The world is on fire. Riots erupt in cities across our nation – the unsurprising outbursts of community after community who are tired and fed up not only with systemic injustice, but also the systemic ignoring of their plight. Citizens distrust the very people sworn to protect them.
Social media is also ablaze with statement after statement of solidarity, plus the requisite statements decrying the injustice of it all. Well-designed pics with various hashtags and partial quotes from MLK, Jr. fill our timelines and profile pics.
In addition to all this, a pandemic keeps us isolated and unable to really talk and listen to one another (although there wasn’t really enough of that happening before anyway).
As the lead pastor of a large, multi-ethnic megachurch in one of the most diverse regions of my state, there’s an expectation to come up with some sort of statement to guide my congregation, the church that I love and care so deeply for. It’s the expectation to say something, to count myself among the list of allies who decry the injustice, who reassure our brothers and sisters of color that they are seen and heard.
The expectation comes with certain qualifications: it has to be time-sensitive, time-stamped within a few days or at least before the news moves on to the next outrage, to the next murder of an unarmed black man.
The statement has to say clearly where we stand as a church, it has to be confrontational as well as comforting. It has to be clear and bold. Whatever it is, it can’t be silent. Saying nothing is saying something, and in that regard, saying something is better than saying nothing at all.
In a twisted way, just like we’ve learned to post a requisite “Happy Birthday” on a friend’s FB wall, so we expect a statement. If you don’t believe me, during this quarantine, how many COVID-response update emails have you received detailing the sanitation procedures and curbside delivery options that said business is adopting? In this day and age, we expect our statements.
I don’t think the expectation is all that unreasonable. It’s humbling to know that people look to me for words of comfort and guidance, that I get to have an influence not because I’m qualified, but simply because of the calling God has put on my life to be a shepherd over his flock. I don’t take that lightly.
My vocation is based on using words to encourage, challenge, inspire, give hope, point to, and comfort people…all in Jesus’ name. I write 2500 word sermons every week after hours of study. I’m writing a 55,000 word book on worshiping God precisely when life doesn’t make sense by trusting in his goodness and resolving to believe in him. I lead prayer meetings and staff calls. I use words to cast vision and to give counsel.
I care so deeply about racial reconciliation in the church, and I love the multi-ethnic expression of the Gospel that is taking on personality at Grace. I should have no problem putting out a statement that meets the expectations.
But all I can do is weep.
The words get choked by tears and groans. Numb silence replaces the click of my keyboard. I just stare into space and cry.
All I can do is cry with my brother, DJ, who is one of the finest pastors I get the privilege of serving with, who now has to look over his shoulder (even more) when he runs one of the gajillion miles that he does every year.
All I can do is join my man, Thomas, as he sobs from anger and frustration, shaking my head in silence – the only fitting physical expression of my sorrow and frustration as I groan in between sighs, “How long, Lord?” I can’t even hug him because of this social distancing thing. (Not that we really hugged pre-covid. He would just envelope me. It’s just an awkward picture. He’ll tell you that.)
And then I get home, alone at my makeshift workstation, and I ugly cry because I hurt so deeply for my friends who weren’t on the Zoom call, friends who because of the color of their skin, feel this so acutely. Terrence, Eric, James, Bryan, Kellen, Njeri, Janay, K, Roger, Phyllis, Michael, David, Marja, Ms. Lillian, Terhea, Jean, Katrina, Chris…the list goes on…y’all know who you are and how much I love you. Even as I write your names, my eyes well up with tears afresh.
Then I think about my church, and how we’re so beautifully diverse, and how sincere and imperfect each person’s faith is, and how much God has patience and compassion for us. How we are learning to share each other’s pain in sorrow and lament. The tears continue to pour out instead of words.
What statement can capture that? How do I put into words the real-time ache of my heart and the burden I feel for my church? I can’t. I won’t. I will not shortchange my lament and grieving with my brothers and sisters for the sake of what is socially (and by that I mean, social media) expected.
I won’t put out a token statement before I’ve taken the time to work it out with those I care deeply about. I’m not saying that people who put out statements like that are being fake. They probably just process the anger and pain a lot faster than I can, or maybe they use the social media platforms to process.
People looking in may think I’m being afraid or reluctant. I can’t blame them for that. It wouldn’t be the first time.
I know the delay might make people upset or confused. But my love for my friends – no, my love for my family – makes me willing to endure the scorn of people’s assumptions about my silence. People can think what they want. I don’t have time for that because I’m with the hurting person right in front of me.
You could argue that I should have just put out a statement for the sake of others, then do the work. “You’re neglecting your responsibility to care for the larger body.” “It might help people who are working through their own pain.” You’re probably right.
But I couldn’t put out a statement decrying injustice until I cried about injustice. I can’t prepare a response until I’ve prayed in response. I won’t say that I am standing with my brothers and sisters until I’ve actually stood with my brothers and sisters.
And if this has hit you to the core, in any way, shape, or form like it has hit me, if this is as personal for you as it is for me, then I invite you to do the same.
Before looking for a statement from some influential leader or even your church, lean in and pray with your church. Get on your face instead of on Facebook. A statement is not going to provide hope and consolation. God’s presence with, and among his people, will.
Grace, this is the time to get real close to one another and cry together. To ask about each other. To be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. This is a season, as it has already been unfolding with COVID, to get comfortable with stiff, heavy, silence. A silence that gets interrupted only by sniffles, moans, and sobs.
Many of you have, and in that I encourage you to continue to care for one another. Some of you have wondered where I am with it all. You’ve interpreted the silence in a variety of ways. I haven’t been thinking about how to respond. I’ve simply chosen to engage with the people in my life before I engage with the position I have. I’m sure that’s not to everyone’s liking, but it’s the best thing I know to do right now for my own sake and for the people who are right in front of me.
This last week has hit me hard. You oppressors, victimizers, crooked authorities, this broken system, you’ve messed with me because you messed with my people. It’s personal.
No statement will ever fully capture the pain and anger I feel for the people I love so dearly, and that’s ok. Statements weren’t meant to do that.
“Dear children, let us love not with words or statements or posts or texts, but with actions and in truth.” 1 John 3:18 MLV (Mitchel Lee Version)