Equating White Supremacists With Those Opposing Them Is Not New

“He shied away from the term ‘integration,’ and when speaking of racial intolerance he often suggested that blacks and white northerners were equally culpable—even when the violence against the civil rights marchers was at its height.”

“Yet even in the summer of 1965 he equated the ‘extremists’ in the civil rights movement with the Ku Klux Klan, saying that Alabama would be an exemplar to the nation if only both quieted down.”

Both of these quotes refer to Billy Graham. They are from Francis Fitzgerald’s terrific history, The Evangelicals. I encountered them yesterday.


The moral equation of white supremacists with those resisting them is not new, and it has been maintained by figures far more religious than the President.

Fitzgerald also notes this, though:

Along with Catholic and Jewish leaders, prominent Episcopalian and Presbyterian clergymen joined the civil rights demonstrations, and around the time of the 1963 March on Washington they gained endorsements from their denominations and from the National Council of Churches. After that, the mainline clergy joined the protests in increasing numbers. A 1968 study of the Protestant clergy in California showed that nearly a quarter had taken part in some kind of civil rights demonstration. Theologically conservative Protestants did not join the civil rights marches or work for civil rights legislation, and some within the large northern denominations submitted resolutions contesting the actions of their leadership.

The previous church I served was in a city with a retirement community for mainline clergy,  so I regularly heard stories from ministers (and church members) who had gone to Alabama and Mississippi to march and register voters. Those stories gave me a vivid sense of the people and the church I was a part of: imperfect, for sure, and still shot through with racism, but not undecided about where it wanted to stand when the marches for racial equality started.




What Talking To Yourself Is Good For

Tumultuous times produce extreme diagnoses from some quarters. I’m not given to extremes. I value nuance and evidence and accuracy. Extreme makes my stomach hurt.

But I am forcing myself to sit with the extreme. I am finding myself in settings where the assessment of what is going on in the world is systematic rather than episodic, that is, where explanations point to corrupt systems before they blame more measurable causes. My stomach . . .

I’m sitting with it because I don’t want to and because those explanations are generally coming from people a generation younger than I, and also because I can sense in myself, already, the impulse to correct the contributions of the inexperienced, if only because I recognize an earlier version of myself in them and because it feels like there is a lot at stake in being wrong about these things.

I am struggling in these days to listen more and explain less. There is a constant wrestling match playing out in my head. Talking to myself helps.

This is how we grow, right?

Courage Is Not The Word For It

Denouncing racism from the pulpit is not courageous in most places in contemporary America, at least no more courageous than denouncing greed or idolatry. Preaching a sermon that condemned the Alt Right and the KKK on Sunday was a routine homiletical task, something Saturday’s marches in Charlottesville demanded but not something that took a great deal of courage.

Honestly, should I have any reason to fear that, in a progressive church in downtown Chicago, condemning neo Nazis was going to cause controversy?

The courageous sermons required of us preachers today are the ones that address the racism that doesn’t march through the streets, the kind we’ve grown accustomed to and comfortable with, the ones on the lower two thirds of this chart.

An anti racism sermon this Sunday took basic sense, not courage.

Why I Didn’t Rewrite Yesterday’s Sermon

Reworking your sermon on Saturday to speak to a weekend tragedy is stressful. Many of us have done it, some more than once. Usually, that stressful work is met by Sunday congregants who are grateful for a nimble preacher’s ability to speak to something they are struggling to make sense of.

Maybe sermons should not need to be totally reworked, though.

A colleague texted me on Saturday afternoon: “How’s that sermon coming in terms of Charlottesville?”

I responded without even thinking: “I was ready for it.” I hadn’t seen the news yet about a car driving through a crowd and killing a pedestrian, so shocking things were still developing that I didn’t feel completely prepared to address. But the sermon I had in hand was ready to speak to evil. The bulletins were already printed with, “Evil cannot achieve lasting form in a coherent, workable plan,” a quote from R.R. Reno’s terrific Genesis commentary, on the cover. The events lighting up my phone on Saturday just gave that evil a name.

The sermon wasn’t yet done, but neither did I feel it needed torn down and rebuilt.

I want to be an agile preacher. I want to produce sermons that are grounded in careful study of both the Word and the world and that can pivot to speak to the broad range of challenges my congregants are facing, only some of which are national tragedies. The more I preach, the more I like the idea I’ve heard attributed to John Wesley, that every preacher only ever preaches some variation on the same three sermons.

Yesterday’s was the one about the Christian response to evil, even before we all agreed on the evil we were talking about.


What Anniversaries Are Really For

Anniversaries are only partly about marking time that has already passed and celebrating the (perhaps improbable) arrival of another annual marker of persistence.

Anniversaries are also about committing to the future. Again.

The future probably looks different from the vista of this anniversary than it did the last one. Maybe that last one was in a valley. What are we committing to between now and the next anniversary? What do we hope the next one looks like?

My wife and I celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary today. By this day next year we hope to be completely rid of student loans. It will be our first debt free anniversary.

Every anniversary is special, and 15 is multiple-of-five extra special. But we’ve got our sights set on 16, for sure.


The Problem With Mentors When You Are Young

The person who said the thing that so inspired you may no longer believe it. Their conviction–the one that set you on your present course–may have changed.

What then?

Is our certainty about our present course dependent upon some opinion, uttered in context, that we have fixed in time, even though the figure who shared it with us has very likely grown and changed since that time?

People change. Ideas should too.

Pathos And Youth Ministry (Or, Being An Old Youth Minister)

The pathos of adolescence is the raw material of youth ministry. Teenagers feel differently than adults do–more immediately, more intensely, and without the moderating influence of experience and perspective. Their joy is more joyous and the despair more despondent. I know this. I have worked with youth in one capacity or another for almost 20 years. Also, I was one.

Some youth workers match the emotional pitch of teenagers with stunning precision. They seem to be up to their elbows in pathos and possessed of boundless energy. I am grateful for them, even as I recognize that I am not them.

I don’t really do pathos anymore.

Ministry with youth for those of us 20 years or more removed from the adolescent experience doesn’t have to be fueled by the same emotional identification with teenagers as it was earlier in our careers. Our declining gusto for the mountaintops and valleys of the teenage experience is an asset. The challenge for us is to own our age and perspective and not to somehow keep pathos alive. Teenagers need adults with some distance from the intensity of their experience as much as they need adults who can immediately relate to it.

Letting Other People Lead Your Youth Is Hard

Accompanying teenagers’ discernment of the good and the right is hard work. It takes the courage to lead them into uncomfortable spaces–physically, intellectually, spiritually–and the wisdom to put to them the discomfiting theological question. Being out front in this work means anticipating students’ challenges. It means attending to group dynamics. It means wrestling ambivalence and imprecision, often to a draw.

Youth formation is very difficult work.

None of us do this work alone. In addition to parents and volunteers, a healthy youth ministry connects students to a whole constellation of leaders: retreat speakers and small group leaders, mission partners, camp staff, neighboring pastors and religious leaders. Allowing those leaders to do their work with our students is uniquely challenging and uniquely critical.

Is my pastoral relationship with the 6th-12th graders in my congregation dependent on me as the perpetual speaker and leader? If so, that’s an easy way out. There is a harder body of work for youth ministry, and that is the cultivation of relationships with other adults who get to lead our students without our interference.

This. Is. Tough.

My students are at a youth conference this week, and almost every element of their experience is led by somebody who is not me. Worship, recreation, small group discussion: committed and talented people who love youth are in charge of it all. My job is simply to be with my students in it. It’s great for them. It’s challenging for me, not because I don’t like or don’t agree with the content, but rather because I depend too much on being in charge of everything.

Thanks be to God for a church full of people who are called to lead youth, who have led the students in my care this summer, from Chicago to Detroit to Cuba to North Carolina.

Quality Is Exhausting

That dog-tired feeling that’s following you around may be about more than the hours you’re putting in. We measure our workload in quantity, and it is certainly true that early mornings and late nights take it out of you. But there’s a fatigue that comes from the quality of work you’re doing, too, and by quality I don’t just mean how good it is.

Work that aims for impact has to stretch our capabilities and deepen our knowledge base. Learning new information and skills, synthesizing novel insights and applying them in unproven ways: these are qualities of work that is exhausting, whether it takes up 60 hours a week or 20.

The good news is the insights and skills won’t always be new. Once you’ve got them, they’re yours to deploy, and deployment is easier than acquisition by far.

The better news is there’s always more to learn. Nobody is keeping you from straining after better all the time.

Is your fatigue due to the quantity of your workload or the quality?

In Praise of Exit Interviews

Exit interviews are a great way to learn ways your work can be better. When people who have worked with you move on, always do an exit interview.

I spent yesterday morning in a succession of one-on-one sessions with our outgoing Urban Youth Mission staff, who, as I have said, are awesome. There wasn’t a lot of time allotted to each one, so we had to be direct: what worked for you and what didn’t?

I learned that enlisting congregation members to help support summer staff by inviting them to dinner on their nights off works. Big time. The housing mostly works. All the public transit works. The changes we made to this year’s schedule worked. Including a professional coach from the church community to work with staff individually and as a team works.

Not everything works well now, though. Giving the daily devotional leadership to summer staff didn’t really work, or at least it didn’t work as well as when I or another member of the church’s pastoral staff did that, as last year. “Keynote” addresses that are more facts than faith reflection aren’t really soaring either. The food situation can work better; constant complaints from youth about bland stir fry wear staff down.

Where is the fun in having nothing to improve? That’s why I love doing exit interviews.

Of course, you don’t have to wait until someone leaves to get better.