“…[R]acism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage…” (writer Ta-Nehisi Coates).

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities…. And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

Last Saturday, and then again at the beginning of this week, my wife and I watched “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” I knew nothing about it when I put it on our Netflix queue, other than it was a great movie based on the true story of an African-American butler who had been with the White House through eight administrations.

The very next day, Sunday, after seeing the film, I taught one segment of a six-week Lenten course on the minor prophets, dealing with Zephaniah and Obadiah. The latter condemns the Edomites (descendants of Esau) for their failure to come to the aid of their relatives in Judah when that nation was overrun by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and the Temple destroyed. Not only did the Edomites not do anything to prevent the suffering of their neighbors, they cheered on the enemy, joined in looting, and turned over refugees to the Babylonian forces.

The film was difficult to watch the first time, given what I discovered was its subject matter. But it was especially hard to see it again after reflecting with my church school class on Obadiah’s call to be a neighbor to those who are suffering. That’s because the movie is about the Civil Rights movement from the late ‘50s through the Reagan presidency and the conflict between father and son against the backdrop of those turbulent times.

As the archival and acted footage of demonstrations, arrests, and brutality played on the screen, I thought about those days and growing up in a virulently racist household and community in south Georgia. I remember the “white” and “colored” water fountains in the JC Penny store and other literal signs of systemic racism. But mostly I recall my dad’s hatred of anyone black, and indeed, anyone different in any way.

Daddy was only two generations removed from a South Carolina plantation where our family had owned slaves, and his father had taught him well, as my great-grandfather had done for his son. My dad used the n-word exclusively to refer to black people, which by the way, he did not actually consider to be people. When Martin Luther King, Jr.’s face appeared on the cover of a Presbyterian magazine, Daddy promptly and angrily cancelled the subscription.  No black woman was ever legitimately married, according to him; all black children were therefore bastards. And no black man deserved to be treated as anything but a servant boy, no matter what his status or age. Christianity was a white man’s religion, Daddy claimed, which the n—–s had rejected.

I did little or nothing to counter these beliefs. What could I do? I was a boy, totally dependent on my father for everything. When I made some attempt to speak up, such as objecting that black people were human beings or that it was OK for a band to be of mixed race, I got a royal dressing down. Eventually, when I grew up, Daddy and I simply did not talk about religion, politics, race or really much of anything.  He went to his grave having only moderated a little.

I call myself a progressive, but really what have I done to undo the legacy of my father and those like him? I voted for Obama. My wife and I called my sister’s son down one time for making a racist comment about the president. I’m troubled by Stand Your Ground laws that result in the deaths of young black men like Jordan Davis in Florida. I’m cordial with my African-American ministerial colleagues. But how substantive is any of that?

The movie and Obadiah brought to the surface such memories and thoughts. And I’m not sure now what to do with them.

But there are still plenty of days left in Lent.

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.


He brought me out into a spacious place;
he rescued me because he delighted in me
(Psalm 18:19, NIV 1984).

A couple of weeks ago, we decided to rearrange the furniture in some rooms in our home. We wanted more balance in the shapes and heights of chests and tables and chairs. But mostly we did the work to open up space in the rooms. Around the same time, we went through some closets and decided on better uses of the shelves, moving books and games and supplies to be more accessible, putting similar items together.

It occurred to me when we were finished that Lent is a time for the same sort of discipline in our spiritual lives. We open space in our hearts for the grace of God, removing the clutter, rearranging our priorities, looking at how the various aspects of our daily routine fit with the purposes of God for us. And we go into those hidden parts of ourselves—the “closets”—and examine what’s there. Then we bring those secret needs and fears out into the open in an act of bold vulnerability, either so they can be healed or their energy channeled. And by the same token, we may discover within ourselves hidden treasures, emotional resources we didn’t know we had, like someone who finds a long-forgotten photo or card tucked away in a drawer or inside a book on a shelf.

As Lent continues, why not do some actual physical rearrangement of your home or office, knowing that environment quite often has a profound effect on attiude and emotions? And while you’re at it, how about creating some space for grace (James Forbes’ phrase) in your life?


© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Matthew 23:27).


I’ve ended up on all sorts of catalog mailing lists. Most of the stuff I’m sent goes in the recycle bin, but one I really enjoy is called “Improvements.” Flipping through the latest issue the other day, I discovered a true must-have, and at a reasonable price, too! It was a counter-top scrap container (“Compost Crock”) featuring a filtered lid to keep everything from getting smelly and messy. For only $24.99, I could have one in white ceramic, and for just $15.00 more, my crock would grace my kitchen in shiny stainless steel. For a picture (and to confirm that I am not just pulling your leg), see http://www.improvementscatalog.com/product/compost-crocks.do.


Oh, come on! They can’t be serious! $40 for a can to put banana peels, rotten fruit, potato peels, and coffee grounds in until they’re ready to go out to the compost pile? We use a large recycled molded plastic coffee can with a snap lip and a handle and keep it under the sink. Before that, the container was an old ice cream bucket.


How many of us are much like that pricey crock? We look great (or try to) on the outside and put ourselves on display as if we’re “all that.” We do and buy things to gain prestige and to make our neighbors envious. But inside we’re as unappealing as those stinky scraps, as broken as eggshells, as rotten as the moldy grapefruit that stayed too long in the refrigerator bin.


There’s a classic Lenten prayer that says in part: “We are misled by pride, for we see ourselves pure when we are stained, and great when we are small.” The result of such an attitude, the prayer implies as it goes on, is that “we have failed in love, neglected justice, and ignored [God’s] truth.”


Those coffee grounds and squishy red peppers, from whatever kind of container we had them in, when turned/tumbled and cooked in the compost pile or barrel become rich soil in which plants and vegetables can take root and grow. In the same way, our sinful pride can by God’s grace be transformed. We can learn to see ourselves differently, as we really are: stinky sinners, yes, but also rich and fertile ground for the seed of God’s Word to take root and grow to his glory.


© 2009 Tom Cheatham

“As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13,14).

Remember that you fashioned me like clay; and will you turn me to dust again?” (Job 10:9)

It must be hard to be God. So much to remember. Covenants old and new. Assorted promises. Iniquities (or remembering to forget them). Individuals like Nehemiah who every time you turn around was asking God to remember him for this or that. Or the thief on the cross, who wanted our Lord to remember him when Jesus came into the kingdom.


How does God stay so organized? His prayer-mail (p-mail for short) inbox is always full, as Jim Carrey found out during his brief stint as God in Bruce Almighty. Of course, he has legions of angels who do his bidding, so like any good leader God delegates tasks. Maybe there’s an AS2 ( if you recall It’s a Wonderful Life) in charge of remembering the names of stars (cf. Psalm 147:4). Or little Timmy’s guardian spirit whispers the boy’s name in God’s ear when the child prays for Mommy and Daddy and a new puppy and please don’t let them serve pizza and green beans together at school. How about the seraph in charge of a nation who can recite from memory the details of its history or the reference librarian in the heavenly archives who can put a finger on just the right record at a moment’s notice?


But even angels aren’t perfect, so sometimes God must get frustrated with the process and do things for himself, “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:15). And some items he neither needs nor wants help with: memories so precious that he easily recalls them, promises he will never forget, creatures who never escape his notice.


Like the tiny sparrow he keeps his eye on. Or the flowers of the field, which he clothes with such beauty, though they are here today, gone tomorrow. Or you and me, human beings, made from dust and returning to it, fragile and transitory.


Predators, animal and human, see weakness and pounce on it to feed their bellies or their egos. Not God. He knows how we are made, and amazingly, the fact of our vulnerability is the very source of his goodness toward us. God does not take advantage of our vulnerability to destroy us. Instead, he is moved to compassion and forgiveness. He even chooses to put his treasure in jars of clay inscribed with your name and mine. “These fragile bodies of touch and taste,” as the song puts it, are his instruments to do great things! We are sacraments of God, concrete expressions of his grace.


“Remember, you are dust.” We hear those words spoken annually on Ash Wednesday. But even should we forget, God remembers, and because he does, he comes to our aid: to help, to heal, to forgive. Even with all the universe he has to oversee, all the details he must remember to keep everything going, we are never far from the front of his consciousness, never out of sight, out of mind.


God remembers.


© 2009 Tom Cheatham


Song lyrics from “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” by Bruce Cockburn