Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Breaking My Silence

If there is anyone out there who still follows this blog, I offer a sincere apology. As is obvious, I have posted nary a word since late May. To put it in perspective, I have grown four inches of facial hair since my last post. Please hear my litany of lame excuses. Summer is crazy. My family and I are just now coming down to earth from a pretty hectic summer. Also, a good friend of mine volunteered to hook me up with a new blog; one with more options and a fresh look. However, he has run into some unforeseen difficulties and the new blog lives only as a mirage in the proverbial desert of blogdum. I wrote this to assure the two of you that things are in the works. My goal is to post weekly. Please note that the essence of this goal is hitched to the business end of the new blogsite. Should the new blogsite remain in a state of perpetual limbo, then the aforementioned goal shall languish upon the ash heap of good intentions. Finally, you should know that I will henceforth be writing under the name Thelonious Clemmons. This is for two reasons. First, I've always liked the idea of writing under an alias. Secondly, I've always felt like a Thelonious, and considered myself a Thelonious, even though I was born a Josh.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

hidden in plain sight

What was Jesus thinking? I ask myself that question sometimes. In particular, I've been asking that question as it relates to the recepients of Jesus' ministry. He gave to people who either couldn't pay him back, or could but were unwilling to. He spent himself on outcasts and people of ill repute. He embraced children. He stuck up for professional fornicators. Then he commands all of us to do the love people who won't love us invite people over who are too broke to return the pray for people who didn't ask to be added to our prayer list. And if that weren't enough, he then demands that we do it all in secret! I've had a revelation. I'm not willing to minister to people who can't pay me back unless I get to broadcast it to people who can pay me back. I demand compensation for my works of charity, and my right hand is fully informed as to the actions of my left hand. As far as I can understand it, Jesus was thinking that his heavenly father had his back. He didn't feel the need to gain worldly approval or compensation because he actually trusted his father. I would like to propose that we actually don't. I know I don't. I want too, but i don't. I care too much about what people think of me to give wthout interest, and I crave the strokes of admiration too much to invest in people who don't know or care how important I am. There are more of you out there. If you're a professional minister, then you know you're in this boat.Stand up and be counted. He told us not to lord it over people, but we insist on titles. We will only wash the feet of those who are willing to pat us on the back while we do it. The only way that we would ever hide our good deeds, is if we were certain that an important person would catch us doing it. Maybe the better question is...what are we thinking?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Allow me to introduce you to Dae Dae. His government name is Datreal Neal, and over the past four years he’s become something like a son to me and Laura, and a big brother to Anna Grace and Ellis. Dae Dae and I were matched-up through a mentoring agency here in Asheboro before we had really begun any work on the East Side. Dae Dae has a mom, a brother, a sister, and a pit bull from whom I keep a safe distance. Dae Dae is a member of the track team, and the varsity basketball team. He comes equipped with an explosive first step, but an inconsistent jump shot. Your best bet is to make him go left.

Dae Dae is seventeen years old. For the past four years I have been his mentor, and he has been my teacher. He has articulated for me what life is like for those to whom God has called me. His insight and sincerity have been priceless. Now that you’ve met him, you may well be curious as to the occasion of this introduction. You’re meeting Dae Dae because he is the newest member of our team. Starting in June, Dae Dae will be our first ever summer intern. He will counsel at summer camp, help tend the garden, help with vacation Bible school, pitch in with mission teams, and who knows what else.

In case you’re wondering, here are my motives behind this decision.
1.) Our summers are busy, and I could use some help.
2.) I like Dae Dae, and it will be fun having him around more.
3.) Because we are paying him, he may feel morally compelled to answer my phone calls.
4.) For some time, he has been wrestling with a call to ministry, and this opportunity may help clarify things.
*I’m not sure about #2, and #3, but #1 and #4 are pretty solid.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A vote for ethics

I raised a question a couple of weeks ago that I never really addressed. Which is more important, theology or ethics? In other words, which is more revealing of our spiritual state, what we believe or how we behave? My vote goes for ethics. Theology matters only to the extent that it informs the way we live. Or as Wendell Berry puts it , "you don't believe anything until you believe it with your whole body." I love that old man. True belief is a matter of what you do with your body, not what you think with your brain.

This conundrum wreaked all kind of havoc in the early church. It is especially evident in the relationship of two of the pillars. There is at best a creative tension between Paul and James. One is preaching that salvation comes by faith, while the other insists that faith without works is dead. Go read Acts 15 and 21. Then read Galatians 1 and 2. Though these elder statesmen of the Jesus movement clearly revered each other, the incongruities of their respective messages helped define the first 25 years of Christianity.

First there's James, otherwise known as the brother of Jesus. Although he was not among the original 12, it's apparent that he had ascended the ranks in the Jerusalem church within a few years of Pentecost. In fact, the aforementioned chapters in Acts and Galatians portray even Peter and Paul as deferring to his leadership. By all accounts of church history, James remained a devout Jew. It's even possible that he was a Nazarite ( no bath, no shave, no meat ). James was a Jew who led a Jewish church. He was considered righteous even by his adversaries. He was put to death by the same sad souls who did in his brother. How did James view the Jewish Law? As a joyful obligation for Jews, and a blessed option for God-fearing Gentiles. Note: the Law that James and other Jewish Christians ascribed to was not the Law of the scribes and Pharisees. His was a radical interpretation of the Law set forth by his Lord and brother. It was a Law based on purity of intent and compassion. It was not based on religious zeal and scrupulosity.

Then there's Paul. Paul viewed the Law as a blessed option for Jews, and as utterly pointless for Gentiles. As an ambassador for Christ to the non-Jewish world, Paul felt compelled to strip the Gospel of any undue cultural trappings. Kind of difficult seeing as how Jesus lived his whole life as an observant Jew. How does Paul write 13 letters to Christians and not make one mention of the earthly life of Jesus? That was not his concern. His concern was preaching salvation by faith alone based on the atoning death and Resurrection of Jesus. Let me say this...there's a long line of folks waiting to lambaste Paul for un-Jewishing the Gospel. I don't want to be in that line. At its best, Paul's message depicts an unbiased, all-powerful God with a diverse group of redeemed followers. Without Paul, we may have little clue of the eternal Christ. But taken on its own, his message can also give rise to a generic, three day Gospel that leaves us all worked-up over eternity but secretly wondering what to do in the meantime. Those who want to, can assume that Paul's command to believe in the empty grave relieves us of Jesus' command to take up our cross and deny ourselves.

Ironically, there may have been little difference in how these two actually lived. Acts 21 even has Paul undergoing a thoroughly Jewish purification rite at the behest of James. But can there be any doubt that there was some significant divergence in their preaching? I love James, but I'm not against Paul. My concern is that the church today is dominated by Paul's emphasis on right belief, while James is relegated to the shadowy regions of church history. I guess we're lucky we have him at all, seeing as how Martin Luther seemed hell-bent on striking him from the record.

My point? It matters how we live. My take is that an ounce of ethics is worth a pound of theology. Faith without works is a fat man eating a fifty-dollar steak while preaching on the wages of sin to a starving child.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

the carrot and the french fry part 2

Well we've got the easy question out of the way...sort of. The second question, "if hell exists, then who's going?" is a bit trickier. Let me begin with this disclaimer: I am in no position to speculate on the eternal whereabouts of any particular soul. And, by the way, neither is anyone else. None of us can say with any degree of certainty that any specific person is in hell. No not even that one. That said, I think Jesus does give us some indication of what kind of person, or lifestyle should be cause for concern.

For my money, nothing beats the parable of the prodigal son. It's found in Luke 15, so go read it if you haven't yet. The cliff notes of it is that there are two sons and one righteous father. The younger son takes his inheritance in advance and blows it on women and whiskey, wakes up in a pig-sty, and comes crawling home to the compassionate and unqualified embrace of his father. The elder son stayed by the father's side, carried out his duties, and didn't spend nary-a-night with a pig.
The father throws a party to celebrate the return of his youngest, which I presume to be symbolic of heaven. Read the whole chapter and you'll see why. The elder son is envious of this extravagance, and refuses to go in.

OK, here's my take on all of this....The younger sons fault is that he didn't yet understand the fathers love. He thought there was something better out there. Eventually, he realized that he was horribly wrong. The elder son was content to remain in the fathers loving presence. His fault was that he wanted to keep his fathers love to himself.

The most scandalous, and terrifying truth of this parable is that the person on the outside is there by his own choice! The father was begging him to come in and he refused to! It should scare the crap out of all of us who are Christian by birth that the purest, and best behaved of these two brothers couldn't stomach the goodness of the father. The point that Jesus is revealing is clear...all rebellion is destructive, but the number one risk factor for eternal damnation is too much religion. Think about it. Break it down all you want to. There's only one reason the elder son missed out. He simply didn't like who else was on the guest list. Decades of duty-bound service had hardened his heart, and convinced him of his own worthiness. It was no longer enough that he got in. He had to control who else got in too.

In the end, the father was better than either son realized. The rebellious son came to his senses ( v. 17 ). The elder son never did. The moral: self-indulgence and self-righteousness are both sinful, but self-righteousness sets the deeper stain. God help us.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

the carrot and the french fry

Rob Bell has me thinking lately. His book Love Wins has stirred a heated debate these past few weeks over the subtleties of eternal damnation. I admit I haven't read it. I've done what most others have a few excerpts, seen a few interviews and discussed it for hours with other Christians. So this is NOT a book review. These are my views on the topic of heaven and hell, which have been brought to the surface and refined by the recent discussion.

Two questions about hell keep coming up. The first is, "is hell real?" The second is, "if it is real, who's going?" We all have to wrestle with these questions. As far as I can tell, the answer to the first question, hell is not real. It exists, but it's not real. What I mean to say is that hell is not natural. Hell is the eternal manifestation of falsehood. In this way, it's the opposite of real. God is real. In fact, he is reality itself. Heaven is to be in the perpetual presence of God. To be anywhere else is to exist in non-reality. Comparing heaven and hell is like comparing a carrot with a french fry. The carrot is real. It's intended. It's natural. It's here on purpose. The french fry, when held in the shadow of the carrot, can't be said to be real. It's fake. It's fabricated. It's here, but it's presence is not a result of divine volition. (An exception shall be made for Wendy's fries. Those things are dang good.)

Now, on to some scripture. In Matthew 25, through the lens of a parable, we get a look at the judgement seat. Here, the Son of Man is separating the people as a Shepard would separate sheep from goats. The long and short of it is, the ones cast into hell are the ones who refused to lay down their lives for others. Interesting side note...the basis for judgement in this parable is behavior, not belief. heaven and hell have more to do with ethics than theology. More on that later. My main point here is that in this parable, hell is described as having been made "for the devil and his angels." Hell came about as a fabricated consequence for those who rejected divine reality. Unnatural actions breed unnatural consequences. Also, it was made for spiritual rebels, not people. people experiencing hell are experiencing something that was not intended for them. Actually, I think a pretty good definition of hell is to receive what you were not intended to receive. So hell is not real. the very essence of it is fakeness.

Heaven was made for us. Hell was made for the devil. If that's true, then why doesn't everyone go to heaven? Do people go to hell because going to heaven is so hard? No. People go to hell because going to heaven is so easy. Heaven is automatic. It's natural. It's already built into the plan. That's what throws us. We don't trust anything we can't make. Some of us would rather inherit a hell made by our hands than a heaven made by the hands of another. The ultimate irony of heaven is that the only way to miss it is to try to get there on your own terms. -we'll get to the second question next time

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Spring is all about newness. After months of dormancy, the ground, the trees, and the sky begin to show signs of life. In recognition of this pattern, we decided to try something new ourselves. Two things actually. The first is a multi-cultural Bible study, done as a partnership between Foster Street Wesleyan Church, and Greater St. John Baptist. These two churches have developed somewhat of a sister church relationship over the past few years, and we felt that it was time to go deeper. As Pastor Kearns put it, “we have gathered around the frozen pond, and now it’s time to break the ice.” The 10-15 of us who will participate in this Bible study will try to do just that. Studying scripture with people of other backgrounds will expand our vision of what God is up to. It will also force us to face truths that we have mostly avoided thus far. Pray that God would grant us courage in this venture, and that he would use it to heal the hidden wounds of our division.

The second new thing is a community garden. Some kind friends have seen fit to lend us some space to grow some food. The space is located in front of the East Side Homes senior center, which is a perfect location for this project. A handful of our regular volunteers whom God has endowed with green thumbs will lead this work. The local young people will do most of the work, and reap most of the benefits. I’m honestly not sure which I’m more excited about, the prospect of studying God’s Word with a diverse group of Christians, or the looming prospect of fried squash. Please….don‘t make me choose

Thursday, March 3, 2011

the cross is all there is

Sorry this is so long, but I couldn't figure out how to break it up. Read it if you want to, and let me know if I'm a heretic.......

The cross of Christ is the central event of history, the core of all creation, and the sole reality holding the universe together. I don't mean this in a narrow way, or in an exclusive way. I mean this in a broad way, and in a way that takes into consideration the whole of existence. The life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just an historic event that can be contained within a single measurement of time. It is at the center of all that what is, was, or will be.

Think of it this way....we say we can't believe in the Resurrection because we weren't there to see it. But we have seen it. We've seen a seed dropped into the ground, and vegetation spring up in the exact same spot. We've seen a tree shed its leaves and grow new ones. We've eaten the meat of an animal and gained strength and energy. We've seen one day fade, and a new one replace it. Death and rebirth is an eternal reality. Life born from the womb of death is an undeniable truth that all of us must face. Those events are all deeply and inextricably related to the event that we refer to as the Resurrection. They all teach us what we cannot escape, try as we may. They teach us that renewal only comes through sacrifice. The seed was buried so that a tree could be born. Christ laid himself down so that all creation-himself included- could be reborn. Those events are do not just constitute a loosely drawn analogy. They constitute two manifestations of a single truth.

Death and rebirth is all there is. All else is a denial of reality. It's always been there. It was there before sin was there. Brokenness preceded sin. We think of brokenness - a kind of death- as a tragic outgrowth of mans rebellion. Christ's brokenness is then seen as a sharing of our brokenness,done to undo our brokenness, and prevent any further brokenness. But in Genesis 1 and 2, brokenness is a constant reality. We see it before, during, and after Adam and Eve's initial rebellion. Creation itself is an act of self-giving. God had to lay down his life, not just to save his creation. He had to lay down his life just to make his creation. Maybe that's why the Old Testament speaks so clearly about the forthcoming Crucifixion of the Messiah. God saw it, not just because he's God, but because it had already happened. He died for us before we sinned against him.

If this is true, then the historical crucifixion of Jesus was actually a dramatic re-enactment of the creation event. It was the clearest display of an eternal reality. It was a more emphatic version of a flower growing in a garden:Different in scope, but not different in kind.

Christ doesn't give us the power to fix ourselves. He gives us the power to be broken without being sinful. Truly then, all sin is rooted in the avoidance of brokenness. Adam and Eve weren't broken by their sin. They sinned by trying to escape their brokenness. Brokenness means vulnerability and dependency. Pride is an attempt to transcend these natural borders, and all acts of self-righteousness are merely attempts to skirt the cross.

If you look at it this way, the cross is not just one aspect of true religion. It is the essence of all truth, and is readily apparent for anyone with eyes to see. I see the cross and the empty grave most clearly in The Sermon on the Mt. The heart of the message found in Matthew 5-7 is that we would be wise to lay down our lives for truth and leave the results in the hands of the Father. We must love our enemies. We must not seek revenge. We must be content with what we have. We must not pursue worldly pleasure. These things characterize a life of brokenness. It is a life where God fights our battles for us simply because we trust him to do it. The empty grave is proof that it actually works.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Public Penance

Because we are funded by an assortment of churches and individuals, I myself am often asked to give voice to who we are. I usually say, “We’re an outreach ministry.” But that’s not entirely true. While it is true that we engage in acts of outreach in an underprivileged area, that title doesn’t get at the heart of our identity. Who are we then?

We are a public act of repentance for the public sin of racism. We are brokenhearted over the riff that exists within the body of Christ. We are grieved not just that we are divided, but that we are divided along the same lines by which worldly kingdoms are divided. We believe that a message of reconciliation proceeding from the mouth of a dismembered bride fuels a cynical attitude toward the church. We contend that racial division in the pews provides the illusion of divine consent to the subtle racism that remains in many secular institutions.

We are convinced that the epidemic in the black community is due in large part to a wound that they did not create. We have a growing sense that this epidemic and the division that inflicted it are deeply spiritual in nature. We affirm that prayer, confession and forgiveness are our God-given allies in the task at hand.

As the leader of this ministry, I know that this work starts with me. In recent weeks, we have begun to refocus on racial reconciliation as our primary task. To some degree, this means that we must scale back our more tangible acts of service in the community. Painful truth: Good works can at times be used to gloss over the deeper issues. They create a temporary sense of unity but, on their own, don’t address the diseased root of our separateness.

My single goal/prayer is that I and others would stop looking at racial division in the church as a mere inconvenience. I long for us to see it for what it truly is…proof that we are not as close to God as we think we are.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Yuletide Sweat-Socks

From the January Newsletter:

To everyone who helped us this Christmas, we say thank you. We were honestly overwhelmed by the outpouring of donations. When we set out to provide Christmas stockings for the kids at the local Boys and Girls Club, our goal was to raise five-hundred dollars. That amount would provide a respectable stocking for fifty or so kids. When all was said and done, we raised over one-thousand dollars for this project. For us, that meant three things. First, it meant that we could upgrade the stockings themselves. Instead of the classic, sad stocking with a moldy orange and a fractured candy-cane stuffed way down in the toe, we were able to stuff these Yule-tide sweat-socks with items that children might actually enjoy. In short, we stuffed them full of candy and other goodies, and then threw in a toothbrush to ease our guilt.

Second, it meant that we could assist some families who had recently fallen on hard times. These families were in crisis, and were it not for an abundance of generosity, we may not have been able to help. We consider these folks our friends, and we sincerely thank you for helping to make their Christmas a whole lot merrier.

And thirdly, the huge response means for us that people have our back. It lets us know that we are not the only ones who care, and that our ministry is not dependent on our own resourcefulness. It means that there are people with whom we share the load. Honestly, when we initially asked for five-hundred big ones at Christmas time, I was a bit pessimistic. Please accept my apology for underestimating you, and feel free to keep surprising me.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

a couple of things...

Question: How do you get four-hundred people together on a Thursday night, many of whom represent diverse economic and social backgrounds? Answer: Smoke a turkey. On Thursday November 18th, that’s just what we did. Actually, we smoked five of them. This was our fourth year participating in the EastSide Community Thanksgiving Dinner. Thanks to the neighborhood churches, and a lot of help from Foster Street Wesleyan Church, we all had a memorable evening together. A special thank you goes out to Juan Stimpson who stayed up all night smoking turkeys and hams. Thanks to you Juan, I can never eat a baked turkey again.

On a somewhat/completely unrelated note, I need you to help me pray about something. Lately I’ve felt a little out of position. God has called me to pastor and preach, and those are two things I don’t always get to do a lot of. Don’t get me wrong, I feel deeply honored to be working with the people that God has called me to. I’m just not sure if I’m relating to them in the right capacity. As the leader of a community organization, I’m looked to mostly as a provider of resources. At times, I spend the bulk of my energy planning events and raising funds. Some of you who know me are probably frightened at the thought of me planning events. I share your trepidation. As a community organizer with a pastors heart, I feel like I’m offering every solution but the one I know will work. Ultimately, we pray for God’s will to be done, whatever that looks like. Will you help us pray?