Christian Choices for a Son of the South

Christian Choices for a Son of the South

Do I vote red or blue? Do I stand with the fearful “religious” right or the angry “liberal” left? Do I get my daily dose of reality from Fox News or CNN? Do I listen to Candace Owens or Black Lives Matter? Do I speak out or keep silent?

Choices. The heat of this day seems to demand a choice. Pick your side.

I cannot erase my own past. I am a son of the South who grew up in Mississippi during the days of Elvis, Martin Luther King and Archie Manning. My high school was integrated my junior year. Keith Moses and Darryl Nobles were my first African American classmates. Our high school principal, Julian Prince, took quite a public pounding.  He reflects on those years in his book Balancing the Scales: A Turbulent Age of Mississippi History During School Integration. His experience is summarized in this Associated Press article.

I also grew up in a holiness denomination, the Church of the Nazarene. While the Bible was the book we memorized and quoted, our interpretation of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus never led us to civil rights protests. It did keep us from the cruelty and violence of the KKK.  And it did introduce compassion and civility to interracial relationships. Not enough for today, but quite radical for the culture of the 1960s.

Many who are reading this post grew up in a very different world than I did. I’m not writing to you. If I were, I would start at a different place. If you’d like to understand where my reflection comes from, two readings will give you a deeper look. One is a Jackson, Mississippi, newspaper article recommended to me by Andy, my Mississippi cousin who is now a New Testament scholar and champion of racial reconciliation. Read it here.

The other is an article by Rod Dreher, another fellow Son of the South, which you can read here. On this given day, I woke up, read these two articles and then listened to a phenomenal sermon by our pastor on the story of Barnabas, the son of encouragement whose Pentecost experience led him to share his wealth with the needy of Jerusalem. My mind is in a highly reflective gear this morning. I am trying to connect my past to the present.

The temptation of many Christian sons of the South is to pull a few examples from our memory and use them as proof that we were not then, nor are we now, racist. I have some of those stories. I’ll spare you. This kind of defensive posturing is not helpful. Rather, I find myself wrestling with a haunting feeling, possibly a mixture of shame and guilt, that “good Christian people like us” did not do more back then—or since then. As I watch the apologies of whites to blacks, I hear many defenses from those who choose not to say “I’m sorry.” Their statement, “I didn’t do anything wrong and I have nothing to apologize for,” seems to be the end of the matter for them. I understand where this comes from. In the South, you could demonstrate personal morality of the highest order and still do nothing about social sin. We were taught to own up to what we had personally done, to take responsibility for our behavior. It was a mark of maturity. You take your licks, not someone else’s.

But southern culture never taught us the meaning of corporate sin. It would take a move of God to bring us to our knees in confession of our cultural sins. It would take the Christ who was essentially lynched for the sin of all to convince us that we too are stained by the sin of humanity.

Why have I apologized to my black friends? Because Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us OUR trespasses, even as we forgive those who trespassed against us.” This prayer recognizes that sin is much larger than what I have done individually. This prayer recognizes that I pray as a member of the human race, even as a son of the South. Sin is present in political systems, power bases, self-promoting cultures and human valuing. In the same way that I pray for God to forgive our nation for aborting an unborn life or warehousing the elderly poor or incarcerating the traumatized child, I pray for God to forgive us for the sin of racism. And if I can utter that prayer to God, why not express the same confession to my black brother? Christians confess on behalf of the world that we live in. Confession begins in the house of the Lord and then goes out looking to right the wrong in the wider world.

My concern for today is that the current octane of anger will not achieve the kind of just, reconciled, merciful society that the kingdom of God imagines. If raw anger were a vaccine for racial injustice, the world would be cured. Many think we have two options regarding our anger: act it out or swallow it down whole. Speak up or shut up.

The first destroys others, the second destroys its carrier. The practice of corporate confession of sin suggests a third option: we take it to God. By taking our anger, our feelings, our emotions, our memories, our prejudices, our cultures to God and confessing them openly and honestly, a miracle occurs. God is the only demolition expert I know who can take the octane of raw anger and transform it into righteous energy.

In this present moment in our history, this righteous energy in the predominantly white church must be focused on working to change polices that deny justice to our Black brothers and sisters. If we cannot say publicly that black lives have not mattered in this society—certainly not as much as white lives—and take concrete steps to repair this breach, we have stopped short of anything that can be called a gospel response. Without this, I think any talk of reconciliation/peace is an illusion. Nothing will change. I think this is how most African-American churches in this country will see it because they know that in the biblical tradition justice and peace are joined at the hip.

So what is my role in all of this? In 1 Peter 2:9, the people of God are called a royal priesthood. The role of a priest is to bear the sins of the people to God and to offer the same people the forgiveness of God for their sins. My anger over racial injustice leads me to confession on behalf of the human race that I belong to. I cannot separate myself from my fellow sons of the South but I can certainly be a priest in prayer for them/us. Then I can work for righteous action.

Could I be wrong? I certainly am. I will never see perfectly in this complexity. “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13: 9-13 NRSV)

Now there’s a choice I can make.


Racism and Rooftop Experiences

Racism and Rooftop Experiences

Imagine that you are Simon Peter, the Jewish zealot, on the Day of Pentecost.

Everything you have learned from your religious roots suggests that the covenant between God and humans requires one to become a Jew to experience the acceptance of God. Your culture has engrained within you the privilege of Jewishness. Some of this, you understand about yourself. Some of this is beyond your self-knowledge. For you, all non-Jews, people not-like-you, are in a different category. You call them all “Gentiles”, which is also a synonym for “sinner”. They are outsiders, unclean persons, profane reprobates. Their only path to salvation is to become what you already are, a Jew.

And then, on the Day of Pentecost, a fine Jewish feast, a miracle of speaking and hearing occurs.  You are among your fellow Jews from all over the known world and suddenly, fire falls from heaven. Little shoots of fire rest on human heads. The Jews in the room, including you, begin to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus. But the languages being spoken/heard are not the typical Jewish languages but rather the languages of the Gentiles. The upper room sounds like an assembly of nations with one exception. Interpreters are not needed.

You are the public spokesperson for this strange event. You convince the amazed spectators that these people are not drunk, but rather, are filled with the Holy Spirit. You liken this to the promise of the prophet Joel and connect it to the promise of the crucified, risen Jesus.

And a movement of repentance ensues.  

A while later, on a preaching mission, you find yourself on a rooftop in Joppa praying. You fall into a trance. A divine voice commands you to kill and eat unclean animals, food that you have always religiously avoided. You protest. You have never eaten unclean animals. The voice challenges your characterization of this food: “What God has called clean, you must not call unclean.” You are puzzled as to what this is about. As you sit on the roof contemplating this strange command, three Gentiles show up in front of the house. They are calling your name. The Holy Spirit tells you that these are God-sent messengers and you are to go with them. You learn that these men are servants of a Gentile named Cornelius. God had appeared to him, given him your location in Joppa, and told him to listen to whatever you had to say. So you travel with them to his home, share the message of Jesus, and witness the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles gathered in Cornelius’ home … in the same way that the Spirit had been given to the Jews gathered in the upper room.

Something transforming is happening inside you as you begin to understand these strange experiences—Gentile languages used to declare the resurrection of Jesus, divine voices declaring the unclean food clean, the Holy Spirit given to Gentiles just as the Holy Spirit was given to Jews. Your world, your cultural understandings, your exclusions and inclusions, your prejudices are all turned upside down. You utter the words that you never thought a Jew like you would say, “I now understand that God shows no partiality.”

Imagine that you are white, on the day that George Floyd was murdered.

If it required the miracle of Pentecost to open one of Jesus’ closest followers to the reality that God cherishes every life equally, that Jesus died for every person equally, that the invitation to life is issued to every person equally, and that God is not partial to any race—what is needed for you to become part of the solution to the deeply entrenched sin of racism?

The Holy Spirit reveals to us our sin, our prejudice, our racism, our cultural blind spots, our exclusiveness, and all our stubborn categorizations. Where a lost world hardens us in these practices, God’s Spirit softens us. If we resist the Spirit, our hearts get harder, our eyes get blinder, our ears get deafer, and our categories get smaller.

As the Spirit-filled followers of Jesus, we have work to do in a world of brutality, murder, and racism. To be empowered for this work, sanctification is required. God’s love drives out sin and fills us with the power of reconciling love. The Holy Spirit compels us to go into the world as servants of the humble Jesus.

Observing humans, I have seen very few of us experience deep change because of shame, angry blaming, social media ranting, or even threat. These tactics only harden us in our defensiveness. While we work in the public square for justice, reconciliation, and peace, we believe the human heart is the original site of the racism that takes shape in institutions, policies, and cultures. If we are to be like Jesus, it begins with the work of the Holy Spirit in the core of our being. There, we confess that we are blind to our own blindness, needing the Holy Spirit to show us who we are, and to help us repent, and to forgive us. Only then, are we forgiven, enlightened, and empowered, as was Simon Peter, to become the difference this world needs.

Peter could have taken a defensive, religious posture that day on the roof. And he would have missed the miracle that God was up to. As we reflect on Pentecost, it is right for us to humbly ask, “What is God saying to me in the death of George Floyd?”

Postscript

I have found it hard to write about this. I’m not sure that another white institutional voice is what the world needs. I have tried to amplify other voices. One that I admire is a recent Trevecca graduate, Jeremiah Eliphaz Wright. Another is a reflection by Christine Youn Hung.

And finally, on Facebook, I recently shared an experience written by Deltha Katherine Harbin and a reflection from police officer Bobby Sr Walker.

Hedge Religion

Hedge Religion

I’m not sure I’ve ever lived in a time like this. A tornado ripped through our state leaving death, injury, and destruction. A COVID-19 virus has found its way to our neighborhood. A stock market plunge is rearranging our economy. Human contact is on hold. Health care systems are overwhelmed. The elderly are afraid. College students are at home, taking classes online. Small businesses are counting the cash on hand which will determine employment for real people.

Across the years, I’ve been in the trenches where humans deal with darkness. And the haunting thing about these trenches is the questioning that comes.

  • Why does a virus create such fear?
  • Why can’t someone find a cure?
  • How do we cope with human isolation?
  • Why do the elderly have to die alone, separated from those who have loved them their whole lives?
  • Why did the tornado take the path it did?
  • Why was a whole family swept away?
  • Why did my friend, my loved one, die?

We all have our questions. You have yours, I have mine. We are wired to want answers. God made us this way. It’s why books about suffering become best sellers:                 

  • When Bad Things Happen to Good People
  • Where is God When It Hurts
  • When God Doesn’t Make Sense
  • The Problem with Pain.

Many of us who are followers of God wish there were simple answers because we’ve been cornered by doubters who nail us with their questions:

  • Why does God?
  • How can God?
  • Where was God?

And we cannot explain why. We float our guesses, but it doesn’t stop the questions. Nor does God pipe in with much help. There is an awkward silence.

Suffering strips away the veneer of life. We learn that we are not as secure as we thought. Suffering changes the way we see the world, and it shatters certain kinds of faith. We talk about God, or don’t talk about God, in ways different from before.

Job understands. If you come to his story wanting simple answers, prepare to be disappointed. God is silent for most of the book. God will speak in the end … though not convincingly enough to settle the matter. We mutter our questions in the dark … because we face a terrifying power, a wind we could not direct or control, a disease we can’t take a pill to cure. These forces blew through our protective hedges and are obliterating everything in their path.  

That’s what happened to Job. A whirlwind came crashing down on him. According to the story, it was God who moved the protective hedge and let it happen.

The story begins with God bragging about Job—upright, blameless, devout, the greatest man among the people of the East, a righteous man. This is Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and Saint Francis of Assisi all rolled into one. This is not just a nice guy; this is the most righteous man on all the earth. And God is the one saying all these good things about him.

God said to Satan, “Have you noticed my friend Job? There’s no one quite like him—honest and true to his word, totally devoted to God and hating evil.”

Satan retorted, “So do you think Job does all that out of the sheer goodness of his heart? Why, no one ever had it so good! You pamper him like a pet, make sure nothing bad ever happens to him or his family or his possessions, bless everything he does—he can’t lose! But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away everything that is his? He’d curse you right to your face, that’s what.”

God replied, “We’ll see. Go ahead—do what you want with all that is his. Just don’t hurt him.”


Then Satan left the presence of God.

(Job 1:8-12, The Message)

God accepts Satan’s challenge. I’m not sure I’d want God betting on me. But God believes Job’s righteousness is deeper than trinkets and treasures. God decides to give Job the terrible dignity of proving that his integrity runs deeper than what he gets from God. Right off the bat we are given to understand that God is not about utilitarian religion—religion for reward. To serve God for reward, insurance, or a protective hedge is to fall short of knowing God as God wishes to be known. This makes God into a power that we appease to get the goodies.  God refuses to let such a claim stand. Satan says Job is righteous because God has built a hedge around him. God says no. Let’s see.

We read the account from an earthly perspective of our suffering. We ask the usual questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? What are the causes behind human suffering? But these are not the main question of the book. The story of Job is told in answer to a simple question. Why is Job righteous? Is Job’s trust in God linked to a divine hedge of protection? And what will Job do if the hedge is removed? How will he speak of God, to God, about God? What will become of his integrity?

So God removes the hedge. I wish I didn’t have to say this … but it is true. In our biblical story, God is sovereign. Satan cannot operate without permission. God is free to do as God pleases without needing permission from anyone. God removes the hedge. God allows Job’s suffering. The Old Testament man was correct in understanding that, ultimately, both good and evil and come from the hand of God—by cause or permission.

We’ve done our human best to protect ourselves from catastrophe—security alarms, insurance policies, neighborhood watch, health checkups, nest eggs, air bags, steel bars, passwords, identity protection, armed forces hand washing, social distancing, and sheltering at home. And most of the time, our hedges hold. We are mindful to have good, thick hedges. As Christians, we half-believe that by serving God, our families will be protected. We’d like to believe that being in church every week gives us a better chance at escaping calamity. But I can assure you that better people than us lost their homes in the tornado or have tested positive for COVID-19.  

We know the righteous are not shielded from suffering. Too many among us have gotten the test results back, buried children, lost jobs, and had our hearts broken. We know that ‘hedge religion’ is not foolproof. But we wish it were. And if it were, Satan would be right. We do it for what we get back in return.

God removed the hedge around Job.

And the Sabeans raided Job’s oxen.

Lightning struck Job’s sheep and shepherds.

The Chaldeans stole Job’s camels.

A tornado killed Job’s children. 

In rapid-fire order, he was reduced to nothing.

His business – gone.

His possessions – gone.

His children – gone.

Job’s response was orderly … appropriate.

“Job got to his feet, ripped his robe, shaved his head, then fell to the ground and worshiped:

‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I’ll return to the womb of the earth. God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed.’

Not once through all this did Job sin; not once did he blame God.” 

(Job 1:20-22, The Message)

God is winning the wager. The hedge is gone, and Job has not cursed God. He is grieving, yet he clings to his integrity.

In chapter 2, God is bragging again. This cannot be good for Job.

One day when the angels came to report to God, Satan also showed up. God singled out Satan, saying, “And what have you been up to?”

Satan answered God, “Oh, going here and there, checking things out.”

Then God said to Satan, “Have you noticed my friend Job?

There’s no one quite like him, is there—honest and true to his word, totally devoted to God and hating evil? He still has a firm grip on his integrity! You tried to trick me into destroying him, but it didn’t work.”

Satan answered, “A human would do anything to save his life. But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away his health? He’d curse you to your face, that’s what.”

God said, “All right. Go ahead—you can do what you like with him. But mind you, don’t kill him.”

(Job 2:1-8, The Message)

Does Job’s integrity end at his own skin? Is he the kind of God-follower who can handle anything exterior but collapses when it gets under his own hide? Satan strikes again. The hedge does not hold. Job’s body becomes vulnerable to disease. The only thing left guarded is his life.

Satan left God and struck Job with terrible sores. Job was ulcers and scabs from head to foot. They itched and oozed so badly that he took a piece of broken pottery to scrape himself, then went and sat on a trash heap, among the ashes.

(Job 2:7-8, The Message)

We want to ask, “How can God let this happen to a good man like Job?” But heaven is asking, “How will Job speak of God now?” The issue is his righteousness, his wholeness, his internal coherence. This is what holds Job together when his world is coming apart.

His wife said, “Still holding on to your precious integrity, are you? Curse God and be done with it!”

He told her, “You’re talking like an empty-headed fool. We take the good days from God—why not also the bad days?”

Not once through all this did Job sin. He said nothing against God.

(Job 2:9-10, The Message)

Many have followed the advice of Job’s wife. They demanded an answer and didn’t get one. They felt cheated, abandoned by God. And they turned and walked away. Job gives the pious answer. “I didn’t complain when goodness came from God’s hand, so why should I complain when trouble comes from the same hand?” Be careful not to paint Job too stoically. Within a few chapters, he will be questioning God, yelling at God, trying to sue God, and accusing God. But for now, he sits on the ash heap of suffering with the other cursed folk.  Another biblical character whose name also begins with J will suffer in a similar place.

Job’s friends come. Like good friends, they sit with him for seven days in silence. Quite remarkable, if you ask me. Most friends of religious persuasion burst through the door blabbing some pious explanation. Job’s friends sit and say nothing. And then Job speaks.

“Obliterate the day I was born. Blank out the night I was conceived!
Let it be a black hole in space.
May God above forget it ever happened.
Erase it from the books!
May the day of my birth be buried in deep darkness,
shrouded by the fog, swallowed by the night.
And the night of my conception—the devil take it!
Rip the date off the calendar, delete it from the almanac.
Oh, turn that night into pure nothingness—
no sounds of pleasure from that night, ever!…
And why? Because it released me from my mother’s womb
into a life with so much trouble.”

(Job 3:1-10, The Message)

Finally, it’s getting to him. After cursing the night of his conception and theday of his birth, he asks questions – all beginning with the word whyWhy didn’t I die at birth? Why did loving arms even rock me? Why did I ever see the light of day? Why does God bother to keep such miserable people alive? But then he asks the most piercing question of them all.

What’s the point of life when it doesn’t make sense, when God blocks all the roads to meaning? Instead of bread I get groans for my supper, then leave the table and vomit my anguish. The worst of my fears has come true, what I’ve dreaded most has happened. My repose is shattered, my peace destroyed.
No rest for me, ever—death has invaded life.

(Job 3:23-26, The Message)

Job prefers never to have been born at all, or to have died a stillborn death. He prefers an unconscious grave to this earthly existence. There are things that can hurt so badly that we wish we’d never been born. Job is there. It is the honest eruption of a suffering soul whose seven days on the ash heap have finally led to questions. Something has shattered inside Job. His trust in God is now brought into the conversation. He has progressed from chapter 1: “God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed” (1:21) to chapter 2: “He said nothing against God” (2:10) to chapter 3: “My repose is shattered, my peace destroyed. No rest for me, ever—death has invaded life” (3:25-26).

The world can never be the same again. He can never speak of God the same way again. What form of righteousness will rise from this ash heap? What does shattered faith look like? How do hedge-less people talk about God? Is there a future in God for those who suffer innocently?

Satan watches. God still trusts Job. Job wants to die…or at least to get some answers. This is what makes the story of Job so hard for us to grasp. It is different from other parts of the Bible. We are more at home in the Proverbs where you build a religious hedge of wisdom around yourself and it protects you. You have a deal with God. You do certain actions and it will result in certain consequences.

The fool and his money are soon parted.

The one who sows wicked deeds reaps wicked consequences.

The one who cares for a tree will eat its fruit.

Cause and effect.

You reap what you sow.

You get what you deserve.

We believe this. We want our children to believe this. We want to build a hedge around them. We want them to wise up and listen to us because we know the consequences of their bad choices. We know where the moral boundary lines are drawn. We know what people ought and ought not to do.

And besides, it’s scriptural. The Proverbs are a fine collection of cause and effect hedge religion.  Deuteronomy is also a narrative masterpiece of this theology. Obey God and you will inherit the land, produce bountiful crops, drink from choice wells, and have lots of kids. But disobey God and you’ll get drought, blight, enemies pestering you, childlessness, and poverty aplenty. Cause and effect religion – good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. God as much as guarantees it in Proverbs and Deuteronomy. And then something happens that makes no sense. We did good and got bad. Or even worse, the guy that did bad got good.

Job wrestles with the fact that God may not be as cut-and-dried as he thought. Job has lost his business, his possessions, his kids, his social standing, his reputation, and his health…all in short order. God removed the hedge. He’s sitting atop an ash heap scraping sores and wrestling with cause and effect religion.  Maybe God has a dark side, mysterious, wildly free. Maybe suffering is loosed in this world indiscriminately.

Job’s friends come to help. They had lived where Job had lived, like Job had always lived…until now. They haven’t suffered. But they’ve come to fix their pal Job. After listening to Job lament, they begin. They offer scripture, the tried and true texts of cause and effect religion. It’s all they know.  In their view, the only explanation for Job’s plight is that Job has sinned – big time. He is reaping what he has sown. “Repent Job, change your wicked ways! God will be good to you if you do!”

But Job, being the man of integrity that he is, knows he has done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve this type of treatment from God. He says so. His friends don’t believe him. Their theology has only one explanation for this calamity. Sin.

Job’s friends scare me. I’m afraid I might look in the mirror and see one of them. I can be so sure about God’s ways and God’s doings. I have my theology down pat, tightly woven, no loopholes, airtight. I can explain to you why things happen to certain people. “I saw it coming three years ago.” “I knew she was a flirt and this would come back to haunt their marriage.” “I can tell you his problem – he’s too liberal.”

We’re so sure. We know about people, don’t we, friends of Job? And if they’ll give us half a chance, we can fix them. We know how. Our formula works. Pray this prayer. Read this book. Go to this seminar. See this counselor. Memorize these verses. Listen to this preacher.

Job refuses to be fixed by the religion of his friends. He refuses because his authentic experience does not fit their hedge religion. They think he sinned. He knows that personal sin has nothing to do with this. He calls them names – windbags, sorry comforters. He says to them,


I didn’t ask you for one red cent –
nor did I beg you to go out on a limb for me.
So why all this dodging and shuffling?
Confront me with the truth and I’ll shut up,
show me where I’ve gone off the track.
Honest words never hurt anyone,
but what’s the point of all this pious bluster?
You pretend to tell me what’s wrong with my life,
but treat my words of anguish as so much hot air.
Are people mere things to you?
Are friends just items of profit and loss?
Look me in the eyes!
Do you think I’d lie to your face?
Think it over – no double-talk!
Think carefully – my integrity is on the line!
Can you detect anything false in what I say?
Don’t you trust me to discern good from evil?”

(Job 6:14-30, The Message)

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin wrote a God-anointed book in the last days of his battle with the cancer that claimed his life. He wrote, “Whenever we are with people who suffer, it frequently becomes evident that there is very little we can do to help them…. The reason this is so frustrating is that we like to be ‘fixers’. We want not only to control our own destiny, but also that of others.” I think Cardinal Bernardin was right. If we can’t fix our friends with our answers, will our answers fix us when the time comes? Dare we admit that we have no control over our own future? The security of our hedge is in question.

Let’s be kind to our fixer friends. Their hedge religion has gotten them where they are. They are enjoying their health, homes, jobs, business success, educational attainments, and reputable friends. They accept all this as a gift of God – which it is. They believe it to be the wink of God’s approval on their righteousness.

Do you realize that Job’s friends are betting with Satan? They believe Job was good because God protected and blessed him. If Job will repent to get back in God’s good graces, he’ll be restored and get his stuff back. But God has given Job the terrible dignity of proving them all wrong.

Who are you cheering for? I think we want Job’s friends to be right. Could it be that sometimes, most of the time, cause and effect religion is right? Could it be that Proverbs and Deuteronomy explain life most of the time? Could it be that this is a good way to raise children, work, eat, study, run a business, and live? Job’s friends are partly right. There are consequences for behavior, rewards for discipline, and punishments for sin. This is the way of God.

But it doesn’t always explain every situation. God is more than a vending machine who dispenses what we deserve. Suffering is a reality in our world and there are few answers that satisfy.  

Job actually wishes his friends were right. Because then, the solution would be easy – an apology from God. When it dawned on God that Job had not committed grievous sins, God would come down with a sheepish grin on his face and say, “Job old buddy, old pal, I owe you an apology. I wasn’t paying attention the other day and some nasty stuff got labeled with the wrong address and I’m here to make it up to you because I know you did nothing to deserve this. You’ve been a faithful and loyal servant and I’m going to see to it that nothing like this ever happens to you again. I’ve fired your Guardian Angel.”

But we never hear God say oops.

The language of Job toward God in chapters 3-37 is blunt, brutal, and accusatory. Repeatedly, the friends try to reel him in and change his mind about why this has happened to him. But Job is not buying it. Interestingly, at the end of the story (Job 42:7-8), God says that Job spoke well of God while the friends didn’t. They said all the religious words. Job, on the other hand, accused God of breaking his promise, said God was hounding him like a hunter, accused God of destroying the good right along with the bad, challenged God to a debate, portrayed God as wildly free with diplomatic immunity from any law, and dared God to appear in court and defend himself. Job banged on heaven’s doors until his knuckles were bloody, demanding God to answer for the suffering he had experienced. But no one came to the door.

And in the end, God said, “Job spoke well of me.” Apparently, the essence of faith is wrestling with God. The word Israel means those who wrestle with God. Job is doing quite well for himself given his paltry health and pitiful handicap. He is wrestling with the side of God that he does not understand. Ash heap theology shoots holes in hedge religion. God hides and won’t appear in court to defend himself, so Job calls him out. And according to our story, God is pleased with this. 

I find myself wondering about the conversations in Gethsemane and on the cross. Maybe the essence of faith is wrestling with God. Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor, wrote in his Memoirs, “I have never renounced my faith in God. I have risen against his injustice, protested his silence, and sometimes his absence, but my anger rises up within faith, and not outside it. Prophets and sages rebelled against the lack of divine interference in human affairs during the times of persecution. Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah teach us that it is permissible for a man to accuse God, provided it be done in the name of faith in God. Sometimes we must accept the pain of faith so as not to lose it. And if that makes the tragedy of the believer more devastating than that of the unbeliever, so be it.”

A Prayer
Give us a holy uncertainty about our wrong certainties.
Deliver us from fixing each other with answers that are non-answers.
May we be led by suffering to the heart of God,
revealed most clearly on a cross,
where God came to us on the ash heap
and there died in our place.
Amen.

Fostering the Creative Connection

Fostering the Creative Connection

Before becoming the President of Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, I spent 20 years in the trenches of pastoral ministry on a university campus. Some of my friends have accused me of leaving holy work for the dark side of university administration. To the contrary, my love of the local church has deepened. I still believe that the local church is the hope of a broken world.

One of the things I wish we could do better is creating worship gatherings that are formative. Believing that we are story-formed people, I have written extensively on worship as an enacted story, plotted in tandem with the biblical story to be preached on a given Sunday morning. As a pastor, the creative connection between the preaching pastor and the planner of the worship event was often disjointed.

Now I’m taking it one step further.

Trevecca has created a fully online master’s degree in worship and leadership which launches this January. I have written and filmed the lectures for the first class. It is an in-depth review of a way to form sermons and services side-by-side.

Get a taste for the first class by watching this video.

After watching the video, you may want to consider enrolling in the program. Here’s a brief description of what you can expect:

  • The curriculum integrates a study of worship with coursework from our respected master’s program in organizational leadership. Students will deepen their understanding of theology while also improving their leadership capabilities.
  • Examples of topics covered include worship ministry dynamics and relationships; worship in the Old and New Testament; spiritual formation; church leadership and contemporary issues in worship; personal leadership and development; organizational culture and change; strategic thinking; conflict management; and leading and building teams.
  • The program is 100 percent online, with books and materials delivered to your front door. You’ll never step foot on campus! Finish the program in 18 months with a master’s degree in hand.
  • Graduates will develop an e-portfolio curated throughout the program that can be used when applying for a new ministry position.
  • The degree also equips students with the academic credentials needed to teach worship and/or leadership at the undergraduate level. Or, students can become qualified to serve in an executive pastor role.

As a pastor-at-heart, I will always be looking for ways to improve the worship experiences of our people. I believe this program will help you lead such an endeavor. Learn more about the Master of Arts in worship and leadership.

Exploring The Worship Plot

Exploring The Worship Plot

This week, Trevecca Nazarene University launched a new master’s degree program in worship and leadership. I’m passionate about this degree and the ways it will help churches and their worship to deepen their worship. In light of the announcement about this new program, I’m sharing a few excerpts from my book on worship, The Worship Plot.

I love spontaneous moments in response to the Spirit of God. But I also think it is important for us to listen to the story of our creative God. In the Beginning, the Spirit hovered over a dark, formless chaos. Then God went to work. The Result was order, structure, and story. The order did not confine God; it unleashed God. The structure did not inhibit God; it revealed God. The story did not limit God; it narrated God.

In worship, the creating Spirit of God is as work sustaining the life of a people. The structure of worship is conducive to life in the Spirit. The story of God and humans is being told and acted out, much like a play combines words and actions to produce compelling drama. 

In my book, The Worship Plot, I suggest five acts for the drama of worship. 

  1. Entrance. A play starts with an exposition that sets the time and place of the story. The Entrance does something similar for worship. The opening act of the worship plot locates us. We gather at a certain time—on Sundays—because God has called us together. We enter a certain space—God’s presence. Gathering remind us who we are and whose we are. This Sabbath pattern is our distinguishing habit. 
  2. The Bad News. Just as a first act in a play raises a conflict that intensifies during the second, so goes the unfolding of the worship plot. If it really sinks in that we are gathered in the presence of the Holy God, we instantly identify with Isaiah: “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LordAlmighty” (Isa. 6:5, NIV). That’s another way of saying, “What’s a person like me doing in a place like this?” This leads to Act II of our drama, confession of the Bad News, the admission that our lives aren’t all we hope they would be, or all that God has desired for us. 
  3. The Good News. This is the climax of our drama, the turning point for the better—the Good News. The Bible is full of good news. “I have heard your cry.” “And the father ran out to meet him.” “Get up. Take your mat. Go home” (see Exod. 3; Luke 15; Matt. 9). Every one of these statements is made to people living with bad news. Good news can be delivered as scripture, sermon or song. It is the moment in the service when we declare to troubled people that God is with us doing something redemptive. It is the story of Father, Son, and Spirit acting in loving aggressiveness toward troubled humans. We grow numb under worship that drones on and one about sin in a dark world. The worship plot must get for Bad News to Good News, from sin to grace, from death to life. 
  4. Response of the People. The Good News opens us and makes us capable of response. Like the falling action in the fourth act of a play, our response to the Good News should draw us to an outcome where we are better off than we were before. The Good News even suggests what our response might be. The possibilities are many: repent of sin, be baptized, sing a song, give money, volunteer to serve, dedicate an infant, share the Lord’s Supper, testify, offer words of encouragement to fellow worshipers, be silent, break bread. These are real, bodily responses to the Good News. We believe that hearing is not enough; we must do something. 
  5. Blessing. Another world for blessing is benediction, which means “to say good words.” This act of the worship plot takes only a minute or two, but it is the needed conclusion. It’s the denouement of the drama, where we heart that we are better off than we were. A pastor lifts his or her hands and pronounces blessings on the people who have gathered in God’s presence, been honest about their Bad News, received the Good News, and responded to grace. These people are now ready to be sent into the world where Jesus has already gone. They will serve the people of the world, empowered by the grace they have received This closing blessing is a gift. It gives boldness to the beaten-down. It whispers grace to the weak. It invades our damaged self-esteem with words that say God values us. The grace of the Lord Jesus, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit go with us all. 

Style divides. Story makes us one. 

The Worship Plot

Learn more about the book or get your own copy.

Master’s of Worship and Leadership

Trevecca Nazarene University is launching a new master’s program in January 2020 for worship leaders. The Master of Arts in Worship and Leadership will allow worship leaders to deepen their theological and historical understanding of worship while also honing leadership skills that will deepen their ministries and open new opportunities. Read more.

Thinking about getting married? Try these date suggestions.

Thinking about getting married? Try these date suggestions.

​This blog post is for people in a relationship that could conceivably progress to marriage.  As a college president, I work in the middle of people who are pondering key relationship questions such as, How do I know if this is the one?

When Denise and I are asked that question, we resort to the old staple: You just know. But I’ve come to believe that that answer works only in retrospect (after the fact). If marriage works out great, then We just knew. If it doesn’t, then we messed up in the critical moments of discerning the relationship. Dating couples deserve a better answer than You’ll know.

So here is my considered wisdom for a generation trying to get the marriage decision right. I’m suggesting 10 “must-do” dates that will likely reveal something about the person you are getting serious with.  And if that person has no interest in going on most or all of these dates with you, well, that might tell you something, too.

The Assisted Living/Nursing Home Date

Buy some cut flowers and choose a random nursing home. Go to the community room and engage. Start asking the residents questions about their lives. Then listen. Observe your date. Do he or she care? Is there a genuine interest? Can he or she be comfortable in the presence of dementia? Does this person know how to respect the story of a stranger? Following the visit, as with each of the dates below, go to a coffee shop and talk about what you encountered. 

The Escape Room Date

You’ve probably already done this. This date gives you the chance to see your date under pressure. How does he or she treat people who are slowing them down? Does this person engage in the pursuit? How task-driven is he or she? Is this more about relationships, fun, or winning? What is driving them?

The Church Date

Hopefully, this is not a new thing for either of you. If you are a devoted follower of Jesus, dating and marrying someone who does not find life in Christ—think carefully about this. But do go to church together. I’d suggest you try something off the beaten path. Go to a small church that sings old songs and is five funerals away from closing. Does your date dismiss the faith of these people? Is this a joke? What is his or her capacity for finding meaning in practices and people who are older?

The Baby Sitting Date

Hopefully, there will be a messy diaper during the evening. Can your date deal with messy? How is the division of labor handled? Do you see initiative or avoidance? What kind of parent is peeking through? Does time pass fast or slow?

The Animal Shelter Date

You can watch for compassion here. You’ll also see whether sentimental feelings cloud solid judgment. If you have to talk your date out of adopting an animal on the spot, you may be dating a person whose judgment is ruled by sympathetic feelings. Look for middle ground in your date –compassion/love for God’s creations but also responsible decisions. If your date leaves a small donation, that’s a great sign.

Game Night Date

Chose games that are competitive, solo winner/loser, and in line with the interests of your date. Observe how your date handles winning and losing. Experiment with good-natured trash talk. Can he or she laugh when it isn’t going their way? Can they take teasing? How competitive is your date? If this were an important issue at stake, and one of you would lose and the other win, is this the person you’d want by your side?

The Veteran’s Home

Go tell aging soldiers that you appreciate what they did on behalf of your freedom. Listen to their stories. How does your date react to the cost of war? How does he or she express gratitude to those who have suffered? What does he or she do in the face of PTSD, amputations, shattered memories?

The Formal Date

Wear a suit. Wear a fancy dress. Eat somewhere fairly expensive. Go to a classical concert or a noted theatrical performance. Does your date wilt or waltz? Do you see enough self-esteem or gumption to engage the setting rather than being intimidated by it? Can he or she navigate settings that are new and different? Is this fun? Even if your financial tastes do not gravitate in this direction, you will observe the willingness of your date to explore new settings and experiences. Maybe you prefer to marry a homebody, but if you want get out a lot, this date will tell you whether your potential marriage partner is up to it. 

The Volunteer Project

Find a sweaty, dirty, difficult work project. The more challenging, the better. Help pick up trash in an urban housing neighborhood. Join a Habitat for Humanity team. Unload trucks for the local food bank. Work at a soup kitchen or aid a mission. Does your date work hard? Is he or she counting the minutes until they can get back on their cell phone or the couch? Are they more interested in selfies than the tasks at hand? Does he or she take interest in and engage with the people doing this kind of thing? Does your date care about other people or are they just placating you by being there?

The Family Picture Album Date

Pack a picnic lunch and go to the park. Find a shade tree. Bring your family pictures—all the way back to great grandparents if you can. Tell each other the stories of your relatives. Ask questions. Listen carefully enough to repeat the narratives. Then, go to your date’s home and sit with their family and tell them what you heard. How do these family dynamics work? Is there respect, open communication, appreciation of the family that raised him or her, loving regard and laughter? If this is as awkward as wearing your clothes backward, you may want to think carefully about the relationship.

With each of these dates, you are taking another step on your journey. The question is simple: Do we keep going, pause or stop? As you share life together on these unique dates, ask yourself if this is the person you want to experience life with. Listen to your head and your heart. Don’t be swept to the altar by a tide of romantic hope or surface-based information. Seek depth. Go there thoughtfully.

One last note. All of this assumes that you actually date. Many college students have seen so many broken marriages that they are afraid to commit, even to a date. I’ve written about this in a chapter titled “If Dating is Dead” in my book Human Sexuality II: A Primer for Christians.

If you want to know if this is “the one,” try some of these dates. And even as you observe your date, listen to your own heart. It is telling you something. And maybe you’ll just know.

A Summer Reading List

A Summer Reading List

I know we are nearing mid-summer, and I’m a little late getting this list out. As a university president, I remind myself that the end of learning was never intended to coincide with graduation ceremonies. If commencement means what it means, it is a launch of lifelong learning. So this summer, I’m reading the following:

  • How Will You Measure Your Life, Christensen
    I’ve asked a group of our campus leaders to read this. It is a good reflection on why we do what we do. Christensen is one of my favorite leadership authors. Rick Mann, leader of our MBA program, suggested this one.
  • The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Heifetz, Grashow, Linsky (A Harvard Business Review Book).
    I’m rereading this common-sense, people-empowering book on leadership this summer. You should join me.
  • Leadership: In Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin.
    By reviewing the lives of Lincoln, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, Goodwin examines the formative events and reactions to them in times of national crisis for these four leaders.
  •  Heads You Win, Archer.
    A novel.
  • The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Lukianoff and Haidt.
    This is a helpful balance to my reading list from last summer on white privilege, racial sensitivity, and the call-out culture. I found it descriptive of the way a Christian community respects people, discusses competing ideas and develops maturing friendships.
  • Faith Formation in a Secular Age, Root.
    Great book on the spiritual formation of the generation headed to college and already there.
  • Paul, N. T. Wright.
    I try to read one of Wright’s books every year because he seems to be the voice of a theologically responsible church. Paul was the epitome of a gospel entrepreneur.
  • The Fool and the Heretic: How Two Scientists Moved Beyond Labels to a Christian Dialogue about Creation and Evolution, Wood and Falk.
  • Giving a Voice to the Voiceless, Christopher Yuan.
  • The Second Mountain, David Brooks.
Reflections on Commencement

Reflections on Commencement

Commencement is always a special time within the Trevecca community.

It’s a time of celebration and commissioning as we charge our graduates to go out into the world as servant leaders. Full of pomp and circumstance and special recognition, it’s a time to honor those who have worked so hard to obtain their degrees as well as the family, friends and faculty members who have supported them.

This year, we had much to celebrate. The University conferred more than 1,140 degrees on Saturday, with nearly 1,000 graduates taking part in the ceremony. Every Commencement location was crowded with friends and family members excited to see their graduates receive the diplomas they had worked so diligently to earn.

It was also an honor to celebrate the legacy of valued members of our faculty. University officials awarded emeritus status to Dr. Mary Ann Meiners and Dr. Ruth Kinnersley as well as Dr. Steve Pusey, who is retiring from his role as Trevecca’s university provost. Dr. Pusey was also recognized as the recipient of the Lyla T. Mackey Diakonos Award, which honors those who have exhibited extraordinary service to the University community or Christian higher education.

Each year, I am awed by the graduates who shake my hand at graduation and anticipate the wonderful ways they will make a difference in our world as well as the ways they already are.

The weather may have moved our Commencement Convocation indoors, but it didn’t dampen our spirits or our celebration. Thank you, graduates and guests, for your patience and cooperation this weekend. It was our joy to celebrate with you and your families—and our honor to play a role in your story.

Congratulations, Class of 2019!

See photos of the celebration here.

Traveling Together

Traveling Together

Are there seasons of life during which we are more susceptible to bonding with other people in deep, lasting ways? Are there specific ages when what happens in our relationships sticks in our memory, our heart, our identity more readily?

I can’t name many people that I went to first grade with. I faintly remember the things that happened to me in the John F. Kennedy Elementary School right across the street from my 220 South Myrtle house in McComb, Miss. I just don’t remember a lot. And I’d have to say the same about junior high and senior high. I remember a few more classmates and a few standout incidents and a handful of friends that I have quasi-kept-up-with across the years. But I haven’t been back to any class reunions—though I tried one time—and I’m interested in the McComb High Class of ’70 Facebook page. The friendships were good ones, but they haven’t stayed near enough and dear enough to my heart to draw me home.

But the college years are a different story. Four years—actually 12 quarters or about 32 months on this hilltop—have formed me for life … or maybe warped me for life. My college years found me open and susceptible to formative friendships that are alive in me to this day.

Was it Trevecca or was it just that time of life? Was it moving away from home and being thrown into the den of lions called a dormitory? Was it the sense of independence from parents that opened us? Was it that most of us were the first-generation college students in our families, and we felt like these “brave explorers of brand new worlds”? Why did our college years imprint on us in ways that bring us back here again and again?

My dad is 94. Most of the time when he calls, he tells me about someone who died. He’s called me over the past years about all his friends who died – and he doesn’t do that anymore because, well, all his friend didn’t live to 94. Now he’s calling me about people he thinks I may remember from McComb who are closer to my age than his. He reads the paper to see who died. Then he calls me. And I barely remember them.

But when news of a Trevecca friend comes my way, a network of Facebook memories begins that reminds me of people and events and days that lie closest to the center of my heart.

The same is true for a lot of you. Charles Davis told me the news about Dave Edwards yesterday. In the late ’60s, there was a group of guys who lived in C-Suite of Wise Hall: Charles and Dennis Moore and Jim Quiggins and Jordy Conger and David Dodge and Dale Killingsworth and Dave Edwards. They’re getting together for dinner tomorrow night here on campus. Dave Edwards won’t be with them. He’s in day one recovery from major surgery in an attempt to beat bladder cancer.

The news was not good.

But Dave sent the message before his surgery. At the dinner, the men of C-Suite were to circle up, arms on shoulders, bowed heads touching in the middle, wives holding hands in a circle behind them. And they were to pray, not for his healing, but that God would give him grace and strength to face whatever came his way. As Charles told me the story and then read the email from Dave, he was choking back tears.

Explain that.

Fifty years ago these guys were together in a dorm—and with half a century of water under the bridge, 50 years of life experiences, thousands of other people having tromped through their lives—these relationships are the ones they draw on in a moment of need.

I could tell the same stories about Glen English and Charles Torain and Bill Green. About Morris Stocks and Corlis McGee and Bob Brower. About the Streits, the Knights, the Formans, the Shropes, and the Welches. About women’s trios and men’s quartets and basketball teams and intramural football. About religion majors who have traveled through life together serving God and church. About Circle K and K-ettes and Civinettes. About Kings Kids and Solomon’s Porch and dramatic productions. About student pranks and academic profiles.

And it’s all about one thing: friends.

Show me any other 32 months of life that have greater capacity for lifelong bonding, deep friendships. Is it Trevecca, or is it just that time of life? In the wise words of Forrest Gump, “Maybe it’s both.”

Maybe it’s that time, those college years, and maybe it’s something deeply embedded in the culture of Trevecca.

And it’s still happening. I see the signs of it every day. But the students who are here now don’t know it. We didn’t know it in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. You have to live awhile before it dawns on you what those 32 months did to you. I wish I could explain to prospective students that if they’ll enroll here, they will be grateful ’til their dying days.

Maybe what sticks to our souls so deep that we can’t shake it is that here, during our college years, we learned that we matter to other people. They matter to us – we matter to them. In a world where we are customers and clients, patients and patrons, buyers and bosses; in a world where we have economic rules to play by and pecking orders to perform; maybe we are two quarts low on believing that we really matter to someone. And then we touch our college friends, and it all comes spilling out like it was yesterday.

And if we feel like we matter to them, then they matter to us. I love the word chesed in the Bible. It’s the Hebrew covenant word that says that when you’re in a covenant with someone, you have the right to expect certain behaviors of them—and they have the same right to expect certain behaviors of you. So we go into the world trying to live up to the expectations of our covenant friends. We want our lives to be a blessing.

I’ve been humming a tune this week. You know the song, the old hymn “Make Me a Blessing” with that familiar refrain that out of our lives “may Jesus shine.”

This is what friends do for each other. We make them feel like they matter. We place hopeful expectations on them, and we live faithfully to fulfill their expectations of us. And we bless them. We act in ways that are life-giving.

Trevecca has given us a unique opportunity in a specific chapter of our lives to form lifelong friendships. I pray that future generations will experience the same. In their world, where darkness is rife, they will need the covenanted friends that can be found here.

The last verse of the “Trevecca Hymn” says, “God Who set Thy hand upon her, who has long supplied her need, wilt Thou keep our Alma Mater Thine in service as in creed. Give her guidance, give her wisdom, from Thee never let her roam. All the way to heaven’s portal, bring her sons and daughters home.”

I’m thinking of the C-suite guys praying for Dave Edwards as he faces a life-threatening disease. Our finish line is not a diploma, but heaven’s portal.

And so we travel that direction together.

A Bit Overwhelmed

A Bit Overwhelmed

So our University chaplain, Shawna Songer Gaines, lost her grandfather this week and asked me to fill in for her in chapel. We are walking through the Exodus story in chapel this semester. The assigned text was the story of Moses before the burning bush. Since I had preached this text a few years ago, I dusted off the sermon for current use. I didn’t expect what happened to me as I preached.

I was a bit overwhelmed.

Rather than standing as the powerful preaching narrator of Moses’ experience, I found myself feeling quite powerless before the need that I face every day. Moses had the almighty Pharaoh standing between him and the freedom of the Israelites. I have the almighty dollar standing between me and the funding of Christian education for the next generation of credentialed servants in the world.

Those of us who are living our days on the Trevecca campus see and sense the holy ground experiences that are transforming our students. It is palpable; holy work is going on. And we have been blessed beyond our means to be growing rapidly (more than 1,300 in the past three years alone). Our growth has outpaced our capacity to provide financial aid.

So I’ve been taking a page out of Moses’ excuse playbook and explaining to God why we can’t do this. I’m not a great fundraiser. What if the alumni don’t give back? What if I can’t adequately impart Trevecca’ vision and inspire donors? 

Yes, like Moses, I whine a lot to God. And God keeps entrusting growing numbers of students to us for holy ground experiences. This work of funding Christian higher education is… well, it’s way past what I can do.

I’m not alone.

You are working on hurricane recovery, the opioid crisis, a declining church, messy politics, loving tough neighbors, saving a company to keep good people working, providing medical care in a greedy system and a million other impossible tasks. So to all my friends who are standing before a bush that won’t burn and a heavenly voice that can’t be ignored and a challenge bigger than you are… grace and peace from a brother who is standing barefoot along with you.

Blessings,
Dan

If you’d like to hear the sermon, the podcast is available here. The Scripture and sermon begin around the 45-minute mark.