Monday, January 15, 2018

What (some of) my friends don’t get about racism



Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

So said Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963. People with shallow understanding will give him due honor for this day, and then repeat the sins of the past for the next 364.

What is happening in the national conversation disturbs me greatly, though not necessarily in ways you might suspect. Whether or not a U.S. President says something derogatory toward large classes of people is important. But it is not nearly as important as how the body of Christ engages in the responses that follow those media moments and in everyday matters.

My heart was already heavy before the latest news cycle blew up. I had heard from three friends, unconnected with each other and in different parts of the country. Racism, expressed by other followers of Jesus, had brought them pain. And in the sharing, their pain became mine.

To protect them, I will not reveal their identities. Just know that these are real stories, real people. Also note that I am talking to and about my own tribe, white American evangelicals in general, Pentecostals in particular. I am hard on my own tribe, not because they are worse offenders, but because they claim a higher, more transcendent plain of living. And I hold them – and myself – to that claim.

Story #1: A woman, black, is related by marriage to a white pastor. A few days ago, the woman shared how this white pastor-in-law does not defend her against disparaging remarks about people of color, which makes her feel vulnerable. In fact, he dismisses such remarks as inconsequential. His response to her after dissing her concerns: “You need to pray about this.”

Heartburn.

Story #2: A white pastor told me how his church has been going through significant changes. Lots of new people coming in, getting saved and baptized, reflecting the growing diversity in his community. With pain in his eyes, he shared how white people began leaving his church when the number of blacks started to grow. I inquired, Surely So-and-so did not leave because of black people coming? So-and-so being a wonderful person and a loyal friend. His pained eyes answered “yes”.

Gut wrench.

Story #3: A black woman went with her young son to a local coffee shop. There they overheard two white people, whom she recognized, having a conversation.

Said one, “We don’t have a single property for sale in the city for under $xxx,xxx. *Laughing* I’m proud to say I’ve had a hand in that. That should help keep those uppity Negroes from (neighboring town) out of our schools.”

Said the other, “I’ll be happy when the construction next to xx is done and I can stop locking my car again.”

I asked my friend if she knew if either was a Christian. I didn’t mean “Christian” as in American, but really, truly Christian. At least one, she said, was our tribe of Christian, a fellow Pentecostal.

After she shared this on Facebook, I watched her feed for a few days, watched how well-meaning white people offered all sorts of advice while black people chose simply to empathize. Advice from the safe seats is cheap.

A stabbing pain in my forehead.

I watched how people of my tribe reacted to gossip that Oprah Winfrey might run for president. Regardless the merits of that possibility, the concern from white friends came to center on hype about her supposedly saying old white men have to die. How terrible of her.

Until.

I checked out the full transcript where she said that some people would have to pass on before racism was a thing of the past. Actually I’ve said the same thing myself. There was a time when I thought that when the old racist generation expired we would be able to fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.

But America’s original sin keeps getting passed down from one generation to the next, just as sins do. In this way Winfrey was wrong. Racism doesn’t die with old racists. Sins do not die with the sinners. In fact, they keep infecting each succeeding generation unless and until repentance is pervasive.

The grumbling Israelites of old died in the Wilderness leaving behind a courageous new generation of Israelites, only to have the old ugliness come back to haunt the descendants. And it happened generation after generation.

In 1994, an amazing event occurred in Memphis, Tennessee, when black and white Pentecostals came together and whites asked forgiveness for past injustices. Dubbed the Memphis Miracle, it came to symbolize the healing of racial tensions among Pentecostals from the previous 85 years.

However, we white Pentecostals do ourselves a great disservice if we see the Memphis Miracle as a once and for all resolution of past (and present) sins. In each succeeding generation, we must deny ourselves and take up our cross – daily.

Meanwhile, in response to the supposedly biased statements of Winfrey, some of my white friends have reconfirmed their biases about blacks being white haters. If it weren’t for people of color raising the issue, there wouldn’t be racism. So it must be their fault.

A sharp pain in my neck.

All those stories and the news about Winfrey came to me within a week of the big one: The U.S. President was reported to have said something embarrassingly bad about certain classes of people. He denied using a particularly awful word, but did not deny making comparisons that disturb me deeply.

(Watch people argue whether he said what he is said to have said on any threads or comments connected with this article, totally ignoring what I am saying about sin in the camp. Call it deflecting – and my mother, bless her soul, used to call deflecting a sin.)

I watch the response of people of faith, my tribe. Some are instant heroes to me as they channel prophets of old, calling out the racial tones embedded in the differentiation made between Norway and Africa/Haiti. Others deflect, divert, dismiss. They are as blind as that pastor-in-law, as that church member, as the white “saint” in the coffee shop.

The logic spewed in defense of awful statements is twisted, oddly little changed in the fifty years I’ve been tracking such statements. Even excuses for sin are transgenerational.

I want to throw up.

My mind goes back to that moment when as a very young preacher in Waco, Texas, I went to an elder pastor friend about the overtly racist rhetoric of other pastor friends. I was shocked that Pentecostal leaders would talk like that and I needed some godly advice on how to deal with racists in the ministry. His curt response was that I was too sensitive.

Too sensitive? Shouldn’t sin bother all of us preachers? Shouldn’t all of us Pentecostals be sensitive to the sins of racism? We, who were born in an astoundingly prophetic moment of racial healing on Azusa Street when “the color line was broken”? Decades ahead of our time?

When a white friend (also a Pentecostal pastor) recently stated on Facebook that only 1% of the white American population was racist, my first thought was, How am I so blessed to know all of them if there are so few? No, my friends, racism is as alive and well in our society as any other sin. But that has never been a valid excuse to excuse it. 

Imagine saying to God: “I didn’t sin any worse than my neighbor.” Try that logic before the Throne on judgement day.

I have never been surprised when unrepentant sinners sin. It’s as natural as dirt. But I my heart aches when sinners-saved-by-God’s-grace sin and don’t see it as sin. For when Christians do sin and don’t repent, the witness of the Cross suffers. We betray our Savior all over again. Such I believe is the situation we have with these stories I have shared.

Why does the church, my tribe, continue to tolerate such sickness? We will not eradicate the racism in our midst until we begin to acknowledge it for what it is, that it is a detestable thing before our Maker. And how can we expect our gospel work to be victorious as long as there is sin in our own camp (remember the failure at Ai)? Just as when my own Fellowship kept blacks out of the ministry in the 1950s for fear of hindering the work of the Great Commission, so we too hinder the work of the Great Commission by our cowardice and unconfessed sins against our own brothers and sisters.

My friend, the one from the coffee shop, is hesitant to publicize her thoughts, so I will do so on her behalf while (hopefully) protecting her identity. Here were some of the questions she posed following that incident:

  1. Why didn’t they notice me?
  2. If they did notice me, why did they say it anyway?
  3. Why were they comfortable having such a blatantly racist conversation in public?
  4. What should I say to my son about what he heard and witnessed?
  5. How does this affect how I feel about myself?
  6. How does this affect how I feel about my community?
  7. Am I safe right now?
  8. Is it safe for my children to have friends among the children who live there?
  9. How long must I endure the silence of those who say they care about me?
  10. Why didn’t the other people who could clearly hear say anything?
  11. Does this person’s personal beliefs affect their work?
  12. Will these people’s pastors talk about racism in a meaningful way?
  13. What does it feel like to be completely free from these feelings, questions, and concerns?

#9 plows right into the center of my chest.

I encourage you to ponder the questions my coffee shop friend has raised. But I warn you not to be too quick with your answers. The object of your time of reflection is to, well, reflect. Dig deep. If your inclination is to act like a great white savior, then rest assured you will prove yourself a part of the problem and not an answer. My friend told me advice from the cheap seats stung.

Please, God, make us humble enough to understand that the Spirit is given us to help us break down barriers so that your Name will be glorified throughout all the earth. Please save us from the sin of racism. Not merely once and for all, but Every. Single. Day. Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Where is my mother this Christmas?



No time is easy to lose a loved one, particularly when that one has many earthly responsibilities. In the case of my Mother, while her passing brings pain to those of us who remain, she has finished her race – and grandly. Our farewell to her is a celebration of a life well lived.

My Mom might have appeared quiet, reticent even. That appearance belied a profound inner stability that had endured, no, flourished through the course of wars and all sorts of human drama that did little to rock her exterior, whatever she might have felt on the inside.

In recent years, her earthly capacities diminished severely until at last there was nothing left to hold her to our present world. Even so in the end, she seemed reluctant to let go, as if she still had more to give.

Give is all she ever did. Not because she had to, as, say, in order to achieve something or merely because of what another person needed or demanded of her. No, she gave out of a surprisingly vast inner well of abundance that came from her first true love, Jesus.

Faith

My mother was a minister of the gospel, a pastor. I believe she was also a theologian, less in her formal training for she didn’t go beyond a bachelor’s degree, but more in the essential sense of the word, as one who thinks about God and diligently studies the nature of God. God was no abstract to her, nor was God in any way remote. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit and the person of Jesus Christ, God was as real to her as any reality could possibly be.

How well I remember the day we visited remote Dali in Southwest China, a place she had called home during World War II. A handful of American and British missionary kids had been sent up to Dali in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains to free their parents during the crisis at hand and to get out of harm’s way from the aerial invasion by Japan.

Our visit in the late ‘90s revealed little of what had been in the early 40s and we wondered if our search would produce anything memorable. Then we ran into an elderly Christian who knew exactly where the school had been. The wall around the school yard still stood and Mom recognized what remained of the well. Then she saw it, her dorm room, now converted into the back of a hotel. But there were the very stairs and door to her room.

She had no interest in seeing inside. It would have been changed beyond recognition. But, oh, how she remembered what had transpired in that room. The day she received the letter from her parents, of how their house in Kunming had been bombed, how her loved ones had been preserved, how her own parents seemed so far away at that moment even though she was in the warm care of missionary guardians.

It was that same day that she knew her life would be safe solely in the care of Jesus. And she committed herself to him unequivocally. From then on, her faith was her anchor, whatever life would throw at her. And throw it did, her faith never wavering.

Transcendence

My mother was a TCK – a third-culture kid, one who grows up in a country other than her own and thus becomes a mix of both, or other even. TCKs never fully fit in, ever transcending the world around them. Born and raised in Kunming, China, her teacher and several of her parents’ coworkers were British. And she was American.

My daughter, who was born in Taiwan and drew up in China, identified with this TCK-ness in her grandmother. “Grandma gets me”, she said as a child, “like no one else.”

Just as her TCK world allowed her to transcend any one culture, so too did her understanding of eternity allow for its own unique transcendence. She was in this world, but born of another, meaning that she was a child of a heavenly King.

I saw this dual transcendence in her often. In how she related to people around her, how she identified with where God had placed her, how she never lost sight of life beyond even as she lived life in the now to its fullest.

The best way to describe this transcendence is that she had one spiritual foot firmly planted on earth and the other firmly planted in heaven. Heaven was as real for her as anyone I’ve ever met. Not the streets of gold stuff. Not even heaven as a reunion station, though meeting loved ones was of course a wonderful hope.

No, heaven for my mother was much more, much deeper. It was about being with her first love, Jesus. And that expectation colored every aspect of her life.

How can I describe it to you? Our attempting to grasp heaven is as if we were two-dimensional creatures, like cartoon characters, attempting to understand the third dimension of depth. Well, heaven for us three-dimensional creatures is like a fourth, fifth or even sixth dimension. There are no earthly comparisons.

Heaven was no mere escape from earth for Mom. It was the thing that propelled her through lots of nasty. She survived, thrived even, in the nasty because she had such a firm grasp on what was to come beyond the nasty. She didn’t need to escape the Now because heaven was very real for her here on earth.

I saw this most clearly during what we Pentecostals refer to as the altar call. This was no momentary gathering at the front of the church at the end of a service. No, altar calls were a place of hanging out (tarrying, we used to call it) in the presence of God, a presence as real as anything one can experience in life. Her place in those altar services was at the organ, playing and singing, worshiping with tears running down her face, leading in worship by being lost in worship herself.

Such were her portals between this life and the life to come.

Beauty

Which may be why she had a thing for beauty. Not the commercialized glamour this world has to offer. No, beauty for her was whatever had been touched by the hand of God.

She received with much grace whatever gifts others gave her, even if it wasn’t her type of thing. Beauty was in the hand of the giver and it was precious to her for what it had meant to the other.

She was taken in by beauty every where. The face of a child, the shape of a tree, the splendor of a starry night. And the sounds of a majestic choir or a bubbling brook.

She once told me she had prayed for me before I was born, asking God for a cute baby. And she was delighted with what God had sent her. I asked her why she stopped with how I looked as a baby. She responded something about babies not being tempted with being vain. Which must be why I am so humble.

The beauty she saw in this world – and she saw it everywhere – was evidence of God’s love for us, of God’s presence. As if heaven were leaking into the here and now through that portal which was ever near to her.

Her bucket list as she grew older was a simple one, filled with seeing people transformed by the grace of God or sitting by a window looking out at birds fluttering in a tree.

A dozen years ago we were camping by Shadow Mountain Lake in Colorado. The stars were so thick, even she could not make out the constellations. She’d seen the Milky Way countless times before, without city lights up in the China highlands, out on a ship in the vast Pacific, or standing in her own back yard. The view never grew old for her. It was for her a front  seat on the wonders of her Creator.

Joy

Have you ever seen my mother’s smile? You will never forget it if you have. I’ve no doubt it was one of the last things to go. She smiled with a radiance that belied any pain or struggle lurking behind. As life robbed her of the rest of her strength, she could still produce that smile. Not forced, but natural as if it was her default expression. For it was.

I have this theory about the frailty of old age, that, apart from the distorting ravages of dementia, old age diminishes us to our barest of essentials. For my mother that was her smile that reminded us she was still with us and God was still shining through her.

Her Chinese name meant bright pearl, a thing of radiance. I have no idea if she was a cute baby. I do know that she was a radiant woman, revealing the grace and love of God as only she could do.

Long ago, she patiently explained to me the difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is a fleeting emotion, generally affected by circumstances. Joy was much more, shall we say, transcendent. It came from within, not dictated by what happened outside of us or to us. Joy was not something we sought after, but an abiding byproduct of God’s grace at work in our lives.

So where is Mom this Christmas day? For anyone who knew her, there is no question that Mom is spending Christmas in the presence of her First Love. All the metaphors of heaven – seeing loved ones, walking on streets of gold, living in a mansion – pale in comparison to what she really anticipated, seeing her Jesus face to face.

That won’t make sense to friends who have never experienced heaven on earth the way she did. She lived through wars and rumors of wars. She experienced betrayal and disappointment and human failings. She understood all too well how depraved we humans can be. My mother often said she didn’t need to watch soap operas on TV because she saw enough of that in real life.

But none of that darkness managed to dim her view of heaven, of Jesus, really. For her the dark glass between the here-now and eternity was far from opaque. My mother, after all, could see heaven from her seat at the organ.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

They are honoring my father



The story as I remember hearing it: Dad drove into town, got a haircut at a local barbershop, and preached a sermon at the Gospel Lighthouse Church on High Street. He promised to stay as interim pastor only for six months. He stayed for 60 years . . . and counting.


I write of my father, the Reverend Gerritt W. Kenyon, of Millville, NJ, pictured here with my mother, the Reverend Anita Osgood Kenyon. Dad has just been named Pastor Emeritus of the First Assembly of God on Wheaton Avenue, the renamed and relocated Gospel Lighthouse.

As he likes to say, get South Jersey sand in your shoes and you’ll never leave. He collected so much sand over the years, I doubt his shoes have any room left for his feet.

Over time he became shepherd to the whole town, county and well beyond. A pastor in the old-fashioned parish sense. Welcoming and dedicating babies. Performing their marriages when they grew up – and the marriages of their children. Visiting the sick and those “shut in”. Comforting the dying and those whose loved ones had died. And, at gravesite, commending them to heaven. He was, and remains, a multi-generational cradle-to-grave pastor who knew extended families beyond count.

His supreme love was seeing them each and every one come to believe in Jesus, baptizing them (indoors and out, in warm water and frigid), seeing them experience the fullness of the Pentecostal experience, and, for scores of them, helping them launch into ministries of their own. Actually, he saw ministry as an everyone-involved thing, with a vision for a pulpit in each place of employment in town.

Forgive my grammar. None of this is past tense. At the age of 86, his pastoral passion continues unabated into the present as chaplain for the police, hospitals, seniors, radio listeners and race car drivers.

Emeritus means retired, as in retired pastor or professor. Originally it was used to mean a soldier who had served his time. None of this applies to Pastor Kenyon. Retirement is not in his vocabulary. Mark my words, he’ll die with his boots on.

I write all this because they, his church family and friends, are feting him on November 18. This extended congregation that still reveres his presence among them. Some of us are far too scattered to be there, the sun never setting on his influence.

As one of his offspring, I am aware of a couple of times he almost considered a call elsewhere. One of those occasions is forever etched in my memory, for that evening after the service in that other church where he candidated, we gathered at the house of one of the parishioners to watch the first landing on the moon.

But his work in Millville never seemed finished. Like a father, for whom “done” is never this side of eternity.

And so on the afternoon of November 18, he will reach out to everyone, ever in pastor mode, and warmly greet his flock one by one as they gather to pay him honor. A soldier of the Cross who faithfully continues to serve his time.

The banquet on November 18 will be held 1-4 pm at Fairton Christian Center, 199 Fairton-Millville Rd, Fairton NJ. Cost is $10 per person. Registration is due by 11/12 at this link: https://millvillechurch.churchcenteronline.com/…/even…/91274

The church is also creating a booklet for individuals and businesses who would like to make a donation and send a special message of recognition to Pastor Kenyon. Donations would be used to subsidize the cost of the event and any surplus of funds will be given to Pastor Kenyon as a gift from the community. If interested, please email Pastor John Dingle at john@millvillechurch.com by 11/12.

Monday, August 14, 2017

5 sins I oppose in the wake of Charlottesville




If you had asked me “way back when” what the 21st Century would be like, I would have not anticipated the likes of the KKK and neo-Nazis being a part of it. Not in my wildest. Surely they whould have disappeared with the demise of the last millennium.

Alas, they and their ilk have not, and it is time for the voices of faith to rise up and push back against this darkness. Not in fear or panic. Only in confidence that we who are of the light have a much stronger power on our side. Not a mere physical power, but the spirit of Christ which conquers all.

I am heartened by what I have heard this weekend, so many good responses to the terrorism in Charlottesville. People of faith, evangelical faith like mine included, saying “Enough already!”

As a young man nearly a half-century ago I was deeply embarrassed by the silence of faith leaders, my own faith leaders, starkly silent in the face of brazen racism. It has marked me for life. I applaud the voices of faith who have spoken out so strongly in recent days.

My heart grieves for the families of those who died – a young peaceful activist and two police officers in the line of duty. I ache for those who were injured and I pray that their wounds, both physical and emotional, will heal. I intercede for the city, trampled by forces alien to its good.

But I am also stirred by what I trust is a holy anger, an anger that condemns the evil that has reared its ugly head. I urge others to join me in standing against all that is wrong with what happened this weekend.

Here are the five sins I oppose:

1. Hatred. See the faces in the photos, the faces of young men carrying torches. Their anger is not against sin, thus they sin in their anger, spewing out venom from the pits of hell. They speak evil of their fellow human beings, all of them created in the image of God. I see nothing of God’s love, and yet it is in the name of God that the KKK was raised up and sustained for far too long.


2. Violence. Watch a man filled with hatred barreling his car down a crowded street, intent on causing harm and mayhem among people who peacefully oppose his values. He seeks to present his views with a two-ton machine spreading brutality and bloodshed. This is not God’s wrath on evildoers, but violence demonic in nature.


3. Misrepresentation. Read the words of bystanders, beginning now to reinterpret the historical patterns of oppression in a softer, more palatable flavor. Starting once again to cradle sin in a velvety cultural context. Hiding evil behind secondary political influences instead of calling sin for what it is. Why can’t they be honest about what people in the past have done? Who are they trying to protect? Let us learn from our history. Let us call our society and cultures to account.

4. Silence. Listen to the church. Hear . . . nothing. The deafening quiet of those who hold back, giving excuses for why the church should not act. A silence that only emboldens those who speak evil. Why, of all the sins of our society, is the church most silent on racism, speaking only when it can strike a careful balance with all sides without being honest about why they think such a balance seems necessary to strike?

5. Racism, anti-Semitism, and nativism. They are all of the same. Feel the otherization that pits us versus them, that says to people of color, to people of the Jewish faith, to immigrants and refugees, you are not one of us. I cannot see anything of Jesus in such rhetoric. And yet there are people who call themselves Christians who espouse these lies, and people who call themselves Christians who excuse such anti-gospel teachings or allow them to go unopposed.

The percentage of these worst offenders in our nation is not large, but coupled with the many enablers, the numbers are huge. Fifty years after the death of Jim Crow and 70 years after the death of Hitler, such forces of injustice remain strong.

Now is not the time to hold back, to be passive, whether out of fear or indifference. These forces we saw in action this weekend in Charlottesville – the KKK, the Neo-Nazis, the Nationalists – these forces are hostile to the gospel. We have let them ferment in our midst for far too long. We will answer for our silence.