Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Part 1

Editor’s Note: We wanted to start off 2021 with a pastoral word from voices all around the country who could help put the past year in perspective as well as to offer some encouragement and exhortations for the new year ahead. This is the first in a three-part series featuring José Humphreys of Metro Hope Church in East Harlem, NY and Deborah Masten from the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Beyond Gospel Scribble: Reclaiming Good News for the World Today

by Rev. José Humphreys

During the Christmas holidays, our family played a fun game called Scribbish, where players would draw a picture that told a story, with other players having to guess the picture by writing a caption underneath. The results were pretty similar to what you get in the telephone game, where a message is shared orally from person to the person. By the time the message passes through several ears, eyes, hands—and in this case, scribblers—the original message can often get lost or distorted.

I believe American evangelicalism finds itself in a similar story when it comes to its gospel. Stories have the power to shape people, cultures, even whole worlds. God’s good news is a story that undergirds our doctrines, shapes our ministries, gives life to our confessions, and propels our mission as a church. But if we fail to discern the story amid possible distortions, then the church will continue to “scribble” accordingly. The beginning of this new year is a good time then to ask ourselves, what has been revealed as the good news in some parts of the American church? I believe the last few months have shed a light on at least five popular storylines:

  • In politics, a leader’s character or even his despotic tendencies won’t matter, as long as he preserves our American-Christian form of belief. Though we live in a democracy we’ll just call him the 21st Century Cyrus, the pagan monarch who acted on behalf of God’s chosen ones in the Bible.
  • Whiteness has every right and means to preserve itself, from the highest office in the land, to the academy, to untouchable policing, to historical monuments erected in its honor. Even an angry white mob of insurrectionists attempting to subvert democracy who breached the halls of Congress will be treated by the police with humanity and temperance.
  • Listen to the Spirit because science has a hidden agenda and ought to be considered peripheral to our Christian beliefs, even when it comes at the cost of public health and human life.
  • The penultimate definition of worship and justice consists of freedom to convene large [unmasked] gatherings during a pandemic. American Jesus in the end will ascribe higher value to our white-bodied neighbors with good genetics.
  • In public discourse we can simply cancel people because they’re not as woke as we are.

These are just a few of the distorted storylines we’ve received and perhaps have even internalized to some degree. But God’s story can never be detached from God’s dream of shalom, grounded in countless stories of redemption across the globe, traced back through the scars of Christ’s own Afro-Asiatic body. An American Gospel cannot contain the eternity and historicity of such a narrative of love—God who reigns over a multiverse of stars and nebulas…yet who also has the very “good bacteria” in our bellies all numbered. But God’s story can never be detached from God’s dream of shalom, grounded in countless stories of redemption across the globe, traced back through the scars of Christ’s own Afro-Asiatic body. Click To Tweet

God’s story is good news when we witness how heaven converges with our world and harmonizes our paths into an alternative storyline rooted in shalom when:

  • Political leaders—whether Democrat or Republican—are prophetically encouraged by the church to reflect elements of God’s kin-dom of love, by caring for the disinherited through their policy decisions. Meanwhile, the church need not make unholy alliances with the state nor be agents of the status quo.
  • Our faith decenters and interrogates whiteness, becoming other-centered. It compels us to love neighbor, enemy, stranger, and even our ecology through centering God’s love for human bodies in a web of creation.
  • Scientists who seek advancements for the common good can derive truth and image-bearing from their work, ultimately to God’s glory. Science can even be considered part of God’s greater story for the survivability of our species.
  • As Desmond Tutu once wrote, “Every church should be able to get a letter of recommendation from the poor in their community.” When we “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” this becomes our permission slip for the Sunday gathering. When we practice justice for the socially vulnerable, our worship service can carry a fragrant scent, rather than an unpleasant stench before our God in heaven.
  • And while we can distance ourselves from toxic people, we can also form spaces in the church (in-person and virtual) to invite one another into healing from our trauma, deeper belonging, and liberating conversations. In our practice of being fully human together, we can even get it “wrong” at moments, because we draw from the costly well of grace, which is not of the cheap or shallow kind.

If God is indeed a story-maker then the church can join God in this beautiful compelling story, telling and re-telling it, while never having to settle for gospel scribble.

The Testimonies We Carry

by Deborah Masten

It was March 10, 2020. After 20 minutes into my long overdue meeting, my spiritual director, Debbie Blue, was handing me her cell phone. Mid-session she had phoned a place that provided 24-hour silent retreats. This had never happened before; she wasn’t asking me to consider this, she was making it clear that it was non-negotiable. She had listened to my schedule for the past several months as the Director of Global Personnel with the Evangelical Covenant Church, one that included managing the fallout from back-to-back demonstrations involving emergency evacuations in Ecuador and Chile. The lingering fatigue behind my eyes told the story of my relentless workload.

Forgoing politeness and spiritual direction courtesies, she was insisting that I stop. Full stop. I promised her that I would absolutely follow through with the reservation…but the next day, the World Health Organization declared that the coronavirus was officially a pandemic. So I had to break the promise. For the next few months, I would be a member of our denomination’s Global Emergency Response Team (GERT), creating and implementing guidelines and protocols for our 100-plus worldwide global personnel. I would be tracking global travel details, including quarantines, from airport to airport; providing communications that relayed CDC guidelines; issuing travel alert advisories that changed at times within 24 hours, and managing our office protocols as well as offering pastoral care. Previously-planned ministry and personal engagements would have to be canceled—including weddings, graduations, vacations, sabbaticals, and memorials.

Then at the point when protocols were in place and potential rest was in sight…cue the racial pandemic. Covid-19 and worldwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations were taking place. I was grieving with a global team member due to a sudden family loss. One of our recently-evacuated global personnel families were living blocks away from fires that broke out due to tensions in Minneapolis over the public lynching of George Floyd, which followed the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Six months later, while I was recovering from major spinal surgery, we had a contentious election. And then this week, violent insurrectionists breached the US Capitol building. They were emboldened by the president of the United States into believing the election had been stolen. Lord, have mercy.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

2 Corinthians 4:7-9

How exactly were we spared from being pandemically crushed, while in burnout, adjacent to despair? While having to abandon so many of our close relationships, how did we maintain any sense of hope?

In 2020, we understood our dilemma as we examined the frailty and vulnerability of our jars of clay like never before. Without words, strategy, or reliance on the predictability of precedents, we only had empty jars filled with questions. We desperately needed God to show up with answers.

The answers came within the isolation. We felt desperate to reach out to others. There was a life-and-death urgency to convey love to loved ones. Whether locked down or on the frontlines, we witnessed sacrifice and service that came at a cost. Already beyond our breaking point, we were faced with the sobering facts of the racial pandemic, one that came crashing through our world like an ocean that merged with already-existing rivers of injustice and inequality. But this time there was a holy momentum, issued from God’s foundation of righteousness and justice. It felt like hope. It felt as though God was in this moment.

The places of God’s grace provided this unfathomable sense of resilience, seeing month after month that God was present and God was enough for any and everything. No matter how many layers of grief or how relentless the pain, no matter how politically complex our situation or how inadequate our response as the church, God continued to delight in us and sing over us, even in the midst of our deep grief and mourning. The places of God’s grace provided this unfathomable sense of resilience, seeing month after month that God was present and God was enough for any and everything. Click To Tweet

I have hope for 2021, being reminded of the overwhelming grace and tenderness God displayed alongside the pain and heaviness of 2020. God faithfully showed up in our personal, breaking news stories, giving us sacred gratitude lists to remember. Mine include:

  • The incredibly caring bond with my GERT team
  • Having my George Floyd story published
  • Participating in encouraging virtual global personnel training
  • My daughter’s post-surgery visit
  • Accepting self-care intervention from Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength by Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes.

Looking back on 2020, I could not have survived all that transpired on my own strength. I am sure that all of our jars of clay carry testimonies of being filled with the holiness of God’s presence. Our hope continues its focus on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8). There is no guarantee that 2021 will be any easier than what we have just endured. But the power of God’s presence will carry us as we mourn in times of darkness and also allow us spaces to celebrate and rejoice.