God Things

In a world of chaos and pain, it is all the more necessary to take stock of the ways that God has proven Himself faithful.

Things have been hella crazy over the last few weeks. From the attacks in Paris, Beirut, Nigeria and Mali, to the demonization of Syrian refugees which led to the U.S. House of Representatives passing H.R. 4038 – the so-called “American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act which would grind refugee resettlement to a halt – to the unjust execution of Jamar Clark by the police in North Minneapolis, to the shooting of peaceful protesters demanding #Justice4Jamar, to the ongoing terrorizing of communities of color across the globe by the the west, it has been difficult to see God and believe that there could be a future where war, genocide, and state-sanctioned terror was not the de facto way of being in the world.

Our ambivalence makes sense! When we are so burdened with violence on a daily basis, how can we trust God for a different reality? Those of us who profess faith in Christ have been waiting nearly 2,000 years for His return – believing that upon His arrival, crooked paths will be made straight, empires will fall, oppressors will be subdued, and all that is despicable in the world will either be destroyed or made beautiful again. Yet, the extreme chaos has a tendency to choke out hope, even among the most faithful of us, and lead us to believe that justice isn’t coming, and that we are just better off trying to make whatever little progress we can with our own hands.

Is there any hope for a world riddled with hate, fear and violence? Is there any hope for a people controlled by white supremacist terror and corporate greed?

Yes! I believe there is. In spite of what I see around me, the inner recesses of my soul knows that justice is coming. Salvation is on its way. Things, as they are now, won’t always continue like this. In fact, things haven’t always been like this so whatever has a beginning will have an end. One day, and one day soon (I hope) there will be an end to war, an end to state sanctioned violence, an end to capitalism and other economic systems which prey upon the vulnerable, the weak, and the dispossessed. One day, the world we inhabit will be characterized by peace, love, and an abiding spirit of mutuality.

As we wait for that day, we have a job to do!

First of all, we call the kingdom of God forth. We accept the invitation that Jesus extended to the disciples, but also to the whole body of believers, to pray for His kingdom to come and for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

But we must not stop at prayer – this is only our starting pointing. After we have interceded and tarried for a while, we then go out in the world raising the consciousness of those around us that the Kingdom of God is on its way and that systems, hearts, and minds better get right. Essentially, this is what John the Baptist’s ministry comprised of, as recorded in the New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He was a first century protester, who called people to repentance and challenged the corruptive, exploitative empire of his day, declaring “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the LORD (John 1.23).’” Similarly to John in the first century, we now in 2015 have a duty, a responsibility, to echo John’s refrain and call the Kingdom of God forth.

If God is King, that means that governments and corporations in this world who think they are running things are not. All which rules through corruption and oppression, and who profit off of the death of black, brown, and indigenous bodies all over the world, get dethroned – they lose all of their power. We set this process in motion every time we declare ‘Black Lives Matter,’ demand that our government welcomes Syrian refugees, elevate the voices of women and girls around the world, force corporations to take climate change seriously and advocate for just, equitable policies that will not have disparate impacts on vulnerable communities.

Secondly, we recognize and lift up the God things among us. No matter how dark it gets, God’s light still shines. No matter how evil and violent it gets, God’s presence still envelopes us all. Contrary to popular theological belief, Satan does not govern the affairs of this world, God does! While he may have enticed Adam and Eve into sin, he did not get dominion over the earth just because they lost an element of theirs.

God is still in control and we see glimpses of that with every sunrise and sunset. We see God in the faces of little children and newborn babies and the smiles of those most close to us as they age. Even in the spaces that have been lost to white supremacist control, God is still present with every court case that works out in the favor of families who have lost a loved one, with every successful refugee resettlement, with every home that shelters, protects, and provides, with every meal that nourishes, and with every table that extends an invitation to a friend, a neighbor, or a complete stranger. God is among us and He is working in and around us every second of every day to bring about that glorious future that we all so desperately long for.

As we wait for the fullness of God’s Kingdom and play an active role in bringing it forth, we must always remember to elevate the God things, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. Every time we lift up God’s name and exalt Him above demonic principalities that manifest themselves in white supremacy and other imperialistic ideologies, our glorious future free of injustice and pain gets a little closer than it is right now.

I’ve Been Thinking: Thoughts on Racism, Oppression, and the Kingdom of God

silhouetteI’ve been thinking…
…about how racism compounds the already complex nature of original sin. Of how, because of sin, humans already have a tendency to exploit and abuse one another. On our worst days, and under the right circumstances, we can all be lured into sin and take that which belongs to another. But racism validates it. Racism legitimizes it. Racism makes stealing, genocide, rape, and murder okay. Racism systematizes that oppression, making it that much harder to pinpoint and break. Sin, thus, is not only committed by racist individuals but by anthropomorphic structures that do not think or feel, breathe or feel in order to serve the interests of rich and powerful white men.

I’ve been thinking…

about how racism dehumanizes people of color in so many ways. We struggle to find employment and when we find it, it does not pay a livable wage. Without family sustaining wages, we fight to put healthy food on the table. No matter because we lack decent stores that shelve those healthy foods in our communities. And yet, convenience stores and fast-food chains line our streets along with the check cashing place. And if by chance, we ‘make it’ and get an education, buy a home out of the hood, and do well by the standards of this world, there is no guarantee that we or our children will not end up back in the place we desperately tried to escape: oppression. Someone else, usually white and most often male, feels the need to make decisions that should be ours to make. We cannot live where we want to live, send our children to the schools we wish to send them to, or stand up for ourselves without someone corrupting our narrative or taking the microphone away from us while we speak. At every turn, we seem to be duped and plotted against. Where does freedom exist?

I’ve been thinking…

…about how they keep terrorizing and killing us. Whether at the hands of a power-hungry cop or a self appointed vigilante, our bodies are under constant siege. It does not matter what we are doing, it does not matter what we are wearing, it does not matter who we are worshipping, it does not matter how old we are and definitely not how educated we are – on an hourly basis we are targeted and on a daily basis, we are discarded like waste. It’s maddening and it’s simply exhausting. 400 years of this. When will the storm end?

I’ve been thinking…

…about how much violence exists within our own communities. So much blood has been spilled of our own sons and daughters by our own sisters and brothers simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing coveted status symbols or for being connected to the wrong people. Internalized hatred and shame is trapped in our bones, and that hatred we can so easily project onto others, usually those who live, work, or play within proximity to us. We compete with each other, turn our backs on each other, shame each other, and even exclude each other from life and community even though, truthfully, we are all we have. How can we unite together, putting our differences and opinions aside, in order to go head to head with the demon that is racism? Together we stand, divided we fall. 

I’ve been thinking…

…about internalized racial superiority perpetuated by many white people. Many whites have adopted and hold on to an identity of ‘better than,’ one which they are willing to protect at all costs. In order to protect that identity, they label immigrants ‘illegal,’ Muslims ‘terrorists,’ black people ‘thugs,’ and anyone who dares to ask for help ‘lazy’ and ‘entitled.’ And then they pass policies to back up their rhetoric, all the while demanding their rights to free speech and gun ownership lest someone challenge their twisted ideology. Politicians race to say the craziest, outlandish thing in order to rile up their base ignoring the fact that if they did half of the things they promised, we would all be screwed. Truth of the matter is, none of us will be free, none of us will find justice, until whites themselves are free and healed from the lie of superiority that they have internalized for so long.

I’ve been thinking…

…about how in our pursuit for justice we are sometimes only really committed to our own personal liberation instead of the liberation of all of us. We want racial justice but are not willing to challenge capitalism and corporate greed because as much as these systems hurt us, they benefit us, too. We refuse to call the American Dream a nightmare because we still want a piece of it, believing that this is what justice means. However, even in a case where we had unrestricted access to that dream, who pays for it? Whose blood is spilled to secure it, whose family destroyed to maintain it, whose land devastated to sustain it? If not our own lives and our own families, surely those of our sisters and brothers overseas. Our foreign policy has devastated whole communities in lands far away, but what costs them much benefits us a lot. We cannot accept this, we must reject any notion that suggests we should.

I’ve been thinking…

…about what it will take to dismantle racism and white supremacy. We cannot move into a future free of oppression and pain, using the same tools and the same tactics that have gotten us here. We cannot keep building on a foundation that was designed for our failure; instead we need new governance, new theology, new economics, and new sociology. The time is now for new wineskins in which to pour the sweet wine of justice, peace, love and solidarity.

I’ve been thinking…

…about what is the spiritual moment in our nation. As much as racism is a political strategy it is also spiritual. What is going on outside of the realm of this world that we cannot see that is yielding the current results? What is the Kairos, or opportune, moment upon us? How will a deeper understanding into what the Spirit of God is doing in this season in our nation strengthen our ability to dismantle racism.

I’ve been thinking…

…about how we cannot dismantle racism without the intervention and power of the Holy Spirit. While we intend well, we simply cannot fight this intense battle without God. Because of our imperfections and our tendency to pervert justice, we need the Almighty God to go before us. We need God to empower us with the ability to prophesy against this evil system of injustice and call forward the fullness of His Kingdom, where death will at last be defeated and racism will finally be put to rest. That our hearts would rejoice and remain expectant for that day. Marantha! Come quickly, Lord!

*Link to image >

The Push for Human Solidarity and Connectivity

solidarity_260_tcm4-678389In this world, or at least in this part of it, we are socially conditioned to walk past each other. Seldom do we stop to engage, to say hi or listen to each others stories. Sometimes we make excuses for not doing so – we are rushing to our next meeting, we are fearful of what might be done to us if we stop, or for the socially awkward among us, we simply just don’t know what we would say. In spite of our rationale, we simply do not carve out enough time and space to be in each other lives in meaningful ways.

This is particularly true considering the many people we walk right pass who are in desperate need of help and relief. Be it the woman on the corner holding up a sign, ‘Will Work for Food,’ as we exit the freeway or the homeless man laying on the street as we walk right by, we don’t stop. Afraid of the consequences or perhaps, our hearts so full of judgment for their predicament, we don’t even try to figure out how we can relieve the burdens of those we walk this earth with.

I thought about this as I flew back from a conference in Los Angeles this week. My hotel was about four or five blocks from the conference location and in route to the conference I often passed several homeless men sleeping or simply laying on the sidewalk, making the space their temporary shelter. Me, all dressed up and batting a hundred, just trying to get to where I needed to be so I could soak up all of the knowledge and wisdom this great event had to offer. But never once did I ever think to stop so that I could listen to their stories; I did not even make eye contact!

The irony of it all was that this was a conference focused on social justice! And doubly so, I consistently preach and teach the need for believers to advocate and provide for the least of these. Of course, I prayed for them as I passed by but would good are prayers when the real need was food, clothing, and shelter? What good is knowledge about best practices in the social justice movement if I couldn’t even consider the basic, common sense practices of meeting people where they are?

I am reminded of the story about the Good Samaritan, a story about a man who inconvenienced himself to provide for the needs of someone else. If we are honest with ourselves, and I certainly want to be honest, the truth of the matter is that we do not want to be inconvenienced. We do not want to waste our time, we do not want to give our resources, and we definitely do not want to take time to listen to someone else’s story, lest we feel the undue burden of coming up with a solution. We do not want to enter into the messy life of others; indeed, we are often so lost in making sense of our own. 

We need each other in this human experiment called life. We can’t continue walking past each other, whether we are in need or not, and expect to emerge from life successfully and operating on all cylinders. We have to learn to stop, learn to speak, and learn to listen to each other, so that together, we can navigate the messy realities of our world. In stopping, in speaking, in listening, we begin to find our way back into each others hearts, back to a place of trust and human solidarity where we are then able to effectively advocate on behalf of the needs of each other and simply be present for one another. We must get back to these fundamental components of the human identity, so that we can be well and do well. Our collective future depends on it!

Looking at End Times Theology through the Eyes of the Oppressed

liberation artGrowing up as a Christian in the 90s, I learned to be preoccupied with two things: revival, also known as present day manifestations of the Holy Spirit, and the rapture. The desire for revival across many churches, at least Pentecostal ones, rose to prominence due to what many considered to be an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Brownsville, Florida in 1995. This manifestation, which lasted at least 3 years or so, was often characterized by increased incidents of healing, speaking in tongues with interpretation and prophetic utterances (there was also reports of dogs barking and gold dust being found on people – but we won’t go there). Many people went down to Brownsville in hopes of experiencing for themselves this renewal of the Spirit that was being talked about. Others prayed in expectation for the Holy Spirit to visit their churches in a similar manner. I myself participated in several prayer and revival meetings that focused on this. We prayed and prayed that the Holy Spirit would visit us so that we could also take part in this esoteric phenomenon.

Although the idea of the rapture (dispensationalism) had been around since the 1800s due to the work of John Nelson Darby, the Left Behind book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins helped many Christians to think about it in a new way. And so did the ‘A Thief in the Night’ film series from the 70s and 80s. Both works were pieces of fiction, but they were largely based on an already developed end times theology which theorized that all faithful believers would be taken away from the world, while the rest of the earth experienced an intense tribulation period ruled by Satan and other forces of darkness.

As a teenager, I quickly learned that there was nothing worse than to be left behind when the rapture occurred. Although being left behind still brought with it an opportunity for redemption, one simply did not want to take that risk. In order to guarantee that one was not be left behind, a strict code of holiness and morality were necessary: Don’t listen to secular music. Don’t listen to Christian music that sounded to worldly. Don’t dance, especially not in clubs (even if they are Christian). Don’t swear. Don’t have sex. Oppose abortion. Evangelize, evangelize, evangelize. Pray all of the time. Read and memorize the Bible. Don’t blaspheme the Holy Spirit (though we were largely clueless as to what blasphemy meant).

While this fear of missing the boat here brought with it an intense focus on individual efforts, it largely missed what was going on in the here and now. We were so consumed about the future and eternity for that matter, that we paid little attention to our present reality. This meant that we also were not concerned about reforming or being accountable to this reality. Like the Christians in Corinth, we emphasized the importance of the spiritual world and neglected what was going on in the material. Our negligence also meant that what we did in it and to it didn’t matter. Theoretically, we could exploit the world and destroy the world because Jesus was coming back to take us away from it.

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2014, for all of its ups and downs, was a busy year for me. In addition to my 40 hour a week day job, I interned at a church in the Twin Cities, I continued to write vicariously, and I also had the opportunity to take a course at a seminary close to where I live as I wrestled with the idea of going back to school to earn an additional master’s degree. Some of these activities  brought with them additional opportunities to preach, teach and write. One such opportunity presented itself in October and I was invited to give a talk on the Doctrine of Discovery’s role in dehumanizing black people.

After spending nearly an hour talking about the long term effects of white supremacy on blacks and others of color, again justified by this doctrine that the Church ordained, I opened the room up for questions and reflections. A white man, probably no more than 25 years old or so, suggested that since the Church was culpable in many of the acts of atrocity against people of color, that the answer was to leave it and work outside it for peace and justice. A few others, also white, chimed in and also expressed their disregard for the Church. They thought that it was better to abandon it rather than reform it, or seek the opportunities for hope, redemption, and salvation within it.

I was really taken aback by this rejectionist ideology. But I checked in with other people outside of that assembly, I learned that this line of thinking is quite pervasive in theologically liberal circles. Because of the trauma that conservative theology has inflicted on people of color and indigenous communities up to the present day, I have witnessed many white liberals distancing themselves as far away from this as possible so as not to be mistaken for those oppressive white people.

In the process, a lot of what is considered to be orthodox theology gets deconstructed and sometimes, reformed. This is particularly true concerning end-times theology (also called eschatology), which includes analysis on the rapture, the tribulation period, the second coming of Christ and the millennium reign of Christ. Among white liberal theologians that I have witnessed, much of this goes out the window – the proverbial baby and bathwater both get thrown out! In its place, there is only an expectation for believers to continue to live virtuous, righteous, and justice-oriented lives. The only hope for redemption, at least according to Pope Benedict, is when we die.

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Both of these approaches to end times events appear to be quite different. In reality, however, they are two opposing sides of the same spectrum that essentially believes that God will not right the wrongs of injustice and oppression. The more conservative approach doesn’t believe that God really cares about systems of injustice, since it places a higher priority on the spiritual than the material. The more liberal approach believes that God cares only to the extent that the systems can be changed through human effort – because remember, Jesus is not coming back according to many liberal theological perspectives.

This being said, both approaches give little hope to those who are oppressed. Both approaches, in fact, essentially suggest that Jesus will not challenge the structures of this world which perpetuate injustice. Yet, if Jesus will not hold these systems accountable for the evil that they exude, what incentive do leaders, governments, and others have to change these systems? If the West gets to destroy the world through tar sand removal, deforestation, land-grabbing, and decimating entire populations, and then gets to escape the world in one cosmic act, what pressure does it place upon those who act with such impunity to stop? If Jesus is not coming back, and is busy doing other things as the Pope believes, where is the Holy Ghost power that we truly need to rid our society of racism, genocide, colonialism, sex trafficking, and every other vice that devalues and dehumanizes the precious life that God extends to each and every one of us?

For me, this is why theology must be done by the oppressed, those at the margin in our society. We must have a theological approach that is formulated by the experiences and wisdom of people who are continually disinvested among us – regardless of whether we know Hebrew/Greek or not. This is necessary because our theological interpretations have strong sociological implications. The way that we see Jesus interacting with the here and now, as well as what will be, will influence our own responses to the here and now. If Jesus is unconcerned about our present situation, and therefore, unconcerned about climate change, racism, and injustice, we will likewise be unconcerned. But if Jesus is involved in the present, and not just in a mystical way, but in a very hands-on, influential manner, we will likewise be involved.

Looking at theology from the perspective of the oppressed is also important because Jesus Himself was oppressed. While the Jews once held a lot of power in the Ancient Near East, this is no longer true by the time Jesus shows up: Rome is now running things and it is an oppressive regime. Rome steals from the most vulnerable in society, and then imprisons – sometimes even executing – those who protest this oppression. Rome silences the politically marginalized and even has a disproportionate amount of influence in the temple so that people cannot even worship God freely. Jesus is a product of that environment, and does theology from the perspective of one who has experienced a fair amount of oppression.

Jesus liberates the oppressed, including Himself, by offering good news: Rome’s tyranny will not last forever; the Kingdom of God is here and will be fully fulfilled. In this kingdom, people will not grow richer by exploiting others. In God’s kingdom, governments will not hold sway over people’s decision-making ability and they definitely won’t be imprisoning and/or killing them for posing a threat to that government. In God’s kingdom, love, justice, freedom and unity will fully and completely reign and there will not be the slightest hint of evil. Jesus, both fully God and fully human, has nothing to lose as the kingdom of God unfolds in this manner. In fact, Jesus has everything to gain!

The Kingdom of God, as Jesus described, is forward looking. It will not be fully actualized in this life, but will be made complete in the next as He comes to earth once again, bridging heaven and earth. In the process, as we are waiting, as we are looking, as we are praying, justice happens! Reconciliation happens! All which has impeded the progress of both disappears. Oh happy day! You can’t possibly understand the absolute joy that the news of liberation brings unless you have experienced oppression!

If our future will look completely different than it does right now, we have an added incentive to influence our right now. If we can look out ahead from this moment and see justice, peace, and unity as a result of Christ’s return, we will also begin to imagine pieces of that future unfolding before us now and will subsequently work to actualize it. This is why we must lift up the voices of those who have experienced oppression in our theology, and especially in our end-times analysis. In fact, it is the imagination of the oppressed – that justice really can prevail – which will bring us all closer to actualization of the Kingdom of God as prophesied through Jesus.

Valuing Diversity is an Act of Worship

diversity_art_white

I was a junior in college the first time that I read Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. The Young Adult group out of the church that I attended at the time jumped on the 40 days of purpose bandwagon and committed to changing our twentysomething, chaotic lives (and mine at least, was certainly chaotic). As a group, we often discussed Warren’s short chapters over coffee in the evening, frequenting a nearby cafe which offered a basket of fresh, hot bread for only $2. Absolutely heaven for us struggling college students!

As to be expected, we didn’t make it very far in the book. We had other pressing matters such as school, dating, and other gossip, that dominated our time and eventually distracted us from completing the task at hand. Retiring the book from the group, I picked it up again several months later while I was in Argentina. And this time, unhindered by bread or the opposite sex, I finished it.

Truth be told, I don’t remember much of what it said. Sorry Mr. Warren! But the one idea that has stuck with me all of these years is the notion that I was created to bring pleasure to God. More specifically, I learned that regardless of what I do in life, my chief purpose is to worship God.

For those of us who come from a highly churched background, we probably see the word worship and instantly think about music and singing as we have been conditioned to believe that this is what worship means. The way that we express worship can include music, but in actuality, the essence of worship is about ascribing to God the worth that he is due. In worship, we express to God our sincerest appreciation for who He is and what He has made. Consider the words of King David (worshipper par excellence) in Ps. 8.3 – 8:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is humankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas (NASB).

As I read David’s words, I get a sense that he genuinely loved and appreciated God’s creation. David drew pleasure in watching the birds of the air fly across the sky and took great joy in seeing the sun set in that same sky, reflecting beautifully over the Jordan River. But I wonder if he ever expressed to God his appreciation for humanity, and more specifically, the diversity so deeply embedded in it. I also wonder if we ever do the same.

I wonder if we, as believers, ever stop to reflect back to God our awe for diversity. Do we ever stop to wholly appreciate the differences in culture, skin color, language, hair texture, gender, and so much more that are so vast across the human fabric? Do we see beauty and value (aside from commodified value) in each other’s experiences and worldview? Or are we quick to devalue and disregard anyone who is not like us, or who doesn’t support ideas that we are most comfortable with?

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that far too often the latter is the case. In every nation and place across the world, people cherish and value the things that are reflective of their own culture, their own ideas, their own experiences and ‘otherize’ the culture, ideas, and experiences of others. This otherization often leads to acts of violence and oppression, especially when power and resources are factored into the equation. And in the end, we end up destroying this magnificent, intricate human tapestry.

God made the oceans, the rivers, the birds, and the trees. And He also made you and me  – so complex and different from one another and its absolutely beautiful. Valuing this rich diversity is an act of worship. Cherishing our unique differences, instead of exploiting them, shows that we see wisdom in God’s handiwork. Like David, we ought to break out in song expressing the utmost gratitude and reverence over God’s ingenuity. To do anything less is the antithesis of what God has created us to do: worship Him.

Have Mercy: A Prayer for Justice and Reconciliation

blackcryingHave mercy on those who are suffering,
have mercy on the persecuted, oppressed and marginalized.

Have mercy on those who are targeted because of the color of their skin; have mercy on those who are profiled because of who they decide to pray to, disregarded because of who they love.

Have mercy on those whose hopes get dashed on a daily basis,
and upon those whose struggles never turn into victories.

Have mercy on both the voiceless and silenced,
have mercy upon the ridiculed, the invisible, the untouchable, the ignored.

Have mercy on those whose bodies are exploited,
have mercy on those whose lands are stolen, excavated and destroyed.

Have mercy on the wanderer, the homeless, the immigrant, the foreigner,
have mercy on those who are displaced as a result of war and climate change.

Have mercy on the abused and the misused,
have mercy on the misunderstood and the victimized.

And please do not forget, have mercy upon those who oppress us all for they do not know what they do. They do not know that in exchange for wealth, they forfeit their souls. They do not understand that as they reach to grasp and hold onto power, they surrender their salvation.

Lord, have mercy. Knit back together the human fabric that has been torn apart by war, colonization, slavery, racism, genocide, and trafficking. The relationships that have been destroyed, weave back together through your eternal love. That we, the oppressed and the oppressor alike, would become one at the foot of the cross. Heal our collective memories as we rightly recall our past. Move us into a future where we walk hand in hand, restored and united as we worship you.

Race Relations Sunday: Have You Received Since You Believed?

The following is the text of the sermon that I preached this morning for Race Relations Sunday. The Bible reading is out of Acts 19.1 – 7, which was one of the lectionary texts last week Sunday. If you would prefer to listen to the audio, click here.


seymour_williamI have been walking with Christ for over twenty years. I first came to faith back in 1992 at an Assembly of God church in Milwaukee, WI – Easter Sunday. From the moment that I made that decision, my faith in Christ grew significantly. I remember being baptized a year later, I was maybe 9 or 10 at the time, and shortly thereafter committed to daily Bible reading and prayer. I joined our church’s youth group in 1995 – that was the same year that I threw out all of my secular music in exchange for gospel and contemporary Christian sounds. In 1997, I was baptized in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues, or praying/ speaking in an unknown language – an experience that my denomination took very seriously. That same year, I made a decision to attend North Central University for college, a small Christian college in Minneapolis, and did once I graduated from high school 4 years later. To many including myself, I was growing in my faith. I had a vibrant prayer life, evangelized fervently, and was reading the Bible like nobody’s business.

I just didn’t care about social justice. I didn’t care about the poor, I didn’t care about the marginalized, I didn’t care about those people – even though I in fact was among those people. You can imagine the internalized oppression was real. I got anxious anytime I ran across a Bible passage that challenged me to think differently. I remember reading Matthew 25, trying to over-spiritualize what Jesus was saying about caring for the least of these so that I could feel good about my indifference. You see, a theology of justice and compassion just didn’t fit with the quaint Assembles of God box that I was sitting in – a box that prioritized baptism in the Spirit above all else. To be a good Christian, this baptism with the evidence of speaking in tongues mattered the most. Everything else, with the exception of personal evangelism and the rapture, was nice but not necessary and maybe even a distraction.

Fortunately for me, something shifted in 2007 – 15 years after I first committed my life to Christ. This was the year that I started to wake up to the injustices around me. It started with a missions trip that I took to Central Africa’s Rwanda. Leading up to the trip, I studied the nation’s history and was broken by the genocide that took place between two ethnic groups who were so remarkably similar and Christian at that. In my spirit, something just didn’t feel right. As if on cue, I started to pay attention to not only what was going on in Rwanda but around the world pertaining to issues of injustice. And I started to pay attention to what was going on in the United States as well, looking more critically at one of our biggest injustices – slavery and the perpetual dehumanization of black children, women and men.

I knew about slavery. I knew that my ancestors were stolen from their home in Africa and put in forced labor in America. Milwaukee public schools, for all of its limitations, did teach me that. And I also knew about the Civil Rights Movement and the sacrifices that people like Martin Luther King made to ensure that blacks like myself would enjoy freedom, justice, and equality in the country that had denied it of us for so long. What I lacked was race consciousness, or the understanding that racism is the ordinary way that this country does its business. I lacked the critical analysis that would afford me the opportunity to understand that our nation is fundamentally, essentially, at its core racist because of the way that it built its wealth and prominence in the world by exploiting natives, blacks and other people of color.

But then I woke up. I woke up from my slumber. I woke up from the optimistic but naive line of thinking that we were living in a post racial America. I became much more critical, and subsequently, more alive to our present struggle to be recognized as wholly and completely human.

For those of you who are also awake or are waking up to our country’s reality, you will understand that the last several years have been especially trying for black folk. It seems like the moment that Obama got into office, an all out attack against black people ensued. One month into his presidency, the Tea Party Movement was formed, uniting under the adage of taking their country back from black and brown people who were getting too big for their britches, I suppose. In 2010, they did just that! Republicans took over the house at the federal level and also dominated the House of representatives and the Senate at the local level in many states across the country, including Minnesota.

That year alone saw some of the most regressive social policies proposed. In Minnesota, the Human Rights Department budget was almost obliterated, a voter ID amendment which would have drastically compromised black folk’s ability to vote was brought forth, and a version of the Stand Your Ground gun law was also put on the table – none of which passed here in Minnesota but that is not the same story nationwide. Many states have adopted their own version of the Voter ID amendment, and we also know that at least 23 states have adopted some version of the Stand Your Ground laws. In addition to the policies and practices that were already devastating our community, these suggested that Tea Partiers and other sympathetic whites were serious about limiting the progress of black people as well as others of color in this country.

As destructive as these are, I still refer to this as racism lite compared to what is going on right now. In February 2012, the black community was rocked when news broke that Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth carrying skittles and an iced tea was killed. Several months later, Jordan Davis, another unarmed black youth accused of blasting his rap music too loud was also killed – both by white men who felt threatened by the presence of black life. The trend of profiling and killing black people has continued – statistics suggesting that every 28 hours a child, woman or man is killed by either a self-appointed vigilante or a police officer.

The later part of 2014 has definitely given witness to this. Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Darrien Hunt, Rumain Brisbon, and Tamir Rice – just to name those at the top of my head. All black men and children, all unarmed. All of which tells me that the struggles of my parents, grandparents, and relatives before them are not in some distant past but are overwhelmingly present today.

It is open season on the black community in America. This idea may make some feel uncomfortable, it makes me feel uncomfortable, but lets call a spade a spade and tell it like it is. When white men and police officers can kill black people at will and not be held accountable for their actions, we should know that something insidious is going on. To not understand the signs of the time that are upon our nation, is to be sleep, to be blind, to be dead to our present reality. It is to fail in connecting these recent tragedies to the larger tread of injustice and exploitation that is woven into the very fabric of our nation.

blacklivesmatter

In response to these killings, people across America are speaking. In cities across our country, multicultural, multiethnic, and even multireligious coalitions are forming full of people demanding human rights and police accountability by marching, blocking highway traffic, and staging die ins. Just last month, lead organizers in the #BlackLivesMpls movement organized a peaceful protest at perhaps one of capitalism’s biggest establishments in Minnesota, the Mall of America, understanding that capitalism itself is the force that drives many of these injustices in communities of color across our nation. Behind the scenes, others are working on policy changes, so that police are held accountable when they abuse their authority. In addition, many people are having the awkward conversation that they maybe never wanted to have about race in America.

There is one segment of our population, however, that has been largely quiet – the Church. And when I say the Church, I mean the American White Church. Black Churches have always been speaking up, organizing, protesting, and agonizing about this – our prophetic, audacious faith is what has led us through some of this country’s darkest hours. But the white Church has largely been silent. For many, I am sure it is as a result of not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do, fearing that the wrong course of action could brand one offensive, at best, if not a racist. This type of behavior is called stereotype threat, where white people fear their actions will live out the stereotype of them often being classified as racially biased. But for others, the silence has more to do with not wanting to rock the boat, not wanting to get involved in political fodder, not wanting to sulley one’s hands by siding with black folks.

But the silence on part of the white Church really means complicity, doesn’t it? Those who refuse to speak up and out against evil, whether they like it or not, are actually purveyors themselves in that evil. Silence gives permission for those who assault life, justice, and freedom, ironically core American values, to continue assaulting life, justice, and freedom. Understanding this, silence is not a viable option? So what then will the American Church’s response be?

When I ask myself this question, I look back over my Christian heritage. I think about the baptism in the Spirit that I experienced and reflect on how this gift, so to speak, has been primarily used to build myself up over the years. I have used it to encourage myself, enhance my prayer life – in my closest, in my room, where no one can hear me speak. And then I look at the early Church in Acts and understand that this is not what the baptism that Paul speaks of in Acts 19 is about:

It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether [a]there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized [b]in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. There were in all about twelve men (Acts 19.1 – 7, NASB)

If we were to sit down and comb through Acts this morning, we would see that this baptism is about more than personal edification and enrichment. It is about the ability to speak truth to power in a deeply, oppressive context. In Acts 1, Jesus told the disciples that when the Holy Spirit arrived, they would be able to effectively testify on behalf of the Gospel. Prior to this announcement, the disciples couldn’t testify to anything – remember they ran out on Jesus when he was arrested because they feared going down with him.

But now, now that the Spirit was coming, they would be able to stand against the religious leaders, against the Roman Empire and tell the truth about Jesus, and what his inaugurated kingdom meant in light of how Rome was currently running things. Jesus’ reign meant that the reign of Herod Agrripa was coming to an end. The wealth that he enjoyed as a result of oppressing the poor would not only come to an end but be used as evidence to indict him in the kingdom of our Lord. The power of the High Priest, and other religious leaders whose policies led to the death of Jesus, was also coming to an end, meaning that they too would be judged for disowning and killing the Son of God. But how do you tell the truth about that in a context that is ready and willing to crucify anyone over the slightest appearance of wrong? Or let me reword that – what the empire defines as wrong. You see when you are under the rule of a regime like the Roman Empire, or the United States, more and more of the ordinary, not so spectacular activities of people who pose a threat to the empire become criminal.

Such is the reason why Paul questions the disciples of John in Acts 19 about whether or not they had received the Spirit when they came to faith. Paul knows that the stakes are high. In and of themselves, they won’t be able to speak against the corruption that they witnessed in Ephesus. Ephesus, once a hub of commercial activity, is on the decline in the time of Paul. Though on the decline, religious influence continued to draw worshippers to the Temple of Artemis, also known as Diana. Through Artemis they were able to continue to profit and grow their economy.

She was Ephesus’ only economic hope. And this was what believers were supposed to speak against and challenge? Not without the Holy Spirit. But John’s disciples have not even heard about the Holy Spirit. In fact, they have not heard about Jesus. They received John’s baptism of repentance and were probably living a righteous, moral life that modeled the very things that John taught. But John was not the Christ. Jesus was. In fact, John himself told those he baptized that he was only preparing them for the one who was coming after him, Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus, the lamb of God who critiques, opposes, and completely reforms the systems of this world that force people to choose between God and empire.

Understanding where John’s disciples are in their faith journey, Paul takes the time to explain the way to them and then baptizes them in the name of the Lord Jesus. As the text tells us, as Paul lays his hands on them, they receive the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in tongues and prophesy. From there, Paul ends up confronting some of the very challenges that they were up against, going head to head with those who are making profit off of Artemis and is accused of jeopardizing Ephesus’ prosperous trade. The city, enraged and in confusion, drags off Paul and his traveling companions with the aim of trying them and most likely killing them.

It takes people with a whole lot of audacity to speak to injustice like that, especially when any type of economics are involved because empires hate losing money. Audacity, or the Holy Spirit. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can speak what we would otherwise not say. On our own, we are often weak, frail and timid, but with the Spirit working through us, we can prophetically testify against the powers and structures of injustice in our day.

One of the greatest missed opportunities in the Pentecostal Movement, and believe me there are many, is this right here. Almost instantly, we became attracted to the display of the Spirit’s power and missed just why He was giving us this power. In 1906, in the throes of Jim Crow and segregation, the Holy Spirit visited an obscure street in Los Angeles, California pouring out His Spirit in what can only be likened to Acts 2. There is speaking in tongues. There is prophesy. There is healing. People are being raised from the dead. And it is all being led by a black man. Can you imagine? And get this, whites are sitting under his leadership. For the first time ever in this nation’s history, black, white, Latino, and other people of color are doing worship, compelled to fellowship with each other in perhaps one of our country’s darkest hours.

the-problem-we-all-live-with-1935-e1365972666933Decades removed from this movement, I ask myself what the Holy Spirit was doing back then? What was He trying to bring about? How was He empowering believers to speak against racism, Jim Crow, and segregation prophetically, by first bringing them together in one accord and in one place? But white people didn’t get it. They were so consumed by racism that they separated out from this powerful movement to create their own assembly, led by their own leadership. Quenching the move of the Spirit, the only thing that remained was speaking in tongues. Only form and no power.

Brothers and sisters, as we find ourselves in the midst of the ongoing struggle to dismantle racism in this country, demanding an end to police brutality and every other vice that dehumanizes and devalues black life, I find myself looking, expectant for a move of the Holy Spirit. We missed what the Spirit was doing in our nation 100 years ago through this multicultural coalition of believers led by a black man; we are in desperate need of His outpouring again so that we can do it right this time.

The Pentacostal in me calls out for a fresh visitation of the Spirit because I honestly don’t think the white Church as an institution, not necessarily individuals within, will be what it needs to be in this moment without His prodding.

This is why I call out for a renewed indwelling of the Spirit, not so that the Church can hide behind Him, but so that the Church can rise up and be the prophetic witness it needs to be in this generation. This generation needs the presence and the voice of the Church, not to lead or dominate the movement for racial justice, but to do what unbelievers cannot do in calling out the powers of darkness, commanding them to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Only the Church can recognize, through the spirit, the demonic spirit that racism is, a spirit that is so divisive, and so potent that it has kept people of color and whites alike, divided and captive to its force for over 400 years. A spirit not only bent on destroying black lives but every life. Only the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can come together, and tell this deadly spirit that it is time to go. Racism, you must leave! We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. You will no longer reign and wreck havoc in our nation. You must flee!

I have alluded many times throughout our time today to my theological background which prioritized speaking in tongues above all else, including using this as the sole physical evidence to indicate whether or not someone was baptized in the Holy Spirit. As I look at the biblical text with these lenses removed and witness the evidence of the Spirit in the lives of brothers and sisters around me, who may not speak in tongues, but are full of love, compassion, and a prophetic witness which I have never seen in believers who were supposedly full of the Spirit, I am beginning to expand my definition of what it means to be baptized and full of the Holy Spirit.

Quite honestly, I ardently believe that the Holy Spirit dwells in the life of every believer. The question that Paul posed to John’s disciples as to whether or not they received the Spirit was relevant then because they did not yet know the Lord, and it showed! This is not the case for many of us in here, as perhaps most of us have committed our lives to the Lord. As believers, his Spirit is a gift to us, given not merely for our own benefit but for the benefit of the world around us. Imagine us as a people of God collectively lifting our prophetic voices to call out white supremacy, to challenge institutional and structural racism, to call foul on our capitalistic democracy, to pronounce God’s judgment upon a nation that has built its empire by going throughout the world exploiting others, to bear witness to the kingdom of God among us as well as the fulfillment of God’s kingdom where He at last redeems this world.

But just maybe, maybe it is the case. I personally hate to judge people’s relationship and authenticity with God. I would rather not spend my time trying to figure out who is in and who is out. First of all it is a waste of time, and kind of weird. But most importantly, God is the judge, I am not. Only He can see the contents of the heart. But perhaps it is appropriate to look very critically at our situation and context here. We have all, whites and people of color a like, been fed the adage that this is a Christian nation. Many of us have grown up in Christian homes, have gone to Christian schools, have partaken in Christian rites such as baptism, confirmation, and communion, pray at dinner, go to church on Sunday, and at least pick up our Bible’s once a week to carry it to church on Sunday.

While all of these things are good, where is the evidence? Where is the prophetic witness? Where is the presence of hospitality, love, respect, respect for human life and heartfelt desire to love mercy, do justice and walk in humility with the Lord? Perhaps many of us really are more like John’s disciples than we realize. There is evidence of some sort of belief and morality. But our very behaviors don’t reflect that we are following Jesus. Our ungodly bent towards white people over people of color in this country, using capitalism, colonialism, and orientalism as a means to uplift and support white supremacy, branding everyone who is not white as the enemy to the extent that our government and others in power such as the police, are willing to literally silence, through imprisonment, public shame, and death, anything or anyone who poses a threat the structure of white supremacy suggests that many of us are not following Jesus. These things do not reflect who He was, what He said, or what He came to do, no matter what version of the Bible you use to paint a different picture. These attitudes, behaviors and structural, systemic oppression, in fact, suggests that many of us, like John’s disciples, first need Jesus before we can receive power to speak prophetically and authentically that #BlackLivesMatter!

Receive Jesus this morning! Receive His peace, receive His love, receive and embrace His Word for your life. Be born again, embrace new life in the same way that John’s disciples did. And in your renewed relationship with Him, submit to God through the Holy Spirit, and become still before Him to hear what He might be saying to you in this hour. Repent of your own complicity and hardness of heart toward blacks and others of color in this nation. Grieve our nation’s history, lament and wail over it in the same way that Jeremiah and the prophets of old wept over Israel. But then allow the Holy Spirit to fill your mouth with the words to say and your heart with the boldness to say it in this renewed movement for racial justice.

Links to photos:
1: http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/seymour-william-j-1870-1922
2: http://www.fortruthssake.com/2014/12/black-lives-matter-race-baiters-silent-about-death-of-lontrell-turner/
3: http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2013/04/15/1863561/georgia-governors-office-calls-push-to-end-segregated-prom-a-silly-publicity-stunt/