Owning What I Can Own Plus a Look at Nehemiah 1
(This post is adapted from a sermon given on June 7, 2020.)
In the church I am currently serving as an intentional interim pastor we have been walking through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). What we are discovering is that the sermon is NOT about moral conformity to a new set of New Testament rules (i.e., moralism), neither is it “picking and choosing” Bible passages that we think are relevant for today (i.e., secularism).
The SOTM is identifying a third way to live as a follower of Jesus… through the removal of our sin by God’s grace through faith, through the restructuring of our heart from the inside out, and through a whole reversal of values.
In this article, I’d like for us to take what we’re seeing in the SOTM and consider the events of the last few months by asking the question, “What is God trying to say to His Church in this season?
Here’s an overview:
- Over the years, I have found Nehemiah’s response to crisis to demonstrate an appropriate and godly pattern of engagement – and I’d like for us to look at the highlights of that today.
- I also want to begin to provide some specific action steps for us to take in the coming days, weeks, months, and years. I have also begun a list of resources on our church’s website blog…
- I also want to share two defining moments in my life – as a man, as a follower of Jesus, and as a pastor. Both of these defining moments happened when I was the permanent pastor of a church – one in the late 1980s and the other one in the early 1990s. I will share the first upfront and I’ll share the second one at the conclusion.
In the early 90s, I became involved in a 2-year racial reconciliation group for pastors from across our city that was facilitated by Spencer Perkins (the son of John Perkins) and an Anglo man named Chris Rice (Spencer’s family and Chris’ family lived in community under the same roof). In our pastor’s group, there were Anglo, Latino, African American, and a Japanese American…
That 2-year time period became, in itself, a defining moment for me but two specific occasions were particularly impacting…
One of the African American pastors grew-up on the East Coast (S.C. I believe) and the other one grew up on the West Coast (L.A. area). Both of these pastors grew-up in Christian homes. Here’s what both of them believed growing up: They did not believe that white people could be Christians because of the way they treated black people. That moment took my breath away and opened the door for me to begin to see the effects of institutionalized and systemic racism and the cocoon of white privilege.
The other profound moment came on Oct 3, 1995, the day O.J. Simpson was acquitted for the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. Do you know what my first thought was when I heard the verdict? This is the tiniest glimpse of the repeated injustice that African Americans have been subjected to in this country – for centuries!
These two related experiences were moments of profound clarity for me that grew in me a heart for reconciliation that has only become more and more impassioned over time.
The horrific video of George Floyd being murdered on a street in Minneapolis MN is, I believe, symbolic of the United States of America having our collective knee on the necks of not only African Americans, but Native Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian American people in this country.
Institutional, Systemic Racism is a gruesome and undeniable stain on our national conscience – and I believe we need to own it as Americans.
White Privilege doesn’t mean that the average white person hasn’t needed to work hard for what we have attained; White Privilege means that us white folks have, generally speaking, have (present tense) greater access to power and resources than people of color [in our same situation] do.
Let me speak in the “I.” The question for me is not, “Am I a racist?” I am a racist. I have it in me and on me by virtue of Institutional Racism, White Privilege, and my own insensitivities. And I have come to hate it. Here’s the question I must continue to ask myself: “Where am I still a racist?”
What I have just shared may be deeply uncomfortable for you. I get it. Let me take it a step further – I would like you to engage in some personal reflection, some reading, and some praying to locate yourself in this opportune moment in history. We have a grace disguised opportunity in our country as well as in the Church. None of us would have chosen to be here, but we are.
With that said, let’s look at what Nehemiah did in one of the most severe crisis moments in his lifetime…
I would like to look at Nehemiah 1 and list for you the specifics and priority of Nehemiah’s response…
V. 2 – Nehemiah inquired. We need to ask questions and we need to listen.
I have spoken with some non-white friends to inquire about how they are doing and to get their perspective and advice. In regard to asking questions and listening, one of my friends told me the greatest investment we can make is spending time. He said time is our most valuable resource and it takes time to really get to know someone. Taking time is not quick encounters to ease our guilty conscience but a commitment to building ongoing relationships with people who are different from us.
V. 4 – “I sat down and wept and mourned for days.” We see this same calling as the SOTM begins – to acknowledge our spiritual poverty and to mourn over our own sinful/selfish condition. We need to mourn (or grieve) over the current condition of our country. And this includes not only the racism but also the 117,000+ (as of 6/15) COVID deaths in the US and almost 428,000+ deaths around the world.
I want to introduce a biblical term that most of us have heard but perhaps have not understood. Lament. One-third of the Psalms (50) are categorized as “Songs of Lament.” Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations (it comes just after Jeremiah).
What does it mean to lament? Lament is a prayer (or prayers) that believers offer to a sovereign God when life doesn’t fit with what they know to be true about Him, or the coming of God’s promises seem to be woefully delayed.
Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord, will you forget me? Forever? How long must I take comfort in my soul having sorrow in my heart all the day?”
So, a prayer of lament is a prayer from a place of pain and complete honesty that leads to trust. One author said, without prayers of lament we tend to fall into one of two ditches — either the ditch of denial, everything’s fine, or the ditch of despair, I can’t do this.
In prayers of lament we take our sorrows to God and we talk to Him about them.
V. 6 – “Me and my father’s house have sinned.” I hope you see what’s happening here. Nehemiah is taking on and owning the sins of his forefathers. I believe we must do the same.
The Church as a whole has failed miserably in the areas of justice that include race, sexism, conflict resolution and reconciliation, and immigrant care.
One of the core beliefs and practices of VitalChurch Ministry is the perspective that corporate (or, all church) renewal begins with personal renewal, and personal renewal begins with each one of us owning our own issues. (If we’re honest, we’re much better at owning other people’s issues.)
Here is a succinct review of what we see, not only in the first chapter of Nehemiah but in the whole book…
- Nehemiah listened
- Nehemiah learned (he took four months to pray, fast, and to plan)
- Nehemiah lamented
- Nehemiah loved (Not only did Nehemiah lead in the rebuilding of the walls of desolate Jerusalem but he also helped to lead a spiritual renewal, along with Ezra, after the wall was completed – all because of a deep love for God and the Jewish people returning from exile.
I want to invite you into that space. God has been up to something since the pandemic began. As I said earlier, the SOTM is about the removal of our sin through admitting our spiritual poverty and receiving God’s grace through faith, it’s about a restructuring of our heart (individually and collectively) from the inside out, and a whole reversal of values.
There’s been a lot of fluff in the Christian Church in America. The easy believeism, the me-centered choruses, the lack of doctrinal sermons, and the lack of integrity, which the culture has noticed (is noticing?) and we have been pushed back out to the margins of society. The good news, of course, is that the Bible was written to people who resided out on the margins.
My second defining moment that shaped me as a man, a Jesus follower, and as a pastor will, I hope, will sum-up much of what I’ve been trying to say. (I hope this is the beginning of a church-wide dialogue.)
It was the late 1980’s and I was pastoring the same church I spoke of earlier and the AIDS Epidemic was in full-swing and I decided to take a class from the Gay and Lesbian Task Force on caring for AIDS patients. My mother was a Hospice Nurse, so I grew up in an environment of care and compassion.
As one might imagine, when the two guys who were teaching the class found out I was a pastor it caused a bit of a stir and I ended up staying late after a few sessions to talk about God, Gays, and the care of AIDS patients.
Here’s something I learned from them… It involves the difference between sympathy and empathy – and for the sake of time, I’ll condense several conversations into learnings…sympathy says, “I am SO sorry!” Sympathy says, “I will certainly pray for you.” Or, sympathy will write a check. Those are good, awesome, and appropriate responses.
Empathy, on the other hand, says “WE have a problem and what are WE going to do about it?” Empathy is shoulder to shoulder.
My defining moment happened when I clearly made a distinction between sympathy and empathy – and how both are necessary in their own time and in their own way, yet they are distinctive. And then these two guys told me something that broke my heart…They told me that, while they had both received sympathy from the Church, they had never received empathy.
Friends, it’s shoulder-to-shoulder time. We have work to do. Let’s start a conversation that leads to action. And I hope you see that I’m not just talking about sexual identity issues regarding sympathy and empathy. I’m also talking about racism, sexism, and immigrant issues – reconciliation of all kinds that is rooted in the gospel.
To be rooted in the gospel means that Jesus Christ, the Great Reconciler, is our greatest hope and boast, our deepest longing and delight, and our most passionate song and message. To be rooted in the gospel means that the good news of God’s empowering grace is what defines us as Christians, unites us as brothers and sisters, changes us as both sinners and saints, and sends us as God’s people on mission. When we are rooted in the gospel, the gospel is exalted above every other good thing in our lives and triumphs over every bad thing set against it.
Read through the Bible verses addressing ethnicity as well as the definitions of racism and white privilege on the blog.
- After reading through the verses is there one or two that stand out to you? Why?
- After reading the definitions of racism and white privilege, what stands out to you that you either may have not thought about for a while or that you are seeing for the first time?
- Just like there are sins of both commission and omission, do you think there could be both explicit as well as implicit racism ingrained in American culture? How about ingrained in the Evangelical Church?
- What does it mean to be “rooted in the gospel”?
- In considering Nehemiah’s response to crisis (1:2-6), he listened, he learned, he lamented (and repented), and he loved. Which of these responses do you feel are strengths in your life and which ones would you identify as weak?
- In considering the difference between sympathy and empathy, where do we need to grow as a church? Where do you need to grow?
- Do you have specific thoughts of what God is seeking to say to the Church during this COVID and Racial Injustice Protest moment?
 Mark Vroegop. Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament, Crossway 2019.