Labor Day Reunion: LDR 2015 Reflection
This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending a conference here in St. Louis. It’s called LDR Weekend, which stands for Leadership Development Resource. But I think they should actually call it the Labor Day Reunion, because that’s what it felt like.
It was the kind of massive family reunion where you meet people you didn’t even know you were related to, but with whom you feel an instant connection (a connection that leads to a deep desire to feast and laugh and sing and dance and weep and then laugh some more together). The words of this song we sang together explains it:
In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth
Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me.
This weekend we came from east and west, north and south, to learn more about “Orthodox Activism” and the church’s call to pursue social justice. We gathered mere blocks from the once-shattered, then plywood and art-covered windows of South Grand, and just miles from Ferguson, in a metro area where far too many black lives have been lost in the past year.
We opened our Bibles, our ears, our hearts, our hands, and listened as speakers opened the history books, the headlines, and the research to remind us of where we’ve come from and where we are. They also reminded us of WHO we are: the people of God, recipients of his grace, followers of King Jesus – the one who is making all things new (as Dr. Sean Michael Lucas reminded us).
No Useless Theology
They called us to not just listen, but to engage and act, because as we see happening throughout Scripture, “Biblical orthodoxy in a hurting world is going to work itself out as biblical activism ”(Dr. Thurman Williams), and because our participation in advocating for the oppressed and marginalized is a matter of “integrity in worship” (Dr. Gregory Perry, cf. Isaiah 58:3-7).
We could have the best theology imaginable, but if it doesn’t manifest itself in Godly social ethics, it’s all for naught.
Two major themes stood out to me: the image of God and power.
Human beings are created in the image of God, and each one bears some aspect of his image. This means we must act when we see the value of individual lives being diminished or threatened. We must recognize that the pain felt by some impacts us all; As Dr. Lucas said, “Everyone is our neighbor. There is no ‘them.’ Only ‘us’.”
So we can and must affirm, in word and action, that black lives matter. In our country’s past and present, black lives have been some of the most vulnerable to injury, marginalization, and oppression. But we have to go a step beyond merely recognizing the image of God in the oppressed. We must also recognize the image of God in the oppressor, whomever that may be.
We have an incredible example of this in the forgiveness offered to Dylann Roof by the families of the 9 people he murdered in Charleston this summer. Karen Ellis said this kind of forgiveness “sows the seed of doubt in the old worldview, a seed which becomes a shoot and root of confidence in the new.”
At a conference filled with individuals from a variety of roles: students, pastors, college ministers, church leaders, lay people, parents, teens, counselors, etc., we were encouraged to think about our power. Dr. Williams called us to think about the power we have in whatever position we might be in, and to ask this question: Are the marginalized among you being lifted up because you’re in that position? This is a helpful and challenging question, that leads me to many others:
Am I intentionally making efforts to include them, give them a voice, affirm their worth and value in the community?
Are others — especially the marginalized — flourishing because of how I lead and how I steward the power I have?
I’ll be honest in saying that I’m uncomfortable with, and convicted by my current answers to these questions. I’ve got some work to do.
And as I think about the work ahead, I’m grateful for my two biggest takeaways from this LDR Weekend:
1. We need each other.
One of the main reasons I wanted to attend LDR was for the chance to learn from my African-American brothers and sisters. I needed to hear their voices, their stories, their insights, their perspective on what is happening in the world today and how God is speaking to and through them in the midst of that.
I needed to be in a room full of people from different places and experiences and races, to be reminded the Church and the God we serve are both much bigger than my limited view can take in. I needed to catch a broader glimpse of the beautifully diverse mosaic that is the Image of God. I needed to hear an African-American sister speak up in a seminar and say to the speaker, “When I hear you use that term, it upsets me because so many people use that term to write off the issue. Can you say more about what you mean?”
I needed K.A. Ellis to point out the fact that while white American Christians often assert that the American Church has never really undergone persecution, we neglect to recognize the persecution that African-American churches have faced here (threats, bombings, burnings, etc.).
I needed to witness African-American leaders humbly and gratefully acknowledging the efforts of a white pastor and professor who has been an advocate for racial repentance and reconciliation in our denomination — but who has also, and perhaps even more significantly, become a friend and ally to these leaders.
We need each other — east, west, north, south, every race — we need to talk, to listen, to ask questions, to lament, to read Scripture and to pray together. Together, conversations are enriched, blind spots are illuminated, role models are recognized, and the transformative power of God’s grace that enables interdependence of the Body of Christ is displayed in all its glory.
2. We need Jesus.
I was confronted with much of my own sin, as well as the sins of my forefathers and mothers in the Church, this weekend. What can wash away these sins and free us to move forward? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. It is only in Christ we have the hope of forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, and unity.
Through the example and work of Christ, we have the ultimate vision for what self-sacrificing love, costly activism, faithful stewardship of power, and redemptive suffering look like. But we don’t merely have Jesus as an example to look back on.
Jesus is seated on his throne, identifying with us, praying and advocating for us, and loving us as his brothers and sisters, so that we might be enabled to do the work our Father has given us to do.
It is Christ who sets our “orthodox activism” apart from any other activism. We must keep our eyes fixed on him as we seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.
Lord, help us to do just that. May your Kingdom come, and your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.