Let Us End Racism

It’s been more than 20 years since that moment. I still remember it like it was yesterday.

I was in my dorm room in Brooke Towers at West Virginia University when a group of my friends came back to the floor. They lived just a couple rooms from me and, occasionally, we would go to dinner together in the cafeteria.

On this particular day, however, one of them noticed a shopping cart that was in the hallway. It was a long-standing game for those of us who lived in the Towers community to “borrow” shopping carts from the Kroger down the hill. I admit to borrowing one or two during my two-year residence at Towers.

For some reason, the presence of the shopping cart agitated this student. He became irate. He slammed the cart across the hall. He screamed out words I can still hear today.

I hate these n#####!

Down the hall was another hall friend of mine. He would soon become famous for his standout performances as a running back on the football team. I cannot recall if he was there, but the words were shouted loud enough that if he was, he would have heard them.

I was embarrassed. I was appalled. I was ashamed.

I didn’t shout the words, and it certainly wasn’t the first time I heard them. Growing up in southern West Virginia, you were exposed to racist attitudes and language that sought to separate people. As a kid, you didn’t always have the words and experiences to understand what it was that people were saying. You did, however, know it made you uncomfortable.

That moment, in my dorm room, changed everything for me. I didn’t want to be associated with racists nor did I want to be one myself. I wasn’t perfect in this area, but I wanted to live out the values of my faith stronger that God created us all the same.

I define racism as simply dismissing others because of the color of their skin and making contributions to society that separates people by race. It is a two-fold existence, and we have to recognize where we’ve contributed in some way to either side of the definition. Perhaps we have said things that have dismissed people because of their skin color or we’ve performed acts that have contributed to the separation of races. Sometimes we’ve done both and many times we are silent when we’ve witnessed it.

I pray for the day when racism ends.

I recognize we must be the answer to these prayers. A few years ago, I proclaimed in a sermon that my son’s generation would be the ones to see that dream come true. Several years after making that statement I’m cautious, because our children are formed by our examples and, often times, the examples we often share is of division and separation.

We share the example of dismissing concerns from people of color. When people of color share about institutional biases that favor whites, we often turn to the old advantage that everyone has an equal playing field in America. I’m a white male from Appalachia who has experienced institutional biases based upon my education and where I went to school. How much more so have people of color experienced? We need to hear their concerns and make the appropriate systematic changes that levels the playing field so all may have a chance to succeed in life.

We share the example of valuing heritage over the concerns of symbolic racism. When people of color express how displaying the Confederate flag and statutes brings up images of slavery and oppression, we often dismiss the concerns by saying we are focusing on our traditions and heritage. Instead of hearing their concerns and working together to find proper solutions and balance, we immediately dismiss the comments as detrimental to society.

We share the example of pointing out the differences instead of focusing on our commonalities. We do this by making specific references to the skin color of people of color we meet. There is an issue when we will use phrases like “that black person” or “my Hispanic helper” that we would not use if that same person is white. We point out our differences to the detriment of finding the places of common life and shared interest.

Perhaps, though, the most heartbreaking is that we will immediately accept someone based on their skin color and we will equally question someone by the same attribute. We see this in our politics, in social media, and in life. Acceptance is, sadly, as much about race as it is about the content of someone’s character today.

I bemoan all of this.

The sad thing is our children watch how we treat people. They see how we treat one another and the words and actions we use when it comes to race. Our actions provide more guidance for our children on how to live out God’s love than our words ever can.

If we truly want racism to end in our nation then it cannot begin by passing the baton to a younger and more accepting generation. It must begin with us saying, “Enough is enough.”

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Is There a Limit to Our Sports Obsession

Former Oakland Raiders’ owner Al Davis coined a phrase that has become familiar to all, regardless if you spend your evenings watching whatever game is on ESPN.

He said, “Just win, baby!”

Just win.

Many of us have ascribed to this philosophy when it comes to our favorite teams, whether it be the professional or collegiate ranks. (For the purposes of this column we will focus primarily on college athletics.) We want the thrill of victory and will accept almost anything to be victorious when the game is over.

Sports is about winning and there is nothing wrong with wanting our teams to win. It is part of what makes sports fun and enjoyable. I have often told my wife that if West Virginia University ever wins a national championship in anything besides rifle that it would be one of the happiest days of my life. She got a brief taste of this excitement in 2010 when West Virginia advanced to the Final Four and I immediately ran out of the house screaming for joy. Continue reading

The Polarization of the American Church

For decades now, the American political system has been defined by an ever-growing state of polarization. It is a state of division and separation that claims there is no worth in the opposing view and that those who are not “like us” are really out to harm “our way of life.” This attitude divides us into camps of “left” or “right or “red” or “blue.” It has also led to our modern governing structure where there is little respect for someone on the opposing side and limited opportunities for compromise.

The polarization of the American political system has affected each of us and how we see worth in each person. Because this polarization exists in an area of life that affects each of us, it was only a matter of time before this polarization impacted the church.

Today, sadly, the American church is defined by its polarization. We are divided body. We are more likely to be defined by our favorite camps and viewpoints than we are our shared love and faith in Christ. The polarization of the American church has left us unwilling to seek compromise and work together as one body. Instead, it has pulled us further apart and separate from the vision of the Great Commission to go out and share the love of Christ with others.

Instead, we want to claim that the person who disagrees with us in wrong. We want too much time arguing over the values of my theological view, instead of seeing the worth in the various traditions of the faith.

The reason for this, much like our political dialogues, is that we cannot stand to be proven wrong or be challenged. We expect to be right on all things about God and cannot wrestle with the fact that we might misunderstand something about the wonder of God’s grace and love. This prevents us from hearing from someone who challenges us and, as well, from considering that they are a person worthy of being heard.

When the church is defined by this attitude we are not doing a good job of sharing the message of Christ’s love. Instead, we are sharing the message of a church that is more defined by the things of our culture than about the message of Jesus Christ, who came into the world in the most humble of ways to share hope, joy, peace, and love with all people.

I yearn for the end of polarization in America, whether it is in our political conversations or in our churches. For that to happen, we must take the lead in ending the attacks and divisions within our churches. We must see each other as loved by God. We must see each other as having worth and value in God’s eyes. Until that day happens, we will be further separated from each other and unable to see the value in someone else’s opinion.

The day of polarization in the American church must end. Let it end with me, first, so that it may end in others, as well.

The Humble Life

We live in a world of mixed messages and competing ideas.

Every day we are bombarded with messages, images, advertisements, stories, pictures, quotes, passages, and, yes, even sermons that attempt to influence our lives and how we interact with others. Part of life today is about trying to understand these messages and what they are saying to us.

Sometimes we do not know how to evaluate these messages. It is challenging to try and understand what the world is telling us. My Sunday School class, which starts next week, will help us in this task. No, I’m not beneath making a plug for something in the sermon.

To be sure, culture speaks to us daily. As followers of Christ, we must wrestle with our faith and what it affirms or challenges about the world around us. One of the places where culture speaks to us has influenced all of us in one way or another – how we view the self. Perhaps the most overwhelming message of our culture today is that the individual person is at the center of everything.

We are the center of our lives. The individual self is the most important. This is the message we hear from our culture, and we hear it over and over again. Social media sites encourage us to promote the best of ourselves. Advertisers spend millions trying to convince us that life is all about trying to make us feel better, which, of course, happens when we purchase their product. Modern day writers and, yes, even theologians often tell us that happiness is found when the self is cared for above all else.

When we put all of this together, it is not difficult to see that there is an overarching theme to these messages. We are the most important player in the game of life. It is all about us. Life is about me. Life is about what I want, what I get out of it, and what I need to do to achieve success. This overarching message is so engrained in us that we have allowed our culture to tell us that it is OK to ignore another person, so long as we get what we want out of life.

The self-focused life is at the center of how our culture informs our days. But, is it at the center of how Jesus desires for us, as his followers, to live out our lives in response to our faith in the Lord?

This question speaks to us as we study today’s passage from Luke 14:7-11. Jesus is at a dinner party with a group of Pharisees. They were watching Jesus closely to see how he would interact with them. Would he be on his best behavior or would he continue teaching in ways that challenged much of what they and the culture of the time thought to be true? So far, the dinner had not gone as the Pharisees had planned. It was held on the Sabbath, and Jesus had already violated one rule by healing someone who was sick. Imagine a dinner party filled with lots of tension and you have the scene that was already apparent when we come upon these verses.
It is a tension that is not going to ease anytime soon. This is because Jesus witnessed a very normal occurrence that inspired a deep moment of teaching. In those days, you would sit around a table and recline on sofas that were U-shaped. These sofas circled the table. The guests, upon their arrival, would fight for the best seat. That seat was at the center of the U, because this seat meant that you were the most important person at the party. Everyone wanted this honor.

Jesus notices this and says kingdom living is not about fighting for our place. Kingdom living is not about trying to secure something out of this life. Kingdom living, Jesus says in this parable, is about something else. Something deeper and truer to the life of God and what God has for us. Kingdom living is about living lives of humility. If we truly want to follow in the footsteps of Christ, then we will be people who sincerely and daily practice humility.

What does Jesus mean by humility? Jesus means for us to take on a posture of self-sacrifice. Humility means to let go of having our focus strictly upon ourselves and turning our attention towards others. It is not, however, about saying that we are not worthy or good enough. Instead, humility is about living in recognition that someone or something may be more important than us. The best picture of humility comes to us in Philippians 2, where Paul echoes an early Church hymn that speaks of Christ humbling himself to take on the form of a human as Jesus. It is the picture of letting go of the focus on self in order to focus on others.

Jesus says those who practice humility will be blessed. It is the opposite of what many in the party experienced. As they fought for the best seat, often they experience shame and embarrassment when the host comes and tells them someone more important has arrived. Jesus says those who practice humility daily would not experience this. They would receive the reward and blessings from God’s kingdom. Humility is a characteristic that Christ desires of all of his followers.

Humility, letting go of complete focus of the self, is a radical concept. It was a radical notion then, just as it is today. In Jesus’ time, humility was not a valued characteristic. We see this in how they fought over the best seat. To be a person of humility was to be considered weak. It was an uncomfortable practice.

To be honest, it is something we are uncomfortable with today. Humility for us, sometimes, is more of a tool that we use to get what we really want from someone. For instance, we will say that we’re not the right person for a task when deep down we know that we’re the best person for the job. We may even act humble only so that someone will feel obligated to brag about how great we know that we truly are. So often, humility is used to turn the attention back on us.

Humility is not something we might practice on a regular basis, but it is something that Jesus calls us to in our lives. So how do we begin? If we truly want to practice humility, then we must look upon Christ as our example. Jesus’ earthly ministry was about humility. Nothing Jesus did was intended to put the focus upon himself. The miracles, teachings, and acts of love were all intended to give glory and focus to the Father. Jesus continually surrendered himself so that the Father would be made known through him and so that others could experience the grace of God.

Jesus was not about himself. Indeed, Christ, by his very nature, is a servant. Jesus could have easily made everything he did in this world about himself. Instead, he continually chose the posture of a servant who went to his knees and washed the feet of others. Jesus routinely took upon himself the tasks that seemed “beneath him” in order to give attention and focus to the Father.

If we want to be humble, if we truly want to live lives of humility, then we must be willing to practice the life of Christ in our daily lives. We must be people of humble service who daily choose to walk and live as Jesus would live. Servanthood, giving of ourselves in order to focus of others, is at the heart of what it means to be humble and to live lives of humility. It is about giving of ourselves so that others may experience God’s grace.

Humility also mean that life is not about us. We are not the center of attention. We are not the stars in the game of life. Christ is the star and our focus. The way to living lives of humility is by continually keeping Jesus at the very center of who we are. If Christ is at our center, then nothing else will keep us from our focus. We will not be about serving our own selves, but about serving Christ and the other, both of whom we so often ignore.

Humility is difficult, because we just cannot let go of being at the center of it all. We want all the attention and glory. Jesus is the one who deserved all glory, yet he never sought the attention for himself. He sought it for the Father so that we may all have a relationship with him through faith in Christ and the life of the Holy Spirit.

A humble life will produce the blessings of God. It will lead us closer to what God desires for us and bring us into a deeper relationship with the Lord. Through grace and by humble living, we experience more of what God desires for us. This is what I want for you, for your lives, for myself, and for our church.

Living a life of humility is to take on the deeper life of Christ by allowing the Lord to be at the center of who we are. That is humility. To recognize that this life is not about us, but about Christ working in us, is a very important declaration of faith. What if we all made this declaration of faith today to live lives of humility, to live as though Christ is at our center and not ourselves? What would be different about how we engaged the world? What would be different about us? What would be different about us here at Trinity? What if we were willing to truly live as if Christ was at the center of everything we are, everything we do, and everything we seek to be?

What a 2-Hour Bus Adventure Teaches Us About Our Community

This afternoon, a group from Trinity UMC traveled across to the Ohio River to watch the Cincinnati Reds take on the San Diego Padres. We will refrain from analyzing the game other than to say the Reds’ 3-2 victory in 13-innings was more about the missed opportunities for the Padres’ to win than it was about the Reds’ ability to finally win it in the 13th.

Many of us rode the bus from our church, located in the Latonia neighborhood of Covington, to Cincinnati. It was a 40-minute bus ride from the church to the stadium. Going to the stadium was easy. Leaving, however, was a different story. It took our little group two hours to travel the four miles from Great American Ball Park to the church. We waited for buses that never came. We felt the frustrations of buses that refused to stop, even though we thought we were at the right bus stop. Eventually, we called for two cabs to take our eight-person group home.

It was an amusing adventure and, yes, we felt a sense of relief when our cabs arrived at the corner of Church and Southern to take us back to Trinity. However, the adventure was more than an amusing afternoon spent with friends. It was an eye-opening experience of what life is like for many of the people we seek to love in our community. What was an adventure for us is simply daily life for the poorest in the neighborhoods surrounding Trinity.

Many in our community do not have the financial means to afford the things that we take for granted. The bus system, then, is the only way to get to work, shopping centers, or to doctor appointments. For us, a bus not arriving with a minor inconvenience. For so many in our neighborhoods, when the bus does not stop or arrive it makes a bigger impact in their lives. It could mean missing work, which could lead someone to lose a job that may be a family’s only source of income.

We had the means and ability to find other transportation options. The poorest of the poor often do not have this luxury that we take for granted.

I am sure that many of us will laugh and tell long tales about our little adventure. That is fine. I will probably join in those laughs. However, I hope that this adventure opens our eyes to an aspect of life of those whom are so often distant from our sight and lives. We are blessed to have what we have and today were able to experience life from a different, and needed, perspective.

Who Do You Trust?

Every day we make decisions. What we will eat. What we will wear. What we will do. Who we will talk to. There are, of course, many others.

One of the most important daily decisions we make is one that is so common to us that we do not give much thought. That decision is who or what we will trust. Who or what will we say that we can believe and claim that what they present is true, honorable, and trustworthy. Who or what will we place our reputations behind and say, “Yes, I can vouch for that.”

By our actions and how we live our lives we answer questions of trust about who or what we can trust. Questions like: Do we trust our employer to treat us honorably and pay us a decent wage? Do we believe that our bank is a trustworthy institution to place our finances and investments? Do we believe our schools are teaching what our children need to know in order to be successful? Do we trust our neighbor when they say they will return the things that they borrowed? Do we trust that the driver trying to cut us off will not hit us?

Every day we make decisions of trust. Whether we recognize it or not, we are continually wrestling with these questions of who we can believe and who do we believe is telling us the truth. These questions and decisions of trust become more difficult when we take into consideration the fact that we live in a time in which we behave as if it is harder to trust the person next to us. We are not always sure who we can trust.

This issue about trust and our daily struggles with it speaks to us. This is especially the case as we read our passage from Hebrews 11:1-3. That is because faith, as a matter of trust, is central to what it means to have a deep and loving relationship with the Lord.

In our passage, the great Preacher of Hebrews is attempting to define what it means to have faith for those who will hear and read this sermon. Faith is a central theme in Hebrews and in this chapter. It is mentioned 23 times just in chapter, so when the Preacher mentions it here we know what he will say is important. He says, “Faith is the confidence that we hope for will actually happen.” What he wants is for all of us to come to a deeper understanding and appreciation about what it means to have faith in the Living God.

So, what does this definition from Hebrews 11:1 mean? What do we mean when we say this word “faith?” At its core, faith is about trust. It is trusting in the One who we cannot always see. Faith is trusting that God is always at work in our lives and throughout the world. Having faith means to trust that God’s promises are true, that we can have hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that we can rely upon the presence of the Holy Spirit. Faith is a statement of trust. Just as important, it is a loving response to what Christ has done in us, through us, and for us.

For many of us, I would suspect much of this is not new or unfamiliar. If we have been in church long enough, or even if we haven’t, we likely have heard some definition of faith that links faith to trust. These faith definitions are often grounded in this idea of faith from Hebrews 11:1. We know faith. We have experienced faith. We believe that our faith in the Lord is important.

However, as much as we may be familiar with faith we equally struggle with it. Just like our daily decisions, we are continually wrestling with what it means to have a deep and trusting faith in the Lord. Today, we have a faith problem in the church, especially in our nation, because we do not fully believe and trust in God.

What do I mean by this? We have a difficult time trusting that God is truly present in our lives. We struggle with believing that God will fulfill all the promises made to us. We may say all the right words of faith, as we did earlier in our worship by reciting the Apostle’s Creed, but sometimes those words are difficult because we are not always sure if we can trust them.

There is a reason for this. Faith is struggle for us, because we cannot hold it with our own hands. It is not tangible. Indeed, faith is hard for us because only seem to trust that which we can see and physically experience.

This is an outflow of the world and culture that we live in. Our time is such that we are taught to believe that we can only trust something if we are able to see and experience it. In order to trust something, we believe it means that we must be able to place our hands around something, be able to rationalize it, and understand what this thing or concept is. Essentially, we can trust the things in front of us, because we can encounter it physically. This modern understanding of trust and faith has led to some of the more popular doubts and frustrations of what it means to have faith in God. They say, “Why believe in something we cannot see or physically experience.” We have all been impacted by this line of thinking. Truth be told, it has also impacted the church and its ministries. How can we have faith in God if we cannot see, hold, or fully understand who our Lord is?

Because of this daily struggle, we live with constant questions of whether or not we can trust that God’s love, promise, and word are true, real, and powerful. I believe the Preacher of Hebrews was addressing a similar struggle. He is seeking those who struggle with their faith. In this sermon, he basically says, “I know you struggle with faith and your relationship with God, but ‘faith is the confidence that we hope for will actually happen.’”

He hit on something important with this definition of faith. Truly, faith is what we are called to each day. Having faith in the Lord is what helps us to believe that God’s words are true. Faith in God inspires within us a hope that allows us to trust that God’s promises will be fulfilled. Faith is the essence of belief in God and trusting that the Lord is real, mighty, and loving.

When we struggle with our faith and whether we can trust God, I admit these words are familiar but they may be missing that essence which connects these words to our heart. Indeed, when we struggle with whether we can belief and trust in God we need the witness of others to support our faith. The Preacher recognizes this in verse 11:2. He says, “Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation.” What he means is that we have a great witness of men and women who have maintained their faith in God through struggles, difficulties, and all the worries of life.

The Preacher highlights this throughout chapter 11. We only read the first three verses of the chapter, but the remaining verses provide a powerful witness of Old Testament leaders who gave witness to their faith through difficult moments. He mentions how faith inspired Abel’s offering, how it guided Noah to build the ark, how it shaped Abraham’s life, and how it aided Moses to lead the Israelites. Faith in God was a prominent characteristic of the lives of these leaders.

Just like the leaders the Preacher mentions, we all know of people who have maintained their trust in the Lord through whatever life throws at them. We are all influenced by them. Personally, I think of someone like Dr. Martin Luther King. He is inspirational to me, because he maintained his faith in God through many trials in his mission to open the church and our nation up to all people. I also think of those closer to me, as I am sure you do as well. We are inspired by those who have maintained their faith in the Lord in both good and bad times. These witnesses of faith remind us we are not alone in our relationship with God. They help us to trust in God’s truth.

Faith is truly the confidence of trusting that God’s word is true, loving, and powerful. Faith allows us to believe God created this world. It allows us to experience the truth that we are made in the Lord’s image. It allows us to trust that God sent his only Son to show us the way to the Father, and to offer himself for not just humanity’s sin, but your sin and my sin. Faith inspires. Faith teaches. Faith reaches into our heart and shows us the depths and widths of God’s love.

The greatest thing about faith is that it is not something we created. We would never have built a relationship with God built upon trusting in the things we cannot see and believing in that which we cannot hold. Faith is of God and is a gift from God given to us by the Lord’s grace. God’s grace is always at work in our lives teaching, shaping, and forming us to what it means to be faithful followers of Christ. That grace comes to us as faith and the witness that God is active in our lives and world. Faith is the gift of love that helps us to trust in the Lord’s promises and to cling to our love of God. Faith is not something we claim as our own creation, but is something given to us as we learn to lean more upon God and come to trust that Christ died for us.

Faith is simply a matter of trust. Just like we are faced with daily questions about what things in our lives will we trust, so are we faced with a daily question about whether or not we will trust in the Living God. Walking with faith is not something that is decided upon once and then never wrestled with again. The question of who do we trust is one that we must answer every moment and with every breath. Our lives are defined by how we answer this question and how we seek to live by its answer.

So, what will be our answer? What will be your answer? My prayer is that every day we will answer this question by saying, “Yes, Lord, I will trust you. Yes, Lord, I will claim my faith in you.”

The Curious Case of Tim Tebow: How an Athlete is at the Center of a Polarized Culture

Tim Tebow is an interesting case study.

He is the kind of guy you want your daughter to date. Tebow is a strong Christian who is rooted in God’s love. We’re not talking about the celebrity form of Christianity, in which one claims to be a Christian but you never see any fruit. Tebow is authentic in his faith and charitable in his care for others.

Yet, Tebow is the last person you want starting for your favorite NFL franchise. Sure, Tebow managed to lead the Denver Broncos to a postseason victory over the Steelers, but he is much maligned for his style of play. His style is more suited for the college game, which Tebow was, perhaps, one of the best ever winning a Heisman and two national titles. Tebow’s biggest weakness has been his ability to accurately throw a pass, which is something a quarterback is expected to do.

This week, Tebow was traded to the New York Jets after the Broncos acquired Peyton Manning. It has led to usual discussion that accompanies Tebow in the NFL. On one side, you have those who believe Tebow is not a starting quarterback and should change positions. On the other side of the debate are those who believe Tebow has been unfairly criticized because of his faith and that his record shows he can play in the NFL.

It is a debate that will not go away with Tebow moving to the country’s media center. With this maybe another question needs to be asked. Why is Tebow such a polarizing individual and what does it mean for all of us? Continue reading