I went out for sushi with a friend. She’s the kind of friend I love talking with and who always leaves me feeling encouraged. During this particular conversation, I noticed something interesting:
Whenever she’d say, “I know I should…,” what followed would sound spiritual and “Christian”—like things I grew up hearing at church. But strangely, it wouldn’t sound like anything I’ve read about Jesus’ life in the Gospels. And when she’d apologetically say, “But I decided to…,” I’d be reminded of passages throughout Scripture and I’d see parallels between her life choices and the life Jesus modeled for us.
My friend is following Jesus. And in order to do that, she has to reject the patterns of this world—including ways the Church has adopted and spiritualized these patterns.
Isn’t that weird? At least, shouldn’t it be? And shouldn’t this be cause for alarm?
We’re followers / disciples / apprentices of Jesus. Whatever terminology you like to use, we’re to strive to look more and more like Him. But sometimes we confuse the way of Jesus with church culture. Church culture doesn’t always look and sound like Jesus. In fact, sometimes it’s conforming to church culture that prevents us from becoming more like Jesus. (What a brilliant way for the enemy to keep the Church from actually living like the Body of Christ! “Make it sound spiritual and put Jesus’ name on it, then they’ll accept it without question!”)
I want my heart to be aligned with Jesus’ heart, to look and sound like Him, to reflect Him every way I can. Unfortunately, that means there are times when I must make choices that go against the culture of the Church (or at least the American Church). And that means people who know church culture better than actual Jesus will accuse me of things that sound a lot like the things Jesus was accused of.
• What if we accepted Jesus’ invitation to learn from Him, diving deep into Scripture with humility in the fact that we don’t always get everything right and we still have more to learn?
• What if we investigated whether or not each supposed truth we label “biblical” is actually in the Bible and in alignment with the heart of God?
• What if we chose to follow Jesus—actually follow the words He spoke and the way He lived as it’s revealed in Scripture rather than what some people or our church culture tells us is “biblical”?
So here’s my challenge to you: The next time you find yourself thinking, “I feel like as a Christian I should…,” ask these two questions:
1. Does this thing I feel I should believe/think/do/be resemble what Jesus lived and taught? (If you can’t find it in Jesus’ life and teachings or anywhere else in Scripture, that’s a big red flag. So be specific. Where is it in Scripture? And if you find a verse, zoom out and look at the context of the chapter, book, and whole of Scripture. Is that really what that passage is saying? Or has it been misunderstood or taken out of context?)
2. What is the Spirit saying to me? Could it be that what the Spirit is saying to me contradicts something I’ve been taught but is actually in alignment with the way of Jesus as revealed in Scripture?
One more thing: Live this out in community. Find people who will ask these questions with you, lovingly call you out when you don’t live them, and aggressively encourage you when you do.
A couple weeks ago, I received an email from one of the pastors in my local church. He asked if I could lead a prayer at our upcoming evening worship and prayer service. (We have one of these every month.) The area he asked me to pray for is one I’m passionate about: the racial issues in our country. I was honored to be asked. But the overwhelming feeling I had when I responded with my “yes” was fear and dread. Our church is predominantly white; the demographics of our congregation reflects the demographics of our city (which is statistically one of the whitest cities in America). Let me be clear: I LOVE my church! It’s a great church with wonderful people. But what was being asked of me was still terrifying. I voiced my fears to my husband:
“How on earth am I supposed to lead a congregation to pray as one about something in which we’re so divided?”
“How do I—a woman of color in a predominantly white space—lead a prayer about racial issues in a way that won’t get labeled ‘divisive,’ but is still honest and genuine?”
“What happens if this doesn’t go well?” (This was my biggest question/worry. Did I mention that my husband’s on pastoral staff at this church?)
I labored over the words I’d pray, crafting the words while whispering again and again, “God, I can’t do this. Please help me!” He gave me words. And I prayed them on my own each day leading up to the service. Alone in my living room, I felt the weight of the words. This is not a safe prayer, I thought. I felt something else, too. Something beautiful was happening.
Last night, as I walked up the steps of the platform to lead our congregation in prayer, my heart raced and I unsuccessfully fought to stop shaking. In my fear—yes, I did it scared!—I kept my head down and my eyes on my iPad. As I prayed, I heard something I hoped for but didn’t expect: voices rising in agreement. There were only a couple times when I felt the crowd get quiet. My husband prepared me for this: “There will be moments when they’ll get quiet because they don’t know yet how to pray about some of these things. They’ll get quiet so they can listen and learn. It’s a good thing. Just keep going.” I remembered his words and kept going all the way to the “amen.” Something indeed happened last night. It felt as though something hard that needed to be broken was beginning to break. This is just a beginning. I wrote in my journal after I got home, “I feel it—really feel it. Hope.”
After the service, a number of people asked if I could send them a copy of what I prayed. This morning, I got more messages with the same request. So here it is. What follows are the words I spoke and prayed (including a couple notes to myself to breathe) at Central Assembly in Springfield, Missouri on the evening of Sunday, February 6, 2022. May we continue to pray these words. And as we do, may we learn to live them.
We’re going to pray about the racial issues in our country. [Take a breath.] And I know that as soon as I said those words, every single one of us felt something and our minds got loud with ideas and beliefs. And the range of thoughts is so wide that it can seem too insurmountable for us to be able to pray as one.
So here’s what we’re going to do:
Everyone, hold out your hands in front of you, and clench your fists. (No hitting! We’re not about to fight each other!) Prayerfully imagine that in your fists are all the things you think and feel when you hear the words, “racial issues”…because we’re not going to be able to pray as a unified voice until we deal with what we’re holding in our fists.
As I begin, I want you to pray, “God, here’s all my stuff. I want to give You access to all of it.” And when You’re ready, I invite you to open your hands in surrender to Jesus. If you need more time before you’re ready, that’s okay. The important thing is that we all move a little closer to God in this moment.
God, we’re symbolically holding in our fists
ways we believe we’re right and others are wrong,
ways we’ve allowed ideologies to hinder us from loving well,
maybe feelings of apathy or annoyance,
or a desire for things to be better and exhaustion by the weight of it all,
maybe disillusionment, anger, or disappointment in our brothers and sisters in Christ,
maybe pain or even trauma.
Some of the things we’re holding are right in Your eyes and some are not. For most, what we’re holding is complicated. And all of it needs to be surrendered to You—whether for repentance, or so You can sanctify it to be used for Your glory, or so You can do Your miraculous healing work.
So God, here’s all our stuff. Help us surrender it all to You.
If you feel ready, go ahead and open your hands and pray with me:
Jesus, we surrender it all to You. We give You access to all of it. Align our hearts to Yours and let Your will be done in and through us.
So now we lift up our church, our community, and our nation.
God, we lift up the Black community.
We lift up the Native American community.
We lift up the Latino community.
We lift up the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
We lift up everyone who’s part of the majority culture.
The needs are many.
We pray for demonic strongholds to be destroyed. Break the strongholds of racism and white supremacy in our country and even our churches. Disturb what needs to be disturbed and change hearts.
We pray for repentance to continue and to be thorough. We’ve come a long way, but still have far to go. Help us to repent and bear fruit in keeping with repentance. As Daniel, Nehemiah, and others repented for the communal sins of Israel, we repent of our nation’s sins as well as our own.
In commenting on MLK’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” Mrs. Coretta King said: “At that moment it seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared. But it only lasted for a moment.” God, there was a moment when it felt like we were on the brink of racial healing, but it only lasted for a moment, and too many returned to business as usual.
We repent of our prejudices, the ways we’ve wrongly judged, painted groups of people with broad strokes, or turned people into demeaning caricatures. We repent of the actions and inaction that flowed from these ways of thinking.
We repent of disobeying your command to care for the foreigner and the ways we’ve treated ethnic minorities like they are “other” and do not belong.
We repent of the ways we’ve upheld or been complicit with unjust systems.
We repent of choosing to be colorblind when the dream of Your Kingdom is not one of ethnic erasure but one that envisions every nation, tribe, and language worshiping together before Your throne. Give us eyes to be color brave, to see the beauty of our ethnicities and the ways they reflect the image of God.
We repent of choosing comfort over bravery.
We repent of participating in racial jokes or degrading comments, whether we were the one speaking the words or were complicit with our laughter or silence.
We repent of being silent when we should have spoken up in either correction or encouragement.
We repent of getting so caught up in ideologies and partisan talking points that we’ve allowed ourselves to treat people—fellow bearers of the image of God—as though they’re the enemy.
We repent of getting so caught up in debate that we fail to listen, show empathy, compassion, and love.
We repent of treating racial issues as though they’re problems “out there” and neglecting to care for those among us who are hurting.
We repent of the times we’ve prayed without action and the times we’ve acted without prayer.
I pray for us to not settle for superficial peace, but to be agents of healing and justice.
Give our lawmakers the wisdom to correct unjust laws and systems.
Raise up more Christians like Bryan Stevenson to advocate for the victims of our unjust laws and systems and work towards equity.
I pray for the violence against Black and brown bodies to stop. Oh, God, we denounce violence in all its forms. We denounce violence that’s inflicted on anyone. This week, with the start of Black History Month, at least 13 Historically Black Colleges and Universities were forced to close due to bomb threats. Oh God, we cry out for true peace in our land. As we often pray for a shield of protection when we travel, we pray for a shield of protection around ethnic minorities.
In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King lamented, “So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice.” Oh God, may we be a headlight leading people to higher levels of justice! Give Your Church—here at Central and throughout our country—the wisdom and anointing to be brave in calling out unjust attitudes and systems, to be brave in doing the work of racial reconciliation, and to be brave in praying for and working towards shalom in our land. Holy Spirit, lead us and help us lead the way.
[Take a breath.]
Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a drastic rise in Anti-Asian violence. Asian Americans have been bombarded with videos of people who look like us and our parents being attacked and murdered. A couple months ago, there was news of an Asian man who was shot multiple times. He was about my father’s age and was killed in Chicago’s Chinatown, a place my father frequents. So when I saw the news headline, without thinking, I instinctually looked up the details of the story to make sure it wasn’t my father. This is a glimpse of what racial trauma looks like.
Jesus, we lift up those who are hurting and suffering racial trauma.
We’re hurting. And sometimes the pain is too heavy and hope feels impossible. Oh Jesus, You understand wounds. So we welcome You into our pain and we bring You our lament. We bring You all our anger and frustration, all our why-s and how longs.
We pray for every BIPOC person who is carrying trauma in their bodies and their spirit. God of all comfort, I beg You to heal us.
Help us as we absorb yet another insensitive comment, dirty look, or hurtful action. Keep our hearts soft and our armors strong. May we forgive and, at the same time, not internalize the racism we experience.
Help us when the news of another assault or murder triggers our trauma and fear.
Our Father, there’s so much brokenness. But You are the Lord of righteousness and justice, God of miracles and infinite possibility. Heal our land. Amen.