When Preaching Fails

One of the books I’m reading for my upcoming class is a book that my teachers, David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, wrote titled Prodigal Christianity. One of the stories they tell in the book is about watching this street preacher stand for the truth (as he understand it) with boldness as he preaches, only to be rejected by the people he is preaching at. So the authors make this very good point:

“We acknowledge the need for grounding in truth, but when we are too quick to make bold pronouncements, we compromise our ability to witness because we have not truly entered into the cultural world to be with people: to listen to, seek God with, an learn from those with to whom we are witnessing” (p. 53).

Thanks to another preacher, John Dobbs, here’s a video of some other preacher that helps illustrate their point:

Similar to Fitch and Holsclaw, my friend Fred Liggen says that leadership requires listening, learning, and loving. He’s right. They’re right. Before were can lead others some place, which is what preaching seeks to do, we must listen to them, learn from them, and love them.

Holy Lovers

Last Sunday I preached from First Peter about living into the hope we have. The issue is really about the holiness of the church. The apostle Peter instructs us saying, “but, like the Holy One who call you, become holy yourselves in all of your conduct, for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Pet 1:15-16).*

Holy Is?

Like many common religious terms, the word holy has just enough familiarity that we think we understand it. Consequently, it’s tempting to never inquire any further about what becoming holy means.

That opens the door for a lot of misunderstanding. In the biblical narrative holiness is not merely an abstract concept. Holiness, or the lack of, is displayed through concrete actions. Due likely to Puritan influence, the first thing that usually comes to mind for us when it pertains to holiness is avoiding the “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19-21). That’s certainly a part of living holy lives but this is much more involved in becoming holy.

Becoming Holy Lovers

Peter’s instruction to become holy includes the quote “You shall be holy, because I am holy” which comes from Leviticus 19:2. In that context God is calling Israel to regard themselves as separate from the rest of the nations and giving them instructions for how they are to live as the distinguished (consecrated) people of God who are separate from the nations. The first thing we need to realize is that our identity is the church. We are the body and bride of Christ… who happen to live in America, not Americans who happen to go to church.

Once we understand our identity as the church, we must live like it. Becoming holy is to become like God, who is holy. Again, this is not an abstract concept. The holiness of God is displayed through his actions. Chief among these actions is God’s redemptive pursuit of his creation, motivated by his love for creation and his desire to see justice and righteousness done among creation. This is why God gives Israel the Law after redeeming them from Egypt.

Therefore, as Peter insists that we are called to obedience he points us back to God’s redemptive act in Christ. Peter wants us to understand that holy living involves reflecting the redemptive character of God. So Peter insists that we, who are called to become holy, must embrace a “mutual love” as we “love one another” (1 Pet 1:22).

The Contrast

The instruction to become holy is an expansive call but we should not forget that it involves loving one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Just as the love of God is displayed in the self-giving act of sacrificing his Son for our sake, so we must love one another through self-giving acts. Such actions include the ability to remain patient with each other, forgive each other, serve one another as needs arise, and so forth. This is why I titled this article Holy Lovers.

This may not seem like a big deal but it is. I think of all the stories I’ve heard and even encountered at times that involve stressful work-place drama. I’m talking about sordid accounts of gossip, slander, gamesmanship, politics, and other deeds that make for misery. Now imagine a society where instead of stepping over others, people lower themselves to lift each other up with grace and mercy. It’s a holy society and that’s what we’re called to become. The contrast is huge!

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* This article was originally published in Connecting 29 (November 12, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

For Ministers: Serving With An Assumption of Grace

Every Christian is a human, including elders and ministers. All are redeemed but all are still being refined and made into the image of Christ.

With that being said, let’s acknowledge that there are some very bad elders just as there are some very bad ministers. I’m talking about people who are very unethical and even malicious in their treatment of others. However, in my experience, this is the exception rather than the norm.

In fact, in my experience, most church leaders mean well and intend to do well. However, like everyone else, every church leader has faults and weaknesses too. That includes me too. Realizing this has become very freeing because it has allowed me to forgive and move on. I’ve learned to minister with an assumption of grace towards others, including other church leaders. That is, I don’t expect other church leaders (e.g., elders) to be Jesus, I expect them to be themselves and I have already forgiven them for that. I hope they will forgive me for being myself too.

This is freeing as it allows me, as a minister and church leader, to serve my church with grace because I know that I am in as much need of grace as they are. Yes… our churches will disappoint us from time to time. But as difficult as the disappoint will be at times, learning to minister with an assumption of grace will allow us to serve with joy even in the difficult moments.

May the grace of God in Christ and in the power of the Spirit be upon us all!

Will You Vote Today?

I’m currently preaching through the book of First Peter and I have been reading through Miroslav Volf’s book Captive to the Word of God (hereafter CWG). Between these two endeavors and reading through some social-media feeds yesterday on Election Day got me thinking about Christians and voting. So let me ask this question: If you are a Christian, will you vote today? Will you vote tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that?

Maybe this seems like a silly question to ask since yesterday was Election Day in America. But if you are a Christian, a follower of Jesus who belongs to his church, then every day is an election day. The only question is how you will vote.

The Christian Distinction

According to the Apostle Peter, Christians belong to a different reality than the rest of society. It is a reality received through the new birth (cf. 1 Pet 1:3) that marks the church off as a distinct priesthood and nation who reside as aliens and exiles among the rest of society (cf. 1 Pet 2:5, 9, 11). The distance between Christians and the rest of society is neither one of isolation or assimilation but one with “a presupposition of mission” (CWG, p. 82-83).

This mission, the mission of God, becomes the duty of the church and therefore every Christian. The duty is not to make America or any other nation a better nation. Rather, the business of every Christian is to live in such a manner that the gospel of Jesus Christ is clearly made manifest in the life of the church. While this business may at times share similar interests with America and the many other nations of this world, it may also set the church at odds with the nations, including America, just as it did for the church living among the Roman Empire. That is to say that sometimes living as faithful followers of Jesus Christ will make the church appear as terrible national citizens. And that’s okay! After all, Christians are foreigners among society.

Christian Voting

By participating in the mission of God, the church is called to a distinct way of living. This living has to do with conduct and it involves no longer conforming to the former ways of living before receiving the new birth but instead living as the holy people of God (cf. 1 Pet 1:14-16). The letter of First Peter spells out what some of this conduct involves from a concrete standpoint in regards to practice. But what the conduct does, as Volf points out, is allow mission to take on the form of “witness and invitation” (CWG, p. 84). That is, instead of trying to make the world of this age a better place, the Christian duty of participating in the mission of God through faithful living testifies to what the age to come looks like (which has already appeared in Christ) and calls those of this age to become a part of the age to come.

In essence, to be a Christian and to belong to the church of Jesus Christ means daily voting. Regardless of whether Christians should vote or not state elections, the church is called to cast a vote for the gospel of Jesus Christ on a daily basis. So everyday the church will vote for what it believes is the way, the truth, and the life by the manner in which every Christian lives his or her life. The real question then is not “will you vote today” but “what will you vote for today?” Will the conduct of the church cast a vote for the way of Jesus and the age to come or will the vote be for this present age?

I dare say that when the primary concern of Christians is making the nations of this world better nations, the vote that is casted is a vote for this age. It’s a vote for something that will not last, no matter how good it seems. But there is a kingdom that will stand forever. May the church of Jesus Christ learn to discern wisely and vote wisely!

Living Hope!

Life is full of disappointment, hardships, and suffering. In my own life, the story has the grief and pain of losing a father, a son, and a younger brother. For others the struggle has been divorce, depression, abuse, chronic health problems, persecution, and so on.

Localized persecution made life very difficult for the Christians living in Asia Minor. So after the standard greeting, the Apostle Peter began his first letter to these Christians with these words:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you, who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. – 1 Peter 1:3-5

There’s a hymn that churches sometimes called The Sands of Time, with the words written in 1857 by Annie R. Cousin. The song captures the journey of faith that we live on.  “…Dark, dark hath been the midnight, but day spring is at hand,” reads one line. The fourth verse begins, “The King there in His beauty, without a veil is seen; it were a well spent journey, though seven deaths lay between.”

As difficult as life can become, the journey is coming to an end. That end is Jesus Christ who is coming again and bringing with him our salvation in its fullness. When we see Jesus appearing, full of the great mercy of God, we’ll see our King standing unveiled in the most splendid beauty. Then we will know that our journey has been a well spent journey, even though the seven deaths do lay between.

That hope… that’s what keeps me on the journey. May it offer you courage to keep on the journey too!

Agents of Grace

One of the books I’m reading through is Captive to the Word of God by Miroslav Volf. The author offers reflects on how scripture forms the theological mind so that belief and practice remain conjoined and interwoven. The idea is that what we believe is evident in our practices and therefore our practices declare what we believe.*

On Belief and Practice

The relationship between belief and practice has everything to do with our understanding of the grace of God. Volf picks up on this when he says, “Inscribed in the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents. In a precisely defined way that guards the distinction between God and human beings, human beings themselves are made participants in the divine activity and therefore are inspired, empowered, and obligated to imitate it.” (p. 51-52). So when we reflect upon the grace of God and how we become agents of this grace, we must ask two important questions: 1) What sort of life has God redeemed us from? 2) What sort of life has God redeemed us for?

By asking these two questions we are saying that the grace of God is both a salvation from and salvation to something. Therefore, in surrendering our will so that God may make us into an agent of his grace, we are letting go of an old way of life while simultaneously embracing a new way of life. The old life is the myriad of ways that have pulled us away from our created intent, while the new way of life is the remaking of our created intent which we receive from and learn how to live in Jesus Christ. In Colossians Paul says, “Therefore, if you have been raised with Christ, keep seeking the things above… …since you have put off the old man with its practice and have been clothed with the new man that is being renewed in the knowledge according to the image of the one who created it” (3:1, 9-10, NET).

Beliefs and practices belong together. Our believing commits us to practicing and our particular beliefs commit us to particular practices which we cannot neglect if we truly believe. This isn’t to say that we will perfectly practice our beliefs or never find ourselves neglecting certain aspects of our practices but to say that if we believe, it will become evident in the way we live. For those who have trouble reconciling the teaching of Paul with the teaching of James (cf. Js. 2:17-19), it should be evident that they both are really on the same page.

Participants of the Story

By learning to practice our beliefs, putting away our old self and putting on the new self, we allow God to remake us as agents of grace. That is to say, as we have received the grace of God, so we become conduits of that grace in the way we live. This is our way of life and it includes the ways in which we cease living as and the ways in which we embrace, learning to live as Christ. It’s the way of Christ.

As I reflect on this, I have one final thought. Throughout scripture we read the stories of people like Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Hannah, David, Daniel, Mary, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, etc… In these stories we see how God worked, accomplishing the seemingly impossible because of their enormous faith. Such stories challenge and inspire us as they should. We read these stories as part of the biblical narrative, joining the story. Yet we must realize that our participation in the story may involve the seemingly impossible tasks of our ancestors, our participation will always involve letting go of the old and putting on the new.

Our call is one that emanates from the grace of God and therefore is one that embraces the grace of God, turning from and turning to, becoming agents of that grace!

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* This article was originally published in Connecting 29 (October 29, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

Living As We Believe

“But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works.” – James 2:18.

As Christians, our faith should be evident in the way we live. It’s not always the case but it should be. In reality, how we live is always trying to catch up with how we believe. For example, we believe that we are to live by the Spirit and not by the works of the flesh (cf. Gal 5:16-25) but as we all know, it requires daily discipline in order to say “No!” to the flesh and “Yes!” to the Spirit.

What sort of discipline is necessary so that there might be more coherency between what we profess as belief and how we live? In his book Captive to the Word of God, Miroslav Volf says:

Espousing a belief puts pressure on the one who believes to act accordingly. Put more generally, basic Christian beliefs as beliefs entail practical commitments. These commitments may need to be explicated so as to become clear, or they may need to be connected to specific issues in concrete situations, but they do not need to be added to the beliefs; they inhere in the beliefs. Christian beliefs are not simply statements about what was, is, and will be the case’ they are statements about what should be the case and what humans beings should do about that. They provide the normative vision for practices (p. 50).

Volf is suggesting that what we articulate as our belief shapes how we live. It works sort like this: If we profess that we reject envy and jealousy as being an acceptable way of life then we envision envy and jealousy as abnormal and sinful values and commit ourselves to getting rid of such works of the flesh in our lives. Or to put it another way, if we profess that we are to give thanks in all circumstances (cf. 1 Thess 5:18) then we envision life where we take stock of the blessings we have and express our gratitude for such blessings (rather than becoming envious of others who have what we don’t have).

This is our submission to the sanctifying work of the Spirit in our lives. We profess our beliefs, thereby committing ourselves to live in accordance with what we believe. Consequently, this is one reason why we should continue gathering together in worship and fellowship as the church. When we come together as Christians for worship and fellowship, which includes preaching and teaching, we are reminded of what we believe and the life that our faith calls us to live into. It is also a reason why confession of faith in prayer is an immensely important as a daily discipline. For example, if in prayer we confess that we are called to live by the same mindset of Jesus (cf. Phil 2:5-8) then we are more likely to remember the mindset of Jesus as we encounter life and live accordingly.