As I look back on 40plus years of my walk with Christ, I am mindful of some big twists and turns in the road. The journey has not been a straight line. Please allow me to indulge in some personal reflection and then I’ll bring this back into a local church framework.
Have you ever heard a story of a child caught smoking cigarettes by a parent, and in order to “cure” them of the desire to smoke, the parent forces them to smoke an entire pack? Of course, the child becomes so sick, they never smoke again. The unpleasantness of the experience cures them of any future desire.
This is one picture I would use to describes my ministry journey. God has placed me in some toxic environments. They have each made me sick in their unique way. But I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water. The toxic atmospheres have made me desire good air even more. I long for the purity and health that is the Kingdom of Heaven, that Jesus inaugurated, that God promises us now.
The truth is I think I am pretty special. My church assignments have helped crucify the love of “my ministry” out of me. There is a form of serving God that is poisonous to the soul. How much proof do you need of that? Look around.
There are two big vices that God has dropped me in the middle of that have shaped my ministry paradigm. One is the area of spiritual abuse, and the other is white supremacy. The problems you are confronted with are the very things that God is calling you to engage in.
My journey in understanding these ugly twins is one of God pushing me into toxic environments. If I may (perhaps too boldly) claim a biblical story as a framework, my unwillingness to compromise in my pursuit of God’s truth and way has led me, under His direction, to confront these two fiery furnaces. He has been there, and I was not consumed, but they were hot and I am sure my hair was singed and I’ve come out smelling like smoke!
I remember leaving my first church with an incredible sense of disappointment and disillusionment. If I had to boil it down I would say:
- I was disappointed that God would let me suffer like I did. After giving Him my future and life, why would He treat me so callously? Why would he subject me, His chosen snowflake, to abuse?
- I was disallusioned where I found little genuine submission to Christ—as opposed to using the ministry for personal, monetary gain and life-dream fulfillment.
- I was disappointed in myself for areas where I gave in and mirrored authoritarianism.
But it wasn’t all bad. The people I met taught me an incredible amount about Jesus. I am grateful for the life-long friendships I made. The church was predominately black (like 99%) and I grew tremendously in racial understanding and awareness from my previous absolute ignorance. So many people were so patient with me, I can never repay that debt. My socialization in a midwest, farm town had left me racially illiterate (Although I did not think so at the time. I thought my views on race were as valid as anyone else’s.). This was the alarm clock that eventually led to me waking up later.
I’ll highlight two great takeaways (understanding that I know them now and could not have articulated them then. Hindsight is 20/20.).
- You have nothing to prove to anyone in your walk with Christ. If you find yourself in an unhealthy situation—a place of spiritual abuse—you need to get out. It is not worth it to your family or your health to try to power through or take up your cross. Persecution comes from the world, not the church. Never submit to self-righteousness. Jesus did not hold his tongue when the self-righteous and proud attacked him. He spoke truth to power and confronted the prejudices of those intent on silencing Him. Serving in the ministry is not synonymous with being a punching bag for the hangups of congregants or church leaders with a hypocritical chip on their shoulder.
- Never choose blindness. God’s not colorblind; you shouldn’t be either. I will always carry with me the life-long friendships I made and perspectives I gained with many black people—something I could not have predicted as a 20 year old. I have continued to grow in the last 20plus years. But much of it started here. When people you love, who are servants of Christ, tell you about their reality that is different from yours, you listen, you hear, you change. The value of this is hard to express. If you settle for a monochromatic life, you are missing something incredibly special and God-ordained. God created this beautiful tapestry of different cultures, different ways of looking at the world, and different skin tones in His image. And I cannot discount my wife in all of this and her patience in passing me information through books and videos and hours of conversation.
I am grateful for these experiences now because that’s what God used to mature me in faith. I have grown. I have left (at least parts of these) childish things behind. But I have not left behind a desire for God’s kingdom and a greater manifestation of “on earth as it is in heaven.” I have been disabused of the notion that this is what every church and pastor wants—I now have greater discernment—but it is still what I want.
This is the air I breath
We over-spiritualize the message of Jesus to prevent it from messing with our politics.
Do you imagine that confessing Jesus is Lord poses no challenge to pledging allegiance to Rome or Russia or Spain or America or whatever?
There is an American form of Christendom that is poisonous to the soul. It is preached from many pulpits and at the core of much religiousness (religiosity?), particularly in the Bible Belt. Although I grew up in Ohio, I have lived in Virginia, Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina since 1988. The most dangerous mindset is the one you don’t know you have.
Many times we castigate our models of church. We want a more organic methodology. One that mirrors the family and not American capitalism. I am sympathetic to this. But here is the key understanding we too often miss: every model perfectly serves the mindset behind it.
The ministry methods of the American church are specifically prone to the ugly twins of spiritual abuse and white supremacy. Since these are the blind spots, of course our models unwittingly perpetuate them. Why would that be shocking? And let me underscore this point in case it isn’t clear, virtually every alternative method of doing church I am aware of is a hotbed of spiritual abuse and racism. Changing the model without changing the mindset will deliver us to the same destination, even if by a different road.
In America, the current is too strong on both of these issues. This current is not like the lazy river at your favorite amusement park. This current is like the Niagara river 10 feet before Niagara Falls. If you are not actively working against these two strong currents, you are going with the flow and perpetuating these gross sins. This is what we need to wake up to.
For white, suburban mindsets, we don’t break this blindspot with compassionate ministry aimed at helping the less fortunate. It’s not charity we are after, but justice.
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
~Aboriginal activist group, Queensland, 1975
Can we listen and learn? Can we submit instead of lead?
When will we understand that listening and submitting are necessary for our survival?
Fresh air and new eyes
As I look at my life over the past decade, my trust in God has increased. I am more hopeful in the future than I have ever been. I hear voices in books and blogs that bring me great comfort in knowing that others are contending for what I am contending for. I see people embarking on life’s journey that are trading a false construct of identity to true commitment to Christ — whatever the cost.
My trust in virtually anything we are currently doing in our ministry methods being able to create the openness in our lives and our communities for God to work has all but vanished. How do you move to solutions when you cannot see the problem? Am I cynical? You be the judge.
We cannot speak prophetically to fallen powers and systems while being complicit in those systems. I know personal, spiritual disciplines open our lives to God’s re-creation in our lives. (God’s re-creation or recreation, a good word meaning activity done for enjoyment, not working.) The key here is that our lives need to be open to God or we continue bound by our fallen natures, prejudices, and ungodly ways of meeting our basic needs. In other words, our fallen natures become a tool to fallen powers and principalities to continue oppression.
But not only do we need these personal, spiritual disciplines, we need corporate, spiritual disciplines to create the openness in our communities to breath God’s recreation into us as a people. Exploring these means of Grace in our local church context is the journey I am on and what I am after.