2020 is sick

20/20 has always been associated with a clarity of vision, one that enables a certainty of purpose and a strength of step. But when 2020 finally arrived among us, it has brought confusion, uncertainty – and sickness. 

The irony is that those of us who have trumpeted our ‘wisdom, wealth and power’ down the decades, even the centuries, have been the ones hit the earliest and the hardest, first with the new, invisible corona virus and now with the old, visible racism. It has been a humbling few months and, as the months extend, the expectation is that those who have always suffered the most will suffer the most again.
Amidst all the raging headlines, can I add an annoying footnote?
It has to do with the haste with which so many Christian organisations, especially evangelical ones, have been racing each other to get out their written statements on racism. Really?! If our lives have been a living statement of these truths until now, why do we need a written statement right now? Does it not sound like a bit of a scramble, born of guilt? I don’t get it. Surely, if there must be words, let them come in response to the curiosity of someone peering in and watching the intriguing life lived together in the midst of the sickness? “Why do you live in that way? How do you do it?” Thankfully, for those with eyes to see, there are many such intriguing ministries. Let them lead the way.
This haste reminds me of the advice I was given once, as a leader. ‘Develop your vision statement. Write your core values. But whatever you do, don’t put them in a frame and hang them on the wall in the foyer.’ As if to say, let the people inside the community, and the people outside it, see the vision and values at work in the quality of your life together. Leave them to ask about the written statement. Don’t display it in plain sight. That is often the best way to lose sight of it.
Amidst all the raging headlines, can I add another annoying footnote?
We’ve been here before, again and again and again. This is a very long footnote, one of those ones that runs into the next page as reference after reference is listed. I am not old enough to remember the 1960s and Martin Luther King. But even without him in my footnotes I can still gather enough evidence from my own observations. The combination of Mississippi Burning (1988) and Los Angeles burning (1992) was enough. To this day, when Mississippi Burning starts playing on the screen, I cannot stop watching it. It captures me, a bit like the Old Testament prophets must have done, in the face of evil and injustice. As for the LA Riots in 1992, I was developing a new course on The Gospel in a PostChristian Society at the time and I remember using the incident to springboard into my new class. And now, here we are, thirty years later with Minnesota burning and global riots. Again and again and again. Will this year’s rage make any difference this time? 

Yes, there is a bit of scepticism living in my footnotes.
Is it possible to have a footnote of a footnote? I’m not sure, but I am going to do it anyway. Have we not been here before? Mentioning the prophets of the Old Testament takes me back to the people of the Old Testament. They were so good at making promises to God, but even better at breaking them. Again and again and again. All the way to the final story, in Nehemiah. Remember?! That climax in the revival under the preaching of the Word of God in chapter 8? That outpouring of spiritual practices in chapter 9, concluding with a singular commitment to God in 9.38? It is enough to make an evangelical heart sing. But it gets better. Their promise-making becomes specific. In chapter 10 they say ‘no’ to inter-marriage (ie marriage outside the Jewish faith) and Sabbath-trading and say ‘yes’ to temple offerings and tithes for priests. This is just how God likes it to be, with Word leading to revival and the revival leading to the transformation of society. It must have been just how Nehemiah liked it to be as well because he decides to pop back to Babylon for a few years. And when he comes back to Jerusalem, what does he discover? Drumroll, please. Chapter 13 reveals that life has drifted into ‘yes’ to inter-marriage and Sabbath-trading and ‘no’ to temple offerings and tithes for priests. Here endeth the story of the Old Testament. Promise-breaking, again and again and again.
Do you see why I want it as a footnote to my footnote? There are similarities. What the Old Testament demonstrates is that promise-breaking is another sickness, a deeper sickness that afflicts all human beings all the time. We call it sin. One of those Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah, writes about the need for a new way of making promises. Not so much one that works away at the will for awhile, but one that facilitates the transformation of the heart forever (Jeremiah 31.30-34). That is why, when the curtain closes on the Old Testament, the band off to the side starts playing ‘there is a redeemer’ – even if the redeemer takes another 400 years to show up! But when he does, it is straight to the New Testament book of Hebrews (via the Gospels) and its glorious triad which work together to break the ‘again and again and again’ cycle: with Jesus, it is how much morebetter by faronce for all. The secret to promise-keeping, to the healing of this sickness, lies here – far more than people realise.
Yes, if I drift too far from this ‘footnote of a footnote’ the scepticism surges, but so also the discomfort. As I watch the statues toppling, you know what I am thinking? “If I lived back in the early 1800s, on what side of the slavery debate in the USA – or, the land wars here in Aotearoa-NZ a few decades later – do I think I would have stood?” My white-privilege raging needs some humility as well. Unless I am someone with the courage and conviction to flow against the mainstream now I must not imagine myself as a good-guy in the story back then. To help me process the scepticism and the discomfort and to ensure that some of the fingers are still pointing back at me, I am looking to God to help me with three things.
Keep lingering with truth
Teaching that course mentioned above taught me a thing or two about the West. Our theories have led to a practice where bedrock truth is cast aside to make way for buffet truths. Pick and choose. Construct it, socially – rather than receive it. Sure, ‘truth’ has been used to perpetuate this very sickness, but that says more about the people handling the truth than anything else. The fact is that truth can set you free, especially when you soak in that book of Hebrews, while meditating on the full implications of ‘Let us make human beings in our image’ (Genesis 1); of ‘from one man he made all the nations’ (Acts 17); of the Samaritan being the hero (Luke 10); of the rage against injustice from Old Testament prophets; of ‘those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts given less honour we treat with special honour’ (1 Corinthians 12); of the vision for the people of God in Revelation, praying and working for ‘your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6); on and on it goes. Without this kind of truth, we are ill-equipped to handle this sickness.

Keep listening to others
The goal is to listen in order to understand, rather than to respond. I don’t find this easy to do. Where we’ve been living and working for the past decade, the racism does not often follow a black:white divide. For example, listening to the stories of people from Northeast India living in ‘mainland’ India has opened our eyes. Nevertheless it is the context of the USA that yields so much that is articulate and stirring…

For example, last week’s story from Sports Illustrated. They asked 14 athletes three questions. Then they listened to their responses. Wow.

My friend, Andy, posted a message by Tom Skinner given at a student conference in 1970, 50 years ago. The full written text and the audio are both available. Incredible. As a teenager I remember his biography, Black and Free, being the voice to which people were listening.
While in self-isolation, I had a book-binge, including J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: a biblical theology of race. Scholarship at its best and its most accessible, as he kept his eye both on Cush/Ethiopia/Nubia in the Bible and racism in his homeland, the USA. I would stop Barby, whatever she was doing, and insist that she listen to me read aloud the concluding reflections at the end of each chapter. They are that good…

Keep living across borders
In recent years, I’ve added a new exercise to help students with their sermon application. It has been such fun. ‘Get out those census questions. Make a column on the whiteboard. Answer each question for yourself. Name. Age. Gender. Address. Ethnicity. Household. Languages. Education. Income. Occupation etc. Make a second column. Describe someone, a new person with each question, who is different from you in each of these ways. Don’t rush. Linger with them. Now, when you preach, keep them on your heart and in your application.’ I’ve been thinking about that exercise this week. Ethnicity, or race, is just one of the entries on that list and yet, such is the evil of racism, that it reaches across and seeps into so many of the other entries as well. 
The point is that we need to ‘cross borders’ not just with our application, but also with our lives. In fact if we don’t do it with our lives, it will sound phoney in our application! It is not just the world that is sick, the church is so often sick. Here is one of the key skills we need: the art of making friendships across these borders. We need more transgressive behavior, desperately. ‘Border-crossing’ needs to become a core core value in every single Christian community – living it, not just speaking about it…

A few months ago I purchased Crossover Preaching. A few weeks ago I opened it up and now, I am reading it with real intent. The case is made for the great African-American preacher, Gardner C. Taylor, being a transgressive border-crosser in his life and in his preaching … and leaving us an example to follow. Fascinating. I think it is a PhD, so it is gonna be solid – but I’m ‘all in’, as the Americans like to say. 

I do feel the heat of this border-crossing challenge just at the moment. Having lived as a minority in the majority world for a few years, borders, real and metaphorical, have been my life. And now, back in my homeland, I can still feel a minority amidst the majority! Nevertheless, wherever it is that we are situated, there are borders to cross and friendships to build.
So if I can linger-listen-live like this, maybe 2020 can still yield some clarity of vision, some certainty of purpose and some strength of step afterall.
nice chatting
Paul

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About Me

paul06.16

the art of unpacking

After a childhood in India, a theological training in the USA and a pastoral ministry in Southland (New Zealand), I spent twenty years in theological education in New Zealand — first at Laidlaw College and then at Carey Baptist College, where I served as principal. In 2009 I began working with Langham Partnership and since 2013 I have been the Programme Director (Langham Preaching). Through it all I've cherished the experience of the 'gracious hand of God upon me' and I've relished the opportunity to 'unpack', or exegete, all that I encounter in my walk through life with Jesus.

2 Comments

  1. Susan Thomas-Bennema on June 20, 2020 at 6:41 am

    I read this after you mentioned it in our FB chat, but it was Silly O'clock and I shouldn't have been awake, let alone trying to read this serious reflection, so I re-read it today. As you said, I did find it 'interesting' but more than that it articulated what I was trying to say, though less eloquently in my other exchange on FB.
    There is very little of this attempt to cross the divide and walk in another's shoes in a lot of preaching, and even less in everyday life. Some of it is comes from a defensiveness in the western world the moment you mention racism and injustice. But when the state itself has tried to gloss over or even obliterate its sins, it takes real effort and courage to acknowledge historic and current failings.
    I really believe the church needs to don sackcloth and ashes (whatever that may look like) and listen intently to what God is saying to us. The western church has far to go, but the global south is not exempt. From my own life, growing up in India, I was aware of caste divides and other prejudices that were just accepted as the norm. I do hope we respond to the Spirit of God and repent – it might be a series of 'repentances' but we need to make a start.

  2. Paul on June 23, 2020 at 3:46 pm

    Hi Susan

    It crossed my mind, at the time, that it must be Silly O'Clock for you. In the shift back to NZ I am learning fast that Silly O'clock for folks in the UK is Sane O'Clock for me, while the reverse is also true! Surprise. Surprise.

    Thanks for your comments. I know a bit of your story and respect you and the journey you've taken. The ancient Scot, Robbie Burns, used to mutter something about 'seeing ourselves as others see us' and the humility to do this is needed, really needed today. Racism is such a massive blindspot for so many of us and, like you say, it is visible in the global south and often times it is far more subtle. It is certainly not just a US/UK issue…

    Much love from us two to you three

    Paul

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