Tag Archives: faith

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 King’s Dinner

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The rebellion was total. All that could go wrong had. It was a cataclysmic revolt of epic proportions. Destruction and chaos ordered the day as each man, woman and child did what was right in their own eyes. They rejected the King, his rule, his love and his future. The future was theirs and nothing would stop them.

Nothing except death of course. They spent their lives in pursuit of their pleasures, comforts and ambitions. And they succeeded, at least for a while. But the rot set in. Each day their bodies, minds and even the world around them decayed just a little more. Sickness, famine, war and pain defined their lives. They were absolutely without hope in the world. And the worst part was that they didn’t even realize it.

In desperation they tried to use their minds to devise a way out. They tried to make peace, to eliminate disease, to comfort themselves, but no matter how great the effort they always failed. Their efforts stood small and useless next to the gargantuan beast of death the rebellion required.

But the King was good. And the King had a plan.

He would go behind enemy lines. He would invade the world He made. He would gather a people to defy the rebellion. They would call him Father and He would call them Sons and Daughters. For years and years He sent messengers ahead of the invasion to warn the people. Mostly they didn’t listen. Mostly they kept going their own way. They kept dying. A few kept waiting.

Then in the cover of night the invader King came. They didn’t recognize Him even though He walked among them. He didn’t seem like a King. He was poor. He wasn’t handsome. He didn’t seem powerful. He didn’t seem relevant.

But then he began doing strange things – not things a King would do, but things that gave hope. He took away some of the sickness and even some of the death. He feared nothing. He loved his friends fiercely. He defied what they understood about the way the world works – walking on the water, calming a raging storm, turning water into wine. They either hated him or loved him. The way he lived made them decide one way or the other. He made outrageous statements that no one really understood like “I am the Creator God.” and “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Those that hated him – the people of rebellion – wanted to kill him and he knew it. Those who loved him waited for him to make a move, to take power, to act like the King.

The story of the King, the rebellion, the rescue comes to a climax at a place we least expect it – over dinner. The King Jesus calls his friends to celebrate the Passover meal, a meal that calls those loyal to the King to remember his promise – that he had saved his people from death once before and that he would do it again, this time forever.

As his friends recline at the table and prepare to eat the air is tense. This is the moment he will announce his rule. This is the moment he will take power. This is the moment they have all been waiting for. The King will rule and they, the faithful friends will be at the center of power. They will be respected. They will matter in the world.

“And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”

The friends around the table were confused. Gentile women, those who mattered the least, those with the least amount of power, those furthest from the King washed feet. But here was the King stripped down to a towel, kneeling on the floor, scrubbing the dirt from the bottom of his friends’ feet. One of the friends, Peter, the loudest and most leader-like among them responded, first with a question, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” and then with a statement, “You will never wash my feet.” He simply could not accept the reality of a King who acted like a slave. This did not fit into his understanding of the way the King would take power. This did not meet his expectations for a future where he was powerful and important.

Jesus answers Peter saying, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” And in this statement the King Jesus reveals the plan to save the world, the plan to save his friends, the plan to save us. Unless he washes us we have no share with him. Unless we lay down our right to live by our own set of rules, to do what is right in our own eyes then we have no future. Unless we let the King serve us we will die. Unless we let the King cleanse us we have no hope, no future, no life.

Here is the offer before us tonight: the King has invaded. The King has spoken. “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” What will you do with these words? How will you respond. Will you politely nod and go on about your way? Will you reject this reality completely? Or will you remove your pride, stretch out your feet and let the King of Glory wash you? And if He has washed you are you prepared to go and do likewise?

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Want Joy? Try Risk.

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The table was full of half eaten Italian food. We bantered back and forth, the small talk masking a torrent of anxious thought. She smiled and fidgeted with her silverware. I pulled on my bow-tie, shaking it side to side while downing copious amounts of lemon infused water. The small velvety box pressing against my side from it’s hiding place in my jacket sent waves of nervous energy quaking through my young body. Beads of sweat collected on my brow as I contemplated “the question” that pulsated in my thoughts.

The story is a beautiful memory for me, because on that night I took a big risk and asked Janet to marry me. The risk really wasn’t that she would say no. We had been ring shopping and talking marriage for some time, as people young and in love have a way of doing. I suppose that something could have gone wrong, but the truth is she knew I was going to ask and I knew that she would say yes.

No, the real risk was a choice to make this union the defining human relationship of our lives. It was a magnificent leap into the unknown years ahead, with a person I was really only beginning to know. The risk was to choose this companion for this greatest of journeys, one in which we would know ecstasy, joy, happiness, sorrow, pain, misery, uncertainty and ultimately death. It was either a youthful blunder into a terrible trap or the most fortuitous discovery and subsequent decision we ever made.

As I think about that night and that decision to leap into life together, I am overcome with gratitude. I’m grateful that I saw, and not because of my excellent vision mind you, the opportunity before me. It was a risk for sure, but even more so it was a chance to bet it all on the hope of future joy.

I meet so many people who are looking for joy but are unwilling or unable to take risks. These are people who suffer from the “What If” disease. “What if it doesn’t work out?”, “What if something better comes along?” “What if I lose control?”. The anxiousness of their thoughts so clouds their ability to see opportunity for joy when it’s lying right in front of them.

A few days ago I was reading the Bible where Jesus is trying to explain what life is like when God is the most important relationship you have. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his friends this:

 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

Jesus is saying that something magical and mysterious happens when you see the reality of the kingdom of heaven. When you see what is really happening in the world for the first time, when you first suspect that the world is a place made by a good God and that this God is in charge of everything, your priorities begin to shift. When you first realize that this God, who sees you for who you are, is in fact speaking to you saying , “Stop trying to live for yourself by your own rules. Lay down your life, your preferences, your ideas about how things should go and follow me instead.” what is important in life gets turned upside down. When you understand and absorb and take into the core of your being that this God wants to give you life, not just for a few years but forever, you will never be the same. Jesus says when a person suddenly realizes all of this truth about himself, the world and God, everything changes. He says discovering it is like finding a hidden treasure. The man who truly finds the great treasure of life, which is life in through and with Jesus, will abandon every other pursuit to recklessly bet it all on this one relationship.

What strikes me about this story that Jesus tells is that the man who sees the treasure must take a great risk to keep the treasure. He must make that treasure, that truth about God and the world the most central reality of his life. He is defined by the fact that he found that treasure.

But my favorite part of Jesus’ line is “Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has”. You see this man who sees the unbelievable treasure of life with God realizes that real joy requires real risk.

My life has been so rich because I took a huge risk and asked Janet to marry me. She is an amazing partner on this journey and I am blessed by our life together. But there is a joy bigger than marriage. It is a joy that comes when you risk everything and put your hope in Jesus. It will cost you everything and you will gain more than you can ever comprehend.

Here’s to a life of risk and joy.

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The Missio Wrestling Match

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One of the toughest things I have wrestled with in the last couple of years is the question, “What does it mean to be a missionary?” This is an interesting question to wrestle with, particularly if you are a missionary as I am.

I struggle with the idea that I am a missionary for lots of reasons but the one that resonates most deeply is that I strongly dislike the idea of setting aside some Christians in a special category.

The term missionary literally means “a person sent out on a mission”; mission being “an important assignment carried out for political, religious or commercial purposes”.  What is my important assignment? Jesus makes it clear. My assignment, and the assignment of every other Christ Follower on the planet is the same, “Go and make disciples.”

Therefore, God equips and assigns every Christian  as a missionary.

What I mean to say is that every Christian ought to consider their particular assignment to “Go and make disciples” as the central organizing activity of their life.  The trouble is that the influences of society and our own frail disposition lull us  into the more “sensible” idea that we don’t need to make our Christian duty the central organizing activity but merely one activity among many others. Somehow we believe the lie that mission is something you go on or give to but not something you actually live out in the regular world.

We have been duped into believing that it’s simply acceptable to make the major decisions of life (where to live, what house to live in, what employment option to take, what car to drive, how to spend our money, who to spend time with), with our personal preference as the domineering criterion. We are accustomed and even encouraged to make these defining lifestyle decisions without any regard for the impact they have on our ability to properly carry out our assignment to “Go and make disciples.”

When I read the Gospels I hear a clarion call of the Creator to jump into the deep end of the pool, dying to my ideas about how life should go, in order to obediently join Him in the greatest mission ever undertaken in the history of the world. This invitation to go “all in” with God means that we are all supposed to live as people on a mission. Put another way, we are all missionaries.

The thing that scares me is that it is easy to wear the label “missionary” as an ex-patriot living in South Africa while continuing to live for myself. The decision to be a missionary is a decision that all of us must make each day. Live for Jesus or live for self.  It’s that simple.

Today I pray that Jesus will give me the courage and the fortitude to live for him, to orient my life according to how I can best serve His purposes. I pray that for my friends in the States too. May we all, regardless of our vocation or address, make the real decisions of life according to the great call to “Go and make disciples.”

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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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Disappointed

This morning I woke up to find disappointment waiting for me. The details are unimportant. What matters is that in my first moments of waking consciousness I discovered a situation that stirred up dark emotions and thoughts lurking deep within my soul. In the end I was more disturbed by my response than by the situation that caused it.

The short, sanitized version is that something didn’t work out the way I planned.

In the hours since, I have wrestled with my feelings and ideas. My first inclination was an attitude of indignation. “Don’t they know who I am?”, I said to myself.  “I deserve better than this.”, I thought. “They owe me.”

Then the Lord spoke. “Am I not the giver of all things?”, he said. “Am I not the one who numbers the hairs on your head?”. “Is that a bald joke?” I asked.

He dug deeper.

“What are you afraid of?” asked the Lord.

That question brought the high euphoria of my indignation crashing down. Suddenly, the force of my emotion turned away from the one who did not meet my expectation. I saw the frailty of my heart. “I’m afraid that my plans will not work out.” I responded to the ever listening Lord. “What do your plans have to do with anything?” the Lord replied. Then he reminded me of words that have corrected and encouraged the people of God for thousands of years:

21  Many are the plans in the mind of a man,
but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.

I reflected on these 21 words. The Lord is so right. I have many plans. When they don’t work out the way I imagine, I often react in fear and anger. Why? I’m not exactly sure, but I think it has something to do with my memory.

I easily forget my place in the kingdom. I am not the King. I am a servant. I am a creation made to serve “the purpose of the Lord”. He reminded me today that His purpose will stand. He will succeed. My plans are irrelevant and small in the scheme of things.

I also forget his faithfulness. When I follow Jesus I have no reason to despair. I have no reason to become angry or fearful when my circumstances fail to conform to my particular version of the future. He is the Lord who is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is the Lord who promised to give Abraham a son and did. He is the one who heard the cries of his people and rescued them out of Egypt. He is the one who sent his one and only son to die and to overcome death. He is the one who shows up again and again in my story. He is always faithful and right on time.

Finally, I forget that his Kingdom is coming and nothing can stop it. I have this image of the Kingdom coming like a forty-foot wave in Cape Town. I’m like the surfer who ludicrously paddles against the force of the swell. I’m struggling because I haven’t learned to ride the wave. I’m trying to go my way with my own ideas under my power. The Lord says “stop struggling and follow me.” “I will make a way where there seems to be no way”. “I will carry out the things I have set out to do.” “Rest and trust me.”

The weight of disappointment nearly crushed my spirit this morning. Now I receive it as from the Lord and I give thanks. Thank you God for disabling my impulse to control. Thank you Lord for giving me deeper faith in the place of fear. Thank you Lord for this disappointment which reminded me of your great faithfulness.

He is the Lord God Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth. He turns the night into day, death into life and my disappointment into thanksgiving. Great is the name of the Lord!

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