Frank Johnson

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A pastor named Brian Buhler told this story a few years ago: “When Brennan Manning, an evangelical Catholic, was waiting to catch a plane in the Atlanta airport, he sat down in one of the many places where usually black men shine white men’s shoes. And an elderly black man began to shine Brennan’s shoes. And Brennan had this feeling inside that after he was done, he should pay him and tip him and then reverse the roles.

“And when he was finished, he stood up and looked at the black man and said, ‘Now, sir, I would like to shine your shoes.’ And the black man recoiled and stepped back and said, ‘You’re going to do what?’ He said, ‘I’d like to shine your shoes. Come on. You sit down here. How would you like them done?’ And the black man began to cry, and he said, ‘No white man ever talked to me like this before.’ And the story ends with the white Catholic with arms around a black Atlanta man, and they’ve only just met, tears flowing, reconciliation taking place.” (Brian Buhler, “The Ultimate Community,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 146.)

There is an important paragraph in the New Testament that needs to be remembered by professing Christians these days. It is in the writings of the Apostle Paul, and it goes like this: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:1-4, NIV).

It would be simplistic to say that a simple recitation of this passage will cure all ills in regard to our race-related conflicts. But if those who profess to be followers of Jesus would practice this — “in humility consider others better than yourselves” — what an impact this might have!

Christians, and everyone else, do not fully live up to their own standards. A central principle of Christian teaching is grace. Grace is the notion that no one lives up to God’s standards and everyone needs forgiveness and reconciliation with God to make any lasting progress in human reconciliation. Grace claims that God has taken the initiative in reconciliation. And such grace is surely at work between people, and progress is surely being made. We pray for more and more.

Back in 2002, just months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, my wife and I went to Birmingham, Alabama, for a commissioning service by the North American Mission Board of our convention of churches. Our son and his wife were being set aside to reach out to university students with the love of God and the message of Jesus. One afternoon, we had an opportunity to tour the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Our guide was a local Christian brother and pastor of African heritage. During the tour, someone asked him, “Have we made any progress here since these events in the 1950s?” He said, “Well, let me illustrate. We have a Black Chief of Police. And more significantly, I am on staff at a church here in Birmingham that would not have allowed me to attend in the 1950s.” He believed that we have come a very long way in half a century.

This is not to say that we have “arrived.” But can you imagine if all of us did “nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit,” but instead in humility we considered others better than ourselves, not just focused on our own interests but also on the interests of others? That kind of behavior would make a powerful difference in our present world.

Frank R. Johnson is the pastor or the Chestnut Street Baptist Church in Ellensburg.

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