The Long Arc of Racism

Let’s be honest, racism is alive and well in our nation.  And I’m not sure that recent events, political decisions, hate speeches, and angry tirades have made it any more so, they have just helped us all see the problem with fresh eyes.  I have to admit that it is not always easy seeing the world through the perspective of someone else’s experience.  What may have seemed like an issue with progressive thought and some semblance of resolve to some, is still a very real and raw and dangerous issue for others.  Those in the majority, with privilege, wealth and access, may have quickly dismissed or even forgotten the plight of the marginalized, the oppressed, or the under-represented.  Ignorance of another’s plight is no excuse.  Neither is turning a blind eye and deaf ear an option.

I grew up in the deep south… in the 60’s… in times that were racially divisive.  And yet, much of the tension and inequality of that day were shielded from me by virtue of a privileged status that back then I’m not sure I fully appreciated nor understood.  My parents were people of authentic faith who taught me to love everyone and to treat others as equals.  The Jesus ethic of loving your neighbor was reinforced by both action and teaching.  I never heard my parents use the “N” word, nor even express a prejudicial attitude and they certainly would not have tolerated it, if such things were found in the heart and mind of my brother and me.  I truly believe that people are taught and conditioned to hate, and by the grace of God I grew up in a household where such teaching was never offered.  That doesn’t make me better nor morally superior to those who grew up differently… it just makes me grateful and maybe even more determined to be intentional about the world we pass on to the next generation.

It was as I grew older that I learned more about hatred and ugly, racial division.  My hometown of Rome, Georgia went through the racial tensions that many southern towns experienced in the mid to late 60’s.  There were some riots, some threats, some broken windows, and some arrests.  It was all a little crazy to me at the time.  I went to a public elementary school that was integrated.  African-American boys and girls in my grade were among my friends.  I still remember Reginald, Alvin, and Sarah nearly half a century later.  It seemed odd that friends with whom I learned to read and write, friends who shared the playground, friends who listened to the same teachers, and ate at the same table with me, were people that according to the racial ethic of the day were people I should avoid.

I went to a private high-school that was mostly white.  Unlike some private schools of that era that were established to avoid “the coloreds,” my school, created in 1903, was focused on academics and Christian values and was open to any who could afford to attend.  And though the cost of admission afforded me a great college-preparatory education, it certainly excluded others.  It robbed me in some ways of the rich experience that diversity offers.  Please don’t misunderstand… I am very grateful for all the sacrifices through both high school and college that provided me with a good education.  All I am saying is that in some ways I was shielded from the pain of racial inequality that plagued many of my generation.  It has taken years, (and the process in my life is not complete), to understand the complexities of racial inequality, injustice, issues of access, and discrimination.  But I have learned the value of intentionality.  Issues that plague our culture are not changed without intentional effort.  Issues that plague our cities are not resolved without dialogue and understanding.  Issues that plague our hearts are not settled until we make conscious choices to both acknowledge the issues and take positive and practical steps to engage them.

I work at a University that takes on diversity as a priority.  Boundaries of race, ethnicity, and gender are being constantly assaulted with each hiring decision and admission acceptance.  It takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but at least we, here at Belmont, are moving in the right direction.  No, we can’t change the heart and mind of everyone around us, but at least we are striving to raise the important issues and conduct our actions accordingly.

But let me remind you that our society is only as good as we make it become.  We cannot afford the luxury of time, thinking that in some miraculous way, racism will automatically be erased as the years role by.  No.  Big issues take courageous people to solve them.  It is by our fidelity to the vision of a better, brighter world, that change will come.  Be intentional about the issue of race.  If you are not a striving to be a part of the solution, you may well be part of the lingering problem.

-Dr. Jon R. Roebuck, Executive Director

The Elusive Christmas Spirit

Most of us struggle to find it, to feel it, to know, to experience it… that special feeling of Christmas when there is a sense of joy in the air, peace in the heart, and benevolence in the wallet.  The Christmas Spirit is elusive in the midst of the hectic pace of modern life.  It’s sometimes hard to capture, even harder to hold for more than just a moment in time.  It seems to me that it was easier to lay hold of as a child.  There were school plays and gift exchanges and constant reminders of the season with each carefully-crayoned winter landscape or every hand-made construction paper ornament.  The excitement built through the month of December until the glorious release of Christmas break when the schedule altered and the focused turned to the presents collecting under the tree.  Ask any kid how many days till Christmas and they will answer with exacting measurement.

But it’s different for adults.  It’s hard to escape the stress of the season long enough to capture a moment or two of its glory.  Maybe it’s because the “success” of the season rests more on our shoulders than it once did as children.  We have to consider things like budgets, travel, meals to prepare, houses to clean, and presents to wrap.  It’s easy to let the Spirit seep away without ever holding it for very long.  When I was a pastor, the Christmas season was intense.  There were sermons to write, services to plan, hospitals to visit, and articles to author.  In fact, I often found myself settling into my recliner late on Christmas Eve, after the final Service of the season was put to rest, before I actually relaxed and let the Spirit wash over me.  Sometimes the Christmas Spirit would find its way into my life in the midst of the craziness of the season.  Somewhere in the writing of words, or structuring of a service, or the listening to the music of season I would find it.  But not always.

It is interesting to me how most of us strive to capture the season in our hearts.  We listen non-stop to Christmas music.  We decorate the house to excess.  We shop until both our bodies and purses are exhausted.  We bake.  We wrap.  We eat.  But still, so often we find ourselves a day or so after Christmas morning wondering how another year passed us by without our ever really getting into the spirit of things.  Charlie Brown once mused to Linus about the “commercialization” of Christmas… and that was decades ago when the 30-minute cartoon presentation first came on the air.  Even now when I watch those old reruns, I get a little nostalgic for the simpler days and the slower pace.

My wife and I do a few things to put ourselves in the Christmas mood.  She bakes a lot of really good pumpkin bread and it brings her joy to give it away to family and friends.  This year she made Christmas cookies with our oldest granddaughter, Hannah Rae.  It brought both of them a lot of gladness.  One of the things I enjoy doing is taping all of the Christmas cards we receive to the wall outside our kitchen.  It’s nice to be reminded of family and friends.  I also like to set out the Christmas china on the dining room table.  Can’t explain why that brings me some joy… maybe a reminder of the way my mom always set the grandest table at Christmas.

I’m not sure there is any one “set-in-stone” answer for capturing the Christmas Spirit.  But the most fool-proof answer that I can offer is bound up in the idea of giving yourself away.  Perhaps we are most like our Father each Christmas when we value the satisfaction and pleasure it brings us to give something important to someone in need.  It may be that you give your spouse a special, well-thought out gift that is much appreciated but unexpected.  Maybe it’s the check you write to a non-profit that is making a difference in your community.  Maybe it’s in the time you offer as a volunteer this season to brighten someone’s day.  All I know is this… until you offer the gift of your heart, your life, your energy, and your resources to bring hope, encouragement, or peace to a troubled life or situation, you will never fully capture the Spirit of the season.  So, think outside of yourself… think outside of the box… think outside of your comfort zone, and see if the joy of the season doesn’t sneak up on you in some special and mysterious way.

-Dr. Jon R Roebuck, Executive Director

Podcast: A Story for Christmas – 2017

This podcast features an original Christmas story written by Dr. Jon Roebuck, entitled, “First Responders.”  The story, set in modern day Kentucky, attempts to remind listeners of the unique events surrounding the birth of Jesus, celebrated each Christmas.  Additional stories of Christmas can be found in Dr. Roebuck’s collection of Christmas stories, Christmas Then & Now… Stories of the Season.  (Available on-line at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com and is also found in local Lifeway stores here in Middle Tennessee.)

It’s the Guns, Stupid.

If you think that after the tragic shooting in Texas this past Sunday that gun laws are going to change in America, think again.  They won’t.  Collectively we thought that after New Town, things would change.  They didn’t.  After the Pulse shooting in Orlando, people called for change.  Nothing happened.  After hundreds were gunned down at a country music concert, the nation mourned, but that’s all that happened.  And after Texans were slain while in the most sacred of spaces, nothing will happen yet again.  And why?  Because somewhere along the line we have accepted the premise that 2nd Amendment Rights should trump the promise of the Declaration of Independence which states that ALL of the citizens of this noble republic can cling to the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  The simple, selfish truth is that the right to bear arms has a greater place in the hearts of our nation than the desire to offer people a nation where the well-being and safety of every citizen matters.

When will we admit, that not everyone should have the right to own or possess a firearm?  There are many who should have forfeited that right out of violence, criminal history, domestic disputes, or mental instability.  We cannot allow ourselves to continue to advocate for gun rights over human rights.  Consider the actions of the Southern Baptist Convention just this week.  In a spirit of compassion, they have offered to pay for all of the funeral services for the victims of the Sutherland Springs massacre.  While having the generosity to respond to a need, they lack the courage to act politically.  They are unwilling to decry gun violence or enter the political debate to enact stricter gun laws.  Doesn’t it make better sense to encourage change at the ballot box than it does to wipe up the blood of those slain because of inaction?

All of us can recite the rhetoric of the gun proponents.  “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” or, “If you take away all the guns, then only the criminals will have guns.”  The truth of the matter is that guns do kill people whenever they are placed in the hands of the misguided, the angry, the disturbed, or the revenge-seeker.  And no one can deny the enormity of the problem.   There are currently an estimated 283 million guns in civilian hands here in the U.S.  An additional 4.5 million are sold each year.  When that many people have guns, the potential for someone to become victimized grows exponentially.  Each year on average, 111,779 people are shot in America by a firearm.  32,964 of them will die.  Of those committing suicide each year, 20,511 do so with a firearm.  It’s easy to do the math.  In the past 10 years, over a million Americans have been shot and nearly 350,000 Americans have died as a result.  And yet politicians lack the courage to even remotely consider better legislation.  Who are they pretending to protect?

Why is it so unrealistic to legislate stricter gun control laws?  Why is it so hard to take a commonsense approach to the sale of military-style assault rifles?  Why is it not the law of the land that certain criminal infractions should force the immediate surrender of firearms and the prevention of future firearm sales to those individuals?  Why is it not considered child neglect when guns and rifles are not stored safely and securely in each home?  No, I’m not coming to take away your guns.  I’m not suggesting that the government needs to do so either.  But I am saying that until we are willing to legislate better gun laws and enforce greater compliance concerning those who have forfeited the right to own a gun, that mass shootings, be they in churches, schools, movie theatres, or night clubs, will continue to be the norm and not the exception.  May God grant us the wisdom to think rationally, act wisely, and live respectfully.

-Dr. Jon R. Roebuck, Exec. Director

Living in the Space Where You Don’t Belong

I did some things in college that I probably should not have done.  Not really bad stuff, just a few things that were a little adventurous.  You know, the kind of things that if you got caught doing them would have gotten you into a lot of trouble.  Like the time a frat brother and I spent the night putting up a bunch of posters we had made in all of the academic buildings across campus.  We followed the security guard on his rounds and each time he unlocked the building long enough to make his nightly checks, we would slip in and hide until he left.  Or like the time when my college roommate and I decided that the campus security car, operated by the Pinkerton Security Company should actually be painted pink.  Or like the time we “borrowed” a couch from the lobby of the girls’ dorm and kept it in our dorm room for an entire semester.  (I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has run out on all this stuff.)

But by far, our biggest adventure involved Legion Field, the legendary stadium in Birmingham where the University of Alabama played all of its home games for many seasons.  My roommate John, and I were huge fans of the Crimson Tide and we were always scrounging for a ticket.  Some days, when we didn’t have tickets, we would drive down to Legion Field and try to buy a cheap ticket outside the stadium just before game time.  We were nearly always successful.  But the day came when we had no tickets, but needed a way to get into the stadium.  We noticed an elevator on the side of the stadium that reached from the ground floor to the press box.  Those with press credentials stepped in and rode to the top.  We didn’t have any press credentials, but we had spunk.  We waited for a group to form in front of the elevator and when the doors opened we stepped inside as though we belonged.  When the doors opened at the press box level we noticed a security guard a few feet down the hallway to the right… so we made our way to the left.  It worked!  We made it inside.  In those days, we ran into all kinds of press people from the local stations as well as legends like Keith Jackson from ABC.

We even discovered a stairway that led to the roof of the press box.  We learned that only a few cameramen were positioned there who could care less if we were there or not.  So, we spent a lot of Saturdays watching the Tide from high above the field from our 50-yard line “no ticket” vantage point.  Once we learned the routine, we even figured out how to blend in the press crew when the barbeque buffet line opened up.  We consumed a lot of free barbeque and sweet tea in those days.  Like someone once told me, “Never diet on another man’s dime.”  It’s all a little crazy looking back on those days.  It’s hard to believe that we actually bluffed our way in on many occasions.  The hard part was getting in.  Once inside, the living got easy.

The truth of the matter is that all of us as believers in Christ, are living in a space where we don’t belong.  But because we have been joined to Him through faith, we are now a part of the eternal Kingdom of God.  And it only gets better.  Not only does His Spirit inhabit our lives, giving us wisdom, counsel, correction, and grace in this life, but the promise is that we will also “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  No, we don’t have any credentials that say we belong.  There is a not a “press-pass” that allows us access to the Father.  But oddly enough, we have been invited to inhabit that space.  As Paul writes in 2 Cor. 5:21, “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”  The hard part of salvation is getting in.  But it’s not us who bear the price of admission.  It is Christ who grants our acceptance, our welcome, and our belonging, based on His sacrifice.  So, welcome to the space where you now belong, but certainly don’t deserve to be.  I invite you to feast on the banquet meal where both sinner and saint sit together, robed in the righteousness of Christ.  You are welcomed here.  You belong here.  So, dig in.  Why diet on another man’s dime?

-Dr. Jon R. Roebuck, Exec. Director

50 Yards – The Distance Between Life & Death

For the past two weeks, the news cycles have been dominated by the stories of the hurricanes.  Harvey and Irma have certainly left enough destruction in their wakes to alter life in the affected areas for decades to come.  There have been stories of great heroics and stories of great tragedy.  There have been images of rescues and images of destruction.  The contrasts in the story lines have been jarring… hope & despair, loving & looting, preparedness & surprize, relief & tension.  By the time both storms blew their way through middle Tennessee, they were only a fraction of the “sound and fury” that once hammered Texas and Florida.  And yet, all of us have been affected by the storms, if nothing else than by the images on the screen and the words of the reporters.

There is one story that I can’t seem to shake.  It’s the story of that nursing home down in Hollywood, Florida where 8 residents died because of the extreme heat.  You’ve heard the story and captured most of the details.  When the power grid went down, the nursing home lost important life-sustaining systems.  The air-conditioning failed along with the elevators from the second floor and so many residents were trapped in the extreme heat.  By the time the cries for help were heard, several had lost their lives.  Some of those who were transported to the nearest hospital had body temperatures above 105 degrees.  Gratefully, most of the residents survived the ordeal, but for 8 senior adults, it was a horrible end-of-life experience.

Here’s the one detail about that story that haunts me.  The closest hospital… the one that took in the most critically ill… the one that had the means to save lives… was only 50 yards away from the front door of the nursing home facility.  50 yards.  The hospital and nursing home share a parking lot.  There are so many unanswered questions and many are pointing blame in various directions.  City officials and the court systems will have to sort through all of that.  I am certainly not in any position to point blame or offer explanations.  I don’t know who, ultimately, was at fault, but I do know it’s a tragedy and many families are grieving.  It seems to me that the distance between life and death was only 50 yards.

Maybe the distance between those who die a little each day, and those with the ability to give life is just 50 yards, or maybe it’s 50 feet, or maybe it’s 50 bucks, or maybe it’s 50 minutes.  Let me explain.  All of us live in communities, neighborhoods, and cul-de-sacs.  And sure, we can never know all that takes place within the walls of someone’s home and within the relationships between those who live there, but you can bet the mortgage that there are people who live 50 yards away from you who are hurting, grieving, despairing, and maybe even dying a little on the inside.  What would it take for you to save that life?  It’s called practicing the art of neighboring and maybe you need to step down the street, start a conversation, and restore someone to life again with your words of friendship, grace, and understanding.

Or maybe the distance is just 50 feet.  Consider your co-workers for a moment.  Or the classmate.  Or the commuter who rides the same train you do.  Someone within that distance is feeling the intense heat of a broken relationship, or a failed marriage, or a financial hardship, or a life-robbing despair.  If you are willing to travel just 50 steps and become the authentic embodiment of the person of Jesus Christ, you can revive a life that is on life-support.  Or maybe the ability to sustain life is found in your wallet or purse.  Maybe someone needs a meal, a pair of shoes, or just a small amount to get them to the next payday.  There are more people living on the financial edge that you and I can possibly imagine.  Why are you blessed, if not to offer help to those in need?  Remember the stories of those Romanian orphans who had trouble sleeping even after they had been rescued from their terrible plight?  When health workers gave the children a piece of bread to hold while they drifted off to sleep, they discovered the children slept better with the tangible hope that there would be food in the morning, because they held it in their hands.  I’m not saying that $50 will solve anyone’s financial hardship, but it might be enough to get them through another day and may help to put a little food on the table of a struggling family.

Maybe what you need to offer is 50 minutes of your time.  A lot of life-sustaining ministry can occur by simply listening to someone’s plight.  A conversation gives hope, gives relationship, and maybe even gives wisdom.  Someone you know needs you to listen… today.  It might be your spouse, your child, or a neighbor.

It’s crazy, right?  Those who had the ability to save the lives of those nursing home folks were only 50 yards away.  How far do you need to travel today to save a life?

-Dr. Jon R Roebuck, Executive Director

Watching The Darkness

Like most of America, I viewed the solar eclipse this week.  I watched it from the Campus of Belmont University here in Nashville, along with a crowd of about 6000.  Nashville was in the direct path of “totality” which means all of us got the full effect of the experience.  I have to admit that it was really something.  In fact, it was downright amazing.  The full eclipse was one of the most spellbinding images that I have seen a long time.  The picture that accompanies this article was taken by a friend who was standing next to me at the time of the total eclipse.  (Thanks, Steve, for the photo.)

There was a lot of excitement as the moon began to hide the sun.  At first, it was only a small piece of the sun that was covered.  And within a few minutes, almost half was gone.  And then… only the smallest, tiny sliver of the sun remained.  My friend told me to take a moment and look at the shadows on the ground.  (I hope that you were able to do that as well.)  The “serpent shadows” covered the pavement below my feet.  It appeared as though the surface of the ground was shimmering.  That, in and of itself, was pretty amazing.  But then, the moon completely blocked the sun.  Once we were told that it was safe to remove our viewing glasses, I looked up to see the image that my friend caught with his camera.  You could hear an audible gasp emerge from the crowd.  It was absolutely stunning.  As we stood in the near complete darkness of that moment, we realized that we were truly witnessing an extraordinary event.

As I was driving into town on the morning of the eclipse, I was listening to the car radio.  The radio disc-jockey was commenting on the impending event.  She said that she had failed to get a pair of the special viewing glasses.  She knew that looking directly at the sun would damage her vision and so she made this comment, “I guess I will just go outside and watch the darkness.”  Her words stuck in my mind.  She was just going to go outside and watch it get dark and then sunny again, which it did in a very brief two-minute span.

It seems to me that all of us are doing a little “darkness watching” these days.  As we gaze on the events that splash across our television and smart phone screens, from both here at home and across the globe, we get a real first-hand look at the darkness that surrounds us… the darkness of racism, the darkness of fear, the darkness of war and rumors of war, the darkness of hatred, the darkness of injustice, the darkness of poverty, the darkness of ignorance…  The list goes on and on.  At times, it appears that the depth of the darkness seems to all but extinguish the light of goodness and hope and joy that we crave and pray will overtake the planet.  The darkness invades our lives, perhaps our very souls.

But I learned something important from the total eclipse of the sun… that even in the darkest moments, the brilliance and beauty of the sun could not be hidden.  In fact, in that moment of “so called” total darkness, there was light on every horizon as though the sun was about to rise from every direction.  And even in the sky, the brilliance of the sun’s corona, was absolutely spectacular.

Let me simply remind you that when Jesus proclaims that He is the “light of world,” we should take notice.  As Gospel writer John suggests in his prologue, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.”  Though the darkness is deep and powerful and strong, it cannot and will not extinguish the light of Christ’s presence in our world. Greater is He who is in us, than the darkness that surrounds us.  The words of the great hymn come to mind… “When darkness seeks to hide His face, I rest on His unchanging grace; in every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.  On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.” (The Solid Rock)

You can watch the darkness all you want and curse its presence in our world.  But let your hope be steadfast and your joy inextinguishable.  The Light of the World is with us still and that will never change.

-Dr. Jon R Roebuck, Executive Director

The Ministry of Prayer

 

Prayer is one of the great disciplines of the Christian faith.  In my view, it is as vital to our faith experience as anything else we do.  It is the spiritual air that the breath and the living water that quenches the deeper thirsts of our souls.  It is that which sustains us, heals us, and allows us to sometimes see the world with the perspective of the Father.  It is that connecting point that reminds us over and over again that we are forever joined to something greater than ourselves… we are joined to the Creator God of the universe and that alone should make the discipline thrilling and awe inspiring.

I don’t know when it first happened… maybe in college… but there was a moment in my own experience when the verbs I used to talk about prayer began to shift.  I went from an attitude that said, “I have to pray about so-and-so,” to a conviction that said, “I get to pray about so-and-so.”  See the difference?  It’s when your discipline goes from being an arduous task to a welcomed conversation.  I honestly think what brings that transitional moment is when you not only witness with certainty the answer to some of your heartfelt prayers, but when you begin to sense the change in your own life that prayer causes.  When you begin to find a peace that once eluded you, a calm that once escaped you, a perspective that once was foreign to you, then you will know that prayer is something different… something powerful, wonderful, scary, mystical, mysterious, and life-changing.  Maybe it’s just spiritual maturity when you finally realize that God is real and faith is important.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers to the questions that people have about prayer.  In fact, I probably understand even less as I grow older.  There is such mystery to it all.  I can’t tell you why some prayers are miraculously answered while others seem to never gain a response.  I can’t tell you why it is important to bring concerns to God, knowing that He knows our needs long before we ask.  I can’t explain why the Spirit sometimes prompts us to pray for people that we haven’t thought about in a million years.  I can’t tell you even the right formula to use that will match the problems you are facing.  In fact, I had a friend ask me the other day how to pray about a certain problem she was experiencing.  I gave her my best theological answer based on my seminary degrees and 32 years of pastoral experience but deep inside I wondered if my answer made any sense at all… to her or to me.

I take such great comfort in Romans 8:26, (Commit this to memory) “And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”  I am encouraged as I pray to know that even when I lack the words to use, or the wisdom to frame my thoughts, that God’s Spirit in my life is communicating clearly, exactly, and perfectly with the Father.  There is no wrong way to pray.  And so, I press on… I pray, not because I think those on my list will suffer if I don’t, but because I feel called to do so.  It is a privilege and not an obligation.  It sustains my life.  It is a ministry that all of us as believers are called to undertake.

Yesterday was one of those days.  It was one of those days when the Spirit prompted me to pray for a friend I know who is really struggling.  She’s not someone that I see very often.  We live in different cities.  I’m not even sure I can recall her last name as I write these words.  I just know that suddenly I was prompted to pray for her and I did.  I never know what’s happening in those moments… what “needs” are present and why sometimes out of the clear-blue-sky a name races to the forefront of our minds.  I just know that when the Lord brings someone to my mind in such a powerful way that I am supposed to drop everything for a moment and offer my petition.

Please don’t interpret these words as me trying to reveal to you how pious I’ve become.  I’m not looking to get a spiritual pat-on-the-back for my devotion to prayer.  It’s just the ministry to which I am called each day and I hope that I am faithful to that calling.  And not to worry, whenever the Lord brings you to mind, I will take a moment to mention your needs to our Father.

-Dr. Jon R Roebuck, Executive Director