Bites of Patience

This is a series of posts surrounding my goal of focusing on patience in 2017, specifically my retreat day of patience on January 5th. To read more in the series, click on the "patience" tag at the bottom of this post.

One could argue that fasting could be a poetic way to learn patience. Today, I’m not inclined to believe it. I’m hungry. I want to sit for awhile and contemplate so more. This would be the ideal time to search for an international restaurant, where the meal is served in courses over a few hours.

I opt for a chain sandwich shop.

Once again, the snow has kept people from going out and it’s empty. But people are still hungry and the staff is buzzing along filling a full slate of carry out orders. Even though I’m the only person in line, I’m forced to wait—to place my order, to select my condiments, to pay for my meal. I grin because I cherish the added irony. The manager apologies for the slowness and asks if I’m doing OK. “Just fine,” I respond. “Thanks for asking."

When I sit down, it’s just me in the dining room. Well, it’s me AND the live lunchtime performer in the corner. He’s not playing yet, but he’s tuning his guitar, so I know it’s coming. I’m still convicted not to put my headphones in, so I know I’ll be forced to listen to whatever folk music he produces. But he leads out the gate with Simon and Garfunkle’s the Boxer. I’m a sucker for it; it’s one of my favorite songs of all time. The musical interlude will act as a metronome forcing me to slow my pace.

I eat fast.

I chalk it up to my childhood. Mealtime in a big family is all about pace. If you don’t eat quickly, you may not get enough of the food you want; no kid wants to be stuck with a second helping of vegetables. I’ve continued the habit for, as much as I love eating, it’s something I need to do for sustenance, so even when it’s enjoyable, it’s about utility. This is heightened when I’m eating along. I could always sit and read my Twitter feed, but I’d rather get in and out. At the very least, over the years, I’ve tried to stop eating in my car. Again, though, that decision wasn’t about patience; I was tired of losing lettuce between my car cushions.

For the day of patience, I’ve convinced myself to eat slowly. I take little bites, trying to savor my not-so-fast food. My soup is a willing participant. The steam continues to rise from my bowl for a good fifteen minutes. If I eat any faster, I’ll lose a year’s worth of tastebuds. As the lunch crowd begins to stream in, I can finally recognize that I indeed slowed down a bit. People who hit the dining room after me are leaving while I’m still nursing my sandwich. The performer in the corner is working his deeper cuts of folk music (chasing Bob Dylan with the Counting Crows); I actually drop him a tip, which is something I rarely do for musicians. The pause to listen makes me appreciate the craft more.

I’m not sure I’ll eat more patiently in the future. But at the very least, I’ll try to digest forgettable moments more deliberately in the future. 

The Slow of Snow

This is a series of posts surrounding my goal of focusing on patience in 2017, specifically my retreat day of patience on January 5th. To read more in the series, click on the "patience" tag at the top of this post.

 “We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name.” Psalm 33:20,22

The city is an enemy of patience. It’s always moving and part of its success demands that it must continue on quickly. There is no time for idleness, for movement is the key to urban prosperity.

All that changes on a snow day, however. The city comes to a crawl. It projects a peacefulness that is rarely seen. The roads are less traveled on. While the traffic lights continue to change, sometimes no one is there to notice.

Up the street from our house, there’s a little coffee shop on the corner of the major road. It’s only a ten-minute drive from my house, but I’ve never been there. I decided that it would serve as the first stop on my day of patience.

This isn’t your typical hipster, third-wave kind of coffee place. It sits on the corner of an economically distressed community. This storefront sat vacant for decades until recently revived by a grant. It employs local residents. I felt a little bad because, for over an hour, I was the only person sitting there. 

Normally at a coffee shop, I make sure my headphones are at the ready to hide the noise around me. But on this day, as I grapple with what it means to wait, I’m trying to listen a little more intently than I normally do. And even though the hum of the ancient Gatorade drink cooler next to my chair is loud, it’s not significant enough to mute the noise of the adjacent interstate. 

The employees sit at a table by the door and chitchat about life. They look out the window and make occasional comments about a passing pedestrian or the make of a vehicle driving by. Their conversation meanders from one place to the next with absolutely no direction. They are fully content to talk about absolutely nothing.

Every few minutes one of them gets up to perform a simple task around the coffee shop but they’ve already accomplished virtually everything they can think of. I know this because they talk about it and make a list of everything they’ve done so far that morning. Again, the conversation continues to go everywhere but nowhere. And it bothers me a little bit.

Don’t get me wrong: I love to grab a cup of coffee and chat with a friend for an hour. But my framework of time and productivity leave me wanting conversations to “go” someplace—to produce some sort of take-away that makes it all worthwhile. This doesn’t mean I don’t love and value the people with whom I’m talking, but I want things to be further down the road since the last time we talked.

I know very well that life doesn’t work like this. But I secretly want it do.

And even though one of my greatest strengths is building deep relationships with people, my lack of patience negatively affects it in some instances. The lesson learned is continue to work on what I did in 2016: I need to continue to listen better. Rather than to use my silent time in conversation to craft my next comment, I’d still do better to ruminate on the words of the person across from me.

The Road to Patience

This is a series of posts surrounding my goal of focusing on patience in 2017, specifically my retreat day of patience on January 5th. To read more in the series, click on the "patience" tag at the top of this post.
 

“Whoever is patient has great understanding, but one who is quick-tempered displays folly.”
Proverbs 14:29

A few years ago, when I was working for the university, I bought a scooter. It wasn’t about making a statement; it was about utility. My work commute was minimal—a mere four miles each way through city streets. The scooter’s 90mpg was extremely attractive when I owned an insatiable gas-guzzling SUV and petrol prices were out of control.

Driving the scooter actually helped me become more patient: the bike maxed out at 65 miles per hour and it wasn’t robust enough to drive on the interstate. It was slow and steady transportation, a drastic change from my default posture while on the road. 

I drive fast.

I value my time and driving fast permits me the opportunity to save time. So I speed. I hang in the fast lane on the interstate. I race to make it through a changing traffic light. I weave back and forth between lanes to gain the spatial advantage. In my current job, I drive all over the tri-state. When trying to make three to four appointments a day, spanning hundreds of miles, you tend to drive aggressive and at a considerable rate of speed. 

In the past months, any good driving habits formed during my scooter days have fallen to the wayside.

Unfortunately, this makes me a different person when I’m behind the wheel. I’m angrier. I talk about other motorists. I saw uncouth words. My rage is greatest when I observe drivers that pay no attention to their surroundings and show no courtesy to other motorists around them. It’s crazy because I’d normally give the benefit of the doubt to obliviousness if it takes place elsewhere, but it sets me off when I’m driving. The only explanation I can provide for this is that the car obscures the human behind the wheel so I’m less gracious.

Yes, if I’m truly to improve in my spiritual walk and my patience, I need focus on the way that I drive.

On my day of patience, I really have no other option but to drive slow. The snowfall of that day dictated a slower pace. I was immediately aware of this when I left my house and reached the top of my street. While the major roads were plowed decently, the side streets hadn’t been touched. I hit the breaks and skidded an additional five yards. When driving in the snow, I’m forced to keep my attention focused just 100 yards ahead of me lest I get in an accident. I stopped looking farther head to the pattern of traffic lights and I just focused on driving deliberately.

And it’s a good thing.

On my day of patience, I catch nearly every red light. I even get stuck at a train crossing (I had no idea that they still ran trains on those tracks). While tempted to switch lanes to pass the slower driver in front of me, I held back. I even paused to allow some people in crosswalks to cross the street. This kind of driving is against my nature but I’m embracing it.

It’s another lesson for me on this day of patience: there’s no massive benefit for me to drive fast. I waste enough time in my day and eliminating those distractions would be a much better timesaver than ten additional miles per hour.

I’m going to drive a little less quickly moving forward. It’s a good thing to do. And I was just pulled over for speeding last week. 

Nobody’s perfect.

Accumulating Patience

This is a series of posts surrounding my goal of focusing on patience in 2017, specifically my retreat day of patience on January 5th. To read more in the series, click on the "patience" tag at the top of this post.

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’” Lamentations 3:22-24

On the day of my patience retreat, Cincinnati welcomed it’s first significant snowfall of the season. Even as I type that, I’m laughing at the word, “significant.” Years ago, this kind of snow would have been labeled a dusting. But in today’s world where people are more calculated, the city retreated to safety from the snow.

Of all days for a snowfall, it had to be this day. But I wonder if it was providential that it fell on a random date I picked over a month ago. It made me think how my thoughts on snow transformed over the years. While I loved snow as a kid, I’ve grown to hate it as an adult. When I was a child, snow meant no school and a lazy day bookended by sledding and hot chocolate. As an adult, snow means slow work and a complex day of managing to make up time.

This change of perspective can best explained with my experiences in my previous role working at a university. I was the guy responsible for publicizing when our school closed for inclement weather. I didn’t make the actual decision, mind you, but it was my job to get it communicated to the masses.

Quite a bit of thought goes into cancelling classes for snow days. On nights before a possible snowfall, school leaders would begin to exchange a flurry of emails about the potential accumulation, analyzing what each local meteorologist was be predicting. This lasted late into the night and then, hours before I’d normally wake up, the communication turned into texts and calls. When the decision was finally made, I had to really get working.  

I would send an email out to faculty, staff, and students; I accessed the text alert for all those who subscribed for the notice; I updated the website; I posted it on all our social media venues; I contacted the local media. All of this was completed by 6:00 in the morning. By the time I secured my day off, I was exhausted.

And it was a lot of work with nothing to show for it.

I place high value on time and planning. I want to know exactly what the day holds and what I need to accomplish. I fully invest in maximizing my daily impact. Snow renders plans useless. It creates obstacles, as simple transportation comes to a crawl, walking becomes treacherous, the easiest of tasks and errands become complex, and my productivity levels drop precipitously.

And maybe most notably, snow spawns the need for increased patience. Perhaps that’s why I hate it so.

I think of my daughter and how she reacts to snow. She cherishes it. While she loves school, a snow day means an unexpected pause when she can go outside, sled down the hill and build a snowman. She’s not yet chained by her expectations of accomplishments so she can just BE for a little while. She has no issues with pausing to watch the world go by.

I need to reclaim some of this. This is why I wonder if God gave us a little snow on my day of patience. One lesson I learned as I result it I must not to curse the snow, but to see it as an opportunity to slow down. I need to view it as a reminder that my existence is not completely determined by my work output.

Snow reminds me to be patient.

Where Resolutions Go To Die

Just three weeks into my quest to Boston Qualify, and I've hit that first seed of doubt. It's funny: I knew this was coming, but my mind was still susceptible to it.

You see, doing something for three weeks (or four weeks, depending on whom you ask) establishes a habit. In this goal, I've already witnessed that my mind is becoming wired to put in the running time; the other night, when a freezing rainstorm was rolling in, I put on my shoes and claimed my miles. A few years ago, even while marathon training, I would have stayed on the couch.

The issue, however, is the need for positive feedback. Although I'm "feeling" stronger, my running times aren't reflecting the work I've already put in. Again, I can deal with this cognitively: I took the month of December off, so I know I'm still getting back in shape. While I shouldn't be seeing the results yet, I secretly long for that affirmation to keep me going. 

And this is why people give up so early: they don't fully trust the strategy.

I'm obviously going to keep on running the plan and try not let it get in my head. But the lesson I've observed here is applicable across a spectrum of situations. Discipline takes time. You can't expect overnight results. Tortoise vs. Hare/Slow and steady. <Insert cliche here>

Come on people: it's a marathon, not a sprint.

My Pursuit of Patience

This is a series of posts surrounding my goal of focusing on patience in 2017, specifically my retreat day of patience on January 5th. To read more in the series, click on the "patience" tag at the top of this post.

For nearly all my professional career, I’ve worked for faith-based companies. One benefit of this is that they usually take a holistic approach to organizational success, uniting employment (secular) with the calling (sacred).

Last year, our company studied the Fruit of the Spirit. The nine-word list penned by the apostle Paul two thousand years ago in his letters to the Christians in Galatia could be easily memorized in one sitting; I remember doing so myself during VBS in 1984. But to truly master these fruit is something that few accomplish within the scope of a lifetime.

At the conclusion of last year, our president asked that my colleagues and I dedicate one day in early 2017 examining one of those fruit and its potential impact on our year. It was a fascinating assignment and I looked forward to making it my own. As I glanced at the list, there were plenty of places where I needed improvement, yet only one word screamed out to me to make it my own.

Patience.

I have always struggled with patience.

In his book, From God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer, teased out the fruit aspect of patience. He observed, “Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten. It wants to break open the ripe fruit when it has hardly finished planting the shoot. But all too often the greedy eyes are only deceived; the fruit that seemed so precious is still green on the inside, and disrespected hands ungratefully toss aside what has so disappointed them.” I don’t buy the fruit in our household, so that metaphor isn’t quite as powerful to me as it could to be. Still, I resonate with Bonheoffer and admit that I am too impatient.

So how does one go about structuring a day to contemplate on patience?

While some wax romantically about spiritual retreats, they’re just not for me. My response would quickly resemble Jack Nicholson in The Shinning if I was holed away at a secluded cabin. I feed off the energy of being in public and do my best thinking when surrounded by others. And I highly doubt that patience is best developed in silence and solitude, but rather when dwelling among the masses That’s why I decided that, in order to grapple with patience, I needed to be in the company of humanity.

Since I dwell in the city where I’ve lived my entire life, I had endless locations from which to choose. And since choosing a singular location seemed limiting, I structured my day around a journey of reflection from my past. See, my entire adult life is connected by one long one road which stretches from the city center to our farthest suburbs; four of the five places where we’ve lived while married are located right next to state route 3.

I decided to take a drive, makes a few stops along the way, and go nowhere in particular. I’d blindly drive up the road of my life to see what I’ve learned about patience, and what’s left to discover. I wrote my reflections from that day down and the following posts will detail my thoughts and reflections about patience.

Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes

Today our church announced that we’re hiring a new minister. David Wheatley will preach his first sermon as lead minister of Echo Church this Sunday. 

If you’ve talked to me in the past couple of months, this isn’t a surprise. But since this is the first time it’s hit the digital realm, I thought I should explain how all of this came to fruition:

When we started Echo eleven years ago, I knew I was in for the long haul. It was my entrepreneurial spirit that led me to continually experiment in leading our little urban church. From the very beginning I was bi-vocational, working other jobs to supplement the small amount I was paid by the church; we kept a low overhead, and I kept other gigs so I didn’t have to go out and fundraise to finance the church. While I expanded my full-time responsibilities at Cincinnati Christian University, and the church had a couple of lower offering years, I declined being paid altogether. I took on the title of “teaching elder,” and we went without a lead minister. Functionally I filled the role in a volunteer capacity, and it worked OK.

Last year I finally realized that our church wasn’t maximizing our impact. Yes, Echo was doing some great things, but we had plateaued in attendance. Ultimately it was our leadership structure (specifically my role) that was one of the major roadblocks. While I still contend that not having a lead minister follows a biblical precedent, the American church tends to thrive when there is someone filling that position. Echo needed a lead minister. I also realized that it shouldn’t be me.

It’s not that I’m any less passionate about Echo or ministry. One of the things I learned about myself in recent years is that my ministry calling is complex. I still love the ministry. I love to preach and teach and disciple. But I’ve realized that my gifts are best used when I’m serving church leaders. My job allows me the opportunity to do just that, but it means that I’m out of town on some Sundays. It just doesn’t work with our church, who needs a consistent voice and presence. 

Throughout last year, I prayed about the whole situation and our other leaders affirmed the idea. I’d remain an elder and continue to preach from time to time, but my role would be to support our staff and shepherd our people. Echo would seek to hire a new lead minister. When we presented this to the church, everyone was positive. Now all we had to do was find the right person to lead.

I met David through a former student of mine. She insisted that the two of us had to meet. We hit it off right away, and I tried to help him secure a ministry job. Ironically each opportunity kept falling through. Finally I suggested that we talk about him joining the staff of Echo. The more we explored the idea, and the more our church got to know him, the more we all felt that this was God providing the ideal opportunity for everyone involved.

In some later blog posts, I’ll explore some of the church and leadership issues surrounding this transition; I’ve learned quite a few lessons from this experience that could benefit others. Until then, there’s one more thing you need to know: I am so thankful that the Lord called David to Echo Church. I always call Echo my second child; we started it right before Kaelyn was born. Of course it’s not easy to just hand that over to anyone, but David has a heart for the Lord and his church. This is the right thing for the church, for David, and for me. 

I really believe Echo’s best days are to come. 

BQ

I’m really not setting any goals for 2017, except one: to qualify for the Boston Marathon. 

This public declaration isn’t a boast; rather it’s laying out a very challenging goal publicly that I might not achieve. Too often I’ll set a personal goal for myself but I won’t tell others about it in case something goes wrong. This time, however, I’m naming it upfront so I’ll be able to return to it in May to see if I was successful. So bear with me as I breakdown what brought me to this point.

See, I never intended it, but I transformed myself into a marathoner. 

I’ve documented my running progress over the last eight years here on the blog, so you can read all about it if you’re interested. 

I went from never having run an actual 5K to running three marathons in 2016. I enjoy the 26.2 distance because it’s challenging and requires preparation. It’s become a January tradition for me to start logging miles in anticipation of a spring run. Early on, the consistent goal was the four hour marathon. Then I started running two marathons a year. In that time, I started shaving my time and run consistently in the 3:30 to 3:40 time slot. 

In marathon running, the Boston Marathon is the most prestigious race and it requires a qualifying time from an officially sanctioned marathon. After you turn 35, you get a little more time with which to BQ (the acronym of "Boston Qualify” is a key abbreviation in a runner’s life), but the pace is still somewhat blistering. In my current window, I’d have to run a 3:15, but actually it’s more like a 3:10, because they always shave off a little time depending on how many people qualify. To qualify, I’ll likely need a 3:12 or 3:13, but 3:10 would be safe. 

My fastest marathon time was 3:27. I ran that a couple of years ago, so in order to BQ, I need to run 15 minutes faster than my fastest marathon (taking about 35 seconds/mile on my fastest pace). That’s a pretty tall order. If I were just to wait another four years when my BQ time drops to 3:25, I know I could do it.  

So that’s the conundrum: if I want the BQ effort to truly mean something to me, I believe now is the time for me to do it.

There’s one other wrinkle.

My spring marathon of choice has been the Flying Pig Marathon. It goes past our house and I train on the course consistently. The problem is that it’s a rather hilly track and, even though I’ve gotten good at running hills, a flatter course yields better times. Until last year, I only ever ran the Flying Pig in the spring. But when a friends wedding conflicted with the Flying Pig date, I entered the Derby Marathon in Louisville. Even though I didn’t train well, I ran a really good time (my third best ever). It convinced me that while the hills of Cincinnati are wonderful, they’re not my friend when in it comes to BQ. Louisville will be my location.

Last week I signed up for the 2017 Derby Marathon. Because of a calendar quirk, the Flying Pig is 8 days later. I’m thinking of signing up for it as well so 1) I can fall back just in case the weather is horrible in Louisville and 2) maybe just to try to run it as I’ll be in pretty good shape then. I ran two marathons last fall just six weeks apart, so I know it can be done.

To prepare for this feat, I need to be disciplined in both my diet and training. I’ve started to run better since altering my diet a few years ago (cutting out fast food and sweets), but I’ve allowed myself some room to improve heading into the new year. The bigger change, however, will be adding miles to my training. Even though I always start running in January, I’ve never put in as many miles as I should. I’ll be following a running plan by Pete Pfitzinger from his book Advanced Marathoning. Even though he considers it a base level plan, I’ve never pushed 50 miles a week and I’ve never varied the type of training runs I’ve performed. In fact, I’ve never really followed a training plan before; I’ve just gone out and run. I recognize that in order to reach this goal, I’m going to have to do more than I’ve done in the past. For some reason, I feel like I’m ready.

It’s tough because there are so many variables at work here that I CAN'T control. So all I can do is be diligent with what I CAN control. I’m not sure if I’ll update my progress throughout the winter/spring, but at least this post will be here as a reminder of when I tried something challenging. 

Day one of training starts tomorrow.

Black Friday, Bright Sunday

A year ago I was laid off from a place that I loved.

While I was fortunate and eventually had a second act, my other colleagues who were laid off did not. Thankfully, nearly all of them have landed in better situations twelve months later. 

There’s so much I still want to clarify about how things went down, but that’s not my calling. Instead, I want to share what happened to me afterward. And it all starts with this picture:

I coach my daughter’s soccer team every year, but last fall was the most challenging season I've ever had. There were issues both on and off the field.

  • At the very beginning of the season, a child had a parent unexpectedly die
  • One of my assistant coaches was recovering from cancer
  • The other assistant lost their job right before the season started
  • We had a minimal roster, often playing with either one or no substitutes
  • We were in league where many of the schools also fielded their select-level players, so we got smashed nearly every game. 

But these kids never gave up. They had great attitudes. I was so proud of them.

I told Kelly that I wanted to do something special: I wanted to buy the girls custom shirts for the end of the season. Since it would be a small order, I couldn’t get a bulk discount so the shirts were a little pricey. Still, it seemed totally worth it. I got sizes and shirt numbers, and placed the order.

On October 22nd, I picked the shirts up. They were in my office that Friday afternoon when I walked in after getting fired. 

Those shirts were in the front seat of my car on the ride home from work. I felt like an idiot for having spent so much on shirts when I was going to have to worry about how to provide for my family. I kept assuring myself that we’d ultimately be OK; God had always provided for us, even when we couldn’t see the way out. But even though I felt I believed this, those shirts were staring back at me, a cruel symbol of my weak faith.

The next day was our final soccer game. I was still feeling down so I was thankful for something to take my mind off of things. When the girls showed up at the field, we handed out the shirts. They loved them. And they actually won that last game, playing better than they had in any game that season. I finally fully embraced peace. That night, I wrote the post that helped CCU weather that difficult time. And every time I see that shirt in my closet or put it on, it makes me happy. It's become a reminder of God's care and deliverance.

And that’s why the picture above is one of my favorite pictures. It captured almost the exact moment when I realized that God is truly in control and the everything would be alright. While the next months didn't bring full peace, I’m sitting here a year later thinking that it worked out better than I could ever have imagined. I have a ridiculously amazing job that I love and I know I'm still following his calling. Last October 23rd was the lowest of the lows. I can honestly say that I'm now experiencing the highest of the highs. I guess my Mt Nebo metaphor was flawed, because I'm now standing on the other bank of the Jordan River. 

With the leap year, this anniversary takes place on a Sunday, so I get to worship the Lord this morning. I'm so looking forward to this. My understanding of my place in his kingdom ultimately brought me through. So I don’t know where you’re at today. Maybe you’re facing a low moment yourself and need some encouragement. If so, remember this: even when you can’t see where things are heading, trust that God is working out all things for you. He loves you and he's looking out for you. Believe.

Oh, and I’m totally wearing that shirt today. 

Must Christians Denounce Trump?

As an urbanite, my context is fairly diverse. Daily I encounter people across every imaginable spectrum. Still, in this neck of the woods, progressive politics reign supreme; I have yet to see one Donald Trump yard sign within miles of my house.

That said, my job has me traveling in places where Donald Trump is quite popular, even among people of strong faith. I'm guessing this a major reason that a group of evangelical leaders created a petition on change.org denouncing Trump's candidacy. This is the latest of a movement questioning the mentality/morality of people who support the Republican presidential candidate. Whether it's on television or around the water cooler, the message is that if you do not repudiate Donald (or, in some instances, refuse to support Hillary Clinton as the alternative), then you align yourself with the very worst of him.

I only publicly chime in on political issues with it intersects with my area of study—issues of faith. I come neither to bury Trump, nor to praise him, but there is a question I feel called to address:

Do I, as a Christian, need to denounce Trump?

I answer no. Here's why.

UNDERSTANDING THE TENSION
It's easy to see what these pastors, teachers, and theologians who created this change.org petition are trying to do: they want to display a broader view of Christian values. While many conservative evangelical Christians support Trump because they believe he'll better secure Christian values for the future (for example, by shaping a more conservative direction of the Supreme Court), these progressive evangelicals want to address the candidate's lack of values, both in his political views and his previous life decisions.

This is something evangelical Trump supporters should contemplate. There is great value in recognizing the other side of an issue. 

My problem, however, is that nearly all the voices in this petition take it to the opposite end of the spectrum, suggesting that supporting Hillary Clinton is the right response to combating Trump's failings. While their petition states, "whether we support Mr. Trump's political opponent is not the question here," it is indeed the question; I quickly Googled the signers of the petition nearly all support Clinton. Obviously they have every right to do so, but the political bias makes a spiritual denunciation powerless.

A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE
What I wish these leaders would have done was to stake out an even bolder view than denunciation. Rather than addressing the diversity of evangelical values, they could have admitted that holding any political leader up against Christian values is an exercise in futility. When we attempt to establish biblical values as a voting rubric (whether we're politically conservative or progressive), we will always overemphasize certain ones while underemphasizing others. More critically, however, we give non-Christians the wrong perception of our faith.

As a Christian, for me to say that Donald Trump is a worse person than Hillary Clinton counters what the Scriptures teach. And the inverse statement is just as true.

What's worse is it misses the entire point of the gospel: we are all equally reprehensible when it comes to personal righteousness. It's what the apostle Paul addresses in the book of Romans when addressing a group of Christians who viewed the world in terms of good and bad people.

"None is righteous, not even one."

Friends, I'm as flawed (even more so) as Hillary Clinton.
I'm as flawed (yes, even more so) as Donald Trump. 


Our hope in Jesus (his perfection, death, and resurrection) is the only thing that makes me righteous. Any attempt to measure my goodness against someone else is absolutely useless.

THE DANGER OF DENUNCIATION
And this gets to the essence of why I cannot denounce Trump (or Clinton either). To denounce Trump from a faith perspective puts others in a peculiar place. It's a spiritual categorization that has potential hazardous consequences.

I am convinced that there are people out there who identify with Trump BECAUSE of his many flaws and that is precisely why they are planning on voting for them. The American voter is not nearly as complicated as we imagine and this is why some of my progressive/liberal friends are flummoxed as to why some people support him. In short, they identify with him.

  • They look in the mirror and acknowledge that they too have screwed up in life.
  • They recognize the critique against him because they've heard it about themselves.
  • They want him to win because, in some way, it validates their journey to redemption.

You might not buy it, but that's how I see it. And regardless of why people are voting for him, if I use my position as a faith leader to denounce Trump, how does that reflect on people who are embarrassed about their pasts? Will they see Christianity only as judgment? Will they believe that they're not good enough for God?

If I denounce Trump, I'm denouncing people who think they're just like him. 
For better or for worse, politics just isn't worth that risk to me.

BUT WHAT ABOUT WHEN HE SAYS THE DUMB STUFF?
Refusing to denounce the man doesn't mean that we must remain silent. Inevitably Trump or Clinton or another public figure will say something ridiculous and we can speak directly to the statement. But to denounce an individual, I can't buy that biblically. Defending our political preferences as biblical doctrines is asking for trouble.

If I've left you angry or confused, I apologize. I'm just calling for Christians to see the bigger picture. Life will go on after November 8th. Eternity will last forever.

The pragmatic question, then, is who do I vote for? I actually wrote an article for the Lookout Magazine that will be published the week of the election, so I'll link to that later. More important than the Christian vote, however, a healthy Christian perspective.

The only people that Jesus denounced were religious leaders. 

Interpreting the CCU/KCU Merger

ccumerger

Sometimes it’s best to keep quiet.

That’s the advice I heeded about discussing Cincinnati Christian University since leaving the staff this past spring. After investing a considerable portion of my life to the school, I needed some time and space to to ensure I didn’t say anything rashly that could harm my alma mater. 

But some advise is best understood in context. I’m not sure it’s best to keep quiet in every situation.

With today's news of the potential merger of my alma mater and Kentucky Christian University (and approaching the one year anniversary of one the darkest days in CCU's history) I’m feel released to talk. The following response is as objective as possible and rooted in love. My goal is to help CCU alumni and friends process all of this and, perhaps, develop a new perspective on things. 

It might be easiest to just approach this Q&A style, so I’ll jump right into this thing:

1. IS THIS MERGER A GOOD THING?
As with all things, it all depends. Most importantly, you have to look at the compatibility of the two institutions. I must admit, that I’ve told many a KCU joke over the years. The source of my prodding was my passion for CCU and the result of an intense athletic rivalry that we maintained with them; KCU have been our fiercest rival for decades and it’s those contests that I remember decades later (the finest athletic moment of my life took place on a November Saturday on a soccer field in Grayson, Kentucky; I still tell my child stories about it). That said, I have nothing but absolute respect for Kentucky Christian University. They have produced some amazing graduates and have impacted the eternal destination of countless souls through their alumni. I think KCU is a very natural partner to merge with CCU, so there's nothing about them that bothers me.

Do not be misled, though: this merger is all about finances, driven more so by CCU’s current condition. So if this move ensures the protection of the investment of current students and the long term viability of a CCU degree, it is a good thing. 

2. WHY IS THIS ANY DIFFERENT FROM THE JOHNSON UNIVERSITY MERGER?
I was opposed to a merger with Johnson University and can see a few key differences here. First, the JU merger would have been more one-sided; Johnson has a robust endowment and I’m not convinced that the cultural heritage of CCU would have survived that union. Second, the actual distance between the schools was greater. Not only do KCU and CCU share proximity, but they have overlapping recruiting markets that make strategic sense. The most important issue is timing. CCU is in a totally different position today than at the time of the Johnson merger. I still believe, as I said at the time, that CCU needed to explore internal strategies first before entering into a merger. At that time, we hadn't attempted to shift our model or approach to enrollment see if it could be financially viable without the merger. Years later, there is a need to merge. 

By the way, I had a new trustee tell me last fall that the biggest mistake that CCU ever made was not merging with Johnson. I still disagree. The failure to merge did not doom CCU; the last four years could have led to a massive turn around, but it never materialized.

3. IS THIS AN EQUAL MERGER?
I just can't believe so. I know that the language in the release is collaborative but, logically, there’s always a winner and a loser in business mergers. This isn’t to say that there can’t be kingdom benefits to these two school uniting but, using dancing as a metaphor, someone has to take the lead. One of the items that came out of campus interactions today is that KCU senior leadership that will be getting involved on the CCU campus in January. There was no reciprocal statement. I’m left to assume that KCU leadership will be the primary visionaries of this new school.

4. WHY COULDN'T CCU SURVIVE ON ITS OWN?
This is the key topic with which alumni should grapple, not just because it’s at the heart of this merger, but because of broader implications. There are many other Restoration Movement institutions that currently or will soon face similar decisions. There are lessons to be learned here that other Christian leaders must contemplate.

While this question must be applied to the four year period following the failed JU merger (and not only to the last twelve months), some of these issues can be traced back decades. While all of these issues could have been overcome, they are intertwined with CCU's DNA and, ultimately, were too difficult to conquer. While there are additional external issues that impacted CCU’s financial problems (problems across the higher education spectrum), I believe CCU had three key issues that brought us to this point.

a. Shifts in Congregational Staffing
A quarter of a century ago, when I was in college, the vast majority of students at CCU were studying for the ministry. This was a continued byproduct of the massive growth of the American church after the Second World War. The emphasis on the “call to ministry” was sustained over following decades, with church camps and youth conferences acting as a feeder to Bible colleges; this is why Come Alive (and even Ozark Bible College’s Impact Brass) could afford to travel around the country to recruit students who lived in different time zones. But in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, the advent of the world wide web changed everything. As information/education became more accessible, the value of the Bible college education declined while costs increased. Ultimately, our churches (Restoration Movement congregations) did not place a high value on clergy education—CCU’s primary product. They hired ministers without degrees or with degrees from non-Christian Church colleges and, more importantly, stopped subsidizing the Bible colleges through their missions giving. I’m not saying that any of this is wrong, but it definitely affected the financial position of the university.

And before you suggest that other Bible colleges "maintained their values,” stayed ministry-focused, and achieved success, I’d challenge that you look at their academic catalog. Even those schools that are credited with remaining faithful have added degrees outside traditional ministry fields to ensure future viability. 

b. Inability to Adjust to the Market
CCU wasn’t able to adapt to this changing culture. We aren’t the only school in this position: other Bible colleges and Seminaries are struggling to survive and, in the next decade, we will see even more either fold or merge. Unfortunately, CCU's historical successes hindered those tasked with leading future successes. Was it possible to both respect the faithfulness of previous generations while meeting the needs of current and future students? Yes, but it needed to be done confidently, and swiftly. And even then, it would have taken a very special leader who could have united our alumni and churches to see it through to completion.

I’m going to stop here and say something that very much needs to be said: I thought Ken Tracy was that leader. I believe that CCU was on a trajectory to turn around under his leadership. He was a successful entrepreneur and business leader who had the right perspective to guide CCU through that change. And to speak to something that has never been acknowledged, he personally invested significant personal funds in the cause because he believed so strongly in the future of the school. Internally, there were those who disagreed with Ken’s vision, but it was predominantly those who believed they had the most to lose. I’m not saying that Ken's every decision was perfect, but he understood something that his predecessors did not: the need for a positive, persuasive culture. For those few months, I was finally proud of what CCU was becoming.

If given proper time and support, I really believe Ken would have led us toward a successful outcome. But again, there were those who wanted change according to their vision, a view focused more on individual preferences than on the greater needs of the institution. 

Those Bible colleges that reacted boldly to this ministry shift, diversifying their academic offerings, bought themselves some time. CCU didn’t. We did not adjust to the changing needs of our constituency and customer. The competition was no longer other Bible colleges, but with online ministry training, local colleges, and churches offering all-encompassing internship programs.

c. Faculty Influence on University Vision
This is the most controversial thing I will offer here, but as a quasi-academic, I think I’m qualified to speak about this. I’d ask that, before taking something I said out of context, the you read the entirety of my thoughts. When I say “faculty,” it doesn’t imply every professor at CCU any more than using “people” implies every person in the whole world.

The growth of CCU was directly connected to the growth of Restoration Movement churches. The voices of those churches were the ministers and those ministers studied under the faculty. More than any other Restoration Movement school, CCU was faculty-driven. Those familiar with higher education might see this as normal, but this kind of influence was very unique among our non-tenured Bible colleges. To understand how this happened at CCU, you need to go back to the 1920’s and the school’s founding. CCU was originally the result of a merger of two smaller schools, and both those institutions had two large personalities: Ralph Records and R.C. Foster. While Records became president, Foster’s position as a professor wasn’t necessarily subordinate because he also served as a trustee. Those who lived in this time (and even historical evidence) attests that the two didn’t get along well. In the 1940’s, their conflict nearly tore the school apart. Ultimately, for a myriad of reasons (some of which are scandalous), Foster prevailed. The faculty's influence on the governance of CCU traces back to his personality.*

This tension continually affected the relationship with administration. The late Earl Sims, a former Vice President of the faculty, wrote about this in a self-published book (if you can get your hands on a copy, you will see how this relationship impacted nearly every strategic decision in CCU’s history). In the past couple of years, decisions benefitting academic structure and preferences were made at the expense of overall market viability. Surely these pet projects in of themselves didn't create the entire financial situation, yet it muddled a clear path out of it. Again, no single leader or group of leaders were able to resolve this tension and CCU has finally paid the price.

Ironically, the issue of theological liberalism has been the primary critique toward CCU faculty over previous decades. Though professors have always been compared to the standard of the Fosters (or, more recently, of Jack Cottrell), CCU's undoing is more the result of poor strategy than poor theology. 

5. HOW SHOULD CCU ALUMNI RESPOND?
I’m not really sure myself. This thing could play out in many ways, but there’s one very truth that must prove foundational for those loyal CCU alumni like myself trying to process this:

Ours is the God who redeems.

I might not love the fact that my school will no longer be the school I once knew, but my God is bigger than my diploma. It’s hard for me to imagine what it might look like if there’s no longer a CCU. It was a concept that drove me to work harder than I ever have to ensure that it didn’t happen on my watch. But even if it finally goes away, or if it simply rolls into another work, it doesn’t change what the Lord was able to do through CCU or what he will be able to do through the work of those who graduated from there.

For so long I chased the ghosts of those greats who walked the halls of CCU before me. 

But just recently, I finally realized that I wasn’t created to preserve the memory of their work.

I was called to emulate their actions. 

To tell people about Jesus . . . 

. . . to love the lost as much as they did.

Bible colleges were created to meet a particular need at a given time. Perhaps its time has passed. Or perhaps the leadership of CCU and KCU are going to figure out how to fashion all of this into some new wineskins. 

You who are reading this: you are the legacy. So no matter what happens to the name of the school on your diploma, do something with all that God allowed you to experience at that place.

Make a difference in his kingdom. 

I’m praying for the leadership of both KCU and CCU in the days to come. You should do the same.

 

 

________________________

*The theological climate of those early decades had a massive impact as well; it’s influence on CCU cannot be understated. Churches throughout the United States were engaged in the conflict over theological liberalism. People like R.C. Foster and his son Lewis led the battle for the Bible, further endearing themselves to students and alumni alike. More than any Restoration Movement school, CCU became known for its Bible, Theology, and Ministry faculty. This influence still exists at CCU; I believe there are still more Biblical Studies professors than any other faculty discipline and the last two deans of the school taught New Testament.

 

 

 

 

1 Kings 12: A Sermon on White Privilege (Part Three)

Preface: This is a sermon I delivered at Echo Church on July 10, 2016 (you can listen to it here). I’m publishing my manuscript here as it could prove useful to Christians investigating this subject. I never intend my sermon notes for publication, so there is no citation of the research provided here. All of the factual claims here are the result of research and, to the best of my knowledge, all of this material can be easily cited; I haven’t yet taken the time to provide it here. Part One is available here and Part Two is here

Perhaps even the mention of white privilege offends you. I use the term purposely because I assert that it’s very real.

MY STORY
You may ask how I can so confidently state something as fact that is actually just a sociological theory. I could cite the work of scholars, but nearly all of them are secular, so it could be said that’s it’s not actually a Scriptural approach to the issue. Or I could list off a series of Bible verses, but there’s not one singular text that speaks to white privilege, so it would be a systematized approach that would be open to critique as well. Or maybe I should just list off my academic credentials and say I have pieces of paper that affirm my brilliance so you should suck it up and listen to me.

In short, I do not have an airtight defense of what I am about to say, and you might call me irresponsible. “Preacher, stick to the gospel,” one could say, but I am telling you that white privilege stands opposed to the gospel and therefore, I am obligated to say something. Church, all of this is born out of my experience from four decades living in a city fraught with racial tension. It’s woven into Cincinnati’s DNA. It’s our context. We must understand it.

In order to get there, can I tell you my family’s background? During the Great Depression, my grandparents brought their family to Cincinnati from deep Appalachia (southern Kentucky) when work in the coal mines dried up. The settled in Lower Price Hill, one of the white ghettos in Cincinnati, in the 1930’s and carved out a living there. CCU’s affiliation with BLOC Ministries permitted me to walk those same streets where my grandparents, father, aunts and uncles were raised, but I was a visitor to that neighborhood. You see, my dad’s family was able to get out of that neighborhood and move their economic status.

That transition is a birthright I share constantly. It’s easily packaged in the narrative of the Protestant work ethic. My father was raised in poverty but sought the American dream, and through hard work and persistence, they made it so that the grandson of Appalachian immigrants could become a member of the educated class.

But even though they were poor, they had something that many American poor today do not have—the pigmentation of power. White skin. My family’s key advantage was being born in a country where whites controlled the power. It provided them advantages in accessing capital, and acquiring real estate that a black family would never have had.

The American dream requires more than just overcoming poverty. An anecdote for you:

When I was nine years old, coming home from church work night, my dad and brothers were pulled over in Westwood on Harrison Avenue by the police. The officer shined a flashlight in our car, complained that I and my younger brother should really be in seatbelts (even though this was years before seat belt laws) and let us go. The next day, my father was reading the newspaper and exclaimed, “that’s why we got pulled over! Someone robbed a business in a red truck and they were checking if it was us.” Three decades later, I vividly remember that experience but you know what I don’t remember? Fear. Fear that something violently could happen to my father or even myself. But if I was black and my children were with me, this would be a legitimate fear.

OUR CITY'S AND NATION’S STORY
A key principal within Christian faith is the Imago Dei, that humanity is made in the image of God and this is what gives us worth. This is why we worship Jesus: because he died for all people regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, economic status, or even if they’re just horrible people. This is the gospel. Our country, however, has a long history of inequality toward most of these people groups, but especially toward blacks in the United States—from their legalized enslavement, to a section of our constitution counting them as three-fifths of a human being, to them not even being granted full civil rights until fifty years ago.

And this doesn’t even touch on the issues within our own city.

Even though we view Cincinnati as a northern city, separated from the institution of slavery by the Ohio River, this city was culpable. One historian noted that, “Cincinnati was a Southern city on free soil” and much of its growth in the years of the Civil War was a result of the work of slaves to the South. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, the state of Ohio passed a series of “black laws” requiring free blacks to post $500 bond to guarantee their freedom and good behavior. In the first half of the 1800’s, a series of race riots occurred, where whites angry at blacks would enter African American neighborhoods and burn them to the ground. One such riot took place in 1841 when the Cincinnati Enquirer printed an article suggesting that blacks were stealing the jobs of whites and it resulted in one of the worst riots in the city’s history as lynch mobs roamed the streets.

There is housing in this neighborhood that was built for poor blacks. Why are they unique? Jacob Schmidlaap installed indoor plumbing. This was 1911. Barely 100 years ago the consensus of white America was that blacks couldn’t properly use indoor plumbing.

And just last summer, about a mile away from here, Sam DuBose was tragically killed, the result of a traffic stop for a missing front license plate. I’ve been driving without one since someone on the street backed into me eight years ago and we haven’t ever put one on my wife’s new car.

I could go on and on and on, but I’ve either made my point or alienated you entirely. The point that we need to take is this: white privilege is still a reality in these United States. And it still has negative repercussions on an entire segment of our population.

DIVING INTO THE ISSUE
I’m going to use Proverbs 31:8 here, but I’ll do so with a postscript. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” My use of this text could be perceived as a message of superiority, and I do not use this to imply that blacks in our country are in the same place they were nearly 250 years ago. More so than ever, there have a voice today and, for the majority, are not destitute. And I will confidently offer that our country’s prejudices are shrinking. One example: the election of an African American president. Another is a conversation I had with my ten-year old daughter this week about race. She was interested but not fully comprehending because she is used to diversity. The coming generations will be less and less prejudice than those before.

But that doesn’t mean that white America is handling it well. You see, the privilege of the previous centuries has provided an existence that we view as normal. Again, we worship at the altar of the Protestant work ethic without truly considering if we are just fortunately to have been placed within this context. Whether you recognize it or not, there is an underlying guilt that creates a need within whites to justify this status. Claiming that racial issues are ancient history is just on of those constructs.

In social systems, the majority will always feel threatened by the minority. It’s basic psychology: people feel vulnerable if something has the potential to take away from their livelihood. It’s this concern that permits them to rationalize an existence that defends their justification, and it’s the minority group that experiences the negative repercussions.

You know, I cited psychology, but in reality, this is the lesson in this week’s Scripture text. Why was Jeroboam insecure about losing his kingdom? Because he did not trust in the promise the Lord hand made to him. Similarly all of us on this earth are faced with different challenges that bring on feelings of insecurity. Friends, it’s not necessarily bad for us to feel insecure. The promises of God are for our eternal security so maneuvering in the here and now is still an exercise of faith. While on earth—this fallen sphere—we’re still subject to tragedies and horrible experiences. God understands that we will wrestle with trust.

This insecurity made Jeroboam afraid. This same fear is what grips many whites today. It’s the history of our young country. Not to get too political, but it is why many people in this country are frightened of immigrants. Throughout our history, Americans have shown prejudices toward minorities out of the fear that they will usurp them from their status. Yes, church, this is the same emotion behind white privilege. Again, this is not necessarily sin. We can experience fear while still learning to trust the Lord, but we must not remain living in fear. The gospel is us entrusting our entire futures to the Lord. If our faith is in gun control, or law enforcement, or limited immigration, we’re putting our faith in humanity and not the Lord. Fear is a human emotion but it is not a biblical ideal.

For Jeroboam, fear drove him to sin. He led his people toward idolatry so he could retain power. The question for the privileged, then, is are we permitting our fear to lead us toward sin?

UNDERSTAND THIS: it’s not a sin to be white and middle class. But if we use that privilege to suppress the opportunities of those without a voice, then we are violating the words of the Scriptures and the very spirit of the gospel.

So with all the application for this week, we should I tell you? To pray for peace? To befriend a black person? To hug a police officer?  Let me make it extremely simple. I preach more about who God is and who Jesus is than I do about altering behavior. The reason why is that if you cannot grasp the essence of Christianity, your actions mean very little. The more you know about God, the more it changes your life. And this is my application for you today: own it. FOR THE MAJORITY OF US, JUST RECOGNIZE OUR PRIVILEGE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE. I'm asking you to see where it can take you. 

CONCLUSION
As I was praying how I’d conclude all of this, my prayer was answered when I received a letter from a pastor friend of mine. He knew I was preaching about this and thought I needed some help. As he challenged, I hope it speaks to you.

The times look dark and as the clouds grow thicker, the stupidity of the nation seems to increase. If the Lord didn’t still have Christians here, I would be apprehensive. But he loves his children; even as they are sighing and mourning before him, and I’m sure he hears their sighs, and sees their tears. I trust there’s mercy in store for us at the end of all this; but I expect there’s still more to go before we get into a right channel, before we’re humbled, and learn to give him the glory. 
The state of the nation and the state of the churches are both deplorable. Those who should be praying are fighting among themselves! How many Christian leaders are more concerned for the mistakes of government than for their own sins? When will these things end? 

Now, while I was sent this letter by a pastor friend, he took it from another pastor. And (with some minimum edits) it’s actually the words of a minister that were written in February 1778. The controversy of which he refers to is the Revolutionary War (and it was actually a British pastor that wrote this). I found his words especially comforting, because this minister actually helped contribute to the Christian community like no one else has over the past two centuries.

You see, just six years before he wrote this, John Newton wrote these lyrics:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

You do know Newton’s story, don't you? He was a slave trader who became a pastor and then, in the latter years of his life, passionately fought for the abolishment of slavery. Newton's background makes the entire collection more profound. He was able to finally recognize his privilege, then spent his time undoing the damage he caused.

He moved from fear to freedom. We must do the same.

Deuteronomy 31:6
"Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”

1 Kings 12: A Sermon on White Privilege (Part Two)

Preface: This is a sermon I delivered at Echo Church on July 10, 2016 (you can listen to it here). I’m publishing my manuscript here as it could prove useful to Christians investigating this subject. I never intend my sermon notes for publication, so there is no citation of the research provided here. All of the factual claims here are the result of research and, to the best of my knowledge, all of this material can be easily cited; I haven’t yet taken the time to provide it here. Part One is available here. 

Last week, in our examination of the first part of 1 Kings 12, we noted that the son of Solomon, a forty-something king named Rehoboam, was petulant when the majority of his followers asked for relief from the harshness of his father. Instead of mercy, he spoke of his manliness and uttered threats that led to the division of a nation. This map shows what became of the land of Israel about 1,000 before Jesus was born; the northern tribes of Israel split, leaving the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin remaining. Immediately after this incident, the northern tribes appointed their own king, a man we briefly mentioned last week. His name was Jeroboam. And it’s the plight of this young ruler that will give us the basis for our teaching this morning.

You need to understand that the Lord, in his omniscience, knew exactly how things would progress—that Rehoboam would prove pig-headed and the kingdom would split. So before this even happened, he spoke to Jeroboam through a prophet to tell him that he would soon become a king himself. Most importantly, Jeroboam received a personal promise from the Lord that would secure his future.

1 Kings 11:38
If you do whatever I command you and walk in obedience to me and do what is right in my eyes by obeying my decrees and commands, as David my servant did, I will be with you. I will build you a dynasty as enduring as the one I built for David and will give Israel to you. 

This is the IF/THEN scenario we described when starting this study that typifies the Old Testament expectations of God for his people. The Lord asks for our obedience and promises that we will experience blessings if we do. This is not to say that we’ll gain temporal glory—that our worldly lives will be perfect—but that our eternity will be altered. His words to his people, as well to us, are simple: JUST TRUST ME AND I WILL GET YOU THROUGH.

Again, this promise is given even before Jeroboam is given the monarchy of the northern kingdom. So he is given what is biblically known as a fleece, or an opportunity to test to see if the Lord is to be trusted. Sure enough, Solomon’s son Rehoboam practices poor judgment and the kingdom splits as a result. Jeroboam now knows that the Lord is behind him, that his Word is good, and that if he merely follows the Lord, he will be blessed.

While the promise from the Lord was clear, it never sees fulfillment. It is rendered useless when the young man’s faith fails.

1 Kings 12:26,27
Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.”

The imagination of Jeroboam runs away from him, and he’s already concerned that his newly formed kingdom is destined for dissolution. Verse 26 contains a statement of pure speculation: “will now likely.” It’s concern over something that hasn’t even happened that moves Jeroboam to make a critical mistake. Even though the God of the Universe promised him that he would have an eternal dynasty, he essential fears the masses maintaining a relationship with the Lord. If you look at a map, you could see the source of his paranoia. The southern portion of his kingdom was very close to the capital of Jerusalem. If the people worshipped at the southern capital, they might eventually turn their allegiance away from Jeroboam.

What we witness here is the abandonment of the king’s trust in the Lord. Rather than believe the promise of the one who gave him the keys of a kingdom, Jeroboam opened up his mind to what COULD LIKELY happen, and this was the emotion that carried the day. In short, it was his insecurity, his hesitancy about his position in God’s plan that led to his fear. And because he was afraid, he reacted in a cowardly manner.

1 Kings 12:28-30
After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other.

Last week, we noted that Rehoboam took poor advice, and Jeroboam makes a similar mistake. Instead of trusting that the people could worship the Lord in Judah’s capital while he remained on the throne, the king sought to retain human control by altering their religion. He looked at the map and chose a city to the northern edge of his kingdom (Dan), at the foot of a mountain, where the most separated residents, could easily access an altar. The second location was even more strategic. Bethel was the most ancient location of worship for Israel, a place honored by the patriarch Abraham. This would have been a location along the route to Jerusalem, perhaps even enticing some of the people from Judah to worship there.

The verbiage Jeroboam used is patterned along another famous call to worship to his ancestors, found in the incident when Moses was on Mt Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God and the Israelites lost all patience and created a golden calf. The pagan leaders stated in Exodus 32:4,

 “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

 The young king, rather than following the Lord’s decrees, decided to walk in the ways of the rebellious Israelites in the wilderness who worshipped an idol.

The progression, friends, is what I’d like for us to notice. It went from INSECURITY to FEAR. Fear is not necessarily a bad thing. A few weeks ago we noted the verse that reminds us that, “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 15:1). But if we allow that fear to ferment outside of the confines of the kingdom, the results can be tragic. Here, it FEAR led to SIN.

Church, if this is the lesson of Scripture, we must head its guidance. This, I believe, can perhaps provide us some clarity and understanding our nation’s tension. How does the Bible help us synthesize these senseless deaths and our country’s issues with race and law?

In order to explain this, I need to speak to a segment with which you may or may not identify. I need to make this about white, middle-class Christians. Why? I need to set up a conversation about White Privilege.
 

1 Kings 12: A Sermon on White Privilege (Part One)

Preface: This is a sermon I delivered at Echo Church on July 10, 2016 (you can listen to it here). I’m publishing my manuscript here as it could prove useful to Christians investigating this subject. I never intend my sermon notes for publication, so there is no citation of the research provided here. All of the factual claims here are the result of research and, to the best of my knowledge, all of this material can be easily cited; I haven’t yet taken the time to provide it here.

I always self-denigrate and tell people that preaching isn’t all too difficult. Indeed, my recent sabbatical from Echo proved it; in our small church, we have some fine communicators—people very capable of taking a text, interpreting it, and making it real to a Christian in the modern world.

That said, there are times when my tongue-in-cheek “anyone can do this,” is proven to be an exaggeration. This sermon is one of those times. Preaching this morning is an extremely difficult task. Like you, my heart broke this past week for my sisters and brothers in the African American community when we were faced with yet another tragedy—the killing of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, by the guns from police officers in the south and north of our country. And before we even had ample time to wipe our tears, a shooter, a black veteran, motivated by hatred from these two events, opened fire at a peaceful protest in Dallas, targeting law enforcement and killing five police officers in cold blood.

These are the moments when crafting a biblical message is most difficult. And yet, it doesn’t need to be. I could easily avoid it.

You see, I could speak about almost anything today and still get through this message unscathed. There are sixty-six books of the Bible to choose from and an endless number of messages I could deliver this morning.

For example, we sent out a call to show up early this morning so we could pray together (and I’m thankful for those that responded). In that vein, I could just preach a sermon moving us to pray for those families and communities affected. Or I could pan out, give a macro view of the spiritual conflict that lies underneath the surface of this violence—that ours is a fallen world in desperate need of a Savior. Still, I could make a case from Scripture that we are all made in the image of God, that all are precious in his sight, and that violence against each other is a deviation of the Lord’s will for humanity. Even though I could preach any of these things and be justified in doing so, it would be the easy way out, avoiding a challenging subject.

There is a statement that’s been linked to biblical preaching that I believe summarizes my preaching since starting Echo and compels me to do more this morning. It’s the adage: Comfort the afflicted. Afflict the comforted. Ironically, the phrase was coined by Finley Peter Dunne in 1902 in reference to the newspaper industry, but it’s been co-opted as a spiritual challenge that, I believe, is apt in times like this.

One of the advantages I have as an elder of Echo Church is that we are thoughtful congregation. As such, even when I preach a sermon that is “edgy,” and I present concepts with which you do not agree, you contemplate the challenge. So this morning, as I attempt to do right by the Spirit of God and the Word of God, I ask your patience as I preach what I’m called to do in this moment. I take my calling seriously and I know that I need to be a voice to say some difficult things.

I do, however, want to use the text we selected months ago to serve as the biblical foundation of this conversation. Our study of the book of First and Second Kings is helpful as the books hold relevance to our experiences. It details the struggle of a people to serve the Lord and their leaders failures. And the string throughout these books, and a lesson for us to observe, is that the faults of leadership (whether political or spiritual) do not absolve the masses of their faults. Yes, there’s enough sin to go around.

Black and White

I have this habit I’ve developed as I’m running in the city: as I pass people, I look them in the eye and either give them a nod or a wave. Often I say, “hi.” This generates one of two reactions: either the pleasantry is returned or it’s totally ignored. I continue to do this because the city can be a cold place and, maybe by just acknowledging that other people exist, I can help make it a little warmer.

I don’t think I’d fare too well in NYC.

So Kelly and I were walking in Over-the-Rhine on Saturday to a friend’s house; Kaelyn was camping and we were picking up some soccer tickets for that evening’s game. Twenty years ago, our presence in that area would have been conspicuous, as very few white folk walked those streets. After the interstate highway system destroyed the housing of poor blacks in the West End, Over-the-Rhine was a primary landing place. Decades later, the gentrification in Cincinnati’s urban core has invited a culture clash like none other in American history: a mixing of age, economics, and race that is unparalleled.

As we moved up the block, we approached some black teenagers walking toward us on the sidewalk. I know how teenagers are, so I don’t break stride or path, but I’m also not going to deviate from the habit I formed. I looked at them, nodded, and said, “hey.” The response from one of the young men was anger.

“F*** you! You don’t know me! I’m not your friend.” And then he called me a gay slur.

I just kept walking.

I never looked back, either for a confrontation or out of fear.

While that’s a lot to process as you’re just walking down the block, living in the city, it didn’t surprise me. Even though that reaction was unlike any I’ve had in a long time (and, in fact, I normally get far better responses from impoverished black people than affluent white people) I can fully understand the anger in that young man.

First, teenage boys are most angry humans; in virtually every culture, they’re trying to display their masculinity, so challenging me is perhaps a biological response. Second, there’s still an immense amount of baggage with issues of race and socio-economics in this community. And if you study Cincinnati history, you understand that it’s not a recent development; this goes back a couple of centuries. So for better or worse, I was a visualization of all that they believe is wrong in that neighborhood.

And most importantly, the current race climate in this country is at a boiling point. I am not convinced much has changed except that the populace is becoming aware the America that some of us love so dearly does not love all of its people equally. Acknowledging this fact does not negate the many blessings we have from living in this nation. That’s a tension I know some of us are grappling with, but it needs to be said: admitting there are still race issues, and admitting that you’re ashamed of it, does not make you any less patriotic.

I’ll admit that, if I didn’t live in the city, shoulder-to-shoulder with both rich and poor, black and white, I’m not sure I would be as aware of it. So if you’re white, and you wonder what all the commotion is about, it doesn’t mean that you are racist. But it should motivate you to fully investigate the tension. As reports continue to emerge about police shootings, you can question what happened without being anti-police. More than anything, we should be pro-human.

I believe a true understanding of Christianity brings this to the forefront. We’re reminded that people, even those with the best of intentions, are flawed. We can’t be perfect, so acknowledging imperfections in people or systems needn’t be a polarizing perspective. Last July, in a sermon to our church, I grappled with this issue after a tumultuous week. If you’re not a person of faith, you might not think it’s applicable, but I believe there’s some biblical truth that speaks to this issue. If you have some time, I’d invite you to click on this link, give it a listen and see what it does to your heart.

So don’t just pray about the race issue, do something. Much advice on specifics has been dispensed elsewhere. Be persistent a search out solutions.

By the way, on the return trip down that same street, we passed by a black man sitting on a porch stoop; I didn’t see him so I didn’t say hi, but he saw me. He see misinterpreted my FC Cincinnati shirt for a Bengals’ shirt.

“Who Dey!” He yelled at me while he smiled.
“Who Dey back at you!” I responded.

Do not fear what you do not understand. Acknowledge sin. Love others.

Let the Kid Learn

We've been blessed for the daughter to attend an amazing public school. Sure, it took camping out just to get her enrolled, but that short-term pain has paid long-term dividends. 

As the school continues to extend its reach toward higher academics, they've added some upper level classes. Kaelyn had already tested in but somehow wasn't placed in all the right classes. Last week, we became aware that she WAS supposed to be in there and, if she wanted, could join immediately. 

But this requires for her schedule to be completely changed immediately. So she'll be in new classes tomorrow, different from the ones she just had on Friday (and that she's been in for almost a month).

While Kaelyn is excited about the challenge, as I put her to bed tonight, she expressed nervousness of the change. She's so mature at times, I often forget that she's still a little girl who gets scared. We talked a little about it, remembering that she knows virtually everyone in all of her new classes. And we also prayed that God would give her a spirit of calm for the day. But as I turned out the light and closed her door, I knew that she wouldn't quickly fall asleep. Her mind would race, and no matter what I said, her last memories of the evening would be hesitation.

More than a decade into this parenting thing, I'd say this is the most difficult thing. My lived experience is what enables me to offer words of encouragement. But I can speak this because I can still remember feelings of adolescent awkwardness. I know it'll be OK because I survived. As of yet, she isn't sure if she will. I want to eliminate this hesitation from her, but I know in my heart that doing so would be a great disservice. 

A few decades from now, she'll talk to her kid and recollect this feeling. She'll tell the kid that everything will be OK. And my grandchild will not believe her. But it'll all work out.

Sometimes you just gotta let the kid learn for herself.

Thank you, Wayne.

A retired minister in Lexington, Kentucky shouldn’t have had this much impact.

But I owe Wayne Smith my life.

At the very least, I owe him for my wife. And that's just one of the reasons I mourn his passing.

In 1972, Wayne had a vision for a new church in Lexington and convinced Wally Rendel to lead it. Wayne helped Wally and his wife, Barbara, start the Southern Acres Christian Church. That church was in the same neighborhood where my wife’s parents moved to as newlyweds; even though they were both raised Baptist, they decided to raise their family at this nearby Bible-teaching church. When it was time for my wife to go to college, she chose to attend Wally and Wayne’s alma mater: Cincinnati Christian University.

That’s where Kelly and I met.

And we might never have been able to attend CCU if it wasn’t for Wayne. He was the greatest advocate CCU has ever known and always showed up when the school was in need. In my opinion, if it were not for Wayne's passion for his alma mater, CCU wouldn’t exist today.

So without Wayne, my whole life is different.

Although I can’t say we were close (we met about a dozen times over the years), Wayne and I had much in common. We both hail from Cincinnati’s westside. And both our families trace our involvement in the Christian Churches through CCU professor Dan Eynon, who called on my dad’s family to join his church about twenty years after he called on the Smith’s to do the same. But the most central connection is that we both Wayne and I accepted the call to minister and developed that calling at CCU. 

I admire the way he ministered.

It wasn’t really about his preaching. While he wasn’t the most accomplished speaker, he definitely made up for it with humor. Even though his jokes were horribly corny, Wayne was unquestionably hilarious. He had a way of boisterously laughing at himself right after delivering the punchline; his dynamic personality made you buy in. And when he got serious, he always had the perfect poem or anecdote to drive the point home.

But rather than preaching, it was his pastoring that inspired me. 

Knowing quite a few people he touched in Lexington, Wayne was a tireless shepherd. Even though he ministered to a large congregation, he was always in people’s living rooms. He’ll long be remembered for the buckets of chicken he’d take to people who lost loved ones. 

Wayne's pastoring made his sermons powerful to those people. 

In an era of performance preaching, today’s generation of ministers struggle to understand that there are many ways to build a vibrant congregation. Wayne Smith was able to do so because he was passionate about people—not just speaking at them, but listening to them. The result of his life’s work is amazing.

Wayne always felt ordinary yet God used him to accomplish the extraordinary.

His legacy isn’t books or buildings or budgets; it’s souls saved.

The world is better because he was here.

Thank you, Wayne, for all you’ve done for me and countless others. I’m excited you have a new audience for your jokes in heaven; keep ‘em laughing.

+++++++

Wayne wrote the above inscription to me in his biography (do yourself a favor and track down a copy of that book written by my friend Rod Huron). 

Someone Write This Script For Me

A new comedy movie. The idea is free to whomever wants to script it:

  • Fast-forward eight years from this fall.
  • After two terms of this president (yes, two), the country has jumped the shark.
  • There are walls around everything; reality TV stars run congress and the Supreme Court is stocked with NASCAR drivers, etc.
  • Americans are fed-up with the whole thing and want a do-over.
  • Democracy is blamed and a national vote makes the U.S. a monarchy.
  • The country wants a descendent of George Washington to be our new ruler.
  • There’s only one left: a millennial living in his mom’s basement who created a mustache phone app.
  • He takes over as king and hijinks ensue.
  • The lesson in the end is that failing democracy is better than no democracy at all.

Think an American version of King Ralph.
Casting is key here. Nick Cage has to provide some sagely wisdom.
I keep coming back to Shia LaBeouf as the lead character, but playing a version of himself.

It would work, people. Now go write it.

Something New

The older I get, the more I love the church. 

While some people get burned out on the negativity that happens when Christians congregate, I’m a glass-half-full guy; I’ve seen too many lives transformed by the church to dismiss it because it isn’t perfect. I believe strongly in the church and that's something I've modeled my whole life.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to reevaluate my career path. I started getting job inquiries from non-Christian organizations and I was truly intrigued. For a guy who’s spent his whole education/career in church-centered vocations, stepping away from this subculture was somewhat appealing. You don’t have to be paid by a church to be an effective minister. Examples are everywhere: we decided to stop getting paid by our church years ago and the experience has affirmed this. My idols are my parents, and though they are deeply involved in church, both worked in secular careers throughout their lives. And I’ve come to deeply appreciate my friends who have staked out ministries in their secular jobs.

It was during this time that Kelly and I talked about our marriage and family direction. What do we value? How do our vocations affect what we’re called to do pastorally? We determined that we held just two imperatives for our small family:

We’re called to live in Cincinnati. This is our mission field.
We’re called to serve with Echo Church. This is our family.

Beyond that, we’d do anything the Lord calls us to do.

And even this revealed something to me: I’m passionate for the work of the church—and not just Echo. My years at a small urban congregation and working at a ministry training school instilled in me a kingdom perspective that drives me today. No one church or one ministry can accomplish all that God needs to do. And I’m at my best when I’m equipping churches and church leaders to grow. 

This is why I have accepted a position as Vice President of Ministry Development with the Church Development Fund.

I’ve known about CDF for decades. With over six decades of experience, CDF’s mission is to help churches grow by helping them financially. They focus specifically on churches in the Restoration Movement, the (un)denomination with which Echo and CCU are affiliated. Since they’re headquartered in California, I never imagined I’d work for them. But my new position puts my responsible for the territory of Ohio/Kentucky (and some Pennsylvania). So we can stay in Cincinnati and continue with Echo.

I really believe this is the Lord opening a door for me. When I started interviewing, I kept waiting for something to dissuade me; I paid close attention to see if there was anything that would confirm this was a bad move. Instead the opposite happened: I found myself getting more and more excited. The work is custom-made for my current skill-set while providing opportunities for growth. And even when I showed my quirkiness (since I included it on my CV, we spent ten minutes in the interview discussing the Leadership Suplex and professional wrestling), they were still enthusiastic about me joining the team. And right now I’m in Las Vegas with the team, meeting at one of our Movement’s great churches, and learning more about our work.

I am beyond excited about growing professionally and contributing to the CDF family.

So about what I’m leaving behind: you already know how much I love CCU. I’m extremely proud of the work I’ve done there. Some of the best people I’ve ever met are the result of that place. But this doesn’t end the relationship: I’m going to continue to adjunct teach and will continue to support the university (especially financially). I’ll miss my colleagues, but they continue to great work. CCU existed before me and it’ll continue on when I’m gone.

I’m thrilled that I’m moving on to a company where I can continue to use my passions for the kingdom.