Here I Raise My Ebenezer

There is a lot of fun history in our city. On a corner downtown, sits Sun Records where the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry lee Lewis, and, of course, Elvis got their start. Walk on through Beale Street where neon lights and live music fill the air any given night. Splash around with the Peabody ducks, who nabbed some name dropping on this season’s breakout TV show “This Is Us.” All of these places are fun to visit and, while there, you can take some totally boss, smiley selfies with your travel mates. Every city has landmarks that collectively tell the story of that place. With any given city, though, the fun places don’t tell the whole story.

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Some cities like Memphis, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, have some very different attractions. Attractions that most never learn about in school. In these places you will find monuments, memorials, and museums documenting the history of the mid-century American civil rights movement. The story of this movement paints the walls of these places with a mosaic of emotions. At these sites, you might see a picture, a plaque, or a statue of unimaginable violence next to a visage of great victory and freedom. In the shadows of the grave markers of children, resides generations inspired by their innocence, courage, and sacrifice.

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At the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Arkansas river in Selma, stands several monuments paying respect to a collection of the prominent figures that crossed that bridge in the marches from Selma to Montgomery. These marchers were protesting unfair voting laws across the south. Next to those monuments is an Ebenezer, a pile of large stones, an image pulled from the Bible to mark significant events in the history of God’s people. These markers help God’s people remember the story of that place, the good and the bad. Why did God think it necessary to mark our journeys with these monuments?

First of all, these landmarks help us remember. Throughout the Bible, God continuously reminds his people who he is. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, the great I Am, the Lord of all, the deliverer of God’s people out of Egypt, the creator of all things, our Father, our King, our Shepherd, and on and on, are all images God recalls for our benefit. God establishes his credibility with us by recalling the great victories and freedom he has delivered and the intense evils he has delivered us from. We need to remember these things especially in times of darkness, when we feel farthest from God, and prone to disbelief. God answers those feelings by reminding us where we’ve been.

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Secondly, these memorials act as a mirror bringing us face to face with the realities of our story. Our country was established with a broken system, one that denied the humanity of certain people. These are systems, though they have been battled, that we still feel today. Some would say we live in a post-racial society, that the images featured on the walls of these museums are from the distant past, that we’ve moved on, and we all experience equality.

But then we hear the cries white nationalists for a return to segregation, already very segregated worship services, the right to vote being challenged in certain states, racial slurs scribbled across the home of one of the world’s most prominent athletes, nooses being left at the National African American Museum, and so on and so on and you wonder have we really moved on? In some ways, yes, in others, no, but these mirror images from today and yesterday help to remind us of the work that has been done and the work still unfinished.

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The monuments, memorials, and museums of the civil rights movement are not always fun places to visit. Taking selfies might be the last thing on your mind. The truth of America’s history of oppression is hard to experience in any form. The mixture of emotions one might move through while reliving these sites takes a toll. It is exhausting, but imagine how exhausting it must be to live through it every day. The long-lasting effects created by the systematic and cultural traditions present in America’s foundation have great influence on the livelihood of many people even today. If we don’t maintain and visit these Ebenezers, will we ever remember to change? If we hear the Lord cry out for justice, and ignore it are we not the people James is talking to,

“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.”

Having hope that we are not doomed to repeat the ugliest chapters of our history begins with remembering the stories behind the landmarks.

Here I raise my Ebenezer

Here there by Thy great help I’ve come

And I hope, by Thy good pleasure

Safely to arrive at home

Jesus sought me when a stranger

Wandering from the fold of God

He, to rescue me from danger

Interposed His precious blood

Our Sunday Best

For some of us, church isn’t church without freshly pressed slacks, a necktie tied pinned with a gold chain, and shoes pristinely shined. For others, church is more like church as they feel a cool breeze through the knee hole in their jeans with their flip flops smacking and pattering announcing their entry. The term “Sunday Best” has a wide range of connotations across the tapestry of the body of Christ. As I reflect on my time touring the civil rights monuments of the American south, this term took on a whole new meaning. This new definition comes from a set of two pictures.

“And as long as I’ve got my suit and tie…all pressed up in black and white.” Justin Timberlake may have been trying to make the club a little classier with his 2013 hit “Suit & Tie” but long before one of Memphis’s favorite sons tried to bring it back, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sure was making it look good. It’s difficult to find a statue or picture of Dr. King in front of a crowd without his suit and tie. It was his suit of armor, a uniform of his vocation as a pastor, proof that whether he was behind the pulpit or in front a march, it was an act of worship.

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The fashion of the movement also became intertwined in the fabric of its protests. Downtown shopping districts in cities denying blacks their human rights relied on the profits of selling the freshest Sunday looks. In an act of protest, citizens of these cities would refrain from buying new church clothes to send a powerful blow to an economy that was supporting systems of oppression across the south. Church clothes became a way of communicating power. They, also, became a way of communicating that the cause of civil rights was a worthy one. Which leads us to the first picture.

Sprawled across the steps of the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, dozens of civil rights leaders the likes of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and many more stood tall adorned in crisp suits and dresses. Looking at the picture you might assume the group was about to turn around and enter the sanctuary for a vibrant holiday church service. In reality, this crowd was prepared for a date with a prison cell. They were turning themselves in to the police, a situation many of them were familiar with throughout the marches and protests that helped define the movement. They gladly went to jail for their rights and the rights of their sisters and brothers. This was an occasion that called for their Sunday best. It is a picture filled with dignity, honor, and hope. The second picture is a different story.

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“Daddy let me watch from his shoulders,” is etched across the sculpture of a fancy hat in a style you might see in an episode of Mad Men. The others in the collection feature similar sentiments. One hat boasts about being excused from school. Another describes packing a picnic. To the right of the hats are a series of screen printed ties. Printed on each one is a group of people decked out in their Sunday best. Hats, ties, smiling children on shoulders, and a fresh picnic packed with all the summer favorites, this is the second picture. As the art exhibit seen at the Rosa Parks Museum explains, this was a common scene at a lynching.

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Letters on the wall explain that the time between the decades prior to the turn of the 19th century and on through the late 60’s saw thousands of known lynchings. Black people were hung from trees, burned, beaten to death, etc. for charges such as talking to the wrong person, eating at the wrong restaurant, or trying to register to vote. As informal mobs brutalized human beings, thousands would gather to watch with smiles and laughter all while wearing their Sunday best. Isn’t it interesting that these spectators were covered by layers of fine clothing, but they stand in that crowd exposed for future generations to see? No amount of expensive material can hide evil from God’s sight.

Throughout church history, high priests and pastors often wore elaborate outfits for everything from holidays to your average Sunday. Some were prescribed by scripture like that of Old Testament temple priests. When it came time for Jesus to enter the scene, though, he saw that these ceremonial clothes had become a way of trying to hide the sins of the religious elites like the Pharisees. Looking at Matthew 23, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Not long after, Jesus was beaten, stripped naked, and hung upon what scripture often calls a tree. He became clothed in all of our darkness, guilt, and shame and died for our sins. Then he rose, conquering death and assuring that we would have access to eternal robes of righteousness.

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As I look at both of these pictures, I need to cling to the robes Jesus has wrapped me in. It was humans that stood in those lynching crowds with smiles on their faces. It was humans that hit children with high powered fire hoses and vicious dogs. It was humans that sent a pastor and a seamstress to prison for trying to live with dignity. Humans are capable of unspeakable evil even while wearing the nicest threads. I am human and the painful past of America is terrifying to me because it reminds me that I am capable of evil.

Fortunately, Jesus redefined our Sunday best and established his own high fashion. He sees our broken heart behind anything we try to cover it with and offers us his love anyway. He not only covers us with his Sunday best but gives us the ability to clothe others in his love. Jesus saves me from evil and inspires me towards good. In stripping down their victims, the people in those horrific lynch mobs exposed their own sinful hearts that will define their history. Jesus’s robes of righteousness defined Dr. King’s legacy and I pray they’ll also define mine.

 

For more information on the history of lynching in America, the Equal Justice Initiative led by Bryan Stevenson has created this website: lynchinginamerica.eji.org

You’re Better Off Alone

I think Eve has gotten a bad rap. When humanity falls and sin enters the world in Genesis 3, it’s Eve who first eats the forbidden fruit and who offers it to Adam to share with her. She’s the one that Adam blames when God confronts them about their disobedience. She’s the one who most often takes the heat for ruining God’s perfect world. Some even go as far as to say she is the cause of everything bad in the world. The explanation I have most often heard is that this happened because she was weak and gullible. (I have a whole blog post about why I think it’s not that.) But when we look at the creation of Eve as a helper suitable for Adam, I think there’s a deeper strategy to why Satan targeted her first.

When Adam is still alone in the garden both he and God recognize that it is not good for him to be the only one of his kind (Gen. 2:18, the first thing in God’s perfect world to be declared “not good.”) God remedies this deficit by creating Eve, to whom Adam responds with deep joy:

23 The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”

We might be tempted to say that Eve is created as an afterthought as God is trouble-shooting this new world, but certainly God deserves more credit than that. What if God was intentionally allowing Adam to feel the void of loneliness in order to set a pattern with humanity, a pattern of understanding that we alone are insufficient? What if we need something outside of ourselves to more fully understand God and to more fully experience the world?

As Eve mirrored God’s image in a way that was unique from Adam, they both understood more about who God is through being in relationship with one another. For those of you who are married or simply have a close friendship with someone of the opposite sex, you know that there are fundamental ways in which they are very different and “other” from you. There are things about them that are inherently mysterious and which you can never fully comprehend because you are just not the same. Yet you are drawn to them and want to keep trying to know them better and to share life together. It is this pursuit of the other that teaches us more about how we pursue God, and, possibly, about how God pursues us.

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Our Lord is far more mysterious to the human heart than we are to one another and yet God is at the same time near and loving. When we grapple with the challenges of knowing one another, we are being trained to recognize a God who is more vast than we can imagine but Whose image lives inside of us. A God whose “thoughts are not your thoughts” but who knows us better than any other and invites us into close relationship.

This plays out on a cultural level as well. God’s character is far more complex than any one person or people group can encompass. Each culture around the world magnifies an aspect of God, and when we do the hard work of coming together we experience more of who God is through one another. This is obviously not easy to do, it is much easier to be with those who are like us. But just as Adam was experiencing less of God and less of the world in his isolation, we make God smaller when we remain in homogeneity. It becomes far more tempting to believe that God looks and thinks like me, and I begin to reduce God into my own image when that is all I see. The struggle of relating to those who are very different from me forces me to remember that my God is big and limitless.

Not only did Adam need Eve because she would not be the same as him, Adam needed to understand that God’s intervention and God’s help are always very good. Our mysterious God also knows us perfectly and is responsive to our distresses and needs. He is always powerful to see us and provide for us. Eve herself is not salvific, she was entirely human, but there are things about the way God brings her into the world that are a forerunner to Christ, the ultimate answer to our insufficiency. Just as Eve is sent to do what Adam cannot do for himself, so Jesus would come to complete a salvation that we could never achieve. Then Jesus would send the Spirit (another “Helper”) and continue demonstrating God’s very good help.

When Satan goes after Eve and takes her down, he understands that she had influence in Adam’s life. If Satan got her, he could get them both. He wasn’t just instilling distrust in Eve, but he’s trying to instill distrust in God’s help. The creation of Eve was meant to teach Adam and all other people that God sends us exactly what we need to flourish. Satan can’t survive if we always believe that to be true. In attacking Eve, he tries to undermine that truth and convince Adam that he can’t trust anyone and he’s better off alone. Satan wants Adam to believe he should put up walls and keep Eve and others at arm’s length. That they should both believe that no one can care for you like you can care for yourself so from now on you’d better not rely on anyone and just do you. On the other side of the coin Eve walks away thinking that it’s pointless to try to help anyone because they’ll just turn on you, so she’s better off alone as well. In so doing they begin a terrible pattern of distancing themselves from the other, and cutting themselves off from the fullness of God’s image.

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Don’t we all still struggle with that temptation today? (2016 made our fears and divisions and distrusts abundantly clear.) We all feel the temptation to keep others out and stay safely behind our walls where they can’t hurt us and can’t let us down. But that also means that we distrust God’s help and experience less of God’s character. We may even distrust the free gift of salvation and think there must be some strings attached. Or we let Jesus handle certain things in our lives but the stuff that’s high stakes and risky we want to take the lead on. When we’re trying to control our lives and other people we’re falling into that age-old trap of thinking we’re better off alone. That keeps us slaves to ourselves, slaves to anxiety and fear, slaves to sin and shame that we can’t break free from, slaves to loneliness and isolation. That is exactly what Satan wants. He has more power over us when we’re cut off and alone, and he starts losing power immediately when we reach out to Jesus and to other members of the Body of Christ.

We think we’re safer and stronger when we’re toughing it out on our own and not relying on anyone else, but, actually, we’re at our weakest and most vulnerable. Don’t believe the lies. Don’t give in to the temptation to keep others out. Take the risk of allowing Jesus to demonstrate His trustworthiness. Reach beyond the borders you have created around yourself. You just might find a boundless God who wants to give you everything.

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Between the Snap and Me

What is the story behind your profile picture? That avatar is the door to who you are as a person in so many ways. It’s the image you have chosen to represent everything one might need to know about you…or what you want them to know about you. It accompanies every thought, share, or like that are the building blocks to your online persona. Often times this image is carefully crafted, a small point of control we can exercise in our lives.

But what happens when a friend takes that control out of your hands and tags you in a picture that was shot at an upward angle or doesn’t hide your muffin top or shows that O-Town t-shirt you only wear when you’re among your most trusted friends? Devastation. The scramble to untag can be ferocious and daunting. What if people saw it? What if the people whose opinions you care about the most saw those characteristics that send your lips into a gradual frown the more you look into the mirror? Image control is out the window.

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Recently, I was honored, blessed, convicted, scared, sad, angry, encouraged, discouraged, inspired by the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book “Between the World and Me.” In the book, Coates pulls his readers into his mind as he contemplates what control a black person in America has over their body. “I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”

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Coates writes from his experience protecting his body as it is surrounded by the dangers of racism in America in its many forms. When he comments on being afraid for his own body his story is haunting and, even further, when he talks about fearing for the body of his child, it’s terrifying. Many of the situations he described throughout his journey are physical threats, but today the range of racism has almost no bounds.

We saw this recently on the college campus where I serve. The scope of racism extends beyond the body and into the image. The danger isn’t just physical its digital. Think about the image that we all carry from the very beginning. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” All of us, together, male and female, black and white, all the nations, carry the image of God, the image of the creator of all things. That image is powerful. It’s beautiful. It’s unique among creation.

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Profile pics have given us some semblance of power over our image. On our campus, however, someone took that image of some of our students and cut deeply into it with words of death. A Snapchat was sent with a racial slur written over it. The victims of those words had no opportunity to filter the lighting, crop out what they didn’t want to show, or perhaps lobby for a reshoot if they blinked. Their image was stolen and marred for what I am guessing was supposed to be a harmless joke.

“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts…” If you can’t quite understand the damage, Proverbs 12 puts it into perspective. The blade of rash words is swift and severe. It only tears down, it fogs the image. In an act of fleeting communication that was supposed to disappear within the 10 second limit of a Snap, a group of Americans, college students, lost control over their image.

Still don’t understand why this incident was so harmful? After all, it was an innocent joke that was only for the eyes of the sender’s closest friends. Imagine someone changed your profile pic to the worst picture anyone ever took of you. We can see the hairs you usually wax off. We can see the dark circles under your eyes. We can see those rolls that you usually hide with vertical stripes. Now add to that equation the weight of centuries of oppression, misunderstanding, and hate.

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The library at Howard University where Coates spent hours and hours.

Every vulgar phrase those black students have ever heard in their lives was affirmed with that one that appeared on the Snap. And then it spread like a deadly bacteria going viral in their time lines, news feeds, group chats, and even the local news. The headlines of their minds read that they are less than human. That split second decision of the sender took their image, the image of God, the image of personhood away from them.

John Perkins once said of the work of racial reconciliation, “You don’t give people dignity. You affirm it.” That is what I want for all of the students on our college campus. For the image of their creator, their personhood, their dignity to be affirmed. So often this work begins by looking closer.

That is what is so beautiful about the work of artist E.J. Brown. Brown took images, images that have been imposed and stereotyped onto his fellow students of color, and reclaimed them. To get the full impact of these images you have to look closer. See the cap and gown the subjects are wearing. Read the degrees spelled out across their chests.

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In an instant, an image of a group of black students at our library during finals week was transformed into a deadly sword thrust. The other half of that verse in Proverbs 12 can teach us all about the power our words can have, a lesson I hope the Snap sender will receive through this. “But the tongue of the wise brings healing.” As much as words have the ability to destruct, they also have the ability to construct, build up.

One of the more inspirational moments in Coates’ story was in describing his pursuit of knowledge, heading to the library everyday to devour up to three books in a session. He is a brilliant mind that was forged in those days and nights at Howard University. It makes me wonder what kind of minds are housed in our library? What kinds of future leaders and innovators are gathering around those books? What I do know is that there is potential in those students, a potential put in them by the image of their creator.