Christmas is Messy

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source: davide ragusa, unsplash.com

Christmas is messy.

Just look at the shreds of wrapping paper and the stacks of receipts. Look at the scattered stocking stuffers and the crumbs of quickly consumed cookies. Look at the half eaten candy cane stuck to the carpet and the Pinterest fails and the exhausted in-laws. Messy.

But Christmas was messy long before any gifts were unwrapped or mixing bowls were left in the sink.

Christmas has been messy from the very start.

Christmas is centered on a human birth. I’m not sure if you’ve ever witnessed one of those, but I can testify to this fact – they are quite messy. Messy with blood and amniotic fluids and tears and sweat and other, well, messes.

This is the way Christ comes into the world. This is the way God shows up. A messy miracle.

And the mess wasn’t contained to just the biology of it all. The mess included livestock’s sleeping quarters, which smell about as good as you might imagine.

Christ comes not into a sterile hospital room or even a well-prepped master bedroom. He comes into the equivalent of an oft used garage. Nevermind the animal feed and draftiness and random goat or two.

And then the messy welcoming committee arrives. Not kings or princes or the head of the local chamber of commerce. Shepherds. Night shift shepherds at that.

Shepherds who likely hadn’t had a proper bath or used copious amounts of hand sanitizer in some time. Dirt under their fingernails, sheep poop on their sandals, long stained clothes. There is that smell again. What a mess.

And of course, there is the mess involving his parents. Mary says the child isn’t Joseph’s. Rumors swirl and the folks in town give knowing glances. “Who is the father?” the gossipers ask. Joseph plans to stay with Mary and raise this child as his own, despite laws and opinions suggesting otherwise. What a mess.

And then there is Herod. He fears the child so much that he will order all boys under the age of two to be killed. The heartache. Little Jesus and his family will flee their home and escape to Egypt to ensure his safety. The chaos and mess seem to never end.

Back then and still today, Christmas is messy. And that is good news.

Because our lives are often messy. And our world is often messy.

We make messes out of our relationships, messes out of our futures, messes out of our finances. Our faith gets messy, our pasts are messy. We have an incredible knack for messing things up.

We do what we don’t want to do. We don’t do what we do want to do. We are slow to learn our lessons. Quick to find new ways to blow it. Messy.

Rather than avoid the chaos, our God jumps right into it. Moves toward it. Enters the mess.

Rather than avoid it, because the mess is gross and God is above all that, a God whose holiness is rooted in love dives in after us.

To help us. To clean us up. To lift us out of our mess.

To forgive all the messes we have created. To heal all the messes that have been set upon us.

Christmas is messy. And grace is messy. And love is messy. People are messy.

And it is here in the mess, not above it, not once the mess is cleaned, right here in it, that Christ is found.

Here in the mess Christ comes, not to scold us for the messes we’ve made or keep a suspicious watch as we work to clean ourselves up.

He comes and stoops and washes and tends to needs and makes right what is wrong.

He enters the mess not to remind us of how bad we are, but to show us a better way. To lead us out of darkness and into light. He comes to the mess and offers us his presence, his tenderness, his understanding, his unmessiness.

So when the mess is so bad that you don’t know where to begin the clean up, remember Christ comes to messes.

When you buy the lie that you have to clean yourself up first, remember Jesus is deeply familiar with messy people and situations.

When you nervously wonder if perhaps you’ve missed a spot or left something untended, remember God is more concerned with the position of your heart than what you’ve stepped in.

When you feel unworthy or too dirty, remember Christmas is messy.

And that’s the point.

The love revealed at Christmas is intended for you and all your dirty, stinky, bloody messes. Joy to the whole messy world!

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We Have No King But Caesar

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Credit: Scarlet Ellis, unsplash.com

We have no king but Caesar.

I know it is 2017 and Caesar and his ilk have been dead for a while. I know we are no longer under a monarchy, but still we have no king but Caesar.

I know we gather in sanctuaries and sing about our devotion to Jesus. I know we declare our hope in Christ alone, but if we are honest, we have no king but Caesar.

Despite our modern sensibilities and our religious persuasions, we have given ourselves over to the ways and priorities of Caesar. Our loyalty, our allegiance, our worldview largely belong to him. Our hearts, our eyes, our minds belong to Caesar and his earthly kingdoms.

I am convinced that we have discarded the Kingdom of God for the kingdoms of this world, and all the baggage that comes with them.

The ways of Caesar or Pharaoh or Babylon operate in a distinctly different manner then the ways of Jesus and his Kingdom. As we’ve blurred the lines between these kingdoms and tried to force a shotgun wedding, we’ve ended up embracing one and neglecting the other.

We are left with no king but Caesar.

We have lost our holy imagination. We no longer dream God dreams of peace and justice and wholeness. We dream Caesar dreams of power and wealth and security.

We say we believe God will give us the desires of our heart and then we waste our desire on what corrupts and rots and rusts away. And what leaves us estranged from God and neighbor.

We have no king but Caesar.

We’ve lost our taste for a kingdom that is upside down. We’ve lost our stomach for the way of the cross. Those things are just not practical enough for us.

We have no time to wait for the last to be first.

Like the clumsy disciples we still argue over who will be great while unable to imagine that greatness comes through serving, not economies or privileges.

We have no king but Caesar.

We have been convinced that the only way we can impact the world is through the power of law and might. We have been sidelined from our mission while we campaign for Caesar and all of his friends.

We swallow party platforms and turn them into religious convictions.

We have no king but Caesar.

We make enemies out of people who vote differently than us. And justify it. All while ignoring Jesus’ command to love even our enemies.

We excuse our support of terrible candidates by pointing to their worse candidates. We are certain this is the only way to win.

We have no king but Caesar.

We will trade any and all values for the promise of accommodation and favorable votes. We will look the other way at evil and deception as long as we get what we want. We will make back room deals with the devil as long as he promises us political freedom.

We will sell out the way of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver or better unemployment rates.

We have no king but Caesar.

We’ll take racists and sexual predators and murderers and cheats as long as they promise to vote like we do and kiss our babies.

We have no king but Caesar.

We’ve been deceived and it is time to wake up, Church.

I am not suggesting that we never vote or run for office. I’m suggesting that we take a long, hard look at how we have been doing those things and then repent, turn from anything that doesn’t look like Jesus.

I’m suggesting we say no to a lot of the things we have been saying yes to. Even if it costs us a vote or the Senate or the approval of our neighbors or a manger scene at city hall.

The way of Caesar may look appealing and make sense and offer tangible goods, but it leads to death. It leads to tramping over our neighbors. It leads to pride and idolatry and emptiness.

It destroys our witness to the world.

There is a better way. His name is Jesus.

He tells us that we could gain all the world and it wouldn’t be worth our soul.

He invites us to imagine the world as it could be, to not conclude that Caesar’s is the only way we can operate. He shows us that through love and mercy, truth and grace, service and humility that we can bring about all the change the world might need.

His way tells us that in losing our life we will find it.

This way is harder, but this way is worth it. This way is dangerous, but this way is holy.

May we be found faithful to this way, to this Kingdom, to this King… for we have no King but Christ!

Advent: Wait

(This post first appeared on HuffPost Blogs: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/advent-wait_us_5a1cb465e4b07bcab2c6996a)

Recently my four year old needed to use the bathroom while we were out to lunch. There was a wait for the men’s room and no line for the women’s. He did the expedient thing and used the women’s.

Waiting is seldom fun. We all have better things to do than to wait in line or be stuck in traffic or wait for the cable guy to show up.

Sometimes our impatience is a result of the hurry we are in. Sometimes, like my son, we need to GO RIGHT NOW. Sometimes we think waiting is beneath us. Sometimes it is simply because waiting is dull and life-sucking.

“Wait” is a difficult word to hear in our right now world.

Wait.

Wait for the light to change. Wait for the check to clear. Wait for the hour hand to hit 5 o’clock. Wait for the elevator to come. Wait for a text response (we know you saw it).

Wait.

Wait for the pregnancy test to reveal news or no news. Wait for the uncomfortable truth to finally be revealed. Wait for our fairy tale ending. Wait for the other shoe to drop. Wait until next year, next time.

Wait.

Wait for wrongs to be made right. Wait for things like cancer and murder and terror and sexual assault to be swallowed up forever. Wait for the chains of addiction to be broken. Wait for our sons and daughters to come home. Wait for answers to long-prayed prayers.

Wait for the darkness to give way to light.

We wait.

We wait in the tension of the already and the not yet. We wait because, as my wife will preach this Sunday, Christ has come and Christ will come again.

Christ has come. His Kingdom has been inaugurated. It is here amongst us, close enough to touch. And Christ is coming again. His Kingdom is not yet fully realized, but will be one day. He will make all things new.

And until that happens, we wait.

But we do not wait idly.

This type of waiting is about preparation. We need not sit in our pews and shrug our shoulders at a struggling world. We actively work and pursue and seek God’s Kingdom in our hearts and on earth as it is in heaven.

We do all we can and cry out to God for the rest. In our waiting we hope and lament and ache and pray for all that is broken to be mended. In our waiting we do not despair. In our waiting we trust that God is up to something.

Because this type of waiting is also about expectation.

In Advent the Church waits in expectation, in anticipation that Christ is coming. That this newborn babe in a manger is going to do a new thing in us and a new thing in the world. We wait with bated-breath for our long expected Jesus who brings good news of great joy for all people.

And we await his return. For the day when all waiting will be banished forever. Hallelujah. When we finally and fully find our rest in him.

This wait will not last forever, but this wait is worth it.

Waiting reminds us that we are not in charge. It reminds us that we don’t know best. This wait instills in us a very real need for our God. For Someone to come and fix all that we have broken. To make right all that is bent within and around us.

So this year don’t skip the line. Don’t hurry past. Don’t jump to the end. Don’t grab for microwave answers.

Wait.

Prepare. Expect. Long. Anticipate. Hope.

And believe.

Christ has come and Christ is coming again. I’m staking all I have on that. I’m here hoping and waiting for Christ to come in our hearts and homes, in our marriages and in our neighborhoods and in our public squares and perhaps even in our churches. I am waiting and trusting for the faithful love of God to rule and reign in all places and people.

The psalmist says it best:

I cry out to you from the depths, Lord— my Lord, listen to my voice! Let your ears pay close attention to my request for mercy! If you kept track of sins, Lord— my Lord, who would stand a chance? But forgiveness is with you— that’s why you are honored.

I hope, Lord. My whole being hopes, and I wait for God’s promise. My whole being waits for my Lord— more than the night watch waits for morning; yes, more than the night watch waits for morning!

Israel, wait for the Lord! Because faithful love is with the Lord; because great redemption is with our God! He is the one who will redeem Israel from all its sin.

(Psalm 130, Common English Bible)

I Need a New Gym: A Short Parable

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I joined a gym back in May. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles and it certainly doesn’t offer Cross Fit or I’d be posting about it every.single.day (just kidding Cross Fit people, just kidding), but it has some weights and treadmills and other machines I’ve yet to attempt to use.

I don’t make it over there very often, usually only every few weeks. Randomly I get inspired to go, but honestly, I struggle to put in work while I’m there. I don’t particularly enjoy sweating or the soreness that accompanies lifting weights so I stick to low resistance and easy-to-accomplish exercises. Sometimes I don’t even need a shower when I’m done, which is a bonus.

In the treadmill area they have all these mirrors that show me how I really look, so I avoid that room completely. I’m not interested in reality, just what I want to reality to be.

And now, I am looking for a new gym.

See, after months of gym membership I am not getting any results. I’ve actually gained weight and my six year old has to open the jar of pickles for me. I expect more out of my gym.

I’m looking for a gym that will shed the pounds for me regardless of the junk food I consume throughout the week. I need a gym that can increase my strength without increasing my need to lift. I need a gym that can instantly zap off a few inches when I require my suit to fit by tomorrow.

My doctor says I need to make some healthy changes in my life, so here I am, once again, looking for a gym that can help me. Hopefully the next one will be just what I need.

The moral of this story (that is only mostly true) should be obvious. It’s not a gym problem, it’s a me problem. But it’s a whole lot easier for me to blame the gym then to take ownership of my physical well-being.

I can search high and low for a gym that magically produces results, but until I am determined and committed to put in the work, I will see no progress. Until how I eat daily changes, no amount of walking into a building occasionally will do much good. Until I push myself further than I want to go, I will not see much difference.

And this, my friends, is how many of us attend to our faith and to local church families. We want the results without the effort. We want the beach body without the sugar and carb free diet. We want to show up whenever we feel like it and still get the same results as those who hit the track first thing every morning.

And when we don’t get results, when our problems don’t miraculously disappear overnight because we went to the altar once, we look to find someone to blame.

We find a new gym. A new trainer. We try pills. We try crash diets. Anything to keep us from having to honestly examine our own role in perpetual state of ill health.

There are very good and necessary reasons why we may need a new church family or a new pastor or new mentor, but before going down that road, we should stop and take an honest inventory of our faithfulness and our effort.

Without those things, the next gym or diet or trainer will end up disappointing us as well. We will end up in an endless cycle of “not getting my needs met” while doing nothing to attempt to meet our own needs.

The gym/local church provides the tools, what we do with those tools is up to us.

  • Are we exercising our faith muscles?
  • Are we consuming lots of junk?
  • Are we taking the path of least resistance?
  • Are we showing up and participating in any kind of meaningful way?
  • Are we lifting?
  • Are we stretching ourselves?

Are we approaching our faith and church community like I approach the gym? This won’t lead to the change we hope for or the change we need.

A gym membership card in my wallet doesn’t do a lick of good until it is put to frequent use. Spiritual health, like physical health, requires action and intention and effort. If you resist sweating and stretching and soreness or if you feast on junk food more days than not, you will end up discouraged, hurt, or unhealthy.

The solution for most of us isn’t a new gym or new 90-day cleanse. It’s a new attitude, some new priorities, and a renewed effort. The solution isn’t out there somewhere, its within us.

If we want to be healthy we’ve got to put in the work to be healthy.

So show up. Serve. Read your bible. Pray. Give. Be consistent. Watch what you consume. Target problem areas. Worship. Ask for help. Be honest. Confess. Forgive. Love. Then show up again. And again. And again. Even when you’re sore. Even when your tired. Even when its easier not to.

May you and I dedicate ourselves to our spiritual well-being. May we take ownership of our faith and our circumstances. May we commit to the hard work of faithfulness and growth. And may we then see the results we so desperately need. May the pounds fall away, our strength begin to swell, and our faith be encouraged as we put in the effort to follow Jesus.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to finish this double cheeseburger before heading over to the gym.

There Is Another Kingdom

I’ve heard about a kingdom where justice rolls like a mighty river. Where enemies become friends and captives are released from their chains. It’s a place where the stranger is welcome and the wayward is pursued. Where the hurting find comfort and the broken find healing.

It is a kingdom full of peculiar people. They listen before they speak and do all they can to live at peace with everyone. They are quick to confess and always seek to be humble. They are known by their love. They keep no record of wrongs.

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In this kingdom weapons of war are transformed into tools for farming. Here debts are forgiven and resources are given away freely. In this kingdom the last go first and the first go last. It is like a feast where all the people we wouldn’t think to invite are the guests of honor.

This kingdom is upside down.

It is not a kingdom for the self-sufficient or the capable or the best of the best. It is given to the poor in spirit, those who find themselves at the end of their rope. It is kingdom that belongs to children. A kingdom where prostitutes and tax frauds often find their way before the pious do.

It is a kingdom of people tasked with the ministry of reconciliation. Where folks move to the margins to be with the looked over and left behind. It is a place where worship looks like meeting the needs of the least and lowest and setting the oppressed free.

Here the people seek to change the world with towels and basins rather than horses and chariots. In this kingdom people hunger not for power or privilege but for righteousness and justice. Here doing right and loving mercy are inseparable.

Here the works of darkness are exposed in the light. This kingdom has no room for selfishness or hate, greed or lust. It is a place where all people are cherished and equal. Here love purifies from all -isms and phobias and pride.

This borderless kingdom shares no common language or dress or flag. Their people are united by faith, hope, and love. Their anthem is, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain” and their pledge is, “Jesus is Lord.”

Their most sacred site is an empty graveyard. They model the belief that laying down their lives is the only way to truly live. And they wouldn’t trade the whole world for a single, solitary soul.

This kingdom, they believe, never ends.

It is not fully realized but it is not some far off fantasy. It’s breaking in, here and now. It is at hand. Close enough to touch. Among us.

If we are not careful, we will be so consumed with other, earthly kingdoms, that we will forget our roles as the citizens of this one. We will lose our imaginations. We will give into despair. We will look for salvation in all the wrong places. We will begin to look and think and act just like any old kingdom in history.

We can’t do that because there is another way.

There is another kingdom. We’ve been invited to be participants and ambassadors. To take it to our neighbors and to the ends of the earth.

This is what we belong to. This is who we are.

God help us to remember. God help us to be faithful.

 

 

 

 

 

Religious But Not Spiritual

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It is popular these days to hear people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

Many observe the stale, lackluster faith of those simply going through the motions. Or they see religion as a box too small to contain their worldview. Organized religion is often perceived as corrupt, outdated, or harmful. And we’ve all encountered a person who is both intensely religious and intensely a jerk at the exact same time.

So plenty shy away from the label and baggage of “religion.” I get that.

Even churches tend to resist the term “religious.” I regularly hear (and have probably said), “Christianity is not about religion but relationship.” When we say that we are trying to point people to something dynamic and impactful rather than something that becomes empty and heartless. We believe that checking the right number of religious boxes isn’t the thing that matters most. And the Bible certainly speaks to that repeatedly.

But here is the thing: I need religion.

The truth is sometimes I’m religious but not spiritual. Sometimes I don’t “feel” it. Sometimes I wonder what in the world I am doing. Sometimes I have doubt, anger, frustration, or failure in my spiritual life.

If I can only show up when the fire is hot, I will be in trouble. If I was to rely on just my feelings, I’d have quit a long time ago.

There are times I may not feel like attending worship or loving a person who is difficult to love. There are times I am not up for singing “It is well with my soul.” There are times my prayers get caught in my throat.

When those times come, religion keeps me going. The structure built around my faith comes to my aid. The things that have been practiced and rehearsed week after week and century after century minister to my dry spirit.

When I participate in religion I eventually find the things I have been lacking. I find hope and joy and rest. I find substance and sustenance in the bread and the cup of communion. I find peace in the reading of Scripture and support as I gather weekly with my church family for corporate worship.

Even after I’ve already believed and committed. Even when I already obey and follow. Religion and its prayers and rituals and movements bring me rescue and relief. When I go through the motions of religion, I am renewed.

Though I strive to avoid an empty faith or passionless belief, though I desire to always have my heart stirred, the truth is sometimes it doesn’t go the way I want. For whatever reason, sometimes I need a push, a jump-start, a nudge.

I find the help I need in religion.

I wonder if our reluctance to call ourselves religious has been to our detriment. I wonder if we rob ourselves of the very tools we need when we turn our nose up at ritual and habit. I wonder if we’ve damaged the relationship because we have neglected the practices of religion while looking for a purely spiritual faith. 

Religion can certainly be misused, but it is a gift from God and I’m thankful for the ways it has brought newness to my faith. It need not be stale and lifeless, but the very place where grace is found over and over and over again.

So gather with God’s people, even when it’s easier to avoid them.

And say your prayers, even when the words sound hollow.

Sing the songs, even if you aren’t sure you believe them.

Read the Scriptures, even when the message seems distant.

Take and eat, even when you don’t feel hungry.

Go through the motions, especially when the motions are all you have.

And then, may God show up. May your soul find rest and encouragement. May living water quench your thirst. May emptiness give way to satisfaction. May you be formed into the fullness and likeness of Christ Jesus. And may the spiritless become Spirit filled. 

Not All Sin Is Equal

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Photo: Edu Bayer/The New York Times/Redux

By now you have heard what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. By now you have seen how your friends and neighbors have responded. How the media responded, how the president responded, how the president re-responded, and how he re-re-responded.

We hear lots of accusations, but mostly a pointing out of the problems on one side or the other. We hear there were “many sides” to the conflict. We hear there were fine people on both sides. We hear that rights were violated, but just whose rights has come into question.

I personally addressed only one side of the conflict. Then publicly and privately received questions and comments like:

“Why don’t you condemn the counter protestors who were using violence?”

“The Nazis were assembled peacefully, Antifa is in the wrong.”

“We should be against any hate and violence, not just the one side.”

“Black people hate white people too, why do you only address white people?”

I don’t think the “what abouts” and the “many sides” arguments hold much water. I don’t think they are morally equivalent. And I don’t think it is remotely helpful to suggest they could be.

Not all sin is equal.  

The Bible certainly does not define all sins as equal. Jesus talks about varying degrees of judgment, even mentioning one sin that is unforgivable. He compares one person’s sin to a speck of dust and another’s to a plank of wood. He says it is too easy to pay attention to the little (and easier) stuff while ignoring “the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.” Paul lists particular sins that will exclude a person from God’s Kingdom. Proverbs lists seven sins God specifically hates.

The idea that all sin is equal is not scriptural. This doesn’t mean that all sin is not serious or without consequence, just that all sin is not the same. Not in its impact, not in its origins, not in its destruction.

Our experiences teach us this as well. Would you rather be lied to or murdered? Would you rather someone gossip about you or burn down your home? It is no contest.

How we respond to the events of Charlottesville (as well as past and future situations) needs to be taken in this light.

As a follower of Jesus, I practice non-violence. I agree that hate cannot drive out hate and I believe with all my heart that loving our enemies is the way of true transformation. I stood in the pulpit on Sunday and said that all people, even white supremacists, are made in the image of God.

As such, I hold that punching an unsuspecting person in the face is wrong. Even if that person is a literal Nazi.

But I believe it is more wrong to be a Nazi.

Both are wrong. One is worse.

There were various things that were wrong in Charlottesville. But the first wrong, and the worst wrong, was people showing up in the name of white supremacy.

Rallies of people carrying Klan flags and chanting Nazi slogans and hoping to intimidate other people should not be met with, “but whatabout” excuses, exceptions, or distractions.

There is no “yeah but.”

White supremacy is wrong. Full stop.

It was the worst kind of wrong this weekend. Not only did it lead to injury and death, it was the cause of all the trouble in the first place.

White supremacy carries with it the weight and repercussions of our history.

White supremacy has systemically oppressed people of color in our country since day one.

It enslaved, it segregated, it lynched, it dismissed, it intimidated, it wounded, it terrorized. White supremacy elected officials and passed laws and waged war and built an empire.

And I realize I just used past tense here as if this is only a thing of the past. It still goes on doing most of these same things today. It is not locked away in history books. It is alive and well and marching down the street in broad daylight.

It is unjust. It is ungodly. It is evil.

So when you show up under that banner, your sin is the greater one. You don’t get to “yeah but.”

To do so attempts to level a playing field that is not remotely level. It seeks to eradicate painful abuses that have been suffered at the hands of one side of the conflict for centuries.

It does not matter to me who threw the first punch. It doesn’t matter to me that you had permit. It doesn’t matter that you supposedly didn’t plan to use the bricks and bats and guns and vehicles you brought. 

You hate people because of the color of their skin or because of their religion. You applaud and fight for the oppression of human beings. You use fear. You seek to eliminate. You incite. You have and continue to make life miserable for people who are different than you.

Whatever other wrongs may have transpired, you are the problem here.

Even if there had been no violence or death or counter protest, you and your behavior should be loudly opposed by those who have any moral fiber. Just because it is legal doesn’t make it right. 

Any response to your vile hatred is not comparable to the vile hatred that you have chosen.

All sins are not equal. And this weekend we saw deep and tragic sin.

This is incompatible with the things that make our country great. And it is completely incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

To my white sisters and brothers, let us reject this kind of thinking and behavior. Let us examine our hearts and root out any hate and prejudice that lies within. Let us educate ourselves on the struggles of those who are different than us. Let us learn in humility and be moved to action.

Let’s stop the “whatabout” nonsense and get down to business addressing our problem with race as a nation, as a people, as a church.

Not all sins are equal and this is one of our worst.

To my sisters and brothers on the receiving end of this and other forms of racism, my heart breaks for you. You do not deserve this. I am praying for you. You belong here and you are not alone.

“Justice is a joy to the godly, but it terrifies evildoers.” Proverbs 21:17