The claim and cost of the gospel

Matt and Cleve at Cambridge

Matt and Cleve at Cambridge

We finished our course at Cambridge and have come to the second leg of our journey at The American Church in Paris. Cleve and I will give the Thurber Lectures in the coming days. The Senior Pastor of ACP, Scott Herr, is a dear friend and an older brother of sorts. I was his intern in Mexico City, a life-time ago, when I was contemplating my call to ministry. Like most things in my life, it was messy and Scott was a voice of joy and wisdom. 

Cleve preaching at The American Church in Paris on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. 

Cleve preaching at The American Church in Paris on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. 

On Sunday morning, Cleve preached a prophetic sermon out of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. but oriented towards the particular set of tensions that we find ourselves in today. It was fantastic and will be posted on the ACP website soon.

In wrapping up this blog, I have been thinking about the claim that the gospel has on us as a community. There is a way of conceiving the gospel that ‘puts things right’ in the world, that gives an order to the chaos, that insulates us from the depth of historical and global pain that all too often seems distant. A pain that we can turn away from. And while this is a theme that runs through the biblical narrative, often it is employed in a suburban way that puts us to sleep, that anesthetizes us from the pain our city, our country, our world.

But Jesus also talks about bringing a “sword” (Matthew 10.34), a division that is present in the coming of his kingdom. From this perspective, the gospel becomes a counter narrative to social, political and racial forces that shape so much of our current cultural dialogue. The gospel as “sword” creates a division not so much along the lines of what we believe, but what we do. In other words, there is a material cost, a relational cost, a social cost to the gospel that I have been able to sidestep most of my life through focus on “right belief.” Now don’t get me wrong, critical thinking when it comes to matters of faith is important – but it has easily become a distraction to materially locating ourselves with “the widow, orphan and immigrant.” 

The gospel as ‘sword’ creates a division not so much along the lines of what we believe, but what we do.

As I see the political divisions play out across the the globe (the tension is felt here in France and Germany in their upcoming elections) and in disorienting ways within our own country, those who are called Christian can no longer be known through a belief system that is elegant and “true.” The coming days will will call us to be found in the world as a counter narrative of resistance to the forces of racial division, economic disparity and educational access. It will be the recognition that Jesus is not so much “in the church” as he is given in solidarity “to the world” that he loves. 

Solidarity might look like nurturing improbable friendships with those who have experienced addiction, prostitution and homelessness (and a thousand others). All of this will take on forms of resistance in the coming days that will cost us our lives (security, reputation, well-placed identities), and it will be here that we will find this paradoxical truth of Jesus to be true, that it is only in losing our life that we find it (Matthew 10.39). 

I am deeply grateful to be in a community like St. Paul’s that continues to push my faith to the edge of its existence. Paris is a spectacular place but Houston is where my community is, where my heart has taken root and where I will work out my faith with you in these coming days. Glory be to God.

Imago Dei

I am closing in on my time in Charleston, South Carolina. Two days ago a jury, just down the street from my hotel, sentenced Dylann Roof to death for the killing of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is the first time someone has been given the death penalty under federal hate crimes law.

Young Dylann Roof has roots in white supremacist ideologies. He scoped out the church ahead of time, spent one hour in Bible study around the table with them, including their pastor, and when they stood to pray, he shot them. His actions were undergirded by beliefs that have been around in for a long time that some people are superior to other people. Nothing could be more antithetical to the Christian faith than this.

There are feelings and questions here on several fronts. Many victims’ families are forgiving. Other people in this town feel like this punishment is true justice. Some wonder if a death sentence doesn’t just make Roof a martyr to other white supremacists. Others feel that this sentence simply trades death for death and doesn’t do anything.

What does God think of such a sentence?

Is anyone outside the bounds of God’s redemption?

What must we do as individuals and as the church to publicly witness to the humanity and dignity of all human persons?

We have talked much these last few weeks in class about the Imago Dei – the image of God placed in us at creation (Genesis 1:27). The image of God is in all people.

In every day, every interaction, in every system, how do we transmit this truth?

Thanks for engaging with me in this conversation. I look forward to more!

Bridging the divide

The Mathematical Bridge at Queens' College Cambridge, designed in 1748.

The Mathematical Bridge at Queens' College Cambridge, designed in 1748.

Today was a full day of teaching! The class is being hosted at Westminster College in Cambridge.  Westminster is almost brand-spanking new, being built in 1899. 

The students have been wonderful and engaging, and our day was full from top to bottom. They are still coming to grips with the Brexit vote and what that will mean going forward. Although Britain’s racial tension is playing out differently than in the U.S., there are some points of contact that are interesting. There is a fear that is underneath the surface that you become aware of after a day or two of being here. There has been a number of hate crimes that have plagued the public consciousness. Part of what people are looking for is a vision big enough to transform society.

One of my questions is: how will the church respond? As I stand in our divorced sibling's shoes (England) for a few days, I cannot but help think about our context and vision within the city of Houston. We are a community that is engaged and engaging; we stand in solidarity with the world seriously, we engage in radical hospitality, we cultivate improbable friendships and build bridges together. These are small acts with huge impact. May we continue to be faithful. 

A really old house

Isabel Wilkerson is the author of the award-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. In a recent interview by Krista Tippet on the podcast On Being, Wilkerson said:

Our country is like a really old house. I love old houses. I’ve always lived in old houses. But old houses need a lot of work. And the work is never done. And just when you think you’ve finished one renovation, it’s time to do something else. Something else has gone wrong.

And that’s what our country is like. And you may not want to go into that basement, but if you really don’t go into that basement, it’s at your own peril. And I think that whatever you are ignoring is not going to go away. Whatever you’re ignoring is only going to get worse. Whatever you’re ignoring will be there to be reckoned with until you reckon with it. And I think that that’s what we’re called upon to do where we are right now.

This week’s course in Charleston takes a hard look at our nation and its history of white supremacy. It is necessarily important for our national life together, for our faith communities, for our own souls, to take account of where we are and where are going, no matter how painful it is. The Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to search the heart and be in community with each other.

I invite you to reflect on ways you are in relationship with people different from you and how we might all contribute toward our city growing in peaceable relationships with each other.

This is just the way it is?

I have arrived in the UK amid a tube strike in central London! It was a mess getting to the trains but ultimately successful. The British have a way of grousing about life’s circumstances with a restrained moderation that I find uncovers a central core of Englishness!

Tomorrow, Cleve and I will begin teaching. We found out that our course has been over subscribed, and we will have double (40) the students! We will start each day with a meditative exercise that is intended to move us towards social engagement. I am becoming more aware and convinced that the spiritual practices are deeply connected to the transformation within society. Often the practices are conceived of as “internal” practices that are primarily meant to deal with our interior life. While this is true, it’s not the whole truth! This is what Kenneth Leech, author of The Eye of the Storm: Spiritual Resources for the Pursuit of Justice, is getting at in his book that I recommend (see my blog post from Jan. 8). There is an indivisibility of spirituality and social engagement that must not be split off – in doing so we create a type of “suburbia religion” that keeps us insulated from the world.   

Cleve will present the first lecture on the “Racial Formation is American History” riffing off Baldwin, DuBoise, Townes and others. I will lecture on “Deconstructing Whiteness and White Supremacy in Modernity." Our hope is to frame the various historical and conceptual elements of race in America and to unpack the notion of race as “this is just the way it is.” We want to suggest that race is a social construction that can be transformed by a vision of the gospel of Jesus. To do so involves what Paul terms as metanoia  – a paradigm shift of massive proportions. Metanoia or “repentance” is not only a personal process but also involves a journey of deconstructing privilege, economics, race and the multiple divisions that emerge from what Jim Wallis of Sojourners terms “America’s Original Sin” of slavery. This is where I am heading with my lecture – I will tell you how it works out! 

Thank you for your prayers and for the opportunity to represent St. Paul’s and our community in this way. It is a profound honor!


One book we read for class was Social Entrepreneurship. In it, there are examples of empowerment on nearly every page. From Roots of Empathy in Toronto to Harlem Children’s Zone and Teach for America, each of these make lasting change in communities by investing in people, curriculums, and partnerships across disciplines and sectors that will sustain and make more effective the work. In each, the work of the reign of God happens in communities. Each of these and more empower from every direction with multiple collaborators and make that lasting redemptive difference.

One cautionary word for what I would call “unmoored social entrepreneurship” is addressed in this quote from the Trappist monk and activist Thomas Merton:

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

The temptation for congregations and non-profits pursuing kingdom work will be to neglect the interior work of faith that gives energy to the outer work. Without this, social entrepreneurship ventures for congregations will lose their vitality and connection to the congregations’ witness.

Congregations and non-profits committed to this work must always guard from losing their why. Why do we do what we do? Towards what end are we moving? Who and what is energizing our work?

I find that social ventures that lack this, lack a spiritual power, and the ones that have it can thrive.

On my bookshelf

Over the past few months I have been reading with a particular focus on race, history and identity. Here are few of the most impactful books I’ve read and resources that have been most helpful to me. Book club in 2017, anyone?

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This book is on just about every ‘best sellers’ list. The story is about Cora, a woman born into slavery in the U.S., who flees the brutality of her life on a southern plantation. Whitehead is a stunning writer that can turn a phrase that opens up new vistas. The NY Times review is excellent.

Dear White Christian: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation by Jennifer Harvey. This book is wrecking me in the best way possible. Harvey is like the friend that (not so) gently takes you aside and tells you what you need to hear but what you have been resisting listening to. It is a provocative analysis of the current state of race relations, specifically the marginal success of churches to bring about racial reconciliation in the 50-plus years since the Civil Rights era. Harvey argues that the focus on reconciliation has itself been problematic. Instead, she proposes a new framework – one grounded in diligent study of our country’s history and the ongoing effects of the legacy of slavery. I had the feeling that if I could live in the way that she points toward that I might actually become a Christian! 

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. I am embarrassed to say that it was not until recently that I read this book! Baldwin is a national treasure and unparalleled as a writer and thinker. The title of the book is taken from a slave song: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water the fire next time.” This small book is a prophetic grenade that consist of two independent essays both in the form of letters. He deconstructs race from the African-American experience in a way that is raw, precise and must be heard again and again. It is small enough to be read over and over (I’m on my 3rd time) and offers it on their site as well. Here is the original 1963 review of the book from The New York Review of Books

White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity by James Perkinson. This book is dense, but if you stay with it, I promise it is worth it! Perkinson re-examines white privilege throughout history and its relationship to black theology, particularly the theology of James Cone. He takes seriously the claims of salvation and seriously engages it through the lens of race, culture and identity.

13th. This is a documentary film on Netflix that explores the links between slavery and the U.S. penal system. It is directed by Ava DuVernay who directed Selma. I can’t say enough about this film. It weaves the narration of folks like Jelani Cobb, Van Jones, Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander to weave a tapestry that forces us to re-examine the genealogical root system of mass incarceration. This is an important film.

The Eye of the Storm: Spiritual Resources for the Pursuit of Justice by Kenneth Leech. I was introduced to Kenneth Leech’s work during my post-doc in Cambridge. He was an Anglican priest that worked with drug addicts in Soho, London for years. Leech argues that what we have done by dividing the action/contemplation dichotomy has created a lot of problems (sorry, Richard Rohr). In this wonderful book, he argues for the essential unity of Christian spirituality and social commitment, showing that spirituality without community can be a diversion from the living God. Great stuff. His book Subversive Orthodoxy is fantastic too. 

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone. This volume is a theological meditation on oppression experienced by African Americans, and he unpacks the complicity of racism and Christianity. Cone is masterful, and this book brings the centrality of the Cross to our historical shores in a way that bears witness to the power of life in the midst of a world seduced by violence and the glamor of evil. This is a stunning book. 

What's happening in Flint

Outside a church in Flint, Michigan, where safe bottled water and food is being distributed to members of the community.

Outside a church in Flint, Michigan, where safe bottled water and food is being distributed to members of the community.

One of my classmates is serving a church in Flint, Michigan. You may recall that water contamination was causing illnesses in that community, starting with children. Officials in Michigan would not believe the evidence until it spread throughout Flint and couldn’t be denied. Still today, many do not trust the minimal water filters provided. Flint is a diverse city with many African American people, Hispanic people, and White people living together. They have been hard hit by the decline of the auto industry.

My pastor friend is a joyful, hard-working pastor who loves his community. They are working to bring clean water and advocate for better representation at tables of influence in Flint, Detroit, and throughout Michigan. God cares about the whole person — body, mind, and soul.

Pray for our neighbors in Michigan and let me know if you would like to learn more about what faithful efforts are taking place in Flint.


For the welfare of the city

Some folks have asked me to post the description of the course Cleve Tinsley and I will be teaching next week at Cambridge University’s Theological Federation. Here it is:

Cleve Tinsley (with hat and scarf) and Matt Russell (at center) lead group discussion

Cleve Tinsley (with hat and scarf) and Matt Russell (at center) lead group discussion

“For the Welfare of the City: Toward a Theology of Improbable Friendships”

Our short course will explore the changing dynamics of ministry in urban and multiethnic settings in the United States, specifically utilizing as a case study the city of Houston, TX. Broadly, we will examine how what many perceive of as the more pressing issues of postmodernity—e.g., privilege, identity, and racial difference—represent some of the challenges which religious leaders must consciously confront in order to open up the possibility for true social transformation. Through a theology of embodiment called “improbable friendships,” Matthew and Cleve will describe and propose models of community engagement and social activism that helps overcome what sociologists of religion call the bonding/building dilemma.

This model of engagement and activism involves 1) a deep wresting with the history of racial formation in U.S. and North America, 2) an examination of some of the “theologies of difference” that have emerged since the 1950s and '60s in response to the intractable divisions that issues of race, gender, and sexuality erect, and 3) a commitment to radical forms of multi-ethnic social activism and employing core competencies which enable religious leaders to grapple with the complexity and demands for coalitional alliance for social transformation.

Well, there it is folks. Now all we have to do is teach it!

In my next blog post, I will list some resources that have been very helpful for me in preparing for our time at the Federation.

The influence of faith

Rev. Tommy Williams with one of his professors, Mike McCurry

Rev. Tommy Williams with one of his professors, Mike McCurry

Our class this week on Public Engagement is being co-taught by Mike McCurry, former White House Press Secretary. He left the White House and soon entered Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC. He earned a Master of Arts in Theology and later became Professor of Public Theology there. Mike is lay leader in his home church of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church just outside the Washington DC metro area.

Topics and questions from class with him this week: We discussed questions around separation of church and state, how that makes America unique, what it means and what it doesn’t. We also discussed our general reluctance to talk about religion and our politics and how that intersection takes people to very difference choices.

The question isn’t whether or not our faith influences our thoughts and actions in public life but how? Like every other influence, it shapes our perspectives, impressions and ultimately our decisions in civic life. Whether explicit or not, if someone has a faith, it influences who they are. There is liberating power in acknowledging that truth.

Have you thought about how your faith influences your life, your work, your political decisions, your family relationships, your understanding of the community around you?

Space for messy, necessary work

People ask me all the time: “What the heck is Project CURATE?” Project CURATE stands for the Center for Urban Reconciliation and Theological Education. At its core, it is a grassroots organization that seeks to bridge divides that have fragmented the city into social, economic, and cultural areas of exclusion and segregation. Our work, as broadly defined, is invested in four areas:

  1. The development of curricula that attends to the complexity of the urban context with a scriptural imagination to formulate and contextually apply a relevant and robust urban biblical theology. 
  2. The formation of diverse, multi-ethnic leadership cohorts and cohort facilitators from across racial, economic, education, language, denomination and ethnic divides. The intention of the cohorts is to develop a network of multi-ethnic leaders that are equipped in reconciliation competencies to do the work of critical encounter and relationship building towards restorative communities.
  3. The formation of workshops and smaller gatherings that cultivate intimate conversations around difficult conversations. These diverse gatherings employ music, the arts, spoken word poetry and conversation in a range of topics that include race, solidarity, economic and educational transformation rooted in an alternative biblical narrative. These are the “House Parties” that I talked about in my first blog post.
  4. The formation of coordinated action in the city that emerges from the cohort's learning groups. “Iconoclast Artists” was nurtured within our first cohort, and our conference "Re-Imagining Incarceration and Return" was the result of our second year cohort.

St. Paul’s vision to “lead change for the common good of all peoples and communities” provides an alternative narrative from the brutal election season from which we have emerged, one that highlighted the deeply rooted divisions between different ethnic, religious and cultural groups. As much of this unfolded, ordinary Christians were left wondering: What next? What can I do to make a difference? How can I practically live into the gospel call to reconciliation? 

In the midst of the division and discord, there is a growing sense that the Christian virtues of love of neighbor, hospitality and hope for peace on earth provide a unique opportunity to work across boundaries and build stronger communities of reconciliation practice. My growing conviction is that this work must be rooted in relationships that can challenge and disorient our assumptions, the worldview we grew up in and the slippery stuff of “whiteness” that has the tendency to dress itself up in the religion and hide out. The work St. Paul’s is doing in CURATE is intended to be a space for this messy, necessary work.

Kindness in community

Emanuel AME Church

Emanuel AME Church

Yesterday, we visited Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Just 18 months ago, nine African-American church members, including the pastor, were killed by a young white man. After sitting in the Bible study around the table, they stood to pray together and he opened fire. 

I felt this recent history in the pit of my stomach as I walked into the church and sat in the sanctuary with my classmates. We heard from the current pastor and a lay leader and could sense in them both a deep sense of grace and the struggle of moving forward.

The sentencing phase for the killer, Dylan Roof, begins today, January 3. Pray for him, the victims' families, and for the community here in Charleston. Also pray for our Houston community.

I recently wrote in one of my class reflection papers about community:

The Latin root of the word "community" can be broken in two parts — "comm" meaning "with" and "unity." As its origins suggest, "community" is rooted in relationships; it is a shared life in which we all participate.

What does community mean to you? How does living in Houston and worshipping at St. Paul’s shape your definition of community?

Innovation and improbable friendships

One of the deepest blessings of my life has been being a part of the St. Paul’s community. I understand Jesus’ words in John when he told the disciples, “I have sent you to reap that for which you did not labor." This has been distinctively true for my time in this community. Part of the blessing is what we are innovating through the mission of St. Paul’s is being brought into conversation with others around the world. 

For the last two years at projectCURATE (Center for Urban Reconciliation and Theological Education), we have been invested in cultivating a context that is intentional about building bridges across the divides in our city.  From 2014-16, two cohorts totaling 120 people from across socioeconomic, cultural, racial, educational and denominational lines came together to get to know each other and to learn from each other. We met monthly for workshops, lectures, pilgrimages all with an eye towards developing what I have come to understand as “improbable friendships.” Iconoclast Artists emerged out of these relationships, as did an international conference called “Re-Imagining Incarceration and Return” For 2017-18, we’re creating curriculum around race, solidarity and kinship. There is still room in our cohort this year and I encourage you to sign up

The curriculum that we are writing is emerging out of an improbable friendship in my own life with Cleve Tinsley. Cleve is a Ph.D. candidate at Rice University, Theologian in Residence at St. John’s UMC and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Houston (BLMHTx). We came to meet each other following a vigil that St. Paul’s hosted in honor of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the the five Dallas police officers killed in July 2016. Our own friendship began to take shape around these events. Through a series of deep conversations, we both began to wonder if there was an opportunity to talk about race, our Christian faith, the history of slavery and white supremacy in America, and if doing so we might discern a different way forward.

In December 2016, Cleve and I launched the first of a number of “House Parties” that we will host around race, solidarity and kinship. It began with the simple idea of inviting our friends into an intimate setting of a home where we could host a difficult conversation that we need to have but often do not know how. In this diverse gathering we had wonderful musicians fill the air, an Iconoclast Poet opened the evening and Cleve and I led a conversation that knitted together such topics as race, privilege, economic transformation – all rooted in an alternative biblical narrative. If you are interested in being a part of one of these conversations in the future let me know. We will host them throughout the city in the coming year. The pictures in this post are from that evening.  

This month, I am accepting the invitation to return to lecture at Cambridge University’s Theological Federation. Cleve and I will co-teach a short course entitled “For the Welfare of the City: Toward a Theology of Improbable Friendship.” In the coming days, I will sketch out some of the work that we are involved in though the ministries of St. Paul’s, provide an outline of the class, and will point to some of the books I have been reading in preparation for this short course.

I covet your prayers in these coming days and am deeply grateful for the opportunity and depth of community that is St. Paul’s!


The role of the church in society

I've been preparing for my January coursework by reading this book,  God's Long Summer , about Mississippi and its long journey toward integration and the church’s role (good, indifferent and otherwise) in that.

I've been preparing for my January coursework by reading this book, God's Long Summer, about Mississippi and its long journey toward integration and the church’s role (good, indifferent and otherwise) in that.

As you may have heard by now, today marks the first day of my studies in a doctoral program at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC. This feels like the right program for me because it is focused in Public Engagement, that is, the role of the pastor and the church in public and civic life.

The program is organized with intensive terms in January and May and online work between sessions that involves much reading and writing. The class sessions will rotate between being held on Wesley’s campus in Washington, DC and in Charleston, South Carolina.

It is in Charleston that I begin this January. You see, the vision for this program was inspired by the tragic killing of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston just 18 months ago. Rev. Pinckney was pastor of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a South Carolina State Senator, and doctoral student at Wesley at the time of his death. He was a pastor engaged in the public square par excellence.

It is an important time to remember that we live our Christian convictions not just privately but publicly. There is no question that the Gospel and the whole of the scriptures have much to say about culture and society.

I am so thankful for St. Paul’s United Methodist Church and its support for our continued growth as the pastors and people you call us to be. It is truly a privilege to serve with you. My real hope is that we’ll get “caught up” in public engagement together in the new year!

And, by the way, it has been almost 14 years since I was in school! I ask for your continued prayers.