A Prophet’s Crowning Word

Book Review:  Dream With Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win
by John M. Perkins

Coming at the end of his life in the midst of another tumultuous age in America, John M. Perkins’ Dream With Me points whites and blacks alike to a better way forward. An American prophet has spoken – maybe his last written words; his people need to listen.

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Book in a Nutshell: Part biography, part memoir, part theology, and part instruction, Dream With Me conveys renowned civil rights activist, Christian thinker, and preacher John Perkins’ “climactic message”: justice and love. The 86 year-old walks the reader through the major points of his life from his humble start as a third-grade drop out to opening his first medical center in Mississippi in the 1970’s, to providing counsel to presidents, governors, and international leaders on racial issues, to handing over his ministry and teaching efforts to a new generation of leaders. Throughout the journey, Perkins shares the lessons he’s learned and applies the biblical principles that have shaped his life and ministry. He offers this wisdom on the American questions of race and class and how the church should take lead in addressing these issues.

Reaction: I have never met the man, but I love John Perkins. I am thankful for his life of faithfulness and sacrifice. I am thankful for his wisdom and his willingness to tell his story. I am thankful for his boldness and his compassion. I am thankful for his firm convictions and his gentle humility.

John Perkins lived in Mississippi through the 1930’s, 40’s, 60’s and 70’s. Bluntly, John Perkins has seen things. He has lost family members to injustice and has personally endured brutality and torture. Throughout it all, he has maintained a humble spirit and a deep love for Christ and his church. A man who has been married for over 65 years and served in ministry for over 56 years of Christian ministry, John Perkins speaks with authority and power that pierces the heart and soul.

Last month, I read Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson. In that book, Dyson preaches to White America in hopes of confronting the sins of racism and injustice. As I mentioned in my review, Dyson presents plenty of important realities and opinions that whites need to hear; however, Dyson’s tone and approach in his delivery stands at risk of ensuring his sermon falls on a deaf congregation.

Perkins’ own “sermon” on the same issues only reinforced this response to Dyson. Like anyone else who attempts to address hot-button issues like race and class, Perkins says things that will make you squirm and make you think. But at every point, Perkins addresses his readers with charity, grace, and humility. His convictions are no weaker than those of Dyson; but the communication of his message shows its superiority in its objective, even-handed, rich, loving tone throughout the book. For example, whereas Dyson refused to acknowledge any need on the black reader’s part, and celebrated his own ability to offend, Perkins writes winsomely yet unafraid to speak directly and biblically to whites and blacks. With courage, he holds to his own convictions when they sway from political or even denominational lines. Dyson might speak truth. Perkins speaks the truth in love.

Both writers noted in their works that one of the biggest issues we face is the reality that blacks and whites often speak past one another. In light of this mutual recognition, if there is a sermon that White America needs to hear, it is the work of John Perkins; for John Perkins preaches his message like a pastor. He preaches like a shepherd who truly cares about his flock.

As I alluded, whether you are white or black, Republican or Democrat, Christian or other, Perkins will force you away from your place of comfort. Perkins, in essence, puts you in position to enter “the last fight”. As you read his work, Perkins tests your own ability to love. For one of the greatest demonstrations of love is the ability to listen. You may shake your head in disagreement at times. You may be directly challenged on some of your long-held assumptions and convictions. But if you will take Perkins’ central message to heart, you will show love when you listen.

I believe Perkins’ writing gives us one of the most important messages we have been given in many years. At a time of vitriol, distrust, anger, prejudice, and rage, America is blessed to have been given this word. The way we are acting today, we do not deserve a message like this. But John Perkins demonstrates his love for the church and for this country in the way he calls us to love God and love one another. My hope is that the church and this country will respond to Dream With Me with a reciprocal love and that justice will truly flood our days.

Quote: Neither clenched fists nor helping hands alone will bring about the complete transformation God wants… We are called to love.

Ranking: 5 of 5 stars

This one belongs on the top shelf! Dream With Me is already among my all-time favorite reads. I cannot recommend this book enough.

You can buy Dream With Me here. 

 

 

America Deserves “Alternative Facts”

[Note: In no way is this post intended to defend or endorse any political figure nor is it written in support of either the Republican or Democratic Party. May this be an equal-opportunity blog of offense.]

Alternative Facts.

Without doubt, this is a catchy way to start a presidential term that is sure to be filled with divisive arguments that only make the liberal more liberal and the conservative more conservative.

What else will the next 3 years and 11 months bring us?

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Truth D – The 2017 Presidential Inauguration produced a laughingly, underwhelming number of attendees – especially when contrasted with the record-size crowds of the 2009 Inauguration.

Truth R – The liberal media skewed the actual attendance of the 2017 Inauguration by only showing pictures of the crowd at a low point. Actual attendance numbers for the event are huuuuge.

These, America, are your alternative facts.

Cue the media firestorm and social media warfare.

 

You might respond to this episode with disgust, fury and ridicule.

You might respond to it with defensiveness, frustration, and pride.

Left or right, liberal or conservative, black or white, male or female, America…

You get what you deserve.

 

The outrage, the disbelief, the excitement over Alternative Facts betrays our hypocrisy.

America, after all, has prided itself on being enlightened enough to recognize the need for Alternative Facts when it comes to religion.

Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Atheism.

Now, we all know these are different, it is argued, but deep down, they’re just different ways of getting to the same finish line. All of these are worthy systems of belief, it is contended, that mean the same thing. As long as you genuinely believe it to be true and you do not tell anyone they are wrong, it is proclaimed, you can believe whatever you want.

These are just Alternative Facts.

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But ask just one question to these groups, and you will be confronted by a reality that should produce the same firestorm and fury as our President’s take on the attendance of his inauguration.

Who is Jesus?

Christians believe Jesus is the promised Messiah,  the Son of God, who as fully God and fully man, lived a perfect life, died on the cross for the sake of our sins, physically raised from the dead three days later, and sits in Heaven now waiting to return to establish His eternal kingdom.

Jews believe the promised Messiah, the Son of God, has not arrived yet. God has not fulfilled his promised to Abraham and David, but he will one day.

Muslims believe Jesus was a good prophet in a long line of good prophets. He is not God as there is only one God.

Buddhists believe Jesus was a good man who reached complete enlightenment and achieved non-existence.

Hindus believe Jesus to be one god among 300 million.

Atheists believe none of this. At best Jesus is a good man with some helpful thoughts on peace and love. At worst he is a con-artist who has engendered worthless wars and hindered the advancement of humanity.

 

This is only in answer to one question. We do not need to move to the next one.

But in the spirit of tolerance and unity, we champion the idea that these systems say the same thing!

We do not just believe these to all to be different sides to the same greater truth. We vehemently oppose anyone who would claim an exclusive interpretation of truth.

Forget that Christians say Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and Jews say He’s an imposter.

Forget that Muslims defend monotheism while Hindus embrace millions of gods.

Forget that Buddhists strive for non-existence in Nirvana and Christians place their ultimate hope in physical resurrection.

Forget that these systems express mutually exclusive claims.

We have Alternative Facts.

 

This week, the president of our country uses a parallel thought-process to give some political spin on his big day, and our tolerant, unity-loving, post-modern society loses its collective mind.

Those who are angry and disgusted that our leader would stoop so low as to present a falsehood as a truth need only look in their societal mirror. We do this everyday, and we label those who reject it as closed-minded bigots.

You are right to be angry. Truth is truth. Falsehoods are falsehoods. They cannot coexist.

Those who are defensive and proud of the president ought to observe caution. If you claim to be a Christian, you cannot endorse or defend Alternative Facts. Your first allegiance is not to an oval office but to a King who claimed to be The Fact (John 14:6).

Truth is truth. Falsehoods are falsehoods. They cannot coexist.

Left or right. It is time to stop the charade.

We get what we deserve.

This week has sown alternative facts for America because alternative facts are what our America has long reaped.

 

White America in a Black Church

The preacher gives it all he’s got, but the congregation looks half-empty and half-asleep.

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Book Review: Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

Book in a Nutshell: Writing according to the form of a worship service in lieu of the traditional chapter approach, Dyson compels his congregation to consider the volatile issue of race in America. Dyson pulls no punches as he addresses both the long history of racism in our country as well as modern-day manifestations including police brutality, appropriation, the N-word, and the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump.

Reaction: [Note: Since Dyson wrote this as a preacher and the book comes to the reader as a worship service, I respond here as a pastor in the same way I reflect and assess sermons and worship services in the church.]

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Rev. Michael E. Dyson

As a preacher, Dyson cannot be chided for lacking clarity and conviction; by the end of the book, he leaves no room for questions on where he stands or how he expects the reader to respond.

Dyson’s main exposition, which includes three sections directed toward white America and three sections depicting the black experience in America, stands out from the rest of the book. Here, the preacher calls out sin, reveals some of the buried heart-level issues, and shares hard-to-hear truths. The explanation of the stages of white guilt which includes a most helpful look at appropriation and his defense of hot-button topics like affirmative action show Dyson at his best even when church members might disagree.

But like any good preacher, Dyson does not just inform. He expertly uses haunting illustrations from his personal life and closes his address with concrete applications for his white congregation. This section of action steps one can take to begin to bridge the racial gap might have been the most helpful aspect of the entire worship service.

When thinking about a worship service, many since the time of the Reformation operate under this principle: Nothing should distract from the sermon.  The sermon is the part of the sermon where the people of God hear the word of God. Everything else should augment this experience. This is where Tears We Cannot Stop gets in its own way: not in the sermon but in the extras.

In his Call to Worship, Dyson reveals, “It will make you squirm in your seat with discomfort, before, hopefully pointing a way to relief.” He achieves this if nothing else. Before the choir is done singing, many in his congregation will be tempted to squirm their way home as the Hymns of Praise depict police brutality through the lyrics of contemporary R&B songs and hip-hop tracks. In the midst of the corporate singing, Dyson dissects an etymology of the F-word that adds little to his message. Before Scripture is even read and the opening prayer is said, the preacher runs the risk of losing half his audience.

The closing of the worship service hinders the impact of the sermon as well. As any preacher will tell you, there’s not much worse than putting everything you have into a sermon and watching the person giving the Benediction undo your entire sermon. Having already addressed the issue with precision and power, Dyson revisits the election of Donald Trump in The Prelude to Service which precedes only the closing prayer. As shown in the prior quote, the preacher’s stated goal was to end on a high note. The sermon and benediction succeeds in doing just that and the passing of the offering plate only solidifies this higher tone, but the president-elect characteristically drags the service into the sewers.

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Instead of a high note, the service fails to avoid the presidential black hole of race relations.

As both issues of police brutality and the presidency are covered in detail during the sermon, Dyson’s order of service would have supplemented his main address more faithfully if he had opened and closed his service in a different fashion.

Dyson’s sermon needs to be preached, but it also needs to be heard. While commending the ministry of Martin Luther King for being able to communicate to a white audience in a way they could receive, Dyson faces an uphill battle to do the same. His own recognition that white congregants have no problem getting up and walking out of a service might come back to haunt the preacher as the gut-punching, guilt-producing work of Dyson comes packaged blunt, explicit, and often combative.

The preacher gives it everything he’s got. The message needs to be proclaimed. But by the end of the service, the people still need to be in the room and they need to be awake. The question this book leaves unanswered, is will they?

Quote: There is a paradox that many of you refuse to see: to get to a point where race won’t make a difference, we have to wrestle, first, with the difference that race makes.

Ranking: 3 out of 5 stars

Review: Black Like Me

Black Like Me
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

Book in a Nutshell: In 1959, author John Howard Griffin, with the help of a second-guessing dermatologist, transforms his skin color so that he can discover what it is like to live in the Deep South as a black man. For about six weeks, Griffin struggles to keep his basic needs met, hears things from other men unlike anything he’s ever heard, and wrestles with an internal, psychological turmoil he doesn’t quite anticipate. This book details these experiences and includes some of his conclusions and reflections about the race “question” in America.

Reaction: Howard’s work from nearly 60 years ago produced some complex responses from me, both emotionally and philosophically.

As a sociology major in undergrad, I relished the idea of someone literally trying to live in another person’s shoes. It is a little mind-blowing that this experiment even worked and that Howard wasn’t caught by more people. Because of the nature of his experiment much of the book reads like a thriller as the reader constantly wonders what is John going to face next.

At one level, even as he writes to push for social justice and peace, Howard’s observations can come across as offensive. He makes some fairly broad assertions about how African-Americans feel about certain issues, and he often uses the “we” pronoun as he does it. I kept saying to myself, “Umm, John, you’re still white. How do you really know?” I am sure Howard learned a great ordeal in his experiment, but he seems condescending at times even towards the people he is trying to understand and defend. Using more direct quotes from some of his friends in the black community might have fixed this; however, I do understand that at the time of his writing this, Howard’s goal was for a white audience to receive the message and doing so might have hindered his success there.

On another level, Howard’s experience often provoked me to consider just how much of this has not changed at all. Blatant attacks seem to be on the rise lately and need to be confronted, but I was convicted by some of the more subtle expressions of racism that Howard’s book brings to light. One of these expressions is the tendency of the white man to loosen his tongue and talk more freely around men of color. Whereas we might tighten up our language around white company to maintain a level of decency, whites can knowingly or unknowingly settle into a rougher vernacular that can give the impression that the person talking to us is not worth the same conversational dignity. Because of this helpful observation, I believe I will have more awareness not just in what I say but how I say it.

What resonates the loudest even today are Howard’s calls to the white community to do three things: Be Informed, Listen, and Relate. The whites in Howard’s day and often in ours do not truly know about life as a black man. To bridge the gap and build a more equal and just community, people of all races, but especially the white community, should seek to be learners. They should be better listeners. And they should build authentic, mutual relationships with people from other races. The book may have been written in 1960, but these lessons are timeless; and they are needed in America right now.

Quote: “I was the same man, whether white or black.”

Ranking: 4 out of 5 stars

A Time to Listen – White Men Can Love Their Black Brothers Better

Not just on a day like today, but on, oh, so many days in the past tumultuous year, we speak our mind.

We have a comment and opinion on every news item that crosses our feed. Everything is shaded in hues of left and right. Everything is spun and spat with webs of liberal or conservative fears and prophesies. We speak so much we stop saying anything of any true substance at all.

And often times, we speak out of turn. We speak our defenses when the court is lending its ear to the prosecution. We speak our minors in the presence of things truly major.

We speak. And speak. And speak.

And we miss the sign written all around us. “This is a time to listen.”

Proverbs 18:13 says, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.”

If Facebook and Twitter are any indication, we have a lot of folly and shame to deal with. And when I say “we” here, I am really talking about my white brothers and sisters. Every one of us on this planet can take heed from Solomon on this one, but in many regards, it is the white tribe to which I belong that should weigh the King’s words in this tumultuous season.

A lot of issues that we wrestle with, events that we click, share, post, and comment on in blinding speed, are more complex than people on both sides would care to admit. Complexity demands good listening – not the quick-fire, defensive back-and-forths that define so much of our social media conversations.

As national events like we have seen in Ferguson and New York have transpired, I have watched African-American brothers in Christ honestly struggle in the open as the details emerge. To say I absolutely, fundamentally understand the struggle would be to diminish their unique personhood and the creativity of a God who wove their unique stories. But I do know they struggled.

The most loving thing one could do at that moment, especially as a white brother in Christ, would be to listen. Really, truly, actually, actively listen.

Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even dare to be silent with you.
– Henry Nouwen

But this form of loving one another is so antithetical to the attitude we embrace when we share and comment on social media in particular.

This has been grossly evident in the comment sections of some of the raw, gut-wrenching posts from my African-American brothers in Christ. In moments of pure turmoil when they deal with the ugliness and the worldly brokenness of dead bodies, blood on the streets, and true injustice, the ugliness gets uglier when their white brothers in Christ do not act like their Savior, who according to Philippians 2 thought of others as more important than himself. We do not love with the 1 Corinthians 13 love that hopes all things and believes all things as we do not give one another the benefit of the doubt. We do not remain slow to speak or anger and quick to listen, as we, within seconds, hit “Enter” to post a comment that destroys the humanity of the original poster.

The loving thing to do would be to allow our brother to air his struggle. That is the essence of Christian fellowship: vulnerability and freedom to handle the ugliness of the world out in the open in light of the hope and grace found in the cross and resurrection.

The loving thing to do would be to read our brother’s comment with ears intent to hear the man’s heart – not to assume his agenda.

And often the loving thing to do would be to close our mouths or, in the cyber realm, get our fingers away from the keyboard.

Pastors and leaders have rightly argued in recent days that in light of current events it is “A Time to Speak”.

But if it is a time for some to speak, then that must mean that for others it must be a time to listen.

Are we listening?


It is a time to listen in more ways than one.

Today, in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., here are some of the things I am listening to:

 

“But They’ll Bring Beer”

The Most Common Objection to the Christian’s Need to Throw Parties

In Jeremiah 29, the people of God are given a distinct identity as exiles and sent ones who are to live in pursuit of the good of their city. As followers of Christ, we have been sent out as witnesses and must strive for the peace of our city and neighborhood.

The prophet Jeremiah gave the Jewish exiles an action plan for how they could live as sent ones in the midst of exile in Babylon. They were to 1) plant roots, 2) multiply, 3) pursue the good of their city, and 4) pray for their city (Jer 29:5-7).

Planting roots means establishing a presence in the city. Building houses and building gardens were long term projects. The people of God were to take an active role in the lives of the city around them. Instead of withdrawing from their city, God’s people were being called to engage the city.

As the people of God, we need to establish a presence in our city and neighborhood as well.

Here is just one way we can establish a presence in our city and neighborhood:

    • Throw Parties – In his book, Community, Brad House writes, “Christians really need to repent of their inability to party.” As people who have been brought from death to life and have the promise of eternal life, we have more reason to party than anyone.

So throw a block party. Give out free food. Play some good music. Set up a cornhole tournament. Provide a space for your neighbors to get to know you and to actually have some fun. Become a known asset to your neighbors by serving them and their families in a really simple way.

This will make many of us uncomfortable. The idea of throwing a party with our neighbors gives many us nightmares. Many of us start to come up with reasons why we’re an exception to this call to throw parties.

The number of potential objections is endless, but there’s one that I have heard over and over. There’s one thing I have heard Christians say in reply to this call to throw parties more than anything else:

“But they’ll bring beer.”

This objection on the surface seems very wise and compelling. But it falls short on many levels. Here’s what I want to argue: In most situations, the fact that your neighbors might drink or want to drink if you invited them to a party should not stop you from throwing a party.

Consider 3 reasons you should still throw your neighbors a party even when they might bring beer:

1. You are called to be the missionary – not them. – If you are a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit living inside of you. Your neighbors, in many cases, do not. You are the one who has been sent out as someone who has been changed by the Gospel; they have not.

When missionaries go to another country, they have to present the unchanging Gospel in a way that fits their cultural context. They adopt the language and go meet the people where they are. They do not show up on foreign soil and start demanding that everyone they talk to immediately adopt their own personal cultural norms.

As a Christian, you have been sent by God to be a missionary to your neighborhood. You have been called to go meet people where they are at, to speak their language. You are the one who has been called to sacrifice your comforts, your preferences, your safety, your desires for the sake of the good of your neighbors.

Refusing to throw a party because of how your neighbors might act declares to your neighbors that you are not the one called to cross cultural borders. You are declaring that it is their job to sacrifice their comforts and customs to reach you. They have become the missionary while you sit back in comfort and wait for them to find you.

2. You want to paint a clear picture of the true Gospel. – When you live in the midst of a hostile city, you want to live in such a way that you point those around you to the true hope you have in Christ.

Refusing to throw a party because your neighbors might drink distorts the true Gospel.

The Gospel is that God has given you life with him only through his grace worked out by Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. You did not change your ways so that God would accept you. God accepted you so you could change.

But when you refuse to reach out to your neighbors because they might behave in ways you do not like, you are telling them a different story. You are telling them that you became a Christian because of how good you are.

You are telling them that they need to first change in order for you to accept them as neighbors. A better a picture of the Gospel would be to first accept them into your homes and then call them to the hope that is available in Jesus so they can have the power to change.

3. You are following the example of Jesus Himself. – Perhaps the best reason you should go ahead and still throw a party even if your neighbors might drink is the fact that it never stopped Jesus.

Jesus’ very first miracle happened at one big party where the alcohol had dried up (Jn 2). Jesus not only went to the wedding even though wine was being served, but he also pursued the good of his neighbors by turning the water into the best wine of the night.

The Bible says the Son of Man came to do three things: 1. to serve and not be served and give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:45), 2. to seek and save the lost (Lk 19:10), 3. to come eating and drinking (Mt 11:19).

In fact, the Son of Man came to do so much eating and drinking, the religious leaders and Pharisees called him a drunk and glutton, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Among other things, this implies that Jesus hung out with sinful people even when they brought their beer. The “religious” couldn’t stand it. How could Jesus pollute his reputation like that?

He did it because he came to serve, he came to rescue, he came to give up his own life for others.

So when you throw a party even if your neighbors might behave in ways you don’t like, you are in good company. You are looking and living like Jesus. That’s a safe place to be.

So while the objection, “But they’ll bring beer,” sounds wise and compelling at first, it is not an objection that I believe excuses one from the need to serve our neighbors by throwing parties and inviting our neighbors in the midst of their brokenness to experience the hope we have in Christ as we pursue the good of our city and neighborhoods.

At the end of the day, we need to let go of excuses. Being a missionary is tough, risky, and uncomfortable. But we can enter that discomfort because of the comfort we have in our Savior who entered the discomforts of our world so that we could be right with God.

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One note of clarification: As I said above, the possibility that your neighbors might drink should not stop you from throwing a party for your neighbors in most situations. This is not a universal truth. If you are under 21, you absolutely cannot throw a party where you invite and allow the presence of alcohol. As a believer you are called to follow the laws of your city. In your case refusing the presence of alcohol is what pursuing the good of your city looks like. Another example would be if you, someone in your family, or someone you are trying to reach personally struggles with alcoholism. If you know someone is battling addiction, you want to make sure that you are not putting them in a position to fall into temptation. As believers in Christ, we have freedom – not to a freedom to flaunt but a freedom to give up anything that might hinder a weaker brother who struggles with a specific sin. But all in all, in most situations, it is not appropriate in my opinion to forsake throwing a party for your neighbors just because you’re worried they might want to drink. As missionaries, we’re called to step into the darkness and live as a light that points to the hope we have in Christ – not to withdraw.