Quit Whining and Shine Instead

We don’t have to be geniuses to figure out that the influence of Christianity is on the decline in North America. The reasons for this are as arguable as they are many. But if only we had some better evangelistic programs… And if only we had a stronger ministry outreach among the community… Then we might just…

But might the problem just be you?

And me?

And other Christians?

For Us Who Wish to Argue

Before you reactively dismiss my accusatory question, consider these words from the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:14-15:

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky…

The instruction here is offered to a church where at least two sisters in Christ are in conflict with each other (cf. 4:2). And if the Philippians are like most churches, other Christians were likely already taking sides and lining themselves up against each other. Trust me, I’ve been a part of church long enough to know how that works. So the entire church then and now is put on notice

So what is Paul saying? Earlier in chapter two Paul recalled an early Christian hymn which told the story of the humility and self-sacrificial obedience which Christ lived with even to the point of death. Paul recalls this because it is the mindset that we must live with as Christians. So for Christians, “grumbling or arguing” is rooted in selfishness and is antithetical with the life of Christ we are to embody. But there’s more. When we learn to stop such grumbling and arguing, we not only become “pure and blameless” among a sinful world but we also “shine… like stars in the sky” among the world.

There’s another interesting point to make about these instructions, taking notice of what Paul doesn’t say. Paul doesn’t mention a word about better evangelistic programs or stronger outreach ministries not because he’s against either but because they don’t matter much at all if the church is full of grumbling and arguing, failing to live from the mindset of Christ.

Better Posture Please

So here is why I suggested earlier that the problem is us. Whether it’s Christians vs. Christians or Christians vs. The World, we – Christians, in general – grumble about everything we don’t like or disagree with and argue in protest. Just turn on your Facebook or Twitter feed and you’ll see what I mean. For example, take the recent film Noah or the decision of World Vision to employ couples in same-sex marriages (and the subsequent reversal of that decision). Or go back to when Rob Bell published his controversial book Love Wins or every time a state attempts to pass legislation that redefines the traditional view of marriage. The typical reaction from many Christians is a barrage of grumbling and arguing. Those Christians who disagree voice their protest and then those Christians who disagree with the protest bite the bait and respond with an equal amount of protest.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a time for speaking up but not every time is that time. It takes wisdom to know the difference and our propensity towards a reactive posture shows a lack of wisdom in this regard. More often, our grumbling and arguing is about us… we’re offended and so we complain or our way, whatever way that is, is disregarded to some extent and so we complain. And our emotive reflux blinds us from seeing what everyone else sees, just how self-serving such grumbling and arguing really is.

If we want to influence the culture at large, which is part of what evangelism and ministry aims at, it begins with us learning how to posture ourselves among the world at large. This posture takes us back to the mindset of Christ. Our gospel witness is spot on when the way we live among the world reflects the humble and self-sacrificial obedient life of Christ. This begins by ceasing to whine and complain every time someone says or does something we dislike or even disagree with. Let’s let our example lead, speaking only from the posture of Christ among the world at large and see what happens as a result. We might just be surprised how bright stars can become!

Faith, Rather than Fear

The headline read, “Chile quake: This was big but a bigger one awaits, scientist says.” This is what I saw when opening the CNN website. After an enormous earthquake off the coast of Chile which resulted in a tsunami warning being issued for most of the South American western coast, the media is already speculating about what might yet come.*

This is but one example of the fear mongering that is passed off as news in our culture. Apparently fear is big business, as it seems to draw in listeners and readers which then draws in sponsorships with deep pockets. Ultimately such fear creates an irrationally reactive culture of fear. Just think about how much money and time is invested into what may happen as a result of climate change, global terrorism, pandemic illness, and so on. This is not to suggest that such issues should be ignored. However, when the driving factor is fear and the only response is more human ingenuity, which in many ways becomes a symbol of hubris, there is reason for concern.

The Hebrew Faith

The most frequent command in the Bible is “fear not.” That’s because the ancient world had plenty of reasons for being afraid. Both moral evil and natural evil were as much of a problem then as they are now. Not having the advantage of industry and technology, that so often become idols today, the ancients believed they were at the mercy of the gods. Consequently, they offered sacrifices to idols believing that such worship would result in prospering rather than facing peril.

Israel thought differently, believing in one God, the Lord Almighty, whom they trusted. They believed that God was sovereign and yet, as evident from the book of Job, they did not believe in divine retribution where suffering is a sign of one’s sinfulness. The problem of evil was and still is a mystery. Yet, even so, they chose to walk by faith rather than live in fear.

We might recall the line, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your, they comfort me” (Ps 23:4, NIV). The Hebrew faith understood well that the Lord was in control, striving to live by this conviction rather than living in fear.

Our Faith

Of course, it’s not always easy to live out of a faith conviction. There are a number of things that can assail our faith. Not the least of which is a catastrophic tragedy or event which threatens our existence and even our very life. In fact, as I am writing this, I am learning of the mass shooting that has taken place on Fort Hood. When such horrendous events happen, it’s normal to become concerned, feel anxiety and worry, and become fearful.

I can only imagine the sort of fear the disciples must have felt after witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus. Not only did they see Jesus, whom they had followed to Jerusalem, die in such a horrid fashion but the anxiety over what might happen to them was surely paralyzing.

Then Jesus was raised from death, just as he promised!

When Jesus appeared to his disciples, his first words were “Peace be with you!” (Jn 20:19). Though this was a customary Jewish greeting, it took on new meaning because the disciples could now truly be at peace. Jesus, the Messiah, had overcome the impossible, defeating the worst enemy which is death. What more could the Jewish and Roman authorities do to him? They exhausted the limits of their power and still came up empty. God was victorious and the result was true peace, knowing that now all the evil, including death itself, had been defeated.

That victory is the promise of our victory too, as Paul reminds us (cf. 1 Cor 15:56-57). As Easter approaches, we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, we must remember this story – the good news – with regularity so that it becomes the story we react to throughout our days. In doing so, we learn to respond in faith rather than fear.

——————–

* This same article is published in Connecting 29 (April 2, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.

N.T. Wright on Gospel and Mission

Recently N.T. Wright lectured at Oklahoma Christian University. Below is a YouTube video of one of those lectures, probably a “chapel sermon,” on the relationship between gospel and mission, the vocational challenge we have as followers of Jesus. I believe you will really be encouraged and challenged by what you here, so do yourself a favor and listen.

How To Lose A Fight and Win… With Christ!

When it comes to an argument, I’m going to win. Believe me when I say this, as I’ve had much practice in the art of argument. You see, I grew up with four siblings and that means, in part, excelling in the art of winning an argument. And when it comes to the Bible and all the doctrinal issues we think are important to being Christians, I’m going to win those arguments too. I know my Bible and my educational background is in Bible, ministry, and theology. I’m not trying to brag, I’m just trying to explain my confidence in my ability to win the argument.

But I’ve learned that I can win an argument and still lose!

Some Attitude Please!

The Apostle Paul writes a letter to the Philippians, a church where some Christians have a disagreement with each other. He writes in Phil 2:5-11:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This is all about the attitude we must have. Paul recalls this early Christian hymn which tells the story of Jesus. It’s a story of humility, serving, and obedience leading to self-sacrifice and these are the virtues which must shape our attitudes, leading to the Christ-like virtuous practice.

Arguments are about being right and winning. Arguments start because there are disagreements and when we disagree on some matter, it’s because we believe we’re right and the others are wrong. So an argument is about being right but far too often, the fact that we’re right or at least think we’re right is eclipsed with the need to win. The problem though is that winning often comes at the expense of relationships, which is Paul’s concern in Philippians. And since the church, yesterday and today, is the reconciled family of God, there’s a big problem when we sacrifice relationships on the altar of winning the argument.

If we’re going to have the attitude of Christ then we must learn to value relationships over being right. Jesus was right as right could be as he came into this world with divine right and yet he chose to be wronged. So if we’re going to have this attitude then we have to ask ourselves if we can be wronged? Can we let go of our way even when we know we’re right? This is what the text is asking of us.

To Fight or Not Fight…

I know there are some issues worth fighting for without backing down. The other day I was asked what, if any, issues would I fight without any compromise. I replied,

When the gospel is practically denied to people because of their race, ethnicity, religious background, sinfulness, etc… I’ll fight for that because, as we sometimes sing, “The blessed gospel is for all…”

That’s not the only issue but in my experience, most of the issues we think require a “No-Retreat, No Compromise” stance are so only because we want them to be and tell ourselves such. We hate to lose, and so we dig our heels in and stand our ground. It takes discernment to know the difference between the very few non-negotiable issues and the many other issues.

I write as a minister who knows how much the attitude of Christ is needed in the local church. But I also think we need to develop this mindset beyond the local church and practice it among the larger Christian community. I’m thinking in particular of the way we have social-media conversations, especially in the interaction that takes place among Evangelicals, Emergents, Missionals, Neo-Reformed, Mainliners, etc… There are many great things about blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc… But the emotive debating over some Christians say/do is not one of them. And we know this when we step back and put some distance between ourselves and the issue rather than just reacting.

As I suggested earlier, I’ve learned that we can win the argument and still lose. But I’ve also learned that we can lose the argument and win. Christ did! It takes faith, some grace and patience, and some gospel imagination. Remember…. Christ chose to be wronged rather than assert his divine right and since then men and women of every tongue and tribe have been professing him as Lord.

So if we want to win, we need to start learning how to lose. And when we do, everybody wins… We win with Christ!

Grace Is When God…

I’ve started reading through Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber, who is a Lutheran Pastor. After hearing the author speak once and knowing something of her story, I was intrigued when this book came out. One I started reading the book and learned that she was raised in a Church of Christ, it makes even more sense why I find her story intriguing. Now a word of warning to those with super-disdain for foul language… you are warned.

The author is just like us all, a sinner in need of God’s grace. I lament that she didn’t learn about the grace of God in a Church of Christ but I understand. I only hope that as preacher in a Church of Christ, those who hear me preach and teach will learn of God’s grace because we’re all hopeless without it.

As I do reflect on my own preaching and teaching as well as my own relationship to God, I become ever more aware of my own short-comings, my failures, my sins, my… I’m thankful the love of God, a love that has given me life in Christ and assures me that there isn’t any condemnation in Christ (cf. Rom 8:1). And then as I was reading Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber had this to say about grace:

Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word. My selfishness is not the end-all… instead, it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own s***. Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace—like saying “Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.” It’s God saying, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.” (p. 48).

God.

Love.

Makes all things new!

Feast on that over the weekend. Let the grace of God be a balm to our soul. Let it transform us, forgetting the past and striving for what lies ahead (cf. Phil 3:13) to the glory of God!

A Leper, Jesus, Some Children, and World Vision

At the end of Mark chapter one is a story about a leper which you can read here. This leper was an unclean man. But apparently he heard about the kingdom ministry Jesus was doing, which included healing people of their diseases. So he approached Jesus in hopes that Jesus would heal him of his leprosy.

This leper said to Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (v. 40).

Did you catch that? The leper did not ask whether Jesus was able to make him clean, he asked if Jesus was willing to heal him. That’s because the leper was apparently used to Jesus’ contemporaries ignoring him, wanting nothing to do with him and unwilling to offer him any help.

Now to be fair, Jesus’ contemporaries, the Jewish religious people, had their reasons. After all, all they had to do was cite Leviticus 13:45-46 as justification for the way they treated the leper… if they were looking for a biblical proof-text to hang their hat on. But the truth is, this is the sort of reasoning that happens when a hobby-horse issue couched as a “moral principle” is placed above doing justice and showing mercy… when principle is placed above people.

And this made Jesus “indignant” (v. 41).

Angry, that is.

And it makes me angry too!

Just the same, it makes me angry that some Christians would encourage other Christians to withdraw support of World Vision and sponsorship of children through World Vision because this organization decided to employ people living in a same-sex marriage (read about this here). It makes me angry not because I agree with the decision World Vision made (which it has now reversed) but because once again, more principle is placed above people, above doing justice and showing mercy.

Let’s be honest. Every day we, who call ourselves “Christians,” give money to businesses and organizations that champion values and engage in practices that do not conform to the kingdom of God. In fact, we are probably wearing clothing manufactured with unfair wages and unjust labor practices. But that doesn’t stop us because it’s not our hobby-horse issue. So the suggestion that Christians should stop supporting World Vision and sponsoring children through World Vision because of a decision made that we disagree with just suggests that a that this is more about the sensibilities of an Evangelical hobby-horse issue than it is doing what’s right.

Yes, I said that. You see, whatever you think about World Vision and the decision they made, the children who are supported through their organization have nothing to do with that decision. And their needs, which are many, remain!

My wife and I sponsor two children through World Vision, Marita and Payal. There are other child-sponsoring organizations such as Compassion International and if you sponsor a child through one of these organizations, then I encourage you to continue doing so. My wife and I went with World Vision simply because when the opportunity came to sponsor our first child, World Vision was the organization we were speaking with. Are we to just dump these children over a decision they had nothing to do with? Seriously…

My wife and I have absolutely no intention of changing our sponsorship of these children because our sponsorship is not about World Vision or our own beliefs on certain moral issues. Sponsoring these children is about sharing the blessings of God, the love God bestows upon us, with these children who are as worthy of such blessings as we are.

Some Christians spend a lot of energy talking about their hobby-horse issues and raising a ruckus when someone goes against what they believe. That when the Bible often gets wielded around as a weapon, with someone quickly saying, “The Bible says…” I actually get that and I get that people are passionate about certain issues. Believe me, I really do. I’m pretty passionate about certain issues too. I only hope that we’re as much doers of the word as we are talkers about the the word. And I hope that standing on our moral high ground will never come at the expense of helping people in need, especially children.

One thing we can be sure of… When moral principle comes at the expense of children, these children cry out to Jesus, “If you are willing…”

Book Review: God, Freedom & Human Dignity

Among the western world, freedom is arguably the chief value we seek as democratic societies. Our freedom is what dignifies us as human beings but that evokes the question of what exactly is freedom and whether or not God is a suppressor of freedom. This is the issue that Ron Highfield* addresses in his book God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing A God-Centered Identity In A Me-Centered Culture. Published in 2013 by InterVarsity Press, the book is 227 pages and includes both a subject index and scripture index. Also, to my delight, the book includes footnotes rather than endnotes.

The book aims to show why God is the foundation for true freedom and human dignity, whom we can love God and give ourselves to without loss of joy (p. 12). In order to unpack this claim, the author divides the book into two sections. In the first half, the author explores how we, as autonomous individual modern selves, the “Me-Centered” selves, conceive of freedom and view God as an obstacle to freedom. The second half of the book then explores the Christian view of God as the self-giving Father, Son, and Spirit in whom we find our true identity and gain true freedom and dignity to live as the people God has created and redeemed us to be which is a “God-centered” life. The book weaves a tapestry of theological and philosophical voices from into conversation with the biblical story, making a very solid argument for a wider range of readers. In other words, scholars and pastors will appreciate the depth of the book while students and lay people will benefit too because of the book’s accessibility.

The book demonstrates how among western culture freedom is an ideal without limitations which we must achieve through our own initiative. The problem with the western notion of freedom is that it requires the removal of every impeding obstacle and therefore satisfaction is never found because there is always another obstacle which we must overcome (p. 103). Though the modern autonomous self regards this illusion as freedom, it always falls short of true freedom. Alternatively, God is the foundation and giver of true freedom, as  Highfield demonstrates. This freedom, which is found in Christ, stems from the fact that in Christ, God has set us free from sin and death. This gives us the freedom to live as our true selves, the people whom God has created and redeemed us to be, which mirrors the image of God (p. 189-190).

One book can only do so much and will always leave the reader with unanswered questions. Having said that, I wish the book would have explored how this understanding of true freedom finds expression within the church, since the church is the collective new creation of people who belong to God in Christ. Speaking of the church, I also believe that some discussion questions at the end of each chapter would help as well. That’s because this book will make for a very useful small group discussion or even for a “Bible” class to read through. Nevertheless, this book is a great read! It is an easy and engaging read, providing a good overview along with solid theological and cultural engagement on a subject that hits very close to home for many people, including myself.

I am thankful to both Ron Highfield and IVP for providing me with a copy of this book.

—————

Ron Highfield, is the Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University where he teaches classes in systematic theology and Christianity and culture; he also serves as a Shepherd of the University Church of Christ.