Monthly Archives: August 2014

Does racism rear its ugly head in the church?

We hold these truthsIf you have the stomach to watch the news lately, you know that Michael Brown, a young black man, was recently shot and killed during an altercation with a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. This tragic event (whether it has anything to do with racism or not) inspired me to ponder if ethnocentrism still rears its ugly head in the modern church. Thinking back on my years in the pew, the answer is sometimes yes.

I once knew a worship pastor on the leadership team of a church plant. The church plant was located in a multi-ethnic community. After a couple of years, the worship pastor unexpectedly resigned and moved back home to an almost entirely white region of North America. A mutual friend later told me that the worship pastor had moved because he felt uncomfortable in a multi-ethnic community.

I know of one church that partnered with a smaller ethnic church in the same denomination. They shared the same building. The minority church, for many years, had to schedule their worship and their events around the needs and schedule of the dominant church, which was mostly white. The children from the minority congregation were criticized for being more unruly and messy than the children of the dominant church. Some leaders of the dominant church talked down to the pastor of the minority church. The dominant church didn’t think twice about expecting the minority church to make last minute changes to better accommodate the operation of the dominant church. Don’t get me wrong, the minority pastor had his flaws. All humans do. But most of the congregation in the dominant church remained oblivious to these discrepancies. They would be appalled if you accused them of racism. They take pride in being a multi-ethnic friendly congregation.

While visiting a church in another region of the country, I was told of some in the congregation who were enthusiastic that a smattering of black families had started attending services in their church, a church that had been white since its inception. Unfortunately some in the church looked askance at this change in the makeup of the congregation.

Granted, some of these suspect behaviors might have nothing to do with racism. For instance, it could be that the dominant church leaders who were critical of the ethnic church were merely jerks or self-centered and didn’t have a racist bone in their body. Either way it had the appearance of bigotry, albeit subtle.

I think these scenarios are more prevalent across churches in America than most Christians would like to admit. It makes us uncomfortable because we prefer to think the children of the Lord have moved beyond the ugly sin of racism. We don’t like to gaze deep into our hearts and think about how we view and treat people who do not share our skin color. Do we feel like we are better than them, like our race somehow has it more together? Yes, that’s a disconcerting question . . . especially if you were raised in a family that held these insidious views when you were growing up. How much of it rubbed off?

Tension naturally exists between what we know Christ would have us feel towards others and the way we have formulated an all-too-human (and flawed) opinion and stereotype about other races. Laws, protests, movements, and policies can help restrain racism, but ultimately they can’t fix the human heart. Only Christ can do that, and it must be modeled by the church. As an aside, America is not the problem; the human heart is the problem. I do not deceive myself into thinking America is perfect. She is not. But America has the best system in the world to live out “all men are created equal” . . . if her citizens join Christ in confronting sin in their hearts.

Sadly, Robin Williams Has Left the Building

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

Two people in my family killed themselves. My grandfather committed suicide, I heard, when he aged to the point where he needed someone to care for him. Another family member, a young adult, killed herself because she thought she was too much like her biological father, a hard and physically abusive man. Both took their lives by the gun.

When a celebrity like Robin Williams commits suicide, ostensibly due to struggles with depression, public discussion about mental illness becomes a hot topic . . . for a while. Everybody has an opinion, but it is difficult for people who do not have depression to understand the disease.

All people have days or life situations that trigger sadness or depression. But the clinically depressed, such as me, don’t necessarily experience a trigger or causation. It can come on without warning and little can blunt the edge of the depression, other than anti-depression medication. During a bout of depression, I feel as if I’ve lost part of my connection to the world. The ability to enjoy anything, or any other emotion, dissipates. I’ve heard some people describe it like falling down a dark well with no bottom in sight. For me, I can see the wind blowing in the branches, but it’s like watching it on TV with the volume turned off.

One of the most frustrating things for many depressed people happens when the un-depressed try to get us to do things that would lift their spirits if THEY felt gloomy. This does not often work. Recently the humor site BuzzFeed posted “15 Things You Shouldn’t Say To Someone Struggling With Depression.” Here they are:

1. Other people have it much worse than you do.
2. You’ll feel better tomorrow.
3. Life isn’t fair.
4. You just have to deal with it.
5. Life goes on.
6. I know how you feel, I was depressed once.
7. You’re being selfish.
8. Go out, have fun, have a drink, and forget about it.
9. You’re bringing me down.
10. What do you even have to be depressed about?
11. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
12. You need to go on a run.
13. You just need to get out of the house.
14. Everyone else is dealing with life, so why can’t you?
15. You’re strong, you’ll be fine.

Given these pearls of wisdom, it’s no wonder the suicide rate isn’t higher. Sometimes it is best to resist the urge to try and cheer the clinically depressed. Food, wine, books, movies, children playing, puppies, walks in the park, funny cat videos on Youtube, even tiramisu; all these things have little effect on battling clinical depression. (And sometimes they make it worse . . . damn you Youtube.) I find it helpful when someone I trust sincerely asks how I’m feeling and then patiently listens. I also find it helpful when friends let me know they are willing to listen if I want to talk, but they are also willing to give me space to let the darkness pass. It helps when friends pray for me.

Depression DOES NOT necessarily indicate a person is demon possessed or oppressed. It doesn’t mean their walk with the Lord is off course. It doesn’t mean you should feel uncomfortable around them (unless they are sitting nude in front of the computer watching funny cat videos on Youtube). I suspect that many Christians pooh-pooh the notion of clinical depression in believers. Pooh-poohers don’t understand how a person with Christ in his or her heart, and their sins forgiven, can be depressed. Here’s how: The brain is inside a flawed body.

Actor Todd Bridges said of Williams:

“You don’t think that my life has been hell and I’ve had so many ups and downs now?” Bridges told TMZ. “If I did that [commit suicide], what am I showing my children [is] that when it gets tough, that’s the way out. You gotta buckle down, ask God to help you. That’s when prayer really comes into effect . . .”

Yeah, that’s the proper response, Bridges. NOT! I am going to share a hard truth here: Given enough agonizing physical or mental pain over a long period of time, almost anybody is capable of suicide. By the way, physical pain often accompanies depression. The depressed can experience pain in the hip, neck, various muscles, just about anywhere in the body . . . sometimes for years. So think twice before yammering on about how suicide is a selfish act, and it’s a permanent solution to a short-term problem. These statements are true, but they usually come from ignorance. People who do not live with chronic pain are ignorant of its effects on mind, body, and soul. Pain is the enemy, not the person IN pain. Pain wears you out. It affects family members, often in ways they are not aware of. It destroys one’s ability to think rationally. Chronic pain is death by a thousand cuts. So let’s not be too quick to castigate Williams. On the other hand, let’s not be too quick to glamorize IN ANY WAY the terrible tragedy of suicide.

Praying FIRST for Christians in Iraq

Displaced Iraqi Christians settle at St. Joseph Church in Irbil, northern Iraq, Aug. 7, 2014 / by Voice of America

Displaced Iraqi Christians settle at St. Joseph Church in Irbil, northern Iraq, Aug. 7, 2014 / by Voice of America

Over the years I’ve heard and said some eccentric prayers in the church. I heard a woman ask for prayer that she would buy the right horse trailer for her horse; she wanted the Cadillac of horse trailers. I heard a man confess that he’d prayed his daughter’s sketchy boyfriend out of her life (I sympathize). I’ve heard a woman say her car was making a funny noise and it needed prayer for healing (probably a GM). I’ve been in a small group where we prayed for a washing machine that was broken. We have a penchant in the modern church for focusing on our own first-world problems when it comes to prayer. We zero in on our needs and wants to the extent that we occasionally drift into eccentric prayers. Granted, we can pray for just about anything that doesn’t contradict the Bible. But there is something to be said for prioritizing our prayers.

This week the news broke about a community of thousands of Christians stranded on a mountain in Iraq. They face death at the hands of Islamic State (aka ISIS) barbarians surrounding the mountain. Knowing this, I just can’t bring myself to pray first for healing of the rash on my border collie’s rear leg (even though he and I are very close). I think God’s heart yearns for those of who are blessed with peace and freedom to at least pray for our brothers and sisters in harm’s way. There are Christian women, children, seniors, and infirmed on that mountain. They face evil that would like to kill them simply because they believe in the same Christ we freely worship in our hip churches on Sunday morning. It is essential to the health of our faith to set aside our needs and wants for a while in order to implore God to deliver them. We should also pray that our government responds to the crisis in the right way.

I’m not suggesting that you go to your nearest church cathedral, climb the steps on your bare knees, light a candle, and throw yourself prostate before the altar (especially if there is a wedding going on) where you remain for hours in fervent prayer for adherents to the faith on that mountain in Iraq. Just a simple “Lord, please guard your children in Iraq” is sufficient, especially if you offer this prayer BEFORE praying for your dog’s rash. The events in Iraq are a spiritual war as well as an actual war. We should be willing to shoot back via prayer. I’m just saying.

Should you mistrust people?

MH900448629 Yes, if you want to end up like Howard Hughes (without the money). People who lose the ability to trust can find themselves, later in life, living in a darkened studio apartment, chain-smoking, watching television 24/7, and nursing a bottle of vodka. OK maybe that’s an exaggeration. Or is it?

Of course a healthy dose of mistrust is necessary for protection. Spiritual discernment, and our gut-feeling, can often warn us about untrustworthy people. Unfortunately there is not a 100 percent effective formula we can follow to protect us from untrustworthy people. If an employer betrays you, or a partner stabs you in the back in a business venture, or a spouse cheats, it can trigger a lifelong negative effect on your interaction with others. If we overreact with mistrust we can end up harming our significant relationships by directing mistrust towards people who do not deserve it. The following is an excellent article on the symptoms and consequences of excessive mistrust:

When we openly direct our mistrust without evidence at innocent people we are, in a way, bearing false witness. (See Exodus 20:16 . . . and yes, it is one of the big Ten.) I suspect God included it in The Ten Commandments as more than a protection of the innocent, but to also dissuade accusers who do not trust anyone. In other words, it is there to get would-be accusers to examine their own hearts and minds.

Don’t get me wrong, the Bible seemingly confuses us regarding trust in people. For instance, Psalm 118:8 says:

“It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.”

But then 1 Corinthians 13 talks at length about the ways of love. Verse 5 says love keeps no record of wrongs people inflict on us (paraphrasing). Clearly love cannot exist without some degree of trust. So what is the solution? Should we go through life blindly trusting like Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, or should we plod through life trusting only our self and the hell with everyone else? The answer is a little of both. The Bible says we should be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. If I trusted everyone who came to my door I would be locked into at least three pest exterminator contracts, two cable TV contracts, three home security contracts, a dozen magazine subscriptions (I love my monthly edition of Hummingbird Enthusiast), and I’d own two sets of solar panels as well as two home heating and air conditioning systems . . . AND I’d be going door to door with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. On the other hand, because I have the capacity to trust with discernment, I get a cupboard full of delicious Girl Scout cookies every year. (The day one of those cute little Girl Scouts embezzles my cookie money is the day I embrace my inner paranoid personality disorder.)

Most importantly we have to embrace the truth that despite what happens here on earth, God can be trusted. It’s a hard truth to practice consistently throughout this life of tears. But if we can’t often return to a God of trustworthiness, we can’t hope to live wisely in this life where we will, no matter what defenses of mistrust we erect, encounter occasional back stabbers. I don’t want to miss out on relationships with people who bless my life because I am afraid of encountering a few rotten apples. (And I don’t want to end up on the wrong end of that bottle of vodka, either.)