This is what we eat for Thanksgiving in Illinois: Turkeer. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
In early August my wife and I, along with seven of our nine children, left for a month-long ministry tour in Africa (Kenya, Zambia, and South Africa). It was a couple of days before we got settled and had any access to media. As such, I was taken aback when I began to receive Google alerts, emails, and Facebook and Twitter messages either demanding that I comment on “Ferguson,” or condemning me for failing to do so. The only problem was, I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. Who, what, or where was Ferguson? Why was it such a big deal? Why was I being condemned (along with other “high-profile” evangelicals) for “failing to speak out on such an important issue”?
I eventually got up to speed. Or at least I found out what all the fuss was about. Over the next several weeks I viewed this issue from a unique perspective. I was an American in Africa watching an issue ignite ethnic tensions in my homeland. It was almost surreal.
Who Am I To Speak?
My first response to Ferguson was to say nothing. I was on the outside looking in. I didn’t know what happened. I didn’t know the communities or the issues surrounding the tensions. Second, I chose to remain silent because people were demanding that I speak—even condemning me for my silence. In this age of “I sure would love to hear your thoughts on” I get tired of the sense of entitlement with which people approach those whom they deem to be popular or high-profile Christians. No one is “entitled” to my opinion. Nor is my faithfulness to God determined by how quickly I respond to “relevant” issues.
As a pastor, I have a responsibility to my flock. If those for whose souls I care (Heb. 13:17) want help thinking through these issues, I am obligated to them. I have a duty to walk them through issues like these to the best of my ability, and with sensitivity to their particular needs. What worries me is that Christians in the age of social media care more what “popular” preachers have to say on issues like this (and whether or not they agree with other “popular” preachers) than they are about taking advantage of an opportunity to work through challenges in the context of Christian community. More importantly, it worries me that so many Christians view themselves primarily as members of this or that ethnic community more than they see themselves as members of the body of Christ.
The Plight Of Black Men
Rest assured, I do believe there are systemic issues plaguing black men. These issues are violence, criminality, and immorality, to name a few. And all of these issues are rooted in and connected to the epidemic of fatherlessness. Any truly gospel-centered response to the plight of black men must address these issues first and foremost. It does no good to change the way white police officers respond to black men if we don’t first address the fact that these men’s fathers have not responded to them appropriately.
There is indeed an epidemic of violence against black men. However, that violence, more often than not, occurs at the hands of other black men. In fact, black men are several times more likely to be murdered at the hands of another black man than they are to be killed by the police. For instance, in the FBI homicide stats from 2012, there were 2,648 blacks murdered. Of those, 2,412 were murdered by members of their own ethnic group. Thus, if I am going to speak out about anything, it will be black-on-black crime; not blue-on-black. I want to apply the gospel and its implications in a way that addresses the real issue. If a few black men being killed by cops requires a national “dialogue,” what in the world does the overwhelming number of black-on-black murders require? If the police do not see black men through the proper gospel-centered, image-of-God lens, what does the black-on-black murder rate say about the way we see ourselves?
In addition to violence, black men are plagued with criminality. Low-income black communities like Ferguson know all too well that black criminals preying on their neighbors makes life almost unlivable. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, I know all too well what it’s like to have bars on the windows and doors for fear that thugs will break in to steal or kill. I remember being robbed at gunpoint on my way home from the store one day. It was one of the most frightening and disheartening events of my life. The fear, helplessness, and anger I felt stayed with me for years. And it taught me an unfortunate lesson: the greatest threat to me was other black men.
The underlying malady that gives rise to all the rest of these epidemics is immorality and fatherlessness. We know that fatherlessness is the number one indicator of future violence, dropout rates, out-of-wedlock births, and future incarceration. And in the black community, more than 70 percent of all children are born out of wedlock! Fatherlessness is the bane of the black community.
Nor is this plague forced on us. It is as common as morning dew, and as overlooked as dust under a refrigerator. Where are the marches against this travesty? Where are the protestors who demand better? Where are the black “leaders” who . . . oh, that’s right, they have just as many illegitimate children as anyone else. Again, it is common knowledge that this is the most immediate root cause of the ills plaguing black Americans.
But What About Racism?
I have been pulled over by police for no apparent reason. In fact, it has happened on more than one occasion. I was stopped in Westwood while walking with a friend of mine who was a student at UCLA. We found ourselves lying face down on the sidewalk while officers questioned us. On another occasion, I was stopped while with my uncle. I remember his visceral response as he looked at me and my cousin (his son). The look in his eye was one of humiliation and anger. He looked at the officer and said, “My brother and I didn’t fight in Vietnam so you could treat me like this in front of my son and my nephew.”
Again, this experience stayed with me for years. And for many of those years, I blamed “the system” or “the man.” However, I have come to realize that it was no more “the system” when white cops pulled me over than it was “the system” when a black thug robbed me at gunpoint. It was sin! The men who robbed me were sinners. The cops who stopped me were sinners. They were not taking their cues from some script designed to “keep me down.” They were simply men who didn’t understand what it meant to treat others with the dignity and respect they deserve as image bearers of God.
It does me absolutely no good to assume that my mistreatment was systemic in nature. No more than it is good for me to assume that what happened in Ferguson was systemic. I have a life to live, and I refuse to live it fighting ghosts. I will not waste my energy trying to prove the Gramscian, neo-Marxist concept of “white privilege” or prejudice in policing practices.
I don’t care what advantages my white neighbor may or may not have. If he does have advantages, God bless him! I no more fault him than I fault my own children who have tremendous advantages due to the fact that they were raised by two educated, Christian parents who loved, disciplined, and taught them. Ironically, when I think about THAT advantage, I am filled with joy and gratitude to God for his faithfulness. People are supposed to bequeath an advantage to their children and grandchildren (Prov. 13:22). Why, then, would I be angry with my white neighbor for any advantage he is purported to have? And what good would it do? How does that advance the gospel? Especially in light of the fact that growing up with the gospel is the ultimate privilege/advantage! It is the advantage that has granted us all “American privilege”! Are we guilty for being citizens of the wealthiest republic in the history of the world? I think not!
As a father of seven black men, I tell them to be aware of the fact that there may be times when they may get a closer look, an unwelcome stop, or worse. However, I do not tell them that this means they need to live with a chip on their shoulder, or that the world is out to get them. I certainly don’t tell them that they need to go out and riot (especially when that involves destroying black-owned businesses). I tell them that there are people in the world who need to get to know black people as opposed to just knowing “about” us. I tell them that they will do far more good interacting with those people and shining the light of Christ than they will carrying picket signs. I tell them, “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’” (Rom. 12:19). And I tell them that there are worse things than suffering injustice. That is why we must heed Peter’s words:
But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Pet. 3:15–17)
In the end, the best lesson my children can learn from Ferguson is not that they need to be on the lookout for white cops. It is far more important that I use this teachable moment to remind them that “God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Gal. 6:7). Moments before his death, Michael Brown had violently robbed a man in a store. A man doing the best he could to make a living. Minutes later, Brown reaped what he sowed, and was gunned down in the street. That is the sad truth.
My sons have far more to fear from making bad choices than they have to fear from the police. The overwhelming majority of police officers are decent people just trying to make a living. They are much more likely to help you than to harm you. A life of thuggery, however, is NEVER your friend. In the end, it will cost you . . . sometimes, it costs you everything.
We say, ‘thank you,’ when someone gives us something; it’s an acknowledgement of our need and another’s generosity. When you give thanks, you are admitting that you are now better off – someone has filled your vacancy. This does not mean that you were incapable of mowing your own lawn, for example, but that your neighbor did it for you because you were overwhelmed that week – it was an act of service to you that made your life a little more manageable.
I thank God that he is not like me. He is never put into a state-of-affairs where he needs a little help to manage things. He does not need to say thanks because he has no need of support, generosity, or a helping hand. He is self-sufficient in every way. He brings things into existence with no prior need for raw material (Gen 1:1). He is not to be served as though he needed anything – but it is everything and everyone else that is in need of him (Acts 17:24-25). If everyone did his duty towards God with absolute perfection, there still would be no obligation for God to say thank you (Luke 17:9).
Now this does not mean that God is unappreciative. He is a happy and rewarding God who will say “atta boy” to all who persevere to the end, to those who remain faithful to follow the Lord (Matt. 25:21). In this way, we are like him: when we see good work we praise it and show our pleasure and approval. But this is not the same thing as saying thanks. I’m not splitting hairs: saying “thanks” and saying “good job ” are not the same. What difference does all this make for our Thanksgiving Holiday?
1. I am reminded how needy I am and how generous God is to me.
2. I am reminded that God can’t ever be lacking in any way. This is good news because God can’t ever be exhausted! He is endless and infinite in mercy, love, and grace. There will never come a time when he is running low on supplies. There will never be a circumstance by which he is flummoxed and needs some counsel and advice from you or me. God will never experience helplessness, but . . .
Since Jesus was both God and Man, Jesus knows our need because he chose to live a life in need. He gave his Father thanks for hiding and revealing the truth to whomever he chose (Matt. 11:25-26), and Jesus thanked his Father for food (John 6:11). And this means,
3. Our Father in heaven will always empathize with our need. Though he knows no need within himself, yet, he knows my need, for he lived it (Heb. 4:14-16). Our Father in heaven does not feel imposed upon when we keep coming to him, as if he wants us to just buck up and be more self-reliant. No, he calls us to keep asking, seeking, and knocking, for he knows our need. The problem is that we don’t know how helpless we truly are – this is why we struggle with thanking him: we are prideful in our false world of self-reliance. But how much sweeter life is when we know who we are in the face of a selfless God!
This is why I thank the Lord that he does not need to give thanks.
Herod was a “Me” monster.
“On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12:21-23).
This is why Jesus said, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).
The comedy clip above by Brian Regan is spot on: we are “Me” monsters seeking glory, that is, approval, recognition, self-worth, favor, status, and importance, from men as they recognize and applaud our accomplishments. Jesus offers all this and more from himself. Read John’s gospel and hear what Jesus can do for you.
In Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan, Christian meets Apollyon (the Devil) on the way to the Celestial City. Apollyon accuses Christian of being unfaithful to Christ: “Thou hast already been unfaithful in thy service to him, and how does thou think to receive wages from him?”
Christian asks, “Wherein, O Apollyon, have I been unfaithful to him?” The Devil reminds,
“Thou didst faint at first setting out, when thou wast almost choked in the Gulf of Despond. Thou didst attempt wrong ways to be rid of thy burden, whereas thou shouldest have stayed till thy Prince had taken it off. Thou didst sinfully sleep, and lose thy choice thing; thou was also almost persuaded to go back at the sight of the lions; and when thou talkest of thy journey, and of what thou hast heard, and seen, thou art inwardly desirous of vainglory in all that thou sayest or doest.”
What would you say in return to the devil?
What do you say when your sins are thrown up in your face? Where do you go in your head and heart when accusations and reminders of past failures are used against you? How do you move forward when someone reminds you that “you’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, baby you’re no good”? When regrets overwhelm and taunt you, mock you, belittle and ridicule you, how do you respond? For John Bunyan, aka, Christian, he says this to the accuser:
“All this is true, and much more, which thou has left out. But the Prince whom I serve and honor is merciful and ready to forgive . . . I have obtained pardon from my Prince.”
In other words, when the devil accuses you of your sin, tell him that he doesn’t know half your sins – tell him that you’re worse than his portrayal of you – tell him that there is much more, yes, many more sins that he has left out of his charge against you. Tell him that not only are the sins pardoned that he accuses you of, but also all the other sins that he doesn’t even know about are also pardoned. Tell him that Jesus not only pardoned the sins of which you are accused, but all the other sins too that could ever be thrown up in your face. Tell him, no . . . sing to him:
“My sin, O, the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin – not in part but the whole,
is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more:
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”
Bunyan then writes: “And with that, Apollyon spread forth his dragon’s wings and sped away, that Christian saw him no more.”
Christian, resist the devil with the gospel and his poisonous accusations will flee from you.
Jesus said that some things that are mine belong to Caesar, but that all things that are mine belong to God (Mt. 22:21). On Election Day, Nov. 4, 2014, I render to the State of Illinois and to Washington D.C. what I owe them – says them. Every three weeks I write these two checks to pay all of my taxes, no more and no less than what I owe. As a pastor (who is self-employed and employed at the same time), I do what all self-employed people do – pay all taxes out of personal income. I wonder what the vote would look like today if every single American tax-payer had to pay all their taxes directly out of their checking account? Here is a partial list of where our tax dollars went in 2013:
|$107,000 to study the sex life of the Japanese quail.|
|$1.2 million to study the breeding habits of the woodchuck.|
|$150,000 to study the Hatfield-McCoy feud.|
|$84,000 to find out why people fall in love.|
|$1 million to study why people don’t ride bikes to work.|
|$19 million to examine gas emissions from cow flatulence.|
|$144,000 to see if pigeons follow human economic laws.|
|$219,000 to teach college students how to watch television.|
|$2 million to construct an ancient Hawaiian canoe.|
|$20 million for a demonstration project to build wooden bridges.|
|$160,000 to study if you can hex an opponent by drawing an X on his chest.|
|$800,000 for a restroom on Mt. McKinley.|
|$100,000 to study how to avoid falling spacecraft.|
|$16,000 to study the operation of the komungo, a Korean stringed instrument.|
|$1 million to preserve a sewer in Trenton, NJ, as a historic monument.|
|$6,000 for a document on Worcestershire sauce.|
|$10,000 to study the effect of naval communications on a bull’s potency.|
|$100,000 to research soybean-based ink.|
|$1 million for a Seafood Consumer Center.|
|$57,000 spent by the Executive Branch for gold-embossed playing cards on Air Force Two.|
And yet Jesus said to pay what I owe. Jesus knows that governments are corrupt – he’s not blind; he knows that Caesar would be foolish and that he would commit terrible atrocities with my money – like murdering babies in the womb. However, giving Caesar some slack, we are thankful for police protection, fireman, infrastructure, research, education, aid to the poor, the abused, the homeless, the sick and feeble among us – and many other good things. But we do not live in a perfect and just society – not yet. One day, all lovers of Christ will live under a perfect King, for the meek will inherit the earth (Mt. 5:5). Therefore, paying taxes and voting is my obedience and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ that he will see to it that in the end my labor is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).
Otherwise, voting and paying taxes would drive me crazy. I need a pizza!