If you’re privileged and you know it say “Amen.”

I have never been looked at as a suspect while browsing in a retail store. 
No one has ever called me out for being the only member of my race at a gathering or event. 
My motives are never assumed to be nefarious. 
I have never feared for my life during a routine traffic stop. 
Generally, people in power have always been willing to help me. 
And when they did so, they didn’t assume they were doing me a favor. 
When I share my experiences, people believe me. 
My experiences aren’t excused, diminished, or otherwise dismissed based upon other plausible explanations. 
I have never been in a position where I did not see ample representation of people who look like me in positons of success, wealth, power, and prestige. 
I can choose to think about these issues. Or not. 

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it describes some of my experiences of “White Privilege.” 

Now many would push back against that term. The argument goes something like this: “I’ve worked for everything that I have”, “I haven’t received any special treatment” “I’m poor, I’m not privileged.” But I think all of us can agree that we have blind spots, we all have a certain inability to see things that are true about ourselves, because we have an inherent bias in favor of ourselves and our circumstances. In short, we are the heroes of our own stories. So, it is possible, whether we embrace the term “White privilege” or not that there are blind spots about ourselves, of which we need to be made aware. 

In the book White Awake, the author Daniel Hill is confronted by his friend. His friend reveals to him that “White has a culture” and that when that culture comes into contact with other cultures it usually wins. Daniel then embarks on a journey of self-discovery and arrives at the conclusion that the United States has a “normalization of whiteness”, in other words every culture in America is expected to conform to normative notions as established by white people. There is an unspoken expectation of white supremacy that has existed in our culture predating our Revolution and continuing to this day. Hill quotes, Rev. Julian DeShazier, who defines white privilege as “the ability to walk away.” Hill observes, “This is one of the essential truths we as white people need to remember (or become aware of, if it’s new) as we contend with the normalization of whiteness. When the journey begins to feel like any combination of scary, confusing, disorienting, or even painful, we have a privilege that people of color do not: we can walk away; we can go back to ‘normal,’ if we choose.”

So what do we do about it? White normative culture always demands an action plan. And this may miss a crucial step in bringing about effective change.

Daniel Hill writes,

 “It became abundantly clear that the dichotomy between a triumphalist and lament approach to church is more than an interesting theological exercise; it has a tremendous impact on how we process pain and suffering in the world. When we’re under the influence of triumphalism, we search for ‘success’ in virtually every circumstance, so when a societal problem surfaces, it must be fixed so we can feel a sense of achievement. Therefore, an unresolved problem poses a threat. We don’t know how to manage the dissonance created by the unsolvable problem, and we struggle to understand the nervous energy created by that tension. Lament, on the other hand, doesn’t function according to the rules of success. It sees suffering not as a problem to be solved but as a condition to be mourned. Lament doesn’t see the power of salvation as being in the hands of the oppressors; instead it cries out to God for deliverance from the grip of injustice. Lament is a guttural cry and a longing for God’s intervention. It recognizes, as the psalmist so eloquently stated, that hope is found not in chariots and in horses but in God alone. (Psalm 20:7) Lament gives us permission to admit that we aren’t capable of fixing (and may have been part of causing) the problems we’ve suddenly become awakened to. Lament gives us resources to sit in the tension of suffering and pain without going to place of shame or self-hate. Lament allows us to acknowledge the limitations of human strength and to look solely to the power of God instead. 

To lament is to ask God the haunting questions ‘Where are you?’ ‘What are you doing?’ ‘How long must we wait?’ To ask these questions is not to doubt or challenge God. Instead, as Dr. Dan Allender eloquently states, ‘It is crucial to comprehend a lament is as far from complaining or grumbling as a search is from aimless wandering. A grumbler has already reached a conclusion, shut down all desire and postures with questions that are barely concealed accusations…A lament involves even deeper emotion because a lament is truly asking, seeking, and knocking to comprehend the heart of God. A lament involves the energy to search, not to shut down the quest for truth. It is passion to ask, rather than to rant and rave with already reached conclusions. A lament uses the language of pain, anger, and confusion and moves toward God.” 

We cannot change what we refuse to acknowledge.

Understand before demanding to be understood.

Psalm 137
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137 is the cry of an oppressed people. Taken from their homes and forced into a life of servitude. A demand was made of them by their captors, “Sing and play for us!” “Part of your obligation as a slave, is to also entertain us!” In essence what the captors were demanding was, “Appear to be happy and carefree!” An effort to appease their own condemning conscience and curtail fears of a deserved rebellion and retaliation for their collective sin.

But the oppressed people refused to sing. They hung up their harps and instead fantasied about bashing the heads of their captor’s children against rocks. We don’t like these portions of Scripture do we? It tends to make those of us who have enjoyed power and privilege uncomfortable. As it should. Scripture is perhaps the most transformative when it challenges me instead of just comforting me.

We find ourselves at a pivotal moment in history. We are in the midst of generational, political, and social change. It seems to me that history and Scripture point to the fact that God has a preference for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized and hurting. To echo the words of Abraham Lincoln, perhaps now is not the time to consider whether or not God is on our side, but rather, if we are on His?

I appreciate the passion of those who may disagree, and believe it comes from the sincere place and desire for peace, for the most part. As does mine. Indeed, no one responsible would condone the destruction of property or further loss of life. The attempt here is not to condone, but to help people understand. And of course, all people need to come to repentance. 

But when I call on white people to repent specifically for the sins of systemic racism, I’m drawing attention to the fact that, as white people, we continue to benefit from this system. So as beneficiaries we continue to perpetuate a system that helps us and harms others. That is not working in the “spirit of reconciliation” that God asked us to represent. 

As far as the autopsy is concerned, no matter the cause of death, the point is that Floyd’s death would have been far less likely, if at all, if the Police officer hadn’t kept his knee on Floyd’s throat for 8 + minutes, or if the other officers would have intervened when so many people, including Floyd himself, were asking for help. All I would ask you to do is consider the point of view of those who have been victimized and marginalized for centuries, in the same way you continue to seek to understand the perspective of the cops involved. For some of you, going as far as to say that “Floyd may have not died from the knee to the throat.” This stretches the bounds of credulity. 

Our own history as Americans is reflective of this, when a tyrannical government refused to listen to our concerns, the Founding fathers threw tea into the Boston harbor, resulting in the loss of property to the tune of one million dollars. There was a protracted war fought for independence and we waved flags that said, “Don’t tread on me.” We call that patriotism, but when others do it we call them “Thugs who riot.” I guess it depends on which side of power you find yourself? 

Even Jesus destroyed property, turned tables over, and chased people out of the temple at the end of a whip, Why? Because religious leaders were taking advantage of the poor. Jesus did this twice. This is part of the reason they killed Him. He was a marginalized peasant preacher, and dark skinned at that, so I think if I want to “choose a side” I’m always going to identify with marginalized groups, because, honestly I think that is where Jesus would be.

Three ways to deal with dissenting opinions.

This is a moment in history where it is necessary to speak up loudly and clearly about what is happening in our world. People will disagree with you. It should be expected. Here are three ways that I have learned to handle dissenting opinions, while avoiding falling into the trap of personal attacks.

1. Remain humble: James 4:6 teaches us “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” Humility shouldn’t be viewed as weakness or low self-esteem. But rather humility is a strength given by God to understand who we are, and what we have been called to do. Jesus was able to wash His disciples feet because He knew who He was. Jesus even challenged Peter in that context, when Peter expressed a dissenting opinion, “You will never wash my feet.” But Jesus responded with the strength of humility, “Unless I wash your feet, you have no place with me.” (John 13: 1-9)

2. Learn as much as possible: If you listen carefully to dissenting opinions, you will learn something. Criticism can serve as the greatest source of coaching. Through seeking to understand what is being said, insight can be gained into how what you are doing as a leader is impacting others. You can also gain insight into the life of the person who is the source of the dissent and by doing so become better equipped to serve them. As Proverbs 1:5 instructs us, “Let the wise hear and increase in learning…”

3. Look for solutions: It is a fool’s game to attempt to please everyone. As a leader if you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. Often though, solutions come from listening and learning from the voices that surround you. As a leader you are tasked with the mission of finding workable solutions. In order to do so you must have a clear understanding of the problems, seek to gather as much information as possible, and then make a decision and live with the consequences. There will always be “Monday morning quarterbacks” who will seek to second guess choices made. But at the end of the day, God has called us to lead with clarity and conviction. So look for the solution, make the decision and then stick by that decision.

Listen to the gifts of those God has surrounded you with. Understand that every person He brings into your life serves a purpose. Do not fear dissenting opinions, but welcome them. But you are under no obligation to tolerate abuse, racism, rude, or ignorant rhetoric and behavior. There is a difference between honest inquiry and just plain hatred being shared for evil intent.

Samuel R. Chand observes
“Healthy teams foster the perspective that failure isn’t a tragedy and conflict isn’t the end of the world. Great leaders welcome dissenting opinions, as long as they are offered in good will and with an eye toward a solution. These teams are willing to take great risks and even to fail miserably because they’ve gotten over the notion that failure is a personal flaw. That believe God is worthy of noble efforts, and they trust that God smiles on them as they attempt great things for him” 

May we all seek to continue attempting great things for God, and see all the voices around us as resources to that end. 

The conspiracy too many white people refuse to believe is true.

“I can’t breathe.” George Floyd said this most recently before his life was choked out of him under the knee of the State. But it has happened before. “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner said it eleven times while his murder was documented on July 17, 2014. 

There is a conspiracy afoot to rob black people of their breath. If not at the hands of the police, then at the hands of politicians, policies, everyday white people in a park, in a neighborhood, at a convenience store, in the supermarket, even in their own homes. There is not a place in this country where black people may relax and let down their guard against the mission of whiteness to destroy them. Remaining silent is not an option. I’m pleading with white people, “Stop!”

Stop assuming black people are up to no good. 

Stop assuming that you have a right to dismiss the experiences of black people. 

Stop voting for politicians who aim to disproportionately incarcerate black bodies in the name of “law and order.” Stop assuming that conformity to white culture is superior and beneficial. 

Stop saying, “If only they would comply with law enforcement.” 

Stop saying “those individual white people are racist” when all of us white folk continue to benefit from this system that favors our melanin. We must acknowledge our privilege and dismantle the system that empowers this inequality. 

As Ashon T. Crawley compels us, this is a violence “that cannot conceive of black flesh feeling pain, a violence that cannot think ‘I can’t breathe’ anything other than ploy, trick, toward fugitive flight.’ When in reality, ‘I can’t breathe’ [is] and ethical charge for those of us who are alive and remain to be caught up in the cause of justice against the violence, the episteme, that produced his moment of intensity, the moment of his assault and murder.” 

There is a conspiracy of whiteness that wants to dismiss atrocities committed against black people as isolated events. White people are willing to label these horrid events as individual acts of racism, but refuse to recognize all of these “isolated” incidents are connected by a common characteristic, the death of black people at the hands of white people, often white people in positions of authority. Of course, this is nothing new, since its inception, the United States has endeavored to relegate black bodies to the periphery, even if it means extinguishing their lives. Even a cursory survey of history will reveal that black people were brought to these shores to exploit their labor for the selfish ends of capitalism. They were brought here against their will to enrich white land owners, and to maintain the white social hierarchy by ensuring that even poor white people would vote, behave, and even fight against their own best interest to maintain this white order.   Whiteness continues to conspire against black bodies. The conspiracy colludes around a normative white culture that favors white lives at the expense of black lives. 

John Michael Vlach’s book The Planter’s Prospect: Privilege and Slavery in Plantation Paintings demonstrates that those who occupied powerless spaces did so because of an active collusion against them. This conspiracy of privilege was so entrenched in the culture that it even showed up in commissioned works of art, which is the subject of Vlach’s book. As Vlach points out in the introduction, “Plantation vistas tended to omit most indications of agricultural labor. The exclusion of slaves from paintings of plantations was, like the choice of the view from below, a powerful tactic that artist used to suggest a planter’s undisputed command over his estate. If there were no blacks to be seen in a plantation landscape, then white people, by default, would have to be recognized as the primary occupants” Vlach’s work reveals the perspective of those who held power and sought to keep it.

The insecure nature of white power demands validation even in its depiction of reality. This validation and justification were provided by various interpretations of the scenery and conditions on the plantations, that often involved a romanticizing or lack of specificity in the paintings. Such was the case with Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. “The absence of specificity helped Smith to idealize plantations as pleasant places that had once been occupied by noble owners and reliable workers. Since she provided only the vague outlines of no place in particular, she could easily project the scenario of a conflict-free past onto her beloved Carolina low country” These works of art depicting plantation life functioned as a form of nostalgic denial of the realities of the horrors of slavery, serving to reinforce the perceived privilege of those who owned the system and the victimization of those enslaved to it. As antebellum artist once sought to push black bodies to the periphery of their art depicting plantation life, if showing them at all, now systemic white supremacy seeks to exile black people from culture by killing them if necessary. 

George Washington’s Mount Vernon romanticized without his 300 slaves that kept it going.

Weak, insecure white leaders are still seeking to abolish black bodies from art, culture, history, life, as recent as President Trump refusing to unveil the official portrait of President Obama. This is how whiteness operates, it conspires to choke out the breath of blackness. 

There is a conspiracy of whiteness that refuses to acknowledge that racism infects our institutions. It continues to pollute our churches, our government, our judicial, economic, and educational systems. A conspiracy that calls the peaceful protest of Colin Kaepernick disrespectful, while simultaneously applauding white folks carrying guns and waving confederate flags chanting “Freedom!” 

The hypocritical irony! This! The only conspiracy white people won’t believe, is sadly, tragically true. 

Full disclosure.

In the spirit of full disclosure. I’m not mad. I’m not angry. I’m not bitter. I’m not even disgruntled. But I am reflective. I’m thoughtful. And I read books and listen to people. This makes me concerned for the world around me. Dogmatism has a way of reducing the world to good and bad binaries. Having renounced dogmatism, although I’m still aware of its residual influences in my life, I am endeavoring to see the world differently. I now understand that I may hold two opposing ideas in tension without having to settle on either of them. I now understand that there is both good and bad in most everything I’ve experienced. It took me a long time to discover this truth. I’ve spent a great portion of my life defending positions that I later found out to be untrue. I’ve also condemned positions as wrong that upon further examination have proved to be right.

I’m sometimes accused of being arrogant. Not so. I feel like I’ve gained more humility, empathy, and compassion than at any other point in my life, with still a great deal more to learn. I now understand that I’m guilty of things I’ve condemned others of doing, and far worse. I’ve been mean, judgmental, unforgiving. When you see yourself authentically, you lose, you fail, you suffer, but you gain a great deal more empathy for others. No one is perfect, no one has it all together. We are all hypocrites, just in different areas of our lives. I am confident in this. And now I’m far more comfortable in my skin than at any other point in my life, as a result.

And I’m secure in the love of Christ. But I’m not secure, in my emotional, physical, or intellectual status quo. I desire change, growth, evolution, for the better. Sometimes religion likes to convince us that if you get that part of your life that everything else will come together, all problems will cease, and life will be altogether good. Jesus should be “exhibit A” that this isn’t the case. He lived a perfect life, sinless, and selfless. Yet He was murdered by the State, at the behest of religious leaders who felt threatened by His gospel.

Indeed the Bible has demonstrated itself to be a sustainable book of wisdom, precisely because it tells the truth. It doesn’t just contain “uplifting and positive” passages. But rather, in its pages, all of human depravity is put on display. The men and women we lift up as spiritual and moral heroes, are guilty of adultery, debauchery, and murder. We can claim to be better, but we aren’t. Given the right circumstances, pressures, and opportunities, we might all surrender to our darker instincts. So why do we condemn others when they do?

Why do we take offense when our racism is pointed out? Instead of becoming defensive, why don’t we sincerely repent and seek to restore relationships? Why don’t we seek to remedy problems in our Nation, instead of defending our current political position?

Imagine if the institutions we serve embraced leaders who acknowledge changes in doctrines and then apologized for unintended negative consequences of those doctrines. What if Presidents, governors, senators, and representatives humbly acknowledged mistakes, and lived to learn and serve, rather than to merely embrace what is politically expedient.

I don’t share everything in my life or in my thoughts. Mostly I hide the parts of me that I think would make you think less of me. We all do this. This is where my quest for authenticity falls short. I justify it, perhaps rightly so, by thinking not everyone has earned the right to know everything about me. So I continue to manage what you see, hear, read. It is a highlight reel, but hopefully it is also more. An opportunity for all of us to reflect, grow and change. The scary thing about change is we can’t be sure what awaits on the other side. But I do know this, what doesn’t change eventually ceases to exist.

I insist on my ability to change and continue to live. You should too.

Embracing Liberty. Why mere obedience won’t get you to heaven.

In Galatians 5:1 the Apostle Paul writes, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” As Americans, liberty is something that is very important to us.  It is a privilege for which many have sacrificed their lives. But as important as our physical liberty is to all of us, this is not the kind of liberty Paul was writing about. He was writing of a much greater liberty – the liberty that comes from Jesus Christ.
It is possible for those who enjoy the liberties secured by God and government, to still be in bondage to their passions and sinful appetites. But thankfully, the same God who providentially grants the physical freedoms we enjoy as Americans has also secured for us a freedom from sin through the sacrifice of His Son. 

“The Gospel is good news, not because it gives a moral standard by which to live, but because it gives us the life lived by the standard of righteousness, Jesus Christ.”

This freedom is extended to all of us through the Gospel. The Gospel is good news, not because it gives a moral standard by which to live, but because it gives us the life lived by the standard of righteousness, Jesus Christ. Christ completely and perfectly lived a life that we cannot live. He then died a death in our place, and through His death and resurrection, He extended to us the righteousness of God. 

For many, however, the simplicity of this great exchange is missed by a misrepresentation of the Gospel. For example some have sought to misuse Scripture to the point of bringing those who have been made free back into bondage. Some, perhaps with noble motives, have reduced the Gospel to a formula or plan. The unintended consequences of a “plan of salvation” may lead those who hear this message to believe that they are the agents of their own redemption. Excluding Christ from a salvation that He alone secures and grants is a gross violation of the power of the Gospel. 

“…a billboard that reads “Obey Acts 2:38” may be helpful in some instances, but eventually these formulations put the intellect and ability of man at the center of the salvation story.”

The reduction of the Gospel to a formulation of “following the Roman road” (a tool designed to lead people to helpful verses concerning salvation in the book of Romans) or a billboard that reads “Obey Acts 2:38” may be helpful in some instances, but eventually these formulations put the intellect and ability of man at the center of the salvation story.  The focus should be on the magnificent, glorious gift of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

“The only plan of Scripture has God at the center and not man.”

Put another way, if one is smart enough to follow the plan, then what are we to make of Paul’s declaration in Ephesians 2:8-9? “For by grace are ye saved through faith and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works lest anyone should boast.” If it is according to a plan, then I should be commended for my ability to obey the plan. There would be a place for my boasting. But God’s plan is not about me, it is all about Jesus. The only plan of Scripture has God at the center and not man. 

Consider Ephesians 1:4-6 “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:  Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” It was God who purposed in Himself before the foundation of the world to save us. So may our words echo those of the Apostle in Galatians 6:14; “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” My liberty was secured in Christ. 

Thank God that salvation is not based on intellect that  would exclude some, nor is it based on talent, money or ability, which would exclude many. Salvation is based solely on what Christ has accomplished, according to God’s plan, not ours!  In this liberty we should rejoice. As Jesus declared in John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” 

Who I am and am not. Navigating middle age identity.

A few weeks ago, I amused myself when I spent entirely too long looking for my glasses, through the lens of the very glasses for which I was diligently searching. The lesson I learned was this, often what I’m looking for is something I already possess. The difficulty is discerning what I do indeed already possess and what is only a perception. A perception I have cultivated faithfully for most of my life. 

As I write this, The United States, along with the rest of the world is in an economic downturn as the result of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Pundits and politicians are on television lamenting the need for people to return with confidence to work, earning wages to then consume on products, goods, and services. It seems our existence has been reduced to one critical vocation, consumer. In capitalistic systems we exist to consume, and when we don’t the system collapses. The issue with this, is that we are far more complex, far more valuable, far more intricate, than a reduction to a mere consumer would imply. Unfortunately, this consumer identity has become entangled with how we see ourselves, with relational and spiritual implications as well.

I am certainly not immune to this identity crisis, and particularly struggle as a man to figure out exactly how it is I am to behave and navigate this thing called culture. My Father modeled hard work and stoic resolve along with loyalty and care for his family. But most of what I’ve learned about being a man, I picked up from a collection of books, movies, and other men. And still, on most days, I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. And now here in a new adolescence of middle age, it is an especially difficult time of abstraction and uncertainty. Existential lostness stalks me, forever just a step or two behind, and occasionally face to face. In this strange time when everything is now in the shadows, rendering everything gray, I find that even the dependent landmarks of my faith have been obscured by the thickness of cultural frondescence. 

In 1961, the Detroit Industrial Mission (DIM) published a provocative essay titled Work: Curse or Joy? This was a group of well-meaning Christians that wanted to evangelize the assembly lines of Detroit’s motor row. What they discovered is that most of the people employed by these jobs were very unhappy in them, and felt as if they were detrimental to their spiritual wellbeing. Before publishing the finished product, the DIM pointed out that “the combination of a rigidly moralistic and ‘otherworldly’ religion combined with deadening labor to retard and cripple the spirit of most workers. The DIM articulated this connection in startling terms: “The moralist God and the factory system are one and the same.” 

“The religious background of most of the men around us is that of the southern sect groups. A few have behind them old world Catholicism. Most are estranged in one way or another from this background…they have good reason for leaving it…the religion with which [many workers] are deeply imbued and from which they have fled but not escaped is the religion of merit, of holiness in moralistic terms, or earned righteousness, of do’s and don’ts, mostly the latter…. The workingman faces the same thing in the work and the religion available to him. God and the factory are one and the same. The man is dominated by them and coerced by them, but he hates them both, because they have refused him his manhood. 

Further they write, “Neither the elements of [the assembler’s] job nor his relationships therein afford him much opportunity to be a man whom others respect and who respects and esteems himself. And so, he attempts to prove his manhood by other means, by drinking the other fellow under the table, by philandering, by success in petty arguments, by violence, by cleverness in gambling. He pathetically tries to prove it by building up his chest and arm muscles, and then by wearing tight T-shirts….When he returns home his wife is reading romance stories concerning actors or statesmen or business and professional men, or watching TV on which a factory worker never appears as hero and rarely as an extra…he is nothing –he is not even a man…at the plant he is basically a statistic, at home a shadowy figure in the chair watching TV with his beer bottle  beside him…But Father and Man he is not.” 

He is reduced. Less than what he was intended. A reflection of the very parts he assembles. Everything in his life teaches him this, including his religion, which is simply a moralistic checklist of rules. Rules which do not impart wisdom, rules that define life but do not produce it. 

Karen Swallow Prior writes beautifully about such a man in her analysis of the Tolstoy novel The death of Ivan Ilyich. Prior observes, “His life was markedly characterized, in fact, by decorum, a standard that, by definition, is based on surface appearances determined by ever changing and fickle taste and manners…His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional. As the most famous line from the novel says, ‘Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore, most terrible.’”

On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior

Prior points out, “There is perhaps no more apt object of pity than he who thinks himself exceptional but turns out to be merely ordinary. The tragedy, of course, is not in failing to be exceptional but in the greater loss of rejecting the glories of everyday gifts.” In the end Ivan Ilyich is forced to ask himself the fundamental question with which we must all reckon, “What if my whole life has been wrong?” A question that occupies my mind today. In the end will those that I have traveled with on this journey of life, be more grieved by the inconvenience of expressing condolences, or will they be grieved by my loss. The answer to this question is what I believe to be the secret of life. A question that I cannot yet answer with any degree of confidence. 

I know what I think of myself. It fluctuates with my choices, my thoughts, my feelings. What I cannot account for is what others feel about me. Perhaps that is forever beyond my control? Perhaps I should relegate those desires to the sphere of the unknowable, a business with which I should not occupy myself. And perhaps I should not expend so much energy on attempting to influence what others think of me?

I know that I’m more than a consumer. I know that I’m more than what I do, than what I produce. I am more than my education. I am more than my roles as husband, father, professor. I am more than my experiences. I am more than my history. I am even more than my faith. But what is the more? 

Perhaps my eye glasses prescription needs to be updated?

Beale Street Christians. My Memphis Music influences.

In 1983, I was a twelve-year-old adolescent, getting ready to enter junior high in Gosnell, Arkansas. Gosnell is a rural community sixty miles north of Memphis, Tennessee on the other side of the Mississippi River just below the Missouri boot heel. Missouri was within walking distance of our farm house, where everything was flat, including our finances. We were flat broke. 

I was the youngest of four children and ten years removed in age from my closest sibling, my sister. So, by the time I could notice anything like pop culture, it was just me and my imagination, and the three Memphis broadcast channels we could watch on television, four if you counted PBS, which no one watched, other than Sesame Street and perhaps the occasional episode of Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. And of course, these stations were only available via antenna if the atmospheric conditions were exactly right. Many of my childhood opportunities to watch television were missed due to the fact that my Dad would make me go outside and adjust the antenna for his optimal viewing pleasure. This also required me to remain outside as my body became part of the apparatus required to maintain the quality picture. And by quality, I mean slightly less static, lines, and optical “snow” than what we were generally accustomed to when watching television. It was Delta technology at its finest. Often, we didn’t watch television as much as we listened to television and mentally conjured the images in our heads. 

But what I lacked in T.V. was made up for by the radio. As I remember it, when my sister left home she left me a wonderful record player with a built in am/fm radio receiver and two magnificent speakers. It was on this radio that I discovered something that dramatically redefined my youth. It was a fledgling radio station emanating out of Memphis that played a type of music I had never heard. Granted I grew up in a religious household where we attended a small conservative Pentecostal church, so my exposure to secular music was limited to a Saturday evening viewing of Hee-Haw and the occasional references I picked up on at school. I knew who Elvis was, but beyond that really not all that much. 

But on this radio station I heard an emerging genre known as Contemporary Christian Music, but to me it was Rock-n-roll music that talked about Jesus. I was immediately energized by the music and simultaneously slightly guilt stricken as I somehow imagined that maybe I shouldn’t be listening to this. When my larger religiously influenced world began to discover this music they sought to reinforce my guilt. They called it “Jesus Rock” and it was not meant as a complement. But I kept listening and was inspired by what I heard. I was an original “Rebel for God.” I quickly identified my favorite band. Hands down, it was the Memphis duo “DeGarmo and Key.” The first song I remember hearing by them was “Blessed Messiah”, a mellow ballad about the deity of Christ. I was blown away and I was hooked. Upon reflection, I’m convinced that if D&K had researched a target demographic they would have been handed a picture of me. I found a way to purchase every album they produced from the 1983 LP “Communication” to the 1994 CD “To Extremes” and I even attended several live concerts when they played in Memphis.

It is hard to overestimate the influence of this band on my faith and identity during my teen years. The night I met my future wife at a youth service, I was attempting to sing “Casual Christian”, when she got into my car I pumped the volume of the latest D&K tune and she promptly told me I was going to hell for listening to them. But she wasn’t the only one. I remember hearing entire sermons dedicated to the evil of Jesus Rock music which seemed to be conveniently preached right after I would return from a D&K concert. I found this odd, as I exclusively listened to Contemporary Christian Music without compromise, and I knew that most of our youth group and perhaps their parents were secretly listening to the secular songs of our generation. I would contemplate, “How is it that I was wrong for listening to people boldly sing about Jesus?” I was not deterred, I pressed forward, after all tunes like “Don’t stop the music” and “Destined to win” inspired me onward. 

Dana Key and me

I would spend a lot of energy enthusiastically telling my youth group and peers at school about my experiences at D&K concerts as I was an early evangelist for their music. But most of all my heart was gripped by the message of the songs. I started carrying a Bible to junior high and wearing Jesus T-shirts and sharing my faith with anyone who would listen. It is a wonder that I survived to see High School. But I did. I was so inspired by this music that I found every way that I could to share it. I wasn’t a musician or a singer, although I tried without any success. But I did approach my local skating rink and convinced them to hire me as their exclusive Christian Music DJ. I would spin and mix my DeGarmo and Key records with skill and excellence and I learned to skate pretty well too! Of course, it wasn’t without controversy, as on one occasion my Pastor censored which records I could play, that was a mellow night of skating mediocrity. But I pressed on. 

And then because of DeGarmo and Key, my musical world changed again in 1989, when at their concert we were all introduced to dcTalk. My.mind.was.blown. What followed were several years of continued misunderstanding at the church where I attended and served as a youth leader for a time. My records continued to be censored, and there was at least one church board meeting convened to discuss my turning out lights, putting drums on a table, and playing “Let’s get upset” as loud as I could get it. The youth of our church were mesmerized but the adults were not amused. Now some three decades later, it is difficult to find a Christian radio station that doesn’t play Contemporary Christian Music, it’s harder still to find a Christian station that doesn’t have a TobyMac song playing, all of which would not have been possible without men of vision and courage like DeGarmo and Key. Perhaps that is a bit hyperbolic. But for this adolescent Bible nerd coming of age in the 1980s, these guys made me feel “cool” and that is huge considering my faith was strengthened and not weakened during my youth. This was in no small way due to the influence of this Memphis based Christian Rock band.

I was thrilled to read Eddie’s book “Rebel for God: Faith, Business, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It arrived yesterday afternoon and I finished it tonight. All 352 pages. (That includes the acknowledgements.) I could not put it down! I found this an easy and insightful read which filled in the details of the soundtracks of my youth. It was also so inspiring to read about how faith in Christ and commitment to a cause motivates people to do extraordinary acts in pursuit of their callings. When I was at one of those D&K concerts in my youth, I remember passing Eddie DeGarmo in a hallway after the show, I wasn’t brave enough to speak, although I do remember thinking “this guy is a little shorter than I thought.” I once even called their booking agency attempting to convince them to come play at my High School. The nice woman on the other end of the line informed me that they did expect to get payed for the appearance, I was disappointed, but to echo Eddie’s voice in the book, “How many kids can say they talked with DeGarmo and Key’s booking agent? I can!” 

As I got older, I once stood in line to meet Dana Key at a solo appearance and he signed a CD, and was kind enough to accept a CD my wife had produced, I don’t know that he ever listened to it, but it was a thrill to give it to him. In 2007 during a difficult time in my marriage I drove to Memphis, and attended the church Dana was pastoring as D&K had stopped touring by that time. Pastor Dana Key was gracious enough to speak and pray with me afterwards. It was an encouraging moment in a discouraging time. Thankfully our marriage survived, but sadly Dana died unexpectedly in 2010.

But the legacy of DeGarmo and Key continues. In “Rebel for God” Eddie shares the details of how living intentionally can have long lasting impact. In every song Eddie wrote and played with his lifelong friend Dana they ministered to me and pointed me to Jesus. I felt “Accepted” and found the courage to “Dare to be different.” The music they produced still provides inspiration to me and so many others like me. After D&K, Eddie continued to influence the world for Christ. The artists Eddie signed, the music Eddie got published, the path he forged made a difference for this Arkansas kid. 

Now I teach and coach young people in collegiate debate at a private university in the Midwest. The highlight of one of our first trips together was introducing these kids to the music of DeGarmo and Key. Later at a gas stop, I returned to the van to the familiar tune “Boycott Hell” being played loud and proud in my honor. It is now a debate team road trip tradition. “We’ve got a job to do/running out of time to do it/You’ve got a gift to use/Get out in the world and use it/Bury your foolish pride/We’ve got to unionize/Hey don’t you think it’s time to Boycott Hell.” Indeed. 

How this musical helps me manage my grace allergies.

During the holiday season, my family and I love to watch the latest film adaptation of the classic musical Les Misérables.  The work based on the novel by Victor Hugo, is a profound story of grace and redemption.  

The story follows the lives of two men: Valjean, the criminal seeking redemption, and Javert, the man of the law. Through the lives and interactions of these two men, the evident themes of law/grace and justice/mercy emerge in a picture of God’s redemptive plan.At the beginning of the movie, there is a striking scene where Valjean, still imprisoned under the watchful eye of his guard Javert, is ordered to retrieve a French flag attached to a massive beam. Javert gives the command “Retrieve the standard!” and Valjean, with his head down, complies. With sheer tenacity of will, Valjean lifts the standard onto his back and delivers it at the feet of Javert. Valjean is then freed to a life of poverty and destitution due to the weight of his past crimes continually hanging over his head. 

Providence will bring the lives of Valjean and Javert together many times in a clear contrast of how different people respond to grace. In the end, Javert’s devotion to the law will destroy him. He becomes entangled in a web of paradox because of mercy shown to him by Valjean and his legal obligation to bring the fugitive to justice. 

Like Valjean and Javert, we too have been invited to embrace grace. But only through the intervention of Christ and his gospel will we escape the fate of Javert. The depravity of our heart is revealed in two directions: a disdain of God’s law resulting in rebellion or an obsession with God’s law resulting in self-righteous and self-deception. The law with its many demands is spelled out in detail throughout the Old Testament, with attached promises for those who obey and assigned curses for those that do not. The natural disposition of our hearts is to choose to do that which is evil, because as Paul describes us in Ephesians 2:1-2, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience.” 

Because of our constant disobedience, even our attempts at righteousness become futile and empty exercises. Like Valjean, when we will ourselves to lift the “standard” of the law it only rewards us with a shallow liberty, knowing that the best we can hope for is a life on the run, in fear that eventually our “sin will find us out.” And like Javert, our hearts cling to the false hope that adherence to the law will free us from the inconsistencies of our own souls. 

As Tullian Tcividjian writes, “For Javert (as with all of us), the logic of law makes sense… It makes life formulaic. It breeds a sense of manageability. And best of all, it keeps us in control. We get to keep our ledgers and scorecards. The logic of grace, on the other hand, is incomprehensible to our law-locked hearts. Grace is thickly counter-intuitive. It feels risky and unfair. It’s dangerous and disorderly. It wrestles control out of our hands…we are, by nature, allergic to grace.” 

The message of Les Misérables is the gospel message. It is a message of grace contrasted with the demands of the law – demands that were satisfied by the death of Christ on the cross. It is a message of new life extended to those who believe through Jesus’ glorious resurrection. 

Brokenness and Mercy

My brokenness informs my capacity for mercy. Without it I judge others without considering my own need to be made whole. Contemplating my own brokenness, I am reminded of these passages from a wonderful book I read a few years back.

Bryan Stevenson tells the story in Just Mercy, about the particularly trying moment after the Supreme Court of the United States had denied a stay of execution to Jimmy Dill. Dill had been convicted of murder after his victim had been shot in a botched drug deal. The victim initially lived and was transported to a local hospital. After some time, the victim was released and Dill was charged with assault and attempted murder. Shortly thereafter, the victim was abandoned by his caretaker and died of causes unrelated to the shooting wound. Dill’s charges were upgraded to first degree murder and he was sentenced to Alabama’s death row.

Finally, the word came that all of Stevenson’s appeals on behalf of Dill had been exhausted and that Jimmy Dill would be executed that very evening. Stevenson writes, “For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger…In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice. I looked at my computer and at the calendar on the wall. I looked again around my office at the stacks of files. I saw the list of our staff, which had grown to nearly forty people. And before I knew it, I was talking to myself aloud: ‘I can just leave. Why am I doing this?’ 

“I do what I do because I’m broken, too. My years struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.” 

“Thomas Merton said: We are bodies of broken bones. I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion. We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.” (Excerpts from Just Mercy 288-289)