Charlottesville Wake-Up Call

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I first expressed the following bullet-points following the actions of domestic terrorist and white supremacist Dylan Roof in Charleston, South Carolina. Many were calling the murders of the African Americans who had gathered for a Bible Study at the Mother Emanuel Church “a wake-up call.” I have heard the same expression used this weekend following the white supremacists who gathered to spew their hate in Charlottesville. What happened? Did we fall back asleep? It is way past time for America, especially the church in America, to stop hitting the snooze button, stop closing our eyes to ignore the racism and bigotry has been emboldened in our country today.  It is way past time to wake up, rise up, stand up, and speak out, as intolerance cannot be tolerated.

  • We must wake up to the reality that racism is not only a wound from our country’s past, but it is a deadly virus that still plagues us today. White preachers, including myself, have been too often afraid to even use the word “racism” from our pulpits for fear of “stirring things up,” as if we might reignite some fire that was put out in the 1960’s, or at least by 2008 when we elected our first black president. We must wake up and boldly call this evil by name and condemn the racism that is ablaze today, in all of its current manifestations: personal racism; systemic racism; political; and the subtle racism that is prevalent in our homes, in the workplace, in the marketplace, in government, and even in the church, for Jesus could not have been more clear when he said: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

 

  • We must wake up to the reality that hatred in this country is being defended by people who are calling it “religious freedom.” In America, we believe all people are created equally; therefore, “religious freedom” never means the freedom to discriminate. Slave-owners used the same religious-freedom arguments in the nineteenth century to support slavery. Today, we do not tolerate people who want to own slaves, nor should we tolerate anyone who wants to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

 

  • We must wake up to the reality that many who cry out that they want to “Make America Great Again” loath what makes our country great today, that is, our cultural, ethnic, religious and racial diversity. We need to boldly speak out that it is this diversity that makes us look most like the image of God in which we were created. This diversity also looks like the portrait of heaven we find in the book of Revelation: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9). We must wake up to voice our opposition to the purveyors of fear, some who are even calling people bear more arms “to take our country back.” Furthermore, we must wake up to stop folks mid-sentence when they start reminiscing about going back to the good old days of the 1950’s when “we had prayer in school,” as they are completely disregarding the fact that during this time African-Americans in our country were not only treated as second-class citizens, but were being lynched in trees.

 

  • We must wake up to the reality that the most segregated hours in our country occur on Sunday mornings. We must find ways to build bridges and tear down the walls that we have created that prevent us from worshipping and doing ministry together. To stand against racism, hatred and violence and to stand for social justice and equality for all, we must do it side by side, hand in hand, as one body, one Church, serving one Lord.

Thank You Enid, Oklahoma

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Boomers or Sooners, it doesn’t matter. The people of Enid, Oklahoma possess the same boundless spirit today that settled the Cherokee Strip in the 1893 Land Rush. It is a spirit of possibility, opportunity and welcome.

Soon after I staked my claim here, I inquired about the possibility of bringing an Ainsley’s Angels’ Ambassadorship to Enid. Ainsley’s Angels is a non-profit running group that shares joy and acceptance by including children and adults with special needs (Athlete Riders) in endurance events. However, I was told that the small population of Enid would not be able to support it, and I would need to incorporate a larger city, like Tulsa. They said that I would not be able to raise enough money or recruit enough runners.

Well, they just didn’t know the people of Enid, Oklahoma!

I introduced Ainsley’s Angels to Enid with a 5k in August. Three Angel Runners pushed two Athlete Riders. In September, twenty-one Angel Runners pushed nine Athlete Riders in the Great Land Run 10k.

When our church learned that Sunday was the only day of the week that the food-insecure were not served a free meal in Enid, we suggested recruiting 52 businesses or organizations to prepare and serve one meal a year on Sunday in a nice sit-down restaurant atmosphere from our church’s kitchen. However, some responded by saying that doing this weekly would be unachievable, and we should perhaps aim for once-a-month.

Well, they just didn’t know the people of Enid, Oklahoma!

Today, groups from our high schools, businesses, civic organizations, Vance Air Force Base, and even a group from an assisted-living facility, have volunteered to prepare and serve a Sunday meal to hungry men, women, and children with grace, dignity and love.

When some of my colleagues heard that I was going to publicly stand up and speak out on behalf of the LGBTQ community after the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, I was told that the people of Enid, who live in the conservative Bible Belt, were going to run me out of town.

Well, they just didn’t know the people of Enid, Oklahoma!

After I helped lead a prayer vigil on Enid’s town’s square, the leaders of our church had a meeting and reaffirmed our church’s commitment to be a people of grace and welcome to all God’s children though differing in race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, physical or mental ability, political stance or theological perspective. They said they wanted their pastor to love all of our neighbors, and all means all.

When I told people that I wanted to serve and worship with the African American churches in Enid, someone told me that this would be very difficult, because Enid was still somewhat segregated.

Well, they just didn’t know the people of Enid, Oklahoma!

I have been honored to preach at St. Stephens AME Church on two occasions and to be the Master of Ceremonies at Enid’s Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration. On World Communion Sunday in October, our church was led in worship by the African-American voices of the Southern Heights Community Choir and of the First Missionary Baptist Church. On that day, we renewed our commitment to partner with the larger Church to overcome barriers of race and ethnicity, and we renewed our commitment to social justice by being an anti-racism, pro-reconciling church in our community.

Thank you Enid, Oklahoma for still being a place of boundless possibilities, opportunities and welcome!

I thank God that I got a chance to know you!

Memorial Day and the Gospel

Memorial Day

We Americans are often guilty of trivializing things that are important. Consequently, survivors of loved ones who gave their lives for their country struggle every Memorial Day Weekend, and rightly so. For it can sometimes be difficult to tell if Americans truly know what Memorial Day is about.

Is it about the end of the school year and the beginning of summer? Is it about going to the beach, the river, or the lake? Is it about play golf, having a cookout, or opening the backyard swimming pool? Is it about red-tag sales at the mall or some other self-centered activity?

No, it is about sacrifice. It is about self-denying, self-expending love. It is about men and women giving all that they had to give, for they so loved their country more than self.

Thus, Memorial Day is about honoring those who died for us, and praying for those they left behind. It is also a time to recommit ourselves to those who continue to selflessly fight the evil in our world, evil that seeks to blow up innocent children at a concert without a second thought, and do such evil in the name of God.

May God forgive us for forgetting what this day is all about, or worse, for watering it down.

I am afraid that we have done the same thing to the Christian faith. Consequently, followers of Jesus everywhere struggle every day, and rightly so. For it can sometimes be difficult to tell if Americans truly know what the gospel is about.

Is it about judging and condemning others who believe, live and love differently? Is it about possessing an attitude of arrogance or superiority? Is it about having the right to discriminate and treat others as second class citizens? Is it about banning people of other faiths from our communities? Is it about going to heaven one day or some other self-absorbed venture?

No, it is about sacrifice. It is about self-denying, self-expending love. It is about a God giving all that God has to give, for God so loved this world more than God’s self.

Thus, faith is about honoring a God who died for all, and we do that by loving all of God’s children. It is about recommitting ourselves daily to continue to selflessly fight the evil in our world, evil that seeks to demean, dehumanize and destroy any of God’s children without a second thought, and do such evil in the name of God.

Monday is Memorial Day. May we remember what it is truly about.

And everyday is the day the Lord has made. May we remember how God calls us to live and who God calls us to love, everyday.

Happy Mother’s Day! Without You, I Wouldn’t Be Here

Kissing Mom

Although I love my mother dearly and wished I could be with her this weekend, as a pastor I have never made a big deal out of Mother’s Day during the worship service. I find it silly to give flowers to the oldest mother in the church based solely on the fact that they have outlived the other mothers who are just as cherished, some possibly even more so. And I sometimes find it disturbing to give a gift to the youngest mother who perhaps should have waited until she got her driver’s license before starting a family. And let’s be truthful. There are some people who should not have children, while there are others who would make wonderful mothers, but are prevented from becoming mothers by the unfairness of this fragmented world.

However, there is one way that I believe Mother’s Day can inform and help us this week, as our mothers remind us all of a truth that we too easily forget.

Carson and Sara once made a video slide show for Lori on Mother’s Day. One of the first captions they put in the video summed up the profound essence of what this day means: “Happy Mother’s Day. Without you, we would not be here.”

None of us could do anything, would have anything, or would be anything, and that includes being alive, without mom. And the same can be said about our relationship with God. Without our Heavenly Mother, we can do nothing. We would have nothing. And we would be nothing.

We must never forget that any good thing that as been accomplished has come about as gifts of God’s grace. God is the source of creation. God is the genesis of all goodness. We know what St. Augustine knew long ago; apart from God, no good can come.

Jesus said: “I am the vine. You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them, bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

This is both bad news and good. It is bad news for those who seek to improve the world on their own. The Psalmist knew this: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” But, it is good news for those who are connected to the love of God through Christ. With the power of God flowing through them like sap flowing through a vine, good fruits will develop.

So thank you, Mom, for teaching me this valuable lesson. Without you, I would not be writing these words. And without a connection to a Divine Mother, these words, like life itself, would have no meaning.

Embracing the Grace, Authenticity and Mission of Jesus: Thank You Rev. Speidel

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There is widespread agreement that if a church is to survive this century, then it must do what most churches resist doing. It must change. To avoid joining the thousands of churches that will die by the end of this century, I believe there are three major changes that many churches need to make. 

  1. Churches must wholeheartedly embrace the grace of Jesus.

Jesus prevented religious folks from throwing rocks as sinners, and so should we. Of all of the human organizations on this fragmented planet, the church should be a place where all people are welcomed to join a community of grace, love and forgiveness. Without fear of being judged, bullied, or ridiculed, all people should feel welcomed to come as they are and honestly and openly confess their sinfulness and brokenness, and then receive grace. Then, they should be encouraged to share that same grace with others. I believe all churches should be open and affirming, because a church that follows Jesus has no business being closed and condemning.

  1. Churches must wholeheartedly embrace the authenticity of Jesus.

Some church people have the reputation of being like the people Jesus criticized the most: hypocrites. Therefore, we must stop claiming to follow Jesus on Sunday morning while ignoring everything Jesus taught the rest of the week. This means that blessing the poor, standing up for the powerless, and fighting for those who hunger and thirst for justice should always be our priority. It means loving our neighbors as ourselves, selflessly and sacrificially, no matter the cost.

  1. Churches must wholeheartedly embrace the mission of Jesus.

Jesus never confined his ministry to the Temple or a synagogue. Church people must be willing to move out of the sanctuary into a hurting world. Instead of inviting people to come to church on Sunday, we should be asking people to be the Church everyday by doing the things Jesus did such as: eating and drinking with outsiders, feeding the hungry, welcoming the foreigner, becoming a friend to the oppressed, and being a healing presence for all who need wholeness.

The exceptional leadership that Rev. Shannon Speidel has given to our church as our Associate Minister for the past two years is exactly what we need if we are to continue to be a viable church, as she wholeheartedly embraces the grace, authenticity, and mission of Jesus. I am grateful for the way that her inclusive love for all people, her unwavering passion for social justice, and her bold desire to be the hands and feet of Christ out in the world has challenged us to be the church God is calling us to be.

I am also thankful that she will continue to be in a position to bless Oklahoma as she begins her ministry with the Oklahoma Conference of Churches. Churches across Oklahoma are fortunate to have a leader like Rev. Speidel who possesses the gifts, vision, passion and faithfulness that will help them not only survive, but thrive throughout the 21st century.

Easter People

Welcome Table

The Easter Sunday timing of the Enid Welcome Table’s debut could not have been more appropriate.

The front doors of the church building swung open wide, as guests, some homeless, some extremely impoverished, all hungry, were greeted with smiles and words of welcome. As they walked into the fellowship hall, a host guided them to a table that was beautifully decorated with an Easter-themed table cloth and a spring flower bouquet centerpiece. Soft jazz  played from the sound system adding to the welcoming ambiance.

After the host fulfilled the guests’ drink orders, a waiter approached the table to read the menu that was displayed on the TV monitors in the front of the room. Guests had a choice between pork tenderloin, peel-and-eat Cajun jumbo shrimp, and baked chicken. Sides included sweet potatoes, roasted potatoes, a medley of roasted vegetables, macaroni and cheese, and deviled eggs. Desserts included lemon cake, cherry pie, apple pie and chocolate cupcakes.

The attentive wait staff promptly served the guests with generous portions and while keeping their drink glasses full.

Volunteers who had come to serve, some members of our church, some members of other churches, some members of no church, joined the guests at the tables to share dinner and conversation.

Upon experiencing the extravagant welcome, a genuine welcome devoid of any agenda, strings, or ulterior motives, one of the guests said to a volunteer: “You have made me feel human again.”

“You have made me feel human again.”

Let that sink in.

It was Easter Sunday, and someone said that she felt alive again. It was Easter Sunday, and someone said that she experienced new life. It was Easter Sunday, and someone said that they felt resurrected.

Christians often like to call themselves “Easter People.” However, I am afraid that what that means to many is that they, like Christ, will one day be resurrected to live eternally in heaven. I am afraid the reason some church pews are so full on Easter Sunday is simply because “Easter People” want to remember Jesus’ resurrection and look forward to their own.

However, what if being “Easter People” means something more?

What if the resurrection is not just a gift to remember or a gift to look forward to, but a gift to be experienced now? What if resurrection is a gift to be shared with others today? What if being “Easter People” means that we are people who offer the gift of resurrection to those whose lives have been diminished by the sin and evil in our world? What if being “Easter People means we are called to resurrect those who have been de-humanized by poverty, racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia?

What if being “Easter People” means that we are called to do much more than sit on a pew on Easter to thank God for the promise of God’s kingdom that is coming after the resurrection? What if being “Easter People” means that we are called to get off of those pews to bring the promise of God’s Kingdom that is coming now to those who need resurrection today? This Easter Sunday at Central Christian Church, that is exactly what being “Easter People” meant.

Sunset or Sunrise

Sunset

This picture appeared recently in the Enid News and Eagle. The caption simply read: “Sunset.” However, at first glance, it is difficult to tell if it is a sunset or a sunrise.

As attendance, giving, and baptisms continue to decrease in North American churches, many are asking: “Is the sun setting or rising on the church?”

After posting the picture on facebook and posing the question, “Is it a sunset or a sunrise?” Rev. Dean Phelps, a facebook friend and long-time minister, wisely commented: “It all depends on when we wake up.”

Rev. Phelps was prophetically suggesting that if the church wakes up early, it could be a sunrise. However, if the church wakes up too late, it could be a sunset.

I believe it is a sunset if the church continues to slumber under the covers of the culture. I have called this embracing an “alternative gospel” or a “fake news Jesus.” It is a protective, safe, defensive religion that fears the other, and thus judges, excludes, and condemns the other. It is miserly with mercy, stingy with love, and tight-fisted with grace.

However, I believe it is a sunrise if the church awakes to pull back the covers of the culture to embrace the authentic gospel and good news of Jesus. We must awaken to discover our purpose to be a community of radical inclusion and extravagant grace. We must awaken to answer our call to love others as Christ loves us, unconditionally, unreservedly and fearlessly.

I believe it is a sunset if the church continues to dream of the glory days. Sadly, the dreams of many churches are either stuck some in distant past recalling fuller pews and bigger programs, or they are stuck in some heavenly future, fixed on pearly gates and streets of gold.

However, I believe it is a sunrise if the church awakens with eyes wide-open to see its mission in the here and now. We must awaken with our eyes focused on the present suffering of the entire creation, and then we must selflessly and sacrificially use our gifts, time and energy to be a movement for wholeness, healing and peace.

I believe it is a sunset if the church continues to hit the snooze button to rest in their comfort zones. Many churches have no desire to get up and go out, leaving their cozy environments behind. There is no interest to get outside of the security blanket of the sanctuary to do the hard work of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, defending the marginalized, and breaking the bonds of injustice.

However, I believe it is a sunrise if the church will rise up from its comfort zone to go out into what can be a cold and dark world. We must awaken to be the embodiment of Christ in this world even if it means there is a cross involved, even if it means suffering for the sake of God’s creation.

Is it a sunset or a sunrise?

It all depends on when we wake up.