Category Archives: Social Justice

The Hurtful Santa

At the risk of sounding anti-Christmas, I just want to push back a little bit on this story of paying off layaway accounts at Kmart. I appreciate random acts of kindness. I think they keep us humble and makes the act of generosity or hospitality come alive with a sense of wonder and surprise. It is a good thing and the sense of anonymity is very important to me because it harkens back to the Sermon on the Mount passage about giving in secret (Mt. 6:3,4 – But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you).  That being said, having finished reading the book, “When Helping Hurts”, which is a great read for anyone dares to help others as  more than a hobby or whim, I’m not so sure if these random acts of kindness actually accomplish much, or more cynically speaking, what is the point of these random acts of kindness?

One of the key points that the book makes is that applying the wrong kind of help (relief when there should be development, for example) actually doesn’t solve the problem, it just prolongs it. So, what is the point of this “secret Santa”? It seems like it is more about the giver than the receiver. Anonymity of the giver is wonderful in the sense that the receiver probably can attribute the favor to the goodness of humanity (or perhaps divinity, hopefully; but the anonymity of the receiver is extremely problematic in this case. Without knowing what is on layaway and why means that the deed can’t be considered “good’ out of hand. What good the deed actually accomplishes also remains an unknown. In true random fashion then, an act of “kindness” could easily be an act of enablement or paternalism or self-righteousness, which is why incarnation always demands relationship. There is no good gift without knowing the giver and without the receiver being known.

Jesus, 1 / Santa, 0.


Devils Serving Up Angel Food

This story makes me furious.

I don’t even know where to begin. Have they no fear– this “Pastor Joe” and “Pastor Linda”? They are an absolute disgrace to Christians everywhere just because they share the same label.

Did they ever have good intentions? A simple idea: “Buy food in bulk and sell it at a discount to families through a network of churches.” They sold almost 600,000 boxes a food per month in 45 states and obtained millions in grants and loans. But it seems all the while they were spending hundreds of thousands on themselves, siphoning off millions from the nonprofit food ministry, fabricating invoices, giving themselves kickbacks, buying planes and using nonprofit money as down payments on real estate. And now their greed has ruined the good.

“It was a great service to the community,” said Alisha Griffin, host site director at Evangelistic New Life Apostolic Church in Forest Park. “We had a lot of disabled and elderly people, and now that service is not available to them anymore.”

But get this, they feel like that they will be vindicated in the end.

Are you kidding me? Didn’t they already enjoy their reward? What do they mean, “in the end?” Have they no sense of eschatology? Do they not fear God?

How can the church respond? What happens to those families and those hundreds of thousands of meals?

Lord, have mercy. On the families and communities who hunger without Angel Food ministries. Have mercy on the Wingos, even now you can save them. And have mercy on me for my self-righteousness. May you provide justice so that we might all be reconciled one day. We pray, soon.


Addressing A Global Problem – At Home


How Did We Get Here?

“Here is a question that you need to wrestle with.  How much time do you spend with sin sick people?  I’m not talking about some evangelism program.  I’m talking about intentionally building relationships with people you know need the Great Physician.   To quote Jesus I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”   This is clearly the method of His mission.  So maybe when those undocumented workers from Mexico show up on your job instead of parroting that Mormon Glen Beck or acting like Romans 13 is the only chapter in the Bible you follow the teaching of Philemon, welcome the stranger, and turn it into an opportunity for the gospel to be spread.” –  An excerpt from one of my sermons  

Was that offensive to you?   A few months ago I had an experience that was a first in my 20 years of preaching.   After this  sermon on social justice a man came up to talk to me about this point.   He started off cordial but no more than 30 seconds in I realized his niceness was a set up.   He kept inching closer and closer, literally getting in my face and angrily chewing me out over my comments.   I literally had to walk away in fear of the guy hitting me and trust me, I don’t scare easily.  It was a very tense moment.

But that wasn’t the end of it.   He stormed off and chewed out the host pastor for inviting me.  Other people chewed out one of the staff pastors.  Furthermore some people tracked down my home phone number and called, demanding a meeting about the sermon.   I thought I was in the Twilight Zone.  I don’t know maybe it’s me but I didn’t think what I said was so offensive.   But obviously it was.

Last week at my Alma mater (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) Al Mohler and Jim Wallis debated the question “Is social justice an essential part of the mission of the church?”  I didn’t watch the debate because for me I read Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:31-46, and a host of other Scriptures and that’s a wrap.   Personally I’m not even sure how  this a question that can be debated.   So how did we get here in the first place, where we are questioning whether the church and justice should be paired together?   And people want to deck a 6″5, 275lbs guy at their own peril (I may be a minister but I ain’t but one generation from the street!)

So let’s have our own debate.   How did we get to the place in the American church where its Gospel v. Social Justice?


What I Think About the Occupy Protests

Let’s just say that it’s not Bull Conner and Birmingham.   And it’s definitely not the recent “Arab Spring.”   Pundits and protestors alike need to stop comparing this to those historic social movements because its an insult.  There is no absolute, hopeless desperation connected to this.  Yes we are in hard economic times but most of us still eat and our lives are not at stake.  Most in America will go on living and not even give this a second thought.  On the other hand it’s not exactly something to be flippantly blown off like this photo:

Funny, truthful, and perhaps ironic.  But the photo misses the point.   It attempts to write off  this phenomena as just a bunch of people with too much time on their hands.  Maybe, but I’ll chose to take them at their word.  From my scan of the landscape here is the gist of  it.    The country’s richest 1% control 25% of the wealth.   This is up from the 1970’s, where the ratio was 1% to 9%.  Folks are upset with this ratio and finger the Wall Street/Washington relationship as the cause of it.

Here’s the primary problem as I see it.   It doesn’t matter whether the politician is Democratic or Republican, if they reach office they will be loyal to the interests of the 1% because the 1% is what provides their financial support.  In fact many in Congress are the the 1%.   Both Repubs and Dems carry their water.  Why would they fight against their own personal interests?   Only when it is politically expedient to do so.

Therefore that is the possible significance of these protests, and when I say possible I mean slight chance.   It may move from nice political theater to full populist outrage.   If it reaches that level politicians will pay attention and respond in some fashion.  It won’t be a revolutionary change because everybody loves change as long as it is happening to someone else.  So the 1%, if it becomes politically expedient to do so, will give in a little if it means more votes.  We’ve seen that movie before during the Great Depression, where about 4 years in people took to the streets.   It will be interesting to watch what develops, if anything.


When Hurting Helps

The title of the blog post is obviously a twist on the very excellent book, When Helping Hurts, which is a very good read for anyone who has ever lifted a pretentious finger without knowing how pretentious fingers could be.

But in my own little mind, if there is a point at which helping others has diminishing, if not adverse, returns, than hurting, has potentially increasing marginal gain.

Simply put, experiencing hurt helps your credibility and capacity to help. Pain, suffering, tears…namely, the things we all seek to avoid on a daily, hourly, minutely basis, they are the only merits that lead to badges of courage. It’s strange to me that many churches “know” this, but rarely read from those texts deeply or begin to worship from this reality. I am always struck by a sense of absurdity when worship bands begin to rock out to “Blessed be Your Name” by Matt Redman. That’s a serious song that’s somehow never set to an appropriate arrangement featuring solo cello and background wailing. It is even more culturally evident that it is the rare hymn that goes to the depth of a Negro spiritual. I have yet to hear a credible rendition of “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child” by a white crooner. Suffering helps cut through the craft of music writing and gets right to the heart of where worship begins and often leads, pain.

The fact of the matter is there is no spiritual growth without wilderness, be it Abraham, Moses, David, or Jesus himself. Further, the Scriptures we tend to gravitate towards (Ps. 139 – in short,” I’m special and He knew me before I was born!”; and Jer. 29:11 — “He has a plan for me to prosper!”) are still dotted lines around difficult texts that continually dredge up life’s harsh realities. That’s right, we avoid reading tough scriptures or we tend to read those texts that display suffering as a product of personal sin, which understandably is helpful to the young, but rarely do we dialogue about suffering that is the product of nothing that we know of. Birth defects, miscarriages, random deaths, natural disasters, shootings, wars, accidents, disease…and that’s just a short list of realities we could get anyone to talk about at any bus stop or dentist’s waiting room. Just about everyone knows someone who has dealt with cancer or miscarriage, at least adult. And this is where hurting is a great source of compatibility for us. Pain is one of the lowest common denominators for us all.

I remember serving food one day in the projects of Nashville, TN, and when the men had all been served, I sat and ate with them as a young college student among calloused, hardened men. And one large Black man named, “Big Willie” took a couple of looks at me as I tried to greet everyone and ask them how their week was, said to me, “You come here and serve us food, but this is nothing to you. You leave here and go back to school; you have a nice life; you got it made. But let me tell you something: You don’t need to talk. You need to listen. Just listen if you don’t know nothing.”

And I took great offense to Big Willie’s remarks back then in my twenties, but now in my mid-thirties, I wish I had the courage to be that frank with many young people I see now. I have seen a little bit of pain now. I have my share of regrets. Sat in a few hospital rooms for many hours and spent a few more at funerals and wakes. I have limped down a stairway before and pushed myself in a wheelchair once or twice since that Saturday morning when Big Willie was honest with me. Hurt has helped me listen more. Pain has made my words softer. When I read that Jesus was “a man of sorrows” in Isaiah 53, I see more clearly how he knew deeply the desperation and the anxiety his followers faced. I’m not trying to glorify pain here or somehow idolize suffering, nor am I trying to say that those that suffer are always better off for having been in that state, but with regards to mission and outreach, reconciliation and forgiveness, I think hurting helps. It helps us be fully human. I’m not saying that it makes us divine, but often I feel that many good-intentioned Christians aren’t fully human, they’re detached, they’re already looking for their angel wings and “third spaces”, and twittering about this and buying tickets to that; but rarely is the church fully present in the human experience. We are so unlike our savior, and therefore we lack the sense of incarnation that Jesus fully displayed. I wonder sometimes that we find it hard to project the presence of God because we avoid the presence of humanity.


Grading the Middle Class

The Atlantic which is one of my favorite mags has an excellent article on the shrinking middle class.  It’s long but worth the read.  Essentially it talks about how the gap between the haves and have nots is growing more and more.   My thoughts as always is how will this effect the Church?   Talking about this with one of my colleagues via email about the article he made an excellent observation that I will share with you:

I read this. Interesting. I can’t help but see ways in which history is repeating itself.

The glory of ancient Rome was preserving the Republic, with it’s failure due to greed (cf. the Historian Sallust) and a lust for power and control, representative government shifted to oppressive injustice under the Empire.

In the days of Christ there were basically the rich, the poor and the destitute. The rich in the Scriptures did not have to work, but had others work for them. They owned the land, were merchants, tax collectors, or inherited their wealth. New Testament scholars estimate that only a few percent of the population, much like this article were rich. The other 90+ percent were either the poor or the destitute. The poor were people who lived on their daily wages, or as we say today worked “paycheck to paycheck.” The destitute were those who were blind. In the NT, both the poor and the destitute are translated (or mistranslated) “the poor.”

So why ramble on this…your article makes me wonder too…Wondering backwards to look forwards…

When Jesus arrived in a world where NT scholars say there was virtually no middle class, he called His people to live in communities of grace, justice, love in a world…Those who were not rich were not to try to be rich, but to be content with basic necessities. Those who were rich were to realize the purpose of their provision was to do good, be rich in good works, be generous sharers of possessions…

I guess I am saying we should create the communities of care because soon, those on top won’t care, and most of us will be on the bottom anyway. Let those who think they control the world do so, for what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul, right? I guess what I mean is Jesus did not launch programs, he called for a different way of life that compelled people in droves…

Some pretty challenging thoughts to chew on.