Visions of racial reconciliation on Dr. King’s Day…

On this important day to remember Martin Luther King Jr, I am reminded of my many black and brown brothers and sisters who speak important words into my life: from the famous (Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Fannie Lou Hamer) to the “common” (companions on the journey here in Cincinnati like Yaacov Delaney, Gary Boyle, Eric Crew, and Brian Woody, and persons spread far and wide like Tyler Burns and others).  In a very real sense, MLK Day is about them, too, as it is a day to consider the multifaceted beauty of God’s human creation and choose to privilege the voices and experience of those historically marginalized.

I am also deeply grateful for our church community, where as persons of racial privilege, we have chosen to lean into the responsibility of racial reconciliation, initiating uncomfortable conversations and asking good questions about our level of participation in God’s reconciling love for everyone.  This is largely due to the leadership of our Pastor Joshua Stoxen, who in response to the sense of despair he heard and felt in the voices of black pastors he is in relationship with, led us to dedicate over a month and a half of our community’s worshiping life to exploring how we can be “in the struggle” in our city and in wider society.  As an elder of our community, I was invited to speak several times during this period, each of these two talks representing a window into my own journey and aspirations towards racial reconciliation.

The first talk is entitled “Combatting Racial Misunderstanding and Antipathy,” featuring the powerful words of Bryan Stevenson in the middle of the reflection time (from his powerful TED Talk “We Need to Talk About an Injustice.”  Here is the link:

The second talk is focused on community development, gentrification, social stratification, and God’s dream of “beloved community.” That talk is below:

May God bring his blessing to these aspirations, and enable us all to continue “in the struggle” towards God’s Beloved Community.


An excerpt from this morning’s sermon at Cincinnat COB

“Humble Yourselves, Discipline Yourselves, Be Steadfast”
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

…we have no reason to fear what even the most powerful empire in the world can do to us or the most well-placed bullet because we get to bear witness to a powerful love.  It is this awareness, this belief that has led followers of Jesus into the darkest, most violent places on Earth to proclaim and live the transformative message of Jesus and the way of life he redeems us to.  Or, it has led followers of Jesus into parts of our society that aren’t necessarily desirable, has led us to desire healing and hope in places of brokenness.

Believing this message should, I emphasize should lead Christians to look at their society around them, searching for places and relationships of brokenness that we can then move towards, engage with; instead of separating ourselves from, insulating ourselves from brokenness.  Unfortunately, the pattern of response to brokenness in Cincinnati, like many cities, is people abandoning, leaving behind, running away from darkness because we don’t like to feel uncomfortable, insecure, stretched, or frustrated.  People move into an ever-increasing ring of suburbs to find a place of security, leaving behind communities falling apart.  We then build beltways and interstates that keep us from having to see and engage those communities on a daily basis, and they slide into our subconscious; only coming up when we are forced to detour through them.

Precious few churches choose to obey the courageous call of Jesus to seek out places of brokenness and put down roots there.  This community of Cincinnati Church of the Brethren and our community Vineyard Central have attempted to be faithful to the call of God in this way.  But it has been rough going, for us and for you.

For one thing, we’ve found that we don’t have the tools to be able to handle pain and brokenness very well, because we’ve been shaped by a gospel of pain avoidance.  Several weeks ago, I heard a story from a man named Scott Dewey that connects with this truth.  Scott is a follower of Jesus, and Scott caught a vision to move to the slums of Bangkok, Thailand with his wife.  There are any number of preventable diseases there in the slums that primarily result from unclean drinking water.  Scott wanted to solve those problems, and bring hope to the slums.  So they said, “Here I am Lord, send me” and they went.  Three years later Scott rolled over in bed one morning and said to his wife, “Melanie, I can’t do this any more.  There’s too much pain here.”  After three years, they hadn’t solved the unclean water problem and Scott had been crushed by the pain and darkness of life in the ghetto.  Scott, however, chose to reflect on his thinking instead of just abandoning the place, and he came to one crucial awareness.

They had entered that neighborhood to do ministry for people there.  They had come with a gospel they believed provided hope.  And Scott realized as he thought about the pain and darkness crushing him that the people who had lived in that ghetto all their lives had a greater capacity to deal the with the pain and still find little cracks of hope than he did.  Scott found out that the gospel and the community he came from was one that was not familiar with pain, did not seek out pain, struggle, and brokenness and therefore he didn’t have the resources to deal with the pain there in Bangkok.  What Scott learned was that the people he had come to minister to were in fact ministering to him in how to live with pain and suffering.  What Scott learned through them was a fresh understanding of the gospel that does not bring hope through avoiding pain but through embracing it and finding God in the midst of it…

Link to full text here.

An excerpt from the sermon to be shared at Cincinnati COB…

Since Jesus prayed centrally, “God, may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and Cincinnati Church of the Brethren’s place on earth that you have chosen is Walnut Hills, Cincinnati, with Wendell Berry ringing in our ears, beyond all the sexy ideas about mission and growth; maybe the most important, most essential quality of your work as a congregation is actively and thoughtfully learning the stories of the people here in Walnut Hills, gaining the trust of the people of Walnut Hills, and seeking to follow the Lord as Shepherd for this place. It’s letting our mission be determined by our place, and committing to a place for an extended period of time, intentionally being present in a way that deeply listens, invests, and prays for God’s will to be done in our place.

Our Vineyard Central church family in Norwood is struggling through this very issue too. We have a sexy phrase that we’ve created and put up on our website: “Practicing resurrection in West Norwood and encouraging it everywhere.” Now, if we want to move beyond the sexy phrase and listen to the wisdom of Berry, practicing resurrection IN WEST NORWOOD means establishing west Norwood as the focus of our ministry. We have said West Norwood will be our place. In order for this to have a practical reality, we must spend a significant amount of time in West Norwood. This does not necessarily mean we have to live there, but it does mean we need to deeply invest there.

A number of us, because we want a more natural flow to this commitment, have moved into the neighborhood; in theory, because living IN WEST NORWOOD means we will more easily practice resurrection there. But we find a significant barrier comes up whether we move in or not: we don’t know the people here, we may not share the same desires as the people here, we don’t know the story of the community, the story of the people, we lack the connection needed. We don’t know the place where we are.

Full text of the sermon here.

Cincinnati justice for ex-offenders

This has been a year of great learning for me.  Since wise learning necessarily means time spent reflecting on issues (theory) and acting on issues (practice), since I spent much more of my time over the last few years reflecting and theorizing, I made a commitment when we moved to  Cincinnati that I would spend more time acting.

As the title suggests above, one of the places I’ve devoted some time to has been advocating for ex-offenders (what some would call ex-convicts or other various terms).  It so happens that Cincinnati is much like any other community in how we handle ex-offenders, which makes the struggle here extremely transferable to other arenas.  This is the process by which we handle ex-offenders:

1) They commit a crime and are jailed
2) They serve their time
3) They come back into mainstream society
4) They apply for jobs to support themselves and their families
5) They are rejected for these jobs (public and private) because they have had a felony conviction and won’t be hired
6) Given little to no options for meaningful employment, they are tempted to return to “easier,” illegal ways to support themselves, which often put them back in prison
7) Repeat

So, as this seven-step process illustrates, our society, which you would think has a vested interest in ex-offenders being rehabilitated, actually promotes a massive disincentive for rehabilitation.  This is a cancerous tumor in Cincinnati that often is not spoken of or paid attention to because it’s uncomfortable, unsavory, makes us shift in our seats and look the other way.  After all, to truly provide the incentive for rehabilitation would require our time, our energy, and our extending chances to those who have made mistakes. And for various reasons, we don’t want to risk those things for the sake of our personal comfort.  It’s a classic case of short-term selfish benefit at enormous long-term cost to our society.

So what can we do?  How can we make the trek back to more healthy relationship with ex-offenders, to provide incentives for them to be productive members of society?

It is that question that a small number of folks asked not so long ago here in Cincinnati (specifically the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, the Amos Project, and now, more recently, the fledgling Cincinnati Faith and Justice, of which I most directly identify).  About a year ago, the OJPC started stepping up pressure for the city to change its hiring policy, and targeted their action toward the city asking some simple questions like:

1) How old is the conviction and is it relevant to the job?
2) How serious was the offense?
3) What has this job applicant done to turn his or her life around since they were convicted?

About four months ago, the AMOS Project launched the Nehemiah Campaign to Rebuild Cincinnati focused primarily on this issue, which Cincinnati Faith and Justice linked up with, which led to my involvement in the campaign.  The last two weeks have been a roller coaster of emotion for those involved in this, which I’ll address in my next post, but I wanted to lay out in this one some of where my learning-in-action has gone over the past year.

Why move? Why not professional ministry? Why?

Some people have been asking why we’re moving to Cincinnati, why I’m not going to be a “minister” there…

Others have desired that I update them on the next steps we’ve been taking since my announcement of our life change.

To all of you, I say, no huge specifics yet.

We have bought a house in a crossroads neighborhood called North Avondale, we will be there in May, it does have a sewage line backup, so yes, we have wet crap in our basement, and yes, we’re excited and nervous and afraid and wanting so desperately to have community and wanting so desperately to live the kingdom of God and evangelize by the way we live a hope worth fighting for.

But for now, I heard a song today that illustrates the why; “Why give up comfort?  Why share a living space so closely with others?  Why leave this area?  Why?”  Because we are a part of God’s church, God’s holy nation, called out of the darkness and into his wonderful light.  And as the church;

God has chosen us, God has chosen us
To bring good news to the poor.
God has chosen us, God has chosen us
To bring new sight to those searching for light

God has chosen us, chosen us

And to tell the world that God’s kingdom is near,
To remove oppression and break down fear,
Yes, God’s time is near, God’s time is near
God’s time is near, God’s time is near.

God has chosen us, God has chosen us
To set alight a new fire.
God has chosen us, God has chosen us
To bring to birth a new kingdom on earth.

God has chosen us, chosen us;

And to tell the world that God’s kingdom is near,
To remove oppression and break down fear,
Yes, God’s time is near, God’s time is near
God’s time is near, God’s time is near.

God is calling us, God is calling us
In all whose cry is unheard.
God is calling us, God is calling us
To raise up the voice with no power or choice:

God is calling us, calling us:

And to tell the world that God’s kingdom is near,
To remove oppression and break down fear,
Yes, God’s time is near, God’s time is near
God’s time is near, God’s time is near. *

And to those who think we’re utopian, that we just “need to grow up” and be like everyone else, who think this is a phase we’ll get over, to those who believe the world’s going to hell in a handbasket and all we should do is save some souls and wait for Jesus to come back, I say one thing;

“Watch us.  Watch us, and you can even have a little chuckle when our middle-class white world gets blown to bits as we encounter some other facets of human life.  But watch us.  And see if we don’t show something a little different.  If we don’t find some refining that burns away some of what we didn’t need.”

We just might surprise someone.  Or we might be utopian and crash and burn.  But let’s raise a glass to seeking first God’s kingdom.

*the song actually says, “God has chosen me,” but that sounded pretentious in this context; a little vain.

Life changes…

Sooooooo…..since blogs are supposed to be places where people express their own authentic views on any number of subjects ranging from very personal struggles to big-scale stuff like the cost of tea in China, I guess I should comment on a massive life change in my life (and, because my wife made one of those “lifetime covenants” with me, her life too).

I resigned as pastor of Middle River Church last month, effective May 1st, 2009.  The following is an attempt to put into words the reasons why.

I’m 28, young enough to be incredibly naive, but old enough to know life isn’t a bowl of cherries.  I’m young enough to have dreams for the world, and old enough to know that most older people have given up on dreams as foolishness.  I have chosen to dream, and while I’m sure this dream will run head-on into the harsh reality of the present, that doesn’t negate the power of the dream.

Bethany and I have decided to move intentionally to Cincinnati to live in community with our friends Dustin and Tiffany and Josh.  We will be making a covenant together that involves significant financial sharing, commitment to daily communal worship, commitment to the simple aspects of life together (common meals, working together), and a commitment to being neighborhood-minded in the pursuit of our shared dream.  

People around here try to talk to me about this, and I’ve run into a strong number of blank faces and quizzical faces.  

The blank ones don’t seem to have room in their heads for something like this; I would chalk this up to their being so intimately shaped and molded by our social message of individualism, privatism, and seeking of comfort that the strong desire for community is all but extinguished in them.  Sure, it might express itself from time to time, but is quickly quelched by the person’s fear of the unknown and society’s powerful message of selfishness.  

The quizzical faces also don’t seem to have room in their heads for something like this, but for different reasons. “Community” sounds too much like “communism” to them; it’s not a coincidence that these folks are often my parents generation with Joe McCarthy’s rants and anti-Soviet propaganda ringing in their ears. So that’s a barrier.  Plus, living together with others who aren’t your “natural” family sounds too much like David Koresh to them (remember Waco, TX in 1993 and Janet Reno?).  Some have had the courage to warn me about this, which is a wise caution, I’d say, of how community is easily corrupted by power and personality.

There’s maybe two other big reasons that people are confused by our decision.  There’s a strong current of American conservatism running through the Shenandoah Valley, where churches feed the desire for traditional values; work hard, save, take care of your family, “go to” church (and those aren’t necessarily negative values). But with those values has always been a latent racism, stereotyping of those who are poor, and an elevating of the values of family, tradition, and a middle-class state of mind to a place of idolatry. It is the only way of life folks know, and they cling to it even as they make decisions that shred that sense of shared values over time.  Those decisions (the embracing of spending ourselves into debt, buying bigger and more expensive transportation and houses, escaping life through movies, television, and entertainment rather than working consistently and hard towards real-life goals) come in the name of “change” and “progressive” thinking. That’s the second strong current in our area, a “progressivism” that is, from an eternal perspective, really “regressivism.”  As Os Guinness says,

“We insist on choice, we expect change, we prize relevance, we are unthinking believers in the-newer-the-truer, the latest-is-greatest, and what’s in and what’s out…the result of our casual nihilism is a careless demolition of tradition and the creation of a spiritual, moral, and aesthetic wasteland in its place.”

The Shenandoah Valley is quickly becoming a toxic wasteland of confused conservative/progressives who espouse family values yet get out of marriages because they don’t serve their selfish ends, who claim a Christian faith yet reject the life of discipleship because it gets in the way of watching American Idol or their dream of their child becoming a professional athlete (so they put them on travel teams that pull them away from investing in relationship with others around them).  We don’t know who we are, but we know that the television feeds our short-term wants; to feel significance through reality shows with “normal” people “making it,” to make us think we’re helping make our world a better place through watching (and crying through) Extreme Make-over Home Edition, and to feel athletic by altering our schedules to fit our commitment to watching various sports events.  You could add any number of examples onto those.

It’s a rat race.  Slowly but surely, as I’ve tried to carve out some time to listen to God in the midst of the competing messages and voices (by turning off the radio, but choosing not to have cable or satellite television in our house, by seeking to value relationship over entertainment), I’ve heard God beginning to whisper to me.  The more I’ve paid attention to that whisper, the louder it has grown and the more it has gripped me. At times the voice thunders in my head, stopping me dead in my tracks and making me quake in fear (the healthy kind, mostly).  The voice says something like this, “There is more to life than this.  Listen to me, obey me, and you can be a part of something greater.”  God has been shaping me, and this shaping has sped up the more I’ve worked to listen and act accordingly.  I’m choosing to dream more these days, and to follow the pathways of the dreams to figure out where they might lead.  T.E. Lawrence wrote something that has gripped me, saying,

“All men dream: but not equally.  Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find it was vanity:  but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.  This I did.”

Bethany and I have chosen to be “dreamers of the day” with friends; working to line up our dreams with God’s dream.  We know that changing the world begins with us, is always focused on the daily life of neighborhoods and communities surrounding us, and includes my brothers and sisters across the globe.  There are already church families in Cincinnati who have been doing this for a while like Vineyard Central in the Norwood neighborhood.  There are already disciples of Jesus who have moved intentionally to economically depressed areas for years like Dorothy Day (and Catholic Worker folks), Tom Sine (and Mustard Seed House folks) and Shane Claiborne (and Potter Street Community folks) Mark Scandrette (and ReImagine folks) and John Perkins (and CCDA folks).  I know these persons would be frustrated with me singling them out, because they’re good, humble people who are a part of communities, not celebrities or Christians unto themselves.  But for the sake of examples, I isolated them.  We will be submitting to them and listening as a community to how their wisdom tempers our idealism; how their struggles temper our vision. We are naive, yet we want more.  This will be hard, but our common commitment will share the burden.  We are not alone in this.

Malcolm Muggeridge wrote his own (joking) epitaph while in college to a friend,

“Here lieth one whose soul sometimes burned with great longings.  To whom sometimes the curtain of the Infinite was opened just a little, but who lacked the guts to make any use of it.” 

Hearing that warning (Muggeridge was a famous killjoy of grand dreams for a long time in his life), I have a couple commitments;

I want to walk the uncomfortable balance of great longings and the ordinariness of daily living.  

I want to have the guts to risk for God while rejecting some twisted sort of heroic quest.

I want to be perpetually restless for redemption without allowing that restlessness to cause me to wander constantly in search of something that is only found in choosing to stay and work somewhere, somewhere to invest in, that has people to love.  

I want to walk in God’s pathways, and I’m grateful to join others in conspiring to lead our world back to Genesis 1 and God saying, “This is VERY good.”  

I love paying attention to these things and knowing that God is smiling, fighting for me and urging me to keep walking and keep striving.  

I get to join God’s story of redemption in our world, to play a role in this drama unfolding for millennia, and to work joyfully in God’s kingdom whether we see “results” or not.  God is making a “new heavens and a new earth,” and my faithfulness to the global scope and the common, daily path of it helps to bring that world to pass.