The Second Best Life

I’m reading a new book “Among Wolves” by inner-city Atlanta pastor Dhati Lewis. In the book he provides this insight from a Teacher and Trainer named Chip Dodd.

“We will never say ‘no’ to what harms us until we have something healthy to say ‘yes’ to. Until there is a replacement, we will continue to accept second best.”

So here are some questions for Christians to consider: Am I presenting to the world something that looks better than a “second best” existence or something that looks like all the other “second best” versions of life? Does my life look like a healthy enough existence that someone might be interested to experience it for themselves were I to them it all came from my relationship with Jesus? Am I patient in my witness; understanding that it took a certain amount time for me to realize I was in fact living a “second best” life, do I take the long view of the process and continue to pray for others and keep on trying to share the good news?

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The Evil Status Quo

I’m still learning the many ways I think I’m doing fine when I’m not fine, and the many ways I think I’m seeing straight when I’m actually blind. I’ve had a sense of this for a few years now, but God continues to show me my own blindness as well as show me more of what He’s all about. You see I’ve thought for a long time that my main focus as a pastor needed to be ministering to individuals and to let go of any “false hope” of making any impact on systemic evils in the world. My thinking was basically this; “I’ll share the Good News with individuals, let the individuals work out the ramifications of their faith in their life. The more individuals are transformed the more it might impact society – maybe it will, maybe it won’t – but whether it will or won’t impact society, I won’t worry about it cuz I know Jesus will come and take care of all that at His Second Coming.”

I’ve been slapped upside the head, as I’ve read “Divided By Faith,” and their extensive research on evangelical church thinking. They diagnosed my thinking as a thing they called “The Miracle Motif.” Read their diagnosis:“The miracle motif is the theologically rooted idea that as more individuals become Christians, social and personal problems will be solved automatically. What is the solution to violent crime? Convert people to Christianity, because Christians do not commit violent crimes. What is the solution to divorce? Convert people to Christianity, because Christians are less likely to get divorced. What is the solution to the problems of race? Our grassroots evangelicals told us. According to a nondenominational woman from the Midwest, ‘Christianity has the answers to everything if individuals become Christians’ . . . A woman from the Northeast who is a member of a Congregational church said, ‘If you’re a Christian, you’re going to accept other people. Never mind what color or race, you’re going to accept them as equal.’ And this Church of Christ member from the Midwest responded, ‘If everybody was a Christian, there wouldn’t be a race problem. We’d all be the same.'”

I remember sitting in a seminary class 27 years ago, and listening to a lecture from a guy who worked through a ministry called CityTeam that reached out to the poor and marginalized in San Jose. He presented a sweeping view of God’s heart for the poor and the oppressed, and I’m sad to admit I sort of shrugged and thought, “I’m not sure what this has to do with me.” He carefully described systemic racism and injustice so that we could minister with eyes to see such issues, and I not only didn’t quite understand what he was talking about, but I was kind of bored.

But I’m starting to wake up to the fact that while Christ does indeed save individuals, the fullness of the kingdom’s presence also means thinking critically about my role, and the churches role, in systemic evil. I am called by God to see the truth of my own privilege, my blindness that flows out of that privilege, and the reality of systems that hurt people and do not reflect the kingdom of God in this world. The authors of “Divided By Faith” soberly observe: “Two factors are most striking about evangelical solutions to racial problems. First, they are profoundly individualistic and interpersonal: become a Christian, love your individual neighbors, establish a cross-race friendship, give individuals the right to pursue jobs and individual justice without discrimination by other individuals and ask forgiveness of individuals one has wronged. Second, although several evangelicals discuss the personal sacrifice necessary to form friendships across race, their solutions do not require financial or cultural sacrifice. They do not advocate or support changes that might cause extensive discomfort or change their economic and cultural lives. In short, they maintain what is for them the noncostly status quo.”

Dear God – help me, help the church where I serve, and the churches in my city to move beyond the “noncostly status quo”

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The Church of Meaning and Belonging Vs. The Church of Sacrifice

See what you think about this observation from the well researched book Divided by Faith – Evangelical Religion and the problem of Race in America, by Michael O. Emerson & Christian Smith

“The organization of American religion encourages religious groups to cater to people’s existing preferences, rather than their ideal callings. In trying to create meaning and belonging, even to teach religious truths and implications for social action, religious leaders must act within a limited range shaped by the social locations of their congregations. The congregation often looks to religion not as an external force that places radical demands on their lives, but rather as a way to fulfill their needs. Those who are successful in the world, those of adequate or abundant means, those in position of power (wether they are aware of this power or not), rarely come to church to have their social and economic positions altered. If we accept the oftentimes reasonable proposition that people seek the greatest benefit for the least cost, they will seek meaning and belonging with the least change possible. Thus, if they can go to either the Church of Meaning and Belonging, or the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, most people choose the former. It provides benefit for less cost. Prophetic voices calling for the end of group division and inequality, to the extent that this requires sacrifice or threatens group cohesion, are perfectly free to exist, but they are ghettoized. They will have followers, but they will be a minority voice, both in terms of size and strength. This is in part because, as seminary professor Charles Thomas Jr. has summarized, ‘In practice congregation members expect the ministry to do nothing (such as taking a prophetic voice) which would interfere with the harmony and growth of the membership.'” 

This sobering description explains why a big majority of American Christians live lives that look pretty much like the lives of unbelievers, and why many do not want to hear prophetic reminders of systemic evil like racism, and many other “isms,” that still exist in our culture.

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A Prayer For Our Troubled Times

I think we’re all too aware of how many people, maybe even including ourselves, who are running around with clenched fists. There are clenched fists aimed at those who have hurts us, those who have different political views, those who won’t listen to us, and the God watches over us all. Here’s a good prayer for all of us to pray so that change, and peace can begin within us:  “Dear God, I am so afraid to open my clenched fists! Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to? Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands? Please help me to gradually open my hands and to discover that I am not what I own, but what you want to give me.”  – Henri Nouwen

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Where Are The Parents?

The evil that found its way onto the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia is not an easy thing to explain. Fellow Southern California pastor, and blog writer, Karl Vaters rightly observed in his recent post, “No one wakes up one morning, in the middle of a fine, stable, happy life and decides, ‘I’m going ram my car through a crowd of people today.’ We get to places like that slowly. Piece by piece. Step by hateful step.”

At the same time, there’s this one piece of the story that’s haunting me. The mother of 20-year-old James Alex Fields made a few comments that do not sit well with me. When Associated Press journalists caught up to her, after her son had killed another human being, and told her what he was accused of doing, you can tell by the video that she struggles to make sense out of what she’s being told about her son’s actions. When asked if she knew anything about what he was up to, she responded by saying, “I just knew he was going to a rally. I try (awkward laugh) to stay out of his political views. .  . We don’t get too involved . . . I’m watching his cat. I don’t really understand what the rally was about or anything.”

The more I run her words through my brain the more I think – Huh!? You don’t get too involved? My daughter just turned 20 years old, and we have talked quite a bit about the many polarizing political views out there in the world. I not only have a good idea of what she’s thinking and how she has arrived at her thoughts, but she also knows what I’m thinking and why. In addition, we’ve talked quite a bit about the tragedy of the extreme polarizing views and how we need to be people who seek to understand views that puzzle, and even scare, us. All Mrs. Fields could say was, “We don’t get too involved.” Huh? I wonder how many of the white extremist young men, like James Fields, fit a similar profile of physical and emotional abandonment from their parents as a part of their journey into the views they’ve embraced.

In fairness to Mrs. Fields, it sounds as if life in the Fields family has been quite rough including tragic death, loss, and financial struggle. These painful experiences can lead parents to check out from parenting their kids due to their own pain. As a parent of teenagers I don’t think it’s exaggerating too much to say that it ticks me off when I see the young friends of my own kids being largely abandoned (emotionally and/or physically) by their parents. I know that what I’m observing here is one piece of a whole picture that led to a tragedy on the streets of Charlottesville, but it’s a piece of the picture that I think we must take to heart.

Parents, stay engaged with your children all the way through adolescence and young adulthood, and when your kids bring home friends who have been abandoned by their parents in any way, make sure you share an extra portion of love and support with them.


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Christians, Politics, and ‘Frightening Jesus’

This week I stumbled on an article written by a pastor of a very large church in Pennsylvania. It was an article posted on the Fox News Opinion website, but it’s headline captured my attention “Pastor: Actions of many Christians today would ‘frighten Jesus.'” I read the headline and thought, “Maybe this is just this news organizations version of spun click-bait, but then again maybe it will have something challenging and good to say.” I was surprised when I read:

Many Christians are preaching grace and mercy and we’re very good at saying folks don’t need to get their acts together before coming to Christ as Savior – but our treatment of the lost contradicts our confession. We don’t own the message we’re preaching. Compassion? Love? Are you kidding me? We’re very angry at sinners. It’s obvious – and it’s twisted.

We wonder why people are turned off by Christianity. I have news for us: it’s not Jesus who is offending people much these days. It’s us, his followers. I fear that a large sector of Christianity in America needs to get saved all over again, and I say that with tears, fear and a good deal of trembling.

If you’re interested, you can read more . . .

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Tomorrow Isn’t Promised To Us

Yesterday afternoon buzzed along pretty much like a normal Sunday afternoon. I was watching a little baseball, a game the Giants actually ended up winning, my sons were hanging out, and my daughter happened to be away at an engagement party for one of her college friends. It was a day that lulled me into the false sense of security that it was just going to be “normal.” That’s how it all seemed until my daughter pulled into our driveway, late in the afternoon, got out of the car and proceeded to start crying. Through her tears she was able to get out, “I just about died on the freeway . . . she cut me off . . . I was almost run off the road!” At that same moment, some of her girlfriends who had followed her home from the party, got out of their car, ran up to my daughter, hugged her and said, “That was scary!”

All I could do was stand there at my front door and try to process how my afternoon could have gone. I had opened the door to greet my daughter and her friends, and now I was overwhelmed with gratitude that God’s ministering angels had protected my daughter and that I wasn’t at a hospital – or worse – getting a horrifying phone call from the CHP. It was yet another important reminder that all of I have is today. All any of us have is today, and so we must live it to the fullest for the glory of God.

Oh, and on another note. The girl who cut my daughter off was texting while driving! I have no words to describe how angry this makes me. Please, put the stupid “happy device” down, and don’t you dare pick it up until you stop your car, because you could end someone’s life, just like that young woman almost ended my daughter’s life.


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