This is an email sent to my congregation in St. Louis, MO. It is an attempt to provide pastoral guidance and perspective to our congregation when so many people are frustrated, angry, and confused. With my colleagues, Pastor Bobby Walston and Pastor Paul Dickerson, we desire for our people to follow Christ faithfully in days of uncertainty.
In a contentious election week, your pastors desire to share a response to some common statements we hear. Our heart is for you. Our desire is for you to walk faithfully in Christ, without fear or despair. Our role is not to advocate for a political system. We are pastors. Our calling is higher, to guide you in the ways of God that you might walk faithfully in service to him.
When I visit family in Minnesota, I notice that my "o's" lengthen on words like "boat" and "snow." The accent returns. After a while, we start to sound like the people around us.
Last night I walked my neighborhood during the presidential debate. In nearly every window I saw the glow of a TV tuned to Trump and Biden. I caught the end of the debate. It was a tone and language that I warn my children against.
Language has the power to shape and form us. We are influenced by the voices around us, picking up their "accent." Our own language is often normed by what we hear. As a pastor in this cultural moment, I have a simple desire for my congregation.
I want us to listen to Jesus more than Fox News or CNN. More to Jesus than to Facebook, Instagram, or TicToc.
I want us to be more attuned to Christ than to a candidate.
I want us to echo the talking points of the Sermon on the Mount more than a Democrat or Republican platform.
My congregation will be hanging around Jesus in Matthew 5-7 in the coming weeks. I want us to absorb his language in the Sermon on the Mount as we go through an election season. I want us to be steeped in his distinctive accent. I want us to see how radically different his kingdom is.
In this sermon, Jesus says things that no one else is saying. In a world obsessed with power, position, and popularity, Jesus' stump speech sounds foreign. For instance, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3). The "poor in spirit" stand in contrast to the world's "winners," "victors," and "influencers." The values and virtues of the Kingdom of God contrast the trinket kingdoms of the world.
Poverty of spirit over power.
Dependence over control.
The humble over the proud.
The meek over the loud.
I want us to be formed more by the Kingdom of God than by the ways of the world. For the next month, I invite you to join me in digesting Kingdom language:
Pick up the accent of your King. Then people might even ask where you're from.
After the death of George Floyd, there were an abundance of statements on racism and justice. For better or worse, I was hesitant to add to the list of "statements." Instead, I invested time in one-on-one conversations. Scores of them. Two of those conversations were with the brothers pictured above, Pastors Gerard Bolling and John Schmidtke.
In those conversations, I learned something: my assumptions were off. Assumptions about what people thought about racism. Assumptions about what they expected from the church. It prompted me to make a clear statement to our congregation. In retrospect, I should have done it sooner. But this is a long road and demands more than a single statement. Here’s a letter I sent to my church a this week. It's start.
These days you can’t make plans more than a week out. Ask any educator preparing for the school year. Things change daily, even by the hour. This leaves life feeling chaotic and uncertain.
So how do we go about our work?
Is it worth all the effort?
Should we make plans, or just throw up our hands?
I’ve been dwelling on Psalm 127. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” (Ps. 127:1) This Psalm re-frames our perspective on work and planning when our work seems in vain.
In response to Psalm 127, here are three practices that I think capture its spirit. They put us in the posture of proper work and planning.
Oh, to return to January 1st, 2020. Do you remember when the biggest news was impeachment? I was with some teenagers recently. I asked them, “Use one word to describe the first 6 months of 2020.”
Destruction. There seems to be a dismantling of everything we thought was secure. Assumptions about health, education, economics, and racism have all been challenged. Everything has been blown up in the span of four months. Now we are all trying to make sense of the rubble, wondering if we can put things back together the way the were. Or, do we start from scratch?
“When the protests are over and the cameras are gone, will you walk with a Black life?” My friends at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in North St. Louis have challenged me with this question. Doing ministry in an African American community, their work among children and families is day in and day out. They are on streets and in homes when others leave.
When your favorite celebrity stops waving the justice flag, when it’s no longer fashionable, will your Black neighbor still matter?
Addressing racism is a long, persistent work. An Instagram post or yard sign is insufficient. Rhetoric must become action.
I didn’t sleep last night. My native state is in turmoil. Minneapolis and St. Paul are burning. My friend Andy messaged at 3:00AM, “Police sirens all night, but at least the chopper isn't near my house anymore.” My brother and sister-in-law live in downtown Minneapolis. I worry.
I’m having flashbacks to my own experience in St. Louis after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. Black Lives Matter was born. Six years later, we are still struggling with which lives matter most.
I wrote this in 2016. These days, every day might be a "tenth day." Maybe you can relate.
"How are things going?" I'm asked.
"Every ten days I want to quit." I've given this answer a few times in recent months. Am I really going to turn in my keys? Probably not . . . but maybe.
Anything of significance is worth sacrificing for. And anything worth sacrificing for will leave you with a "tenth day." Nine days can be good, even great. But about every tenth we are sobered by harsh reality.
There are numerous challenges in this pandemic. Medical. Economic. Educational. Political. With plans for re-entry slowly unfolding, I see a bigger underlying challenge: People.
For a few days I’ve been crabby. Is it the Easter hangover? There seems to be an invisible cloud of anxiety wherever I go.
My wife noticed the agitation in me (she always does). “Why am I crabby?” I asked. In straightforward fashion, she called it. “Jeff, everyone is feeling anxiety right now. We’re in a crisis.” “Oh, yeah.”
Disaster always creates emotional and spiritual turmoil. It’s an obvious fact, and it’s critical to name it. I’ve talked to dozens of people this week who feel the same way. We’re nearing the apex of an anxiety curve.