What I Learned from My Friendship with Milton

A friend called from North Carolina today and asked how I was doing. Well, there is a virus that has caused the most severe pandemic in over 100 years, an economic collapse that rivals the crash of 1929, record-breaking unemployment, and social unrest in the streets that we haven’t seen in generations, if ever.  

How am I doing? 

As I contemplated the words I wanted to use to describe my emotional condition, several came to mind. “Life feels surreal right now. Unstable and disoriented. I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issues we are facing as a culture and unsure as to what to do as a leader.”  

In a word, I feel helpless.  

Can you relate to that sense of helplessness? I guess we all can to some degree. There is so much fear, anxiety, rage over injustice, and exasperation over riotous violence that has wrecked communities all over the nation. We feel helpless to do anything but watch cities burn. Just when it seemed as if we might be able to come together as a country, standing united against human cruelty, the seams of unity were torn asunder, giving every side excuses for the retreat back into enclaves of suspicion and hate.  

Yes, there are practical steps we can take. Get educated on the evils of racism and the plight of black Americans over the past four hundred years (not just the past 65). Support a local reconciliation ministry. Befriend someone of another race.

The Present Value

These are good places to start. But the systemic, cultural problems we face can only be solved with a systemic, spiritual solution. We need more than sentimental bandaids. We need the shed blood of a crucified Savior. It is the present value of that blood that empowers us to confess our own racist tendencies. It is that blood that calls us to find our perfect righteousness, not in our race, education, political association, economic status, or any other worldly distinction, but in Jesus alone. 

The only distinction we have as believers is that we are sinners saved by the sheer grace of a crucified and risen Christ. It is being found in him that we become ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). In some ways, the hostility in the streets reflects a hostility in the heart, an animosity, a rage, and a deep desire for justice, and for some, vengeance.  

Someone has said, “We are facing a heart problem that needs a heart remedy.” The good news is that we possess the remedy in the gospel. 

The Power of the Gospel

Paul wrote on the power of the gospel to create one race out of two in Ephesians 2:12-21. While the immediate context has to do with unity between Gentile and Jew believers, the applications are more wide-ranging, especially when we consider racial division within the church among believers.

He writes, “12 Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

My Friendship with Milton

Before I moved to Georgia to start Creekstone, I was a pastor in Greenwood, MS (in the Delta, one of the most impoverished regions of the country… and with a long, sad history of racism). One of my best friends was Milton Glass, a black pastor who had grown up in the area in the 50s and 60s. We met for lunch at least once a month in a public place to demonstrate our unity in Christ for the broader community and because we just enjoyed being together and learning from each other. Usually, there were several of us pastors there, a few black and a few white.   

I learned so much from Milton. Listening to his stories gave me a first-person look into a world that had been as foreign to me as any across the ocean. He was a little boy when Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Money, MS, just outside of Greenwood. He shared with me that his mother told him never to look a white man in the eye or the white man would kill him. Because that is what white people do. They kill black boys. At least that is what his impression of white men was. Sadly, for too many, that impression was and has been confirmed time and time again. 

Having family members who were beaten and lynched, just because they were black, Milton grew up with an extreme fear of whites, even though he grew to be 6’6″ and 280 lbs. I cannot imagine living with such fear. It is just unthinkably evil what happened then and is still happening today.  

After telling me that story about how his mother raised him not to look at a white man out of fear, Milton began weeping over the lunch table, saying he never thought he would feel love and friendship with someone who was white. He just couldn’t believe we were friends, and that for the first time in his life, he felt safe around a white man. I count that moment as one of the most memorable moments of my twenty-five years as a pastor. I love that man and deeply grieve for what he and so many others have had to experience at the hands of white people like me.  

This is not to stereotype any race, white, black, Latino, Asian, etc. We are all responsible as individuals before God, not as a race. And yet, that does not minimize the corporate racial lament I feel.

A Personal Challenge

 So, I am challenging myself to be honest about the seeds of racism, rivalry, division, and self-righteousness that reside in my own flesh, expecting that by freely confessing them as sin and claiming the blood of Jesus over every square inch of my soul, that as both Savior and Lord of my life, he will make me a humble ambassador of grace, peace, and reconciliation.  I pray you will join me on this quest into the heart for the sake of the gospel. 

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