The issue today is more about racial perceptions than it is about racism

Above, you see pictures of two men. What’s your immediate thought regarding each man?

The exercise you just did helps reveal what racial perceptions you may have. If you are typical, your immediate perception of the man on the left is that of a gangster or a thug or something probably less than positive. And, if you are typical, your immediate perception of the man on the right is that of a quality individual, something quite positive.

Let me introduce you to the two men. On the left is Lecrae, a Christian hip-hop artist. On the right is Bernie Madoff, who stole millions of dollars from multiple individuals and is currently serving a 150-year sentence at a federal prison.

Immediate reactions and responses to people we don’t know says a great deal about our racial perceptions.

I remember my wife telling me about how, when, many years ago, she worked as an assistant manager at a women’s clothing store, she was told to pay close attention to customers who happened to be black than she was to those who happened to be white.

Why was that? Because the perception was that being black meant being more likely to attempt to shoplift merchandise. It was a perception of a particular race.

And I believe racial perceptions, not racism, to be the biggest issue standing in the way of racial harmony in our country today. Racism is defined as believing one race is superior to another. And while there is still some of that present in this country, it’s not nearly as prevalent as it was many years ago.

What is quite present are perceptions according to race. Having black skin means one thing while having white skin can often mean the opposite.

And this is what must be addressed, and not in some superficial, “let’s take a superficial swipe at this so we can feel good about ourselves”, way. Real action that not only promotes racial harmony, but also racial unity while maintaining distinctions of each race is what is needed.

And it starts in my community and it starts with you in your community.

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Words have a way of revealing things

Language, words, is a very powerful because it has the power to reveal.

In an exchange with the Pharisees who were criticizing him for not making sure his disciples washed their hands before eating bread, as the tradition of the elders stipulated, Jesus said to them, “The thing proceeding from the mouth does not defile the man, but the thing proceeding from the mouth, this defiles the man.” (Matthew 15:11)

Later in an explanation to his disciples of his statement, Jesus said, “The things proceeding from the mouth come out from the heart, and these defile the man. For from the heart comes out evil reasonings, murders, adulteries, fornifications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemy. These are the things defiling the man, but eating with unwashed hands do not defile the man.” (Matthew 15:18-20)

What is Jesus saying here? The things that come out of a person’s mouth open a window into that person’s heart. Through what comes out of that person’s mouth, it can be seen what is truly in that person’s heart, whether or not s/he realizes it’s there.

And what comes out of a person’s mouth many times every day? Words.

And while it takes time to do this, it is crucial for each person to examine what is behind and the implications of the words s/he uses, even words that s/he might not realizes reveals something.

Such as underlying perceptions and attitudes regarding race. For example, some years ago, I came to the realization that it was common for sportscasters to use words like intelligent, smart, and the like, when referring to an athlete who was black. Rarely, though, did I ever hear a sportscaster use those types of words when discussing an athlete who was white.

You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal with that?”

It’s a big deal because I believe that the lack of use when discussing a white athlete reveals that the base assumption about him/her is that s/he is intelligent and smart and, therefore, does not need to be mentioned. The opposite regarding the black athlete is true. The base assumption about that athlete is that s/he is not intelligent or smart so it must be stated that s/he is intelligent and/or smart.

Words reveal underlying and unrealized attitudes and perceptions and assumptions and biases. In this case, white = intelligent and smart unless otherwise stated and black = dumb and ignorant unless otherwise stated.

Why is it that only Americans who happened to be caucasian are not referred to by a hyphenated moniker? Why is it that only those who are non-white Americans are referred to by using terms such as African-American or Asian-American or some other hyphenated American?

As Nobel Prize winner, Pulitzer Prize winner and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University Toni  Morrison said, “In this country, being American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”

What she is saying is that the words commonly used to denote certain groups of American citizens actually reveals an underlying definition, perception, and attitude of many people.

And I am more firmly convinced now, more than ever, that if the issue of race is going to truly be addressed at the heart level in this country, then it is imperative that what is revealed by words spoken or written as being present in the heart must truly be addressed. Until that is done, I truly do not believe there will be significant movement forward.

And the place where it can start, where it should start, the people who should take the lead in this, is the people of God for, as the Apostle Paul wrote to the believers in the region of Galatia, “there is not Jew nor Greek, there is not slave nor free person, there is not male nor female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus.”

If the people of the Kingdom of God who are to demonstrate the reality and character and makeup of the Kingdom of God here on earth cannot do so, how can it be expected for those not of the Kingdom to do so? Yet it is very common for local congregations to be quite homogeneous when it comes to racial and ethnic backgrounds.

It is true here in Fort Dodge, IA. And it’s not just local congregations that are primarily white. It is also local congregations that are primarily black. There exists what is called a “silo mentality,” and while any effort that does not truly address that mentality is something some would say is better than nothing, in reality, it isn’t better than nothing because it doesn’t address what is at the root, causing what has happened and, therefore, no true forward movement has happened.

 

Time to be proactive

A couple of weeks ago, I posted on Facebook about my intention to being the process of eliminating caffeine from my diet. I gave up pop in October 2014, but I still continue to drink much coffee, often up to a full pot many mornings a week. Last month my father-in-law had a heart attack, one that, had he not already been on the hospital grounds, would have most likely taken his life.

As a result, doctors have recommended to him that the elimination of salt and caffeine from his diet is necessary and very important for his health. For him, the heart attack was a wake-up call. And so I have chosen to be proactive in taking steps to eliminate caffeine from my diet before I need a wake-up call myself.

Taking steps to be proactive is much better than having to be reactive.

Over the past months, due to different actions, circumstances, and responses in our country, the issue of racism has been in the news and at the forefront of the minds of many.

To my knowledge, none of what has occurred has really touched the community of Fort Dodge in a significant way. By that, I mean to say that there have not been any of these types of activities or occurrences which have race and racism running as an undercurrent. But why wait until one does before seeking to truly and deeply address any issues along these lines?

I know of no better place for this very issue to be addressed than by the faith community. And I’m not talking about some superficial and temporary “swipe” at doing something so we feel good and justified about ourselves.

Nope. I’m talking about something that is significant and lasting. I’m talking about something that truly addresses underlying issues. I’m talking about something that demonstrates what the Kingdom of God is truly like.

I’m hoping this goes somewhere, but, honestly, it will be dependent on “buy-in” from others, a “buy-in” that I cannot force. If that buy-in doesn’t happen, then, most likely, nothing more than something which is truly superficial and temporary in nature will occur. And from my experience, that type of  thing is truly a waste of time.

This very type of thing is something about which I have had an ongoing vision, one I believe I was given by the Lord Jesus.

It is my  belief that, through being proactive about these matters, the faith community which is to be representing in Fort Dodge what the Kingdom of God looks like, will truly impact and have a transformational effect on our community.

Capturing the Hearts of People

A new craze has captured the hearts of many – Pokemon Go. Those whose hearts have been captured by this game have been out and about in their communities, seeking to capture different creatures and do battle at “gyms.” This game has encouraged people to get to know their communities better and exercise through requiring walking to hatch an “egg.”

It’s just another example of an eternal truth – “What captures the heart is given time and priority.”

I think that the congregations of Jesus have lost touch with this eternal truth to some degree.

Why do I say that? Because what captured the hearts of people 50 years ago or 25 years ago or even 5 years ago often no longer captures the hearts of people today. One of the results of the fast pace of change in today’s culture is that what captures people’s hearts often changes right along with it.

Because of that, having a plan to capture the hearts of people is actually dead in the water before it gets started. If roads and streets were always shifting, good luck in making a plan to get somewhere. The plan you made yesterday would not work today to get somewhere and the plan you made today would not work tomorrow.

That’s why it is imperative for congregations to be always shifting, not in core mission, but in how that mission is carried out.

It is often bemoaned that many of my and successive generations have been and are leaving congregations, but maybe that is the case because congregations have not captured the hearts of those leaving. Congregations have not sought to have a finger on the pulse of their communities and the people of them, always seeking to ascertain what today captures hearts.

Just like preceding generations, there are things that capture the hearts of the younger generations today. It may be a career. It may be family. It may be friends. It may be a leisure activity. It may be volunteering in some way. It may be impacting lives in some way. Whatever it may be, something has captured their hearts and, therefore, is given time and priority.

The problem is that what congregations were and have been offering no longer captures the hearts of many, but many congregations refuse to do the work necessary to continually have a finger on the heartbeat of the people in their community and then to be willing, as it keeps its finger there, to be shifting constantly in how it seeks to capture the hearts of people.

There are many who bemoan the number of people who aren’t willing to get up early enough on a Sunday morning to attend a worship gathering of a congregation. But what I know is this – if what happens during that worship gathering is found valuable by that person and that valuable thing has captured his/her heart, I can say with a very high degree of certainty that that person will make a great effort to get out of bed in time to be at that worship gathering.

So, it’s about capturing the hearts of people. When the heart is captured, then those people are drawn in, and then we can share about why we do what we do. We can share about what God has done through Jesus, if that person has never made a faith commitment. Or we can get people more active in the mission of capturing the hearts of others.

Whatever it may be, it’s all about capturing the hearts of people. And that requires always having a finger on the heartbeat of people in our communities and then being willing to shift as it changes because it will change.

In a constantly changing landscape, the only thing for which we can plan is change. And when we understand that fact, then, instead of planning, we prepare ourselves to meet the change by shifting how we carry out the core value of capturing people’s hearts.

What matters is capturing people’s hearts, not how it’s done. When how it happened “yesterday” is made to be the way that it is done no matter the situation of “today,” then how it is done has been made the non-negotiable. And that’s when things start going downhill, picking up speed all the time.

Want to see a resurgence? Then let’s do the work of having a finger on the pulses of people and go where that leads.

A phrase this pastor detests

Very recently, I was in a conversation with someone I know casually. For a few minutes, the topic of the conversation turned to faith and with what congregation she and her husband worshiped. She began to give me the journey of how they came to be with the current congregation. And she said the phrase that this pastor detests as the reason for leaving the previous congregation for the current one. And, actually, a friend who was already attending their now congregation said this phrase to her about her previous congregation. I actually consider this friend’s actions to be “underhanded sheep-stealing.”

What’s this phrase that this pastor detests and can often be used as the reason (excuse?) for leaving one congregation for another?

“I just wasn’t being fed.”

I have 4 adult children, ranging from 25 in a month to 20 in 2 weeks. If I told someone that it was necessary for me to feed any one of them, I have to believe that that person would immediately think there is something wrong, either with me or with my child! Why is that? Because a child by the time s/he has been in school a couple of years should be able to feed him or herself! Oh sure, there may need to be some assistance with cutting of meat or something along those lines, but eventually that assistance is no longer needed as well. And that is considered proper and normal. Anything different is considered abnormal.

So, if I have to still feed my child who is an adult, there is a problem, and a severe problem.

True, as a parent, as my children were growing, it was my responsibility to provide the food so that my children could feed themselves, but the responsibility for the actuality of being fed was on my children.

It’s the exact same situation in the spiritual realm. If a follower of Christ who still needs someone like a pastor to spoon feed him/her, then I contend there is a problem with that follower. There has been a disconnect somewhere along the discipleship process. Oh sure, it is the responsibility of the leadership of a congregation to provide continued access to spiritual food, but if the person is not getting sustenance, then the issue is with the person doing the eating, not the one providing the access.

Honestly, I see the phrase, “I’m just not being fed,” as an indicator of a consumerist mentality which I believe is rife through the congregations of Jesus. And then it’s used as a reason to jump ship and run somewhere else.

But here’s what I have discovered about this type of person – eventually the pastor or leadership of that new congregation will be seen as “not feeding” that person any longer and it is then often the case that s/he will leave that congregation for another. I have found this to be the common pattern. This is because if the follower doesn’t take responsibility for his/her being fed, eventually any pastor or leadership team will fail in meeting the “feeding” expectations of that person. And this is reality because the person who claims to not being fed sees him/herself truly as a victim. Where s/he finds him/herself isn’t his/her fault; it’s someone else’s.

Let’s take responsibility for our own spiritual growth. Let us not just place the responsibility on the shoulders of a pastor or a leadership team.

If Christians don’t get this, we might as well go home

There is a direct result of what God did in and through Jesus (we call it the “good news”) that, in many congregations and by many Christian teachers, is not truly taught. And actually, in its place, something else is put and then taught as being biblical when it flies in direct contradiction to the gospel the Apostle Paul preached, the gospel which Christ Himself revealed to and taught to Paul. (Galatians 1:11-12) And this thing that is now taught as being part of the gospel is actually something that occurred under the Old Covenant and the Law.

What is this thing that I would personally classify as an abomination? The teaching that a believer, a person who is in Christ and Christ is in him/her, has two warring natures inside him/herself.

Those who assert this teaching point to passages like Romans 7 and Galatians 5. In both of these passages, Paul does seem to be talking about a person’s flesh nature and spiritual nature fighting against each other for control.

But is that really what he is saying? No.

Like any other passage, it is crucial, (CRUCIAL!) to read the passage in context. In the context of both passages, Paul is saying that when a person is under the Law, like people were in the Old Covenant, this warring did occur. It’s the reason why Paul says that while he was under law, “For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, nothing good dwells, for to will is present with me, but to work out the good is not. For I do not do the good which I will, but the evil which I do not will, this I practice. But if what I do not will, this I do, it is no longer I that work it out but sin that dwells in me. I find then the law with me who wills to do the good, that is, the evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God according to the inner man, but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind and making me a captive to the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:20-24)

Earlier in the chapter, Paul says that the law of sin and death seized the opportunity and used God’s righteous law to bring about death. This is what was happening under the law.

But, and this is a BIG but, Paul, at the beginning of chapter 7 tells those who know the law (meaning Jews) that those who have received Christ have died to the law. It no longer is in force. At the beginning of chapter 8, Paul specifically states, “There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life has freed me in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” That means that all of the results, the situations, and how things went under the law are no longer the reality for the one who is in Christ. No longer is the believer involved in some internal spiritual warfare between two natures because s/he has been freed from all that!

When a person is incarcerated, s/he has to do things the way that the prison and the warden and the guards say they must be done. That prisoner has no other choice. But when that person is released, no longer is it that way. That person has the freedom to do it when and however s/he decides.

It is the same way for the believer. That old way has been crucified, been put to death God in Jesus. And when God kills something, someone else cannot come along and resurrect it.

The other passage to which these teachers point is Galatians 5:17 – “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these oppose each other that you would not do the things that you desire.” Again, it sound like Paul is saying that there are two warring natures inside a believer, since he is addressing believers. And it sounds quite similar to what he says in Romans 7 about what occurred inside a person while under the law.

And since, once again, he is saying about how things went under while we were under the law, verse 18 is very important and informative. Paul says, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” The conjunction Paul uses is very important. It is the conjunction that denotes contrast to what he has just said. So, what he’s saying is the person who is led by the Spirit is not under the law and how things occurred under the law, which he has just described in verse 17. So the conflict between flesh and spirit that occurred in a person under the law is no longer reality for the believer.

This is why Paul, in the gospel which Christ revealed and taught to him, has death as a very important piece of it, and not just Christ’s death, but also our own by participating in Christ’s death upon belief. The old man – the old nature, the old way of doing things – has been crucified; it has been killed. It’s dead, deader than a door nail. And when we have died to it, it no longer has any control over us. How it worked no longer has anything to do with us.

So, when it is taught that there are two warring natures inside a person who is in Christ and Christ is in him/her, what is actually being taught is the Old Covenant because what is being taught is how things worked under the Old Covenant and the law. And as far as I’m concerned, that is an abomination, for if the sinful nature is still inside a believer warring against the spiritual nature which is Christ, then what God did in Christ was not sufficient. And I definitely will NOT say that.

Why do I say, “If Christians don’t get this, we might as well go home” regarding all of this? I say it because it has to do with understanding who we truly are in Christ. If we, for the most part, are just like we were when we were alive to the law, meaning before belief, then nothing has truly occurred and we are just wasting our time. And if that is the case, we might as well go home.

But if a believer truly as only one nature, then why does s/he still sin? Well, the source of that sin is now habit, not nature. Let’s go back to that person who was incarcerated. While incarcerated, that prisoner had no choice but to do it the way s/he was told. After release, because of the way things were done in prison were ingrained deeply in that prisoner, s/he can tend to still do things the same way they were done while in prison because that’s what s/he knows. The way things were done in prison are not required, but occur because they are habit. And, hopefully, as that prisoner grows in the freedom now possessed, that habit changes to how s/he wants to do things.

It’s the same way for the believer. Under the law, sin was the natural result because of the sin nature being present. When that sin nature was killed and replaced with the nature of Christ upon belief, that believer still struggles with still doing things the way s/he did them while having that sin nature because they became habit. But as that believer grows in the freedom in Christ and in realization whom s/he truly is in Christ, those habits are changed to come into alignment with his/her true nature. Habit can be broken; nature cannot.

But first, a believer must understand what has truly occurred upon belief. If that does not happen, then the rest will be a struggle at best because, “As a person thinks in his/her heart, so is s/he.” (Proverbs 23:7)

But if nature has not been changed, if the sin nature is still very much part of the believer, then we might as well go home. Nothing has truly changed.