Recently, I attended the MLK50 conference in Memphis, TN. I was happy to go and looked forward to learning more about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as how the gospel informs and empowers us to be, as Tim Keller says, “just persons.”That is, those changed by the gospel should be persons of justice, particularly in reference to racial issues. In God’s secret and gracious providence, and and unbeknownst to me, he wanted me to attend this conference where he would expose some serious deficiencies (read sin) in my heart.
Candidly, I was spiritually unprepared for much of what was shared, both in keynote addresses, breakouts, and short testimonials. When I say “spiritually unprepared,” I’m specifically referring to the nature of my heart. The heart is the place where our choices, intentions, and feelings come from. There were many times where I affirmed the speaker’s words with a hearty amen or looked to several friends and stated, “wow.” The “wow” was in regards to a statement that dripped with such gospel clarity and power that it was almost stunning. And yet, disappointingly, there were many times when irritation sprang from my heart and even, at times, dismissiveness.
Why did this happen? What was going on and, still goes on, within me? Let me share several reasons why I believe I reacted the way I did during the conference.
I failed to see the reality of spiritual warfare.
I failed to keep in mind the reality of Ephesians 6:12, where Paul writes, “for we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against rules, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” A good friend reminded me earlier this year that our struggle is not against one another but against a very real demonic presence and power that seeks to bring disunity, bitterness, and chaos. Spiritual warfare is alive and well. He wants to wage war on this front. We see this rooted in the truth of Genesis 3 where the root of enmity and relational and ethnic tension is found. We see it in the very next chapter where Cain murders Abel; the downfall of humanity failing to see one another as created in God’s image is frightening. Today, as image bearers fail to see the beauty and awesomeness of God’s image in one another in our racial distinction the same insidious scheme of the devil is palpable.
My irritation and dismissiveness were playing a part in giving “ground” to the devil, as I was choosing not to see the urgency and seriousness of the issue at hand. In doing so, I was not only failing to love my neighbor, but it necessarily meant that I was not loving God with the totality of my being. Love is always action-oriented; it is never passive.
1. Tim Keller, General Justice: How God’s Grace Makes us Just (New York: Dutton, 2010), 17
Don’t let geographical context dictate or determine engagement.
Second, I live in Phoenix, AZ. Specifically, I live in a town called Ahwatukee. In my time here I have heard numerous times people refer to Ahwatukee as “all-white-tu-kee.” This is an unfortunate, wrong, and unhelpful phrase to say the least. Though the issue of racial reconciliation and inequality is certainly prevalent in Phoenix, I live in a fairly monolithic part of the city. Currently, the Ahwatukee suburb of Phoenix is more than 80% Caucasian. The racial issue is a national issue, but it doesn’t feel like a local issue. It’s simply not as conspicuous in the issues I deal with week-in-and-week-out as a pastor. And yet, members of my church sometimes weigh in on racial issues, particularly on social media. In fact, Christians in my context have been guilty of making comments and sharing illustrations that are not only unloving but are racist and prejudicial. So what am I to do? Part of my role as a pastor is specified in Ephesians 4:12, where Paul writes, “equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Therefore, by God’s grace I lovingly point out the absence of love and remind them that our manner of life is to be worthy of the gospel of Christ (Phil. 1:27). I call them to repent of words, actions, feelings, thoughts, intentions, and choices that are unbecoming of a Christ-follower.
Pray for a compassionate heart.
I simply lacked compassion for the issue of racial reconciliation and inequality. Paul tells us in Colossians 3:12, “put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts…” I realized I did not have the sympathy, the care, and the concern for the issues like I was called to have. I was guilty of saying in my heart, “Can we move on?”, “I’m tired of talking about this.” But in God’s kindness, he pricked my conscience. The Spirit prompted me to spend some time evaluating my thoughts, choices, and feelings. In so doing, the ungodliness in my heart was exposed. That Wednesday morning prior to the conference, I spent some time repenting of my lack of compassion and asked God to help me see the issue as He does; as my black brothers and sisters do, as well as many of my white brothers and sisters. I asked God to help me “put on a compassionate heart.”
Without a mindfulness of spiritual warfare, the insulating and blinding effect of my local context, and not putting on a compassionate heart I can too easily slip back into a posture where I am not sensitive to the issues God calls me to be sensitive about. I am thankful to God for other brothers and sisters who are gifted in truthfully, courageously, winsomely, unapologetically and biblically speaking to the ever-present and volatile issue of race and how the church should respond. This post, however, was simply a description of where my heart was and where, by God’s grace, I want my heart to move. I pray it was helpful. May the Lord continue to give me ears to hear and eyes to see as I seek to learn how to think about all things, including race and racism, from a God-centered worldview.