Rome Is Burning

I sit here staring at a blinking cursor mostly lost for words. I am grieving the horrendous death of George Floyd like everyone else but I know I’m processing only a sliver of its significance. I am hesitant to say much of anything because I feel so unqualified. I’m a white due who doesn’t even tan, I just burn. I want to listen to, learn from, and empathize with the lived experience of people of color—be a student first and critic last. I’m not black or brown and I am reluctant to speak for those who are or even add my voice to the fray.

But I’m a leader and I have a responsibility to say and do something. As I look back through this stream of consciousness first paragraph I notice how self-absorbed it reads. Literally every sentence starts with “I” or “I’m”. This isn’t about me. See, I watched a black man address an officer of the law by that title—officer, not “pig” or other pot shots—as he begged for the ability to breathe for minutes that felt like months. I watched a black man call out for his momma as fellow officers and citizens stood by, hands in pockets. It needs to be called what it is: shameful, flagrant, heinous, evil.

On Pentecost Sunday I had hoped for a different kind of fire. Our world is burning down and it needs to. We have to feel the blaze the black community has been enduring for generations. If only for a cultural second, we are forced to stare eyes peeled, mouths agape, speechless, and breathless into the incandescent glow of burning city streets tainted with tear gas and smoke and maybe, just maybe, we can catch a glimpse of or hear a fragment of the vacuous echo of a sobbing black mothers grieving the loss of sons and daughters time and time again.

People of color don’t need to told to turn down their emotion because white people are uncomfortable with its substance. What would you do if it was your kid on the ground gasping for air? I hesitate to think why I might do. Plus, let’s be honest, we are never comfortable with protests of racial inequality or inequity, civil and peaceful or otherwise. It’s always inconvenient. It hurts professional sports profit sharing.

Hear me, I’m not condoning the riots and looting that litter news headlines. I value law and order. I pray for peace. I, like others, decry the violence we are seeing around our nation. I do not believe that the four cops featured in the George Floyd murder video typify law enforcement, not by a long shot. Strongly believing all these things though, I’m not black. I’ve never, not once, felt unsafe jogging through my or any other neighborhood in town. I won’t have to explain to my daughters how they’ve aged out of their “cute” stage and will now be perceived as a threatening and unsettling presence because of the color of their skin and choice of clothing. I’ve never been profiled by racially insensitive law enforcement officers. The closest I’ve ever come to anything like that was dealing with a small town cop in Pickens, SC who was on a power trip and wrote me my first, and so far only, speeding ticket for going 10 over on an empty country road, on a hill, following someone going the same speed. He saw out of state plates and saw easy money. He said as much. All that being said, just because my lived experience of racial inequity is limited or absent does not mean it doesn’t exist. How many more videos do we need?

Derek Chauvin (the cop pictured kneeling on George’s neck) was a bad egg. I agree. Stories and reports continue to surface to further confirm that truth. But what about his colleagues who helped restrain George Floyd and did nothing to answer his pleas for life? Are they bad eggs too, horrible racists who couldn’t have cared less as they watched George go limp and lifeless? I’m speculating for course, time will tell, due process will be served, but I doubt it. I imagine their hearts are nowhere near as calloused and cold as the video would have us believe. This is why justice for this moment is so much bigger than Derek Chauvin being charged with manslaughter and third degree murder. True justice addresses the system that allowed, in fact practically necessitated, these cops honor their fellow officer more than the black man dying beneath them.

We have a bigger problem than bad egg cops and racist grandmas. It transcends geographical barriers and isn’t confined to urban centers. It’s cultural, historical, socio-economical, all the “i-cals”. I’m bias for sure, but I believe it is spiritual at its root. We have an empathy problem. We have a hard time seeing outside of our lived experience because to do so risks popping the comfortable, insulated bubbles we inhabit.

We can’t ignore it anymore. Fiery riots (even if largely instigated by outsiders, organized crime, or even white supremacists) ought to wake us up to the truth that we have to do more, especially within the body of Christ, than simply say, “I’m not racist.” We have to be anti-racist. We have to work to dismantle systems and structures that aren’t equal or equitable. And we can. We can raise new generations that aren’t ignorant to these issues nor inoculated against helpful conversations because they are so politically or religiously charged. We can and must do better at talking about these things civilly, working toward real solutions, legislative or otherwise (though you can’t change hearts through legislation), and standing with and lending our voices to communities in pain.

God used a moment of impulsive and illegal action (murder) in Exodus 2 to shape the life of Moses, the great emancipator and law giver of the Old Testament. Shortly thereafter in the narrative, this dude brings down divine laws from Yahweh’s holy mountain, one of which was “thou shall not murder,” with blood stained hands. God was able to use the crisis moment of Moses’ life as the springboard to his higher calling. My prayer is He is doing the same thing in our nation and in our churches today in these tumultuous times.

But hey, don’t take my word for it. Listen to a black or brown friend. Hear their hearts and stories. Trying walking a mile in their shoes (so much as is possible) before trying to correct their stride.

In Memory of John Pitzer

*Disclaimer* It is probably a little outside the norm to write about a man you barely knew after he passes and without the consent of his family but I bear with me because I have something to say.

A few weeks back John Pitzer passed away.  I have not been able to get definitive information about the nature of his passing but familial rumor has it that he fell off the wagon and overdosed on his substance of choice.  As a pastor I get the chance to mourn with families and friends at the loss of their loved ones more often than I would like.  Still, I cherish the opportunity to get to try and bring some words of hope and peace to grieving people.

Death sucks…

John was not an avid attender at our church.  He had other priorities, vices, and jobs that sometimes took him away.  No lie though, when John did show up I had a better Sunday.  I couldn’t have been the only one.

John had a way of bringing a sense of openness, vulnerability, and authenticity to our service.  I would often times get to talk with him briefly before or after services and I won’t forget the cheeky banter but also the cut to the point, no holds bar, confessional type moments where he laid bare his concerns. These moments are precious to me. He lifted my heart in the few times I got to talk with him and I don’t want him forgotten.

Drugs sucks…

So many times, once we give in to the pressure to smoke, snot, swallow, shoot, or swill (you name it), I think the Enemy of God breathes a sigh of relief–one less person to lead to destruction.  Don’t get me wrong, in the Name of Jesus we can find liberty, freedom, hope, power, and new direction.  God was able to raise Jesus Christ from the grip of death by the power of the Holy Spirit so redeeming people from the chains of drug addiction is well inside the bounds of the power of Christ’s work.  Sadly though, that power is only made effective in the lives of people who seek the Lord and yearn for his will for their lives over their own.  God is always working, always wooing, always calling us to him but drugs have the profound ability to grieve the Holy Spirit and make the still small voice of God mute for all intents and purposes.  Drugs suck!  Once they have their claws in us to many times we manage to isolate ourselves, destroy our relationships, disappoint ourselves and others with alarming frequency, and get ourselves into financial pinches that only heighten the stress and perpetuate our dependence on substances other than the sustaining power of God in our lives and the peace that walks us through every situation (high and low) by the power of his Spirit.

John Pitzer struggled with drugs.  Those who knew him well have felt the sting of disappointment, stress, and anger.  But John was created in the image of God. C.S. Lewis has a famous line, “you have never met a mere mortal.” John bore the precious image of God.  He was made for a purpose.  He was on this planet to love and be loved and drugs robbed him of that.  Worse even, drugs led him to squander the image of God in him.  We all bear the mark of our God.  We were created to live in this world has stewards of his creation, fully alive in him, in perfect harmony with God and with each other but instead we chose our own path–a path of sin.  In our own ways we all have mocked the image of God rooted deep inside.  Instead of showing love we show hate, instead of kindness – bigotry, instead of patience – rage, instead of hope – despair.  We all have chosen paths other than what God had for us.

In the end we all face death.  It is our curse in sin.  But, because of what Christ has done for us in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension though we have a choice in how we face our foe.

It is a great tragedy to see a human being die.  John is no different.  A life marked by drugs is often quickly forgotten, even by close friends and family because drugs manage to severe ties long before death and we tend to mourn the loss of our loved before they even pass because in all reality if feels like we lost them a long time ago.

But there is hope!  John should not be forgotten.  He was a precious child of the living God.  The Lord loved him so much even through his bondage to substance abuse that his own Son (Jesus Christ) suffered and died in his place.  As Christians we leave ultimate judgement to God.  We resist the temptation to become put ourselves on the judges bench, judging others mistakes, vices, behaviors.  Instead we ought to pray to see the people around us who are suffering with the eyes of a suffering God who never gives up on his kids.  John should not be forgotten because he will never be forgotten by our holy God.  

It is a terrible thing to see someone squander the image of God implanted in them.  We are all destined for eternity but we sometimes treat life like it is fleeting, useless, unwanted.  Drugs become a friend in that darkness, but a dark friend indeed.  Instead of leading us to the light–wholeness, healing, mended relationships–they make us retreat into the darkness, alone, isolated…

If you are struggling with substance abuse today, please don’t forget John.  Instead, seek help.  Seek the blood of Christ.  Seek counseling.  There is hope today even if you can’t see it in the middle of your situation.

We will all see John again one day.  Some day soon, Christ will come again in glory and we will all stand accountable for our lives.  Instead of debating which side of the isle John will be on we should take this time to look inside ourselves and ask if we are squandering the grace of God in our own lives.  Are we living lives worthy of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ?

John will be missed.  Don’t forget him, and may his memory move us to action.