Feeding pigs but not eating with them.

There is an interesting detail in the story commonly referenced as the Prodigal Son as told by Jesus. The rebellious younger son found himself in a far-off land and when he had exhausted all of his inheritance on “prostitutes and riotous living” he was forced to accept a job feeding pigs. And at one point his situation became so desperate that he was tempted to eat what he was feeding the swine. It was at this point that “he came to himself” and decided to return to his Father’s house with no guarantee that he would be accepted, but only that his circumstance couldn’t be worse than having to eat pig food. 

Like the Prodigal Son, I have fed pigs. When I was young, my Dad raised them, and occasion I fed them. It was a fascinating process. 

There are several things that I remember about feeding pigs. First, they stink. There is a distinctive smell that accompanies hogs in general, which is further heightened by the unique aromas emanating from their feed trough. I also remember that when the food was dispensed, the pigs congregated in numbers. And they didn’t as much eat as they inhaled. Imagine a vacuum cleaner that snorts, now imagine a collection of them bumping against one another competing for every morsel of food in the tough and on the ground. The food becomes indistinguishable from the snouts of the pigs. We called the pig food “slop” because that is exactly what and how the pigs ate. It became a verb describing how the hogs ate in addition to being a noun for what they were eating.  

That’s me as a youngster feeding pigs. Photo credit Jimmy Loyd

Now I’m not sure what First Century Middle Eastern pigs may have eaten, but if it was anything like my experiences, it is no wonder that it was in this moment that the young man “came to himself.” 

Have you ever been in a moment where you came to yourself? I don’t know how this read in the original language of the Bible, but it is an interesting turn of phrase in the English language. Sometimes you have to come to yourself, because you’ve been away too long. I know that I’ve found myself in these types of circumstances, chasing distractions to escape the reality of the difficulties of life. At first, I’m living it up with “riotous living.” Another interesting phrase. Riots aren’t descriptive of building up but rather of tearing down. And in the current milieu, I’m reminded that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that riots are the “language of the unheard.” Marginalized people sometimes resort to destructive behavior because they have been ignored for so long. So, in the case of the Prodigal Son, imagine living in a way to be noticed, but in a way that produced any lasting joy. The Text says “He wasted his substance.” As Robert Farr Capon points out, “what the father gave away and what the son wasted was not just some stuff that belonged to them; it was their whole existence, their very being, their lives.”

So, whatever his ultimate motivations may have been, I suspect that this young man pursued a different life because he felt unheard and unseen. And before we demonize him for leaving, how many of us have done the same? We leave a job, a marriage, a friendship, because we perceive that those we love no longer love us, or that what we are giving is unappreciated or unreciprocated.  If love is measured by active attention and shared experience, what happens when we feel that those no longer exist? For some departing to a “far-off land” is the answer. And when this prodigal child pursued riotous living, it led him to a place that he did not intend to go, when he became so hungry that he desired to eat the undesirable in attempt to satiate his appetite. And I don’t write this as a justification or a judgement, simply an explanation of our individual struggles with collective consequences.

As a child, when I fed the hogs, they came in numbers and would not stop eating until the food ran out. If possible, from my observations, the pigs would have eaten themselves to death if the food had not been cut off. Likewise, my appetite for escape, pleasure, distraction is the same. If left to my own appetites, I will destroy myself with my passions. Unbridled appetites lend themselves to the law of diminishing returns. What was once a pleasurable experience becomes a painful pursuit that chases itself into destructive oblivion. 

The Prodigal Son ends up making a bargain with himself, fudging the books a bit, he guesses that although he has forever given up the status of a son, he might be able to earn himself a place as a hired servant. He justifies himself by placing himself on this spectrum of good and bad. A game we often play as well. “I’m not good enough to be in the family, but perhaps I can still earn my keep.” Thankfully, grace isn’t spread across a spectrum based upon our ability to perform. Grace by definition is freely given and never earned. 

The Prodigal comes staggering up the road, but before he makes it home, his father runs to embrace him. In that moment of embrace the son gives up the nonsense of attempting to earn his way back into the father’s good graces, and simply surrenders to the good grace that is abundantly showered upon him. 

Robert Farr Capon is once again helpful here when he writes; “Confession is not medicine leading to recovery. If we could recover -if we could say that beginning tomorrow or the week after next we would be well again -why then, all we would need to do would be apologize, not confess. We could simply say that we were sorry about the recent unpleasantness, but that, thank God and the resilience of our better instincts, it is all over now. And we could confidently expect that no one but a real nasty would say nay. But we never recover. We die. And if we live again, it is not because the old parts of our life are jiggled back into line, but because, without waiting for realignment, some wholly other life takes up residence in our death. Grace does not do things tit-for-tat; it acts finally and fully from the start.” 

Like the Prodigal Son, I’ve wasted life engaging in self destructive behavior. I’ve fed pigs, but because of grace, I don’t have to eat with them. 

A walking contradiction. Me and Johnny Cash.

Artifacts are a function of nonverbal communication that can give us a glimpse into the past, as well as teaching us much about the present. For example, the Johnny Cash family home located in Dyess, Arkansas, gives us insight into how the Cash family lived and worked. A house is more than just a collection of planks and nails divided into rooms and populated by useful and decorative furnishings, rather it is a portal, a time machine of sorts that gives us access to the past. The Mississippi River Delta in Arkansas has a past that is populated by the poor and marginalized, but also a rich heritage of musical influence. Consider that it is in this setting that Johnny Cash thrived as a musician, song writer and artist. Artistry has a way of flourishing in the strangest of circumstances, perhaps it is because in these kinds of settings the fear is taken away. There was very little artistic angst in Dyess, Arkansas, because in this environment of poverty the more urgent fears surrounding daily survival needs took precedent.

Cash lost his brother to a saw mill accident and by Cash’s own admission this radically changed the trajectory of his life. Johnny Cash became troubled by the larger philosophical questions of origins and destinies. In rural Arkansas, there were few institutions that made any attempt to answer these questions and the only one accessible to young Johnny Cash was the church. Johnny accepted Christ by walking from the pew to the pulpit and by doing so became a lifelong devotee of Christ; if not so much his church. Johnny Cash was often called “a walking contradiction” because of his duplicitous lifestyle that was at odds with what the church defined as a holy life. A duplicity that is also reflective of my interactions with the Delta’s brand of Christianity. 

I walked the flat land of Cash’s Delta home. And as I walked around the Dyess Colony/Johnny Cash museum, the artifacts spoke to me. I was reminded of the Scripture from Hebrews 11 that those who have died yet speak. Johnny Cash still lives, not only through his music, but through the legacy he left behind. It was amazing to greet people, literally from all over the world who had a connection to the rural delta of Arkansas through the life and music of Johnny Cash. Johnny was an unlikely entertainer, whose stage presence was often enhanced by his abuse of drugs. But in the ups and downs, twists and turns of his iconic life he never lost touch with his roots of poverty and marginalization. Cash would dedicate his performances to the poor, imprisoned, and broken, wearing black in solidarity with their cause. In many respects, Cash’s story is my own, and as I walked through the museum or on the planks of the Cash boyhood home, the floor creaked with my childhood memories. Memories of endless hot summer days, with but only one trip into town per week. On Sunday, we would go to church and back. This was both a religious and cultural obligation that was spiritually enlightening, and on a good Sunday, entertaining. Johnny Cash had a way of integrating both enlightenment and entertainment into his life and music, leaving a cultural heritage that still speaks profoundly today. 

The life of Johnny Cash, like all lives tells a story. In every good story, there is a hero who faces adversity caused by a villain. The villain is defeated and the adversity is overcome, only with the help of a guide, who gives direction to the hero. When the hero employees the guide’s wisdom, the hero experiences a sense of transformation. This is exactly what happened in the life of Johnny Cash. For Johnny, there were many enemies. But the perennial enemy was poverty. Not because he lived his life in poverty, but because he rose above it and never stopped fighting for those who remained fettered in poverty. But who was the guide? For Johnny, this was also complicated, as there were many people who spoke wisdom into his life. Certainly, the Cash family, father, especially mother served as a guide. But perhaps the greatest guide in Johnny’s life was his brother Jack who died in the saw mill accident. This experience led Johnny to live his life differently. It was after the death of his brother Jack that Johnny chose to commit his life to Christianity, and this religion, with the angelic example of his deceased brother became a source of wisdom and direction, especially in the darkest episodes of his life. 

The life of Cash is a reminder that all of us have a story. Granted, our story may not be as well-known as that of Johnny Cash, but our lives speak nevertheless. For all of us, there is a grand narrative, and although most would find it difficult to explain in these terms, this is our heritage. For Cash, the story has tangible artifacts such as a boyhood home, memorable songs, and gold records. For us, the artifacts may not be as many, but they exist. They exist in the stories we tell each other, the pictures we post on social media, and the legacy we leave behind for our children and grandchildren. It is clear that Cash was not satisfied with all of his legacy. He was known as a “walking contradiction” for exactly this reason. It was difficult for Johnny Cash to reconcile the demons and angels of his existence. This is also a function of heritage, the idea that it can be both positive and negative with different interpretations for subsequent generations. The music, life and legacy of Johnny Cash remains a topic of interpretation as emerging generations discover and appropriate his artistry as their own. 

Among the last recordings of fellow Northeastern Arkansas native, Johnny Cash, is an original song he penned after being awoke from a dream. The Man Comes Around, inspired by the dream and perfected from Cash’s own cultural understanding of the Bible’s book of Revelation, warns of an impending Day of Apocalyptic Judgement, commencing with the second coming of Jesus Christ. In Johnny Cash and the Paradox of American Identity, Leigh H. Edwards writes of Cash’s dream in which he met Queen Elizabeth II, “I walked into Buckingham Palace, and there she sat, knitting or sewing…As I approached, the Queen looked up at me and said, ‘Johnny Cash! You’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind.’ Then of course, I awoke. I realized that ‘Thorn tree in a whirlwind’ sounded familiar to me. Eventually I decided it was biblical, and I found it in the book of Job. From there it grew into a song, and I started lifting things from the book of Revelation.” Edwards offers this observation, “Cash responds to religious codes when he decides this dream is of some portent, and so it haunts him. Yet he claims the authority to inscribe his own personalized version of the Bible and of Christian stories to circulate those imaginings in his music. Although his dream of Queen Elizabeth seems odd and idiosyncratic, it does have links to religion (the divine right of kings and queens?) Cash reflects on how his own Southern rural upbringing and religious training would have influenced his version of the common Queen dream. He pondered the ‘whirlwind’ line for seven years before he realized it was from the Bible. In his Unearthed liner notes, he surmises: ‘My grandfather was a minister and I was brought up reading the scriptures, so I guess I did have it in there somewhere!’ He incorporates that line into his chorus (‘And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree’) to signify another element of confession and mass upheaval occurring on Judgement Day. Cash would later call this song his ‘spiritual odyssey of the apocalypse.’ Most significant about this song is how it both reflects his writerly combination of influences (sacred and secular, faith and intellectual debate) and illuminates Cash as a product of his culture.” 

According to Edwards, the dual religious influences showed up early in Cash’s Christian training. The Baptist Preacher “terrified” him, and the Pentecostals gave him a love for music and instruments. Cash wrote, “It was the songs I was beginning to feel” and the songs enabled him to “communicate with God.” Through these songs Cash communicated a picture of Delta life to the rest of the world. The life and music of Johnny Cash is a reflection of the duplicitous religious culture of the imagined Delta region of the American South. 

As Edwards articulates, “As members of a rural Southern working class carried on Protestant religious practices, their religion offered solace in the face of economic hardship or social marginalization as well as a ritualized, shared cultural convention that spoke to nostalgia for home and tradition.” These themes are communicated in the persona and music of Johnny Cash. Or as Edwards points out quoting writer Nicholas Dawidoff, “Cash’s voice is a metonymy for a certain version of the South: ‘Lodged somewhere between talk and music, his singing is flat and artless and grim, the way the white poverty-stricken South was flat, artless, and grim.’”

The religion served as both symbol of solace and subterfuge in the Delta. For many, including Cash, it is difficult to imagine childhood without the ever-present religious culture, while it simultaneously served as a disguise for sinful underpinnings that supported Delta mores. Cash understood the multiple responsibilities of religion in the imagined South; namely, to provide a venue for genuine expressions of faith for the acolyte, while at the same time plausible alibis for the hypocrite. Two natures that often inhabited the same individual. A truth of duplicity that Cash certainly understood about himself. Consider the marketing of his 1994 release American Recordings that featured Cash in a black long coat, flanked by a pair of dogs.

American Recordings 1994

Cash comments, “You know my album cover with the two dogs on it? I’ve given them names. Their names are Sin and Redemption. Sin is the black one with the white stripe; Redemption is the white one with the black stripe. That’s kind of the theme of that album, and I think it says it for me, too. When I was really bad, I was not all that bad. When I was trying to be good, I could never be all that good. There would be that black streak going through.”

Edwards goes on to observe that “In Cash’s visualization, the sin and the redemption must always contain a part of each other, both within himself and in his music.”

Cash embodies an apologetic that is central throughout the literature of the imagined South, a type of Southern Civil Religion that seeks to provide cover for even the most heinous of crimes, while choosing to believe the best about the intentions of the Southern human heart. This duplicity reminded me of something William Alexander Percy wrote, “We didn’t regard drunkenness and lechery, Sabbath-breaking and gambling as more than poor judgement or poor taste. What we were slow to forgive was hardness of heart and all unkindness. Perhaps we were overstocked with sinners and pariahs and publicans, but they kept the churches in their places and preserved the tradition of sprightliness.” Percy’s word choice is interesting here. The term “sprightliness” has origins in the word “buoyant”. The ability to stay afloat, both literally and metaphorically, was a very real concern for Percy, Cash, and all the inhabitants of the Delta, as the Mississippi River was always threatening to overflow the banks and poverty was perpetually evidenced by not having any money in a bank, or anywhere else for that matter. Us Delta natives find ourselves “treading water” on most days.

I feel an affinity for Johnny Cash. Not just because we share the Delta home. But because I often feel this sense of contradiction. And to make matters worse, I can’t sing. I’m still looking for a way to express the volatility within. Writing words here is a good start I suppose?

Summer reading and the challenges of being an adult.

It’s that time of year again. Every summer I participate in a book club hosted by a colleague of mine. He is kind enough to invite students and others who want to join him in reading and exploring classical and popular literature. I enjoy this very much as it gives me an opportunity to explore literature that I might not otherwise read. When my friend made his annual pitch for others to join him, this was my “tongue in cheek” response.

“I’ll be there again this year. I’ll come with my usual questions with obvious answers, moralizing analysis and the occasional political/sports/historical analogies and commentaries. Generally sharing my revelation that the book (yet to be announced) is really about me and my life experiences. Can’t wait.” I wrote this in jest as a self deprecating commentary on how I have judge myself to have a tendency to dominate conversations that interest me and generally find a way of making them a window into my own self reflection and exploration. But then the book was announced.

We are reading JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I’m only a few chapters in, but this lead character, the sixteen year old Holden Caulfield, seems to be struggling with being heard. Already, on several occasions, he has alluded to the fact that “Nobody listens to me.” I have much to learn about this character and his life. But I can already relate in so many ways. The passive voice with which Holden speaks about himself seems to indicate that he wants to put distance between himself and his actions, which to this point in my reading, aren’t all that exceptional. The guy was the manager for the fencing team, and because he left all the equipment on the subway, the team was forced to forfeit their match. I’ve been a manager. I was the manager for my Jr. High track team. I remember the awkwardness, the self consciousness, of being responsible to a bunch of athletes who knew exactly what they were doing and yet I had no clue!

I wish I could say that awkwardness has disappeared with adulthood. I’m not sure it has? In some respects I much more confident and comfortable now. But in other respects I continue to wonder “What am I suppose to be doing in this world?” I turn fifty next year. I used to think that by now I would have things figured out. In my memories, adults always knew what they were doing. Maybe they were just faking it? Seriously. Anyone else feel like you don’t know what you’re doing in this world?

I read somewhere that the key ingredients to job fulfillment and perhaps life fulfillment are “Purpose, Autonomy, and Mastery.” The idea is that if you awake every morning understanding exactly what your purpose is, and if you have the freedom to pursue it without someone constantly looking over you shoulder, and if you feel that you can become an expert in your field or the “go to person” on your job, then you will experience happiness. I think that this is true to an extent. But the older I get, I’m not so sure happiness is the goal or even if it is attainable in this world. I don’t know what “half of happiness” would amount to? But that is generally how I feel most days. Not an extreme high or an extreme low. Just about half of happy. I’m often passionate. Perhaps annoyingly so. But just nearly always halfway to happy.

Holden Caulfield is helpful here, as he responds to the chastisement of his teacher early in the book. “It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. I don’t give a damn, except that I get bored sometimes when people tell me to act my age. Sometimes I act a lot older than I am -I really do-but people never notice it. People never notice anything.”

If you haven’t noticed it. I’m doing it again. Taking a wonderful book and surmising it is all about me. But I do look forward to gleaning some lessons from Holden Caulfield’s experiences. If indeed any wisdom exist to harvest from this work. If not, perhaps I’ll enjoy the company of others doing the same reading, asking similar questions, and simply listening to me speculate about myself and the state of the world. And perhaps I’ll gain some insight along the way. Or some empathy at the very least. And if that is all I gain on this journey of life, it remains a truly wonderful gift.

The World’s most persuasive skill

The most persuasive skill that anyone can learn doesn’t involve speaking. The skill has nothing to do with the color of the clothes you wear, or if you choose to smile or frown. The most important skill in persuading of others of your point of view, is listening first to their point of view. “Seek first to understand then to be understood.” I tell my students all the time that “You aren’t allowed to disagree with others until you can first articulate their perspective to their satisfaction.” Then and only then are you allowed to disagree with others. Now this is very difficult to do, because our first instinct in persuasion is “sell” our position to another person. This disposition of persuasion often descends into open hostility, especially if the other person is predisposed not to “buy” your arguments. 

Many of us grew up in educational environments that taught us to express ourselves with a very clear premise and then defend that premise with evendetury support in the form of prepositional truths. We build strong defenses into our arguments that fortify our position. But of course, the problem is that these fortified walls that support our dogmas do more to keep others out than inviting them in. On the other hand, listening acts more as a water well that invites others to drink from the deep source of our positions and perspectives. 

When the American West was being settled, ranchers invested in the utility of erecting fences. But these fences had an unintended consequence of making the grazing lands scarce and only available to those who could afford owning the land. When ranchers faced similar issues in the wide-open range of Australia, instead of building a fence, they dug a well. The livestock would remain corralled, not because of the hard and fast boundaries reinforced by fencing, but because someone had the foresight to find a source of water and dug a well. I’m convinced listening has the same effect on those we want to persuade to see things from our perspective. And listening provides the added benefit of transcending the persuasive process and opening our minds and hearts to ideas we perhaps had not considered. 

The world will not be changed by the articulation of dogmatic boundaries, but rather by opening ourselves up to the words and ideas of others by listening. If you want to change the world, instead of building a wall, dig a well.

As best as I can remember

At the end of a gravel road in Arkansas within walking distance of the Missouri state line is Loydsville. The place where my family lives. It isn’t on any map, and it isn’t recognized by any state or federal authority. But it exists. It lives, breathes, and renews itself in my mind and memory every time I visit. Mom and Dad still live there. As does my brother, his wife, and grandchild. My nephew has bought up the other properties and rents out the houses previous owned by my paternal aunt and her daughter. The place is flat. Unexceptional. Without the few houses, it would be just another stretch of rice fields, formerly soybeans, or cotton. But the houses now peak above the flooded plain. 

My brother had this sign posted at the end of the gravel road. Unofficial entrance Loydsville.

Like any other community, it has evolved. The land has been cleared, planted, harvested, flattened, raised, broken, and healed. The land has served as a source of shelter and substance. It has witnessed new arrivals and a few departures. Generations of the Loyd family replenishing itself, perpetuating legacies of love, giving, and perseverance. 

This is the Loyd story from the perspective of someone who lived there. Me. I’m the youngest son of James and Helen Loyd. My mother gave birth to me in her fortieth year. According to my mother, I was my Dad’s idea, as she was perfectly content with the three children she had. I was the third son, and fifth child. Before my sister was born my parents lost a child, a girl, to a crib death. Then eventually I came along. I’m grateful that my mother and father were not so discouraged by their grief, that they quit trying to add lift to their world. An admirable lesson in persevering even in the most difficult of circumstances. 

In attempt to understand myself, it is important to understand my family of origin. Like most children reflecting on our biological underpinnings, there are significant portions of my family history that I wholeheartedly embrace as my own, as it strongly resonates with my current trajectory. Likewise, there are many events and memories that put me at odds with where my family is today. I think all of us understand these feelings. A sense of belonging and understanding is what we want, what we desire, what we seek in the boundaries of our families. We find this, to greater or lesser degrees depending on the circumstance. 

Unless mired in dysfunction, which all of us can relate to at least in relative terms, we desire for our family experiences to be rooted in kindness. Kindness, as Karen Swallow Prior points out, “rightly understood, can include all sorts of disagreeableness. Kind comes from the same root from which we get the word of kin. To be kind, then, is to treat someone like they are family. To possess the virtue of kindness is to be in the habit of treating all people as if they were family…If kindness means treating someone like family, then kindness must include all the varieties of ways that family members show love for one another through the entire rage of circumstances, conditions, and situations they find themselves in. Sometimes loving a family member requires gentleness. Sometimes toughness. Often forbearance. Always honesty and truth.” 

Honesty and truth are difficult to come by for some families. I get that. If we revealed the truth about all of our disappointment and pain, and were honest about all of the difficulties that still plague us today, for some, it would mean that there might be very little to celebrate. But we should celebrate. We should intentionally seek the good. We have to look for joy while it may be found. 

And perhaps in attempting to understand, in the act of remembering itself is where we find the solace that we seek. The joy we want to celebrate. In the lives, faces, eyes of those who share our name, our origin, perhaps we can catch a glimpse of our future. I’m convinced that God doesn’t reveal much if anything of our futures to us, because if He did, none of us would do anything out of fear. We would live in the paralysis of fear, rather than in the hope of faith.  So we continue to meander along, groping for what is next, like we are in some darkened closet searching for a splinter of light that may illuminate the entry way into a different reality. Our past informs our present. Our present creates our future. 

And as “Beloved children we become imitators of God.” (Ephesians 5:1)  

More white than Christian?

John Perkins has observed, “Something is wrong at the root of American evangelicalism. I believe we have lost the gospel -God’s reconciling power, which is unique to Christianity -and have substituted church growth. We have learned how to reproduce the church without the message.”

White evangelicals, we have a problem. We have been for some time. In Christian terms, repentance is in order! But it seems many white Christian leaders are far more interested in mere talk rather than taking real actions to answer the call of the Black and Brown image bearers of God that continue to cry in streets for justice. Many white Christian pastors have been content with addressing this once or twice in their pulpits, or inviting a prominent Black Christian to have a conversation and a show of humility that is often empty symbolism. This has been exhibited by prominent Christian pastors in the last few weeks. Awkward and embarrassing moments followed. In an effort to be seen as doing something, a meeting, a gesture, a moment is produced. But the moments fall far short of what is needed. What is needed is a real examination of the history of the American Church in complicity with the racism that has been institutionalized. 

There are some Christian leaders who suggest that now is no time for politics. But it comes off as a bit duplicitous, to suggest that now, when marginalized people are crying in the streets for justice, we should “shut up and preach the gospel.” 

As Eliza Griswold points out in thNew Yorker“In the United States, evangelicalism has long been allied with political conservatism. But under Trump’s Presidency right-wing political rhetoric has become more openly racist and xenophobic. In evangelical circles, hostility toward people of color is often couched in nostalgia for the simpler days of nineteen-fifties America. “Sociologically, the principal difference between white and black evangelicals is that we believe that oppression exists,” Harper said, citing a nationwide study of Christians from 2000 called Divided by Faith. “A lot of white evangelicals don’t believe in systemic oppression, except lately, under Trump, when they’ve cast themselves as its victim.” To Harper, the 2016 election revealed the degree to which white evangelicals were “captive” to white supremacy. “They’re more white than Christian.” 

It seems we are at a moment in history when things may change. I temper my optimism because I understand the depths of intrenched racism in our Nation. And the Christian Church is in a powerful place to bring about real change. But as long as we continue to just align ourselves with only right wing political causes, we will fail this generation. If when others of a different political persuasion cry out for help and we opt for simply “preaching the gospel” we do a disservice to the very gospel we claim to proclaim. Because the gospel will change hearts, but institutional and systems remain. So a wholistic approach demands that the gospel of Christ address the needs of hearts and institutions. We can and should do both.

I absolutely believe that Jesus is the answer for the world. It is because I believe that He is the answer, I continue to speak up. I certainly believe Jesus would. The gospel has implications for every aspect of our lives, not just the hereafter. So if we are indeed the body of Christ then we should be active in seeking to bring about reconciliation. This starts with listening to those who are crying out. We shouldn’t dismiss them. We shouldn’t project our own thoughts and ideas upon them. We should listen, learn, and change. 

In this moment, we all feel the growing pains of change. But in the excitement of the moment we must realize that we still have much work to do. External change may come quickly and I pray that it does. But that does not excuse me from continuing to do the daily work on my heart and mind. 

As Tish Harrison Warren points out in Liturgy of the ordinary, “My subculture of evangelicalism tends to focus on excitement, passion, and risk, the kind of worship that gives a rush. Eugene Peterson calls this quest for spiritual intensity a consumer driven ‘market for religious experience in our world.’ He says that ‘there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness. Religion in our times been captured by a tourist mindset…. We go to see a new personality, to hear a new truth, to get a new experience and so somehow to expand our otherwise humdrum life.” 

We cannot be mere tourist, standing on the sidelines as the world changes. In the spirit of Jeremiah 29, we must “seek the peace of the city.” In order to achieve that peace we must first recognize the depth of the problems.

The world is watching. History is being recorded. The questions remains will be become the change the world needs? 

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A Doorkeeper for the “Fierce Urgency of Now.”

We are living in a historic time for our Nation. It is very easy for many to sit back and watch. But the times demand more than just our words, it is time to take very real actions. Actions may include marching in the streets, voting, challenging the racism or apathy you see displayed in others. But I do know this; the time for waiting is over. History is being made. We will either be counted among those who opposed the change that is coming or involved in ushering in the change that is here. I want to be an usher for this new generation of leaders that is walking through the door of what Dr. King described as “the fierce urgency of now.”

My actions are informed by my Christian faith. But from wherever your motivation comes to help others and bring justice, I know there is room! Join us! I find inspiration from this passage in the Bible as I look to Jesus as my Master and guide. I love this! In the past the Scripture was misused as a defense of enslaving others, but now in the liberty of God’s grace I choose to view it as empowering us to answer the call of the moment. “… don’t just do the minimum that will get you by. Do your best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you’ll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance. Keep in mind always that the ultimate Master you’re serving is Christ. The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t cover up bad work.” -Colossians 3:23-24 MSG

I’m very good at doing the minimum sometimes, to just get by. “Winging it” is derived from the theater, it is the idea of an actor on the stage that forgets their lines, so others from the wings will tell them what to say. I wonder how many of us just wing it at life? Listening to voices who don’t even occupy our stage. Here’s the thing. Someone who isn’t in your production shouldn’t be telling you what to say, think, or do. God has given all of us a voice, and we should listen to the voice. One of the reasons I think that we choose to “Wing it” is because we fear that we have nothing to say. But we have lots to say, and much to contribute. God wants to speak to us and He wants to speak through us.

Notice that the Scripture challenges us to “Keep in mind,” this means that our lines on the stage of life must be intentional. If we are going to live life on purpose, it starts with a guarding of our minds. When we control what is going on between our ears we will control what is going forth from our lives. The mind is the production studio for the soul. God intends for us to become a tool to be used in His hand, and not merely the instrument of our own welding. God challenges us to think and to act. To listen and to speak. To pray and to move. This is the power of intentionality. 

So, this is my life, my stage. This is my production, God is the playwright. But I’m not the star. I want to introduce you to the ones who are doing the real work and making a real difference in the world. When I’m willing to walk off that stage so that others can shine in the spotlight will determine whether or not it is blockbuster or a bust. I want people to see Jesus in me. I want them to know Him, to love Him, to cherish Him. That is my personal motivation.

But as I join with others, I want to tap into the collective energy of this moment. My motivation is simple, whoever you are, if you are advocating for justice, change and a brighter future for all, I just want you to shine! Just shine!

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A Fair Critique of my “Letter to Roy.”

I have been overwhelmed at the response to my Letter to Roy. The responses have been overwhelming as many people of color see themselves in the experiences of my friend that I describe. But to be clear, not all of the responses have been positive. Some have pointed out that although my sentiment may be genuine, at times it smacks of insincere opportunism further exploiting the black body of my friend. This was certainly not my intention, but I believe it is a fair critique.

Those of us who enjoy the privilege our white skin affords us in this systemically racist system are clumsy at best and still covertly racist at worst in our attempts to repent of the personal and collective sins of our white supremacy. I have a lot of work to do!

As I mentioned in my letter Roy and I drifted apart as adults. I take full responsibility for this. He joined the military and died at far too young of an age which was unrelated to his military service. Some have pointed out the insensitive nature of parts of my letter, which I certainly recognize. I wanted to acknowledge their voices here. I have been inundated with messages and request, so if I have missed some of the other folks offering critiques I apologize.

I have spent a lifetime learning. In the last ten years I have focused specifically on shedding myself of white privilege. I still have a great deal of work to do, as my efforts have been mostly centered on listening to friends and being active on social media. There are far better voices than mine that need to be heard. Listen to them.

This is my commitment to learn, grow, change, repent and act. I need to think seriously about what I intend to do, because simply speaking up isn’t enough. I need to rethink how I spend my money, invest in my students, and serve others, especially those in the black community.

This particular critique from Drew John Ladd was particularly powerful. Thank you Drew and all the other dissenting voices in response to my letter. I invite you to watch his response in its entirety. And then watch here what happened next. You will be amazed. Also consider supporting Drew and his work.

Listen, learn, and do better.

I still have much work to do.

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What is July 4th to a slave?

The Fourth of July holiday is a day set aside to celebrate the independence we enjoy as Americans, but that Independence was not always enjoyed by every American. In fact on July 5th, 1852, Frederick Douglass made a powerful speech exposing the hypocrisy of asking a slave to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who became a symbol of freedom as he was paraded around the country by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on speaking tours. Douglass was an effective spokes person because of the education and natural abilities he possessed. As one biographer observed, “As a youngster, he learned to read and write. He purchased a copy of The Columbian Orator, a popular anthology of rhetorical masterpieces that Douglass used the same way it was used in the schools…Douglass’ rich voice, handsome physique and superb command of the English language gave him the attributes which ordinarily would make a speaker very persuasive, but these same qualities made some of his early listeners doubt that he was a fugitive slave”. Douglass’ credibility was strengthened by the publishing of his book, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. It is against this backdrop that Douglass gives his speech on July 5th 1852.

The historical impact of this speech is measured by not only its effectiveness when it was given but by its lasting significance. Coupled with the speeches of others, this speech gave a visible symbol to the American people of what an educated black man could accomplish. Together with the mounting rhetoric of the abolitionist movement, it was these ideas which eventually led to the Civil War, and the emancipation of the slaves.

I find it interesting to notice that during his speech, Douglass employed the language of liberty to expose the hypocrisy of slavery, often citing scripture to leverage his point, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” This quote from Psalm 137, written while Israel was in exile is descriptive of a people who do not live up to their destiny. Douglass was pointing out like Israel of old, America was not living up to the greatness of her potential.

As Douglass goes on to point out, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

It is obvious that America has not always lived up to the great principles of life, liberty, and justice for all. But thanks to people like Frederick Douglass and others, these principles are now embraced by all. I wonder how many times, like America, the church has not lived up to our calling. I think that perhaps our Sunday services are sometimes testimonies to our hypocrisy rather than our worship. I think we should all answer a few questions, why do we come to church? Are we Christians by culture or commitment? And what to a slave of sin is a Sunday morning service at any church in town? The sad commentary is that many of us have become consumers of the latest gospel products rather than culture changing, world changing catalyst that Christ intended for us to become. We have forgotten that our mandate was to go to all the world with the gospel, not to all the pews. When we do come together it should serve to remind us that there are still “slaves” who are waiting to be liberated, Christ commissioned us to do this, it our manifest destiny.

The good news is just as America continues to make progress toward the ideas embodied in “The Declaration of Independence” the church can continue to embrace the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This Fourth of July, lets celebrate not only our freedom as Americans, but as Christians, and let us reach out to all of those who have yet to experience liberty in Christ.

Learn better. Do better.

As a white evangelical my relationships to people of color is complicated. My religious heritage is one that told black people they were equal in Christ, but everything about how we actually lived our lives in relationship and community said otherwise. 

Consider that in my white church I was told the following at different times in my life:

  • I shouldn’t ever consider dating anyone outside of my race because a.) “The bible forbids it.” Or b.) “Even though the bible doesn’t forbid it, it is difficult culturally to explain and navigate.” 
  • I heard black people described in terms of their conformity to white culture as “they’re not really black.” While others that refused to conform were described as “divisive and uncooperative.” 
  • When we would bring children to church from the black community there were many voices that protested “They are disrespectful!” “They don’t know how to act in God’s house.” “They are taking away from our own kids.” 
  • “Rap music has no place in the church.” I even once had my Christian rap albums confiscated by church leaders. 

What’s disturbing is that I was often complicit in perpetuating these philosophies. For far too long I supported church leaders that often used the n-word and embraced these kinds of beliefs. The black community was condemned as culturally inferior to the white community and often identified as the reason for the crime and poverty in our Arkansas Delta town. 

I recall one conversation that I had with a black couple attending our church. The context was the LA riots after the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. I was pontificating on “Why are these black folks burning and looting their own community!?” My friends who were from LA patiently endured my racist diatribe, until my dear sister in Christ went off on me. “Scot! You have no idea the rage and anger of black people!” I was put in my place quickly. To my dear sister I am sorry I caused you this pain. I was wrong. I was wrong for a long time. You were right. You were justified in your anger in response to my white arrogance. 

I’m reminded of the words of Dr. King: 

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” 

In spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause, and with deep moral concern, serve as the channel through which our just grievances would get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed. I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshippers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, “follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern.”, and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular. 

So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.” 

Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Letter From The Birmingham Jail”
April 16, 1963

When we learn better, we should do better. This is my attempt.