Let’s Talk About Race: A Letter to My Pastor

*Note: I first emailed this letter to my pastor on July 12, 2016. After discussing it, he has given me his consent to post the letter here. I have merely omitted any names mentioned from the original.

Dear Pastor _____,

Normally, I wait until Preaching Team to share my reflections on the prior Sunday’s service. This week, however, I want to carefully craft the concern I feel for the following subject, while not having to worry about being heard amongst a large group of voices. So thank you for being accessible enough for me to write you this letter and for having a shepherd’s heart that’s open to hear the cries of your flock.

This Sunday, I felt deeply disturbed that during our pastoral prayer we lifted up the policemen in Dallas who were shot and killed, yet we entirely omitted the two black men who were shot and killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Certainly, we needed to address the murders of the five officers and the wounding of the other six in Dallas. Our silence concerning the racial tension that caused this violence, however, spoke louder than our prayer. The Dallas officers’ deaths did not occur merely because of “lawlessness.” Those men died for the same reason that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile died last week: Racial prejudice plagues the heart of our nation, causing division and enmity amongst our people.

As Christians, we recognize that any behavior or action that attempts to devalue another human being derives from a fallen nature and a sinful disposition. Our Scriptures consistently teach that the hidden thoughts in our hearts are inextricably linked to our outward behaviors and how we treat others. The link between inner feelings of hate and the murder of another human being is too close for comfort. Thus, in the Old Testament, jealous Cain killed his only brother. And in the New Testament, Jesus taught the religious leaders that those who thought about hatred committed murder in their hearts. Ultimately, then, we have a major heart problem. And how are we instructed to address heart issues? Through confession.

When we are silent, therefore, we allow an inner heart problem to become an outward disaster.

Our silence on issues of race is what allows racism to continue. Because we are so uncomfortable with the term, we ignore it altogether. Racial prejudice that leads to the murder of policemen merely becomes “lawlessness” in our vocabulary. And the manslaughters of two black men at the hands of white officers is never spoken.

In our attempts for comfort, we create an in-group by surrounding ourselves with others who resemble us. If you looked around our church community during the second service on Sunday, you could count on one hand the number of colored faces. All others were white. We can then make excuses as pastors, saying that we care for the needs of our people. And as white, middle-class Americans, we care about others like us. We more easily relate to the police officers, because they have jobs like we do; it hits closer to home. But we do not connect with a black man in Louisiana, who had a prior record. And we can turn a blind eye to the black man in Minnesota, because he’s just different enough from us that we do not have to feel his pain or loss. Thus, praying for our police brothers while ignoring our black brothers becomes justified.

For the majority of our church, I presume, people felt the tragedy of the police officers’ deaths and paid little attention to the tragedies of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s deaths. If my presumption is true, then we as a community are wrong and demonstrate a lack of compassion.

We are ignoring the needs and injustice against an entire population within our nation. We are allowing for the cries of our black brothers and sisters to go unheard, because we do not care enough to listen—because we can look out in our congregation and see no black sibling, whose burdens we must help to bear.

If any black neighbors were to step foot into our doors, and if they had the courage to give up their personal cultural preferences in order to worship with us, they would learn that we do not care for their weights and burdens. They would learn that we shake their hands, but do not listen to their stories. They would infer that we are a church that would not keep their best interests in mind; that we do not care about the things they care about. And they would gather, rightly, that they are not truly welcome; for when they enter our gatherings, they must leave their blackness at the door. All this, because of our silence. Our silence teaches more to our black friends than anything else we say.

And what about our white members? What we teach in our services, we encourage our people to live out in their ordinary lives. Thus, as we remain silent in leadership, we teach them that they, too, can remain silent. Rather than engage courageous conversations on race, they can ignore them altogether. Rather than listen to the plights of black friends, they can think people of color are crazy for saying racism still exists. They can continue in their small groups and circles of people who look, think, and act the same way they do, never being challenged to broaden their perspective by learning from people who are different.

But imagine what could happen if we truly became like Christ and cared for the marginalized in our community. What if we proactively engaged the divisive current ripping through our country? Perhaps we could go to a black church in our city, asking them how we can embrace them as our brothers and sisters. We could ask them how they’d like us to use our voices and our influence on their behalf. We could plan times to worship together and invite others to join in. We could represent the incarnation of Christ by entering into hard conversations and leaning into the pain of our friends instead of running from it. Perhaps, we could then join with ______ and ______ as they minister to officers as chaplains. As a black and white church together, we could seek to serve our police officers. We could share stories of brokenness and how Christ has brought healing. Perhaps our church would even begin to look more like our city with 90% Caucasian and 10% a beautiful array of diverse ethnicities.

If we learn to start speaking openly about race and other tensions that plague our inner hearts, I believe that we will experience greater theosis in our local congregation as our worshipping community transforms even more into the likeness of our Savior. If we refuse to engage these issues, however, I believe we will miss out on Christ’s power without even knowing it; for our church community will never know the difference, but our black and colored brothers and sisters will be left to fight the battle alone. In the very least, can’t we at least pray for them?

 

Dwelling in Him,
Starla J. Gooch

 

P.S. If you have not watched the videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being shot, I encourage you to do so—despite the graphic nature. It is vital for us to know why these manslaughters are causing so many significant waves across our nation and for us to genuinely grieve for their lives alongside our black brothers and sisters. I don’t know how we could see these men die with our own eyes and not talk about it.

Here are links where you can watch the videos:
Alton Sterling: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/07/06/new-video-shows-alton-sterling-was-not-holding-a-gun-when-baton-rogue-police-killed-him.html

Philando Castile: http://heavy.com/news/2016/07/philando-castile-falcon-heights-minnesota-police-shooting-facebook-live-video-watch-uncensored-you-tube-police-shooting-man-shot-lavish-reynolds/

Vision For A Thriving Community

The Christian Church’s influence on American society diminishes daily, and as a twentysomething Millennial, I quite personally feel its effects. Though many Boomers still fight ardently for “conservative values”, and I absolutely believe we need to encourage and empower more disciples of Christ to enter into politics and law-making, many of the battles we choose seem futile to me. I have embraced the fact that we no longer live in a Christian culture. The values and belief system I hold exist in tension with the world around me. I speak, think, behave, and interact quite differently from the majority of my peers. And I’m actually really okay with that, because if I’m going to live as if I’m from another world, I’d rather people notice.

I wish more churches and spiritual leaders would embrace the fact that Christendom has passed. Maybe then we could begin to focus less on the number of people walking through our church doors and more on the quality of Christ-followers we’re sending out from our community into the world. I’m excited to see more literature being written that emphasizes the need for mature discipleship, but I still worry that churches will respond by simply creating more programs.

For thirteen months, I experienced the honor of serving as the discipleship pastor in a local church. After overseeing the academics for a nine-month residential discipleship program for young adults, I learned two important lessons:
1) Programs do not work well.
2) Listening to God does!

In the first semester, I labored intensively to rewrite all of our academic guidelines. I created syllabi, prepared lessons, taught fervently, and graded papers diligently. But even with all of my effort, the impact on my students’ lives remained minimal. Why? Because my primary relationship with them stayed at a teacher-student status, and no one was succeeding. Very few of my students exhibited proficiency in their academics. And out of those who performed well, some displayed significant character issues. What good would it do if my students learned to read the Bible correctly, but they never allowed the information to transform them?

So for the second semester, I decided to change things up. I set aside two hours each week to meet with students one on one. During each hour, I got to know one of my students personally. It’s amazing how deeply you can get to know someone when you purposefully spend one hour listening to them share from their heart. (I also learned a major transgression for pastors: running out of tissues in your office!)

Choosing to spend time with my students individually drastically increased the impact of the ministry. Why? Because as I listened, I received the opportunity to truly know each one of them, and while doing so, I diligently sought to hear from God on their behalf. Though I initially sat aside only two hours in order to guard my time, I soon did so to guard my energy. I quickly discovered how much more work goes into an hour of listening well than an hour of lecturing. Self-control proved trying when I had to choose patience and compassion over defensiveness with an angry student, and when my flesh wanted to tell them blatant truths, but God’s Spirit subtly warned me to hold my tongue. Though difficult, the intentionality that it took to listen to the voice of God was worth it every time.

I believe that the greatest need in our churches is mature believers who hear and respond to the voice of God. In Hebrew, the verb for obey quite literally means “to listen.” It carries the idea that as we listen to God’s voice, our hearing demands response. If we do not obey, we have not truly heard.

Imagine with me a community of Christ-followers who actively hear and obey the voice of the Lord in everyday life. A community in which you and I participate. Compassion for the broken and the lost come naturally. We become people who embrace the tension of grace and truth. We address problems boldly, but in timely manners. We speak life into dead souls and spirits. We call forth potential and hope in individuals and communities. We cast visions of redemption. We know the mind of Christ, because He regularly reveals hidden truths to our hearts. The Spirit speaks through our mouths and lives to engage those who need to experience the living God. We are a community that brings healing to all who choose to participate, because the Holy Spirit moves freely through His willing vessels. Broken lives are made whole and new.

This is the Kingdom that Jesus came to bring. It’s not just a romanticized dream of idealism. No, this is the message of the gospel. This is why Jesus called it good news! Such a life and community is fully accessible to us now.

So will you choose to participate with me? I’ll warn you: it will cost you much. Your pride must go. You must be willing to submit your mind, heart, spirit, and body to the lordship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But in return, we will all gain more than we could ever dream.

Maybe, just maybe, if we become people who attune our hearts to hear the voice of God, we won’t have the problem of a diminishing Church. I’d even take the risk to declare it thriving.

For You Readers Out There

It’s crazy to believe that it’s been almost a year since I graduated from college. That’s seriously nuts! But anyways, after I graduated and no longer had hundreds of required pages to read each semester, I realized that I actually had time to read stuff that I was able to choose for myself. I then set a goal to read at least 2 books a month, which I plan to continue for as long as I can. That being said, with all the major magazines posting their own “To-Read” books from 2012, I thought I’d make my own list. So here we go. Here are the top ten books I’ve read in the past year that I recommend to all of you:

10. The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People by John Ortberg 

  • This is a great devotional read. Ortberg is great at taking biblical, historical, and theological insights and communicating them simply for all readers to understand. 

9. Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt

  • Platt is a strong biblical scholar and doesn’t water anything down for the sake of comfort. So read this book, but beware! It’s because of this that I’m going on a mission’s trip this summer!

8. Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity by Lauren Winner

  • There are a lot of books about sex, Christianity, singleness, dating, marriage, and anything that you can think of to go with those topics, but not many engage the topic of sexuality from a strong theological perspective. But Winner does just that in an approachable and relatable style. This is my #1 recommended read on the topic of sexuality, particularly for those struggling with how to be Christian and single.

7. Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 (Book 1) by Richard Paul Evans

  • Sometimes I seem to forget that fictional books still exist, but thanks to my sister who’s a teacher and Richard Paul Evans fan, I came across this one to mix things up a little bit. This is a simple read for young adults, but deals with real life issues such as physical disabilities and bullying….oh, and super powers! Now I just need to get Book 2.

6. Communicating for a Change: Seven Keys to Irresistible Communication by Andy Stanley and Lane Jones

  • In the past year, I’ve become quite an Andy Stanley fan (which you can see by the fact that there are two Stanley books on this list; and if I make a list next year for 2013, I’m sure Deep and Wide will be on it). This is a must read for any growing preacher. Whether you agree with his method or not, it will certainly challenge you on your view of preaching and how you go about it.

5. The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul

  • My only regret about this book is that I read it too fast. I wish I had gone slower and let each chapter sink in. I think one of the most significant issues with American Christianity today is that we ignore the holiness of God and our call to be like Him. This is a boost and a challenge for every Christian as it forces you to consider how mild you may view our HOLY God.

4. Next Generation Leader: Five Essentials for Those Who Will Shape the Future by Andy Stanley

  • This is one of those books that I’m not joking when I say every young leader should read, or at least skim. In the past few months, it has significantly impacted my personal approach to leadership and ministry. It’s an easy read, but powerful nonetheless. 

3. It: How Churches and Leaders Can Get It and Keep It by Craig Groeschel

  • We can’t quite describe “it”, but we know when churches have “it” and we definitely know when they don’t. Groeschel digs into that x-factor in churches that differentiates the growing church from the dying one. This was a read that highly impacted me personally, caused me to think outside the box, and left me with dreams for what God can do through me and the ministry I’m leading. It’s particularly inspiring for those discouraged or stuck in a rut.

2. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

  • After about two years, I finally got the chance to finish this book. Sad that it took me so long, but dude, so worth it! You can’t go wrong with Lewis. And this book really messes with you. There’s now no forgetting about the enemy we each face every day in spiritual warfare. 

1. A Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness by Gene Edwards

  • This book gets my number one slot of recommendation because it’s a book that EVERY Christian should read. Have you ever struggled with authority? Wondering what you should do? When should you submit? When should you fight? Edwards takes readers through the life of David and the decisions he had to make when faced with life and death situations in leadership. This is a book on my shelf that I should probably read over and over throughout my years.

Well, that’s my list! Though I do have one honorable mention:

Engage: A Guide to Creating Life-Transforming Worship Services by Nelson Searcy, Jason Hatley, and Jennifer Dykes Henson. I had to mention this one because it helped me ask some good questions when I started a young adult ministry back in June. If anyone is at the beginnings of a ministry with a regular worship service, this might be a good book to read!

So for those of you who enjoy reading and are looking for a good book, you now know my suggestions. And if you do decide to read one, let me know, because I also love book discussions!

Why I Do What I Do

It’s been a hard week. You know those weeks. The kind when one minute, you’re at your job, loving it, and think, “This is why I do what I do!” Then the next minute, something happens that causes you to not only retract your last sentiment, but then think, “Is there any way I can get out of this?”

My life in the ministry so far has looked a lot like this. There are things that I love about working at a church and committing my life to knowing Christ and making Him known. However, like many jobs, it’s one where you have to deal with people A LOT. But you’re not just dealing with people, no. See, I worked with people doing customer assistance for over five years, and although it was frustrating at times, it wasn’t a big deal. Because while working to assist customers, the customer is always right–even if they happen to be very wrong. In ministry, the job is not dealing with customers. It’s dealing with fallen human beings who are created in the image of God, and instead of selling a product, our job is to help them become more like God. What a tricky and impossible task. But this task is made all-the-more impossible by the fact that I am one of those people.

I’m a fallen human being, just like everybody else. The first inclination of my heart is not to wake up every morning and thank God for being alive. And it’s not to set a chunk of time aside every day to pray. Nor do I naturally desire to read an ancient text of literature for fifteen minutes every day, while I study specific sections for hours on end every week so that I can help others to understand it. There are times when each of these things and all that I know I should be doing seems totally unappealing and unnecessary. As much as I believe in prayer, Bible study, fasting, and tithing, that doesn’t mean that I always feel like doing them. And it doesn’t mean that I always do them even when I don’t feel like it, even though I know I should. In fact, it’s been a few weeks since I wrote in my prayer journal, I’m about three months behind in my one year Bible, I can’t remember the last time I fasted for a whole day, and I’ve got a little bit of a backorder on tithe. (I better stop and fix my tithe situation right now before I continue writing. . . . Okay, now we’re good. Thank the Lord for online giving!)

I think all of this is probably the hardest part of pastoring: knowing that I’m supposed to be leading other people in spiritual transformation when I still have so much farther to go myself. I’m a perfectionist, which means I believe in excellence, so I don’t like failing. And what is failing? In Starla terms, failing often means missing excellence, when I can think of so many ways that I could have done something better. The worse failures I make are when I missed my set goal and someone ends up getting hurt in the process. As a leader, I hate hurting and letting down the people whom I’m serving. And in these kinds of failures, that’s when I have to ask, “Why do I do what I do?”

I’ve asked this kind of question a lot this week. Then tonight, I had to ask God to help me let go of the things I obsess over that I want to improve. Shortly after this prayer, out of nowhere I received a text from a friend, who knows nothing of my situation, saying that she was praying for me and to keep faith.

A little over a year ago, I started keeping a digital photo album on my computer with all of the comments, emails, pictures, tweets, etc. that have encouraged me personally. I currently have 99 notes in that album, along with a plethora of saved text messages that remind exactly why I do what I do. I do what I do because God called me to do it. Because success in God’s eyes is measured in nothing but faithfulness. When it comes down to it, I often get my job confused with God’s. It’s His job to equip, empower, and send me out. My job is much more simple. My job is to let God do His.

Why do I do what I do? Because God’s doing what He does. And I’m letting Him.