “The doctor says that I have a lump that needs a biopsy.  I’m sure that I will be fine.  I just wanted you to know.”  

You have been there, right?  You listen for the last word.  It’s as though the conversation gets really serious at just the point you think that it’s about to end.  Sometimes we need to pay attention to the last word. 

Go back with me in your mind, to that upper room in Jerusalem.  Imagine the scene.  A spacious table is filled with the delicacies of the Passover Feast.  There is lamb, unleavened bread, fruit, and wine.  The room is dimly lit with candles.  In the flicker of light you can see the faces of 12 men and their leader as they spend the evening in celebration of their faith heritage.  Early on in the evening, the conversation is light and the mood is upbeat.  Moments of laughter erupt as these men tell their stories.  But the conversation slowly drifts to a more serious tone.  Jesus will teach and speak about the coming of the Holy Spirit and about the suffering He will endure and about the hatred these men will encounter.  At one point Jesus even gets up from the table to wash the feet of His followers.  It is a shocking display of servanthood that seems hard for each man to take in.

Passover Feasts were not the kind of meal through which one would rush.  It was a long, drawn-out affair that lasted for hours.  We are not told in Scripture the actual hour of the meal but surely it went on into the night.  And for argument’s sake, let’s suppose that it was well after nine when Jesus offered some of His last words.  If that were the case, then just 12 hours later, He would hang from a cross.  Just twelve hours later.  That gives a bit of gravitas to the moment.  Jesus offers a final word of challenge and command, His eyes riveted to the eyes of His followers.  Not only are these words among the last He will speak that night, they are among the last He will speak before the crucifixion and resurrection.  They are the last drops of a flood of teaching that has spanned the course of the past three years.  And because they are the last words, they become the important words.

And notice to whom they are spoken… the 12 disciples.  These men are the foundational stones of the Kingdom of God.  Upon their shoulders the Church will be built and the Gospel will take flight.  It is this group who will go forth to change the world.  Men like the tax collector Matthew, or the fiery Sons of Thunder named James and John.  Andrew, Philip, Simon Peter and the others all hear the voice of Jesus.  These are the men who knew Him best.  They were eyewitnesses to the miracles.  They heard the teaching.  With their own hands they had passed along the baskets of bread and fish that fed 5000 men.  They saw the dead come to life again.  Of all the people on the planet, you would think that they are the strongest, the most loyal, the best of the best, ready to go forth in the footsteps of their Master and Lord.

So, listen to what He says to them.  Listen to the last words.  “This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you.  There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  And just to emphasize His point, a few verses later he repeats Himself, “This is my command; Love each other.”  Do you think that is strange?  That Jesus has to tell His followers to love each other?  Is there the possibility that they wouldn’t love each other?  That they would let differences divide and old ways of thinking replace the new?  That they would forget all that He taught them?  Surely the importance of those words must reach our hearing as well.

This weekend, as we prepare to celebrate the cross, the sacrifice, the pain, and yes the resurrection, do we need to be reminded to love each other again?  Probably so.  You see if we are not careful, we can let the old ways of thinking seep into the hearts and mind’s of God’s people.  We can allow ourselves to live like those who have never met Him.  The love that should be evident is sometimes hard to find.  Think about the moments in which we now live.  These days people who call themselves Christians spew out racial hatred and prejudice in the name of good politics.  These days the people of Jesus try to exclude those whose lives are broken because of their “too many” mistakes… somehow forgetting that all of us are just sinners saved by grace. These days Christian folk will talk behind someone’s back or ignore the way words cause injury.  These days followers of Christ will ignore the plight of the poor or get angry when someone suggests helping out a neighbor.  These days disciples can let the smallest of arguments cause life-long rifts.  These days people who have been charged with “changing the world” somehow get angry when the world around them changes and rather than embrace the opportunity to be Christ-like in an ever-shifting culture, they put bigger locks on the doors so that the church will stay “irrelevantly fixed” in time.  

We have to be better than that.  We have to live by a higher standard.  We have to model a better life.  The distinguishing mark of Christianity is love and nothing else.  So do we love each other?  Do we forgive and long to heal?  Do we share out of our abundance?  Do we care when people haven’t heard the Gospel?  Do we weep for the lost and pray for the unsaved?  Do we love every neighbor as much as we love ourselves?  Do we love enough to listen, to care, to meet a need?  Do we love enough to be kind, thoughtful, and welcoming?

On the last night of His ministry, with the last moment of His teaching, with one of the last breaths in His body… Jesus said, “Love one another.”  That last word has to matter.

March Madness… Some Thoughts on the Corona Virus

Two weeks ago, it wasn’t even a conversation.  Now, it’s all that anyone can talk about.  Everyone from politicians, to preachers, to news pundits, are all offering their commentary.  The spread of this deadly virus has gone from a problem “way over there somewhere,” to a panic that has arrived at our doorstep.  Schools, universities, churches, concerts, and sporting events have all closed their doors in the hope that by somehow limiting the crowds, they will limit the exposure.  And all the while, there is so much that we don’t know.  How did it start and when?  Has it gone undetected for weeks? How many are infected?  How many have been tested? How long will the threat last?  When will life get back to normal? Should I stockpile supplies or just hope the stores will stay full?  Is it safe to eat out?  Should I work from home?

With each day, the anxiety seems to build.  Most Americans can no longer dismiss the threat or calm themselves by just using more hand sanitizer like they did a few days ago, thinking they were prudent.  How should we prepare?  Are we being overly cautious, or not cautious enough?  And, what should we do from a faith perspective?  Can people of faith approach this moment with hope, compassion, and real words of comfort?  Can we offer perspective and speak calm to the storm that swirls about us?

Like you, I have heard a lot of preachers say a lot of pious sounding but positively ignorant things over the past few days.  Some suggest that to cancel worship services because of the virus is somehow an affront to Holy God and a betrayal of one’s faith.  Not only does such a pseudo-pietistic mentality add a layer of guilt to those pastors and church leaders who truly agonize over such a decision, but it also puts a lot of people at risk, especially the elderly for whom the choice of not attending is a very real struggle.  Some defiantly proclaim that with enough faith, the storm will leap over your house.  One televangelist promised a miracle elixir to cure the virus… (for a small contribution, of course).  Another was claiming to heal those afflicted by having viewers place their hands on the tv screen.  I’m surprised that someone hasn’t suggested sprinkling a little Lysol on the doorpost of your home in true Passover fashion.  Most of us can surely see through the claims of such charlatans.  We have enough common sense to separate fact from fiction.  So how should we respond as people of faith?

Toward the close of the New Testament book of James, these words of counsel are offered… “Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:13-14). Let me pick up on these verses about prayer and the use of anointing oil.  Knowing that some interpret those words differently – and I certainly affirm everyone’s right to do so through the mysterious work of the Spirit – allow me to give my perspective.  I think James is offering a couple of important words to those who are suffering.  First, he commands us to pray.  In the midst of any illness, suffering, or angst, prayer is certainly the starting point for any sense of recovery.  We pray first, invoking the tender, compassionate, loving, and powerful intervention of God.  To pray is to recognize that He is the source of all healing and that we are utterly dependent upon His involvement in our lives.

Second, James asks for the elders to also pray and use anointing oil.  I believe there is power in the sharing of our concerns and in the collective strength of our petitions.  It is the right thing to do, to ask others to join us in praying for our needs, our fears, and our pains.  Our prayers are magnified through common petition.  In the first century world, the anointing oil had two roles.  It was a tangible reminder of the presence of God.  Oil was used to anoint Kings, celebrate joyful moments, and aid in healing. The oil was a symbolic way of reminding people that God’s Spirit was present.  But the oil also had medicinal value.  It was a soothing balm that helped to heal while keeping out dangerous disease, dirt, and grime.  It was one of the few medical options available at the time.  

So, in my view, James was suggesting that those who were sick, should immediately call on the grace and mercy of God, acknowledging total dependency upon Him, while seeking the best medical treatment available.  Surely, such an approach speaks to the present moment.  From a faith perspective, here’s my advice for battling the corona virus.  

First, pray… pray about your anxiety, your fears, and your situation.  Pray for the safety and well-being of your family, friends, and co-workers.  Ask others to join you in praying.  By praying you will be reminded of the Sovereignty of God.  

Second, take every reasonable precaution.  Do the things that the real experts are advising you to do… wash your hands, avoid large crowds, keep a proper social distance around co-workers, clean surfaces often.  If you feel sick, stay home.  Don’t endanger others.  In other words, be smart and use your common sense.  Also, be mindful of the 24/7 overload of information. It can be a bit overwhelming.  Though it is important to stay informed, reserve a little time for distraction.

Third, don’t be a hero, be a helper.  You are not going to win a prize for putting yourself in harm’s way.  Don’t take unnecessary risks.  However, do seek ways to help others.  Many are running errands for the elderly.  Others are self-quarantining when they suspect they might be exposed to the virus.  Some are only purchasing what they need at the store, not hoarding large quantities that keep others from having what they might need.  You can also help by being supportive of medical personnel, grocery store employees, and EMS workers.  

And finally, let’s stick together in this battle.  As people of faith, let’s lead the way.  Let’s be patient.  Let’s be understanding.  Let’s be kind and gracious.  Let’s act like citizens of this world who are also citizens of a far greater Kingdom.  And let us pray that this year’s March Madness will soon find resolution.

My Place at the Table

I’m a big advocate of getting people to the table.  Until we are intentional about inviting others to join us in civil, respectful, and rational dialogue about things that matter, those conversations will simply not happen.  We need to have conversations about race, immigration, gun control, women’s rights, border security, health care, and a whole host of other topics.  Social media, talk radio, and television news panels are not the best places for constructive, peaceful, and sensible words about important matters.  Sometimes we need to simply create the space and talk to people with whom we may not always agree… face to face and heart to heart. Perspective is a wonderful gift and when we learn to build relationships, the hostility and anger tend to seep away and honest dialogue occurs.

But let’s talk about our “place” at the table.  There is a difference between being seated at the table as a participant and standing at the table as an observer.  Most of us tend to think that we belong… that we should be seated at every table.  We think that our opinions, our values, our knowledge, and our experiences put us in a place of intellectual and maybe even moral superiority.  In other words, we tend to think that we are the source of all wisdom and knowledge and that others long to hear what we think.  And for some issues, maybe that’s true.  There are areas of expertise that might get us a seat at the table.  But those areas are not as many as we would like to imagine.

For example, if the topic swirled around preaching or pastoring or starting a new program, then pull me up a chair.  I’ve been there and have experience from which to draw.  Or, want to talk about raising kids?  Been there and done that.  Or consider this… I’m a fairly competent student of the Bible and can probably hold my own in terms of applying Scripture and faith to current events and cultural issues. I can talk with a fair amount of confidence about leadership and how to inspire others.  I can even talk about developing concepts and ideas into curriculum.  Or, if you ever want to talk about knee replacement surgery, I’m your guy.  Again, those are the kinds of topics with which I have had experience.  And although I do not claim to be an expert at any of them, there is enough personal knowledge and experience about those topics that might get me a seat at the table.

And then there are those topics that interest me, but don’t necessarily put me at the table.  I need to sometimes be an observer… a listener… a learner.  The older I get, the more I understand how limited any one person’s perspective can be, even my own.  For example, I can’t speak about what it feels like to be discriminated against, or what it is like to feel oppression because of gender, or denied access to education, goods and services because of my race.  That’s not my life, nor my story.  I can’t begin to tell you what it’s like to be an immigrant.  I can’t talk about how it feels to be denied healthcare.  I can’t tell you what it is like to live with perpetual hunger.  I can’t describe homelessness.  I can’t tell you about the emotional and physical pain that can erupt with an unplanned pregnancy.  I can’t tell you what it is like to be abused by a parent.  I can’t tell you what it’s like to fear the escalation of a routine traffic stop.  I haven’t earned a place at those tables of debate and dialogue because I can only learn of those things from a distance.

But learn I must.  Like many of you, I need to at least be present in the room when such topics are discussed.  I need to learn.  I need to listen.  I need to gain perspective that I don’t have.  I need to discover that moral, intellectual, or spiritual superiority is never a goal to be envied, but a false notion to be shunned.  There are far more tables around which I should stand as an observer, than those around which I should sit as a participant.  May God help me to know my place.

Dr. Jon Roebuck, Executive Director – Curb Center for Faith Leadership

Wiping Off The Lenses

I’m at that age where I require reading glasses.  I keep a pair handy in all the strategic places.  I have a pair in the car.  I have a pair next to the recliner… a pair on my desk at home… a pair in the kitchen… a pair on my bedside table.  And of course, I have a pair (or two) at work.  I keep them in my desk drawer.  Here’s my morning routine.  As soon as I arrive in my office, I fire up my computer and while it is booting-up, I reach for my glasses.  And each morning, I take out a special lens-cleaning cloth and carefully wipe away all of the smudges so that I can start the day with a clean pair of glasses and clearer vision.  It’s always amazing to me how dirty the lenses become during a day of typical use.  I sometimes ask myself while cleaning the glasses, “How did I ever see anything clearly with these?”

I wish that I could clean my “life lenses” with the same ease.  It happens to us all… slowly, subtly, and steadily.  Over time our view of the world gets a little jaded.  We begin to perceive the world around us with distortion.  We begin to look at things through the lens of past perceptions and experiences where opinions, biases, and even prejudices quickly smudge our vision.  We no longer see the world with fresh eyes but with suspicion, anger, hatred, and even regret.  We no longer have the capacity to see the humanity and worth of every person. We no longer have the capacity to see to face of Christ in every person we encounter.  We no longer have the capacity to see others through the lens of Christ’s compassion, grace, and tender mercy.

We’ve even lost the ability to see ourselves with the proper perspective.  For some of us, we see only our failures and mistakes when we look at our image reflected in the mirror.  For others of us, we only see what we want to see, which forces us to ignore the changes we need to make in our lives.  We see a distorted image of self-importance and self-perfection.  Both ways of looking at self, blind us to the realities around us.  One view causes us to think too little of ourselves, while the other view causes us to think too highly.

We no longer see anything clearly anymore through our clouded eyes and harsh opinions.  We’ve lost sight of a better world that Christ hopes we will one-day claim as His.   So how do we change our perceptions, our outlook, and our view of others?  Can we wipe off the life lenses and see things differently? Is there a special cloth that can cleanse our eyes, refresh our minds, and open our hearts?  The simple answer is no… there is no quick fix or magic eraser. Most of us have spent years layering our prejudices, our attitudes, and our opinions.  It’s foolish to think that we can remove our cataracts with one simple operation.  It takes time to see the world differently.  It takes times to see with the perception of Jesus.  It takes times to change the human heart.

It all begins with the confession that we need better vision.  I remember denying for several years the fact that I needed reading glasses. I didn’t want to admit that was getting older and not seeing things with the clarity that I desired.  It’s hard for all of us to admit that none of us see with perfect clarity.  We all have a little distortion when we gaze upon others.  But we can start to heal, to change, and to see differently.  Some of us need to spend way less time on Social Media.  If you find yourself getting angry every time you log-on, it’s probably better to step away. Caustic comments made by others can damage your viewpoint.  Some of us need to rethink relationships.  Paul said that “bad company corrupts good character” (I Cor. 15:34).  When you surround yourself with only people who look like you, think like you, vote like you, and worship like you… you limit your outlook tremendously.  Some of us need to rethink how we engage the world.  I have found that people who learn to give themselves away, tend to see the world differently.  They find value, warmth, and meaning in the relationships where they judge less and love more.

It’s time to wipe away the smudges.  The Spirit of Christ within you demands that you see the world with fresh eyes… compassionate eyes… respectful eyes… peaceful eyes…His eyes.

  • Dr. Jon Roebuck, Executive Director, Charlie Curb Center for Faith Leadership