Racism and Worship

My home state of Alabama has a marked history of racial lines and discrimination. On September 15th, 1963, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls and injuring countless others. This was the pinnacle act of hatred that placed a gruesome exclamation point on a year of racial shift in Alabama’s communities. The bombing had been preceded, just a few months prior, by the Civil Rights movement spilling into the streets of Birmingham causing Sheriff Bull Connor to attack the protesters with dogs and firehoses in a stunning scene of racism and horror. In that same year schools would be desegregated in the state, only after the National Guard was called in to shut down Governor George Wallace’s attempt to keep the racial status quo. 1963 is recent history. For those who are young it may seem as if it is a contemporary to every other historical event in school. George Washington crossed the Delaware; George Wallace tried to keep schools segregated. The reality is that our society is still filled with those who were alive and present during those dark days of American History. The lightning shift in our racial sensibilities since 1963 is something of a historical wonder. We have since elected a black president and seen many black Americans rise to the highest roles in society and government. Because of these achievements many in our country would like to act like all that was done before is atoned for and should be forgotten.

In 1993 I was a fifteen year old homeschool kid with pimples; a winning combo on all accounts. I was not unaware of the racial tension that existed in the country or in my community, it just felt distant and incapable of reaching me. The year before, in 1992, the country had watched spellbound as an almost all white jury had acquitted four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of a black man named Rodney King. The beating itself had been captured on camera (a precursor to modern America) but even with the overwhelming evidence of injustice the men were found innocent. The ensuing riots gave a face to the tension that had been boiling in the shadows for decades. Still, in the midst of the national turmoil I felt safe in the midst of my white high school suburban existence. My father was on staff at a First Baptist Church, in a small town in Alabama, and was responsible, as is always the case in small churches, for a large range of things. One of his major responsibilities, in the heat of the Alabama summer, was running the church’s annual Vacation Bible School, a week long event that was part Bible Study, part snack time, and part local carnival. This week was a huge outreach moment into the community, and the church always sought to leverage it to encourage new families and faces to join. There was a home for children in our small town that housed kids who were wards of the state and my father saw this as a perfect opportunity to bring people into our church who may have never heard the gospel. He reached out to the home’s leadership and invited the resident children to be a part of VBS that year. Many of the children were black. Throughout the week of VBS child after child made professions of faith in Jesus, including several black children from the group home. The Sunday morning after VBS a handful came down to the front indicating, along with the home church white kids, that they had been changed by Christ and wanted to be baptized. My father was fired from the church that week.

I heard the news of my Father’s firing on the way to basketball practice at the local Recreation Center. I was crying bitterly as practice began. My coach, a black man from the community, put his arm around me and told me that things would work out in the end. The beauty of a black man consoling a middle class white kid in small town Alabama over the ugliness of racism is still not lost on me. Later on in life I would scrape the details together in bits and pieces from my parents. Dad was called into an emergency deacons meeting where he was ordered to “fix this” problem he had created. The deacons rallied around the idea that, “no nigger has ever been baptized in our church and never will be.” My Father refused to bend and was fired immediately.

I had never felt racism before on a personal level. The sting of my Father’s firing was immediate and deep. Because we lived in the church parsonage, that literally shared a driveway with the church, we were forced to move immediately. We were graciously taken in by friends who ran a local Baptist conference center and were allowed to live there for the following few months while my family figured out what to do.

It is not an understatement to say that the rest of my life was formed by this experience. While our housing was a Godsend it was also small. I slept on the floor for months. As the oldest of 8 children it fell to me and my brother Bret to work full time to help support the rest of the family in our day to day expenses. My father, still bruised from the experience, did not want to jump right back into a church position so he took the first job he could find driving an 18 wheeler on long hauls coast to coast. We would not see him for days at a time. Any sense of security that I had been accustomed to was forever replaced with a constant sense of the unknown. Beyond the physical realities of our new situation, the heart damage that I had acquired burned with the emotional fire of a knife wound. Men whom I had trusted, men who had taught me in Sunday School, had proved to be the worst of humanity. It is hard for a young heart to process the reality of hypocrisy. The stinging reality of racism had pulled back the veil, more than any other thing, into the darkness of the human heart.

It seems that, in spite of all our progress of the past 50 years, we have again hit a wall in race relations in America. Whatever conversation had been started has seemingly been replaced with sound bites and slogans that can be easily tweeted or spun on cable news. Cable news sells advertising with eyeballs and nothing can grab eyeballs like stories on racism. The media is making millions by stoking the flames of our distrust. We retweet and share these sound bites and slogans because we feel they give us something solid to hope in. Slogans will not heal our divides. Presidents and racial figureheads will not mend the bones that have been broken. It will take something that is outside of what we can create.

I am a now a Pastor in a church. I lead the people of God in worship on a regular basis. It is ironic that this is who I am now because after my Father was fired in 1993 I swore that I would never work within the church. Just as the brokenness represented in the church had reached out and wounded my young heart, it would be the true mission of the church that Jesus would use to reach out and mend it. The church is God’s plan to bring us back to reconciliation. Worship is our only road back to unity.

In John 4 Jesus meets a woman at a well. It is well documented that he meets her in the heat of the day because she is seeking solitude from those who would deride her for her past sexual indiscretions. He asks her for a drink of water. She asks for clarity on racial divisions. She is a Samaritan, he is a Jew. Perceiving that Jesus is a prophet, she asks him a question about worship and racial tension.

The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”

Her question is physical in nature. Years of prejudice and distrust between her people and the Jews had led to alterations that frequently ended in physical violence. The Samaritans were the offspring of Jews who had married Gentiles. Halfbreeds. Unclean. Unworthy. Less than because of their DNA.  This woman associates worship with a place, a people, a culture. She associates worship with division. These are the realities of those who focus on the physical. If the physical is the determining factor in who we are then it will also become the determining factor on where and how we worship and who we worship with. Those who focus on the physical prove that they have not felt the life giving engine of the Spirit. I love how Jesus answers her question. A physical question is answered with a spiritual reality.

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”        (John 4:19-24 ESV)

The physical is temporal. The spiritual is eternal. Worship, fueled by the Spirit of God, is the door toward our racial healing. When a people worship God in spirit and and in truth the flesh is stripped away. Spirit is absent of color. Truth is absent of race. Jesus moves beyond his Jewishness and slaps away any ideal of Samaria’s inferiority. The invitation into the kingdom and into eternity, will have nothing to do with skin color or geography. When we find ourselves looking at the Father through the eyes of those bought by Jesus the only thing that remains is spirit and truth. The only thing that remains is that we are brothers and sisters in Jesus. When you see another human do you see a race or do you see eternity? Do you see a cultural reality or do you see spirit?

I recently sat with a black friend, who pastors an amazing church here in Knoxville, and we talked about the fear that his congregation was battling because of the results of the last election. He is wise in his response to their fears. Rather than defending or supporting our new leader he is pointing them toward something better. He is pointing them toward the eternal. He is inviting them to see and savor Jesus. Leaders will rise and fall, as will the governments and freedoms afforded by them. These things must not define how we interact with one another. The cross reveals that we are all the same. We are not our culture. We are not our race. We are not our gender. If we are in Christ we are simply that and nothing else. Or as Paul says...

for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.                                         (Galatians 3:26-28 ESV)

There will come a day when the Church of Jesus will forever live in this reality. Revelation says…

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12 ESV)

Here is the eternal cure to our distrust, misunderstanding, and division. We will worship. But, according to Jesus, this is not to be some future reality alone. Jesus burst onto the scene in Mark chapter one declaring that, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” The unity we display, and the story we are telling as we worship will reveal or disprove kingdom reality in our churches and communities. We must learn to worship Jesus as one. Not simply cheering each other on from a distance. Not just leaning on conversations in neutral locations to get “a plan together”. We must approach God’s glory, through the access provided by Jesus, and standing side by side, our spirits joined in worship. This is the way to unity. This is the means of reconciliation.  The world needs the power of the gospel and the mission of the church more than ever. Let us embrace one another and become now who we will be in eternity.

It is fascinating to me that the Bible ends with the hope of racial healing…

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2 ESV)

Of all the sins and brokenness represented by the human heart, it is our propensity for hatred and disunity that is spoken of in the end. I believe it is a perfect picture of why we need redemption. In the end we will not have hearts guarded and broken by the fall. We will not be defined by our differences. We will be united by the salvation of Jesus...and we will worship.