Tag Archives: christianity

Reimagine the Statues

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My great, great, great grandfather was James Augustus Whitley, a Sergeant in the Confederate Army and a tobacco farm owner who no doubt benefited from the use of slave labor. I still have the desk that he built, his eyeglasses and his change purse. These few artifacts of his life arranged neatly in a corner of my childhood home served as a kind of historical marker, silently memorializing him, celebrating his heroism in the war, and reminding me that his story is a part of my own.

As I think about that desk I am reminded that history matters.

In our postmodern context we are want to believe that history doesn’t matter. We are gripped by the fantasy that we are pure masters of our own fate, disconnected and free to make choices and write the narrative we imagine for our lives independent of the stories that carried us into the present.

This kind of thinking isn’t helpful. Our lives, our culture, and our realities are intricately connected to the choices, ways of thinking, successes and sins of those who came before us. The contexts in which we live our lives are shaped by the forces of history.

I am a son of North Carolina, the progeny of people who believed that the color of a person’s skin determined their worth. This is a part of my heritage. It’s my past but it’s not my future.

Next month I am moving back to South Carolina from South Africa, where I have lived for over five years giving my life to see the next generation of African leaders empowered to make a difference in the world. My friends will help me carry James Augustus’ desk from my parents home into mine. I will not destroy the desk. Instead I will reimagine it. I will set it in a corner and fill it with pictures of my African friends. The faces of Luthando, Obedience, Phumelele, Joel, Noah, Lindiwe, Marlyn, and many others will stare at us from the darkly stained pine. Then when my young daughter remembers the story of her past she will see it more fully. She will know that James Augustus fought bravely. She will know that he was part of oppressing African people. And she will never remember that desk without also remembering the love for her friends. She will know what redemption looks like.

I wonder if this little desk re-imagination project could inform the current conversation regarding the statues in the South. What if the best way forward isn’t to tear down the statues, but to reimagine them? What if we invested the same energy used to destroy, to empower African-American artists to create visual art that does not forget the past but tells a more complete story?

Redemption is always about creating beauty from the ashes. History matters but the present matters more. We are responsible for writing the history that our children will remember for generations to come. Our present is their history. Let it be a history they can be proud of.

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The Second First Breath

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His cold and bloodied body lay on the stone slab in the dark room, the humanity snuffed out. This was the morning of the third day since he cried out in agony and sucked in his last desperately painful breath.

In a moment the darkness disappeared into a canopy of pure, blinding light. It was as if the sun itself had somehow burst into the room and flooded the darkness with a radiance that was both beautiful and terrifying.

In the center, where the light was most intense, where it seemed to originate, lay the faint outline of a man. At first the man didn’t move, although his form pulsated with the energy of a thousand supernovas. It was a blinding, unfathomable display of glory.

Suddenly the canopy of light went into the form of the man. His body, which just moments ago lay cold and still, now shone with a brilliance and power that defied all description. His form, his being and the light were one glorious entity.

Pierced by the light, the man inhaled deeply, drinking in his second first breath. The last time his lungs tasted oxygen for the first time, he was greeted by the smiles of his mother and the chaotic melody of barn animals. This time he was alone as the air rushed into his chest. As he exhaled his heart exploded with life causing the pale skin to fill with color.

The light sat up and the linen cloth that encased the previously dead body simply fell neatly on the stone parapet, unable to remain on the now radiant skin. As the man began to move the light melted into his body the way a flame gives way to coals when there is nothing more to burn. He slowly stood and stretched out his arms as if waking from a long slumber. In a moment the linen cloth that wreaked of death was instantly replaced by new robes flickering with the glow emanating from the man.

Despite the unbelievable transformation the new man still bore a resemblance to the dead body. The wounds which precipitated his death were visible, but of course now healed. His face and overall form were markedly similar to the dead man so that he would be recognizable but there was something new and glorious even in the details of his features.

He walked, nonchalantly towards the eastern stone wall of his tomb. Without breaking stride he passed into and then through the thick stone. Whatever his constitution, its’ essence was superior to anything known in the material world so that the stone could not contain him. As he stepped into the garden, the soldiers guarding the entrance simply passed out, unable to mentally or physically process what they saw – a man pulsating with the light of the sun emerging from a sealed grave.

In the days to come the man went about daily life, reintroducing himself to friends, catching and cooking fish, eating, drinking and finally ascending in one last glorious act as he returned to heaven.

This is resurrection. This is death conquered. This is life without end.

And for those of us who submit to the authority of King Jesus – this is our hope and our future.

One day we too will take a second first breath. One day we too will experience what it feels like for the power that created the universe to enter into our mortal bodies, transforming them into immortal, glorious bodies. One day we will walk out of our graves to join the firstborn among the dead in a life without pain, suffering or death. One day we too will live forever.

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New

When I was a child my parents bought our first new car. I was five or six years old. I do not remember much about the event except for the smell. It was that fresh aroma of virgin carpet, metal and molded plastic that cannot ever be replicated. It is a scent that refuses to return regardless of the most valiant effort to scrub the coffee and fast food stains out of the carpet. It is yours to experience for a brief time until you ruin it by subjecting the newness to real life. Mundane habit and activity will transform what is new and wonderful into something old and smelly in a shorter amount of time than you think possible.

I long to live in a world where everything is new. I’m 35 and when I look in the mirror I’m often dissatisfied. I want to be 25 again. So I join the gym and work feverishly to regain what the years and my habits have stolen. Of course even in my most disciplined years, all the striving never results in a cure.

Sometimes I wish my relationships were new. I have this longing to return to the pristine beginning when every conversation is exciting and encouraging. I dream of a time before the wear and tear of life exposed the deep flaws in my personality. If you stick with any relationship long enough the facade of a person will fade away and you will be left with a real person with all of their strangeness and smelliness. I’m grateful for a wife that has seen the real me and chooses to love me anyway. Commitment like that is a rare and beautiful thing.

The truth is that we were made to long for what is new. Our thirst for bodies without sickness and relationships without turmoil is a God-given craving. It is a deep longing that can only be satisfied by God himself. Our own efforts to make ourselves or others new are futile and exhausting. The temptation is to think that we long for something that we once had and lost. This is a lie. The truth is that we never had what we longed for. Our longing is not for something we can recover from our past but rather something that we can experience in part in the present and fully in the future.

One of my favorite stories about our quest for newness is the account of Jesus and Lazarus. Jesus arrives at Lazarus’ home four days after he died. He finds Lazarus’ family and friends weeping uncontrollably. Jesus is filled with compassion and weeps with his friends. Then he does the unthinkable. Jesus tells them to roll away the stone sealing Lazarus’ grave. Martha, Lazarus’ sister responds in horror saying, “Lord by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Martha knows that death brings irreversible decay of the body. She knows that any human effort to reverse these effects is futile. She is repulsed by the idea of smelling her brother’s decaying flesh.

Undeterred, Jesus moves towards the smell. He prays and tells Lazarus to “Come out!” and he does. In an instant the dead, decaying flesh is transformed into a living body. The wild reality is that this restoration was still only a hint of the newness to come. Lazarus eventually died again. The Scriptures tell us that those who call Jesus Lord should expect new bodies that will never suffer from sickness or death, a new heaven and a new earth where Jesus reigns and God’s people live in peace with one another. The new earth will be free from tragedy and chaos. It will be the world we long for and we will be the people we long to be. This is our hope.

As I think about all of my longings for new things I am gripped by this story. I am reminded that I cannot experience the scent of new life that I long for by cleaning myself or others up. Instead, I beg that Jesus would move toward my smelly life and into my smelly world and that he would make me into a new creation.

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