My Journey to Civil Rights Alabama…

There are places in the world that are of significant importance in terms of the events that have happened in those places and the impact said events have had on a world scale afterwards. Perhaps one would think of Auschwitz in Poland as such a place, or Ground Zero in New York City. These are examples of places where significant human suffering happened. They are also examples of places in which, in the face of human suffering, humanity appeared to ultimately unite in order to recover well and subsequently find a new way forward, making the world a better place.

This week I have found myself in a series of such places.

The State of Alabama (U.S.A.) is home to three places that are, in my opinion, three of the most significant sites in the world in terms of the importance of the events that took place in them, and also in terms of the ripples of impact that spread across the world, ripples that were generated by these events. These three places are Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma.

During the last week, as part of my studies with Wesley Theological Seminary, I have had the opportunity to take a class/make a pilgrimage to these sites in order to study the stories and legacy of the American Civil Rights movement. In the following paragraphs, I would like to offer some of the primary reflections I noted as my week there progressed.

1. Human beings in so called civil societies possess the ability to treat horrendously their fellow humans.

I knew this already. Having grown up in Northern Ireland, where hearing stories of abhorrent acts of violence between humans was a normal part of daily life, I absolutely knew just how badly we can treat one another. But this last week it was impressed on me again as I heard the stories of lynchings, the general de-humanizing and mistreatment of African Americans, the bombing of 16th Avenue Baptist Church in which four little girls had their lives robbed from them, and the brutality with which local law enforcement beat and trampled the black people of Selma as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Recently, I find myself grieving the violence that humans inflict on one another. As I watched the movie Dunkirk, I could not help but grieve what humans do to each other. As I moved through Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, I felt exactly the same. I was just so deeply saddened by the human ability to cheapen life and see it as something that is expendable in the name of a cause or ideology. The Declaration of Independence states:

…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

How can it be that in a nation founded on such truths; a civilized nation, such abhorrent treatment of human beings could be allowed to take place?

Human life is precious.
Even when human life exists in the most depraved and cruel human beings, it is still precious.
Humans are created in the image of God. Therefore, human life is absolutely precious and should ALWAYS be highly valued.

2. “What will I be willing to die for?”

This question came back again and again as the week went on. In each site we visited we were told of attacks upon the African American people; attacks which, in some cases, led to terrible human loss. For example, in the 16th Street Baptist bombing, 4 little girls lost their lives. In Selma blood was shed as marchers absorbed the violence of the authorities. On Christmas Day in 1956, Fred Shuttlesworth’s parsonage was bombed (an attack which Rev. Shuttlesworth survived). Although each attack brought its own pain, and inflicted unimaginable suffering upon families and entire communities, the pain and suffering seemed to be that which galvanised these communities to take their next faithful steps to freedom. Rev. Shuttlesworth recognized that in the fight for freedom, “Somebody may have to die.” and proved himself willing to take the hits which came his way again and again and again.

As I reflected on this thought with my classmates, I could not help but ask myself what it is that I am willing to die for? What is it that I am willing to go all the way for? What cause or situation will I willingly bear pain for?

In churches across the world, privileged, well-off Christians like me sing the old refrain, “I surrender all” with passion and gusto. We kneel in submission to God at the alter rails of our churches, symbolizing our willingness to go all the way for Christ. But are we really willing to submit and surrender? Am I really willing to take up my cross and join Christ in his sufferings for the sake of the Kingdom; for the sake of my suffering fellow humans in the world? If I am honest, I can say that in my head and in my heart, I absolutely WANT to be willing to follow Christ all the way into the world, but will my desire to follow Christ prove substantial if it ever begins to cost me physically? Shuttlesworth, Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, and many un-named and not so famous members of the African America community made a choice and declared that their personal freedom and the freedom of their people was important enough that it was worth suffering for; worth deliberately putting themselves in harms way agains and again and again for. Their courage, faith, and rugged determination is not only admirable, but also enviable.

As I got to the end of the week I had found myself reflecting on the fact that Dr. King and his peers had sold themselves out to a philosophy, and sold themselves out to a vision. Completely. They had a goal to move towards and they resolutely set out towards the fulfilling of that goal.

What are your goals?
What philosophy are you sold out to?
What are my goals?
What philosophy am I sold out to?
What is my cause?
What I am willing to suffer for it?

I personify the idea of privilege in life. I have never wanted for anything. I have never been looked down upon because of the color of my skin. I have never been discriminated against because of my gender or sexuality. I have never been so poor that I do not know where I will get my next meal. I am an immigrant, but I am a white, English-speaking immigrant, so I have never experienced any kind of maltreatment as other immigrants do. I have never experienced suffering personally, or among my people group, that would have put me in a position to have to fight for freedom or for legally protected rights that were being with withheld from me.

I, too, sing that refrain, “I surrender all” but would I really be willing to? This alone was the most massive challenge of my week: I am called to not only sing, “I surrender all,” but to live it out. My sincere prayer is that my willingness to surrender all will only increase from this point forward.

3. Civil Rights leaders were young.

Martin Luther King was only 24 years old when he was appointed as the Senior Pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. He already had achieved his doctoral degree by this time, and he would go on to spend the next 15 years at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement before his untimely death in 1968. Fred Shuttlesworth was 31 when he became the Pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham and spent 8 years there at the forefront of the Civil Rights struggle in America’s south, before moving to Ohio (Incidentally, Shuttleworth remained in close contact and regularly flew back to meetings with the movement leaders in Birmingham).

My point is that these were not leaders who had served their time in a system which would eventually reward them with esteemed positions of leadership. They were young men who were willing to step out in front and lead their people in the march towards freedom. They preached with authority. They kept their eyes on the prize, and kept moving forward towards it.

As I stated, Dr. King came to the fore at 24 years of age, and his life was ended prematurely at the age of 39. He had 15 years.

15 years.

I had never really thought about that until this week, and, even though I myself have just turned 39, I could not help but ask myself this: As a still relatively young leader in the Christian faith, if I had only 15 more years to live and lead, what would I be determined to achieve in that time frame? Again, the question has to be asked – what am I sold out to, and what am I willing to suffer for?

4. The march towards freedom must continue.

American society has come a long way since the Civil Rights movement of the mid 20th century. Many of the specific struggles of the 1950’s and 60’s may no longer appear to be the primary struggles of the Civil Rights movement. However, the reality is that while some landmark achievements were indeed made, there is still much work to be done in order to right some of the wrongs that continue to exist in America. This was so clear to me as I walked through Kelly Ingram park, across the street from 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The park is designed as a memorial of the hardest days of the Civil Rights struggle in Birmingham, and celebrates the end of segregation in the south. As I walked through the park, I saw several homeless people asleep in the park. In seeing them both, I could not help but remember that the march to freedom that we had been learning about all week is far from over. Economic Inequality, educational underachievement among working class minority communities, discrimination in the work place, gender inequality and the general effects of relative poverty are still all stark realities in the United States. The work of the Civil Rights movement is not finished and must continue, and the church can absolutely play an important part in that.

5. Size doesn’t matter.

Before this last week, the dominant image, in my mind, of the US Civil Rights was always the image of Dr. King speaking and preaching at mass meetings at which vast crowds had gathered. My impression was that it was his celebrity that drew crowds, and that the currency of the movement was the size of the crowds. However, the reality is that much of the work of the Civil Rights movement was lead and made real in little churches. The church was at the center of the movement, because the church still had pride of place at the center of African American communities. The churches we visited last week were not large churches. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church only ever had a couple of hundred members at it’s height. Brown Chapel AME had a similar number in it’s congregation.

Often, in our culture, we can be guilty of assuming that the power to achieve great things only lies with churches or groups that are well resourced, but the evidence of the Civil Rights Movement tells a different story. The evidence of the Civil Rights Movement of 1950’s and 60’s American suggests that where there is a people who are motivated and united; where there is a people who are led diligently by focussed, informed, organized and dedicated leaders, great and significant things can be achieved. Success and the achievement of goals is not limited to large and seemingly influential groups. Any body of people can achieve their goals if they are sold out to the vision, led ably, and are willing to stand together in unity. Size does not matter.

6. Leadership matters.

This, also, is a well known truth, and I have already made several references to it throughout this piece. The Civil Rights Movement shows that leadership absolutely matters. Without Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King & Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson, Diane Nash, etc, the movement would not have had the widespread impact that it ultimately did have. These leaders were captivated by a vision of freedom, they were willing to suffer in order to win this freedom, they were committed to leading non violently, and they were united.

____________________________

The Civil Rights Movement was without doubt one of the most, if not the most significant civilian movement of the 20th century. The ripples of its impact spread far and wide throughout the world, and they continue to do so. I have been inspired by the example of strong and focussed leadership, the willingness to suffer and pay a price for a cause, and the ability to influence and bring about change through non-violent means.

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5 Loaves + 2 Fish = 1 Miraculous Meal (6:1-15)

5loaves

This story will be familiar to anyone who is at all conversant with the gospels of Jesus Christ. It is one of the few stories that makes it in to each of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’s accounts. It is also probably on every single children’s Sunday School curriculum that is out there. I can certainly remember learning about this event in the life of Jesus, and I can remember often singing a Children’s song about it in Sunday School too.

What can you say about a passage that is so familiar?

A lot.

Seriously. There is so much in here – something to write about in almost every little detail. We can blame John for that – so skilled is he and so focussed on getting the message across that no words seem to be wasted by him. I can’t comment on everything – it would take too long – but there are a couple of things that I want to point out as important.

The first thing is the ‘when’ of this event. Verse 4 informs the reader that this miracle (and the remainder of this chapter) is taking place close to the Jewish festival of Passover. Now the observant among you will notice that this is not the first time that John has highlighted Jesus’ activities around the time of Passover (and it is not the last time either.) In chapter 2 you might remember that Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover and on that occasion he literally flipped tables and chased traders out of the Temple Courts. Now here we are four chapters later and John is again highlighting what Jesus is up to around Passover. Could it be that John is doing this on purpose? This is likely the case – remember, John does not waste words, and as N. T. Wright says, in John’s Gospel “nothing is there by accident.”

So what might his purpose be? To get to that we must first remind ourselves just what Passover is! At Passover the Jewish people commemorated God’s rescue of their ancestors from the slavery of life in Egypt – the most significant turning point in the life of their people. The Passover feast was the most important time of year for people of this particular tradition – a time to remember God’s liberating work among them. In chapter two Jesus turned tables and chased traders from the Temple as an announcement of God’s new work of liberation – seeking to liberate the sacred temple space from the clutches of commercialism. Later in chapter 6 Jesus will announce that he is the bread of life who has come to announce and enact God’s new work of liberation for all people all people. The Passover setting, for N. T. Wright, seems to be noted by John in an attempt to have his audience connect to this time in their history. Wright puts it this way:

“So when he draws our attention to the fact that the extraordinary feeding of the crowds took place at Passover time, he is clearly hoping that we will connect it in our minds both with the Passover itself – the time when God liberated the children of Israel from Egypt, and led them through the wilderness to the promised Land – and with the other Passover events in the gospel, that is, the ‘cleansing of the Temple’ on one hand, and the resurrection of Jesus on the other.”

John wants us to put it all together that Jesus is the embodiment of the ongoing work of God to bring redemption, renewal and liberation to all people. In the same way that God led the Israelite people out of their slavery in Egypt to new life in the promised land, God is again at work to bring new life to all people.

Having set this scene close to Passover John then goes on to tell the rest of the story, which I would guess most of us are familiar with. Jesus takes his disciples aside to teach them and a crowd has followed them. The crowd are hungry and Jesus is wondering what they are all going to do about food. He asks Philip, who seems to be blown away by the magnitude of the task that it would be to feed all these people (there are 5000 of them at least). Andrew rolls up with a little boy who has five loaves and two fish. Jesus gives thanks for the food and has it distributed out to all who were seated in the crowd. Then, so as not to be wasteful, Jesus invites his disciples to go clean up after the meal and they gather 12 baskets of leftover food.

I could write a lot more trying to explain what happened in there – but I am not going to. I am going to leave this miracle story hanging in the air and ask you to think about it yourself and see what answers you might come up with by way of explanation for what happened there that day. How did 5 loaves and 2 fish turn into enough food for 5000 people?

Where I want to go is to the last 2 verses of this section:

“After the people saw the sign Jesus performed they began to say, “Surely this is the prophet who is to come into the world. Jesus knowing that they intended to come and make him King by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”

I want to offer a comment on these verses because I think that they reveal a universal truth about humans – we are always looking for the one who will lead us out of our own slavery and into a new land of promise. For Israel, Moses had been the one to lead the Hebrew people to their promised land. Ultimately, after that, Israel could not live with the idea that God would be their king and that prophets would speak for God – they wanted their own King, and that is what they got. Kings Saul, David and Solomon and many more after them some of whom were righteous leaders and some of whom were tyrannical. This hunger for a leader to lead the people into a new and better life is still the reality for the human race whether it is Martin Luther King leading the march for Civil Rights in the 1950’s and 1960’s or Donald Trump seeking election this very year based on a promise to make America great again. Human beings continue to look for the leader who will ride in on the proverbial white horse and fix things so that they are better for people.

The situation was no different for 1st century Jews. They wanted the Chosen one of God to come and rescue them, to take the throne in their land and rule them in the way they wanted and needed to be ruled.

After Jesus had performed this ‘sign’ before them it was not long until the crowd were beginning to talk to each other and state that this Jesus must surely be the Prophet they were waiting for – the one who would ride in and lead them. Jesus then made a run for it. He got out of there because he sensed that they were about to “make him King by force.” You see a political king is not the king that Jesus came to be. The work of God is not a political work – it transcends politics. Jesus is not here to over throw a political regime so that one group of people can again lord it over another and have the life they want. No, Jesus came to enact a completely new work of God in which liberation would be offered to all people. His work would establish a Kingdom, but it would have no political or geographical boundaries. His work would ultimately be a work which would invite every single human being on earth to join in on the resurrection life, a life where death loses its sting! His work is a work which would bring change not because political governance has changed, but because people are being changed from the inside out. His work will be to offer living water which when drank will become a spring within humans which will well up into eternal life. his work is a work which invites every human being to be born again and to live a completely new life shaped by his ways, his power and his grace. He had to get out of there because he knew that these people were not yet ready for the work that he had come to do.

Are we still looking for the knight in shining armor who will come and fix this broken world?

Or are we willing to read this good news of John’s gospel (with a full 2000 years of history and learning and 2020 vision as to it’s ultimate meaning) and find the king of all kings who has come so that all people, people just like you and me, can experience the new birth, and make the transition from living a life with Jesus for all eternity.

He is the Chosen one of God.
Light is shining in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
The Word has become flesh and pitched its tent among us.
We can be born again.
We can drink from living water and witness that spring welling up into eternal life.

It is time for us to receive that fully and allow it to help us come alive fully.

Do you want to get well? (5:1-15)

jerusalem_presentation05In this section there are two major things taking place which are worthy of comment – the healing which Jesus brings to the man by the pool, and the subsequent reaction of the Jewish leaders.

Before talking about the healing itself it is important to understand just where this event was taking place. The Pool at Bethesda was a place which had a reputation for having healing qualities. From time to time the waters of the pool would bubble up and the local belief was that the first person to get into the bubbling water would be healed of their ailment. This was a pool where Jewish people gathered for healing. It was also a place where pagan people gathered in the hope of healing. This pool was recognized as a sacred place by many traditions at the time.

At the pool Jesus encounters a man who has suffered from his ailment for 38 years. Jesus has a very simple question for him: Do you want to get well? It seems like a silly question doesn’t it? In one sense you would imagine that the man would be extremely eager to get well – he has been bound with this ailment for so long surely he wants to be free of it, right? On the other hand though, he has been in this situation for 38 years and there is the strong possibility that he has become used to the life that he lives, and the idea of change is more of a threat to him than an opportunity at this time, after all no one really likes change – even when it is for the better. In response to the question the sick man responds by stating that he does indeed want to get well, but each time the pool water is stirred and bubbling someone else makes it into the pool before he does because he has no one to help him. Jesus abruptly responds to him by telling him to get up, take his mat and walk. Immediately he was healed, he took his mat, and he walked.

Just. Like. That.

The sick man, by the word of Jesus, is invited to stand up and walk in a new direction. Not only is his body now able to function properly, but this healing opens up to him a world of new opportunity. He no longer needs to sit by this pool at Bethesda and wait for healing. He no longer is dependent on the help and generosity of others. He is able to stand up and walk into a brand new life so completely different from the old one. Where he was bound and restrained by illness in the old life, he is now free to move. Where he was resigned to scraping his way through life on the generosity of others, he now has the potential to work and create and even be generous to others who might find themselves having to remain by the pool. His old life has gone and his new life is just beginning.

Old life gone.

New life beginning.

Is that ringing any bells with you in regard to what John has been talking about all the way through the first 4 chapters of his gospel? Can you make the connection? Jesus is not simply healing this man so that he can come back to the pool the next day and keep on living life the way he was living it before this encounter. Jesus is removing the shackles of illness and injury in order to give this man the opportunity to live a completely new life. When Jesus heals it is not just business as usual afterwards for this man. When Jesus heals it is an invitation for him to go and live a new life. This is the over-arching message of John’s writing: The light has come and shines in the darkness; the Chosen one of God has come so that all may find this new life and walk in it. Jesus is here to announce and enact the fresh work of God in the world and he is doing that in acts like this one.

It is great news.

There is one problem though: Jesus performed this particular healing, and invited this man to get up and carry his mat on the Sabbath.

In the creation narratives of the Jewish Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) God worked for 6 days to create the world and on the 7th day God rested. In response to God’s rhythm of work and rest good lawful Jews would operate in a similar way – they would work for six days and then religiously observe sabbath, a day in which no work would be done. Much thought had gone into the careful defining of ‘work’ and lawful Jews would know exactly what constituted work and what did not. Carrying your mat on the Sabbath was definitely work.

Jesus, it would appear, had deliberately instructed the healed man to break the sabbath rules by telling him to carry his mat. And this did not go unnoticed. The Jewish leaders confronted the man and reminded him what day of the week it was and that he was not lawfully allowed to carry his mat. The healed man told them what had just happened and that the the one who had healed him told him to get up and carry his mat.

When I read this text there is huge part of me that wants to take the Jewish leaders aside and give them a good shake. The awe-struck, signs and wonders obsessed side of me wants to ask these guys how on earth it is that they can encounter a man who has been physically healed after 38 years of chronic disability and their only response be to comment on the day of the week that it took place. To me, theirs is an exercise in completely and utterly missing the point. The man has just been physically healed for goodness sake!

But I am not a first century, law observing Jew. Whether I like it or not, the fact that this took place on the Sabbath was important to this group of leaders.

It is also important in this story because John is emphasizing his main point again: Jesus has come to bring light into the darkness and to announce and enact the fresh new work of God.

Think about it.

Jesus knows exactly what he is doing here. He knows it is the sabbath and he knows what is lawful and what is not lawful. Did Jesus have to heal this man on this particular day? No way! The man has been like this for 38 years – one more day is not going to make that much of a difference. Jesus could have come back the next day and healed this man and there would have been nothing more said by the religious leaders of the time. But Jesus’ actions were not simply about making a sick man well. They were about making a bigger point – that God is doing God’s new work, a work that these Jewish leaders and their ancestors before them had been waiting for. Unfortunately these guys could not see who Jesus was (the Truel Light/God’s chosen one), and the words of John’s prologue in chapter one were being lived out: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11)

When I consider this I can’t help but ask the question of myself and of you who read this: Is there anything that I/you am/are holding on to, which is blinding me to the work of God and blocking me from embracing and joining in with that work of God? If there is then the question rising out of this passage is very simple: Out of the characters in this story, who do I/you want to be more like?

Do we want to be like the sick man who is given the gift of new life? Or do we want to be like the religious leaders of the time, who were so fixated on rules and regulations that they could not accept or fathom a God who might be doing God’s new work in a new way which took no real notice of the laws and boundaries that had been put in place by human minds?

I know which one I want to be.

How about you?

Why I am Not Praying For Brussels…

Brussels HeartI awoke this morning to the all too familiar tone of BBC’s Radio 5’s Adrain Chiles.  He has a familiar manner and accent on the radio and is easy to spot, but today as I awoke, there was that other tone in his voice.  It is a tone of lament and shock that is heard only when a radio news host is sharing something tragic over the airwaves.  Today, Chiles was describing the events that have taken place in Brussels, where two explosions have happened at an airport and on a train.  So far the death count stands at “at least 31.”  Who knows where it will end.

Awaking to such news and atrocity still bears a shock factor.  Even though I grew up in a country where people seemed happy to plant bombs and cause mayhem and chaos every day; where daily the radio and TV news seemed to tell the story of another explosion/shooting/loss of life, there is still a shock factor when news filters through that something has happened in the world.  I suppose that even though it keeps happening, there is still a disbelief, within me, that in this day and age people still think that this is an effective way to get your message across.  I know that evil exists, and that maniacs still do their thing…but in some way I still relentlessly hope that lessons might have been learned after the last time, and that such atrocious and horrendous violence might become no more…

So what do I do with it all?  What do we do with it all?

What are others doing?  In the Facebook age, the immediate response, which brings out the low level activist in us all, is to post a #PrayerforBrussels with an appropriate image like the one above. I have done this same thing on many occasions in the past, and I applaud it, but today I am hesitant to respond in that way.

Before you judge me and accuse me of godless heresy, hear me out.  The title of this post might lead you to think that I am simply not praying for the people of Brussels, but this is not the case. It is not that I am not praying for the peace and comfort of the people of Brussels who are experiencing the onset of the deepest pain and darkness that they will experience ever. I completely am in prayer for those people who have lost loved ones, or who are now having to consider what life will be like in the aftermath of an event like this.  I am praying that they will know the presence of the God of all comfort, and that through the dark clouds of grief, they will see and experience light and hope enough to bring them through.

When I say that I am not praying for Brussels, I am trying to say that “praying for Brussels” is not actually the answer.  For me, simply “praying for Brussels” (or Ankara, or Paris, or New York, or anywhere else that has been visited with the atrocity of terrorism) is to pray that the city and the community will merely recover and find its way back to the place that it was in immediately before explosions exploded and shots were fired.

But that is not my prayer for any of these places.

You see, I don’t think that merely praying for a restoration of things as they were is the answer.

My deep, honest to God prayer is that complete and utter transformation will take place in the hearts and minds of terrorists throughout the world, so that they will no longer see an enemy as one to be blown up or shot at, but rather as one who must be lived alongside in the world.  My prayer is that the people who have experienced the greatest of losses to acts of terror will also experience a complete transformation of heart and mind; a transformation that will heal them of the pain of their loss, lead them on a journey of forgiveness and reconciliation.  My prayer is that in the midst of the darkest times in the life of a city that God’s kingdom will come and that complete transformation will take place.  My prayer is that swords will be turned into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks.  

 

The answer to what has happened in Brussels is not more destruction.

The answer to what has happened in Brussels is not revenge.

The answer to what has happened in Brussels is not the mere restoration of things as they were.

The answer to what has happened in Brussels is not more of the same.

The answer to what has happened in Brussels is the way of Christ and the kingdom of God.  It is the way of love for enemies.  It is the way of turning the other cheek in the name of peace; in the name of saying to aggressors and terrorists that there is nothing that they can do, which can remove any of that which God has done; there is not act of violent tyranny or oppression of a people that can remove the hope and light of divine love.

So I am not praying for Brussels.  Rather, I am praying earnestly, and maybe even ferociously, that the Kingdom of God will be the present reality in Brussels, Ankara, Paris, New York, London, Belfast, Dublin, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino… in this world, and that the hearts of those who are hurting, and even those who brought about the hurting, would be completely turned over to the way of Divine love, where healing and restoration can flourish, and all fear can be diminished.

Shalom.