Removing the Flag Is Good But Does Little to Create Real Community

“Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community” Georges Erasmus

 

I first heard the above quote during a presentation done by Mark Charles at Q Conference in Boston this past April. Mark was making the case that Americans will continue to have racial tension as long as we all continue to operate from a different a memory and different pasts. It’s really sad to think that it required 9 people being murdered by a racist white supremacist for us to finally reach a point where are beginning to take the steps necessary to have a common memory of our history as Americans, black, white, and everything in between.

 

While I fully support the removal of the Confederate/Rebel Flag from the grounds of state capitals, I fear this will cause us to prematurely think our work is done. Those flags will be removed from our public places, but our real problem is not that flag although the debate surrounding it is indicative of our true problem. One symbol stirs feelings of pride from a shared heritage for one group of people stirs feelings of trauma from a shared suffrage for another.

 

We do not have a common memory and we do not share in the same past. For White Americans their collective memory and past is one of conquest, colonization, freedom, and “God’s blessing”. For ethnic minorities, particularly Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, collective memory and past is one filled with trauma from the struggle to be recognized as human and treated with dignity and equality. Our collective memory is filled with dehumanization, enslavement, mass genocide, demonization and marginalization. For white peoples in this country it has truly been a dream. For black and brown peoples in this country that dream has almost always been a nightmare over the 400 plus years since the early colonies. “Manifest Destiny” destined those deemed savages and beasts to destruction and to the margins of our country.

 

 

As difficult as it might be, white people need to start listening to the memories and the past of the ethnic minorities in America. It won’t be easy. It will be hard to believe for no other reason than so much of it is omitted from the majority of our history books. History has always been written by and representative of those who are one of the majority and elite. If we want real healing then the parallel narrative of the marginalized must be heard. It must be written. It must be taught. It will expose the blind-spots you didn’t know were there in our past as a nation. Black people, Hispanics, and Native-Americans need to remember that white people are hearing these stories, memories and past for the first time. They are being asked to look at parts of our history through our eyes, and if they really see it it will strike at their heart. Hearing about it for the first time will be traumatic for them and we need to extend them grace. We need to assure them of our sincerity in informing them is not to guilt or shame them, not to demand an apology, not to seek reparations. We need to show them the compassion we’ve so desperately needed to heal. In this way we can all heal together, and truly have community without losing ethnic and cultural identities.

 

The debate raging on social media over the Confederate/Rebel Flag and its possible removal caused one of my white friends to do some research into the history of the flag.  She described having a traumatic experience. She grew up in the south with that flag being flown everywhere, and was told the same as so many others of it being a symbol of their heritage as southerners. What she found was a gapping blind spot into the history of how that flag quickly became a symbol of white supremacy and hate as its re-designer William T Thompson intended. Her words to me over the phone illustrate what so many are experiencing, “I have been grieved to my heart since finding out the history around that flag.” If I had responded with a flippant “well duh, where have you been” attitude it wouldn’t have been helpful. No more or less helpful than when I’ve shared more stories and memories of what it’s like to be black in America and it is met with accusations of playing the race card, or attempts to explain it away.

 

The flag should be removed from the grounds of state capitals, and states who integrated it into their state flag need to get it out.  However, if that is all we do then we will fall desperately short of what is necessary for real community to happen that transcends race and ethnicity. We need to teach both narratives in our history books in our schools and places of higher learning. The history of our nation needs to be taught through the eyes of both the elite and the marginalized. I am not suggesting that we throw out one narrative and replace it with the other. Rather they should be part of one comprehensive telling of our history, of our past, and shape a shared memory, so we can move forward into the future not separate but together.

20 Years Later Charles Barkley Is Still Right: Parents’ Job To Be Role Models

charles-barkleyTwenty years ago as a freshman in high school I became a writer for my school’s newspaper despite the fact that freshman weren’t allowed to be a part of the class. Looking back I probably should have taken shop anyway so that I wouldn’t be paying other people to do odd jobs around the house. Anyway… One of the articles I wrote was an op-ed piece in response to Charles Barkley’s proclamation in the latest Nike commercial that he “is not a role model. Later that summer after the school year was over Mike Royko of the Ann Arbor News  wrote an op-ed piece on it as well which my news paper teacher sent me to encourage me to keep writing. Mr. Royko and I had the same opinion. We agreed with the overriding message of the commercial, “Parent’s should be role models. Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” While neither of us condoned of his throwing a guy through a window at a bar fight (thus the mugshot above), or missing the adult he was aiming for and ‘accidentally’ spitting on a kid sitting courtside instead at one his basketball games Barkley is right.

I still have copies of both articles and the note my teacher included with Royko’s. Here are some of the points we both made…

“Parents are the ones that are going to have the biggest impact on their children. Yet, on the whole, some parents haven’t done much at being role models for their children.” (Me)

“Before TV kidnapped our brains, athletes and show biz stars were not an everyday part of our lives. We didn’t have the endless parade of celebrities that now roll across the TV screen. Which was probably beneficial. Social values weren’t being established by Madonna, Roseanne, Magic Johnson, Geraldo, Oprah, Letterman’s guests, MTV, religious hucketers and hop-head rock stars.” (Mike Royko)

“Why,” you ask am I bringing up two decades old commercials and news articles? Last week when Miley Cyrus performed her song “We Can’t Stop” live at the MTV VMAs. There was a deluge of news and social media response to her antics, most of it lamenting her transformation from teenage Disney Star, portraying the very likable and admirable fictional character Hannah Montana, into the twenty year old performer portraying, singing about and portraying a morally reckless lifestyle of uninhibited sexuality, drug and alcohol abuse. Many of the responses centered around her apparent rejection and descent from being a role model into one of those kind of girls you shouldn’t be within a hundred feet of. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, and time to write about it, I have two prevailing thoughts.

Not to defend or excuse Miley’s performance but it was obvious to me that very few people, at least those saddened by her apparent turn, had actually listened to the lyrics of the song or saw the video to the song. If they had, her performance wouldn’t have been so surprising. Her live performance was pretty much a live version of the music video where she did all the same stuff. Goes to show you, if there is one thing MTV doesn’t do much of it is show music videos.

Secondly, and more importantly, the hullubaloo brought me back to what Charles Barkley said in that Nike commercial twenty years ago, “Parents should be role models.” There is no denying that public figures and famous people have influence, but we are the ones to be pitied if we continue to promote (even if it be unintentionally) the belief that their influence can even hold a candle next to the overwhelming influence of private figures. The number one private influence in the life of children and young people is their parents. Even if the parents fail to be positive role models someone else who children and young people can have face-time with have immeasurably more influence than all the famous people they have screen-time with.

Twenty years later as a youth pastor and a parent I couldn’t agree with Charles Barkley more. Instead of questioning Miley Cyrus or more importantly the latest version of her ten years from now when my daughter will be less than a year away from being a teenager I’m questioning myself. Am I going to be the kind of role model to my daughter that will make the exploits, good bad ugly and in between, of the latest teen celebrity turned young adult vixen inconsequential to the kind of person she is becoming and aspires to be? I want my daughter to think of myself, and her mother as her role model. I desire that there would be other adults she knows personally who can also serve as excellent examples. As a Christian my parents were role models to me because they were doing their best to be followers of the model Jesus laid forth. They weren’t perfect, but they pointed me in the direction of the one who is. They couldn’t provide unshakable security through life, but they pointed me towards the one in whom life is found. My parents were role models by simply doing their best to model their life after Jesus. My wife and I won’t be perfect role models either, and we’ll make mistakes, but our influence in our daughter’s life will far outweigh the influence of any celebrity or famous person, ever. Even if we somehow became best friends with one spending lots of time with them we still have the primary job of being role models to our daughter.

As an adult I understand more than ever that life is not found in the life of celebrities and famous people. There are plenty of athletes who I enjoy watching compete and entertainers perform act and sing. I have no expectation that these individuals behave in a way that would suggest that they have trusted their life to Christ and are being shaped morally by him when they’ve made no proclamation of allegiance to Jesus.  Even if they did the likelihood that our young people are going to rub shoulders with them on a regular weekly or daily basis is exponentially unlikely. Nowhere in their contract is it written that they are to be role models for our kids. However, we are bound to our children by something that transcends written agreements with performance clauses. We should be very wary of giving that tremendous responsibility and privilege to flesh and blood people who do little more than flash across our many various screens. Especially a twenty year old girl who could probably have benefitted from one herself instead of being thrust into the position of role model at the age most of us are yearning for our parents and other adults to show us what it means and looks like to be an fully formed adult. Give Miley and all the other famous people a break and let’s do our job.

Melissa Harris-Perry and Our Collective Need to Respond with Grace and Peace

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Romans 12.18 “If Possible, so far as it depends on you live peaceably with all.”

In case you haven’t heard the comments made by Melissa Harris-Perry have created quite a stir amongst many. Not least some within the American Church. In case you haven’t heard it or seen the “Lean Forward” advertisement here is the quote that rose the ire of many…

“We have never invested as much in public education as we should have. We haven’t had a very collective notion of, these are our children. We have to break through our private idea that children belong to their parents, or children belong to their families, and recognize that children belong to whole communities. Once it’s everybody’s responsibility and not just the household’s, we start making better investments.”

Many have seen this as an attack on the nuclear family and the role of parents. Some have even said that it sounds very socialist. I don’t know a lot about the woman, but as a fellow Black American I can imagine that some of her comments about children belong to communities is harkening back to a part of Black American Culture that existed well into the 70s. The comedian Sinbad even told stories about this part of Black culture in one of his stand up routines; if you got in trouble at school which required a call home, then the ladies in the neighborhood and your grandmother (assuming she lived in the neighborhood), knew about it and gave you a piece of their mind/disciplined you, before you even reached home and had to face your own parents. It could be possible that Harris-Perry is harkening back to concept of “it takes a village/tribe” as a way of encouraging people to consider how they can invest in the youth in their community beyond their own (And not in the exclusively discipline fashion of the 70s).

As a member of the church and more specifically as a youth pastor this got me to thinking… No one ever freaked out when someone said, “It takes a village…”. In fact I’ve heard many in the church use the analogy in positive ways to encourage the role of community within the body of Christ. No one ever said in response to that, “it reeks of naturalism or early western pagan spirituality”. As a youth pastor I promote the idea that parents have the most potential influence in shaping their children, and while I have a role to play and something valuable to add, parents are (and always will be) the primary stewards of their kids. Personally I feel all the drama surrounding her comments just highlights something else that I’ve observed lately, which bothers me.

So many within the American church seem to be on the hunt accusing people of being socialists like its the 50s again in the midst of the “Red Scare”. It makes us look as though we are more concerned with protecting the American republic we’ve been born into (and gratefully so), democracy, capitalism and the “American Way” more than our concern for announcing the gospel message of God as King. A huge part of the Gospel is that all nations all kings all rulers, and all forms of government will be found wanting. All of them, including America no matter how much we rise or fall as a nation, will fall and be done away with when Christ returns (Revelation 17.14). His kingdom rule will fully and undeniably invade not just heaven but earth too resulting in the New Heavens and New Earth that so much of scripture points towards and eagerly awaits. Not that politics and government are insignificant, but when a sizable amount of our PR and announcements concerns our loathing and fear-mongering of liberals, socialists, or ultra-conservatives and politicians in general then the likelihood of the gospel falling on deaf ears increases. Announcing and living the gospel needs to be the foremost of our concern. The gospel calls those of us who claim to submit to the rule of the king the good news announces to do our best to live at peace with everyone (Romans 12.18), and to pray for those who are in positions of  power and influence (1st Timothy 2.1-6). Living at peace with and praying for those outside the body of Christ is a powerful witness.

Quick Reflection on 45 Year Anniversary of MLK Jr. Assassination

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On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee.  Much could be said of the 45 years of race relations between blacks and whites in the United States of America—some of it good, some of it not so good. Today I will say this: It is safe to say that without the vision selflessness and determination of Martin Luther King Jr. I would not be a youth pastor at a predominantly white church. 45 years later a black man can be a youth pastor to almost entirely white teenagers and families, in the south no less, due to the sacrifice of MLK. Because of King’s fearless pursuit of his dream my students don’t see me as their black youth pastor, they see me as their pastor. Because of King’s fearless pursuit of his dream parents, who like myself were born within ten year’s of his death, simultaneously understand the historical implications of their student having a youth pastor who is black and couldn’t care less.

You can say what you want about race relations between black and white Americans in this country, and how there is still work to be done for all men to see and treat men of another color as equal, but you can’t say that Martin Luther King Jr. pursued and died for his dream in vain.  45 years later if King is looking down from heaven he has plenty of reason to celebrate and be glad. 45 years later we can say of King’s dream, “mission accomplished!”

Three Lessons from Giglio and the Inaugural Prayer

Middle of last week it was announced that Louie Giglio, founder of Passion City Church and the global Passion movement had been invited to give the benediction at the Inauguration Ceremony next week. The current White House Administration has been very impressed with Giglio’s efforts in recent years to help bring an end to modern slavery across the globe. It only took two days for those who took issue with a sermon he preached 15 to 20 years ago, that had been archived online to raise a big enough stink that, depending on how you take it, Giglio decided to withdraw from delivering the benediction or was asked to step down by the Inaugural Committee. The sermon from 15 to 20 years ago that started this controversy was on homosexuality where amongst other things he said that homosexuality is sin.

Since then the blogosphere has been littered with commentary on what unfolded by countless in the Christian community. Some of them are suggesting that Giglio was bullied, that his first amendment rights were violated, or that he should have taken a stand and done the prayer anyway. Many have forecasted that this spells trouble for Christians in a country that is growing less and less Christian.

While this is yet more Christian commentary, and albeit a little bit behind everyone else, here are some thoughts I had about the situation. More specifically, since this is a blog for parents of teenagers and those who work with teenagers, youth workers, pastors and volunteers, what can our young people take from this?

  1. Nothing is Private in Public: The climate and general attitude towards homosexuality in America has changed significantly in the last 15 to 20 years, thus it may seem a little unfair that Giglio is getting raked over the coals for something he said well over a decade ago. To say it’s not fair is not the point because the reality is he said it, it was recorded, and it can be found. Young people need to be sobered, not scared, by the reality that anything they say and do that makes it’s way onto the internet is not private. More importantly it is accessible. They need to be mindful of what they post on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, and strongly consider, “is this something that could come back to bite me later?” Crying that it’s not fair is not going to get you anywhere because that is the reality.
  2. Stand Up or Sit Down?: I’ll be honest. Initially I wished that Giglio had gone ahead and done the benediction anyway. But upon further reflection, conversation with a friend and looking back over his statement I can’t help but wonder, “Could it be that Giglio stepped down in an effort to obey Romans 12.17-18?” Romans 12.17-18 instructs us, under the heading of Marks of the True Christian in the ESV, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Nowadays young Christians and Christians in general are being encouraged to take a stand. That these controversial issues, like abortion and sanctity of marriage, are the tasks that we as Christians are called to take a stand for if we are really about the gospel. However, take a look at the second part of Giglio’s statement, “Due to a message of mine that surfaced from 15-20 years ago, it is likely that my participation, and the prayer I would offer, will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda a focal point of the inauguration. Clearly speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities the past fifteen years. Instead, my aim has been to call people to ultimate significance as we make much of Jesus Christ.” Did you catch that last part? Giglio is saying that ultimately the gospel has is and always will be about making ‘much of Jesus Christ’. What a great example of wisdom, discernment and self-control to seek peace with all as far as it depended on him, that Giglio has given us and to the millions of young Christians he ministers to nationally. We need to help teenagers learn wisdom and the ability to discern when is the time to stand up and when is the time to keep calm.
  3. The Plank in Our Eye: Recently the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reported that 80% of unmarried evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29 had engaged in sex. Likewise the National Association of Evangelicals, using a stricter definition of “evangelical” reported that 44% of 18 to 29 year olds had sex outside of marriage. It’s pretty clear in scripture that God does not endorse sex outside of marriage in the same manner that it does not endorse same sex sexual relations in or out of marriage. Based upon the research of those two organizations it might be time for the church to start directing more of our attention towards heterosexuals within the body of Christ, encouraging them to live rightly ordered sexual lives as opposed to outsiders? This needs to start with parents and youth workers continuing to call young people to live sexual lives in accordance with the Creator’s design out of reverence and love for God and being consumed with the love of God for them, rather than fear of God’s wrath for getting it wrong. People outside the church have access to the Bible and can see what it says. How can we expect them to take us seriously about our standards if we don’t appear to take them seriously by our own actions?

Conclusion: At the end of the day I think we have three tangible ways we need to encourage young people to be mindful of their witness. What are they putting out in public even if they believe it to be private? As far is it depends on you are you living at peace with everyone including and especially those outside of the body of Christ? Are you living a life that is rightly ordered driven by the knowledge of and love for the God you claim?

A Cornball Brother? I’ll Be That!!! (An Open Response to Rob Parker)

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I’ve often told people when asked about my experiences with racism that I have experienced as much if not more racism from my fellow black brethren as I have white people. Whether in candid conversation, in talks about my adolescent struggles with identity to the students of my youth ministry, or guest speaking to sociology classes at the university I was attending at the time, this comment has caught many off guard and by surprise. They often ask me to explain what I mean.

Well ladies and gentlemen I need not explain anymore. Look no further than sports journalist and ESPN personality Rob Parker and his comments or question about whether or not Washington Redskin Rookie Quarterback and 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III is a “brutha”or is he a cornball brother”. His little “honest question” as he calls it is exhibit A of what I’ve had to put up with for a good portion of my life from “bruthas” who suspected or straight up tagged me as a cornball brother as he so eloquently put it. When I was in school they didn’t come up with, no pun intended, corny names that beat around the bush of what they were really getting at. They were very much to the point when they called me an ‘Oreo’—black on the outside and white on the inside. They didn’t hide their feelings when they called me a sellout. It’s ironic to see a man of his ilk, a black journalist that has had some good measure of success to stoop to such an ignorant assessment of the quality and character of a man. I wish I had the opportunity to see Rob Parker so I could give him a piece of my mind. I know exactly what I would tell him…

“I’LL BE THAT! If given the choice between being what you deem a brutha and being a cornball brother then I’ll take the latter. See I discovered something in the midst of the struggle to be more than okay with who I am, and who I was raised to be. If talking proper English brought my blackness into question, so be it. If wearing my pants on my waist and not half way down my butt brought my blackness into question, so be it. If attending an all-white church made me a sellout then so be it. If having mostly white friends made me an Oreo then so be it. So be it because I know who I am. If having a straight-laced image with clean cut hair as opposed to braids makes me unworthy of hanging out with you then so be it (even though I had cornrows for a few years). I AM so much more than the ignorant, shallow, close-minded, negative stereotypes spin-doctored into being a definition of blackness and keeping it real. And I feel sorry for you that even with all your success, education and accomplishments that you are still trapped in that pathetic mental prison, that ghetto of the mind, that says to be truly black you must conform to the following standards of life and living that boxes you into a life that has done little more than yield a life expectancy of no more than 60 years old for black males in America. You can have your brutha life and all the fruitless accolades it garners you and I’ll stick to my cornball brother life.

You see, cornball brothers like me and RGIII, don’t need bruthas like you to tell us where our true value lies. Cornball brothers like me and RGIII were raised by parents who didn’t wipe the tears from our eyes after another day of being ridiculed for not being black enough by you bruthas. They looked us dead in the eye, and told us that the world is bigger than where we are currently; our neighborhood, our school, and our town. The world is bigger than the world you ‘bruthas’ try to make it out to be. We eventually learned to have the courage to simply be who we are, and surround ourselves with people who accept us for who we are regardless of what they looked like. You may find it surprising that surrounding ourselves with people who accept us for who we are is a big part of the reason why we date and even marry white women. As it turns out there’s a lot of sistas out there who are stuck in the same mental prison as you bruthas and won’t give us cornball brothers the time of day.

But that’s all right though. I’m not mad, cause as I said I know who I am. If it wasn’t for ignorant bruthas like you Rob, who made me feel like I was nothing I might not have been pushed to the point of searching deep within to find my true identity and worth that you bruthas wouldn’t know a thing about, and that is why I feel sorry for you. So as you bruthas would say, “I’ma do me dawg! You do you!” I don’t need to be included in whatever your cause is, you don’t need to worry about hanging out with me. I’ll be busy getting my cornball on!

Dark Night… Evil Rises Again Will it End?

With yet another tragic, senseless, act of evil, the Dark Knight massacre has us reeling again. Once again we are grappling for some sense of understanding how and why things like this happen. We wonder what the appropriate answer or response should be. Not surprisingly the 2nd Amendment debate will spike for a time as the national wound of this lays bare (the irony being that conservatives are capitalizing on building fear on a privilege not an inalienable right, and liberals will never change that privilege because they would lose one of their rallying cries).  We are amazed that someone with “obvious intellectual capacity” is capable of such deranged evil, as if only intellectual limited people are capable of such evil because they are “stupid” and uneducated. As if education is the antidote to evil. At the end of the day there is twelve graves being dug, each one representing a collection of family and friends for whom none of this discussion helps, because evil has struck a fatal blow. There are at least 38 other people for whom just going to the movie theatre again may never happen. Not because it’s likely to be repeated, but because the replay of that dark night on July 20th, 2012 is all to painful and accessible for them.

It’s not the movies. Any good story has conflict in it Good stories involve problems that need a resolution. The great stories, and therefore great movies, go beyond the basic good versus evil plot, but deal with more systemic evil. Evil that is systemic is so huge, so all encompassing, that no simple resolution is going to put an end to evil. Blowing up the Death Star only solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil all together. Casting the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil for good. Defeating Lord Voldemort and learning to be cordial with Draco Malfoy solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, especially the latest and last installment, takes an honest look at systemic evil. Its subtle brilliance is in the way it juxtaposes proposed answers to the problem of evil. Dark Knight Rises demonstrates that even those with good intentions can and do get sucked into the vortex, and the evil that lies dormant inside them stirs, and often is unleashed. All they need is a little push. The complete body of work of Nolan’s Batman movies show us how just when you solve one problem more, and often greater, problems arise. The new problems are often greater in scope and magnitude than the one just resolved, but it’s the same evil. Too often those who seek to solve the problems of evil become an instrument of evil or provide temporary solutions that are themselves riddled with problems. Problems are only symptoms of something much darker, the presence of evil. Peace is only evil catching its breath, unless of course evil dies once and for all. Humanity with all our achievements, politics, progress, enlightenment, technology, philosophy, organized religion, and compassion must face the facts that we are only capable of treating symptoms. We will never have the means to end evil once and for all.

The Christian Story is ultimately a story of evil meeting its end never to rise again. It claims that God has the means to end evil once and for all, has been and is in the process of ending it, and will eventually once and for all end evil. Pastors and preachers often don’t highlight this enough as they make the Christian Story more about personal relationship, personal salvation, personal happiness, and personal help (self-help/behavioral modification).  Jesus on the other hand tells his disciples to “take up your cross daily and follow me” (Matthew 16.24-26)? One way or another humanity is destined for death, because ever since the fall evil resides in the heart of man (Romans 3.10-18), and evil must be dealt with. Though we may never, we are all capable of what this young man in Aurora, CO did, and deserve the exact same judgment from God as he (Romans 3.23). Because the only true way to end evil forever is to kill evil forever, every last drop. The Christian Story calls us to a point of decision, which has been communicated shorthand many ways. We can either die daily now, put on the new-self daily now, or we can die daily later. One kind of death leads to life, the other kind of death has no end. God has made a way for all to receive life by dying the first death, and desires that none experience the second kind.

Praying a prayer doesn’t end evil, avoiding bad behavior doesn’t end evil, adherence to a moral standard doesn’t evil, service projects, mission trips, church attendance, evangelism doesn’t end evil. All those things are good but they don’t end evil, only death does. But death is not end of the story, not for all. Those who choose to die with Christ now will rise again and enter a world where God’s reign is complete and evil can’t touch it (Revelation 21.1-8, 26-27)