Category: Blog Entries

The Moments That Matter blog entries are written, edited and posted by the Director of the Institute for Innovative Faith-Based Leadership at Belmont University, Dr. Jon Roebuck.

Losing Sight of the North Star

Back in my college experience, I had the opportunity of taking an elective course in Cartography and Orienteering.  I was and have always been fascinated by map reading and directional awareness.  Because of an on-going interest at the time in aviation, a course that focused on such things was particularly interesting to me.  I can still vividly recall one particular day of class.  Our instructor led us out of the classroom building to a large 3-acre field on the edge of campus.  His instructions were simple.  “When I tell you to begin walking, I want you to walk in a straight line until I blow my whistle.  When you hear the whistle, stop and return to the starting point.”  So, at his command, we started walking in straight lines across the field.  After ½ minute or so, he sounded the whistle and we returned to our original spots.

Next, our instructor handed out blindfolds to each member of the class.  He told us to cover our eyes and we would repeat the same exercise as before.  He shouted, “Walk!” and we began our trek across the field once more attempting to walk in straight lines.  This time he let us walk for about 1 minute.  He blew the whistle and told us to stop and remove our blindfolds.  The result was shocking.  None of our group had walked in a straight line!  We found ourselves all over the field moving in all sorts of new directions.  Personally, I was veering off to the left in about a 45-degree angle.  The point was well made.  When we lose focus, failing to keep our gaze on a fixed point, we very quickly will lose our way.

The same thing happens spiritually, emotionally, and relationally.  As long as we have a focal point… a north star… a clear goal… then our lives seem to track in the right direction.  It is when we lose our focus that our steps quickly diverge into misguided ways.  The Scriptures offer their counsel.  Jesus reminded His followers of maintaining a clear focus when He said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62 NIV)  The writer of Hebrews suggests, “And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.  We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2 NLT) The Biblical message is clear, directional clarity is important.

The North Star in relationships could be defined by fidelity, trust, and commitment to sacred vows.  Such directional clarity may well keep relationships focused and moving in the right direction, lest we stray and drift away from our best selves.  In terms of emotional health, all of us would do well to keep our gaze on activities, involvements, and friendships that affirm, heal, and bring us joy.  In terms of spirituality, it is the North Star of our fundamental beliefs, practices, and disciplines that keep us tracking well.  Ignoring our spiritual moorings can lead us into very difficult and even lonely spaces.

But let’s take it a step further.  My concern is over the ways in which we, as Christ-centered individuals, have allowed ourselves to walk across the landscape of our culture as though we are doing so with blindfolds obstructing our vision.  We seem to have lost sight of the ethical and moral leadership of the Christ we claim to follow.  Rather than allowing our lives to be defined and accented with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Fruit of the Spirit – Gal. 5:22-23), we bathe ourselves in the backwash of all that is evil and dehumanizing about our culture.  We have allowed our new North Star to become selfishness, vitriolic speech, caustic rhetoric, angry opinions, and narrow-minded viewpoints.  We have exchanged our “professed love of Christ,” for the world’s hatred, our “compassion” for a despicable selfishness, our “noble virtues” for greed and power.  We continue to more narrowly define our version of “Christian ethics,” wrapping our thoughts into a perverted politic, a warped mind, and a depraved spirit.  Instead of fixing our eyes on Christ, the author and perfector of our faith, we have allowed the voices of our culture to distract us, change us, and rob us of our Christ-like virtues.  We have allowed such voices to enrage us, misinform us, and to manipulate us.

The problem is that when we lose our directional focus, so does the world around us.  We have been called as “salt and light.” (Matthew 5:13-14 NASB)  Our mission is to change the world, not be changed by it.  Our goal is to be the voice of civility, reason, and goodness, not simply to add more angry static to the misguided cultural chorus that is all too often the loudest sound in the room.  It is time to once again open our eyes and set our steps in the direction of that which is life-giving, transformative, and filled with grace.  As Paul writes, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2 NASB)  It is time to embrace a new sense of faith within us, one that inclusively loves, compassionately gives, reflectively reasons, and graciously guides.  As we walk forward into all that is before us, let us resolve to do so with a directional focus guided by an authentic and genuine faith in Christ, not one skewed by a dark and limited vision.

 

 

The Scrape

I have to confess that I am a little over-the-top when it comes to keeping a clean car.  I like my car to look its best both inside and out.  It’s in my DNA… my dad was the same way, and his father before him.  I still remember driving home from college and my dad meeting me in the driveway with a hose in hand.  Before the bags were carried into the house, the car was washed and a coat of Armor All was applied to the tires.  Even now, there are moments when I’ve been known to drive home from a long trip, and wash the car before I go to bed.  I knew I would rest easier just knowing that all the bugs were off the windshield and the road grime erased from the fenders.

I did a dumb thing last weekend.  I was actually pulling into a carwash place to select the desired wash and insert my credit card.  I was concerned that I needed to be a little bit closer to the computer screen and so I steered a little closer to the curb… too close in fact.  I heard a slight “grinding noise” and I knew immediately that I had scraped my left-front alloy rim on the curb.  And sure enough, as soon as the wash was complete, I stepped out to survey the damage.  A small scrape, not more than an inch, was glaring at me from my clean car.  I have to admit that it bothered me more than it should have.  The car looked great… clean and shiny from one end to the other, but all I saw, was the scrape on the rim.  Before the afternoon was over, I had already researched businesses in my area that could restore the rim to its pristine condition.  Appointments have been made.

I’m not sure I can explain the need to set things right again, but some of that is in all of us.  Maybe it’s in our spiritual DNA.  For surely our Heavenly Father is the same way, not about cars, but about persons.  It goes something like this…  Often, we make bad choices.  We make mistakes.  We err.  We sin.  We disobey.  And suddenly our once bright and shiny lives contain an ugly scrape.  We are not as pure as we once were.  We are not as clean, and maybe not as presentable.  But whenever we see ourselves as unclean, or marred, or even unworthy, we are looking through the wrong set of eyes.  When viewed through the eyes of the Father, there is no guilt or shame, only the rush to make things new again.  Where we might see only the mistake, the Father sees only the joy that will come when everything is restored again.

It bothers God whenever we see ourselves as less than He created us to be.  He does not want us to languish or live under a load of remorse or failure.  He stands in the driveway, with a hose in hand, waiting to help us remove all the grime that life has forced us to carry.  Before we can even begin to unpack our shame, He is in the process of wiping it all away.  He longs to set things right again.  1 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.”  Before you even realize the gravity of your mistakes, God is in the process of renewal.  Make no mistake, our sins always represent failure and they grieve the heart of God.  But God never sees “us” as failures.  He longs for restoration and wholeness.    Remember that there is a commonality to our humanity.  All of us… all of us, will make mistakes.  We will experience our share of bumps, bruises, and scrapes along the way.  Admittedly, it’s hard for us to see anything but the ugly deeds that have destroyed our self-image.  But God does not dwell on the scrape, but on the beauty that is to be revealed when all things are made new.

I’m looking forward to getting my rim repaired.  I will take care of that as soon as I can.  But what will be important moving forward, is that I have learned from my mistake.  If I am wise, I will remember what I did and will make a better decision in the future.  I hope I don’t have to make the same mistake twice, or even a third time.  Because we are human, and flawed, and fragile, we will make some mistakes.  The real tragedy is not that things get broken, but that they don’t get mended.  God is gracious.  He will forgive our sinful deeds.  His grace is dependent on His generosity, not our worthiness to claim it.  And hopefully, once we have traveled the journey from guilt to grace, from brokenness to renewal, we will learn from our mistakes.  Genuine repentance sets us off in a new direction.  We can be better.  We can make better choices.  But whenever the next scrape comes along… and it will… be reminded that God will be in a rush to make things new again.

The Wayside Inn – A Christmas Story

It was starting to spit a little snow when Tim Wilson walked out to start packing his pickup for the trip home.  Tim was working as a waiter in a downtown Nashville restaurant and had to wait until Christmas Eve morning to start his trek home to Spencer, WV.  He wanted to leave the night before as soon as he got off work, but his mother insisted that he get a little rest before embarking on the 7-hour drive home.  Spencer, WV is a tiny town nestled among the mountains of West Virginia, about 2 hours northeast of Charleston.  Tim had grown up in Spencer and his parents, along with his younger sister, still lived in the small community.  Tim had grown up with a love of Bluegrass music and had learned to play the banjo.  Like many other aspiring musicians, he moved to Nashville in hopes of making it big with a country band.  He was still waiting for his “big break,” but while he “pounded the pavement” of Broadway looking for his shot at fame and fortune, he worked part-time as a waiter to pay his rent and utilities.  He hadn’t been home since late summer.  He promised his mother that he would be home for Christmas and he intended to keep that promise.

He turned up the collar on his jacket against the biting cold of the winter wind that was blowing through Nashville.  An artic blast was covering much of the eastern United States.  There was even talk of a winter storm possibly making its way through the region, but most of the weather folks believed it would stay well to the north.  “Be sure to fill-up and pack some blankets,” his father had advised, “just in case you get into a situation… you just never know.”  Tim had heard that speech a dozen times before and at first, he had blown off his dad’s counsel, but at the last minute he grabbed his heavy coat and a blanket. Afterall, the temperature had really dropped overnight and maybe taking a little extra precaution wasn’t a bad idea.

After loading the pickup, Tim made a couple of final trips in and out of his apartment to grab the presents he had bought for his parents and sister.  He made sure they were secure and wouldn’t get squeezed during the trip.  With everything ready to go, he fired-up his trusty F-150 and eased out of the apartment parking lot.  He checked the time.  It was just past 7 a.m., but already 8:00 a.m. in Spencer.  With some holiday luck and not much traffic, he would be home by late afternoon… maybe even before dark.  Before pulling onto the interstate, he turned into the local Tiger-Mart near his apartment, to fill his tank and to grab a sausage biscuit for the road.  Traffic was light and he quickly made his way north of town hoping to get to Lexington before stopping.  He found a country station on the radio and sang along with all the familiar Christmas songs of the season.

By the time he got just east of Lexington, the snow began to fall.  At first it was just a light dusting, but before long, it became much heavier and soon made travel a little tricky.  The old F-150 seemed to handle it well enough, but traffic got slower and slower and Tim began to wonder if he would make it home before dark as he had hoped.  By the time he crossed the Kentucky – West Virginia line just east of Huntington, visibility was greatly reduced.  Even though it was still early afternoon, the snowfall had started to really pile-up and the traffic got increasingly slow.  Tim finally made his way into Charleston well after 4:00 p.m. local time.  He stopped and stretched and grabbed a burger at McDonalds.  A lot of the local places had already closed because of the weather and the fact that it was Christmas Eve.  Tim filled the tank for good measure and called his parents to tell them that he was running late.  “Don’t worry about me.  I will call back in a while and let you know how I’m making it.”

It was getting dark when Tim left Charleston.  On a good day, the trip home from Charleston was about a 2-hour drive, give-or-take a few minutes.  But it quickly became apparent that the journey was going to be a long, slow slog through the wet snow.  The fact that fewer and fewer cars were on the road, made Tim a little nervous about the weather.  He was relieved when he finally came to the Hwy 119 exit.  The rest of the trip would be on a two-lane winding road… not the best for snowy travel, but certainly a road that Tim had driven many times.

The weather continued to deteriorate.  The winds were howling and the snow was coming down at a very rapid rate.  Tim was starting to wonder if he was going to make it home in time for Christmas.  Because of the low visibility and snow-covered roads, Tim was only moving along at about 30 miles an hour.  There were times he could barely see the edges of the roadway.  He sometimes drove for miles without passing another car.  The more he thought about it, the more grateful he was for the heavy coat and blanket piled up next to him on the front seat.

It was after 8:00 p.m. and Tim still had a long way to go.  He pulled over to call his folks and tell them what was going on.  His mother told him to please be careful and that she was praying for him every minute until he walked into their house.  His father took the phone into another room, out of earshot from his wife.  He said to Tim, “Don’t press your luck, son.  If you find a place and you need to stop for the night, don’t put yourself in danger.  We would rather wait and see you tomorrow if it is too dangerous to keep driving.”  The problem was that old Hwy 119 had very few small towns or places to stay the night.  Tim was going to try to make it if he could.

About 20 minutes later, Tim saw some blue lights on the roadway in front of him.  A state trooper flagged him down.  “Road’s closed for the night,” he said.  There’s too much snow.  No one is going to run a plow until morning.  You have to turn around and head south again.  Sorry.”  Time was a little frustrated but relieved at the same time.  He remembered seeing a little roadside motel about 2 miles back.  He turned the pick-up around and slowly made his way back down the deserted road.  Before long he saw the lights and the neon “vacancy” sign out front of the motel.  His wheels slid a little on the slick pavement of the parking lot as he eased into a parking space near the front.  There were lights on inside and smoke was rising from a fireplace.  A couple of other cars were parked next to him, already piling up with snow.  The motel was a little Mom & Pop kind of place, called “The Wayside Inn.”  It looked a little dated.  It had an old-fashioned feel, but from the outside it seemed to be well-maintained, and after all, it wasn’t like he had other options.

A little brass bell attached to the door, rang loudly, announcing his arrival in the small lobby.  The lobby was clean and neat and looked inviting.  There was a front desk to the left and to the right was a seating area with several comfortable-looking chairs, an undecorated Christmas tree, and a brick fireplace with a roaring fire.  The warmth felt nice to Tim as he shook off some of the cold and felt himself relaxing after all the hours of nervous driving.  In the corner of the room sat an old record player, which was playing a vinyl record of Perry Como hits.  “That’s a little old school,” thought Tim.  About that time, a middle-aged man came walking out of an office behind the front desk.  “Good evening, young man, welcome to the Wayside Inn.  I’m Gabe.  What can I do for you?”  Tim began to tell his story.  “Well I was trying to make my way home for Christmas.  I was headed up toward Spencer but the road is closed and now I’m sort of stuck for the night.”  “Yeah, that storm really came on quickly.  I’m just glad you made it this far.  We will be glad to have you for the night.  We’ve got plenty of rooms.  You’ll be safe and warm here and hopefully the weather will clear and the plows can run in the morning so you can get on your way.”

It was then that Tim noticed the little “No Credit Cards Accepted – Cash or Check Only” sign sitting near the register.  “Who doesn’t take credit cards these days?” thought Tim.  He said to Gabe, “Mister, I’ve got a problem.  I only have about $30 in cash.  I was hoping to use my card.  If you will let me pay some tonight, I will bring you the rest in a few days when I come back through.  I promise I will.  I understand if you say no.  Maybe I could just sleep in one of your chairs out here in the lobby.  I will try to be out of your way first thing in the morning.”  Gabe was more than understanding.  “Young man, you don’t need to worry about a thing.  It’s Christmas Eve and you are going to be our guest for the night.  What kind of people would we be if we turned you out on a night like tonight?”

Tim was a little overwhelmed by the offer of generosity.  “Mister, I can’t take advantage of you, it wouldn’t be right.”  “No worries, son, I insist, or should I say, we insist.”  A lovely woman came walking out of the office.  “This is my wife, Hannah.  We’d love for you to be our guest for the evening.”  Hannah extended her hand and gave Tim a warm word of welcome.  “Have you had anything to eat?  We ate a couple of hours ago, but I have some leftovers you could have.”  Tim sheepishly said, “I don’t want to trouble you…” but his stomach was growling and that burger he had hours ago was long gone.  “I insist,” said Hannah, and she was off on her way to throw a few things together.  Gabe said to Tim, “I hope you like ham sandwiches.  Hannah makes a great sandwich on her special homemade sourdough bread.  I think you will like it.”  Tim said, “That sounds amazing… thank you so much.”

Tim asked to be excused for a moment… “I need to call my dad and mom and tell them that I’m okay and that I’m stuck for the night.  They will be disappointed, but relieved to know that I’m safe for the night.  Hopefully I can get home in the morning.”  Gabe replied, “Pay phone is out back if you need it.”  “Pay phone?” thought Tim, “who uses one of those anymore?”  “Thanks, I’ll just use my cell phone, I’ve got a weak signal, but I think I can get through.”  “Gotcha,” said Gabe, “I keep forgetting about those things.”  Tim wondered, “Who forgets about a cell phone?”

He was able to talk to his parents.  “I’m fine.  I’m just stuck.  I found a little motel on the side of the road.  They’ve got a room for me tonight and the owners are really nice.  They have even offered to make me a little supper. I’m sorry I will miss Christmas Eve, but hopefully I can get there before noon if the snow clears.”  Tim spoke with his parents for just a few more minutes.  His dad said, “I don’t remember even seeing a motel along that stretch of road, is it new?”  “No, nothing like that… in fact, it looks like it has been here for a long time.  I almost didn’t see it myself when I first passed by.”  They talked for a few more minutes before hanging up for the evening.

“I got a hold of my parents on the phone.  Everything’s good.  I told them I would see them in the morning,” said Tim to the owner.  “That’s good,” replied Gabe.  Now let’s get you settled in your room while Hannah fixes your dinner.”  Gabe led Tim down a short hallway to the first room on the right.  He opened the door for Tim and handed him the room key.  The key was attached to a large plastic key ring with the room number engraved on it.  “I’ll give you a minute to get settled.  Come on back to the lobby when you are ready.”

The room was small, but very cozy and clean.  The television was not the latest model and the bathroom fixtures looked a little dated, but all in all, Tim was very thankful for a decent place to stay the night.

When he got back to the lobby, Hannah had set up a little card table with Tim’s dinner.  She had spread a cloth on the table, along with a nice place setting, and a Christmas candle.  “This looks great!” said Tim.  “I just wanted you to feel at home,” said Hannah.  Tim, along with Gabe and Hannah sat down at the table while Tim ate.  They chatted and learned more about Tim’s family and his dream of playing music.  Finally, Gabe said, “I do have one favor to ask when you finish up.”  “Sure,” said Tim.  “What can I help you with?”  Gabe said, “One of our Christmas Eve traditions here at the Wayside Inn has always been the decorating of the tree.  If you don’t mind, could you help me get the decorations out of the attic and maybe string the lights?”  “I’d be glad to do so.  Just show me the way.”

While Tim and Gabe fetched the decorations, Hannah reset the table.  She put on a coffee pot and another pot for spiced tea.  She also put out some gingerbread cookies and some slices of homemade pie.  Tim was just amazed by it all.  Hannah said, “I’ve told the other guests to join us, if they would like to do so, for some refreshments and maybe a few Christmas carols.”  “Sounds great,” said Tim.  Within a few minutes, a couple of other folks made their way into the lobby.  They all took turns hanging ornaments on the tree and telling stories of Christmas.  From time-to-time, Gabe would change out the record on the record player.  He had some vintage Nat King Cole records and a few albums by Andy Williams.  The old records just seemed to fit the “vibe” of the old motel.

Hannah stood to her feet and announced it was time for some caroling.  The small group seemed to enjoy each other’s company and folks seemed eager to sing along.  Gabe looked at Tim and asked, “You didn’t happen to bring that banjo with you, did you?”  “As a matter of fact I did, but I’m not sure a banjo solo would sound too much like Christmas.”  “Just go and get it,” said Gabe.  Tim went back to his room to grab his instrument.  He brought it in earlier, not wanting it to get too cold in the truck overnight.  By the time Tim got back to the lobby, Gabe was holding a guitar and Hannah was tuning up a fiddle.  “What the heck?” said Tim.  He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  “You guys play?” he asked?  “Of course we do,” said Gabe.  “I thought we’d play a little bluegrass if that’s all right with you.  I mean, who doesn’t get happy with a little bluegrass?”  They had just started to do a little pickin’ when Tim discovered that Gabe and Hannah certainly knew what they were doing with their instruments.  They were really good.  Soon, the trio was playing all the classic bluegrass songs like they had been rehearsing for months!  The others in the lobby clapped their hands and tapped their feet.  The folks laughed and sang and enjoyed the time together.

As the night was winding down and the final Christmas cookies were being consumed, Tim said to Hannah, “When I stop back by next week on my way to Nashville, I’m going to bring you some of my mom’s cookies.  She makes these really good fruit cookies.  I know that sounds weird, but you will love them.  They’re great.  She also makes the best homemade cheese straws you have ever tasted.  I’ll bring some of those too.”  “That sounds great,” said Hannah, but don’t let her go to any trouble.”  “Any trouble!” said Tim, “She will be so grateful for the way you guys have taken me in for the evening.  She’ll probably bake a pie as well!”

Tim was packing away his banjo while Gabe was putting out the fire in the fireplace and turning off the Christmas tree lights.  “Hannah is expecting you to eat breakfast with us in the morning.  She makes a bacon and egg casserole that’s really good. I hope you will join us.”  “Of course I will,” said Tim.  “Sounds good,” said Gabe, “Hannah will be really glad.  Why don’t you come on down around 8 a.m. and then we will see about getting you on your way.”

Tim went back to his room, took a long hot shower, and climbed into bed.  As he drifted off to sleep, he thought about the blessings of the past few hours… a welcoming couple… good food… music, conversation, and laughter.  It was all so unexpected.  Who knew that Christmas Eve was going to be spent in a little Wayside Inn in the middle of nowhere, and in the company of strangers who now felt like family?  He quickly feel asleep and rested well all night.

When Tim stepped into the lobby at 8 a.m. the next morning, he noticed that the skies were clear and bright.  He also noticed that Gabe had already started a fire in the fireplace.  And… he could smell Hannah’s casserole as she carried it out to the makeshift dining table.  Tim, Gabe, and Hannah sat down together enjoying the food and each other’s company.  While they were eating, Tim heard a familiar “winter noise” for those growing up in West Virginia.  It was the sound of a snow plow rolling up Hwy 119.  “Give it about an hour for the sun to melt what’s left after the plow and you should be good to go,” said Gabe.  Tim simply nodded his head because his mouth was full of casserole.

A little while later, Tim packed up the pickup and said his final farewell to Gabe and Hannah.  “I can’t thank you enough.  You guys have been so kind to me.  Thank you for everything.  I’ll be back in about three days with the money for the room and those goodies from my mom.”  Gabe responded, “Let’s not worry about paying for the room.  You blessed us with your presence and with your music last night.  Let’s call it even, but do stop by with the cookies!”  They all laughed at Gabe’s remark.  After a final hug, Tim started the truck and pulled his way onto the road, headed for home.

For the next three days, Tim spent lots of time with his family in Spencer.  There was a lot of laughter, late-night card playing, movie watching, and gift giving.  It was good to be at home.  Tim’s dad was interested in hearing more about the Wayside Inn.  “We’ve been traveling that road for many years, I just don’t remember ever seeing the place,” he said.  Tim responded, “Well, it’s a small place and there is really nothing close to it… no gas stations or grocery stores nearby.  It looks like it has been there for a while.  I guess we just never noticed it before.”  Tim filled his parents in on all the details of his overnight stay and how kind Gabe and Hannah had been.  Tim’s mother was very grateful for the hospitality shown to her son and she put together a nice basket of things for Tim to drop off on his way back to Nashville. She made a fresh batch of the fruit cookies and put them in the basket.  She added a huge Ziploc bag of her famous cheese straws and a couple of fresh fried apple pies.  “You be sure these get to those kind folks.  I will fix you a bag of goodies for the trip as well, but make sure the basket gets to the folks at that motel,” said Tim’s mother.  Tim promised to do as he was told and looked forward to stopping in to check with Gabe and Hannah to give them his mother’s treats.  Tim’s dad pulled out a fresh $100 bill and told Tim to insist on paying for his room.  “They may not take it, but I want you to offer it.”  “Yes, sir,” said Tim, “I will.”

Tim loaded up the truck on the morning of the 28th to begin the journey back to Nashville.  His boss from the restaurant had called to tell him they were expecting a large weekend crowd along with a big New Year’s Eve party.  Tim was needed, and was excited to learn that he would be making some overtime if he could work most of the weekend.  He gave all the members of his family a big hug and began the long trip back to Music City.  The weather was clear and crisp… plenty of sun and no precipitation in the forecast.  He was grateful for the sunshine and better day on which to travel.

As he made his way south on Hwy 119, he remarked how different everything looked in the light of day.  Most of the snow had melted over the past couple of days and there were more cars on the road.  When he got closer to the mile-marker where he had discovered the Wayside Inn, he slowed to let a couple of cars pass so he could watch carefully for the motel entrance.  He thought it was odd that there was no sign or advertisement along the road about the motel.  “I guess it’s been there so long that the folks around here just know about it,” thought Tim.  And yet he had trouble finding the place.  In fact, he knew he had gone a little too far and so he turned around and headed back North.  He finally came to a spot in the road that looked familiar from the snowy night, but all he saw was what looked to be an old, abandoned parking lot where something used to be.

He pulled into the vacant lot.  He saw what appeared to be the foundations of an old building that was long gone.  He got out of his truck and looked around for a moment.  Things just didn’t make sense.  He was pretty sure that he was in the right place… but there was no motel… no neon vacancy sign, no lobby or rooms… just an overgrown lot with the remnants of a building’s foundation.  He walked around for a bit, trying to collect his thoughts.  He noticed a smooth section of concrete in front of what looked to be an old doorway.  In faded letters painted on the sidewalk, he could barely make out the words, “Welcome to the Wayside Inn.”

Lots of questions raced through his mind.  “Am I even in the right spot?  Where is the motel?  Where are the people?  None of this makes any sense.  I was just here 3 days ago.”  While he stood there trying to sort out his thoughts, a state trooper’s vehicle pulled into the lot.  An officer stepped out of the car.  Tim recognized him as being the same officer that had stopped him a few nights ago and told him that the road was closed.  “Hey, I recognize you,” said the Trooper.  “Actually, I recognize your truck.  You’re the young man caught in the snowstorm on Christmas Eve.  I wondered later if you made it to a safe place for the night.  I’m glad to see you are ok.”  “I’m okay,” said Tim, “but I’m a little confused.”  He told the officer about finding the Inn and spending Christmas Eve with Gabe and Hannah.  He told him about the kindness of strangers, the decorating of the tree, and the great time of playing music and laughing the night away.

“Well, I don’t know where you think you spent the night, but it wasn’t here,” said the trooper.  There hasn’t been a motel here in a long, long time.  There used to be a small hotel, but the folks who ran the place retired to Florida and moved away… maybe 20 years or so ago.  I guess they still own the property, but it’s been like this for years.  The old place finally rotted down to the ground.”  Tim didn’t know what to make of what he was being told.  He just stood there, lost in his thoughts.  The trooper climbed back into his car.  “You okay, son?  You look at little dazed.”  “Yeah, I’m fine… I think,” said Tim.  The trooper sort of chuckled and said, “Maybe you were a part of a Christmas Eve miracle.  I mean, it’s happened before.   You hear stories sometimes about people getting helped in times of trouble.”   The trooper cranked his car, and rolled down the window.  “Maybe God was responding to your mother’s Christmas Eve prayer for your safety.  The prayer was answered, right?”  The thought just lingered for a moment in the air as Tim turned to walk back to his truck.  And then the thought hit him, as he suddenly turned around to ask,  “How did you know my mother was praying for me?  I don’t remember telling you about that…”  But just like the Wayside Inn, along with Gabriel and Hannah, the trooper and his car had seemed to vanish.  Tim scratched his head, leaned up against his Ford F-150, and started eating one of his mother’s fried apple pies…

______________

I can’t always explain the mysteries of God.  But I do know there are times when God intervenes directly in the lives of people, rescuing them from harm or protecting them from some danger.  Our prayers are sometimes answered with stunning clarity and miraculous intervention.  Maybe someone’s prayer for you kept you safe when you needed to be protected.  For nearly 400 years, the faithful people of God had waited and prayed for a light in the darkness of their world.  They prayed that The Messiah would come and their salvation would be manifest.  And their prayers were answered in a most unique way.  The King came in the form of a baby, born in a stable behind some wayside inn in the little village of Bethlehem.  The evening sky was filled with light as a thousand angels sang praises to God.  As you celebrate Christmas this season, may you we amazed by the wonder of it all, may your heart be full, and may your life be protected as if by the angels themselves.

Merry Christmas

 

 

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