Singing in the Dark


Johnny Dark

At some point each day, having listened to the same song most of the day, Johnny Dark takes out his phone, points it toward a mirror in his darkened home before hitting record, and begins to sing. When he’s finished he uploads the song to his YouTube channel where it joins a collection that has been building for years.

I learned about Johnny Dark from a recent episode of This American Life. It turns out that the man singing from the seclusion of his living room has been in show business most of his life, an old school entertainer turned stand-up comedian best known for appearing regularly with David Letterman on The Late Show.

Early during the show we learn that the videos Johnny Dark uploads to his channel don’t have that many views. As I write this, his most recent five videos have been watched 31, 60, 28, 20, and 18 times. Why would a man who has spent his life preforming for crowds dedicate time each day to learning, recording, and uploading a song that almost no one will ever watch?

When he is asked a similar question toward the end of the interview Johnny Dark’s answer comes quickly. “It was in my heart, just like my wife. When I met my wife I had no choice. I didn’t want to get married! But that’s what love is, love doesn’t give you a choice, I don’t think. And neither does show business.”

Resurrection and Return

A few years ago I stayed with a friend on the west coast. At the time, my friend and his family were hosting some of their long-time friends from Europe who had spent many years serving refugees and migrants. These were some of the kindest and more joyful people I’d ever met; their dedication to the people they served was inspiring. During my short visit we enjoyed good conversation and French wine that was far too complex (expensive) for my unrefined palate.

At some point during one of these conversations this couple asked about my own ministry and the characteristics of racial reconciliation and justice that shape it. After I’d candidly described how entrenched white supremacy is in the US American context, including in many of our churches, they asked me about hope. Given the long odds against seeing the diminishment much less the defeat of racism in our lifetimes, what sort of hope animates our commitments?

Why do we keep singing if no one is watching?

I answered honestly, that my Christian sense about any question of sustaining hope must be rooted in Christ’s resurrection and return. Hope is entirely a matter of faith- that the tomb is empty, a sign of what is to come when the will of God is known finally and completely on earth as it is in heaven.

But don’t you see evidence of change, of progress? my conversation partners wanted to know. Don’t these bring you hope? Of course there are always signs of life. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” Jesus said, “which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

But we don’t often interpret the signs of the times accurately, or we miss them entirely. If hope depends on our own experiences of any given day, or month, or… well, we can quickly imagine hope as an accessory worn by those privileged enough to have more good days than bad. Any hope that is more responsive to what I’m capable of experiencing than to the tether holding me between Christ’s resurrection and return is a hope too weak to sustain me in the face of this world’s cruelty.

My new European friends didn’t quite disagree with this, but it wasn’t what they were looking for either. I was tempted to say more, to share some of the ways I’d seen racial reconciliation take root in our church. But this wouldn’t have been true; every time I think I see a mustard seed take root another is snatched from the path. At some point I began to learn that the truly sustaining hope must remain beyond what my eyes could see and my senses interpret.

One Year Later

I’m thinking about the anchors the keep us true as more than a year has past since George Floyd was murdered. What is it about this instance of public brutality? I heard asked again and again over the past twelve months. What’s different this time? The questions were motivated by a visible phenomenon: white people speaking out and showing up for racial justice in numbers without precedent in this country. We’ve not seen this before, said friends who knew what they were talking about.

I wondered though, is it different? Today, white people’s support for Black Lives Matter has dropped across the board, efforts at police reform have largely stalled, and corporations continue to play both sides, sloganeering with justice language while hedging their bets with contributions to politicians who are bent on rolling back access to the ballot.

I’ve spent a lot of time this year talking with white pastors and ministry leaders who are trying to lead their people toward justice. In their congregations the action, if there is any, is generally limited to book discussions and the occasional sermon. And even these tiny steps, so small as to border on offensive given the fraught circumstances faced by those outside the privileged walls of whiteness, even these innocuous steps are often vociferously opposed. Pastors are slandered and maligned; some have been fired and others have resigned for the well-being of their families.

They want to lead their people through the narrow gate, but it can seem as though no one wants to follow.

Exile Songs

Psalm 137:4 asks, what is for me, one of the more haunting questions in Scripture. “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” It’s a question on the edge of despair. How can we sing – fight, work, organize, worship; how can we continue – when nothing around us awakens our song? When nothing around us has changed? When the exile appears complete?

I hope this is the question many of us are asking. Rather than sliding apathetically backward into the status quo, I hope we are at least asking whether it’s even possible to sing in this strange land. Because if we’re willing to ask, we might be shown an example, if not given an answer, by those who long ago found their voices in exile.

The question of hope, of anchors, of exilic songs has for generations been wrestled to the ground by faithful Christian people – Black and Brown and Indigenous women and men. It was these sisters and brothers who came to mind when I recently read Katherine Sonderegger’s description of the suffering saints.

This is why believers who suffer, sometimes brutally, sometimes through a long, harrowing life, can nevertheless lift up their voices to God not only in lament but also and more in praise. It is not that these faithful ones… blind themselves with cheap consolation, nor sigh with only protest allowed a suffering and desolate life. No! These lives of special sanctity have been made “more than conquerors” by their encounter with Reality itself, with the Divine Nature that just is Dynamic Life. The veil of this mortal life has been lifted, the door opened into the heavenly realm, and Life burst forth.

Johnny Dark’s solitary concert in the dark is impressive, not for its consistency but for where it comes from: an identity so rooted in song that he cannot help but sing, to hell with the view count. How much more astonishing is the legacy of the persevering saints, the ones who sing songs of righteousness and justice in exile and who’ve passed down the lyrics and the melodies from generation to generation. They sing – we sing – because we’ve encountered Reality itself. “This,” Sonderegger goes on to write, is not explained in Holy Scripture, and we are not given a theory of God’s indwelling His creation. Rather, we are shown it. And this is ‘wonder.’”

Mustard seeds. Yeast. Treasures hidden in a field. Signs and wonders, hints and glimpses of that thread which holds us fast, taught between the resurrection and the return. This is what will keep our faces set toward justice when eyes and ears fail us. This electric tension, running backward and forward, stretching through ancestors and descendants in the faith, is what inspires our songs at the edge of Babylon’s dark waters.

I first shared the following post in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here. (Photo credit: Zain Ali.)

Young Leaders: Here Are 10 Ways to “Lead Up” for Reconciliation and Racial Justice

My most recent article for Missio Alliance has been posted.

The concept of leading up within organizations is common. Leading up, when done well, benefits the entire congregation, as the insights and innovations of youth are brought into conversation with the foresight and wisdom of older generations of godly leadership.
This dynamic is important when it comes to racial reconciliation and justice, particularly among majority-white churches. Given the inertia of racial privilege and the insulating impact of racial segregation, these churches benefit from the idealistic voices of younger leaders. If these women and men can leverage their influence up the leadership ranks with wisdom and humility, the entire church stands to grow in racial reconciliation and justice.

Read the rest on the Missio Alliance site.

Un Documented .tv

My friend Matthew Soerens sent me an email yesterday about a new project he’s involved in,  I’ve mentioned Matthew’s name before as the coauthor of the important book, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigration Debate.  (See part one and part two of an interview about immigration with Matthew’s coauthor, Jenny Hwang.)  After the disappointment around the Senate’s failure to pass the DREAM Act it is encouraging to see that this issue will not be ignored in the coming months.

According to the website, is about,

creating provocative, response-oriented short films paired with specific social-action experiences. will inspire churches and individuals to understand and enter the Immigration Reform conversation.  We will challenge our audience to move beyond any existing personal or media-driven bias and toward active involvement in social change.

The first film is set to stream release on January 17, but for now you can take a look at this short video description of the project.

How Do You Perceive Diversity?

David Fitch, author and professor at Northern Seminary, has posted some though-provoking thoughts and questions about intentionally diverse churches: “The Diversity We Seek: The Danger of Manufactured Pre-Determined Diversity.” Please take a few minutes to read the entire thing; in this post I’ll interact with just a couple of his points that are especially relevant for me these days.  Namely, how we majority-culture (white) folks perceive diversity within a church.

David differentiates two different ways those from his context- “middle class suburban (majority) white people with the comforts of education, stable families, homes and jobs”- think about diversity when it comes to starting a new church.  When thinking about planting a church in Waukegan, a city north of Chicago, diversity is perceived as those who are the most “other” than those planting the church.  The other area where David’s church is planning to plant a church is Hyde Park, my Chicago neighborhood.  Here diversity is seen the though the lens of race, ethnicity, class, education and the large variety of each of these categories.  David goes on to make some helpful observations about the benefits and pitfalls of planting a church in either of these areas.

As white folks consider participating in new, intentionally diverse, churches, it’s interesting to observe different ways the hoped-for diversity is perceived.  A few examples:

  • For some, diversity is most easily seen when a church is made up of those of different races.  Many within the majority culture have little connection with ethnic histories and traditions and thus a hard time seeing diversity beyond obvious racial constructs.
  • Class and (closely related) education divides are among the biggest obstacles to diversity within a church but receive less attention than race and ethnicity.  To my question about a particular church’s diversity, a friend answered, “The church is very diverse.  There are young, educated Asians; young, educated African-Americans; young, educated Latinos; young, educated whites.”  While class and race disparities are often related the overall picture is far to nuanced to solely focus on any one factor when thinking about diversity.
  • Related to David’s observations about Waukegan, some white folks understand a church to be diverse when it is made up of a certain type of person.  This representative can look many different ways, as long as they are noticeably other than the majority culture person.

All of these are limited, if understandable, ways of viewing diversity, especially as we consider the reconciling nature of the Gospel.  It matters how diversity is understood by those coming from the majority culture.  When we assume our view is shared by others, the reconciliation we experience will be limited.

How do you perceive diversity?  How much does your ethnicity/class/education/etc influences your perception?

I’d like to pick this up in the near future as there are a number of additional ideas and questions rattling around my head.  But I’ll leave it here for now, hoping you’ll chime in.

Mark DeYmaz Interview

Part One of my interview with Mark DeYmaz, author of Ethnic Blends: Mixing Diversity Into Your Local Church has been posted at Out of Ur.

Mark is the pastor of Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas and a major proponent of the multi-ethnic church movement.  Mark is also the author of Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church, a great introduction for those unfamiliar with the theology and history behind intentionally diverse congregations.