A beautiful invitation arrived in the mail. Caligraphied and glossy. Join me for a feast, it said. So I showed up to the place at the time.
There was God. Sitting at an empty table.
“I thought this was a feast. Where’s the food? The people? The music” I said, standing.
“Coming. I wanted to talk first.”
“Talk about what?” I said, still standing.
“About whether or not you will sit down.”
“Sit down to what? There is no feast here. I see nothing. No food, no dishes, no silverware. Nothing. I’m tired God. I’m tired of your games.”
“And which games would those be?”
“This paradox crap. If you invite people to a feast, lay out a feast for them. Come on. You know how to do this. You turned water into wine for Mary’s sake. Where’s the damn feast? You promised one. You invited me to one.”
“Sit down. Tell me what you see.”
“No, I won’t. I don’t see anything. This is all stupid!” I yell and then throw down a chair. “This is crap. It’s all crap. You don’t do what you say. You don’t protect when you said you would. You don’t stay with us when you say you will. Where were you? Where were you when she went through that? Where were you when I felt alone? Where were you when there was no food on the table and no money in my pocket? This is stupid. I’m done with these games.”
“I don’t play games.”
“Bull. Yes you do. It’s all games. You say something in your Word, like I’ll prepare a table for you. And then you do this crap. You sit at an empty table.”
“Gena, sit down,” he says calmly, my anger not affecting him at all.
“No. I don’t want to. You promised a feast. This isn’t what you promised. The invitation was a lie.”
“Gena, sit down. Pick up the chair you threw and sit down.”
“Fine! Ugh,” I say, sitting down with the attitude I thought I left behind in my teen years.
“Tell me what you see.”
“I see nothing,” I say. Perturbed.
“I see a table, I see a lying God. I see an angry me.”
“Good? Ugh. Our definitions of good are very different, God.”
“Gena, take a deep breath.” Reluctantly I breathe. “Close your eyes,” he says.
“Why? That’s stupid,” I shout back. “Fine whatever,” I say, feeling like giving in might end this annoying conversation.
“What do you see?”
“I hate your definition of good.”
Lovingly and slowly he says my name, “Gena,” then pauses. “What do you see? Use your other senses to see.”
I try to focus. I try to get over my annoyance. I flare my nostrils to engage my sense of smell. The sweet aroma of citrus and grapes fill my breathing. But then the sweetness is replaced with smokiness. With my eyes still closed I say, “I think I sense oranges. So I see bright oranges in my mind. I see a bowl of plump purple grapes. I see a long-stemmed glass of Lambrusco with the bottle standing next to the glass. And, overpowering all of it is the smell of a spicily smoked turkey.”
Somehow I sense God is smiling, even though my eyes are still closed.
“What do you hear?” he asks.
“Emptiness,” I say, but then I correct myself, “No, calmness.” As soon as that word came out of my mouth, I begin to hear a violin. Slow and low. “I hear some instruments,” I say. “A violin, and some other ones but my ear cannot differentiate them.”
“Good. What do you taste?” he asks. He must have gotten out of his chair and walked over to where I am while I was focusing on the instruments. Is that a piano? Or a keyboard playing different types of sounds?. His hand guides my own as he wraps my fingers around a fork and slices it into a dense piece of cheesecake. I hear the sound the fork makes in the cake. My eyes are still closed, but my lips ask before I can understand how am seeing what I see.
“This is gluten-free, right?” and then we laugh simultaneously.
“There are no sensitivities or allergies here,” he says.
I bite down into a succulent piece of New York style cheesecake garnished with a fresh raspberry—not a slimy canned strawberry.
“I taste lime,” I say, “I mean, I taste cheesecake and raspberry, which I expected to taste because I see those in my mind. But I also taste lime which I don’t see in my mind.”
He smiles even bigger. “Yes,” he says, “there is lime juice squeezed on top.”
I sense he moves away from me, back to his chair across the table from me, and I feel a slight bit of melancholy creep into my whole self from my toes to my ears, my body feels sad.
“Take another bite, Gena.” He says with directness in his voice.
I do, and I am glad.
“Now, slowly I want you to open your eyes,” he says.
“Will it all go away if I do?” I ask earnestly.
“Open your eyes,” he repeats.
Slowly, carefully, I lift my eyelids like a heavy velvet curtain being pulled up.
“I don’t see anything,” I say.
“You don’t. But you do,” he says. “You see and you don’t see simultaneously.”
I try to feel around with my hands. Can I still touch it and see with my appendages even if I can’t with my eyes, I wonder.
“I don’t feel anything,” I say.
“You don’t. But you do,” he says again.
“Gena, you asked where the food and the people are—where the feast is—when you first arrived. Do you remember what I told you?”
“Yes, you said they were coming.”
“Exactly. Good.”When he said “good” this time, my heart felt joy, not anger like before.
“What is coming is already here,” he said. “You can’t see it, but you can. Will you choose to sit down at what looks like an empty table to your world-veiled eyes? Will you choose to believe when you don’t want to believe? Will you sit when I invite you?”
“I mean, I did earlier. I had a pretty bad attitude about it, though.”
“Yes. Will you do it again, though? Will you sit down at the table I prepare for you? Even when it looks like it’s not prepared at all? Even when your friends, especially your Christian friends, tell you that it’s stupid for you to sit down. Even when your own family and … .” His voice got deep and serious before he continued, “and your own self thinks it’s the worst decision you could make.”
“I don’t know.”
I could sense him smirk a bit like Mona Lisa, but I didn’t see it with my eyes.
He paused. “Before you go, I want you to remember the turkey and the grapes and the cheesecake and the violins. I want you to remember that I have. I have. I AM and I HAVE and I DO. I am the God … “ his voiced trailed off and suddenly I saw him no more.
“Of abundance,” I thought or maybe I heard. I was back on a park bench overlooking a soccer field. My phone rang, and I shuddered.
He’s a God of abundance cloaked in a mask of scarcity. Meanwhile so many gods of scarcity cloak themselves in abundance.
“I believe, God, help my unbelief,” I whispered to the blue sky before I answered my phone.
For those vulnerable children being exploited,
or sought to be exploited—sexually, economically, or otherwise
Lord protect them. Hedge their innocence.
Be their Jehovah Shammah.
Lord, hear our prayer.
For those children that must work,
whether by force or economic oppression,
Protect their growing bodies, protect the health of their minds.
Be their Jehovah Sabaoth.
Lord, hear our prayer.
For caregivers and parents, older siblings, aunts & uncles and grandparents
Provide for these families. Be their Jehovah Jireh.
Change laws & greedy rulers' hearts. Be their Jehovah Nissi.
Lord, hear our prayer.
For the dignity innate in every human being
For the everlasting love you give all your children,
Lord, let these children see and know and feel--
You are near and You are love.
Be their Jehovah Rohi.
Lord, hear our prayer.
And for us, for those of us who can advocate for these children,
equip us for this good work.
That these children might know and see and love
You more as they more deeply understand,
Just how much You love them.
Be all of our Jehovah Adonai.
Lord, hear our prayer.
"No matter how hard you try to shake him, the god of scarcity is a sticky deity."
— Alia Joy, Glorious Weakness.
I struggle with how much I feed the god of scarcity when I greedily hoard my time.
What do you hoard? What areas of your life is the god of scarcity an idol? And who is the God of Abundance? Can we trust him with everything?
"Son, life is about sharing. Don't give what you have left over, rather share what you have now." — María Romero as quoted in Separated by the Border (out Oct. 29)
At the very end of my book, Separated by the Border, I use the possessive pronoun “Her” and I talk about God as Inclusive Mother. I know many of my evangelical peers will struggle with this phrase, which is why I wrote this blog.
If you have had the opportunity to read the book, you may see this as an overarching theme. I didn’t try to make it a theme, but Lupe’s love showcased the beautifully relentless love of a mother which gave me a deeper understanding of God’s love.
So I want to lay out why I chose to use such language and why I think it’s important. Let’s start at the beginning. All verses are in the NIV unless otherwise noted.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
The word Spirit is the word Ruach in Hebrew. It means Breath or Wind.
Genesis 1:26-27 (NASB)
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
Some theologians read this and say that God’s image holds both male and female in it if in God’s likeness we are being created.
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
This word “helper” found here is the Hebrew word EZER which is also used several times throughout the Bible to describe God. (Ex. 18:4, Deut 33:7, 33:26, 33:29, Ps. 20:2, 33:20, 70:5, 89:17, 115:11, 121:1-2, 124:8, 146:5, Hosea 13:9)
Deuteronomy 32:10-12, 18
In a desert land he found him,
in a barren and howling waste.
He shielded him and cared for him;
he guarded him as the apple of his eye,
like an eagle that stirs up its nest
and hovers over its young,
that spreads its wings to catch them
and carries them aloft.
The Lord alone led him;
no foreign god was with him.
(18) You deserted the Rock, who fathered you;
you forgot the God who gave you birth.
But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.
This is a Psalm of David where he is speaking directly to the LORD.
For a long time I have kept silent,
I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth,
I cry out, I gasp and pant.
Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
I will extend peace to her like a river,
and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream;
you will nurse and be carried on her arm
and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
so will I comfort you;
and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.
Hosea 11:3-4It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.
Matthew 3:16-17 (NASB) along with Mark 1, Luke 3, John 1 — The Baptism of Jesus
After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.
In the Baptism of Jesus, we read that the Spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove and then a voice from heaven says, "This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased." We often assume that the voice from Heaven is Father God's voice. But God the Father is never mentioned in this passage. It is the Holy Spirit who is mentioned. What if it is the Holy Spirit who is doing the speaking? What if the Holy Spirit is saying, "This is My beloved Son." I think that if we can theorize that it's God the Father's voice, we can also theorize that it's God the Mother's voice, who has sent a dove to her son to remind him in physical form she's there and she's watching over.
Matthew 23:37 & Luke 13:34
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.
Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
I have to give Emmy Kegler credit for this one. I was listening to a podcast where she was being interviewed for her book One Coin Found, and she said that while studying scripture one day she was looking at the Lost Parables in Luke: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, The Lost Son. She described how we often see God as the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep. And we often see God as the father in the parable of the lost son, but rarely do we teach that God is the woman searching for her lost coin.
Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
Females give birth, and it’s possible this is a figure of speech. Maybe all the verses above are merely figures of speech, metaphors and similes. But maybe in the same spirit (pun intended) my use of SHE is a figure of speech when referring to God. And if so, why do so many people see that as a faux pas? Because in many ways we cannot define God fully, so in every attempt to do so we are only using figures of speech.
Some theologians and some denominations are pushing for genderless pronouns for God. For me, I struggle with this and here’s why: taking the gender away from God makes God less understandable, less tangible, less relatable to me. Andrew and I chose not to know the gender of our second child until the day of her birth. It was hard for me to connect with the baby in my belly because I didn't know what to call the baby: it, baby. That was all the language we had. The surprise on her birthday was big, but I would never do it again. I wanted to connect with the being inside of me during pregnancy and not knowing her gender during that time made it harder to connect.
I grew up in a Pentecostal-like church and the Holy Spirit was a very undefinable being, a ghost that slayed people and made weird things happen. For a portion of my life, I ran away from the Holy Spirit because I feared the weirdness of Her. For more on that, check out my article at Missio Alliance.
Seeing the Holy Spirit as a mother-figure does three important things:
When I say that God is Mother, and when I use a feminine pronoun for God, I am not saying that God is only Mother or only female. I believe that God transcends gender. But here, I am saying that one way to see God is to see Mother God, alongside Father God, and Brother God. There is no disunity in the Trinity, though most of my life I secretly thought this was the case. I see the unity so much more when I see the Trinity as Divine Family.
I will leave you with the words of Jurgen Moltmann, a German reformed white male theologian. From his book The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation:
In Trinitarian theology, the image of the divine family raises the Spirit to the same rank as the Father, and puts the Spirit before the Son. Unless, like Ludwig Feuerbach, we wish to cast the image aside altogether as a pure projection of a family idyll, it does offer interesting corrective possibilities, if we compare it with the other pictures of the Trinity - Irenaeus's image of the One God with two hands, for example.
But more important than these speculative possibilities is the new definition of what it means for human beings to be the image of God. If the Trinity is a community, then what corresponds to it is the true human community of men and women. A certain de-patriarchalization of the picture of God results in a de-patriarchalization of the church too.
Of course by calling God the Holy Spirit 'Mother' we are merely putting parallel to the 'Father' another power as primal source. Psychologically speaking, inward liberation from the mother is as much a part of human development as emancipation from the Father. Like Israel's prophets, Christianity actually replaced the patriachal and matriarchal powers of origin by the messianism of the Child, as the bearer of hope and the beginning of the future. 'Unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven' (Matt 18:3). But this is not brought out by the patriarchal or matriarchal image of God.
This Wednesday, I am highlighting a good friend of mine, Latresia "Sweet" Peak and her good friend, Holly Harris. The two just released their debut album, 2 for the Price of 1 on June 1.
Sweet and Holly have been singing for as long as they can remember. They are both worship leaders with a strong desire to see the Body of Christ & beyond experience the power of worship. They have had the privilege of serving in their local churches, various groups and para-church ministries. Sweet and Holly met on the campus of UNC Charlotte as students and members of Children of the Sun Cultural choir. COS became the catalyst for a friendship that later blossomed into a musical partnership. In early 2017, Sweet and Holly joined forces to plan their first live recording. In doing so, they were able to split cost, encourage one another and benefit from each other's strengths and connections. However, this was more than just a great practical idea, it was a God idea. Coming together required humility, selflessness, self assuredness, patience and a relinquishing of control. In addition, they experienced the hand of God miraculously move in the area of provision!
One of my favorite songs on the album is called Talk About It which has a juke-joint vibe:
If we say that love covers a multitude of sin,
then why are Sunday services so segregated?
Can we talk about it?
Let's talk about division
Let's talk about our past
Let's talk about hatred
Let's talk about crime
Let's have a dialogue
And get it all off our chest
How are we to ever reconcile our differences?
Sweet wrote it a few years ago when police killings were happening regularly. "I had a conversation with a friend who was a believer and we were discussing race and I thought not only is the world segregated, but so is the church," Sweet said. "I hope the song makes everyone stop and think: Am I helping to build bridges of reconciliation or am I building walls of division? How can we each individually be the change? How can we communally be the change?"
Awesome God is another great song on the album:
Your sovereign Lord,
You reign from age to age
This whole world can pass away
but Your Word will never fade
We stand in awe of You
and our praise can't be contained
So in spirit and in truth
We will bless
Your holy name
"Awesome God is a mid-tempo worship song about the sovereignty of our God. From the beauty of His creation to the breath we breathe, His glory surrounds us all! It was my goal to write a song that expressed how incredible He is," Holly said. "As a result, my hope is that all would experience His presence and love."
If you are interested in having Sweet and Holly come and sing at your event or church, send an email to tornroofent@ gmail.com
If you are interested in Sweet leading a conversation about racial justice, email Sweet at latresiap@ yahoo.com with the subject "Race Relations".
You can help them out by sharing their music, following them on Spotify, listening to their music, having (paying!) them come to your church and sing, and sharing this post!
The mentality of scarcity—maybe a spirit of scarcity—prowls like a lion seeking to devour us. The God of communal abundance, the God of shalom, is calling us out of its clutches.
The foundation of holistic poverty equates to broken relationships. At my work, we often reference a figure of the four broken relationships that can be found in Walking With the Poor by Bryant Myers. Those relationships include with God, Self, Others, and Creation. “Poverty is a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings,” Myers says. (Walking With the Poor, p. 86)
With this in mind, I believe that discipleship at its core is a process for us to become more whole — that is, for our relationships to be reconciled. Therefore, this mentality of scarcity that seems to keep bobbing its head in many of the discussions I have with others is not new news. If poverty is unreconciled relationships that cause us to not be whole human beings, then the enemy that prowls around like a lion seeking whom he can devour will constantly want us to perceive that someone else is trying to take that wholeness away from us. He must pit us against our neighbor, the very neighbor God calls us to love.
You see, if the enemy can convince me that my neighbor is going to take away that which I’ve worked hard to obtain in my process of becoming whole, then in my attempt to seek wholeness, I will also hoard the stepping stones toward it. And if I hoard what I perceive as a means to the end of wholeness, then I will never actually arrive at my destination of becoming whole.
In their book Becoming Whole, Brian Fikkert & Kelly M. Kapic argue that we, dominant-culture American Christians, have been leaning into a theology that is essentially Evangelical Gnosticism that idolizes the American Dream. They say, “the goal isn’t to live the American Dream now and get our souls to heaven later. The goal is to become whole.”
We have become an easy target for the prowling enemy. As we continue to seek what we think is wholeness through stepping stones that are made quite slippery by the American Dream, we easily fall prey to the ideas that the tangible & intangible things—titles, certificates, retirement money, discounts on products that require cheap labor, citizenship, power, privilege—will lead us to wholeness, but we must protect them at all costs. And so we see this mentality of scarcity affect each of us: whether it’s in the power dynamic between genders and races both inside and outside of the Church, the argument against immigration, the movement out of public schools, the silencing of sexual abuse victims (or even highlighting of them when we want to on our terms). When we take a step back, we can clearly see this mentality of scarcity influences all of us.
None of us is immune to scarcity.
Some because of trauma. Some because of power. Some because of privilege. Some because of oppression. All because we are human.
But the God of shalom, the God of communal abundance calls us out of the clutches of this lie. He, through gleaning and jubilee and downward mobility and community reconciliation calls us to a place where we see first and foremost that He is enough. Yes, God is enough. Jesus is enough. No Christ didn’t come riding on a white horse slashing oppression by being oppressive like we all wanted him to. But Christ, who deeply knew what it was to be human and fully understood suffering is enough.
And once we see that Christ is enough, we also see that we are enough. Not only in our limited humanity, but also in our communities. We don’t need more stuff—tangible or intangible. We don’t need more human, greedy power. We are enough. Our humanity is enough. We are allowed to honestly confess the ways we hurt each other. We make space for difficult truths to be told because we see each other as human beings first. We don’t judge, we confess. And in our confession we find God-ordained empathy for our neighbors we thought were our enemies.
Finally, we see that the American Dream is NOT enough. We don’t need it. It’s not enough because it doesn’t make us whole. It’s individualized and doesn’t take into consideration the systems of oppression we have built our country upon. We’ve proven that becoming richer makes us less happy (Becoming Whole, Introduction).
The mentality of scarcity is combatted by a mentality of community. “We’ve lost the sense that we are all in this together, that my flourishing is bound up with yours, and that we’re called to love our neighbors as ourselves.” (Becoming Whole, Ch. 3). So wherever you live, whatever you do ... find your community and press in, lean in, and bind yourself up with your neighbors. I'll work on doing the same.
“…Where love is this capacity to be wounded. I’m really asking white people to learn how to love themselves at a different level. If loving oneself is linked to telling the truth about oneself, then risking the white self is having the capacity to love even more.” – George Yancy, from The Faith Angle podcast with Kirsten Powers & Jonathan Merritt.
Maybe we white Americans don’t love those who don’t look like us because we don’t love ourselves enough. Loving our wounded selves requires honesty, reflection, and a resolve to move in a different direction. It requires so much more to love our wounded selves.
It was much easier to love myself physically when the scale showed me my healthy weight. But after two children and a series of circumstantial life events, I am now heavier than I am comfortable with. It’s not easy to love my wounded self.
It was much easier to love myself spiritually before I walked away from a church I was apart of for nearly a decade. It’s not easy to love my wounded spirit.
It was much easier to love myself mentally before my honest blog delved into my own deconstruction of my faith, and blog readership and encouraging comments decreased. It’s not easy to love the broken writer within.
It may not ever be “easy” to love oneself, but it’s much easier to love oneself when wounds are few (or hidden) and community comes easy. But easy community, in my experience, is surface-level. It’s community with plenty of—as my friend Craig Stewart says--rainbows covering our open wounds.
If love is the capacity to be wounded, apathy is the capacity for the pretense of perfectionism.
Yes, apathy is the capacity for the pretense of perfectionism.
So we have a lot of apathetic communities, lying to themselves that they are good, they are whole, that change is needed only for forward movement, not for reflecting on past wounds.
In a Letter to White America, Yancy challenges us to let go of our “white innocence, to use this letter as a mirror, one that refuses to show you what you want to see, one that demands that you look at the lies that you tell yourself so that you don’t feel the weight of responsibility for those who live under the yoke of whiteness, your whiteness.”
I hope that we as White Americans, and better yet, as White Evangelicals can learn to love ourselves enough that we acknowledge white privilege, white power, white dominion, white systems, and white pedestals.
Can we, as white evangelicals, learn to love ourselves enough that we teach our children the truth about our nation’s history even if our schools’ curriculums do not?
Can we, as white evangelicals, learn to love ourselves enough that we learn to actively listen—not just waiting for our chance to interrupt—to the wounds, the discrimination, the racism, the misogyny that minorities have faced in the world, and more deeply in the church?
Can we love ourselves enough, can we be comfortable enough in our own wounded skin to sit still and not immediately get defensive when others speak of their wounds?
Can we love ourselves enough to reject the apathy of perfectionism, and to accept that we are very wounded. Can we love ourselves enough to accept that in tattooing ourselves with rainbows—which was itself painful—we have inflicted pain on so many others.
Can we love ourselves as Christ loved us, full of imperfection and very much in need of being made whole?
Can we, as white evangelicals, risk the white self and learn to love ourselves deeper, creating more capacity to love those who don’t look like us?
When we learn to be honest about our own skin color, what all it represents—beyond extreme forms of racism—and what all we reap from it currently, maybe then we can be honest about black and brown skin, about experiences and systemic sin that has kept white skin on a pedestal dominating and domineering.
My friend Craig is a white South African. In his article Rainbows Tattooed over Open Wounds, he says, “I avoid pain and brokenness, most especially that which is my own and that which is caused by me. This has been carefully cultivated in my life and reflects my personality, but it also mirrors the culture within which I’ve been raised. Western evangelical Christian culture avoids lament and has an almost pathological focus on achievement, celebration, victory and healing. … Culturally and theologically, western society avoids this path, and so we painted rainbows over the seeping wounds and sang Shosholoza together. The change we did see was remarkable and miraculous, but, in the end, we only dealt with the law of Apartheid and not the spirit that drove it.”
Accepting my dual identity of both oppressor and oppressed as a white woman is a step toward seeing the spirit that drives my wounded skin, and I’m now on a path of learning how to be comfortable in the huge discomfort of what it means to be white.
I’m grateful for the gift Yancy (and so many others) have given us white Americans. It’s an invitation to learn how to love my white skin by first understanding the fullness of what it is. To acknowledge, as Yancy said in the interview, that I am at best an anti-racist racist, and that my “comfort is linked to the pain and suffering [of people of color].”
“In my heart, I’m done with the mask of sexism, though I’m tempted every day to wear it. And, there are times when it still gets the better of me,” Yancy said in his NYT article, pointing to his own wounded male skin and the fullness of what it is.
Indeed, the gift of self-truth is one rarely offered in this world, but if we white evangelicals are actually going to work toward racial reconciliation—or conciliation or whatever else one wants to call it—we must not only accept this gift of self-truth, but openly embrace it.
William Franklin Graham Jr.—otherwise known as Billy—was born about twenty miles from where I currently sit. He died about 130 miles away in Montreat, North Carolina. At age 99, he was one of the most influential preachers and evangelists of our time.
When people think of white evangelicalism, they often trace it back to Billy Graham. He and I share many things: our home state, our evangelical label, our passion for the Gospel. Even in his death, he is still teaching me new facets of the faith. Still, a part of me struggles with the legacy he leaves behind.
To be honest, this is a hard article to write: on the one hand, I sincerely admire Mr. Graham and am so grateful for the ways in which he testified to who Jesus Christ was and is and ever will be. But there is within me a desire to be honest, open, and even vulnerable as I attempt to eulogize without euphemizing, illuminate without idolizing — and I sincerely hope that when I die others will do the same for me. So here I lay out three lessons to learn from Billy Graham’s Legacy, and at the end a final thought on death in the Christian community.
Three lessons to learn from Billy Graham’s Legacy
1. Every human being is flawed—even your favorite spiritual leader
We know that ‘None is righteous. No, not one.’ As Romans 3, Psalms 14 and 53 tell us. This may be the most challenging and the most critical tool of our time as Christians in today’s theological and political landscape. It’s easy to find flaws and then exclude someone from the faith. We must wrestle against this temptation on both sides. Whether it’s the conservative arguing that there is no room at Christ’s table for the gay couple or the liberal arguing there is no room at Christ’s table for closed-minded Christians, not one of us has a fully robust and perfect Christian theology that allows us a seat at that table. Indeed it is Christ’s blood alone.
There are several issues I have with Graham including his narrowed focus on personal salvation rather than communal shalom, his disturbing words about Jewish Americans (that yes, he did apologize publicly for), and his judgmental and conversion-fixated views about homosexuality. But I still have much to learn from the man who for 60 years preached to hundreds of millions of people all over the world.
Graham was intentional about seeking out unconventional relationships such as one with Californian gang boss Mickey Cohen, North Korean President (at that time) Kim Il-sung, and Kremlin officials in the Soviet Union — an amazing example of living out Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies.”
Graham befriended Martin Luther King Jr. who once said—according to Graham’s website—that Graham’s influence played a role in King’s success with the Civil Rights Movement. Graham is quoted as saying, “Christianity is not a white man’s religion, and don’t let anybody tell you that it’s white or black. Christ belongs to all people; He belongs to the whole world.” John Perkins gives a beautiful testimony of what Graham did for racial reconciliation saying, “Racism is not compatible with the Christian faith, and Billy Graham and I were partners in removing ropes of segregation and replacing them with a foundation of love and brotherhood.” Perkins says that Graham regretted not doing more, and humbly confessed this to him.
Graham is noted for not speaking to segregated audiences in the 1950s, and even paid King’s bail once in 1960. Would I have done the same? I certainly hope so, even if it came at losing support of a platform base.
Yet critics call him out for not doing more toward pressuring for legislative changes within the Civil Rights Movement. The Guardian went into further detail in this critique:
Once leaders like Martin Luther King Jr began practicing civil disobedience and asking for the federal government to guarantee African Americans’ rights, Graham’s support evaporated. Within days of the publication of King’s famous 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Graham told reporters that the Baptist minister should “put the brakes on a little bit”. He criticized civil rights activists for focusing on changing laws rather than hearts.
Today, many white Southern preachers I know respond to the racial tension in America with simplistic narratives of “We don’t have a skin issue we have a sin issue.” I wish I could say that Graham would immediately and ardently cut through that thinking and direct people to the Gospel that has something to say to our racially unreconciled world. While not negating what he did do when it comes to racial reconciliation, the theology he ascribed to prevents one from getting too involved. His words here remind me too much of the skin-sin argument. “If the church wants high, moral standards in the nation and a new social justice, then let the church get back to preaching the simple, authoritative Gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit,” he preached on his radio show The Hour of Decision in 1967.
In some areas Graham was hyper-aware of the need of the Gospel and his need to live it out, while in others he wasn’t. I think that can be said of all of us. This is why diversity is non-negotiable. We need people in our lives from diverse Christian backgrounds to speak to our theological blind spots. The Global Church is the Bride of Christ, and when we do not include all of her, we have an incomplete picture of who she is.
If we want to move forward in Christianity, we must be able to ‘chew on the meat and spit out the bones’. There is no boneless sermon; there is no flawless preacher.
2. Christianity Shouldn’t Be an Oligarchy
Circling back to Graham’s words on how Christianity is not the white man’s religion, we must also recognize that whether intentional or not, white evangelicalism rose precisely because of Billy Graham’s influence in America. Most white, southern congregations will ascribe to similar views of the Bible. Many Southern Baptist churches reference the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) for answers to biblical questions. Many southern congregations do not think twice about supporting BGEA’s sister organization (spearheaded by Billy’s son Franklin Graham) Samaritan’s Purse, despite the damaging effects of Operation Christmas Child on developing nations, and the perpetuated white-savior-like images that come from this program. In Charlotte’s white evangelical landscape, there’s almost an unwritten rule that you shouldn’t speak up against the Grahams.
This should be a warning for us. If we want to move forward in Christianity, we must confess and lament our own sins, allow others to lovingly call out our sins, and lovingly reciprocate.
3. Billy Graham is the Father of Modern White Evangelicalism
While Billy Graham is not the only influence over white evangelicalism, he certainly is one of the largest modern influences we can point to. Certain aspects of his life resonate with what we see in today’s evangelical landscape. If we want to move forward in Christianity, we must see who we are and see who we aren’t.
A. We back down from social justice issues when things get hot and platforms are at stake.
The Raleigh News & Observer said this:
In the 1960s, Graham was criticized for not marching with Martin Luther King Jr. Uncomfortable with some of King’s protests and arrests, Graham shied from bold pronouncements.
“Billy Graham was always non-confrontational,” said biographer Martin. “He felt everybody ought to be nice.”
Growing up in conservative evangelical Christianity, being nice was often the holy grail. But I remember reading a John Eldridge book that said something to effect of “Mr. Rogers wouldn’t have been crucified.” Nonetheless, being nice is still a subtle commandment of evangelicalism. We must knock down our idol of niceness and make room for a countercultural Jesus who cursed fig trees, broke traditions to heal people, and tethered himself only to God the Father.
B. We focus on conversion more than on discipleship.
While one can certainly argue that many of those who were converted at one of Graham’s crusades have since become disciples (praise God!), we must also note that discipleship costs a lot more than a raised hand and a bowed head. Modern evangelicalism is often more concerned with width of converts rather than depth of discipleship. We must knock down our idol of number lust and make room for a Jesus who cared about the heart, soul, mind, and strength of every human being he interacted with.
C. We are good at celebrity Christianity.
The celebrity Christian will end up — intentionally or not — creating clones if he/she is not intentional about diffusing such from happening. The New York Times obituary on Feb. 21 said, “In his younger days, Mr. Graham became a role model for aspiring evangelists, prompting countless young men to copy his cadences, his gestures and even the way he combed his wavy blond hair.” One can argue this isn’t Billy’s fault. I agree; however, we must recognize that it happens and diffuse it when we can. Unfortunately, white evangelicalism has continued in this trend: it has been written that Sovereign Grace Ministries pastors would mimic C.J. Mahaney’s style and preaching cadence (and I can attest to this first-hand). I’d also say that, once again, living in the Charlotte area, I see pastors here and in other states who want to mimic the ministry style and preaching cadence of Steven Furtick. Originality and authenticity may get a Christian leader to a certain position, but those qualities don’t seem to produce an end goal of megaphones and megachurches. We must knock down the idol of celebritism and make room for a Jesus who was nothing like the king the Jews imagined themselves waiting for.
Billy Graham leaves a legacy for all of Christianity to wrestle with. One that in so many ways ushered in a new era of American Christianity. One that allowed millions of people to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. I am forever grateful for that. There is much he left us to build upon, and much he left us to do.
May we imitate Christ as we seek to continue building the American Church.
One Final Thought: The Grave Requests the Truth
It’s interesting that we quote Jesus’ words “the truth will set you free” when it is convenient for us. The truth about each of our human, imperfect lives is not easy to wrestle with. We are sinners and saints. That is also the truth of the Gospel, which I often say is both terrible and terrific. It is terrible when it reveals and confronts the evil within us; terrific for it call us out of that evil and gives us a new identity as child of God.
When I was a student of journalism, I remember my wise professor warning us about eulogies. “It’s easy to glorify the dead,” he said. And he challenged us to write balanced eulogies, a task that supplies a demand no one seems to want. In piecing together this article, it is interesting that the news outlets like CNN, New York Times, BBC, and Guardian have no issues pointing to the good and the bad of Graham’s life, but the Christian publications I sought seem to only glorify his life. It begs the question: should we not, even in death, be the best truth tellers? If we cannot speak the truth about the nature of human legacies (that they are all tainted to some degree) of those who have gone before us in the faith, what does it say about those who will come after us?
 I get that many reporters were scrambling today to piece together the eulogy of a great man, but nonetheless I do wish I saw more Christian-authored pieces that offered a more balanced perspective of his life.
Five lessons White Christians have yet to learn from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
We need to run toward injustice not away from it.
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
In our triumphalistic-Christianity, we shun suffering. We tell each other the testimony is on the other side of the suffering rather than in the midst of it. We build up walls of comfort, and teach our children to pursue “the promise land” at the cost of understanding a theology that reminds us God suffers and he is often most visibly seen among the suffering.
We need to recognize there is negative peace and positive peace.
“The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice… .”
Do we not love order so much that we act as though our places of worship and our services themselves—at the beckoning call of the idol of excellency—look like opera houses? If someone ruins our plan, the schedule, the air of excellency whether by wailing too loudly, dancing too crazily, or speaking too long over their allotted time, we act as though they are a traitor in our midst apologizing profusely to the crowd we entertain. We plan our lives to look the same: our houses like magazines, our children’s resumes are built from infancy. We seek out order more than we seek out justice—because we know justice is messy and we aren’t willing to give up order for it. We invite messes in for a few days: family for the holidays, teenagers on a short-term mission, and then we label such charitable deeds as justice so that we uphold the pretense. Tension is our enemy, and fear of man our idol. Justice requires too much of us, so we maintain the status quo.
We need to embrace biblical compassion that requires empathy over sympathy and action over complacency.
“I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearning of those that have been oppressed, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action.”
Strong, persistent, and determined action requires sacrifice. Empathy requires us to build relationships with those who have been oppressed, and imagine walking in their shoes. Will this make us understand 100%? Absolutely not. But it will move us from sympathy—where we look down on another’s suffering and feel pity for them—to empathy—where we stand alongside another who is suffering, listen to his woes and concerns, and join the fight on his terms. I am amazed at how little people can imagine life in another’s shoes today.
We need to embrace a robust gospel theology that recognizes the whole of a human being.
“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.”
The concept of salvation in White Christianity is steeped in this dichotomy of bodies and souls, sacred and secular. We worry about souls, not about bodies, which is itself an act of dehumanization. The Gospel teaches us that man is body, soul, mind, and spirit. Anytime we extract one of those and equate it to the whole of a human, we reduce the Imago Dei and treat salvation as a transaction. Salvation is not the end. It is the beginning. It is not transactional, it is transformational. It is not a past event but an ongoing work of becoming whole. Therefore, the social ills that prevail in one’s society affect the human being as a whole. If we do not have a gospel that speaks this truth and includes the social issues of the day, we do not have the Gospel.
We need to recognize that we don’t see everything.
“You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping ‘order’ and ‘preventing violence’. I don’t believe you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its angry violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I don’t believe you would so quickly commend the policemen if you would observe their ugly and inhuman treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you would watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you would see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys, if you would observe them, as they did on two occasions, refusing to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. …It is true that they have been rather disciplined in their public handling of the demonstrators. In this sense they have been publicly ‘nonviolent’. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the last few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. So I have tried to make it clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or even more, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”
Simply put, the whole Truth is something no man sees alone. We need each other to see the truth of our society, the truth of our world, the truth of who God is and what He is currently speaking into this world. If our spiritual community is made up only of people who look like us body, soul, mind, and spirit, we only see a fraction of the truth. In order to be made whole (salvation) we must fully see what is broken. We need diversity in the church not for diversity sake, but for the sake of seeking the entire truth that will see us all free.