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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

Member of:

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Representative of:

Hope College, Holland, MI


Change is Gonna Come

August 21, 2017

I could be...no, correction, I probably should be working on a doctoral paper, but it will peek judgmentally over my shoulder soon enough. Life is a rocky road whose unsavory erraticism has taken a toll lately, so while I wanted to be further along by now all is not lost. If you'd be so kind, give me a moment to woosah.

After the Sabbath when Jesus was crucified and buried, an angel informed the two Mary's who'd come to his tomb, "Don't be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said." God still reigns and has the whole wide world in his hands, from the minutiae of our boring or routine happenings to larger than life issues of world order. This comforts me. Jesus is my buoy; no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

With a turbulent election and inaugural political season, whose plot is sure to find its way to Hollywood someday, this past year on multiple occasions I've been tenderly asked, "So, how are you doing? Well...you know, with everything that's been going on?" And I appreciate that. It's encouraging when those, both who share my racial hue and who do not, express genuine concern for me, recognizing that how they process or react to the multiple dramas persistently unfolding before us might somehow connote a different present and historical reality for another. This kind of interrogative has come my way from "all kinds of kinds," to quote Miranda Lambert. Sometimes I find myself scrambling to get up-to-date on what the most recent incident is because there continue to be so many.

All in all, I'm fine, really. Disappointed, yes. Frustrated, you could surely say. Annoyed, no doubt. Heartbroken, you bet. But I'm not dismayed. Thanks for asking. Though it can be draining at times, the gesture means a lot.

I must say, however, spiritual and historical amnesia is what burns my britches most, as I negotiate the relational waters of these kinds of conversations. At times, I sense I'm encountering Caucasian sisters and brothers who are only now at the early stages of acknowledging the wholesale privilege and protection their skin color affords them, at the unmerited expense of others who begin life at a deficient because of race and class. Other times, I chat with African Americans, from millennials to those much older than me, who seem to have just learned that America systemically mistreats us, like this started last night or last year. They're sincerely flabbergasted.

And then there are Christians, of varied theological thought and racial composition, who approach me almost weeping, confused and disillusioned by the state of the world. They wonder how Jesus' church has strayed so far from the Source, how people could dare hijack the Word of God to promote hate in such ways that we'd so easily fall for it. They want to live a life of holiness, not allowing changing mores to dictate their faith, but they don't understand how Christ's followers can every now and then be the biggest guardians of evil.

I love America. From my father to both grandfathers and a bunch of other relatives, I've had lots of interactions with government service through the years. Heck, because of the military, I was born in Japan, on Flag Day, and spent most of my adolescence living on a stateside military installation. Did you hear me? I love America. G.I. Joe is all-time favorite cartoon of my childhood. Hamburgers, hot dogs, bowling, baseball, and cool military flicks like Iron Eagle and Cadence; it's all good. But as much as I love America, I'm angered by some of what we stand for. I get it. No civilization is squeaky clean. For one reason or another, war is often unavoidable, I know. However, we are guilty of monstrous acts.

Indigenous Americans. I shouldn't need to explain our rancorous mistreatment of them after basically commandeering their land after arriving from England, even after scores of them risked their lives to help us? And there's how we went on to champion a system of chattel slavery, as a key participant in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Even after slavery officially ended, we maintained a thirst for white supremacy that unfortunately remains alive and well. Take a look at Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America by James Allen or Angela Sims' Lynched: The Power of Memory in a Culture of Terror. Learn about the red summer of 1919 (red representing the spilled blood of victimized African Americans across the nation) and the race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Levy County, Florida, where prosperous African American communities were sieged because they enjoyed the rarity of prosperous economic independence. And don't get me started with the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male." I could go on and on with these examples of race-based horror, so it's painful to see that so many Americans, irrespective of race, are ignorant to them.

We don't deal well with reality, which I hope many of us are realizing is hugely problematic. While new and improved opportunities have abounded for them here, largely, we've routinely used immigrants as cheap labor--and slaves as free labor--to give us a leg up in the global economy. We've become a juggernaut not solely because of ingenuity, sticktoitiveness, and hard work (although there's no doubt been a ton of that), rather a propensity for shameless crookery and violence.

With Christianity in mind, it's frustrating how we don't know or easily forget the Bible we say is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. Sin has led many women and men to think the unthinkable and do the deplorable. People, it's that powerful. Moses' parents are my heroes. Hebrews 11:23-26 tells us that "they were not afraid of the king's edict." No matter who is on the manmade throne of government anywhere, I want to not be afraid because Jesus sits on the only throne that matters with any finality. Of course, after surviving mass infanticide, Moses went on to choose "abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward." We should work passionately and doggedly towards godly justice to be manifested, for his Kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven--but our confidence needs to be found in God and his ways, not within ourselves and our ways.

For the record, while the losing candidates were fairly flawed as well, I'm not a fan of President Trump. His bigoted, sexist, narcissistic ideation and bullying conduct don't jive with what's requisite for good leadership. The prospect of nuclear catastrophe doesn't faze him. The pain associated with upholding, still more than a century later, confederate ideology ("we lost, but we meant well") doesn't move him. There doesn't seem to be much about him that's presidential.

In preparing this reflection, I spoke with a pastoral mentor of mine, a noted elder, who has been faithfully serving God's purposes for decades upon decades. In discussing the spiritual state of our commander-in-chief, he pointed me to Paul's rebuke of a magician named Elymas in Acts 13:4-12, which I'll share with you:

But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, "You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord."

Do with that what you will.

This might go without saying, but I'll make it plain anyway. It's an affront to the Gospel, an oxymoron even that so many Christians would choose to be bedfellows with any politician, much less the current president, yet that's where we are. It is a sign of the times, I suppose.

President Trump is a dude, a rich white dude to be more specific, accustomed to being kowtowed to at all costs. What kind of president did we expect he would be? In all fairness, I do believe that there's some good he desires to do, as best as he understands it. But I also believe that a lack of character and competency in governance are going to catch-up to him at some point. Chickens have a way of coming home to roost. Acting like President Trump alone is responsible for this increasingly less humane society of ours, however, when we're the real culprits, is an unfair exercise in passing the buck. Unless someone proves criminal electoral impropriety "beyond a reasonable doubt to proof to a moral certainty" or another impeachable violation, like it or lump it, he's our president.

Instead of bemoaning and waxing poetic about all that is wrong in the world, let's stop viewing ourselves, as Americans, as the sophisticated, noble, refined, almost prototype human being Be honest about your individual and our collective brokenness, "sit-down...be humble," pray and work towards healing that begin within and overflows outwardly. Pastors and other Christians, lead need to offer a better example to the world, one endowed with prophetic candor. Maybe we need to stop playing faith like a game of spades, incessantly planning and pontificating, and seek to honor God like it matters.

Ah, do you smell it? There's something in the air. Change is gonna come! I can't tell you when or exactly by what means, but the Who behind it all is Jesus.

I won't sugarcoat the brass tacks of the matter. The aforesaid trouble may not get better soon. It may, in fact, turn from bad to worse any day and continue on that downward spiral for some time, but Jesus says, "Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." Personally, I come from good stock, history's unnamed ancestors known to major in making something out of nothing. To persevere with dignity and grace is what we do. Through the Spirit of the living God, we all can be like Moses' parents. Something's in the air. Change is gonna come--not how we want it or when we want it, but it's on the way.

Right now, it may feel like humanity is on life support, but I would ask you, really and truly, when has it not been? Dr. Cleophus LaRue, in a sermon preached at National Presbyterian Church, said, "...humans, at their best, are some odd mixture of dust and divinity...some strange assemblage of treasure and trash...in all of us there is a healthy smattering of gold and garbage." The ever-evolving soap opera that is America is a salient case study of this.

May God help us.


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