Trading Optimism For Struggle

Ta-Nehisi Coates is more Christian about hope than are many American Christians.

I wrote the following for our church newsletter.

One of my favorite authors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has a new collection of essays out this week, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, about the years during the Obama Presidency and their connection to our current political tumult. On Monday Coates was a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the last two minutes of their conversation caught my attention. Click the video below and begin watching at 5:06 to see the exchange.

“Do you have any hope tonight?” is what Colbert wants to know and Coates is blunt: “No.” I’ve been reading him long enough to have heard Coates asked some variation of this question many different times. His writing is stark and his vision of the country and its history is bleak. He is one of our most truthful contemporary writers. His interviewers, generally white, want to know if this harsh view of our reality contains within it any space for hope.

In his previous book, Between the World and Me, the author warns his son about this country’s blindness towards the devastating truths about ourselves:

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work.

It’s not surprising, I suppose, that many Americans would read a passage like this and wonder if there is room for hope. We’ve been formed to think about this country more positively than this. On the political right we hear the voices calling us to return the U.S.A. to its mythic glory. On the left are those who believe the arc of justice to be long, but eventually inevitable. Coates’ vision is different. For him the evils we face are histories that cannot be easily overcome nor are they contemporary glitches to an otherwise functional society. The wickedness of the nation is endemic to it. To take but one horrifying example, about the enslavement of African people Coates recently wrote, “Enslavement provided not merely the foundation of white economic prosperity, but the foundation of white social equality, and thus the foundation of American democracy.” The evil of slavery, in other words, is not exceptional to what the country is but is a glimpse at its foundational logic.

You don’t have to share Coates’ perspective about this country – though I largely do – to understand why he refuses to offer his interviewers and readers assurances of hope. He is not a hopeful person and his writing provides more than enough rationale. He will not tell his readers that everything will be all right. It’s one of the things I most admire about Ta-Nehisi Coates and his bracing vision of this country.

This country and, if we’re honest, many of its expressions of Christianity, are addicted to optimism. We take our personal experiences of happiness, no matter how brief, as evidence that we are ok, that the direction our lives are heading will end well. For some of us this is especially true when it comes to race. It’s not a surprise to me that many of those interrogating Coates about hope are white. This country works to convince those of us who are – and those to whom whiteness extends its treacherous bargains – that the white supremacy, native genocide, and anti-black racism that lay at the nation’s roots can be transcended. We’re told that we shouldn’t remain bound to these ugly realities. With enough work – some reading, a few diverse friendships, a couple of hard-hitting documentaries, a church racial reconciliation workshop – we can move on to other concerns.

I say we are addicted to optimism because Christian hope is something else entirely, something more akin to the experience Coates describes in much of his writing. Hope, for the Christian is eschatological, which is simply to say that our hope is anchored in the God who will one day make final Christ’s victory on the cross. Such hope does not engender complacency, rather we “labor and strive.” (1 Timothy 4:10) This hope is not dependent on circumstances or the American pursuit of happiness, in fact such visible, transient hope is “no hope at all.” (Romans 8:24) I once heard Coates say something like, hope is struggle, a rather different perspective than the one which leads to our nation’s sanitized and deceptive story about manifest destiny and the like. This too hints at our Christian hope: “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4) To be hopeful in Christ is to dive headlong into the struggle with wickedness and injustice, a struggle which includes suffering but also perseverance, character, and genuine hope.

Optimism is not enough for this generation. We are are hard-pressed on every side: gun violence in our city and beyond; ecological disasters; the rise of blatant white supremacy; sex-selective abortions; nuclear threats and news of genocide from around the world. We could go on. There are also our countless private struggles. Optimism isn’t enough. We need hope.

Maybe the most well-known Christian language about hope is found in Hebrews 11:1. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” It’s not that we don’t want to see the expressions of our hope, the righteousness of the Kingdom of God in all of its fullness. It’s just that we don’t have to see it now to still struggle for it. We aren’t optimists because we don’t require experience or even evidence to throw ourselves into the struggle. Our faith is in the One who allowed evil to roll over his head, who allowed wickedness and oppression to crash upon his body, who was lynched for the sins of the world. Our faith in him is what anchors us now, eyes wide open to all that is wrong, and right. We don’t have to lie about ourselves, and we certainly don’t have to lie about this nation. Our hope is found elsewhere.

The saints who’ve gone before us testify to the trustworthiness of this sort of hope. Though all else is torn away, Christ remains- victorious in the past, glorious in the future. Christian hope will not always appear hopeful to people raised on optimism. But try it. Test it. Repent from the lies this nation has told about itself and about you. Repent from the empty promises of guaranteed happiness and easy optimism. Instead, let us “put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:10) More often than not our hope will appear to the world like nothing so much as struggle. But we who struggle – who hope – will come to find in this hopeful struggle the fullness of life, heaven reaching into earth as a sign pointing toward the day when all will be made new and we no longer need to hope.

Friends are Better than Books

On the (obvious) limits of books written about urban ministry.

A friend recently posted a link on his Facebook page to a webpage cataloguing a list of “Top Christian Books on Reaching Cities.” I’m not linking to the page as the entire site is a bit confusing and the list itself seems flimsy as pointed out in my friend’s commentary: “How to justify educated, upper middle-class white folks moving to the city to plant churches that end up gentrifying neighborhoods.” You can imagine, given his sarcastic description, what he thinks about the list. I’ve not read any of the recommended books, so I can’t speak to their content, but the list does strike me as overwhelmingly white, male, and mostly coming from a particular evangelical tradition. There may be some helpful books on that list but I wouldn’t know.

However, because I’ve pastored in Chicago for 9 of my 14 years of ministry, I am interested in why lists like this one exist. There’s clearly a market for books that attempt to help Christians reach cities with the gospel. (We’ll leave, for this post, the question about what is imagined by that seemingly innocuous word, reach.) I’m sitting next to my well-stocked bookshelves as I write this and I can’t find a single book about urban ministry among my many, many books. I have to imagine that certain pastors have been helped by such books but I’ve never once felt the need to read about urban ministry over these years, especially from the perspective of those authors – often white – who aren’t homegrown to the contexts about which they write.

Making the Second GhettoNow, I read a lot and many of these books are uniquely relevant to the life and ministry of our urban congregation. This year, for example, I’m doing a deep dive into housing policy and federally-mandated segregation. Books like Making the Second Ghetto,  GentrifierThe Color of Lawand Jim Crow Nostalgia are helping me to see our city and neighborhood more accurately and to think more carefully about our presence within a city that continues to experience the harsh results of hugely complex economic and social forces.

I also read a lot that isn’t geared to urban realities but, given my context, I work to apply those books – wether theology, sociology, history, etc. – to our city and neighborhood. There’s nothing unique about this; it’s the kind of thing pastors in our neighborhood do all of the time. Sometimes the contextual application comes relatively easily while other books require the thoughtful reader to spit out a lot of bones to get to a bit of meat. So it goes. The idea that I would limit my reading to books written specifically for my context or demographic seems odd, thought I suppose this is how much of Christian publishing operates.

So I’m ambivalent about books lists like this one but I do feel very strongly that no list can remotely approximate the wisdom of friendships with those who know more than me. When I think about urban ministry I’m rarely thinking about a book or article; I’m almost always thinking about a person or a congregation whose authority has shaped my vision and commitments. The danger – not small in my experience – of book lists like this one is that it gives the reader, often a white pastor with good intentions, the sense that he or she has read enough to do good ministry. But it’s not possible! Nothing can replace the embodied wisdom and accountability that comes from friendship, mentoring, partnerships, and collaborations in which the long-term residents and congregations set the agenda, goals, and metrics of success.

Maybe this takes more time than working through a list of books, but it’s also so much better. And frankly, it’s not all that complicated, though I suppose someone could write a book about it… or maybe they already have.

“The single most annoying thing a nonreligious person can say…”

This confession from a L.A. screenwriter about why she goes to church is pretty great. These three paragraphs about the faith of atheists were my favorite, but you should read the entire thing.

The single most annoying thing a nonreligious person can say, in my opinion, isn’t that religion is oppressive or that religious people are brainwashed. It’s the kind, patronizing way that nonreligious people have of saying, “You know, sometimes I wish I were religious. I wish I could have that certainty. It just seems so comforting never to doubt things.”

Well, sometimes I wish I had the certainty of an atheist. I wish I could be positive that there was no God and that Sundays were for brunch. That dead people stayed dead and prayer was useless and Jesus was nothing more than a really great teacher.

But I believe too much, at least sometimes, to be certain about that. Sometimes I feel like I believe almost everything the church teaches and sometimes I feel like I believe almost nothing, but if I’m anywhere from one to 99 percent on the belief scale, my response is the same. If it’s more than zero, I should go to church.

– Dorothy Fortenberry in the LA Review of Books.

“Lessons from the Dessert”

I’m deeply committed to the integration of an interior life that is attached to Jesus and an exterior life that represents Jesus’ priorities of justice and reconciliation in the world. These two postures are sometimes pitted against each other, or one is downplayed while the other is lifted up. My friend Pastor Daniel Hill likes to say that we lean toward being unbelieving activists or inactive believers and I think he’s right about that. This sermon (beginning at 4:30) by Pastor Rich Villodas of New Life Fellowship Church in NYC is one of the most beautiful visions I’ve heard for holding together these two essentials of the Christian life.

Mourning in America

Lamenting our divided churches on the day before the presidential inauguration.

I woke up to a foreboding on the day before the presidential inauguration. It’s mostly not a sadness for the country I feel, though there’s much to mourn as we watch the decisions that will be made and the warped assumptions that will become normal. I care about these things but I’m not an expert. Also, history reminds us that the noisiest thing at the moment may not be the most important.

No, the weight of grief is tied to an unseen future in which the many Christians who support the new president continue to do so even as their fellow-citizens, many of them Christians, suffer under the president’s agenda. I cannot imagine a line that hasn’t already been crossed that will change their minds. Logically, then, we have to assume that their support will continue, that something about their experience of these days and their place within them will keep them from believing the pain of their neighbors.

The American churches have long been divided but we’ve often cooperated and this has given many of us us reason to hope. That hope, in me, is stretched thin today when one group of Christians prays for the success of the man who threatens the safety and flourishing of their family in Christ. I know this isn’t new. About a particularly horrific lynching in 1892 Ida B. Wells wrote, “American Christianity heard of this awful affair and read of its details and neither press nor pulpit gave the matter more than a passing comment.” The silence continues.

The divisions aren’t new but today their breadth seems endless. May God have mercy on our churches, on his church. May our compromised witness to the Gospel of Jesus be restored, even now, in our desperate weakness.

Mother Emmanuel and our Broken Bodies

Before he began killing them, the young white supremacist accepted the hospitality of those gathered for the prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. Forty-eight hours later, our multiracial church made the annual trip north to Wisconsin for our retreat. That first night, a time usually reserved for laughter and the silly games characteristic of church retreats, was somber. We sat in a circle, led to speak our anger and grief.

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Credit: Susan Broman

On Sunday, before returning home, we prayed a litany for the slain: Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, and Daniel Simmons. And then our testimonies: What is God saying? The anger is still strong, the dangerous vulnerability palpable: Are Black bodies held sacred nowhere in this obscene land?

We stood, the two pastors, to lead the communion liturgy. Her Black body and my White one behind the bread and wine. We recited the same confessions and affirmations we do each month, more slowly this time, as though wondering about the strangeness of crucifixion words in a world that kills, always. I picked up the bread and Pastor Michelle began the familiar words. “Is not the bread we beak a participation in the body of Christ?” She stopped then, the words caught in her throat. I held the bread, looking into the faces of my family – Korean, African American, Mexican, White, Chinese, Filipino – as we wept, the pause growing long and heavy and, with its silence, true. And then, quietly, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”

Today, eighteen months after his massacre, Mother Emmanuel’s guest has been sentenced to die. The anger and grief remain, undiminished by another killing. So do the questions.

The Way Out of Trouble

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. [Matthew 1:18-25]

Much of our lives involves finding a way out of trouble. Some of our troubles are self-inflicted, resulting from selfish decisions, besetting sin, or addictions revisited. Other trouble afflicts us simply because our circumstances, by our place within a world wracked by evil and injustice. This is the sort of trouble Joseph finds himself in when Mary, his fiancé, is found to be pregnant.

Joseph is caught between two competing instincts. Matthew tells us that he was faithful to the law, and so he would have been required to divorce Mary. But we also learn that he is a good man with sincere feelings of compassion and love for Mary: “He didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace.” Like us, Joseph needed a way out of trouble. And he finds a good enough way in his decision to divorce her quietly. In a small ceremony, with two or three witnesses, Joseph could fulfill the requirements of the law while still looking out for Mary’s wellbeing. It remained a heartbreaking situation, but the way out of trouble that Joseph settled on was good enough.

But then God intervened and suddenly Joseph’s good enough way out was no longer good enough. Joseph is visited by an angel who tells him that the Holy Spirit is behind Mary’s pregnancy and immediately his view of the situation and its associated trouble changes. Previously, he had two inputs into his impossible situation: following the law and caring for Mary. But now the angel opens up his vision and he sees beyond his immediate circumstances. He learns that the child Mary carries is a miracle of God and that he has been called by God to care for this child and his fiancé.

Everything changes. What had seemed like a good way out of his trouble now pales in comparison to the options that open up before him. Of course he won’t divorce Mary quietly. Of course he will take Mary as his wife and this child as his son. Why? Because when God opens our troubled eyes to his presence we see options where there had only been dead ends; we see open doors where there had only been brick walls; we see ways out of trouble that are genuinely good rather than just the best bad choice.

Now, we might think that the way out that God provides will be the easiest, the most painless option. But look at what happens to Joseph. After the vision, he takes Mary home to be his wife. So, in the eyes of his small community, Joseph is either a law-breaker because he didn’t divorce his adulterous fiancé, or Joseph himself is the father of Mary’s out-of-wedlock child. Either way, Joseph’s reputation is shot. He has brought shame onto himself and his family. This is now how he will now be defined in the eyes of his family and neighbors.

And then, one chapter later, after Jesus is born, Joseph is forced to lead his young, vulnerable family as refugees into Egypt. King Herod has heard about the baby king born in Bethlehem and he orders him killed. Joseph goes from being a laborer in a small, quiet town – minding his own business and trying to live a life pleasing to God – to a man on the run, pursued by the most powerful, violent tyrant in the region, living as a refugee in another country.

It’s true that God will always provide a way out of our trouble. And his way out will always be better than ours, will always open our eyes to miraculous possibilities beyond our imaginations. But we must not confuse God’s way out for the easy way out, the painless way out, the cheap way out. In a world that shames young, single mothers, God’s way out will at times seem shameful. In a world that fosters violence and upheaval in one nation and then slams shuts the doors to refugees in other nations, God’s way out will at times seem impossible.

What is it that keeps Joseph and Mary faithful to God’s way out of their trouble? Why, given the shame and violence that has come their way, do they not settle for their own good enough way out?

When the angel came to Joseph, he told him that the unborn child would be named Jesus, a very common Jewish name with an uncommon meaning: God saves. He will save his people from their sins. And then Matthew adds an editorial detail: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means “God with us”).”

God saves. God with us.

Mary and Joseph are the first to experience the shock of God’s rescue. Through the birth of their son they discovered that God’s plan – a plan the prophets had been pointing to for centuries, a plan so unexpected that no one was looking for it – they discovered that God’s plan was for God to save his people through coming to be with his people.

God saves. God with us. Jesus.

It’s when we believe that God has come to be with us, to live with us, to suffer with us, to die for us – it’s then that see that God’s way out, despite the cost, is the way of salvation. Jesus’ story did not end with the shame of Bethlehem. His story did not end with the terror of Egypt. His story did not even end with the suffering and abandoned death on a Roman cross. Through all of this, God’s way out was being accomplished. His way out of sin; his way out of rebellion; his way out of injustice; his way out of evil and death. God’s way out was accomplished through Jesus, and Joseph had just enough faith to see it on that night in Bethlehem. Just enough faith to set aside his good-enough way out of trouble and choose God’s way out.

May we do the same. We’ve schemed and planned and strategized our way out of trouble- out of sin, out of pain, out of debt, out of relational dysfunction. We’ve settled for the good-enough way out of trouble. It’s time to follow Joseph’s example. Set down your good-enough plans for a way out of your troubles. Ask the God who saves, the God who is with you, to open your eyes to his way out. It will not be the easiest way. It will not be a painless way. But along this way you will be joined by Immanuel – God with you – who will lead you his salvation.