Mission Moment/Vulnerability and Grace 10.18.2021

One question I (Jakob) started asking people when they come to NorthHaven for benevolence needs is where they go to church. For a long time I neglected to ask, because I didn’t want to come across judgy. I changed my mind though.

I respect the reasons people do not go to church. I even admire some of them, but I still believe everyone’s lives benefit from a loving, healthy spiritual community. 

If a person tells me they do not go to church, I tell them the same thing I just wrote y’all. I try not to be preachy, but I do believe that in life’s biggest challenges- the challenges that bring people to our door in need- a spiritual community can help us get through them. So I’ve started saying so. 

If a person answers that they do go to church, then I ask if they approached their own church for help. Sometimes they say yes but their own church wouldn’t help them. If the church who knows them the most said no, then that’s a conversation I want to have before handing out money. It doesn’t disqualify anyone, but it is cause to dig deeper. 

A few weeks ago, a woman started crying when I asked her if she’d gone to her own church for help. She hadn’t. Why not? I asked. She was too embarrassed, she said. She didn’t want her church to know that she was one of “those people.” 

The conversation was heartbreaking and made me question the way their church thought about poor people in general if this woman was so afraid to be identified as one. I grieved because she couldn’t be honest with her own church family about one of her greatest struggles- one that was in no way her fault.

I hope that she is wrong about her church. I hope that if she trusts her church with her real self and her real struggles, then she will be surprised by their understanding and grace. Maybe even their generosity. But sadly, she was probably right. I believed her and did everything we could to help her.

For a lot of people church isn’t the place to be vulnerable or poor in body or spirit. But if not here, then where? Where else can we find others committed to living an honest human experience with integrity? Where else can we find fellow travelers on this difficult road who believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that God is the mystery and the beauty at the center of it all?

That’s why I loved Lynndi Cox’s prayer so much this Sunday (10/17) in worship. Worship is a place to sing to God with a joyful heart, of course, but lament and grief have just as much right to that space as anything else. It all belongs in the sanctuary of God and at the foot of the cross. 

Honest church community is work. It requires a lot from us that only God can give us, but as Lynndi articulates so well, it’s worth it to keep pressing in.

Here’s her prayer:

“Lord, last time I was up here praying out loud in our church, sometime in late 2019 or early 2020, I asked you to help us to reflect on the ways in which we relied on and trusted in the broken systems, routines, and structures of this world and to help us to trust more in you. Whoops! So, here we are, still very much in the midst of a global pandemic, with the broken systems fully exposed. Our lives have been dramatically adjusted. Many of us are sitting with a lot of anger, frustration, and anxiety. Our friendships, family relationships, and patience have been tested by the events of the last few years. I can’t speak for everyone, but for some sitting here today (or at home), the experience has been isolating. It has been hard to cling to faith and hope. It has been hard to keep showing up, to keep reaching out to others and to you. So, today, I ask you to help us to find the strength to keep showing up. To keep trying. To keep connecting. To keep listening for your voice calling us in the night. Then, when we hear you, give us the courage to respond and act according to your will. 

Thank you for the gift that is NorthHaven. May we continue to be a community that loves, encourages, and supports each other as we try to follow Christ’s example.


Mission Moment 8.30.2021

In his ministry, Jesus often acts in such a way to humble the wise while also giving dignity to the lowly. He scolds the Pharisees and the rulers of the day, yet speaks graciously with the woman at the well (John 4) when it was undignified to do so. Jesus sees her as a child of God, not merely a person with a troubled past. 

Jesus’ interactions with children are another place we see this. The disciples, who understood Jesus’ ministry better than most, still reprimanded children for coming to Jesus, but he welcomes them, breaking social norms to do so. It’s hard to wrap my mind around this one, when I’m taught to make my needs secondary to my children’s.The first century world was not this way. Yet, Jesus rebukes the disciples for preventing children from coming to him. Jesus is often painted with children sitting on his lap. 

Throughout the Gospels, from children to divorced women, from those with leprosy to those with bleeding ailments, Jesus gives dignity to those who have been humbled by life. 

I am convinced that a huge aspect of the Church’s work is helping people reclaim the dignity they deserve as children of God. 

NorthHaven had a great opportunity to do just that this summer. Through a NorthHaven member, I connected with a family fostering three siblings in middle and high school. The kids wanted to run cross-country, but the family didn’t have the money to outfit all of them with the appropriate gear. 

The more I got to know this family, the more I thought about another NorthHaven member who I suspected might want to help them out. When I reached out to this person (who asked to remain anonymous, but loves that this story is being told), they were ecstatic to donate money to gear up these kids. They specifically told me to “Go all out. Name brands.” So we did. 

I was lucky enough to be the intermediary who took these three kids shopping for the best running shoes, socks, athletic clothes, water bottles, and sunglasses. Nice things that anyone of us would be proud to own. Nice things that a foster child could wear to cross country practice at a new school and not stand out as a foster child. 

Earlier this month, I reached out to the foster parents to check-in. They told me it looked like the two oldest kids would actually make the cross country team this year. They loved running and found in it a release from the pressure of life. 

The youngest decided that he didn’t love running at all. A child after my own heart. They foster parents told me never owned a pair of sunglasses before, much less a pair of name brand glasses. The one’s we gave him were his most prized possession. He took them everywhere, night or day. They thanked the church for making this possible. For giving this child something to be proud of, no matter how small. 

One of the things our church does well is connect people and resources. Without NorthHaven members, I never would have learned about this foster family or their needs. Without other NorthHaven members, we wouldn’t have met those needs. Even though no budget money went into this mission moment, it is still a great example of the kind of opportunities that NorthHaven creates in our community.

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

*You can give to the mission and ministry of NorthHaven Church here. 

Mission Moment 8.23.2021

Foster care is near and dear to our heart at NorthHaven.

Last week I was contacted by a NorthHaven member who knew a foster family struggling to make ends meet at the beginning of the school year. The husband was a postal worker and the wife is disabled. They foster two kids that are their own distant relatives. 

The state supports foster families financially, but it doesn’t help families that are related to the kids they are fostering nearly as much as those who are unrelated. That means if I took in my hypothetical cousin’s kids because my cousin is an addict and unable to care for them, then I wouldn’t receive nearly as much financial support from the state as a complete stranger would if they took in the same kids. 

Not only does this practice de-incentivize keeping children in their families, it also creates added stress for those families fostering their own relatives, no matter how distantly related.

The family brought to our attention was one such family.

It’s important to remember that this family did not ask for help. Someone asked for help on their behalf. That means I needed to 1) learn if they really need the help, 2) not offend or belittle them, and 3) see exactly what kind of help they both need and are willing to accept. 

Everyone falls on hard times. Everyone of us might be in a position where we need benevolence help one day. It isn’t a matter of making wise decisions or not, but about the complications of life. I try to keep that in my mind when meeting with people, and I hope that if the tables are reversed, then someone will show me the same dignity. 

When I drove out to meet the couple, it was immediately obvious they were strong, wise people. They have solid plans to raise their income level beginning in September, but they really could use a little help getting through August. 

I offered to bring them groceries, if they would allow it. They agreed to groceries, but under one condition. The wife would pick them out herself. She is a great cook and wanted to make sure I didn’t buy food that would go to waste or a bunch of “bland white people food.” She was pleased to be quoted on that when I reached back out 🙂 

Last Monday, I was able to spend one of the happiest hours of my week at the grocery store learning how to pick out “real seasoning and spice” so that economical meals taste like a million bucks. 

Sometimes NorthHaven’s benevolence money goes to feed people who are literally starving. Other times it puts food on the table of the working poor. The working poor are families who have jobs and live reasonably but still struggle to make ends meet. These are the kinds of people most resistant to help, but who really do need a little something to keep them above water. 

If you’re a NorthHaven member who gives to the benevolence fund by dropping money in the baskets on Communion Sundays, then $300 of that money was used to put tasty food on the table of a good family with a great sense of humor and a lot of love. 

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

If you’d like to give to support the mission and ministry of NorthHaven Church you may do so here. 

Missions Moment 8.19.2021

July-September is always a busy benevolence season. Children go back to school and extra expenses ensue. 

Some people spend all of their flexible income on back to school supplies and clothes for their kids and then need help with necessities at the end of the month. Others are embarrassed to send their kids to school wearing clothes that don’t fit. Since no one wants to draw the ire of ruthless adolescents, they bravely ask churches for help. 

We’ve helped a lot of people this year, and I’m going to write a series of vignettes about the stories I am able to share. 

In July, I received a call from an individual I know through NHC’s partnership with a local nonprofit. Someone we trust, but who asked to remain nameless. He told me the story of a couple here in Central Oklahoma. Unable to conceive children, they’ve decided to foster toward adoption. With only three hours notice, this couple’s first placement was three siblings. 

The state gives some money to help foster families out, but the costs were higher than the couple expected. 

First, the couple didn’t expect to house three kids, but happily obliged in order to keep the siblings together. This meant they needed to purchase an extra bed frame and mattress.

Second, they didn’t plan on fostering older children. The kids came to them with barely any possessions, and only a couple changes of clothes. The couple owned clothes for the youngest child, but would need to purchase clothes for the older two. 

Quickly the couple realized they weren’t able to keep up with the expenses on their own. Help was needed. They requested more assistance from the state, but were denied. Then they reached out to the nonprofit their friend worked at, but since they were both employed teachers, they didn’t qualify for assistance there either. 

That’s when the final ball dropped. The kids needed to take summer school, and they would need tablets for the virtual learning portions of class. Where would the money come from? 

That’s when our mutual acquaintance called me to ask if there was anyway NorthHaven could help. 

I trusted him, and knew our church did, but I met with the couple anyway. They weren’t asking for much at all, but it was clear they needed a lot more than they were asking for.

Immediately, I gave them $1000 from the Pastor’s Discretion account. This account doesn’t come from the operating budget at all, but is 100% funded through specifically designated gifts. It’s there for exactly these kinds of things when quick action is need. I used that money to buy them a mattress, a bed frame, and give them a sizable gift card to the grocery story. 

I was positive they needed more help than this though.

I also contacted our Missions Committee and asked to help the family buy the tablets and nice clothes for the older kids. Not only did the Missions Committee vote to allocate another $1000 from the Other Missions account (funded through your tithes) toward helping this foster family get everything they needed, but one person on the committee took the initiative to raise another few hundred dollars from NorthHaven members not on the committee and even offered to take the children shopping themselves. 

These three foster kids are going through something no child should ever have to go through. We can’t change that for them, but we were able to ease their trauma ever so slightly. NorthHaven put clothes on their backs they aren’t ashamed of, tablets in their hands they can learn from, and a bed beneath them to rest in. 

Every child deserves at least as much. 

Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor

P.S. Because you asked: if you’re non-NorthHavener, I want to give away your money too 😉 I am 100% unashamed to ask for money when I can guarantee it goes to someone in real need. You can write “benevolence” or something like it in the notes section and by law we have to use it for that purpose. You can rest assured that it won’t go to me or toward any of the religious hocus pocus 😂

Giving Link.

Light In Strange Places

On Monday, I wore my NorthHaven t-shirt with a rainbow flag on it to the gym for the first time.

The gym I workout at is more industrial than commercial. It’s an old big rig garage that’s now home to a hodge podge of fitness equipment. No a/c. No heat. The kind of people that workout there aren’t quite like commercial gyms either. For one thing, there aren’t many senior citizens. There is one though.

He’s there every morning at the same time I am. His is the aesthetic of a biker with a shaved head and a handlebar mustache. Our paths cross frequently, but we never said anything more than, “how many more sets do you have on that bench?”

On Monday, he cut straight through the gym to ask me what the rainbow flag on my shirt meant. There goes my workout, I thought, but what I said was, “it means all people are welcome and wanted at my church just the way they are. Gay folks included.”

“Do you have a shirt to tell Black people or brown people they can come too?” he followed up with more than a little bit of antagonism.

“No,” I chuckled. Not an unfair question, I guess. I told him that in Oklahoma, the assumption was that gay people aren’t welcome in most churches. That’s why we wanted to explicitly say otherwise, and we hoped that the rainbow flag was a welcome sign not just to gay folks, but to everyone else too. If it wasn’t, then I’d just have to keep having conversations like this one, I told him.

That seemed to satisfy him. Either that or he wasted as much time between sets as he was willing to lose.

I chalked it up to a strange interaction and didn’t think much more about it.

Today, when I worked out I wasn’t wearing my NorthHaven shirt, but my curious old friend was there again. As soon as he saw me, he darted straight at me once again.

I braced myself. Sometimes this kind of behavior means the person spent their evening googling Bible verses so that they can tell me off. But not this time.

He dug into his pocket, yanked out a $20 bill and thrust it at me.

“Here. This is for your church. Do something good with it.” He spit the words like they were poison and dashed away.

He was back under the barbell before I even put the money in my pocket.

I couldn’t help it. I laughed out loud and shook my head. The interaction was too bizarre. So many questions rolled through my mind, but clearly he didn’t want to engage anymore than that. At least not then.

When he finished his workout I made sure to ease toward him in hopes of satisfying my curiosity.

“Hey, I just want to say thank you, and assure you that we’ll do something good with your money.” I said. “What made you decide to do that?”

And that’s where the story started.

He was a sailor. A career man in the navy, and he loved it. He was also gay. Not married. No desire to marry. He wasn’t religious either. Religion is mostly for the weak minded, he said. He walked out those doors 50 years ago and had no desire to go back. But, he continued, there might be a place in the world for churches to be good to everyone. At least, enough for him to give $20 towards it. He wasn’t giving $50, he reminded me more than once.

Life is strange; we people are stranger, and interactions with strangers are stranger still. Still, I give thanks for a church that even people who don’t believe in church feel inspired to give toward.

He’s right. The world might be a better place because NorthHaven is in it.

Depression: 13 Ways to Care for Yourself and Others

A couple weeks ago I was on a zoom call with 10 pastors spread across the country and between 3 denominations. By the end of the call, 4 of the 10 pastors admitted to struggling with suicidal thoughts. The week after that, I wrote an article on suicidal ideation for one of our partners, Baptist News Global. I was shocked, heartbroken, and encouraged when the article was shared more than 125,000 times.

The problem is even bigger than I realized and obviously pastors aren’t the only ones experiencing a mental healt

h crisis right now. No one is immune to the intense difficulties this moment in history piled on us. Life is hard. Always has been, and this is the hardest it’s been in my lifetime.

Not everyone experiences depression in the same way, and symptoms can vary. Here’s a list of symptoms from healthline to help identify if you or a loved one is experiencing depression:

  • seem sad or tearful
  • appear more pessimistic than usual or hopeless about the future
  • talk about feeling guilty, empty, or worthless
  • seem less interested in spending time together or communicate less frequently than they normally would
  • get upset easily or are unusually irritable
  • confusion or memory problems
  • have less energy, move slowly, or seem generally listless
  • have less interest in their appearance than usual or neglect basic hygiene, such as showering and brushing their teeth
  • have trouble sleeping or sleep much more than usual
  • care less about their usual activities and interests
  • seem forgetful or have trouble concentrating or deciding on things
  • eat more or less than usual
  • talk about death or suicide

If you know someone who is experiencing depression right now, here’s a simple list of ways you can help:

1. Listen to them. Don’t give advice and don’t try to show them how things
could be worse. Affirm their experience and let them know you are there for them.

2. Encourage them to seek professional help. Most of us aren’t professionals, and even if we are, we don’t need to be in that role with our friends and family. We can offer friendship and spiritual companionship for the road, but it’s important to point them toward professional resources.

3. Stay in touch. When someone is feeling depressed, reaching out can be difficult. So call and text your friend, but don’t get offended if they don’t answer or return the call. You’re trying to help, not add another burden or obligation to their plate.

Likewise, continue to invite them to things. Have coffee or lunch on the picnic table under the church pavilion. Remind them how much you enjoy having them at book club, at church worship, or on the Zoom Sunday school call. But be sure to leave them a way out if they aren’t feeling up to it.

4. Help with tasks. When depressed, small tasks can sometimes seem impossible. Offer to bring your friend groceries or take their mail to the post office for them.  Helping in these small ways can make a big difference.

5. Take care of yourself. We are all in a pandemic. Don’t get so involved caring for others that you neglect to care for yourself. Neglecting our own needs is not a christian virtue, and is dangerous not only to ourselves and our families, but to the church. Like the airplane stewardess says, put your oxygen mask on first so that you can help others put theirs on also.

If you are experiencing depression, here’s a few things that might help:

First, a reminder that depression comes in many forms and degrees. Do not neglect to take appropriate action for your wellbeing just because you aren’t experiencing specific symptoms or because your symptoms aren’t as severe as they could be.

1. Confide in trusted allies. Reach out to your inner circle and be honest about how you are feeling. Tell them the truth without expecting them to fix it. They can’t, but they can walk beside you on the journey. And be careful to share only with those who can be trusted to walk with you. Sharing with someone who doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to be an ally for you can be more harmful than helpful.

2. Get professional help. I know plenty of people who only ever share with friends, but their journey stops after that. Sharing our burdens with competent companions does seem to lessen the load, and many people feel that initial
relief and talk themselves out of getting professional help. Don’t do that. Take the next step and share your experience of depression or anxiety with your Primary Care Physician (who is treating a lot of this right now) or your counselor. And if you don’t have a counselor. Find one. Your wellbeing may depend on it.

3. Reevaluate expectations. We’re in a pandemic, a hyper-partisan culture, an upcoming election, and a civil rights movement. We are not capable of fulfilling the same level of expectations as we were this time last year. No one is. So reexamine and reevaluate realistic exceptions for yourself and for others. Stop holding yourself and others accountable to impossible ideals. An old spiritual teacher used to say, “How do we know when an expectation is unrealistic? When it isn’t being met.”

4. Keep a gratitude journal. Writing down just three things for which we are grateful each day is scientifically proven to help rewire our brain. Spiritual teachers have taught on the importance of gratitude for centuries and now scientists are affirming their teaching.

5. Get outside for 30 minutes a day. Likewise, science can show that being outside helps improve mood and brain function. It isn’t an end all be all, but it’s a simple act that can help. So go for a walk, read in the backyard, or float in the community pool.

6. Meditate. Jesus went to the mountain to pray for hours on end and sometimes through the entire night. The early church fathers taught that this kind of prayer was centering or contemplative prayer. It’s not talking at God for hours on end, which can actually serve to increase our anxiety. But sitting in fellowship with God in the intimacy beyond words.

The science indicates that just 5-10 minutes of meditation or centering prayer can make a significant difference in our brain chemistry, bolstering resilience and and coping skills. I’ve used the Headspace app for years now and love it. There are plenty of apps out there both Christian and secular that can help lead a meditative/prayer journey.

7. Limit time spent on social media and watching the news. Social media is toxic right now, and surveys on wellness track a direct correlation between time spent watching the news and discontent with life. Resolving to only read your news from reliable sources can greatly improve mental health. I promise you will still know what’s going on in the world, and if you’re healthy, you’ll be better equipped to handle it and do something positive about it.

—Jakob Topper, Senior Pastor of NorthHaven Church, Norman, OK

A Call for Humility

A quick scan of social media these days will expose many fractures that exist within our world. Perhaps these cracks and breaks have been around for a while, and we are just now made more aware of them due to the incredible, and perhaps tragic, advances in technology. At our fingertips, we are able to navigate a world of political, religious and philosophical ideologies that would be taboo for most dinner conversations. Yet, they are shared freely now, as we live in a world where we are emboldened by the keyboard. We feel the invincibility of our screen, which gives way to nasty rhetoric, trolling and an abundance of hot takes which play on absolutes and extremes, and ignore the many different areas of gray in our oh-so not black and white world.

Social media today reveals a selfish undercurrent which is very much alive in our world.

The apostle Paul dealt with fractures between the people in the early Christian movement. These communities were trying to reconcile the world they knew with the one which was being revealed to them after the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. They were wrestling with traditions and laws which had always been. They were encountering people who were different than them as Christ had made way for followers from any background. There were nuances to what was required to follow Christ. There were arguments. There were definitely fractures.

If Facebook had existed at the time, Philippians 2 would have been the mic drop moment for the Apostle Paul. Since Paul did not have that technology, his post came from the medium of an epistle; a letter.

Here are his words:


If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:1-8


Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.

I need to have a push notification with that verse.

Seriously, how much progress could we make in our world if we bought into this line of thinking.

We have an issue in our country right now that isn’t going to fix itself. There are heinous acts of violence. We have children and students who are dying at the hands of evil. We are at the point where this kind of occurrence has been normalized.

Really. I’m not joking. Think about the last mass shooting you heard about. Were you surprised? I wasn’t. It is a travesty that we find ourselves in a culture of casual onlookers of the growing infestation of violence and hate that exists all around us. We look on, yet don’t do anything to address it.

In fact, when the next mass shooting occurs, we will simply repeat the routine:



Argue about Guns.

Throw out ideas that don’t necessarily confront the issue, but fit within our ideologies. These are ideas that are comfortable for us.


This issue is uncomfortable. It should make us uncomfortable. It should make all of us uncomfortable. It shouldn’t make us defensive. It shouldn’t back us into a corner where we feel the need to fight our way out. That is taking a serious problem and making it all about us.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.

While this issue ultimately affects us all in different ways, it is not solely about us. This issue is one at the heart of who we are as a country. We have become something that we don’t need to be. We have reached a point where there isn’t an easy fix.

I have read arguments on all sides of this issue, and see truth and reality in most of them. The truth is that our country will have to take a step in the direction of humility. We must look for the areas of validity in others arguments and attempt to find solutions that aren’t simply one sided. We must work together for progress. For us to do this, we must stop trying to win an argument.

I don’t pretend to have an answer to fix our broken world. I try to rely on Christ as my source of wisdom and strength, but also understand that I am called to be an active participant in the care of this world. I am called to be a part of the body of Christ, which serves, cares for and stands up for those who are hurting in our world.

If you are still reading, perhaps you would participate in a challenge with me.

First: Can we admit that something has to be done? The status quo doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for a while. It won’t suddenly start working. Have you heard the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” Well, it’s broke. It’s time to fix it.

Second: Can we agree that the solution isn’t going to be something easy? We don’t get to just make violence magically disappear from our society. We have to make tough compromises that move us to a better place. Part of this is guns. Part of this is mental health. Part of this is fixing the problem of nastiness on social media and in our world. Part of this is promoting goodness and kindness. The solution will be complex, and will take years to start seeing effects.

Third: Finally, can we agree that we need humble dialogue? We must start having conversations that include intentional listening. Maybe I’m naive to think this can actually occur on social media. If you can’t do that online, perhaps considering only engaging people in person. Meet over an incredible cup of coffee and talk to people who think differently from you. See what you learn; see what points you make that resonate with the other person. Who knows, maybe you will collaborate to make some tangible changes.



Lord Jesus, we pray fervently for the evil & pain that exist in our world. Please give us the strength and courage to actively pursue change and healing. Grant us wisdom. Give us guidance. Grow our humility. If we must suffer and sacrifice to make this world a better place to live, please walk with us on that path, as the One who suffered for each of us.


Lives like Lent

Whether it was to give up sweets, run a marathon, learn a new language or lose a pound, chances are most of us have already given up on our New Year’s resolutions. After all, we’re six weeks into 2018 and that’s more than enough time for things to go awry. It’s also enough time to start considering the opportunities ahead.

If you were to take up a liturgical calendar, you might notice Ash Wednesday is roughly a week away and stands as the gateway into the season of Lent, which ultimately culminates in Holy Week and Easter. Traditionally the 40 days of Lent are used as an opportunity to reflect, prepare and maybe even abstain from a specific vice. In some ways — and to stick with our theme above — you might think of it as a time to renew worthwhile resolutions or even begin to see previous resolutions as an opportunity for worship.

As for me, I don’t think I’m going to give anything up this year. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of vices and things I ought to change in my life. But I want to go a step further, and I think Isaiah 58 may shed light on a more positive way of entering the season. You can read the whole chapter on your own, but I’m specifically compelled by verses 6-7, which read:

6 Is not this the fast that I choose — to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

In other words, the act of fasting and abstaining from something for 40 days may be worthwhile and have precedent in church tradition, but in many ways it can be individually minded and inwardly focused. What if, instead, we take a positive step by focusing outwardly on others and doing a little good in this world? What if we could exhibit God’s Kingdom in more tangible ways, both as individuals and as a church family? I mean, you and I can enter into Lent with a sort of “hippocratic oath” mentality and hoping simply to do no harm, or we can seize the season and do some good along the way. I hope you’ll be brave enough to join me in considering these options, and I hope I’ll be bold enough to join you, too.

Responding to Suffering

child holding a crossThe photograph is of Lance Corporal Pierre Mugabo, carrying a cross at the head of a funeral procession for his father, who died of malnutrition while in a prison camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This image represents much of the suffering that we find in our world today – hunger, war, violence, death, and a childhood robbed of its innocence. It is a haunting image, made more so by the knowledge that we are staring into the face of a child soldier who is carrying a cross. I may stare into his eyes, but I am the one who is confronted.

What should one do in the face of such overwhelming suffering?

One response is found in one a central work on the problem of suffering, the chapter titled “Rebellion” in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. In it, one of the characters, Ivan, argues that moral decency and the love of humanity demand that we should refuse to live in what he thought to be a clearly unjust world. The only decent thing to do would be to, in his words, “return one’s ticket.”

Ivan makes two related mistakes here. First, he believes that he can judge the world from an objective position. This, though, ignores the fact that we are embedded and entangled, part of the world that we presume to judge. Our very act of judgment is instantly turned back on ourselves, forcing us to recall Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” 

The second mistake is to assume that the world that we now experience is morally static. We do so when we assume that the suffering of the innocent has always, and will always, occur; and if God created this world, he created it to be an unjust world.

As I said, these mistakes are related. I am not an innocent, objective judge. The level of justice or injustice in the world is, in an important way, partly a function of my action or inaction. The world that we experience, then, is one of our own creation; not one that we have created ex nihilo, but rather through our perversion of God’s good creation. God, though, can redeem even that which we have corrupted. So, instead of maintaining, like Ivan, that we cannot accept this world of God’s, we should instead strive, by God’s grace, to make his world into that which he always planned for it to be. We do this, not by loving humanity, but by loving our neighbors, wherever and whoever they may be.

May God grant us the faith to be his redeemed people, who announce to the world, by word and deed, the miracle of his reconciling love.

Photograph: Lance Cpl. Pierre Mugabo carries a cross at the head of his father’s funeral procession, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55450 [retrieved January 25, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USMC–12469.jpg.

Birthdays, Racism, Heartbreak, and Hope

Saturday, August 12, was my birthday.  I woke up that morning looking forward to a day with my family and dreaming about what the upcoming year might hold.  Forty-seven years ago, on that day, my white mother and Native American father welcomed their new son into the world at the Indian Hospital in Claremore, OK.  My parents were young and poor.  Therefore, the natural place for them to give birth was the Indian Hospital where the bills would be low.

While grabbing my first cup of coffee on my birthday, I switched on the television to catch up on the news.  The images that first caught my eye were those of white supremacists marching with torches the previous night through Charlottesville, VA.  The news anchors informed their viewers the white supremacists were planning a larger gathering later that day to protest the removal of a General Robert E. Lee statue.  In addition, a gathering of counter-protesters was planning to be present to oppose the white supremacists.  I turned to my wife and said, “This is not going to end well.”

As my birthday continued, the news began to emerge that violence was erupting in Charlottesville.  Armed white nationalists were clashing with counter-protesters and police.    Alarmingly, news broke that a young woman had been killed when a white supremacist ran his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.  In addition, two Virginia state troopers were killed when their helicopter crashed as they monitored the situation from above.  By the end of the day, America mourned the day of my birth with the reminder that racism is still very much alive in this country and three lives had been taken due to its evil presence.

There has been much said and written about the events of Charlottesville, from vague non-committal denunciations to full-throated condemnations.  Like many, I have listened to and read thought provoking responses over the last few days.  All of them add up to be part of a collected voice opposing racism and white nationalism.  Therefore, I have decided to add my voice to the collection.  Even though I am only one voice, I add my words with others so that together our voices will echo across the nation.

If I could pinpoint a few emotions that continue to re-emerge in response to this weekend’s events, they would have to be anger, sadness, and heartbreak.  America continues to hide our heads in the sand when it comes to the issues surrounding racism.  We love to pat ourselves on the back for the strides we have made in this country (which are positive).   However, we often neglect to understand how racism continues to affect us today.

We have truly never addressed the systemic problems of racism.  This neglect continues to cause vast divides and deep wounds, some which have been cast long ago but are manifested in today’s culture.  America can no longer afford turn our heads and ignore the dark stain of racism.  We must strongly, and without hesitation, denounce with words and actions all forms of racism that attempt to place one group of people over another.  As people of faith, we have been given a Holy Text that speaks about the evils of racism and the divine desire to bring races together under our human commonality.

Jesus was the great liberator of racism, classism, and gender biases.  Jesus welcomed everyone into his presence offering them a hope that transcended their circumstances, empowered them for the future, and attempted to transform a system that was biased in nature.  If Jesus was biased against anything, it was a system and culture that valued one group of people over another.  Jesus loved all people, leveling the playing field so that all can live as equals.

There are people today that do not believe in this equality, but believe that God has created an Anglo class to rule over others.  This is known as theological dominionism, a worldview based upon the exclusion, oppression, and extinction of other races and cultures by a “superior” people.  This was never the way of Jesus; nor should it be the way now.  The Lord’s inclusive example led the Apostle Paul to write, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

While humans display a vast array of skin tones, the blood that flows through our veins remains one color.  It’s the same color of blood that was spilt on Calvary…the same blood poured out on the lands of North America and in the hulls of African slave ships…the same blood staining the blue and grey uniforms of the Civil War…and the same blood that was shed on the streets of Charlottesville on August 12…my birthday.  My prayer this day is that a new birthday emerges from this tragedy, a new dawn where the world finally unites in condemning racism and throws their unwavering support behind the ideals of Jesus and equality.

Anyone defending the opposing ideals of white supremacists has no part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, nor should they hold a position of influence over others.  Let me be even more clear, there is no place for racism in a society that claims to cherish Christian values.  Jesus died for us all, breaking the shackles that divide us from God – and from one another.  While we have witnessed the ugly results of racism over the last few days, the truth of the matter is that racism has always been with us lurking in the shadows waiting to rise in force.   Therefore, anytime racism attempts to rise as it has done this past weekend, the faithful should collectively rise to denounce it and offer a righteous and holy path forward…a path traveled by Jesus…a path taken by many others before us…and a path we must now walk.  If there is to be any hope for our future, then we must step forward to make the dream a reality: the mountaintop where the beloved community of ALL God’s children dwell.