My Thoughts

Blog

Read My Blog

A Tribute to Bishop John K. Yambasu

Today is the birthday of my friend, Bishop John K. Yambasu, who recently died in an automobile accident in Sierra Leone. He would have been 64 years old today. In honor of the gift of his life and our 23-year friendship, I offer this tribute.

I met Rev. John Yambasu in 1997 when I took my first Volunteer in Mission trip to Sierra Leone in the midst of the country’s rebel war. Rev. Yambasu met us at the airport and secured our luggage and transportation to our accommodations. He was friendly, efficient, and joyful. He had a remarkable ability to engage people from anywhere in the world in ways that drew us into his circle of hospitality and friendship. During that trip we did repairs to the Guest House at Leicester Peak. We laid block that created new walls for the facility. I was impressed at the way Rev. Yambasu organized the work, motivated the young people who allowed us to join their work, and talked to contractors and building supply personnel to secure materials. It was obvious on that first trip that he was a man with natural leadership gifts and remarkable skills in motivating and managing people. He carried a deep desire to see the United Methodist Church become a blessing to his nation. It was Bishop John Yambasu who opened the United Methodist University in Sierra Leone in 2017 on this site. His ability to hold hope and patiently work to develop projects over long periods of time was a hallmark of his leadership.

Rev. Yambasu invited me to call him John and as the week progressed and I knew we would be friends. He invited us to have dinner with his family in his home. I met his children. We went to the beach together and enjoyed time talking and laughing. With John, there was always laughter. His sense of humor was excellent, and it demonstrated an underlying joy that he shared generously with others. I recall thinking that he carried the joy of the Lord. His faith in Christ enabled him to look on people and events with a great charity and grace. He was deeply grateful for anything large or small that made a day brighter and more pleasant. When I returned from that trip, I carried his application to the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, my alma mater, back to the United States. He was accepted and came to Candler in the fall of 1998 and spent Christmas with my family that year. Knowing there was war in his country and full security in mine, Karen and I worked to make Christmas simple that year. We soon realized that “simple” has different meanings in various parts of the world. As our children opened gifts and we visited in the homes of family and friends, our friend John, without criticism or judgement, helped us realize how fabulously rich we were. His presence and insights gave us new eyes on our lives and made us long to find new ways to follow Jesus’ calling to serve the economically poor in the world. He enabled me to understand issues of Christian stewardship that later impacted my work and writing as a pastor.

When rebels invaded Freetown in January 1999, John called me. He was frantic after hearing Millicent describe the rebels who had demanded all of their money and who promised to injure or kill her and their children if more money was not offered. He said that he had to gather funds to get his family to a refugee camp in Guinea and asked for my help. I asked members of Floris UMC for their assistance and they offered the funds that day. Once Millicent and their children were out of danger, I invited John to preach at Floris UMC so that he could share the story what was happening in his country. His sermon was so powerful that three months later church members were asking what we were going to do in response. In December 1999, Floris UMC took up a “Millennial Offering” to mark 2000 years of the Christian faith by partnering with Rev. John Yambasu, who returned to Sierra Leone as a missionary through the United Methodist Church. Our goal was $25,000. By January 2000, we received $150,000. The vision John cast was the reason people responded so generously.

Rev. Yambasu used these funds to start the Child Rescue Centre (CRC), whose initial mission was to care for children whose lives were severely impacted by the civil war. Rev. Yambasu gathered 40 children and began feeding operations that served many more. His work was driven by a deep calling of Christ to care for the vulnerable. He found it morally offensive that any child would have to beg for food, sleep without shelter, or lack proper care from adults. Further, he longed for every person to know the love of Christ and experience the gift of faith in him. His ongoing passion for this ministry inspired and convicted us to continue the work and sustain this vital ministry over the past 20 years. Later, as the Bishop of the Sierra Leone Annual Conference, he led the transformation of this ministry and renamed it the Child Reintegration Centre. It now serves more than 600 children in family-based care that offers education and medical care for future leaders of Sierra Leone.

Through the years of working in partnership with Bishop Yambasu, I was able to see him often in meetings held to develop the work of the CRC and Mercy Hospital. Each year he communicated new opportunities to develop Mercy Hospital in ways that would better serve its focus on child and maternal health. Over time our partnership added an outstanding laboratory, vehicles for mobile health clinics, and most recently, a surgical suite. It was a great moment for us all when Dr. Aruna Stevens, who grew up at the CRC, became the doctor at Mercy Hospital. Bishop Yambasu was a remarkable leader who built international ministry partnerships across the United States and Europe. His generosity of spirit, hospitality, and capacity to laugh at himself and others in ways that invited people into the circle of his care were key elements of his magnetic personality. He was honest and always responded favorably to the ongoing need for financial integrity and transparency. I learned that about him in 1997, when he refused my desire to leave money with him to buy block for the building. Instead, John took me to the quarry, let me buy the block, and had it delivered so that I could inspect it the following day. Transparency was an essential virtue that I found in his leadership throughout our 23-year ministry partnership, which enabled us to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in the ministries he envisioned in Sierra Leone.

Floris United Methodist Church realized it needed to start a separate non-profit to sustain our partnership with the Sierra Leone Annual Conference. Helping Children Worldwide was established in 2003 to assist other partner churches in the United States with the work of the CRC and Mercy Hospital. When John travelled to Virginia to meet with his partners at Helping Children Worldwide, he often stayed in our home. We called our basement, with its bedroom and bathroom and large living area, “the Bishop’s Suite.” I was concerned about the schedule Bishop Yambasu was keeping. He often showed up looking tired and road weary when I met him at the airport. We tried to offer him a quiet space where he could catch up on work, but also nap, read, and relax. It was always a pleasure when he joined us for meals or sat in our living room to catch up and share news of his ministry. I experienced Bishop Yambasu as a colleague and a friend. We knew that our mutual wellbeing was important to each other and to the mission partnerships we each represented. Our friendship enabled us to have candid conversations. We observed the cultural differences that were impeding the work of the larger leadership team for the CRC and Mercy Hospital. We problem-solved. We listened to each other. We challenged each other to do more and to do better for Christ in the world.

Rarely in a lifetime does one find a deep friendship with someone from another culture and continent whose deep love of Christ creates a commonality of perspective and purpose. Our relationship grew out of our ability to observe and be curious about differences. We taught each other about our cultures and the way the mission of the church uniquely expressed itself in our diverse missional contexts. We cared about each other, about our roles not just as clergy, but as husbands, fathers, and men. We learned to hold each other in grace, and to speak the truth in love to one another. We had differences, but our common love for Christ and the friendship that developed between us enabled us to live as people of peace with each other. I believe that we were fundamentally for each other and found John to be as dependable a friend as any I have known. He was a partner in the gospel. My friendship with Bishop John Yambasu was a means of grace to me. In my relationship with John, I found the truth of Proverbs 27:17, As iron sharpens iron so one person sharpens another.

We both experienced the tension of the fractious called 2019 General Conference of the UMC. There are diverse opinions on LGBTQ inclusion in the global United Methodist Church. While Bishop Yambasu understood the more progressive views I held and the missional needs of the community I serve, he carried the perspective and weight of leadership of an African Bishop in the Central Conference. We realized that we did not have to see eye to eye in order to speak heart to heart. His great desire to bring unity to the United Methodist Church made the conference difficult to bear. Like everyone, he was discouraged and stymied when he considered what might be done to keep the church together so that missional partnerships that unite our global church would continue. We talked often after that General Conference. He felt the Holy Spirit encourage him to understand the unique role God had put him in as an African Bishop in the UMC. He had the ability to call leaders together. While various parties might not accept the invitation of different interest groups who wanted to help the church move forward, everyone would accept his invitation if he was willing to lead in this way.

Bishop Yambasu brought together a global group of leaders in the United Methodist Church to create the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation in 2019. I was a part of that mediation team. The meetings spanned months of time and included a great deal of work as negotiations progressed. The mood was sometimes tense. Observing Bishop Yambasu, I was again able to appreciate the way my friend’s faith and leadership called us to do our best work in keeping with our shared love of Christ. There were times when his prayer enabled us to take the next faithful step in negotiations and envision a future full of ministry and free of the conflict that has so hampered the work of the denomination in recent years. While it is yet to be seen if the Protocol will be accepted by the delegates of General Conference, it is commonly agreed that it is the best hope for the UMC that he loved and served. This was another gift he offered to the church, and one that required remarkable energy and sacrifice on his part to coordinate and attend meetings in the United States.

It was after the last Protocol meeting in December that we ate what would be our last meal together. We had not planned this time, but both realized it would be nice to celebrate our recently signed Protocol. It was a meal shared by two old friends who had seen a lot of life together, even as we lived on separate continents. During that meal we laughed as we recounted so many things the Lord had called us to do together. We celebrated each other, our friendship, and the goodness of the church that brought us together. I count it a distinct blessing today that we left nothing unsaid.

In his life Bishop John Yambasu endured great hardship, sacrifice, and loss. Yet his faith never wavered. God gave him a vision that enabled him to start and develop project after project, as he worked to accomplish his “Vision 2020” for the Sierra Leone Annual Conference. Through it all he carried a deep love for his wife Millicent and for their children, and most recently his grandson. I will miss my friend John, who opened my mind to the calling of Jesus in Matthew 25  in a manner that was transformative. His friendship was used by God to further my sanctification, grow empathy and compassion, and find the joy of a deep and lasting friendship that I will treasure throughout my life, even as he has found his heavenly reward. I will miss the laughter that always accompanied his presence. He taught me that unity in the church is sometimes a halting and jarring journey, like the road I took to Bo, Sierra Leone, the first time we travelled there in 2002, but one that is ultimately used by God to sanctify those who may live a world away, but who daily walk together in the Kingdom of God.

Reflections on George Floyd

The most recent headline confirms what most of us suspected, that George Floyd died of ‘asphyxia due to neck and back compression.’ The article says this information is offered by an independent autopsy and appears to contradict information from the county’s initial exam offered to the police. Insult seems to be once again added to injury when an independent autopsy is required to detail what most people saw plainly on a video showing a police officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes as he pleaded for breath and life.

 

I have given a lot of thought to what I need to do as a result of this latest unjust and unnecessary death of a person of color. The long list of such deaths includes the recent actions of two self-deputized armed civilians in Georgia, who took the life of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man running on a public street in their neighborhood who they decided was guilty of a crime. The list includes Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American emergency room technician who was sleeping soundly in her home in Louisville, Kentucky, when police executed a “no-knock” warrant which allowed them to enter her home without warning or identifying themselves as law enforcement. After a brief confrontation in a dark room, they fired several shots, striking her at least eight times. The coroner in that case understood the cause of death without the need for an independent examination. It turns out that Ms. Taylor was not connected to the concerns listed on the search warrant that brought police crashing through her door. If you are wondering what people are angry about as you watch the news of protests in our cities, I am describing the barest tip of an iceberg of racial inequity and injustice in the United States that is 400 years deep and so wide that historians writing a multi-volume compendium could only begin to outline it.

 

I have tried to listen over last few days to allow the Lord issue some orders. I have done my study and learning. I know more than enough to understand why people of color and their allies are angry. I know enough about Jesus to feel both a lament for my nation and imagine the righteous anger he holds toward such injustice. If he overthrew tables and kicked the moneychangers out of the temple for their unjust business connected to the worship of God, what would he be doing in light of just these three deaths? I pondered my life and role as a pastor as I reflected on 1 Corinthians 4: Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. (NIV)

 

Let me be the first to say that I have secret places in my heart, and they include racism and bigotry that was cultivated there before I was even born. Set aside the possible white impulse to judge me innocent or tell me how good I am. The Lord and I both know what is in those secret places. He knows much more than me, but shows me another patch of ugly every year. While writing Reckless Love, I discovered that my family, in the 1800’s, included more than one branch which listed human beings in the “property” section of their census data. I was in my early 50’s and never knew that. There are some parts of the family history someone chooses to seal in the secret places of the heart. Growing up in a mid-size town in the Shenandoah Valley, I used racist language and carried bigoted constructs of the world in my childhood and adolescence. I have worked to deal with that secret place my whole life and imagine that I will need to turn that soil until I die. In the lives of many white people, racism is like an EPA Superfund site. You can work it your whole life and still not get all the poison out of the dirt where you stand.

 

About now you may think that I suffer from liberal white guilt. What I suffer from is a conviction of sin placed in my life by my Lord Jesus Christ that I wonder why more white Christians have not experienced. It is profoundly disorienting. My Lord has convicted me that our society has obvious racial sin that is not secret but is often completely ignored. I suggest that white people who are quickly angered when peaceful protests become expensive riots, but who demonstrate their acceptance of injustice through utter silence when a black man is asphyxiated before their very eyes, should seek the Lord. And don’t ask Jesus to pat your head and tell others to calm down. He is already a Savior who has died for your sins. This is no time for Jesus, meek and mild. Call upon the Lord and let him give you some marching orders. Let him open what the Apostle Paul says is hidden in the darkness so that he can expose the motives of the heart. If you are expecting commendations, you do not understand Christ or Christianity. Being a follower of Jesus Christ is a request to have Jesus remove every sin from your life, training and heritage that is unpleasing to Him and Him alone. He does not care about your opinion on racism. He cares that you become a person who loves others fully, inclusively and equally. It is apparent from the study of the gospels that Jesus is an anti-racist. He accepted, healed, stood up for, befriended, and died for everyone others rejected, harmed and killed.

 

I was hoping Jesus would tell me to read another book or sign up for another discussion. Books and discussion are essential if you want to become an anti-racist. If you have not done the work, now is the time to begin. But I have already asked the Risen Christ to help me take a good look at me. I will continue to do that work, but I knew I needed to ask again, Lord, what would you like me to do now?  I felt the Lord say, Now is the time to do something as a person and a pastor.  I began to do some things. Nothing earth-shattering here. But something done, nonetheless. Karen and I made some donations this weekend to organizations that work for racial justice. And we didn’t rob what we give other organizations. We gave more. We gave extra. I called a friend in my community who is an African American pastor to check in on him and ask what a group we helped initiate last year might get to work on now. I called my Church Council Chairperson and asked her if we could convene a meeting the following night and agree on actions we would take in light of systemic racism in our nation. Such actions will need to be ongoing and deliberate. We need to hear the marching orders our Lord has for our church, and not offer up events designed to make us feel better.

 

On Wednesday, we will offer a service of lament for the whole bucket of sorrow we are experiencing. We will pray for the over 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. Every one of these deaths is a tragedy, but it should be noted that the pandemic disproportionately impacts persons of color. We will pray for those who fear eviction and who struggle to feed their family due to the economic impact of the pandemic. We will also pray for the Lord to convict us personally and collectively of the systematic racism that exists in our country and call us to be agents of the Reign of God who work against evil, injustice and oppression. No doubt some who have read this far are thinking, There they go. ‘Thoughts and Prayers.’ Give me a break!  Take heart, at the end of this service, we will call our church to go and do what Christ calls them to do in this critical time. We will give them ideas that they can act on as individuals. And we will tell them plans initiated by our church leadership this week. Right now, our witness for Christ can be magnified and believed through action or it will be seen as the fraud is if we offer nothing but silence and inactivity. In both our personal and corporate lives, we must pray and act. Prayer is uniquely necessary when it is associated with our desire to seek the discernment of the Holy Spirit on how to act. Earnest prayer in such moments is the silence in the room as Jesus steps to the podium and issues his call to action. He expects us to be ministers of the gospel who work toward the healing of the nations rather than a fearful people seeking God’s protection as we tell others to be nice.

 

This is the work of a lifetime, but it has to begin and be continued. I believe I can hear the renewed call of God in this time. It is the call of the One who now desires to bring to light what is hidden in darkness and expose the motives of our hearts. Now is the time to simply do what Jesus is calling us to do: acts of servanthood, compassion, love, and by all means, justice. I can’t wait to hear what I will say on Wednesday. Join us if you do too.

Guiding Values During the Pandemic

Right now, your church is writing a story that will be told months and perhaps years from now about your identity, and how that was uniquely expressed during a difficult time. I have met with some very creative pastors and church leaders by Zoom lately and have come away impressed at the way churches are both doing ministry and observing the no contact health guidelines our government calls us to observe relative to the COVID-19 pandemic. Churches are using social media and other virtual platforms to lead bible studies, host worship and offer content for kids and students. They are focused on working with schools and relief organizations in their communities to care for those who might be impacted from job loss or food insecurity. In so doing, they are writing the story of their identity. They are acting on values that their members hold to be true not just about the church, but the Christian life.

At Floris UMC, our church leaders and staff agreed on three key values to guide the story we are writing at this time:

  1. Keep People Healthy
  • We will conform our practices to the latest guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control, the Virginia Health Department and the Federal Government, whichever seems most beneficial
  • Our employees are being asked to work from home; those who do need to come to our facility are expected to practice social distancing
  • Clergy will be given wide discretion regarding hospital visitation out of concern for their children and family members
  1. Create a Vital Community
  • We will hold Sunday worship weekly via livestream, and will develop other means to share daily devotions and other occasions for prayer or worship
  • Life groups will be held virtually
  • We will proactively care for our members by enlisting volunteers to call them, with a goal of contacting all active members of our church to make sure everyone has the essentials they need.
  • We will find ways for our members to offer encouragement and resources to each other.
  1. Care for the Vulnerable
  • Working with our school and community partners, we will focus on food insecurity, especially for children
  • As the health crisis for all becomes an economic crisis for some, we will find the best way to help people care for essential needs of food and shelter

Like your church, Floris UMC is doing many creative things to share the gospel, care for its community and bless the world, especially those who are in the greatest need. By establishing these values, we are all pulling on the same rope in the same direction. It is exciting to see how much creative effort is being displayed by so many to share the message of Jesus’ love and the promise of new life found in Christ.

COVID-19 Preparedness

Here at Floris United Methodist Church we have been talking about ways we can make our church a safe space relevant to the recent spread of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). With guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and local health departments, we developed a list of safe practices to help ensure that we are ready for whatever may happen. I would like to share our initial list with you, to help you create safe spaces in your communities.

  1. Talk to the Congregation
    • Demonstrate and normalize ways to greet people other than a handshake or other contact.
      • Elbow bump
      • Hand to chest with slight bow
    • Provide online worship options so that those who are sick can stay home. This may be as simple as Facebook Live.
    • Inform members about practices related to cleaning the facility, especially the nursery, children’s areas and restrooms.
    • Communicate with parents
      • Communicate practices for cleaning and expectations for nursery staff related to their health so that parents know your church is a safe space.
      • Ask parents not to bring symptomatic or sick children to church.
      • Share procedures for nursery and classroom cleaning, and guide volunteers on new cleaning practices during this time.
  • Serving Holy Communion
    • Tell volunteers to wash hands for 20 seconds minimum before serving Holy Communion.
    • Use hand sanitizer in front of the congregation before serving to validate the practice.
  • If communion is shared by intinction, give people options like crossing their arms before the cup as a sign of participation, especially if they are experiencing anxiety about receiving communion.
  1. Talk to Church Staff and Key Volunteers
    • Emphasize:
      • Respiratory etiquette (covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue)
      • Routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces and objects.
      • Hand hygiene (washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds)
      • Stay at home when sick
      • Identify what symptoms count as stay at home criteria:
        • Active, persistent, hacking cough
        • Shortness of breath
        • Fever (must be fever-free and related symptom-free for 24 hours before return)
    • Consider what preparations need to be made now if people choose to work from home.
      • How would I do my job if I were not in this facility?
      • Help employees understand the difference between working from home and taking Paid Time Off if they are sick.
  1. Review Church Cleaning Practices
    • Ask staff and volunteers to clean surfaces and door handles after use in public areas.
    • Make hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies available in a child-safe location in classrooms and other areas where necessary.

A few years ago I learned from United Methodists in Sierra Leone that when the church takes precautions during a public health crisis, it can positively impact everyone in the country. Churches there asked their members to rinse their hands in a chlorinated water solution, refrain from handshaking and hugs and find new ways to greet and show care for one another that would not transmit the virus. Sierra Leone was dealing with an outbreak of Ebola, which is not something to be taken lightly. When faith communities took this initiative, its good practices quickly spread through the country, with a very positive benefit to public health. While COVID-19 is different from Ebola, church leaders who take the initiative can help people plan what to do to improve health and lower anxiety when people hear the word “pandemic”.

Talking About the Protocol

As a member of the team that worked with mediator Ken Feinberg to produce the Protocol on  Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation and Restructuring, I have received a lot of questions about both the Protocol and accompanying legislation. Leaders in the United Methodist Church who are Traditional, Centrist and Progressive worked together to overcome our impasse related to same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay persons for ministry. Our group included laypersons, clergy and bishops from our global church. We all had to listen carefully to each other so that we could offer the church a plan to move forward, and at the same time, help everyone get to the future they desired where they could reach others for Christ. It is a plan for separation, trusting God that all of us can find a future where we can serve Christ in ways that honor our common Wesleyan Christian heritage.

Reading legislation coming before the 2020 General Conference of the United Methodist Church is never an easy task. In this case it is over 60 pages and includes words like “indemnification.” I made this video to help pastors and lay people who wanted to understand the basics of this proposal and who asked for some help with presentations related to the protocol. There are three questions I am working to answer in this video that I hope will assist you:

  • Why are we still talking about this?
  • A basic explanation of the legislation
  • Why this matters

Take a look and if this is helpful, feel free to download it for your use or share it with others.

 

#1Church4All

Since the results of the called 2019 General Conference were announced, people at Floris UMC have been asking me how we will respond. Those in our church who are LGBTQ persons and family members felt hurt and rejected by the passage of the Traditional Plan. Many of us felt that our personal values were violated in the decision of the General Conference, the only body that is able to speak officially for the United Methodist Church. Some members captured what many were saying when they noted that for the first time in their lives, the cross and flame on the sign in front of our church reflected something they could not and would not support. They were not angered that they did not get their way. They were embarrassed to be associated with a decision that they did not know how to explain to their LGBTQ family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors. Most have children who are fully accepting of all people and who do not notice or exclude people due to categories of sexual orientation. Those of us who support marriage and job equity find the more stringent conditions of the Traditional Plan to be a movement away from the way of Christ. The simple reason for this is that we believe sexual orientation is a way a person is created by God rather than a sin they commit against God.

At Floris, I have also heard from members who support the traditional view of marriage and ordination found in the current Book of Discipline. Some of these persons were offended at the way their friends in the LGBTQ community were characterized by traditional delegates at General Conference. Some shared that matters in this debate are simply not pivotal to their church membership, or in need of enhanced measures of enforcement in the church.

As one of the authors of the One Church Plan, I returned from General Conference disappointed and tired. My two years on the Commission on a Way Forward were invested in the hope of a better outcome for the United Methodist Church than what I experienced. While I was saddened by the full victory of traditional delegates and the unwavering voting block of evangelical American United Methodists and members of many central conferences in other continents and countries, I knew I had a lot of work to do back home. In the conversations and meetings that followed at Floris UMC in the days after General Conference, God used two moments to galvanize what I was hearing from so many in our congregation.

The first was the feedback I heard from LGBTQ members of our church. They were among the most gracious and kind responses I received. I called to apologize to them and see how they were doing in the wake of the news. Before responding, they asked how I was doing and thanked me for my service. One woman spoke of her experience with her wife and children at our church. She said that after a few years at Floris, she had to admit that she was never really sure if her family was accepted or not. Did the people sitting around her welcome them or want them to leave? Would someone one day tell their children that their parents were sinful? It was apparent that she felt a great deal of insecurity long before the General Conference ever took place. This church member said that she would like to know that Floris wanted her family and people like her to be included so that together, we could get on with the important mission of our church. She said she loved seeing our church share Christ and grow as disciples. She celebrated the ways we bless the vulnerable and poor and bring the love and hope of Christ to those in difficult times. She said that she loved this mission. She was not looking for an LGBTQ church. She was looking for a Christian community where she knew she and her family were accepted, loved and included in that mission. While I was focused outwardly, frustrated by the outcome of General Conference, I was inwardly convicted by the Holy Spirit that we did not have our own community in order.

When we held a General Conference debriefing at Floris, God used another moment to help me understand our congregation’s way forward. More than 600 people came to the event, along with over 200 who joined online. At one point I asked those who experienced the outcome of the General Conference as something personal because they were LGBTQ persons, family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors or allies to raise their hand. I emphasized that we were not voting and that some would not raise their hands because they were taught never to raise their hand in church for any reason. Many told me later that they were shocked when, thinking they would be in the minority, they estimated that about 90% of those gathered had their hands up as well. LGBTQ members shared that it was a moment when they understood how many people cared about them. They could see that it was a safe and welcoming environment. All I could think of was Why on earth was this the first time we ever knew so clearly? I was convicted by my own complicity in this confusion and given a tremendous sense of clarity about the loving church we long to be.

Our denomination has a lot to sort out and it will take until the 2020 General Conference for anything to change. So does our congregation, and we don’t have that much time. It is clear to me that we want to be a broadly inclusive community. For several years we have worked to be a church that looks more like our community, inclusive of all ethnicities. Last year we included funds in our Dream Campaign to hire someone to help our church become more inclusive of people with disabilities. Now it is clear that we want to be intentionally welcoming and inclusive of the LGBTQ community as well. This is no longer something we think about. Our hands are raised to say that it is a personal value to us.

In the next three weeks, we will establish three teams to work for no more than six months to offer our church council actionable plans to become a more inclusive church in these three areas. For the next six months, and perhaps the time beyond, we will use the “1Church4All” graphic to remind us of our goal to welcome and include all abilities, all ethnicities and all orientations. Anyone who would like to use this graphic in a positive way in their church is welcome to do so. We think six months is important. Many of our members consider our church to be on probation. They want to know if what we say is real or just talk. They want to know if we are going to stand about and admire a problem of the past or step into an opportunity for our future. We will not find perfection in six months. But we can move to places of welcome and inclusion we have never experienced in our 126-year history as Floris United Methodist Church and show our community who we are in the midst of this difficult time in our denomination. That work will begin the long journey of congregational sanctification in the perfecting love of Christ.

In the 1980s, United Methodist Churches across the country decided to welcome people with physical disabilities. We talked about it, but the welcome was never real until we literally built accessibility ramps, widened doorways, redesigned bathrooms and made other critical adaptations so that people would actually be welcomed and included in our ministry. At Floris UMC we must do something similar in these three key areas. We need our content experts, people with disabilities, people of various ethnicities and LGBTQ members and friends to serve on these teams along with many others. We can design our community and ministry with God’s leading and with each other. All people are of sacred worth is a statement that did not change at General Conference. At this time, we will acknowledge that we are a broken and sinful community, but that we share a common aspiration to follow as God leads us to a deeper and more loving experience of the church.

Thank God for Christmas

I’ve been thinking about the Christmas spirit, what that feels like when we have it, how we long for it and search for the elusive formula that will bring it into our lives. We are like alchemists of old, who hoped to find a mythical substance, sometimes called “the philosopher’s stone” to transform base metals, like lead, into gold. We work with the ordinary things of our lives like music, material goods we can purchase for others, decorations for our homes, special dishes that we cook or cookies and cakes that we bake, along with a host of other shared and particular traditions in the hope that we will experience the gentle spirit of Christmas descend upon our hearts and minds.

I have a little Christmas tree in my office. It is adorned in the bubble lights that my family suggested might better serve that space than our Christmas tree at home. It has ornaments that I enjoy but which were received with less enthusiasm by the women in my life. I look at that tree and I think about the bubble lights on my Aunt Ibbie’s tree when I was a child. I thought those lights were the most fabulous thing I had ever seen in someone’s home. They transport me back to her living room. I can smell her home, the food cooking in her kitchen and the odd yet familiar combination of hardwood floors, worn rugs, heavily cushioned chairs and sofas that would envelop a small child when you plopped into them. I look at those lights and feel the cold breeze when the door opens and closes. I hear the voices of relatives now long passed, the warm greetings of grandparents with their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins, whose memory I cherish in the deep recesses of my mind. For that moment, I feel the Christmas spirit, but it is like a candle that comes to life when I gaze on those lights and then flickers out when I look away.

Some years we miss Christmas because of our confusion about its source. Christmas is not found in what we receive, but in what we offer. It is experienced when we respond to its prodding to act. We are imbued with its spirit when we offer love to others: the warmth of friendship, a helping hand, the kind greeting to a stranger, acts of generosity or the quiet prayer for the well-being of another. Songs and customs will come and go, but the essence of Christmas will never change. It is found in the message of the angels:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

We might ask what would have happened if those shepherds had not come with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger? What would have been missed, and how did their lives change because of what they saw that night? Here they found the ultimate act of generosity, not the first gift of Christmas, but the gift that is Christmas. The shepherds could have sat in their dark, cold, field, keeping a wary eye out for lurking danger and speaking as every generation speaks, “of what the world has come to.” That night they undertook a great act of faith, to go and see what had come into the world. The angels told them that the beauty of God had come into the ugliness of the world. A great light had pierced the darkness. In the birth of the Christ-child, love gained a foothold in a world’s despair and hopelessness. God was present, to teach and restore us, to bring us grace, redemption and joy. Because they saw what the angels described, the shepherds,

                              made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

Everyone who heard the shepherds’ words wondered at what they said. People thought it too good to be true. They thought it unrealistic, the stuff of fantasy or perhaps the disjointed rantings of the intoxicated. But not the shepherds. The shepherds had experienced the hope of Christmas, a hope that lasts not just for a night, or the following day, but the hope that can form your life and the way you live each week, month and year. It is the hope that having received the gift of the Christ, we will offer all that we have gained. We will allow Christmas to clothe us, as Paul said, with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. It is the longing that Christmas will encourage us to bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven us, so we also must forgive. It is the joy that Christmas, above all, might enable us to put on the love of God, which binds everything together in perfect harmony and allows the peace of Christ to rule our hearts

This is why I thank God for Christmas. How I wish this moment would last all the year. Christmas calls something out in us, a desire to make the world a better place, and to be better people in the world. It asks us to think about how we can encourage one another, lighten the load of another, be a better friend, spouse, parent and child. Let there be decorations, music and laughter. May every home carry the aroma of food that is enjoyed in the present, but which reminds us of every good Christmas we have ever enjoyed in the past. May you see the shimmer of lights on a tree and the sparkle in the eye of a child.

I hope all these things remind you of the joy the shepherds experienced that first Christmas. More than anything, I hope you will hear the faint, but still resonate sound of the multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

We need Christmas. We need to stand in the warmth of its community with billions of people around the world who celebrate the incarnation of God. Together we celebrate the light that shines in even the darkest corners and most difficult moments of this earth. When hope seems to be lost, when goodness seems to be fading, we embrace Christmas, we keep Christmas, with its abiding love and unfailing hope. Like the shepherds, we celebrate Christmas not only for ourselves, but for every person who can hear its message and experience the love it offers.

And so, may we be like the shepherds as we go to our homes, to our gatherings and into our world in the weeks ahead. May we return glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Wesley Heritage Tour Back to the Future

I have been in England for a John Wesley Heritage Tour recently. It is a great way to gain perspective on the current conversation in the United Methodist Church and the possibility of future division. The over 200-year history of the Methodist movement is based on careful attention to its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ and the desire to reach the lost, serve the poor and bring “scriptural holiness” to the land. It is also rife with times of personal and corporate disagreement and division. Division has often led to new periods of renewal or the emergence of once-dormant leadership and spiritual gifts akin to the talents buried by the fearful servant in Jesus’ parable. It is also true that division often leads to the dying off of branches of the church, like the fig tree that Jesus cursed when it bore no fruit. Division can also be a bright and promising road that leads to a dead end, making one wonder what good works might have been produced if only there would have been continued unity and forbearance in times of disagreement.

It is yet to be seen what our current conversation will produce in the future for United Methodists. Nothing is certain. But I am left with the observation that the only Methodists who did any lasting good were those who remained committed to the basics to which they commonly agreed. Their best was found when they shared their faith in Christ and served the least, the last and the lost. Change came when they engaged in the rigor of discipleship through the study of the scripture and the honesty that comes when we place our lives in the trust and encouragement of mutual accountability. What a powerful thing these early Methodists did when they gathered in small classes to ask penetrating questions about their Christian journey. They longed to know Christ, to be made holy in this lifetime, so that they could enjoy an even deeper joy that comes with the experience of God’s love and mercy. They trusted each other sincerely, believing that if they were honest about their sins and temperaments, they would not be thrown out, but their demons might be cast out.

They desired to share the new life they discovered with their friends and neighbors, not for the sake of a long roster, but to set people free from the hardships that inevitably accompany sin. They understood that living without Christ meant being constrained by sin and self, just as living a life under the Lordship of Christ brought both order and the significance found when you live out God’s purposes for your life. As their love of Christ grew, they began to care about issues around them. They worked to end the hardship of illiterate children working in homes and factories and the horrors of slavery. They invited the poor to join them, hoping people whose poverty arose from dysfunctional habits, or addiction to alcohol or drugs, or who simply had no idea how to live a well-designed life for themselves or their family, could find transformation in Christ. They began to organize themselves, offer their time and treasure and take a stand on matters that conflicted with Jesus’ description of the kingdom of God.

The times of greatest vitality came when they embraced discomfort. They risked their reputation in the broader society to do that which was often counter to their intuition about how to exercise their faith and religion. For John Wesley, it was the moment he decided to become “vile” by stooping to preach in an open field to the most common of people – poor laborers and coal miners – rather than pining to preach in the proper pulpits of the Anglican church which had ordained him. Methodists became vital when they set aside the social constructs of being church people and became “enthusiasts” whose vigorous sermons and willingness to share their faith across class, race and gender crossed the line of ecclesial decorum. They were not seen as respectable by their colleagues in the church because they spoke too loudly and dared to exhibit emotion commiserate with the sorrow of the confession of one’s sins or the joy innate to the embrace of the deep love of God. In this space of personal perplexity, they did what was counter-intuitive. They reached people unlike themselves. They were guided by the Holy Spirit into spaces of their society and world they never dreamed of going. Here they became of great use to God. They satisfied the calling of Christ to share the good news of the mercy of God and new life found in Jesus Christ. They set aside the comforts of reputation and the nagging desire to be favorably known, or the blessed peace of being unknown, so that they could relieve suffering and make the joy of Christ alive for others.

If unity comes, let it be a unity that leads to such commitment to bless the world with the love, mercy and justice of Christ broadly and consistently. And if division comes, let all parties go in ways of vitality and grace. The worst thing that can happen is that we will muddle along and ignore the lessons of the most vital spaces in the history of our movement, do church mildly and offer the world nothing more than respectable company that requires no change, makes no sacrifice and sees no transformation of ourselves or the world around us. The best we have to offer is the ministry which the early Methodists did so well, the blessing and the hope the world still needs today.

Prayer Vigil. Photo by Associated Press.
Prayer Vigil. Photo by Associated Press.

After the Thoughts and Prayers

Their faces have been before us. Since the most recent school shooting in America, the faces of the students, teachers, administrators and parents related to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have been everywhere. Only days after the tragic loss of life, as injured survivors lie in hospital rooms hoping to fully recover, the voices of the Parkland community have spoken up. They give voice to their loss, trauma and pain. They want change. They want answers. They want this to not happen again.

A recent Washington Post article demonstrates that this community is just one in a long line of those traumatized by school shootings that have left about 250 teachers and students dead since 2000. If we would add in the number of shooting victims in public places such as theatres and nightclubs, the map in the Post article that shows the locations of these incidents would be even more crowded.

It is now customary for Christians and others who have no words to respond to the latest shooting to simply say that our “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims. In reply, others criticize such a statement, and they have a valid point. Wishes of “thoughts and prayers” can sound hollow, especially to those who do not pray regularly, because it sounds like we are asking God to do what we are unwilling to attempt. Prayer, for Christians, is not about tasking God with our problems or asking God to do our will. Prayer is a means for God to speak to us, to influence our thoughts, call us to action and conform our often-stubborn will to the intentions of the Kingdom of Heaven. The question before prayerful Christians is not, “Will you pray?” Not to pray or pause in silence related to the loss and horror of these shootings would be rather remarkable. The question of prayer is, “What will our prayers call us to do?” When the answer Christians offer through compassionate words void of accompanying action is “nothing,” we seem superficial at best and impotent at worst. It is hard for non-believers to hear us talk about the power of God in our lives when our responses to critical issues of our society are ineffectual. I can’t imagine that the Almighty thinks much better of it than they do.

Some speak of what needs to be done as though these shootings are a simple matter, as if we could do one thing well and then all would be well in our schools. The depth and consistency of this problem does not lend itself to simple solutions. This is not addition or subtraction. This is multi-variable calculus. We might begin by considering what factors are at work to prevent the next teenager from killing and terrorizing their classmates. Some factors that lead to school safety, in no particular order, may include:

A = Caring adults who build dependable and loving relationships with students

B = Access to mental health services for those at risk

C = School security

D = Diminished access to weapons

E = Education in values

F = Diminished exposure to violence through video games and media

G = Family cohesion

H = Bullying and abuse prevention

The equation below is not my attempt to solve the problem. It is not the solution, which would vary greatly depending on community context. My hope is to simply illustrate that any solution will require attention to a variety of variables and important factors to reach the goal of safe schools in America. For example:

School Safety = A(E + H) + C(D) + (B + F) + G

Depending on the context of the school, we might create programs and protocols that would allow us to multiply some of these factors by larger numbers than others. What seems odd this week, in light of the faces and voices from Parkland, are the number of political leaders in our country who encourage us to separate gun access from school security, or who put a zero in front of the desire to limit access to military grade weapons even to those under age 21 or those with a difficult mental health history.

School Safety = A(E + H) + C + (0 x D) + (B + F) + G

It seems unlikely that the current level of access to military grade weaponry and large capacity ammunition clips will diminish these shootings. The desire to remove access to weapons as a factor in school safety by political leaders is apparently not rooted in evidence-based practices that other countries have used to dramatically reduce school shootings. It seems more connected to the influence of gun lobbies who support their campaigns and threaten to back new candidates who will do their bidding if the current politicians dare change their stance on these matters. Nothing teaches us that money talks, or that money can purchase silence and inactivity in political leaders, like their inaction after the shootings of the past 18 years.

People always get nervous when a pastor questions a politician, but when I was ordained they made me promise to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I have spent far too long embracing the first part of that commission while fearing the outcomes of the second. You may understand the feeling. In the last week, I have been reminded of the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear.” (Jeremiah 5:21 NIV) Jesus used a similar phrase when he was frustrated with his closest disciples, “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?” (Mark 8:18) I wonder what Jeremiah and Jesus would say to people of faith in America right now? We simply must see these faces from Parkland, Florida. We must hear these voices and not turn away from them through inactivity as we have so many other school shooting victims.

Here is the good news: our prayers can lead us to action, and will if they are sincere and open to the Holy Spirit. There are many things Christians are doing and many things we can focus on related to school safety factors:

  • Offer campaign support to courageous politicians of any party who are willing to simply reason together about the factors that contribute to school safety, including access to weapons. I prayed about this issue the other day and ended up writing my representative in Congress. I shared my concerns in ways that I hoped were reasonable and polite. I offered to give her money to help backfill the donations gun lobbies gave her at the last election.
  • Give time to organizations and events in our church and community where we get to know kids, build authentic relationships, look out for kids on the margin and encourage behavior that builds others up rather than tearing others down.
  • Become advocates for mental health services and share our experience so that those who suffer in this way are helped rather than marginalized.

Parents focus on these safety factors when they secure gun safes, teach values, set boundaries on exposure to screen violence and care not only for their kids but their friends as well. Adults who volunteer in sports leagues, church groups and a variety of other settings where students are encouraged to develop and mature deserve our gratitude. And most importantly, teachers and school administrators and employees who dedicate their lives to the education and safety of our children deserve all the support and gratitude we can give them.

You can choose to work on any one of these issues or several. Followers of Jesus simply must do something or risk the witness of the church which has addressed numerous worthy causes after receiving its marching orders in time properly devoted to thought and prayer.

Thoughts from Berlin

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

I returned last week from Berlin, Germany, where history is everywhere. You don’t have to be a scholar to know that Germany has a bit of a history issue, having initiated two world wars and a horrifying genocide. Many countries with that kind of baggage might try to bury it deep and pray it would not be mentioned in polite company. Instead, Germans have surfaced their history in the hope of not repeating it.

I took a tour of the downtown area that started at the majestic Brandenburg Gate, then moved a short distance to the plainly titled “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” Nazi genocide claimed an estimated 6,000,000 Jews, as well as gypsies, homosexuals and adults and children with disabilities across Europe and Russia. The Holocaust Memorial, which tells this story, covers about a city block. Large concrete blocks are set in rows. The sizes vary so that the further you go, the deeper you sink into the exhibit. These blocks feel like they are towering over you at the center, and lean at odd angles, making you wonder if you will be crushed if the wind blows too hard. You don’t see the memorial as much as you are swallowed by it. A museum underneath the exhibit gives an overview of the whole gruesome story and shares the words of the dead as well as survivors.

Our tour continued a few hundred meters from this exhibit in a gravel parking lot. There is nothing here but a few trees, some weeds and cars. An unadorned sign explains that underneath the gravel is Hitler’s bunker, where he and Eva Braun were married and sealed their vows with a suicide pact as Nazi Germany collapsed around them. The Russian army attempted to destroy the bombproof bunker. Unfortunately, they used bombs, which is when they discovered the meaning of the word “bombproof” and the phrase “German engineering.” Fearing that current and future Nazis would turn the bunker into a shrine, Germany covered it with dirt and gravel and today unceremoniously parks cars on it. It is the least conspicuous space of historical significance I have ever seen.

A few blocks further, our tour guide showed us remnants of the Berlin wall, the location of Checkpoint Charlie and buildings used by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to create fear in their citizens so they would stop attempting to escape to west Berlin. When a country uses the word “escape” in place of “emigrate,” you know you have problems. The next day I was able to see a rebuilt section of the Berlin wall, complete with guard tower and the displayed remains of the Church of Reconciliation, which was destroyed by the GDR because it was both in the path of the wall and was a place where people worshipped God. There is a large park and a museum there with exhibits about this divided chapter in the life of the country and its the totalitarian regime. Everywhere the displays are in multiple languages. Germans make every attempt to let the world know what happened here.

I was in Berlin for meetings. Walking to that location, a friend pointed out the brass markers placed in the sidewalk outside of homes where Jewish citizens were taken and placed in concentration camps. Their names and details of their deaths, including the names of concentration camps where they were incarcerated and finally murdered, are listed. These plaques are very personal. I could quickly imagine the violence and confusion of the Gestapo raiding these homes and tearing families apart. Once you see one of these markers, your eye is drawn to them everywhere you go. We saw them not just in Berlin, but in Wittenberg as well.

The choice to increase the volume and interpretation of historical markers provides Germans a great deal of moral clarity. Genocide is bad. Victims should be remembered. Leaders who used power this way are acknowledged, but never lionized. Totalitarian rule and all its trappings are recognized but not romanticized or fictionalized. These markers are not just about individuals, but the acts of the German nation. They contain a message for today’s citizens: we did these terrible things. Your parents and grandparents committed these injustices and atrocities. Don’t forget these shattered lives. Don’t ever do this again.

There is a lot of talk about history where I live these days. Some want to remove Confederate memorials while others fear the loss of history. I like history. I grew up in Virginia reading about the strategic acumen of people like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. A perspective was nurtured in books and art that showed these men to be strong, courageous, resourceful and smarter than those they fought. I’ve been to the burial sites of Lee and Jackson and understand how attached white people can be to such statues and memorials. I also know how sanitized the history of the Confederacy is at such locations. Regularly ignored is the actual writing of people like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, who clearly stated that they were going to war to preserve slavery; or the implications of the Supreme Court “Dred Scott Decision” that ruled black people (slave and free) had no citizenship rights of any kind. Instead, we often hear that the Civil War was fought over vaguely generalized issues like “state’s rights” or an “unfair tariff.” Never mind that the root of these disagreements was about who was profiting from the “right” to own a human being from Africa as chattel. Such issues, to my experience, are seldom found near the statues of the heroes of the south.

 I agree with those who want more history rather than less. Think of the improvement that more interpretation could provide. There is no need to vilify these men. Just say things plainly. Explain their context. Let their own words speak for them. Confederate leaders fought for the right to own enslaved humans. Many, perhaps most of the Confederate officers, came from families who at some point owned human beings from Africa. We can still say that General Lee was a military genius. Had he accepted the first commission offered to him by the nation that educated him at West Point and to whose loyalty he had pledged his life, the war would have probably lasted all of six months. When he rode to Richmond to join a rebellion waged for the right to perpetuate an economic system based on the injustice of slavery, where black humans lost everything so that white humans could gain tremendous wealth that would be passed down for generations to their offspring, our nation was torn apart. It is estimated that more than 700,000 people died due to the Civil War and more than 1,000,000 were wounded. Lee understood the impact of his decision and seemed to mourn it. So should we. Let us also recall how General Lee told his men to go home when the war was over. He told young men to get an education. He did not join guerilla movements or white supremacy groups. He had seen enough terror in war. That might be a good piece of history to recall to our children before they grow up and carry Confederate flags and torches down the lawn at the University of Virginia.

Rather than just add clarity to the monuments that exist, I suggest we add new ones. Let’s put brass markers in the sidewalks and parking lots where slaves were bought and sold, where women were raped by their masters and where their children were stripped from their arms to be sold again, or where black citizens were publicly lynched by crowds of whites for decades after the civil war ended. We could be as thorough with our history as the Germans are with theirs. Let’s put markers across the south, and in every state in the north where black people were denied citizenship rights; where slave ships were built and crewed; and where the financing was provided to purchase slaves. That way white people can mutually recall our ancestral complicity in this injustice and brutality rather than blaming some for a brutal and unjust economic system perpetuated for generations by most. It will be difficult, because the vast majority of these slaves, after working every day of their lives to care for and generate wealth for white people, were valued so little that they died without the dignity of anyone remembering their names, marking their graves or sharing their stories. Even if we put blank markers in the ground, it would require us to stop for a moment and remember the value of these souls. I need these stumbling stones to remind myself of my context, my advantage as a white man whose family has been in the United States for more than 200 years. I do not know if any of my ancestors owned other humans. I do know that the economic system that slavery perpetuated was broadly and directly of benefit to my people.

Have no fear that our founding fathers will diminish in their stature with this new desire for historical context, as some have suggested. On the grounds of Mt. Vernon, George Washington is honored. He was a great general and statesman. We all know that. But we should also know the story told in the garden at Mt. Vernon that honors the lives of more than 300 slaves who lived in shanties and worked Washington’s plantation to generate wealth for the approximately 10 white members of the family who lived in the big house. This history, these lives and this national story must be remembered. Only when we pass through this garden can we pause to consider that Washington at least had the civility to free his slaves upon Martha’s death. As a Christian, I would like to know how long our first President pondered that decision. Did his reading of the scripture inspire it? Was it a conviction of his faith that made him take this step? It makes me consider what social injustice properly brings me self-reproach today, and what I might do to correct it in my lifetime rather than on my deathbed.

I agree with those who say we should not remove Confederate history. If anything, we need more of it, accurately told, and a new level of moral clarity from it. As a person who is white, I need to be reminded of the ways the muscle of slavery in our past still animates our national body today. This past to present link is what I saw in Germany.

When a society has such transparency, people know who to honor. I recall walking through the city of Jerusalem, talking with the guide who was explaining the centuries of its checkered past. He paused next to a cemetery and said, “You know, Oskar Schindler is buried over there.” “From the movie Schindler’s List?”, I asked. I did not want to miss the opportunity to see the resting place of a man who risked his life and spent his fortune keeping his Jewish employees from the death camps of the holocaust. When we came to Schindler’s grave, we saw that pebbles had been carefully placed on it, just like at the end of the movie. The guide said so many people stop to do this, it has to be cleared weekly. It was decades since his death, but people were still stopping there to honor this German industrialist and Nazi Party member who had the moral clarity to buy Jewish lives from corrupt Nazi officials and arrange for their transit to safety. Schindler was far from perfect, but in the critical moment he did the right thing and saved generations of Jewish lineages that flourish today. We can handle the both/and of the whole truth. People don’t need perfect heroes. But we do need to see clearly heroes who do the right thing at the right time, when everything is at stake.

I recall walking through another cemetery with a guide a few years later. Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia includes the graves of many who fought for the Confederacy, including an unusual pyramid shrine to Confederate soldiers who died at Gettysburg. The guide pointed out the tombs and markers of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and famous confederate generals J.E.B. Stuart and George Pickett. I was astonished to find pebbles laid upon these markers, something that I could only interpret as a sign of respect and appreciation for their service to the cause of a rebellion whose primary aim was to uphold slavery and tear apart our nation. I do not think we need to bulldoze the cemetery. But I do think we need to ask what vision of history is motivating people to lay those stones on those markers.

There is a tragic downside to the lack of moral clarity when the past is displayed but poorly interpreted in our country. When people are given all the facts, they can honor what is good and right. When none are provided, people will end up offering oblation to a sanitized and romanticized version of their past. In this case, it is probably the fictional ideal of the Old South, where slaves were well treated and were considered members of the extended family by their white masters. If I were to suggest that Adolf Hitler was doing Jewish people a favor, you would call me an idiot or a fool. Please do not suggest the same when I say that something is deeply wrong with our understanding of our national history when white people lay pebbles or stand in appreciation and honor at the markers of Confederate leaders. The problem is not too many historical markers, but too little information attached to them. We are not telling the whole truth. We aren’t getting down to brass tacks or bare facts.

Flying home from Germany, I wondered how Germans got to the point of this much honesty and this much humility. This is important to me as a Christian and as a pastor, because these are key virtues found in Jesus’ teaching in the Bible. The groundwork of transformation is honesty and repentance. Jesus never gave anyone new birth who could not acknowledge the sins of their old life. Germany seems to have experienced everyone’s pain so deeply that it is compelled to share the whole story with every future generation in the hope that this history will never, ever, repeat itself again.

If it is more history that you want, let me say, I’m with you. What a difference it would make if that was really the longing of white people in the United States of America. The more the better. But we must tell the unabridged account. Let’s remind ourselves of the terror of history that people who looked just like me brought to the lives of people of color generations ago, and still do today, so that a real transformation might take place.

CONTACT TOM BERLIN

DROP HIM A LINE