Are You a Light or a Snuffer?

 

You are the light of the world, like a city on a hill which can not be hidden”.

I’m sure most of us, whether we were raised in church or not, have either heard or sung that old song, This Little Light of Mine. As I recall, the song seemed to have an unlimited number of verses to it so that it could be sung continually for hours on end.  I’m quite certain that many of the verses were made up along the way-“let it shine ’til Jesus comes”…”light it when I first wake up.”…”wonder what’s for lunch today”…you get the picture.  One of the hundreds of verses was, “won’t let Satan blow it out“, substituting the word “blow” with an actual blowing sound for effect.  Sadly, some Christians have taken up that job themselves, snuffing out the lights of others.

Social media has invaded our lives.  It’s hard to imagine a time when Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social platforms didn’t exist.  There are many positive aspects of being able to connect with old friends and keep in touch with distant relatives or even face-timing or video chatting with someone a thousand miles away.  But social media has also become a vehicle for bashing each other, tearing others down and sowing discord.  Being able to post uncensored thoughts in real time has given some a bold and brazen approach to being over critical and judgmental beyond our authority.  Instead of being lights in the world, some have made it their mission, or dare I suggest, their ministry, to snuff or blow out the lights of others.  We don’t need to worry about Satan blowing out lights when the snuffers are our own Christian siblings.

A person enjoys a nice glass of wine, a beer or even an occasional cocktail while out with friends.  A holy roller sees this and determines that true Christians should never be seen drinking, so they blow out their light.  The lady who has a shapely figure comes to church in a nice modest dress, but a church mother thinks it is too form fitting and a distraction-a Christian lady would never wear that to church, so puff, out goes her light.  A man exercises his right to vote in the election, but some pious saints know he voted for the “wrong” candidate.  How could any true believer call themselves a Christian but support that person and their platform.  There goes another light.  Satan is taking a long overdue vacation while we do his work for him.  Instead of exhorting each other on to greater things, as scripture compels us to do, we have become volunteer firefighters, looking for the next flame to extinguish.

A couple years ago I had the unique privilege of attending an Easter service in the Greek Orthodox tradition.  I can’t tell you what a reverent experience it was.  Unlike the traditional Easter Sunday service most of us are accustomed to, their service begins on the Saturday night before and extends into the morning hours of Easter Sunday.  One of the most beautiful aspect of this service happens at midnight.  At precisely 12:00 AM all of the lights of the church are turned off and all candles on the altar are extinguished.  This is done to signify the dark hours of Christ being in the tomb.  For a few minutes there is nothing but silence and total darkness.  And then, the priest lights one small candle, signifying Christ’s resurrection!  He then lights the candles of the assistant priests, who pass it on to the assistants, who then take it into the congregation where each parishioner is holding their own candle.  They light the candle of the first person in each row, who then light the person next to them, going row by row until everyone’s candle is burning.  It is quite an extraordinary event that is hard to put into words.

There were two observations that stood out to me while participating in this beautiful depiction of Christ’s resurrection.  First, was just the impact and significance of life bursting forth from the darkness and emptiness of a lifeless tomb.  It drove home the miracle of the resurrection.  But the second thing that impressed me was just how quickly a dark church cathedral could be lit up when each person’s little light was joined with others to drive out darkness and illuminate an entire structure!  One little candle can light up a small place, and many such candles can chase away any darkness.  It is no coincidence that the large floodlights illuminating effects are measured in candle-power.

Our faith has always been and will continue to be under attack by those forces who don’t understand, don’t agree with or find folly in our beliefs.  Jesus warned us that the world would hate us because it hated him.  It’s difficult enough to protect our lights from the secular forces wanting to snuff it out.  We shouldn’t also be concerned with other believers seeking ways to snuff us out.  If you proudly wave the banner of your faith, but your social media posts are always negative, condemning or divisive, perhaps you should spend some time trimming your own candle and take inventory of how you are being viewed, or more importantly, how your posts reflect the heart of Christianity.  I observe a particular Christian holiday, you see it as pagan-I eat and drink or dress or vote a certain way, you don’t.  Let it go, protect my flame as I protect yours.  Concentrate on being a light, not a snuffer.  Let true brotherly love be your illumination, not bitterness, envy, strife, jealousy or cultural/social difference.  We are told in scripture that the world would know we follow Christ when they witness the love we have for each other, not the discord or divisions.  Together we should be that city on a hill whose light can’t be hidden or put out.  One little light can make a difference in a dark world, especially when joined with so many others!

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Confessions of a 21st Century White Man

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Hello, my name is Joe and I’m white. I’ve been white for, well, almost fifty-five years. I never really thought I had a white problem. I denied being white for many years.  After all, there were people much more white than I was. Then I thought I could control my whiteness by just being white on occasion without going overboard, or that I could quit at anytime. But recent events have convinced me that I have a problem and I’m here to confess.  I’m white and I’m sorry.

This opening statement was not intended to be humorous or offensive, but rather to lay the foundation for what will be a painfully honest and transparent post about the role I have played through apathy in helping to maintain the status quo of poor race relations in our country.  I can’t say for sure why the recent tragedies in MN, LA and Dallas had such a powerful impact on me compared to the hundreds before.  All I can offer is that for some reason this time it caused me to take a hard inward look at myself, to see the real man in the mirror without my color tinted lenses, and I didn’t like what I saw.  I’m remorseful and I need to change in order to be an instrument of change around me.

Let me be clear. I don’t believe I am racist, at least not on the surface.  I grew up in Indy’s West side in a racially mixed neighborhood.  I attended equally mixed schools. I grew up listening and preferring Motown music, wearing clothes that would make most white men blush and most black men jealous. Even now through the modern miracle of social media I count many black brothers and sister as just that, my siblings and I have a diverse list of friends including blacks and Hispanics. I appear to be doing everything right, but am I really?  If I and my white counterparts are truly living bias free, why are we still dealing with race issues in America?  We just last Monday celebrated two hundred and forty years of freedom but are all of us free?  The answer is a painful and resounding No! We are all still shackled by prejudices.  We are still enslaved by generational baises. We are still chained by fears and misunderstandings of the differences that divide us. I was driven to my knees in search of an answer as to why seemingly good and Godly people were having such a minimal effect on racism in our land. And I cringe at the epiphany I received in my soul searching.

For the average white person to deny the existence of lingering racism they have to be intellectually dishonest or deliberately blind to the world around them. We live in a society designed to be systematically divided, stating at the top and rippling all the way to our homes. We have been duped for generations into electing officials who promise change but disregard their own campaign slogans once in office for the same reason there is no known cure for cancer.  Officials are elected by creating fear in their constituents so they may be viewed as a potential savior. But we have failed to realize that our officials have been running on the same platforms for decades because nothing has changed and they have no intention of bringing about solutions that would give them little else to campaign on. That’s not on them, that’s on us. Two of the biggest contributors to racism in our society are the Republican and Democratic parties. Racism is not going to be eradicated at the government level by electing the right person.  Many of us believed that electing a black POTUS was a sure sign that racism had ended and relations going forward would improve. Recent events have proven that notion to be anything but true.

But I don’t lay our problems at the feet of our elected representatives.  The problem lies much closer to home.  This is where it gets painful. This is what I was forced to see in my search for answers. This on many levels is a church problem, and you and I who are the church are guilty. This past weekend I saw several posts about local churches having urgent prayer services to heal our nation.  The prayers go something like this: God, our country needs you to heal us.  Our country has rejected you and now we beseech you to remove the hatred and heal our land”. On the surface that might seem like a legitimate and sincere petition.  The problem with it for me is that it removes the onus and the blame from the roles I have played in aiding and abetting racism and places the burden of resolution on God and not on me. We are asking God to do something that he already mandated as our responsibility in his Word.  It is not for God to send reconciliation-he already did that when he gave up his Son for our restoration. Consider the often quoted passages, “love your neighbor as yourself”, “love others as Christ loved the church”, “do unto others as you would have them do to you”, “there is neither Greek or Jew, slave or free…”, God is not a respecter of persons”, and on and on.  But for many these have become lifeless words suitable for framing and hanging on a wall in our offices or our homes or a cleverly designed tattoo or piece of jewelry and little more. We have removed their powers by not applying them to our hearts.  They have become as meaningless as a Facebook meme.

We gather each Sunday in the safety and comfort of our local churches and we sing songs like Love Lifted Me or Make Me an Instrument and we each let our lights shine so brightly among our fellow parishioners that it is blinding. We quote from Matthew chapter five that we are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city on a hill and we sing and we dance in emotional responses and displays of insincere agreement, high-fiving each other and anointing each other with blessings of favor and prosperity and brotherly love. But as soon as the service ends and we exit through the church doors the slightest breeze of disagreement or trouble immediately snuffs out our light.  The light we are to carry into the world, the light of love and peace and forbearance and unity, is never seen in our schools, our places of work or our communities, because the light doesn’t even remain lit until we reach our homes. Without this light we are attracted to other source of artificial light that skews our thinking and our responses. Without this light we find ways to justify injustices.  We wax indifferent to the loss of life. We as white people respond to misconduct by painting victims as having lengthy records and being less than perfect and somehow deserving of their fate. We are quick to deflect complaints by quoting black on black crime rates.  We are hardened to suggest things would be different if there were more engaged black fathers. We diminish the loss of a young life by pointing out the number of black abortions as if one carries more weight or dismisses the legitimacy of street crime. We as a white people, and specifically as white Christians have lost our ability to be empathetic to the plight of our black brothers and sisters who deal with everyday life on terms none of us could possibly understand. I’m guilty. My heart is broken.

I’m guilty because I haven’t been an active advocate of peace and unity. I’ve simply prayed for peace in the solitude of my prayer closet. I haven’t gotten my hands dirty in the fight. I’m guilty because I approach the debate but become easily distracted or offended when my black brothers try to lay some honesty on me that I receive as a personal attack, so I take my ball and go home to where I’m safe. I’m guilty because the actions I try to take in confronting social injustices I do so in the relative safety behind a computer. I’m guilty because I sing on stage or play with our Worship team but quickly lose my religion on the freeways of Las Vegas.  My light is extinguished by the first driver who cuts me off in traffic. I feel the words of the Apostle Paul. what a wretched man I am.

We have to be better than this-protests, marches, movements, boycotts and yes, even prayer alone have not proven effective in providing healing to the festering wounds and visible scars of evil and hatred that has plagued us since the beginning of our country. But what do we as a people do?  I heard some well intentioned commentators speak about finding common ground between blacks and whites so we can build on something. But at the core level, that notion in itself is divisive. Common ground? The fact is there is very little uncommon about us. If I need a new heart I can receive one from a blood typed black brother. If they need a kidney they wouldn’t want one of mine, but any white man with healthy kidneys could just as easily be their donor.  We are not from different planets that we have to search for commonality in order to progress past prejudices. We are created in the image of God, unique but the same, individual but bonded as one bride to Christ.  We have much in common and any suggestion otherwise only exasperates the issue.

How can I as a white man be a conduit of real and lasting change and reconciliation to my black brothers?  I can only offer my humble thoughts.  This has to begin first and foremost with taking an honest personal inventory of each of our lives to see if through deliberate action or through inaction, or worse, gross negligence we have contributed to the cancerous racial tensions in our communities. We have to pray that God will not change our country but our individual hearts, to remove the blinders that keep us from seeing the reality of the situation, to get beyond our standard white defenses. Once God through his spirit has opened our eyes and empowered us with resolve, we then have to take it to the streets. We have to come to the table of peace, blacks and whites alike and deliberate and reason together a solution.  For me as a white man, this means I have to become vulnerable, remorseful, to drop my guard and to leave my bullet proof vest at the door.  I have to be willing to sit and endure the valid complaints and everyday challenges young black men face through a designed social system without feeling offended, without firing back with the latest crime statistics or meaningless arguments of justification.  I have to, perhaps for the first time in y life, really listen to the complaints being lodged without retort.  Only by honestly identifying the ugliness of the issue and the centuries old evil schemes we have fallen for in further perpetrating injustices in our world can we develop the appropriate treatment and response. You can’t vaccinate against a disease until you have properly identified it so the correct vaccines can be administered. The vaccine for hate is love.  The vaccine for bias is understanding. The vaccine for social injustice is acknowledgement. And our black brothers, although they may feel it useless because they have been at the table of peace before, have to come back one more time and engage us in dialogue.  These efforts should be instituted in our local church assemblies first, but not limited to the office of the local clergy. I am the light of the world-you are the light of the world. When light is introduced into darkness, the darkness fades.

I’m genuinely fearful for the world we are leaving behind to our children and our grandchildren if we don’t take action once and for all to fight the dark forces at work to cause our destruction.  I want better than that for them.  I want a world where a white man can see a black woman and without a second thought say to himself “dayum, what a fine looking woman. Gots to meet her!”. I want to live in a world where a black woman can view a white man and think to herself ” he looks like marriage material, like someone who would treat me like a queen”. I want to live in a world where a white son can bring home his black girlfriend  and have his parents say ” if our son loves you, that’s good enough for us. Sit down and have some quiche”. I want to live in a world where a black girl is not reluctant to introduce her white boyfriend to her parents and to hear her parents say “welcome into our home young man. Have some chicken and waffles”. I want to live in a society where police officers are well trained and not fearful for their lives simply by doing their job, so they can go home at the end of their shift. I want to see a society where young black men are not afraid of being shot over minor traffic violations. I want to live in a society where hateful people are prosecuted for crimes against their brothers, and where there exist no blue code but a human code.  I want to see a world where racism is not instilled into us by a government dependent on minority voter support so they can live a lifestyle their constituents can never realize. And I want to live in a world where our lights shine brightly beyond the four walls of our churches, where we are not content because we have a black or white friend or two. I want to live in a world where my black brothers are not tired of the same shit different day lives they lead, and a world where whites are not despised because of our negligent and historic approach to the disease of racism. I don’t know if I can make a difference but I sincerely want to try this time. This is the confession of but one white man, a confession that is bound to cost me a few friends but one I feel is worth the risk if I am to ever be the good Samaritan I am called to be outside of my local church.

Dear Father of us all, place in me forever the burden of confronting my fears, my biases and my inaction so that I can have a positive impact on the world around me. Bring me to tears over the things that break your heart and help me God not to hide behind the veil of my faith in combatting evil but rather spur me to greater works in being instrumental in ushering in a movement of change and peace in my community until that day when peoples of every tribe and every tongue will bow at your throne to worship in unity the creator and lover of us all.

Influence

 

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It’s been a while since my last post.  When life hits with its surprises and uncertainty I tend to take a critical and maybe even an unfair look at some things. As an aspiring writer I question constantly both my influence and my credibility. Do my words have any positive impact on my readers? Do I inspire deeper levels of thought and reason? Do I adequately reflect my Christian faith? Are my words being read at all?  Am I leaving anything of value behind in my wake?

These questions are certainly not limited to writers. In fact I would suspect many of us at some point in our lives ask ourselves these same questions-why am I here, what is my purpose and who if anyone am I impacting by my speech, my actions or my lifestyle.  However the fact is that every single one of us has some impact on someone, whether positive or negative.  None of us live our lives under a shell or as hermits.  At some point we all cross the paths of others either inadvertently or by God’s design and have immediate influence on that person and in that situation. It would be idealistic to believe we leave behind rainbows and Skittles everywhere we go but none of us are ever on top of our game 24/7.  In fact if you are like me, you have probably disappointed more people than you have helped, or maybe it’s just me.

So what exactly is influence? The dictionary defines it as a noun, “the capacity to have an effect on the character, development or the behavior of someone or something…”. When I think of influential people I think of great orators like the Apostle Paul or Martin Luther King or Billy Graham or Ronald Reagan-people who have an effect on others by their powerful convictions and proficiency with words. But as a brother or an uncle or a dad or a grandfather I have an effect, good or bad, on those around me everyday.  Am I making a difference?  Am I having influence? Is there any evidence of positive effect on thought or behavior?

There is a popular passage in Matthew 5 that portrays for us the type of impact we should be having in our circle of family and friends.  Beginning in verse 13 it reads “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill can not be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand so that it lights all the house. In the same way let your light shine before others so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven”.

That is a tall command, a mandate if you will to always be positive in every way, and for many a seemingly impossible task, one that most certainly stirs critical self-review. When you shine a light on your own life to see if you measure up to this extremely high standard of living, the shadows it casts on your failures can be daunting in regards to positive influence. When you have serious questions on the impact you have you are left with only two options; retreat to your shell and assure yourself that no one will be impacted positively by your words or life, or find a way to live above the waves and have an effect on even one or two people.  One choice is easy, the other a real challenge.

If you are one of those who can step out of bed, break your leg but go about rejoicing that you still have one good leg to hop around on, let me just say I hate you! Rather I hate that I am not like that by nature and find it difficult to sing through pain. Yet everything in scripture confirms that I am light, I am salt, I am iron and that whether I sharpen someone or dull them, I have a choice to make each new day on how my response to life will impact or influence those God puts in my path whether I want Him to or not.

And so it is with you.  Peace.

My Life as a Christmas Tree

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For nineteen years now I’ve been putting up our Christmas tree.  It’s a daunting and physical task and it takes the better part of a day, sometimes two days to complete it. Yet each year it’s a ritual I truly welcome and look forward to for many reasons, but I think this year something occurred to me while putting it up.  I think me and this old tree are a lot alike, I just never saw it before now.  Allow me to elaborate.

When people see our tree for the first time they are moved-it’s a beautiful creation. But being the one who puts it up each year I see the things no one else sees, the flaws and imperfections that are covered by the decorations. Only I know the work it takes to cover or make up for these imperfections so that they will not be noticed by others.  First, some of the limbs are getting old and are difficult to bend back into place. A few of the hinged limbs have fallen completely and are held up by wire I used that no one else can see. The tree has also lost many of its bristles.  Having nearly two thousand tips it’s hard to notice bald spots but when you put the tree up and then take it down you can fill a vacuum bag with fallen bristles.  I can relate.

Ours it a pre-lit tree with  built-in lights. However, through the years many of the lights have faded and some don’t work at all. This year there was a new section void of any light at all and I had to insert a new string of lights to compensate for the dark areas. I replaced the fuses of the bad lights but nothing I did seemed to be enough  to get the old lights working again. Yet with all that is wrong with our tree the base in which the tree stands remains sturdy and secure and the tree is safe from total collapse for now. Again, I think I can relate.

The ornaments used to dress up the tree are a plethora of pieces collected during the nineteen years of the tree’s existence and represent quite the array of diversity and change. The  plain, simple but sentimental ornaments from that very first tree as well as the strands of colored beads are still displayed on the tree now and are among the first things placed on the tree each year. They may not be as appealing or noticeable as some of the newer or more expensive ones, but they will never be replaced because of what they represent and the memories associated with them. Some of the ornaments are imprinted or engraved with certain important dates from years past for our recollection. Some are one-only ornaments, hand-crafted by artisans as unique and irreplaceable. Others are a bit more common but necessary in helping to maintain the theme of the tree. Some of the ornaments we picked out together and we can recall when and where we acquired them, and others I chose myself along the way to enhance the appearance and add to the creation.

Then there are the silk florals, the “never die” roses. There must be close to one hundred of them, and they are the last things to go on the tree. I use them to fill in the bare spots where no ornaments exist. I take a few steps away from the tree so I can get a better perspective.  Any area I deem as void gets one of these roses to help cover the otherwise bare branch. There are some years when it’s hard to find those void areas and there are a few years when the bare spots are quite obvious. The simple insertion of a rose makes the tree much fuller.

The last thing to go on our tree is our angel who we named Hope from the onset. The tree isn’t complete until Hope takes her place on top, surrounded by a host of smaller angels just below her.  And just like the rest of the tree Hope has had to be restored through the years. One year she lost her harp, her music. Another year it was her wings that had fallen off and had to be restored. Although the tree is sturdy and straight, some years it is more difficult to get Hope to remain upright without leaning or falling off all together. Because she sits so high on the eight-foot tree she is the hardest thing for me to reach and maintain-it’s a real stretch for me touch her at times and straighten her, but the tree isn’t complete until Hope is established and secured.

At this point our tree is finished and ready to be enjoyed once again.  There is just one final step in the process. You see, as pretty as the tree is, the true magic doesn’t happen until I flip the switch and the lights come on. It is the light that brings the creation to life. Each ornament, simple or ornate changes under the glow of the lights. All the shadows of the tree are chased away by the light. All the imperfections and flaws that only I know about and work so hard to make up for, a seemingly impossible task at times, are hidden once again as the light reflects on the good parts of the tree to such an extent that the bad areas are barely noticeable. It’s the light that transforms the dark spots into a magical wonder fitting for the cover of a high end catalogue, a wonder that is the envy of many who view it.

So now you can see my life as a tree. Our tree has changed significantly over nineteen years.  It’s not the same tree it started out as, though much of what made the first tree so special remains on it today. And it’s likely not the same tree it will be years from now as we continue to add things to it, but it’s our tree, full of memories, imperfections and light. Just like the little tree in Charlie Brown’s Christmas, it may not seem like much at first, but with a blanket of love and some well placed lights it has become a holiday legend.  My life, our tree.  I think I’ll keep it a little longer.