I’m eighty-seven years old. I’ve lived a long life, and I’m full of gratitude for the opportunities that I’ve had to serve a wise, merciful, almighty God. I’m continually in awe of how far He has brought me, a poor boy from Mississippi with only a third-grade education.
I grew up in a sharecropping family in Mississippi and dropped out of school between the third and fifth grades. Yet, by God’s grace, I’ve lectured at world-renowned universities and received honorary doctorates.
My older brother Clyde, who served his country in the Army in World War II, was shot and killed by a deputy marshal soon after returning home. I have been spat upon and brutally beaten by police. Yet, by God’s grace, I’ve worked tirelessly to help build good relations between local police and urban communities.
I’ve ministered in country towns, inner cities, and before large crowds. I’ve traveled across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. I’ve had the privilege of teaching wide-eyed emerging leaders as well as foggy-eyed accomplished pioneers. All of this . . . by His amazing grace.
At my age, I’m thankful to God for a mind sharp enough to keep studying His Word. But like a butcher’s knife, I know that repeated use means the blade will eventually become dull. I’ll try not to be dull here.
As I come closer to the end of my journey, I am aware that community development can only take us so far—because this is a gospel issue. The problem of reconciliation in our country and in our churches is much too big to be wrestled to the ground by plans that begin in the minds of men. This is a God-sized problem. It is one that only the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can heal. It requires the quality of love that only our Savior can provide. And it requires that we make some uncomfortable confessions.
The problem is that there is a gaping hole in our gospel. We have preached a gospel that leaves us believing that we can be reconciled to God but not reconciled to our Christian brothers and sisters who don’t look like us—brothers and sisters with whom we are, in fact, one blood.
The apostle John talks about that: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). We’ve taken out these key parts: reconciliation and the requirement for justice, essential and crucial parts of the gospel. For most of my life, I have been working hard to help us fill in this deep, gaping hole by insisting that we admit to some hard truths.
Many of us have struggled with the big question of how to make lasting strides in the area of biblical reconciliation. As I look back on a life that has been devoted to this great mystery, I want to try to offer us a path back. Not back to our history that has been littered with missteps and misguided notions, but a path back to what God intended for His church. A path back to the experience of Pentecost, when people from all over the known world heard the glorious message of salvation in their own language. That was reconciliation at its very best. And it’s a beautiful picture.