Can We Talk? About Racism?

Can we talk?

In recent months I have found myself struggling with memories that disturb me to the depths of my soul. The memories are a part of my early life as the son of a Nazarene pastor in Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. The memories are especially poignant relating to those years inMississippi and Alabama where I attended Junior High and High School during the late 1950’s, graduating high school in Tuscaloosa in 1961.  I attended Trevecca Nazarene College in Nashville from 1961, graduating in 1965. My wife Susan and I moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where I attended Nazarene Theological Seminary, graduating in 1968. Our first two assignments after seminary were in Tennessee and Kentucky, home territory to me, and familiar territory for Susan.

If you follow those dates you may be aware that, from the time I entered Junior High School in Mississippi, and through the years of my earliest service as a pastor, I was immersed in the Civil Rights era in the deep South.

Those years were tumultuous for the USA. Brown Versus the Board of Education set in place a new reality for public schools across the nation. The Civil Rights movement was at its most intense. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most visible figures in the nation, and depending on how you viewed the cultural turmoil, he was either the revered leader and spokesman for an oppressed people, or was evil incarnate for his efforts to change the culture of the nation, especially in the South.

Our home was a haven of grace and kindness for my sister and brother and me, and for the people of the churches and communities where my father served as pastor. However, he was also a polarizing figure to some. His support for the civil rights movement, his admiration for MLK, and his willingness to invite African American churches to participate with our churches in revivals and special events drew attention. Black pastors, evangelists, and district superintendents were frequent guests in our home.

Sometimes the attention my father received was appreciative and kind. At other times the attention was threatening and divisive. Among members of the churches were some who applauded his desire to reach across the racial and cultural divide. Some were uneasy, not knowing quite how to respond. And in some cases, the reaction was fiercely opposed to any effort to open doors for relationship with African Americans.

Civil rights was not the only issue creating turmoil and tension during those years. During our sophomore year in college, while Susan and I were having lunch in a little neighborhood restaurant near the Trevecca campus, the owner suddenly brought out a little black and white TV. He sat in on the counter for all to see. We watched in horror as news of the assassination of President Kenedy played out before us on the grainy little screen.

Five years later, while I was a student at NTS, we were stunned by the news of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Two months later, Robert F. Kenedy was killed.

As I watched the “Alt Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia last year, as I have listened to the rhetoric flung about by politicians of every stripe, news outlets of every kind, and social media on every platform, I have had the same agonizing, disturbing, tension producing thoughts and experiences I had as a young teen, as a college and seminary student, and as a pastor in the south.

I recently read again a book written by Dr. Ivan A. Beals, a member of my congregation when I was pastor at KC First. Ivan had served as assistant editor of “The Herald of Holiness” (now “Holiness Today) for many years prior to his retirement. Unknown to many people, Beals was a passionate advocate for racial reconciliation. He spent the last several years of his life meticulously researching and writing a book that was published in 1997, entitled, “Our Racist Legacy: Will the Church Resolve the Conflict?” A year later he wrote, “A Theology of Forgiveness: Towards a Paradigm of Racial Justice”.

To read his books is to be driven to your knees. To see how the Church of Jesus Christ has been complicit in creating the racial divide, and how ineffective it is in addressing the issue, nearly overwhelms me in grief.

The question we must ask is this:  Are we willing to face, openly and honestly, the racial divide that has only deepened in the past decade? Are we, as the people of God, ready to grapple with our own complicity, and seek the forgiving grace of God? And are we willing to make the radical changes and sacrifices that will be required of the majority race in the Church and in the culture in order to finally and fully resolve the conflict, to the best of our ability to do so?

Where will the conversation begin? And where will it take us?

Can we talk? Can we talk openly? Can we talk honestly?

Will we talk?

Jesse C Middendorf

November 1, 2018

9/11 Reflections

September 11, 2018, was the 17th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center Towers in New York City. It was a day of reflection for me, and memories flooded into my mind and heart. I was unwilling to write on that anniversary day, deciding rather that I would simply let the memories flow, think about them, and mull over the implications for where we are today in our broken world.

On that day in 2001 I had just arrived at Nazarene Headquarters for my first quarterly meeting as the newest member of the Board of General Superintendents. My start date had been August 1, 2001.

Only Dr. Paul Cunningham, our board chairman, was in the office when I arrived. The weight of my new responsibilities was only just beginning to settle on my utterly inadequate shoulders.

While I was finding my way around our office complex, one of the secretaries suddenly stopped me, asking if Dr. Cunningham and I had heard the news. She then said something about an incident in New York City where one of the World Trade Center Towers had been hit by an airplane. It seemed serious, she said. Dr. Cunningham and I were both troubled, but not overly alarmed, until another secretary came running into the room. A second airplane had hit the other tower. This one was an airliner! In a matter of minutes we had found and tuned a television into a national news channel, and as we watched, our hearts began to sink. A few minutes later came news that the Pentagon in Washington, DC had also been attacked, and a fourth airlines had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.

It was then that the enormity of my new assignment took on a weight that become overwhelming. Dr. Cunningham turned to me and asked, “Who is in jurisdiction in New York?” The board of six was each assigned jurisdiction over a selected number of districts in the US and around the world. In case of crisis or vacancy in leadership of the districts, the jurisdictional general superintendent was responsible for overseeing the appropriate response to the situation. Suddenly my heart stopped! My breathing came only with effort. In a moment of stunning realization it dawned on me that I was in jurisdiction in both Metro New York and in Washington, DC.

For the next several months my life was immersed in conversations with district superintendents, denominational disaster response teams, trips to “ground zero,” and meetings with local leaders, first responders, family members of victims, and pastors. The Metro New York District was reeling, and several meetings were held for local church representatives to give voice to the anguish, the uncertainty, and the responsibility for responding with compassion, sensitivity, and Christian hope.

The Church’s response was heroic. From across the nation volunteers poured in to assist local recovery efforts at “ground zero,” and to assist other volunteers with food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities. In New York City, and in Washington, DC, the Church of Jesus Christ was at the front lines, pouring out help, compassion, prayer, counseling, and needed relief from the never ending process of grief, disbelief, anger, fear, and uncertainty. I will never forget it. September 11 never comes without a deep sense of grief, of gratitude, of admiration, and the realization that human evil knows no bounds. The awareness of our need for Gospel, grace, conviction, holy love, and a disciplined refusal to allow evil to win, never goes away.

As I write this I am aware that Hurricane Florence is assaulting our nation’s East Coast, and not far from that coast, my granddaughter and her husband, both just entering graduate school, are bracing for their first encounter with nature’s capacity for unimaginable destruction. At the same time, Typhoon Mangkhut is pounding the Philippines.

It reminds me that exactly four years after 9/11, I stood on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in Mississippi and Louisiana, stunned at the utter and complete desolation resulting from the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. I was then in jurisdiction in those two states, once again observing the heroic efforts of our Disaster Response ministry. I saw churches and homes totally devastated, and volunteers from across the continent pouring into the midst of the devastation, giving of their time, their resources, providing help, support, prayer; rebuilding homes and churches, preparing and serving thousands of meals, and asking nothing in return.

In the years following 9/11, I have traveled the globe, and have seen destruction of every kind. Human evil is capable of more disruption, destruction, and displacement than you can imagine. And natural disasters strike with distressing regularity, wreaking havoc on the most vulnerable, but not leaving anyone out of the devastation when it occurs.

We live in a world at risk, a world much more vulnerable to disruption and destruction than we are willing to acknowledge. And yet, I have seen the people of God arise to the occasion and extend a hand of compassion to those most in need more times than I can describe. I have seen firefighters whose homes were being destroyed by wildfires stay at their post seeking to save the homes and businesses of others. I have seen victims of unfathomable human cruelty arise to pour out their lives in compassion toward others who are suffering.

I remember riding in a car in a country which had endured an extended and destructive civil war. We were there to conduct the first district assemblies in years. As we drove from the airport to the capitol city a few miles away, we drove through checkpoints where barriers required us to slow to a crawl and navigate around twists and turns set up to thwart any attack that might be planned. As we entered each checkpoint a soldier would chamber a shell into a 50 caliber machine gun, and keep his hand on the weapon, watching us closely as we drove toward and then around him. No one was trusted. Fear was evident on the faces of people everywhere. The war was officially over, but the tension was extremely high.

I hardly knew how to anticipate the first district assembly. I assumed the atmosphere would be characterized by the fear and the distrust evidenced since landing at the airport. Guns, military personnel, fighter and bomber aircraft parked near to the primitive and severely damaged passenger terminal, all conveyed the sense that in a moment, the demons of warfare could be released, and chaos would reign.

But when we arrived at the site of the assembly, the people were gathering from across the district. With bright eyes and gleaming faces, laughing and embracing one another, I watched as the pastors and delegates to this first assembly in years were exhibiting a transparent joy, a genuine delight in seeing one another. They seemed intent on relishing the moment, and were in no hurry to settle down to business. But they did worship! Oh, how they worshipped! They sang with hands lifted up, tears flowing, and shouts of praise. My translator kept me up on some of the stories being told in spontaneous testimonies. There were descriptions of harrowing escapes from battles being fought in and around their homes and churches. Some buildings had been occupied by combatants from either side at one time or another, and a few family members and neighbors had been wounded or killed. But the joy was contagious!

To my utter surprise and delight, there were two candidates for ordination. Somehow the district had been able to maintain a modicum of organization, and pastors who were nearing completion of their studies when the war broke out were able to finish their work. The service of ordination was simple, but the joy and excitement were tangible. And as the assembly had progressed the people were planning to wade into the devastation and division left by the war with grace, hope, assistance to those most in need, and a plan to open churches that had been closed by the fighting.

As I have reflected on what I have seen around the world in response to natural disaster, and to human evil of unimaginable magnitude, I am struck by the capability of the people of God to be be people of hope and grace. The willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others in need, even when their own needs were seemingly insurmountable, testifies to a resilience of spirit that can only come from the Spirit of God.

Some days I could be a rank pessimist. The tension, division, and devastation seem so prevalent that one could despair of there being any hope of resolution or repair. But then I see people of God step into the furor with grace, discipline, determination, and an eternal Hope. I see nations healed, communities rebuilt, children cared for, refugees protected, and churches planted. I hear of new life in Christ, baptisms occurring, pastors being called into ministry. And I remember a service of remembrance honoring first responders in New York City. I recall a service in a church rebuilt in Mississippi where our African American pastor had become a hero to the neighbors, both white and black,  because of the selfless service of the pastor, the people of that local church, and NCM volunteers from across the nation.

So, once again, 9/11 stuns me. Storms trouble me. National division and political rancor disturb my heart. But “we see Jesus,” manifest in the people of God, accomplishing what seems impossible. And I can live another year!

 

 

Finding Our Way

Recent weeks have been difficult for the Church of Jesus Christ in many ways. Willow Creek Church and its leadership collapse, children and parents separated as part of a government crackdown on immigration, the anniversary of the alt-right tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, and this week, the report of the grand jury in Pennsylvania regarding the thousand or more children abused by priests over the last fifty years, with the apparent cover up of the abuse by church authorities. This follows months of horrific stories of women being sexually harassed or abused by men in positions of leadership in business, entertainment, and politics, resulting in the #Me,Too movement. Only to be followed by women coming forward to reveal the very same kinds of abuse in evangelical churches, resulting the #Church, Too movement.

Every evening newscast brings more stories of young Black men being killed, usually by guns, and while mothers and families weep and cry and communities demonstrate and demand justice, the Church of Jesus Christ seems powerless, and silent.

A scan of public media reveals the rancor and ridicule leveled toward the Church from a wide array of sources. Young adults are leaving the Church, the rise of the “nones” is the fastest growing religious designation of choice, and churches are closing by the thousands.

Some of us are sure it is the government’s fault. Others decry the entertainment industry’s influence on the “collapse of morals” in the culture. Some think the Church has outlived its meaning and purpose, and should simply be seen as a relic of a bygone era.

Maybe it is time we rediscover the Scriptures. Maybe we need to find our way through the morass of this conflicted age, both globally, nationally, and locally by returning to the words of challenge, confrontation, and hope that should have shaped the people of God from the beginning.

What we find in those sacred words is that in the beginning God created them “male and female,” reflective of his own being, and gave them responsibility to tend and steward God’s good creation.  We find that in reality there are only two races: Those in fallen Adam, and those in Christ. Every other distinction is invalid! We find that the distortion of God’s purposes due to sin were so restored and completed in Christ that now, as co-regents, men and women are intended to live, in this current situation, whatever it is, the reality of the Kingdom of God that has come in the suffering death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the Christ.

What we find is that the Church was never intended to hide behind its stained glass windows in a holy huddle, but was intended to be out in the brokenness of the world around us bringing hope, restoration, reconciliation, and justice. And this justice, social justice, is not a “left-wing liberal ideology” but is at the very heart of the prophetic voice of Isaiah, Hosea, Jeremiah, and all the other Old Testament prophets. And it is at the heart of the life and ministry of Jesus, most clearly expressed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

And we must never appoint ourselves to the committee to determine who is ineligible to hear the gospel. We must never classify which sin is a “bridge too far,” is so unacceptable to us that “those people” are to be excluded, shunned, and condemned.

We have to find our way back to Scripture, not as our weapon to be used to divide, demean, or reject those not like us.We must become people of radical hope, extreme hospitality, and undiminished optimism. We are the demonstration that what Christ has begun is at work, in and through us, and whether it comes quickly, or through suffering love in difficult circumstances, we welcome the stranger, we visit the sick and imprisoned. We clothe the naked and feed the hungry, while we announce the Kingdom and invite all who will to join us. We know the outcome! Caesar is an imposter! Jesus is King!

 

Character Matters

As a participant in the “holiness movement,” I have been re-reading many of our most significant theologians in recent months, taking time to search the scriptures where they are cited, following cross references in the scriptures, and reading extended passages of scripture in search of the meaning behind the words.

It has not been lost on me that much of this reading is being done with the backdrop of angry political rhetoric that is bouncing around in the news and on social media, and the sometimes vitriolic posts made by religious people to and about one another.

As I have read the words of the theologians, and as I have searched the scriptures, I find it distressing that so much that is being said by and about people who claim to follow Christ is very far from what Christ claimed for himself, and what he asks of his followers.

While I am not interested in sparking more of the rhetoric, I am becoming even more convinced that, if we are only looking for a “Savior” in Jesus Christ, we have missed the most important part of Christ’s objective. He desires to do far more than help us “punch our ticket so that we can go to heaven when we die.” Christ died and rose again in order to form us who are created after the image of God into the very likeness of Christ for which we were created. We are to be “the evidence” that, with the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Kingdom of God has begun, right here on planet earth!

While most Christians would agree that “being good” should characterize the life of all who claim to belong to Jesus, this journey is about much more than being good. What God desires is that we be molded into the very character of Christ, that our minds and hearts be molded by the power of the Holy Spirit shaping us, forming us, recreating us into a reflection of the mind of Christ (Philippians 1:5).

This is not something we can do at our own initiative, or in our own strength. But it is something that requires our active, Spirit enabled response and participation. We, by the grace of God (the active work of the Holy Spirit in our lives), may respond, participate, and cultivate the graces and fruit of Christlikeness. For John Wesley, the evidentiary graces, or fruit, of the Spirit were love, joy, and peace. The primary expression is that love that is poured into our lives when we are “born of the Spirit,” a love that must be cultivated, developed, and nurtured by prayer, attention to Scripture, faithful participation in the means of Grace, and engagement with others in Christian community. While there are stages and steps along the way, this is a life-long journey.

Only as we intentionally cultivate these graces can we develop the virtues that become “second nature” to us in our living and our speaking. The objective is to reflect the character of Christ in every relationship, in every conversation, in every “post,” in every “tweet,” in every transaction in our lives. In contrast, a person without character is a danger to everyone in every situation in which they operate.

The contrast between the followers of Jesus who are being shaped and re-created by the Spirit will bear witness to a greater truth, a grander vision, and a more compelling reality than all the vitriol currently being thrown around in the political arenas and the “twittersphere.” Then we can move into human need, racial injustice, domestic violence, gender oppression, and every other expression of brokenness and sin, with grace, courage, and passion.

Character matters!

Let’s get this right!

Jesse C Middendorf

July 21, 2018

 

The Courage to Speak Redemptively

It takes “guts” to be a pastor today! In a culture afire with American nationalism, political rancor, racial tension, border crises, and separated families, everyone has a “side.” And pity the poor pastor, whatever the size church she or he leads, who attempts to speak a radically redemptive word into such a mileu.

But there is a desperate need for a reasoned, scripturally grounded, and theologically sound voice in our world. People are desperate for hope, and the holiness tradition should be one of the places where that hope is well articulated, radically lived, and lovingly embraced.

We who claim to see the possibility of radical transformation of the human heart in scripture, who have historical narratives about cultures being changed and nations reformed, should not be fearful to speak this hope into these troubled times.

But we must speak this hope into congregations of people. Our churches must not be political forums where we attempt to correct the nations leaders from the pulpit. They are not listening anyway.

We have an obligation to speak to people – to our people – encouraging them to become the representation of the “already – not yet” Kingdom of God. Let’s exalt Christ as our hope, our leader, our example, and our redemption. Let’s call for our people to embody the Sermon on the Mount as the lived expression of the Kingdom, as the Law of God described for living in our time.  Let’s invite them to pursue the holy life with zeal, discipline, and passionate dependence on the Holy Spirit.

And, and by our own example, we must insist that this message has no value until it propels us into the foray with holy love, reaching across racial and cultural lines, meeting the desperate needs of people all around us.

We holiness folk can easily draw our righteous robes around us and become isolated from the brokenness so evident in our neighborhoods. Let’s reject that kind of isolation and begin to express the radical hospitality of Jesus, who loved sinners, embraced outcasts, reached across every boundary, and risked being classed with drunks and prostitutes. That reach did not contaminate his holiness. His holiness changed the world.

This is risky business, Pastor. But take courage. Speak up. Live the holy life. Demonstrate holy love. The message is worth the risk!

Jesse C Middendorf

July 11, 2018