A few days ago I wrote a Blog in response to both the questions and the criticisms of my decision to speak at the Memorial Day in Montgomery. In it I attempted to communicate my talk which is appropriately represented by the thesis/title – “Voices From the Past Calling for Personal and Racial Reconciliation in the Present for the Future.”
A brief summary is, beginning with historical facts and illustrations and attempting to build on commendable efforts at regional reconciliation, after a fratricidal war, I then challenged the audience to not simply remember history but to make history. And the only way to make a history that cannot be hijacked is to build a history which removes sin with repentance, forgiveness and filling it with the love of Christ. This kind of history can only be made when those who make it are first reconciled to God through the Gospel of salvation by grace in Christ, which is received by faith and repentance – as we trust in His atoning work on the cross – and are filled with His Spirit and who repent of their sins to follow Christ. Referencing II Cor 5 I also affirmed the Apostle Paul’s identification of the Gospel as “the ministry and message of reconciliation in Christ.” Furthermore, this Gospel places us under a mandate to reconcile with others through repentance and forgiveness. This Gospel culture of repentance and reconciliation must be intentionally nondiscriminatory and without partiality since all of this human race, no matter the ethnicity, are made in the image of God.
The simple fact is, we, who are saved by grace, are called to treat others with grace, respect and dignity. This lifestyle was illustrated imperfectly but astonishingly through the post-Civil War efforts of an adopted son of Alabama, Booker T. Washington from whom I used three illustrations. The 20 minute talk concluded with an invitation to Christ and a call to follow Christ by hearing the voices from the past now challenging us in the present to pursue personal and racial reconciliation for the future and to labor for a Gospel Awakening in a deeply divided nation.
The Blog concluded by my sharing my framing ministry philosophy from the Word of God – Where do I speak? – When do I speak? – What do I Speak? – along with the basic premise that even with my inadequacies I must compassionately but clearly speak the Gospel and be numbered with the company of God’s people who are identified as – “Everyone Evangelizing Everyone Everywhere Every day.”
I have obviously received numerous responses. Many thoughtfully worked their way through the Blog taking the time to identify what they affirm and what they question. There were various comments and critiques. The vast majority were thoughtful, reflective and for me, instructive and insightful, for which I am grateful. I had planned on a Part 2 for next week but in light of some of the questions that have surfaced and after much prayer; I was convinced I need to respond now.
First of all to those thoughtful comments – I repeat, thank you. Your focused responses both positive and negative have been very helpful. I am amazed and reaffirmed by the fact that learning is a lifelong experience. While I have responded to many individuals personally and continue to do so, there are others that still need to be addressed and therefore this Blog.
For many, their first encounter of my speaking at this event was a carefully framed picture of me on the podium with battle flags flying in the breeze behind me. As one brother shared, “it was startling to see, not only a PCA pastor but YOU in that setting.” Furthermore he said, “I confess I embraced it as it was intended for me to embrace it…supposing you were there with an uncritical support of the battle flag and what it represents in today’s world.” As I said to this young man and to others but particularly to my African-American brothers please know that nothing could be further from the truth therefore I am deeply sorry for the offense and/or the confusion that picture has caused and my involvement in it. Please note, I am not saying “if you were offended forgive me.” What I am saying is, forgive me for offending you. Regardless of my intentions of the meeting the offense of that optic in your life pains me. But allow me to simply assure you, not in self-defense but for clarity, I went to the event for my speaking part and not the ceremonies and of course I spoke from my assigned position on the podium and had no input as to the ceremonial decorations.
Perhaps for some context as I mentioned in my first Blog I have spoken at a number of LGBTQ events where the rainbow symbol was prominent, flags flew and placards surrounded me on the podium and in the audience containing statements I cannot repeat in this Blog. But I do remember seeing the picture of me on the podium when it was published. Again, in that setting I had no control over the optics. I could only trust that the people who know me would also know that I deeply wanted to love those in the audience by speaking the Gospel but I did not agree with the symbols or statements displayed. I have encountered multiple instances when I have been invited to speak where the optics were shattering including churches that had statues and images which made me cringe but I chose to go ahead and preach hoping no one would assume I was theologically in agreement with the display. Yet that doesn’t diminishes the pain I feel at the awareness of the pain, offense and confusion which that picture caused my brothers in the faith and most especially my African-American fathers and brothers.
Let me respond to another thoughtful question. – “Harry what is your opinion of “The Lost Cause” and the flag controversies?” Thankfully I have spoken specifically to these issues. I’ll be glad to provide links to the talks that I have done for various organizations, documentaries, as well as the daily Today In Perspective 10 minute podcast on current issues from a Christian world and life view (i.e. the podcast we did on South Carolina Governor Haley’s decision to move the flag to the museum etc.). I will also list a few of the talks I have done on these subjects from a Biblical world and life view that can be obtained through links.
- Five Southern Presbyterian Preachers Who Could Have Saved 700,000 Lives
- Valid Concerns Polluted By an Evil Cause
- The Spirituality of the Church – The Wrong Use of a Right Doctrine and Its Consequences
- Question: Where Was our William Wilberforce? Answer: Where Was our John Newton?
- 19th Century History and the Civil War – Learning from the Past to Live in the Present to Change the Future for Christ.
- PBS Broadcast – The Founding Fathers and Slavery
- The Founding Fathers and America’s Original Sin
- The Conversion and Discipleship of Abraham Lincoln Through Two Northern “Old School” Presbyterian Pastors and its Consequences
- (Meditations Upon the Divine Will – Emancipation Proclamation – Gettysburg Address – Reconstruction Policy – 14th Amendment)
Thirdly, while I am particularly concerned of any offense to my African- American fathers and brothers I do want them to know that a partial reason for my speaking at such events to proclaim the Gospel and a call to personal racial reconciliation was to advance our denomination’s overture of promoting Gospel racial reconciliation throughout every demographic in our society as well as the church.
While the response from this particular talk has not been overwhelming it has been significant. I actually have follow up meetings with individuals who want to speak with me about what it means to be reconciled to Christ and some who have asked for a meeting to discuss how they can be a part of a racial reconciliation movement in the state of Alabama. I have no idea where this will lead or the breadth of its impact. But I have some experiences in my life and ministry that inform me where it can lead and propel me to proclaim the Gospel and its call to repentance and forgiveness to everyone and praying for the effects multiplied. Let me share three of these personal experiences that transformed my life in the ministry of Gospel racial reconciliation.
THREE SEMINAL LIFE CHANGING GOSPEL RACIAL RECONCILIATION EVENTS
The first event that affected my desire to see Gospel based racial reconciliation occurred literally days after my conversion. As many who were raised in the South, racism was a way of life and existed in the air we breathed. When I was converted to Christ at age 21 I began to share the Gospel with all of my friends. Within days I had spoken with my best friend. He rejected my invitation for him to come to Christ. But having told me “no” he then proceeded to ask me a question – “Harry, now that you are a Christian what is your view of black people (as was the polite term in those days)?” I simply looked at him without an answer…he then said “Well, I’m not a Christian but if you are then it should change.” That was a transforming moment for me and I am forever glad for his boldness to challenge me even though there were reasons he should have been hesitant to say what he said. I praise the Lord he wasn’t. Not only did that become a transforming moment for me in a journey that not only led to a personal transformation in my relationships but it also became an ever present reminder of the transforming power of the Gospel to produce racial reconciliation and maturation in a moment. By the way, my best friend did become a Christian two years later and called me to tell me so we could celebrate together. O how I love the power of the Gospel
In my second pastoral ministry we held our annual Missions Conference. Our guest speaker was a 40 year veteran missionary from India. Since I have not obtained permission I will not use their actual names…so I will call him Mr. Smith. One of our pastoral interns was a retired, African- American Army Colonel moving toward the Gospel ministry. Interestingly he had the same last name as this missionary. So, I purposely asked them to sit together at the Missions Banquet head table. The conversation between them went like this:
“Well I guess you see we have the same last name.”
“Yes, do you think we are brothers?” (laughter)
“Where are you from?”
“Oh really? I’m from Maryland?”
“Oh really? What part?”
“The western part”
“So am I!”
Minutes later they were looking at each other in amazement realizing that the missionary’s Great Grandfather had owned the Colonel/Intern’s Great Grandfather as a slave on his plantation. After Emancipation, the Colonel/Intern’s Great Grandfather took the name of his slave owner thus these two men now had the same last name!During the testimony time the Missionary, instead of presenting his ministry, shared with the audience what had transpired in their conversation. With tears he shared his repentance of his family’s enslavement of the Colonel/Intern’s Great Grandfather and also the joy of his forgiveness. We then all watched as they embraced one another declaring, “We really are brothers!” There was not a dry eye in the congregation and with no embarrassment I was perhaps the most emotional. How glad I was in God’s providence we had sat them together. How glorious it was to see in them the power of Gospel transformation and reconciliation.
The third event was the work of God’s providence in ways I would have never anticipated allowed me, in my first pastorate to serve a church that in three years amazingly grew mostly by conversions and developed a demographic that was almost 40% African American/Caribbean. It was life changing for me and for the church. After I was called from that church to plant a church in Charlotte I was eventually succeeded by an extraordinary African American pastor/preacher, Mike Campbell and then he was succeeded by another gifted African American pastor/preacher, Kevin Smith both becoming leaders in the PCA. But interestingly this experience providentially prepared me for another life changing event – of my 10 precious grandchildren, three are African American. I want to them to see and experience the power of the Gospel in their own lives and Gospel racial reconciliation in every demographic of our society.
In the last two days one person has written to tell me that some viewed the Memorial Day event as a counter to the opening of the monument to Peace and Justice that was being dedicated to mark the place where the last known recorded lynching had occurred. Nothing was said to me about this and I certainly would not have countenanced such a thing. But I can assure you that I’m now looking forward to not only seeing this new museum but incorporating it as part of the Booker T. Washington/George Washington Carver 2-Day Tour I lead each year that begins in Birmingham with our extraordinary Civil Rights Museum proceeding to the Civil Rights Trail in Montgomery and concluding at the famed Tuskegee University.
By the way, in response to my first Blog a number of people have asked a good resource to begin an acquaintance with the lives of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver illuminating the role of their relationship with Christ and their Christian world and life view. So I would highly recommend John Perry’s biographical study as a starter on their lives in tandem called “Unshakeable Faith.”
FOUR SEMINAL LIFE CHANGING TEXTS ON GOSPEL MINISTRY
There is so much more to say and so much more to learn. Again, for all who have thoughtfully made comments, thank you. Let me conclude by identifying four Biblical texts that challenge me in terms of being willing to proclaim Christ not only in the safe environs of the Briarwood sanctuary/pulpit and Christian conferences but in other less than welcoming environments.
When Jesus sailed to the “other side of the sea” ( i.e. for orthodox Jews, they would not go to the paganized territory called “The Galilee of the Gentiles.”) to evangelize the demoniacs He provided a fourfold challenge for my life as a Gospel minister – there is no place He would not go to seek and save the lost; no person so lost He would not seek to save them; no power He would not overcome to seek and save the lost; and no person He saved that He would not use to seek and save others.
Interestingly, when Jesus denied the saved demoniac’s request to go with him, He then told him to go home and “tell your family and friends what great things I have done for you.” Though Jesus was entreated to leave the region He came back months later. When He did, thousands thronged to hear Him. I believe that was the result of the saved demoniac’s witness to his family and friends which changed the landscape of the culture and those who at one time wanted Jesus to leave now couldn’t wait to hear Him.
Matt 9: 9-13
Jesus declared He had come as the Physician to heal those who were sick. So He went to the culturally and religiously despised tax gatherers (i.e. traitors/thieves) and to the prostitutes (i.e. sexually immoral) and not only spoke the Good News to them but sat down at the table with them. The optics were not good. In fact, the Pharisee’s used the optics to slander Him with not only criticisms but with lightly- veiled accusations of immoral sexual motives… but He went. Gloriously, many were saved and became part of the company of believers and one was numbered with His Disciples.
The Apostle Paul, provoked at the sin of idolatry in Athens, proclaimed Christ in the synagogues and marketplaces. He even accepted an invitation and spoke from the podium at Mars Hill likely filled with pagan philosophers. He actually used quotes from Stoic and Epicurean philosophers with the Parthenon and statues of idols in the background. Again, the optics were not good and I now wonder what he would have done if iphones had been present but I do know he preached the Gospel. The result, many ridiculed, slandered and rejected him. But praise the Lord, some believed and others asked him back to speak to them again.
Matt 13/Mark 4/Luke 8
These texts contain the parable of the sower which has multiple lessons but two have drastically affected my life and ministry. The primary lesson of the parable is – the fate of the seed (Word of God) is determined by the condition of the soil (heart of the hearer). Another lesson is that the sower sows the good seed indiscriminately. He doesn’t just go to good soil or to what he thinks is good soil and he doesn’t avoid the bad soil. He sows the seed on rocky ground, thorny ground, good ground and even hard ground. He does this for multiple reasons. But one reason is that the sowing of the seed not only produces fruit from the good ground but the sowing of the seed is also used by the Spirit God to create good ground. So the next time the seed is sowed the heart will be prepared to receive it. “Some plant, some water, God gives the increase.”
So with Biblical principles guiding, the Holy Spirit granting lessons from patient brothers and sisters such as those who have so thoughtfully responded to this situation, your forgiveness, which is not deserved but desired, and with God’s strength, power and wisdom, I’ll keep pressing on “growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ.” SDG