Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda: A Few Things I Might Have Changed

After writing about interactions with Deebo Samuel, it is time to talk about what might have been.

Several weeks ago, I shared my own confession about interacting with Deebo Samuel and the struggling communities from whence he came.

As you might deduce, I have a great deal of regret and remorse about some things during that time of my ministry, particularly my work with African-American students in our community. While confession is good for the soul, it may also be misunderstood. And it does not help to confess without suggesting some better ideas for future reference.

Since I am more than ready to think about anything other than coronavirus (and maybe you are as well), it seems like a good time to address the issue.

Let us begin with this: I did not mean to imply, in any way, that the work we did was worthless or a waste of time!

Some folks from my former church might interpret my words in that way, and that is miles away from my intentions. Dozens—perhaps hundreds—of people at our church worked to make sure ALL students had a great experience at our church. They fought to make sure all were welcomed and treated with love, dignity, and respect.

Let me also offer tremendous gratitude at those who offered words of encouragement and support for me and others who took part in this ministry. Your effort to lift us up is greatly appreciated, and your kindness is beyond deserved.

With all that in mind, the reality is that we still could have done better!

The point of the post was to admit that fact while recognizing that doing my best was not quite good enough. While I would never belittle or demean the efforts of the church or the dedicated volunteers of the program, it is critical to always think of how programs could improve.

At this point, such speculation is rampant “Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda.” However, by thinking about these issues now, maybe it provides some guidance for new ministries in the future. Here are a few things that I would do different in order to better serve the communities where Deebo and others grew up.

Hopefully, these will provide some words of wisdom that will help you avoid some mistakes and regrets of your own, as you seek to create empowering ministries.

1. Fully prepare for the ministry. Good ministry often happens with perspiration and preparation rather than hoping for a random intervention of the Spirit.

Beginning a ministry in a community that is not familiar—be it racially, economically, or religiously diverse from your own—is never easy. Doing it to maximum effectiveness takes this to an entirely unique level. It takes a lot more than just picking kids up on the bus and taking them to the church for a couple of hours a week. No matter how long this might take, invest the time! In the long run, it is worth the wait to do it with tedious preparation.

2. Talk to the community we hoped to reach. We often think that we know what underserved communities need, and we design our ministry around such thinking. But thinking and knowing can be vastly different.

When a predominantly white, middle-class congregation endeavors to minister to a community of color or a culture of poverty, it is too often based on preconceived notions rather than humble engagement. The best of intentions can fall well short if they are not based on relationship and knowledge of a community.

I would highly recommend that churches set up listening sessions (emphasis on LISTENING), focus groups, or other forms of engagement within a particular community BEFORE starting a ministry. This allows the community to be invested and empowered in all aspects of the ministry that you hope to provide.

3. Involve those communities in leading the ministry. This must certainly follow a great investment of time listening and talking with community stakeholders. Parents, relatives, friends, and neighbors surely know the needs of a community better than outsiders. It serves everyone well to make sure they have plenty of seats at the table. It is possible that willing and perfectly capable volunteers can partner with you to create a fully effective community-based ministry.

4. Connect with churches that are not like “our” church. Many of the students that we picked up on our church bus attended a congregation on Sunday mornings. These churches were often smaller or did not have Wednesday programs or children/youth ministries or even full-time ministers.

Yet, I only had two extended conversations with any of these churches in my five years of ministry. It is our responsibility to reach out and make the time to meet the pastors and people of the congregations that are already investing in a community. This opens the door to build partnerships, rather than working in isolation or duplicating ministries. Such an approach is Biblical, ethical, and will surely empower more people.

And finally…

5. Design the ministry around justice and equity. We can deny it all that we want. But underserved communities—particularly communities of color—may have a vastly different view on these subjects.

Rather than trying to dance around the “Elephant in the Room,” why not embrace it and confront it? Such conversations can prove to be difficult and painful, as they require tremendous reflection and self-awareness, especially among young people. But without them, we can never make progress towards the understanding that we need to move forward in uniting communities.

Asking communities to adjust their needs to “our” ministry style is not a sufficient outreach of the Gospel. It is an extension of the traditions and perhaps even the Slaveholder Religion that has permeated southern Christianity for hundreds of years.

We do not need more white churches who dance around the issues of justice and race and equity. Instead, we need churches that recognize these things as the very heart of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. And we need to partner with communities and congregations that can teach us that.

By bringing these issues to light for ALL of our students, we had the potential to create a level of community and understanding that surpasses the “real world” and moves far closer to the call of the living Christ.

We are not called to be silent or passive or self-serving in our views on race and justice. The historical and Biblical Jesus call on us to speak out with loud voices of confession, repentance, and advocacy. This frees us to live the power of Jesus by serving others, rather than telling people to come and learn our particular method of ministry.

These are not easy things to confess and acknowledge before God, as my own sins and shortcomings have become plain for me to see. I do not say them to as accusation against anyone else other than myself. I remain far too concerned with my own security, salary, and safety to speak with the conviction that Jesus calls us to have. And I will answer before the Lord for this weakness.

My hope in writing this is that other communities will learn from these mistakes. Do not be intentionally antagonistic to your congregation, but do not withdraw when God’s justice and the lives of His children are at stake.

Speak kindly, but with boldness. It is time to put ourselves (and “our” ministries) aside for the greater good of the Gospel. Speak with the Spirit of justice, equality, and love for all people.

Such a Gospel is not an easy one. But it is the true one, and it is a Gospel that can be followed without regret or remorse.

 

Some Things You Should Know about Deebo Samuel

I knew Deebo Samuel from the time he was in middle school. His story teaches us that empowerment involves standing with, not just speaking for. 

During Super Bowl Week, people from South Carolina had reason to be excited about the San Francisco 49ers. Their star receiver is a product of the Upstate and the University of South Carolina. Deebo Samuel is making a national name for himself, and he added to it with an outstanding performance in that game.

Some of us are a little bitter that the Niners suddenly forgot about him in the 4th quarter.

My friend Jed Blackwell wrote an excellent article about Deebo’s career and how much he had to overcome to get to this point. High school friends and coaches surrounded him with the support he needed to stay away from the pitfalls of drugs and gun violence that surrounded him. He now uses his notoriety to support causes that seek to curb violence, the kind that persisted in the neighborhoods where he grew up.

All I could think when I was reading the article was how much I should have done to help Deebo, and all the other young men around him. And I didn’t. I did not do nearly enough.

Deebo

When he was in middle school, Deebo used to attend a youth group at the church where I was the youth minister. He usually came with a whole group of students from school who regularly attended on Wednesday nights.

Let’s be honest, a lot of youth sit through the Bible study to get to the end, so they can hang out or shoot basketball or play video games or eat pizza. That was pretty much the main reason I sat through youth group when I was a student.

Maybe that’s why Deebo attended. But neither I nor the volunteers who led the ministry took enough time to find out why he was there, or what he needed in his life.

We were an all-white church with a large number of African American students attending the youth ministry. Unfortunately, navigating the distinctions among these populations was not easy—even in the place where diversity should be second nature.

Sadly, some people opposed us extending the ministry to these young men and women who lived in our own neighborhood and attended our community school. Some people wanted us to stop reaching out to these young people. The quotes were what you might expect. “Those kids” were too disruptive, and only came to play basketball. They never came to “our church” on Sunday morning. They were distracting my attention away from “our kids.”

Let us not go too far down the road of picking apart the myriad of wrongs in these lines of thinking, or even dig too deeply into the true motives for these comments. That these thoughts are in direct opposition to the teachings of Christ is relatively easy to point out.

Instead, let us give thanks that PLENTY of people from that church took a stand against this kind of thinking and declared our intention to reach out to all people in our community. As loud as the opposition was, the outpouring of support drowned out the noise, especially from the youth themselves. A few of these opponents even had their hearts and minds awakened, so they joined in to help continue a holistic ministry to our community.

What was good and right and holy won out. So why does this feel like a failure on behalf of the people of this community?

Because it’s not enough just to be opposed to racism or speak out against those who would prefer that we close the doors of the church to “those kids.” Making a difference means speaking up for the students who need more than a weekly Bible study to navigate their lives.

Deebo possesses exceptional talent, strength, and resilience. He utilizes that talent to overcome the obstacles that life throws into his path. But why should he, or any other student, face that without the support of his community church? What happens to those students who do not have that talent, strength, or resilience?

What I failed to do was fight for the resources to dig into the needs of students like Deebo. I did not ask nearly enough questions, or spend nearly enough time diving into the issues facing the underserved neighbors that lived right around the church. I was complicit in the racism of some in our church because I did not advocate hard enough to invest more of our time, talent, and treasure to empower those students who needed us the most.

In these uncertain times, we have to do more than just claim, “I’m not racist” to our friends and neighbors. There is a tremendous need for voices to cry out for action and justice as we stand with the vulnerable. There is a tremendous need for us to listen to the cries of those who face the issues that Deebo Samuel faced.

It is not the call of white people or those of privilege to declare what “those people” should do. We are implored to let children like Deebo inform us of what they need in order to overcome the challenges they face. We are called to learn first and offer action based on our newfound knowledge. Such action happens in conjunction with communities of color and economic hardship, not in place of them.

In other words, this is not a statement of regret that I did not act as the “white knight” riding in to save our poor little brown brothers and sisters, incapable of helping themselves. Nor is it an effort to ease my guilt. It is my confession that I did not do nearly enough to help the children in our community. It is a lament that I did not listen, learn, and act in unison with those who struggled so hard against the hardships that life brought to their doorstep.

What a great story we could have presented to the world if we had helped Deebo Samuel overcome his struggles, rather than just “allowing” him to come to church. But it’s not about getting on the Super Bowl pregame hype. What a great story of redemption and the power of Christ we could have offered, if we had done everything possible to help all the youth of our community to escape the dangers and temptations that life presents.

I can only hope that Deebo and his classmates will accept my apology for not doing nearly enough. And my promise to listen and learn in an effort to find out how to be better and do better in the future.

 

The MLK We Never Knew

If you really want to honor Martin Luther King Jr., don’t just take a day off. Take a day (or days) to read his words.

Our family had the rarest of treats on Saturday, October 12, 2019.

On Friday of that weekend, my daughter and I toured historic civil rights locations in the city of Birmingham. We then met my wife in Atlanta to do the same thing in that city on Saturday. And our tour guide was essentially a living history museum.

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16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, 2019. Four girls died at the      hands of white men, who bombed the church on  Youth Sunday,                                                               September 15, 1963.                                            It would take almost 40 years to convict the men who murdered these girls.

Dr. Albert Brinson is nine years younger than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He grew up right around the corner from the King family, and was a lifelong friend of both ministers, Senior and Junior.

He met us outside the old Ebenezer Baptist Church, on Jackson St. Northeast. He told us about being ordained in that church, by both of those great men. He shared with us the “insider’s deal” on Dr. King’s work and the knowledge that their lives were in danger at almost every moment.

It was a glorious day, and I am eternally grateful that my 19-year old daughter got to experience such an icon of humanity as Dr. Brinson. But with all that he shared on that day, a stark reality haunts me. It is a reality that few of us acknowledge, even as we “celebrate” on every third Monday of January.

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Dr. Brinson with Abbie at Gardner-Webb University, MLK Day 2015.
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Dr. Brinson with Abbie and Tracy, outside Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta.

We do not know Martin Luther King Jr. For most of us, especially white folk, maybe we never did, or never will. And the further we move away from April 4, 1968, the less understanding we have.

Most of the United States commemorates MLK Day. Perhaps we attend a local event, or participate in some activity of service, or post some nice quotes on social media. In reality, it is likely that we enjoy a long weekend.

Even in the best and most noble of these activities, we really do not get to the heart of Dr. King’s message. Our glorious time with Dr. Brinson brought that home to me. He shared a side of MLK Jr. and his family that most people never have a chance to experience, and there is only one solution to this problem.

Read.

Literacy is the only way we can truly understand and appreciate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy. We must dig much deeper than the phrase “I have a dream” or our little blurbs on Facebook. The quotes might indeed be excellent. But they are a fraction of what we need to know about the man, his work, his leadership, and his brilliant Christian sacrifice.

Many of us can only have a peripheral understanding of the struggle for Civil Rights and the tremendous personal sacrifice required to undertake that struggle. Reading the Reverend’s words will not put you in his shoes, not by a longshot. But it can get you a lot closer to understanding how those shoes might have felt on his feet.

If you really want to honor and appreciate the teachings and example of this man, then let his words soak into your soul and move your spirit. He is remarkably consistent in his message, and it will not take many readings for that message to become clear.

Be advised that understanding the message does not make the medicine go down any better. White privilege can be a difficult pill to swallow. Active, organized, non-violent resistance is challenging, perhaps life-threatening.  Loving those who hate you is hard. Defeating ideology rather than beating down a person sounds like an impossible ideal.

And finally, King’s message that serving on behalf of justice for others requires “great suffering and sacrifice” is one that we rarely want to hear. Serving through good deeds is nice, but serving sacrificially demands a greater commitment that many of us have never had to make.

We cannot do this simply through nice quotes. It takes more than just collecting canned goods, signing a petition, or filling out a donation pledge. It requires deep commitment and understanding, the kind that Dr. Brinson offered to our family as he provided us a living history of the movement and the King family.

However, that was a rare treat, one that is far too rare in the late days of the lives of those who led the original quest. A time is coming—and is indeed here again—when we will have to decide if we are truly ready to “suffer and sacrifice” for the “dignity of all human personality.” The more we know about how hard it was to fight that battle in 1963, the better prepared we will be to take a stand in 2020.

While I would never discourage anyone from taking a day to serve others above self, understanding how to serve and why we serve is an equally critical and valuable use of your time. Cracking a spine or searching out a PDF of Dr. King’s words and speeches is a vital step in the right direction.

We have plenty of people who enjoy seeing their faces on the news or social media, who will gladly tell us what Dr. King would have said or would have thought if he were here today.

Let’s dispense with the self-serving speculation and guessing, shall we?

Instead, find out what Martin Luther King Jr. actually did, and said, and advocated.

Read.

Learn.

Act.

And do these in the true Spirit that Dr. King advocated as “the only enduring power in the world…”

Agape love.

And if you don’t know what Agape Love means, go back and start at the top of the list.

One final note: Many point out to me that Martin Luther King Jr. sermons and speeches are readily available on YouTube or other outlets, where you can watch and/or hear.

There are few voices in the world that will give a person goosebumps like Dr. King offering a message. However, I strongly recommend reading his speeches and writings! As powerful as his spoken word is, the writings embed his Christian ideals into the heart and mind, while illustrating the brilliant, consistent message of love in Christ that he illuminates.

Suggested Starters

Non-Violence and Racial Justice

Our Struggle

The Power of Non-Violence

Letter from Birmingham City Jail

 

To the Pastor who Preached to Empty Pews on Sunday

Maybe you’re upset about how many people were not there. But those six people in the pews? They mattered, and so do you.

To the pastor who posted this on Twitter, and all others who feel this pain:

“Today was very hard. I know I am supposed to be above it all as the pastor, but when there are only 6 people in the pews it hurts my feelings when 2 of them are whispering to each other during the whole sermon.”

I think I get it. In fact. pretty sure that I totally get it.

You work all week, study your passage, prepare your text, and get ready to go out there and preach on a Sunday morning. You tell yourself, “It doesn’t matter how many people are here–I’m preaching to the ones that are!” And you step out there to do it.

Then you see it–rows of empty seats, empty pews. You realize that only six people are going to hear any of your hard work, thought, faithful writing and careful editing. Not to mention how much time you spent on additional pastoral duties. You see, I know the deal. If you lead a small congregation, you visit hospitals and home bound folks and answer all the phone calls. You might also type the bulletin, lead the music, fix the sound system, and plunge the toilets if it is required. (And occasionally it is).

So there is no doubt that walking in to see empty seats is gut-wrenching and heart-sinking. And yet you preach. You muster all the heart and soul and call on the power of the Spirit. You deliver the Word and Sacrament with all of the Christ-like conviction you can summon. Even as 33% of the congregants are whispering (or drawing, or looking at their phones), you do what you are called to do. You preach.

(By the way, I suspect that AT LEAST 33% or more of every congregation isn’t paying attention in any church on any given Sunday morning. So, as a percentage, you’re doing fine!).

Sure, you don’t know what the “whisperers” were saying, or why they were whispering. You want to be gracious, understanding, non-judgmental or reactionary. But seeing six people in the pews does not flood you with confidence that their whispers are waxing rhapsodically about your preaching or some salient point that you have drawn from their troubled hearts.

In fact, YOU may be struggling with your own fear about whether there will be enough in the offering plate to pay the bills. And you may be asking, “If this keeps up, how are we going to survive?” Not to mention the question of how you will continue to make a living.

After busting your tail over the past week, you can’t imagine what you could do or how you could work harder or how you could give any more of yourself to turn this around. And maybe, just maybe, you’re wondering if it’s even worth it to keep trying.

Here’s the thing. It is. It absolutely is. And you are just the person to do it.

Be affirmed in all of those thoughts and fears and frustrations, no matter how many people tweet back at you to stop whining or not be judgmental or to be more “pastoral.”  God holds you to a high standard, and you hold yourself to a high standard. But neither God nor you expect Wonder Woman or Superman.

Take a step back, catch your breath, and rest assured that your time was well-spent. You did not have the crowd you wanted, probably not the one you should have, and certainly not the one that needed to hear that meaningful message.  But four people heard it, and maybe even six if two of them were gifted multi-taskers.

Dr. Joseph Moore is my dear friend and former university colleague. He also happens to be a former ministry intern for my father, who served as pastor at East Park Baptist Church in Greenville, SC for 24 years. East Park was dying from the time my father took the pulpit in 1976, and he constantly battled to keep the ministry viable.

Joseph worked with the youth, and only had two students present for a Sunday morning Bible study. My dad stopped by to see how things were going, and Joe the Exasperated Intern apologized because he wasn’t getting more youth to show up. My dad replied, “Hey, those two were here. And they’re just as important as anyone who wasn’t here. And what you did for them was just as important. In fact, it may be MORE important.” (That’s a paraphrase from Dr. Moore).

It is so hard to remember, with the tidal wave of emotions flooding your heart and mind as you preach to empty seats. But your preaching matters. Your preparation matters. The 4-6 people who needed your message–and perhaps much more your presence–on Sunday morning matter. And while they do not matter more than those who were not present, they matter just as much.

As we see our church struggling, it is debilitating to feel that your time and effort are only being heard by a very few. It is even harder to remember that those few are vital, as is your ministry. Jesus went from a congregation of 5000+ to under 11 in less than three years, so you’ve got pretty solid company.

Tons of factors go into whether or not a church experiences physical growth. You could follow all the church consultant advice and pull out all the growth guru stops, but it’s no guarantee that your congregation will grow. What you are doing–working diligently, preaching faithfully to those who are present–is all that is required of you. And it is more than enough.

I know this isn’t necessarily going to help a lot. We’re already to Thursday, and you’ve had four days to second-guess yourself while wondering why you even bother to get ready for this week. Please know that you are absolutely not alone. 99% of those who serve in the church have been/are/will be in this very same place at some point. And please, PLEASE continue to be faithful in your calling, in spite of the pain and struggle.

At least six people in this world depend on it, and they are more than reason enough for you to keep going. As is the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit at work in you, as a minister of Word and Sacrament. Blessings and peace to you as you prepare another outstanding and valuable message for this week.

Grace and peace,

The World’s Worst Pastor

P.S. – I do suggest that you try to be better than me and not get yourself…um…”relieved” of your duties!

The Reason(s) I Love Furman

Friends sometimes give me a hard time because of the devotion to my alma mater, particularly the football team. But there are multiple reasons behind my madness.

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Yes, we wear our Furman colors pretty much everywhere.

A few weeks ago, I posted on Facebook that I was struggling with my writing. In order to get the brain and the keyboard rolling again, I turn to a subject that I love–Furman football. (Cue “eyeroll” from readers–but bear with me, please!).

On November 23, Allen Edwards strolled to midfield in Paladin Stadium and planted on the Diamond F, fellow Furman captains strolling beside him. They waited for the pregame coin toss, just as he had many times in years past as an All-American player and coach for the purple and white.

Only this stroll is different. This time, Allen “strolled” in a power chair, unable to fully use his right arm and leg. He was always stone silent in pregame, but this silence is different. Allen can no longer speak in full sentences, and forms only a few audible words.

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Allen Edwards remains one of the greatest players ever to set foot on a Furman football field. He won Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a nose guard. Furman wisely brought him back as a defensive line coach for almost 10 years. Following that, he went on to coach at Savannah State with his former teammate/coach, Julius Dixon.

But all of that changed with a massive stroke that hit him in 2013. The quiet and serious, yet fun and jovial, former teammate and coach almost lost his life. He now resides in an assisted living facility, supported only by disability, Medicare, and the generosity of those who love him.

If there is a silver lining to this story, it is that Allen’s care is largely supported by former teammates, coaches, and colleagues, many of whom donate beyond their means to meet his needs. These efforts are buoyed by the work of the Furman Football Players’ Association (FFPA) that provides ongoing support in many ways.

People often ask, “Why do you love Furman so much?” I admit, my devotion may go a bit beyond the norm for some (but certainly not all) Furman alums. But there are many reasons behind my madness for all things purple and white. My love for Furman football is first on the list, and the response to Allen’s stroke is a primary reason.

I got hooked on this team and this sport on a cold November night in 1977, after a 31-28 loss to VMI at the old Sirrine Stadium downtown.  Walking out of the stadium, I yelled to one of the players, “Hey, you almost beat ‘em!” He stopped and laughed, reaching down like a giant to shake my first-grade hand before heading to the team bus.

And that was it. I was devoted forever.

The last 40+ years of the program are a success story beyond explanation. In spite of stellar academic standards and rigor, Furman football wins. One of the smallest FCS schools in the nation has 14 Southern Conference championships and the first national title ever for a private school. Allen started at nose guard as a freshman in that 1988 national title game, dominating the All-American center from Georgia Southern into six fumbled snaps.

But his play on the field is not the reason that those who played with him or under him offer their support. They offer it because Furman football creates an atmosphere of devotion and unity that is undeniable.

I had a small part of that in 1989-90, as a walk-on to the team. Much to my regret, I never played in a varsity game and had to leave the program after the 1990 season to take care of my own family. It leaves a hole in my heart that I never got to run down the hill and wear that cherished “F” on the side of my helmet.

What makes this a special program is the fact that no other player or coach ever looked down on me for that fact. Allen Edwards was my friend, although far superior to me as a player. We lifted weights together and ran together. He was the person who introduced me to the FFPA and invited me to join. In spite of the fact that he regularly ran me over in practice, he considered me a part of the team. And he invited me to continue to be a part of it.

That’s what makes Furman a special place. My experience was vastly different from the guys that started and played every down. And yet, they welcome me as one of their own, in spite of the fact that I was just a scout team “hero.”

It’s about Clay Hendrix, Furman’s current head coach, who worked with me and taught me and walked through struggles with me, in spite of the fact that I was just a walk-on. When I was tormented about whether or not to continue with football, he sat down and talked to me about staying with the team as if I was a full-time starter.

Not only that, he turned me into a pretty respectable offensive lineman.

It’s about George Quarles, the current offensive coordinator. Coach Q met my parents and me when I was 15 years old. He also took time to have lunch with my parents, less than a year before my father died, a memory that my mother still carries with gratitude in her heart.

It’s about the guys in the FFPA who used to give me autographs when I was a kid. It drove my parents crazy, but I insisted on getting every player to autograph my program after every home game. I now tailgate with those guys as they give me a little grief about my time as a 9-year old groupie.

It’s about Devin Wynn, who sat next to my mother at a scholarship luncheon last October. She was so impressed with him and his attitude towards her that she follows #22 religiously on Saturdays.

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Devin Wynn with his #1 fan, Ann LeGrand!

It’s about all the guys who give anywhere from $20 to $20,000 to make sure that their brother, Allen Edwards, has a place to stay and proper medical care.

Finally, it’s about days like November 23, a miserable and rainy one for a game that Furman dominated from start to finish. Some friends ask me why the Paladins even bothered to schedule that game.

The opponent was Point University, an NAIA school out of northwest Georgia. Their head coach is Julius Dixon, a captain on the 1988 national championship team, former assistant coach, and long-time friend of Allen.

“JD” worked with Furman to make the game happen, in order to give his team experience and the Paladins a much needed extra home game. But it went way beyond a football game. He wanted a chance to see Allen, to honor him and recognize the struggle he faces just to meet the day to day challenges of life. All the things we take for granted require great energy and struggle for Allen.

On Friday night before the game, a host of former teammates came by to see Allen at Windsor House, his current residence. He had a terrific time seeing these brothers, but his face lit up like I have never seen when JD walked in the door, carrying a box full of new gear and outfits with the Point University Skyhawks logo emblazoned on them.

Well beyond winning records and championships, this is what makes Furman football mean so much to me. That handshake in 1977 solidified a relationship with players and coaches and fans that has wrapped around me for most of my life. This is a group that sees and hears and responds to the needs of people who choose to be a part of it, well beyond the wins and losses.

November 23 was a great Saturday. Last Saturday? Well, not so much. As I screamed at the television—full of sound and fury, signifying nothing–my beloved Paladins took a beating in the opening round of the FCS playoffs. It was a demoralizing defeat that will leave a bitter taste.

That is, until September 5, 2020. And it is the reason that I will once again post my game day coffee pictures, ready to live or die just a little with every win or loss. I will be right back at a tailgate, waiting for kickoff of opening day.

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Allen will be with me, once again supported by those who love him. For him, as he struggles to deal with the most basic tasks of life, he understands that this is all much more than just a game.

And Furman’s understanding of that reality is what makes this program a special part of life.

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Picture with Sam Wyche, one for Furman football’s most famous.

 

A History Beyond Comprehension

Schools are trying to teach the story of September 11, 2001. But like all historical events, the knowledge cannot touch the real experience.

I was in a middle school classroom in Birmingham, AL on Wednesday afternoon September 11, 2019, observing a wonderful after school program called SpeakFirst. As a part of this session, a young man read aloud his brief paper about what happened on that same day in 2001.

As he read, a young lady in the group said, “WHY do you want to keep reminding us of such a sad and depressing day in history?” I asked her why she did not want to hear about a historical event that was so important to our country.

“We’ve been learning about it all day. But hearing about things like that just makes me really sad and want to cry,” she shared.

It is certainly encouraging that these students are learning vital history, and I consider it a blessing that such events can still bring a heartfelt reaction from this up-and-coming generation. It is also a stark reminder of how far we are from the actual events of a disastrous day in the life of the United States.

No matter how well we teach it, we can never fully impart the flood of emotions that poured over us that day. And it may be decades before anyone can adequately gauge the impact that 9/11 had on the attitudes and actions of the American people during the years that followed.

I was sitting at my desk at Sawyer’s Creek Baptist Church that morning when our office manager, Tina Meiggs, received a call from her oldest daughter. Something had happened to the World Trade Center in New York and we rolled an old TV cart with a set of rabbit ears into the office.

We tried to work and listen to find out what was happening. Then the second plane flew into the South Tower. Minutes later, we watched in absolute shock when that tower collapsed. Then the Pentagon, and then Flight 93.

Then we knew.

Camden County, North Carolina might as well be on the other side of the moon from New York City. The tallest building in our little corner is a grain silo. Most of us did not know a soul anywhere close to the twin towers, yet it felt like we watched one of our neighbor’s homes collapse.

Sitting at home that afternoon, my wife turned to me and said, “For the first time, I am genuinely scared for our country and our safety.” That kind of fear can hardly be described in a history lesson. You only understand it when you live it.

As a pastor, my work and my counseling time suddenly took a drastically different direction. I was confronted with church members and dear friends who just had to talk about what happened. So many of these conversations centered around confusion and disillusionment, as we wondered what to do next. Hardest of all, I fielded numerous questions based on the very primal and natural emotion of fear.

More than questioning God in those early days, most of us battled an overwhelming sense of fear. We debated cancelling the youth trip to Busch Gardens. We talked about changing our plans for mission trips. We pondered how to address the issue in worship without letting the fear of the moment grip us and define us.

As it often does, the fear threatened to drift towards anger, hate, and a great deal of misunderstanding. Students in our church youth group asked how we could possibly love people who would do such things. A teacher in school told them that this was all predicted by Nostradamus, and they asked how a man could know more than God! Some eventually asked if it was true that God was punishing America for abortion and homosexuality.

Deep down, they knew the truth, just as we adults did when the waves of anger and rage and revenge crashed over our souls. When fear takes root, however, it leads to all kinds of conclusions that have little or nothing to do with the gracious truth of a living God.

Every generation has at least one “never forget where I was” moment. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger disaster. 9/11 is certainly on that list and may be THE moment for my generation. But 9/11 is hardly history. Even the most faithful and spiritual need to stay aware of the ongoing challenges it presents.

We lost so much on that day, both the tangible and the intangible. What should truly scare us is the absence of forgiveness and trust, and the very real presence of hatred and ongoing fear. While these are understandable, they are not healthy. And they are not Christian.

In the minds of some people, 9/11 justifies their fear and hate of Muslims and other religions. We may feel compelled to look warily at people of color, foreign languages, immigrants, and anything that ventures outside what we deem to be “regular” Americans. These base emotions drive us to act in our own self-interest and cling to what we have and what we know.

Unfortunately, the ideal of following Christ propels us to move beyond our fear, and well beyond our self-interest. We are given a Spirit of love rather than fear (2 Timothy 1:7). We are encouraged to think of others above ourselves (Philippians 2:3). We are to love our neighbors—all of our neighbors—as ourselves, including those that do not look like/act like/believe like we do (Matthew 22:39-40, Luke 10:27-29).

We know all this. We know these slightly proof-texted verses I cite, probably just a bit less than a Christian knows John 3:16. And we still find this incredibly difficult to follow. I say “we” in the fullest sense of the word here. This is not intended to be some scolding reprimand of others who fear Muslims or immigrants. I battle my bias and fear daily, in the hope that the Spirit of Christ will drive me to overcome those all-to-human reactions.

Next year, the United States is set to lower the number of legal refugees to 18,000, while allegedly allowing cities or states to refuse them. Part of loving our neighbors involves recognizing and empathizing with their struggles. As fearful as 9/11 made us, it pales in comparison to people fleeing the war, violence, religious persecution, disease, or famine that they face in their countries.

If our fear and rage of 18 years ago drives us to clamp down and close our hands to the most vulnerable among us, then the terrorists won with one horrible shot. The answer to terror is not to be terrified. It is to struggle and strive and claw our way towards reacting in faith, against all logical odds.

The hardest lesson to both teach and learn in a post-9/11 world is that we must look intently at our past while acting boldly and faithfully in the future. That young lady in Alabama is correct—the past is sad and hard and brutal, and it can easily cause us to lash out in a rampage of natural human emotion.

But Christ was not defeated by the cross, and certainly not in the rubble of the twin towers. If anything, now is the time to stand more firmly than ever in a Spirit of faith and speak out on behalf of those that Jesus loves, including those who follow other religious traditions.

We cannot love our neighbor as ourselves and tell them that they are not allowed in unless they come to the back door. Christ does not love people from a distance, and we cannot say that we are loving as Jesus first loved us if we push people away.

My hope is that those children who learn about 9/11 will gain the most valuable lesson: that the hard lessons of the past teach us to be better and do better, so that we do not repeat such lessons in the future. I pray that they will always love others, especially those who may not love you back. I pray that they will continue to love and learn to forgive those that do them harm.

May we be the ones who set that example for them. May we all learn to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), particularly in a post-9/11 America.

The Sexual Prosperity Gospel, Part 1: The Cautionary Tale of Joshua Harris

A generation of youth and their ministers bought into the ideals of the “Gospel” of Sexual Abstinence. The hero of that movement has now turned in a completely different direction.

In this age of social media rage and gut-wrenching division, I am thankful for one thing. Because of all the upheaval, I am learning about things that I never knew and certainly never understood.

I now understand the term “Sexual Prosperity Gospel.”

Regrettably, I learned this term due to the unfortunate circumstances of Joshua Harris, the anointed “king” of the abstinence movement in the 1990s. Harris wrote a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye. This became the key volume to advocate courtship over dating as the ideal method to finding a spouse and creating a lifelong picture-perfecting Christian marriage.

Now, Harris and his wife of 21 years announced their pending divorce, and he has declared that he is no longer a Christian. This makes me incredibly sad for this couple and their family. As the unofficial “World’s Worst Pastor,” I am fully aware of the challenges and pitfalls that the world of ministry can dump on a pastor and her/his family.

At the same time, this massive shift creates a cautionary tale about anointing a person or concept as the absolute authority on what life in Christ is. It is a warning about the dangers of seeking or following carefully crafted formulas in search of a perfect ideal for discipleship in Christ.

First off, what is the “Sexual Prosperity Gospel?”

This term is coined in a retrospective look at the purity culture that has dominated youth ministries across the nation since the early 90s. I offer an oversimplified summary: If you commit to abstinence before marriage and resist the cultural temptations of casual sex, then you are a true follower of Christ and the Lord will bless you with a successful marriage.

The Prosperity Gospel promises the blessings of health and wealth and happiness if you are a good and Godly Christian. The Sexual Prosperity Gospel promises the blessings of a fabulous honeymoon and marriage and family if you follow all the tenants of purity culture, including complete abstinence from sex before marriage.

Second, we need to look briefly at a problem that permeates Christianity and evangelical culture as well as postmodern American culture. We have a dangerous tendency to become star-struck with anyone that says what we want to hear and espouses the values that we already have. We are particularly vulnerable when someone young and good-looking waxes in passionate and eloquent terms.

Harris wrote his abstinence manifesto when he was 21 years old. Those of us who advocated for abstinence thought that young people would listen more to one of their own, and many bought into his teachings as proof positive for what they already believed. Unfortunately, people forgot how young and inexperienced a 21-year old can be.

Honestly, would you advise anyone you know to take authoritative long-term life advice from the 21-year old you?

In a culture that cherishes youth, it is easy to forget the value of long-term experience and wisdom. Perhaps we unfairly placed Josh on a pedestal that he could not handle. I said a lot of things at 21 that seem foolish now, if not downright stupid. I suspect that many grasped at this book as an answer from someone who lacked the life experience to even understand the questions.

Finally, in our effort to “win” the culture wars against sexual promiscuity, many Christian leaders bought into the concept that the Bible and the church can create a fool-proof formula for sexual purity and marriage success. This fit all the narratives that we hoped were true, and we taught our teens that following the formula would ensure God’s blessings on their future lives.

Let me tell you this:  It didn’t.

This does not mean that abstinence before marriage is impossible or that it is not a worthy ideal. But it rarely happens. And even when it does, it does not provide a guarantee for the future.

I do not rejoice at all in the Harris’ realization about their past teaching and preaching. On the contrary, I grieve for them and what they are having to endure as their private struggle is resulting in public rebuke—some of which is grossly judgmental, and some of which may be justified according to some critics and bloggers.

At the same time, I am glad that they are publicly stating the futility of the Sexual Prosperity Gospel. This may help us recognize that there is no set formula for success in following Jesus Christ through the journey of this very imperfect life.

The problem is that this “gospel” we created fails to factor in the vitality of grace in the face of a life that is always going to be far from perfect.

My wife Tracy and I idealized abstinence as the best path for our relationship as we moved towards marriage. We believed that this was the direction that God wanted us to follow. We did not stick with this ideal, and we suffered some intense struggles because of that.

And yet, we have 29 wonderful years of marriage under our belt. I am more in love with her than I was even at the ripe old age of 18. (I will resist the current evangelical urge to refer to her as my “smokin’ hot wife” in a public forum).

We did not reach this milestone because we dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” in the Christian playbook. We did it through perseverance and faith and the ultimate grace of God to lead us to where we are. It has not been easy, and plenty of peaks and valleys accompanied our journey.

Our guilt over our failures, along with a large dose of regret, made the early years of our marriage extremely difficult. At times, we questioned whether or not God even wanted us after the mistakes that we made. We did not follow the “Biblical” formula for marriage and family, as prescribed by the purity culture in which we were raised.

Instead, we were blessed to discover the far more powerful and valuable presence of grace that Jesus Christ brings. Faith is not about getting what some Sunday School or youth group lesson promises you as long as you are good boys and girls. It is about finding out how we are blessed to serve God and humanity through the forgiveness, love, and grace that faith in Christ brings.

If only us pastor and youth minister types would allow people to find that faith, instead of peddling the latest “answer” to the issues of life.

It is my hope that we embodied that as the highest ideal of scripture rather than pressing young people to follow the purity “checklist” as a path to love and success (whatever that is) in life and relationships.

If a movement in the church promises reward for right behavior, then it is not a movement of faith. It is legalism. It is works righteousness. IF you do this, THEN God will love you and give you what you want. Faith movements are always more complicated and malleable without any guarantee of reward—because such faith never has an endpoint. It is an ongoing journey of twists and turns that cannot be predicted or clearly defined by any human being, certainly not a 21-year old.

My hope for Josh and Shannon is the discovery of a faith far more empowering than the formulas that they advocated in their early lives. They have clearly discovered the falsehood of the Sexual Prosperity Gospel and the purity movement.

They are already enduring a sea of judgment and painful rebuke for this discovery. Hopefully, they can now discover the comfort and grace that the true Gospel of Jesus Christ brings in the face of such hypocrisy.

Their faith journey does not have to be ultimately defined by the purity culture or its advocates. And neither does yours.

Next week’s post will talk about my own complicity in purity culture, and how my own mistakes—and fear that others might repeat them—pushed me in this direction. I recommend a look at this article by David French in National Review as a good preview.