Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

A Conversation About Jesus and Religion

Yesterday evening while driving for Uber in Baltimore I picked up a man I”ll call Sammy, who was born in India but was raised in America. I picked him up at a bar in Baltimore and I could tell he had a few drinks but he was a nice man and was telling me about his work, which involved working with clients all around the world. Then he asked me what I do and that’s where things became interesting.

I explained to Sammy that I’m a Christian and have spent the last ten plus years of my life serving as a minister with churches. Sammy then told me that he is not religious but respects anyone who is because religion normally make people better people. The conversation then went something like this…

Sammy: “Do you really believe in one God?”

Me: “Yes, I do.”

Sammy: “Do you believe Jesus is the only one who can save everyone?”

Me: “Yes, I do.”

Sammy then proceeded to share with me his difficulty in believing like I believe. He said that at the end of the day all religions teach us how to be nicer people to others and that’s what he thinks is important. Then Sammy said, “But you believe differently.”

I could tell he was waiting for a response but I paused for a moment as we were pulling up to his destination. Then I said, “Sammy, I believe that Jesus was crucified but that God raised him from death and exalted him as Lord… as the one who is King over all. That’s why he is the only one who can save everyone. Of course, if Jesus wasn’t raised from death then none of that really matters. But if he was, and I believe he was, and if you believe he was, then even if we don’t understand how God works all this salvation stuff out, we know that it is through Jesus that God saves because Jesus is the Lord… the King.”

Sammy stayed silent for a moment. Then he said, “Wow, I never thought of it that way before. I know I have to go now but thanks, I need to think about that more now.”

Christians… If God has raised the crucified Jesus from death and exalted him as Lord, as we confess, then may the Spirit empower us to boldly live as witnesses for this good news of Jesus the Messiah!

Imago Dei: They Belong to God

As I continue talking with different churches about serving as a minister with them, I have started driving for Uber in the city of Baltimore. It’s a way to earn some needed income for my family but it’s also proving to be a great way of listening and learning as I taxi people from one destination to another. Last night as I was driving though the city and seeing the myriad of different people, I began reflecting on God, creation, and the image of God. So here are some of the thoughts that came to my mind.

One of the great sins throughout history has been the objectification of other people. By objectification, we see others only as an object or means of serving us. It’s a self-serving sickness that reduces others to the value of whatever they can do for us. And sometimes that’s pretty cheap… a one night stand, a quick high, and so on. Sometimes the objectification of others has resulted in some of the great injustices throughout history such as the importation of humans to work as slaves.

The Bible tells us that all people are made in the imago dei, image of God, bearing the likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27; 5:1). Later on in life when asked about paying taxes to Ceasar, Jesus takes a coin that bears Caesars image and says to give it back to Caesar because it belongs to Caesar (Mk. 12:13-17). What Jesus is also saying, which is what we often miss, is that we dare not give ourselves to Caesar because we bear the image of God and therefore we are to worship/serve God. But here is a further point about people and the image of God.

Now let’s clarify a further point about the image of God and the others we encounter every day. The others, those we are so tempted to objectify for our own ends, bear the image of God and therefore they belong to God!

To recognize the image of God in other people and recognize that they belong to God means that they are not ours to do with as we please. They belong to God and we are to serve them as we would serve God. Whether it is our family, a person who has been visiting our church gatherings, the neighbor down the street and even the obnoxious neighbor down the street, the person panhandling money on the street corner, the person…

We cannot see people only as a means to an end, as a commodity to fulfill our needs. The world is a more enjoyable place when we instead regard others with the dignity of being a human-being, a person bearing the image of God. When we resist the easy temptation of objectifying others and instead serve them, we learn what it means to love God and love our neighbor as ourself.

Christian Witness, Baptism, and Politics

In the simplest of terms, Christians are called to live as witnesses of Jesus. Called together as church, Christians embody the good news of Jesus in order to show the victory of God. It is a victory that God has accomplished through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as a testimony of the new kingdom life. That’s also why Christians must remember their baptism into Christ.

In Romans 6, Paul reminds Christians that those who have been baptized have died with Jesus and have been raised into new life in him. Paul’s point, however, isn’t just to remind them their salvation and it’s certainly not about salvation in some escapist sense, so that Christians reduce this life only as something to come in some sweet bye and bye. Rather, Paul’s point is to remind Christians of the new life they have already received and must now participate in as the basis for embodying the good news by no longer continuing in sin but instead walking in the “newness of life.”

So in essence, Christian witness is not about overcoming evil but about the embodied witness of victory in Christ. It’s the task of proclamation by word and deed. It’s a proclamation that explaining to the world the way life which the world witnesses among Christians. Hence, it is nonsensical for Christians to proclaim Jesus as the one who has overcome evil and yet live as though the battle with evil has yet to be settled.

Even though there is still plenty of evil that persists this side of the second-coming, God has already ensured through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus that evil does not have the last word — not even death, known by the sting of sin, has victory anymore. So rather than trying to win some culture war or any other war, Christians are simply called to live as an embodied witness of the new victorious life in Christ.

Christian witness is not about overcoming evil but about the embodied witness of victory in Christ.

This is why Christians cannot engage in politics like the rest of society so often does. For starters, Christian witness is neither liberal nor conservative (Democrat, Republican, etc… if you will) because those platforms are not the new life in Christ which the church embodies. That is not too say that Christians can’t have a political opinion, can’t vote, etc… But it is a reminder that duty of Christians is not to be an evangelistic spokesperson for any national politic.

In addition to this, Christians must refrain from demeaning people and politicians whom they disagree with. It has become common-place in American politics to belittle and ridicule those who take and opposing political view. Words like “liberal” or phrases like “right-wing” are used as antagonisms, especially in social-media where it is so easy to speak in ways that would likely not happen in a face-to-face conversation. Unfortunately Christians, including myself, have engaged in politics like this. How ironic is it that politics, meant as a means of maintaining civility, has become so uncivil.

One of the instructions Paul had for Christians was to “speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone” (Tit 3:2, NRSV). This means that no matter how much one disagrees with a Presidential Candidate or even someone else’s opinion shared in the latest click-bait article or meme, all temptations to respond with ridicule and vitriol must be resisted. This is not to suggest that Christians cannot express disagreement but to say that all critical engagement must be gentle and courteous. Plus, when Christians do engage politics in a gentle and courteous manner, they portray themselves as someone safe that others can engage safely without the fear of being verbally shot down for having a different view. And that might open the door for Christians to say that while this or that political issue is important, there is something else far more important and it has to do with Jesus.


I’ve watched and listened to both the Republican and Democrat Presidential debates. I have my opinions and I’m sure you do as well. But as America moves closer to another Presidential election, my prayer is that we (Christians) remember whose we are and therefore not lose sight of the witness we are to embody. May God, our Father in heaven, give us wisdom from the Spirit to speak and act as ambassadors of his Son, Jesus Christ!

Wisdom and Insight: Companions For A Complex Life

One of the questions that many churches want to know of their ministers has to do with various moral/ethical issues, especially those involving marriage and all things sex. For example, what should we do when a couple from church say they are pursuing a divorce? Or how should we respond to some parents who say their teenage child is gay?

Regardless of the issue and the hypothetical scenario, the response hinges not only what we believe but also how we should respond. One of the difficulties here is that such hypothetical questions are so vague that it would be hard for us to offer any response beyond our basic beliefs regarding any number of moral/ethical issues. But a bigger problem is that in real life, such issues always present themselves in a particular set of circumstances that rarely, if ever, are simple. Part of the complexity is that the circumstances which the issue presents itself in is almost never a one to one correspondence to the circumstances in which the issue is addressed in scripture. This is where we encounter the limits of reading scripture as a law.

Just like any policy or procedure, a doctrine is contextually ignorant. In real life, acting upon any moral/ethical doctrine requires wisdom. Barry Schwartz gave this brilliant TED Talk about the need for practical wisdom in an age overran by bureaucracy. I wholeheartedly agree! While doctrines or rules and policies are necessary, so also is wisdom. However, for ministers, not any form or wisdom will do. What is needed is gospel-wisdom. By gospel-wisdom, I mean wisdom that is shaped by the biblical narrative, what it teaches, and how that teaching is revealed and embodied in everything we know about Jesus whom the church follows. But that is only part of the task.

Proverbs 4:7 says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight” (NRSV). The sage is telling us that both wisdom and insight are necessary. While not the same, wisdom and insight are neither exclusive from each other as both sharpen each other. The purpose of wisdom is counsel as it doesn’t tell us how to respond but offers guidance for how we might respond in any given situation. That assumes a posture of listening, as we cannot even begin to know what is the appropriate response unless we have listened first. So when that couple says to me that they are pursuing a divorce or those parents who say their teenage child is gay, my first response is to listen by asking good questions that will allow me to understand the circumstances better and get a better feel for the complexities. Only then does wisdom have the insight necessary to offer any counsel on what you or I might do.

Whether you’re a minister, an elder, or just a Christian trying to help someone else out, you need gospel-wisdom and insight gleaned from listening to that someone. Your own moral/ethical beliefs and values are certainly valuable and necessary but in real life situations, which are as different as they are many, wisdom and insight are indispensable companions for a complex life. So get wisdom, get insight!

Yogi Berra and Being Nice

“You can learn a lot just by watching,” said Yogi Berra. Yes, you can! Just watch the various people connected to baseball as they speak about Yogi Berra and you learn something we all need to be reminded of from time to time. More on that in a moment…

In case you haven’t heard, yesterday Yogi Berra passed away at the age of ninety years old. One of the most famous baseball players, Berra played his entire career as a catcher and outfielder for the New York Yankees and after retiring, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972. Besides being an incredible player, Berra served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and became a well-known personality far beyond the game of baseball.

As I listened to various sports commenters and players who knew Yogi Berra speak about this person, they all spoke about how nice of a person he was to everyone on and off camera. In fact, former Yankee and future Hall of Fame inductee Derek Jeter wrote the following:

To those who didn’t know Yogi personally, he was one of the greatest baseball players and Yankees of all time. To those lucky ones who did, he was an even better person. To me he was a dear friend and mentor. He will always be remembered for his success on the field, but I believe his finest quality was how he treated everyone with sincerity and kindness. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.

What a tribute! And what a reminder of how important good character, a character of “sincerity and kindness” truly is.

Every one of us live a life on and off camera. That is, whether we are a a school teacher, an electrician, a police officer, or even a preacher like I am, there are those moments when we are “on the clock” but a true test of our character is how we treat people when there aren’t any spectators.

Be a nice person, be kind and sincere with everyone… Love our neighbors as ourselves because the world is a better place when we do!

“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.”

-Yogi Berra, 1925 – 2015

As Scandalous As It Ever Was

If the grace of God were only about our own personal salvation, it would be easy. But when we are called to extend grace to others, especially whose sins are offensive to us, anger us, and disgust us, it becomes very difficult. Speaking to the elders of the church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul insisted that his only aim was to speak truthfully or “testify to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). But what Paul had in mind was preaching a message that included both Jews and Gentiles. There’s the rub. That’s what made the grace of God scandalous then and it still remains as scandalous as it ever was.

When It All Comes Crashing Down

Growing up my younger brother and I loved watching wrestling, especially the Saturday Night Main Event where Hulkamania was sure to run wild on you. Hulk Hogan, with his 24-inch biceps and legions of Hulkamaniac fans, was the attraction. With great charisma and a good-guy persona, The Hulckster, as he was sometimes referred to, went on to have not only one of the most celebrated careers in wrestling entertainment and but an amazing career beyond the squared ring. Pretty good for one man, whose real name is Terry Bollea.

But that all came crashing down earlier this year when a secretly recorded video tape from 2006 was released that captured Hogan talking about his daughter dating a black man, using the N-word. Immediately Hogan became a cultural pariah, having committed what the American culture deems as a horrifically shameful sin. The backlash was swift as the wrath of culture’s judgment was meted out which included being fired from the WWE, the wrestling organization he helped turn into premiere franchise of its industry, who quickly put as much distance between the two of them as possible.

To be clear, what Hogan said was wrong and totally unacceptable! Using words that demean people for their race shows us just how much damage sin can do. Not only can sin have terrific consequences for our own life, it hurts others too and leads to anger, animosity, and deep divisions. But for someone who has apologized, the extension of grace is still unfathomable. Instead, with a few exceptions, the culture that we are has basically said with our judgment that Hogan is beneath us… what he has done is despicable and unbecoming of us, as though we ourselves have never done anything shameful and wrong.

Now please don’t misunderstand me. I am neither trying to mitigate the wrong that Hulk Hogan did nor defend his response. When anyone does wrong,  repentance is necessary and the very least, apologies should be offered for any harm done. However, the culture at large is a place where there are certain sins for which we distance ourselves from the guilty offender as though we are somehow better. To offer any kind of grace that would give the person a second-chance, a new start on life, is so unfathomable that it’s scandalous!

A Deep Theology of Grace

Contrast that with the theology of God’s grace that Paul is so adamant on testifying about. In Romans, Paul was writing to a church of Jewish and Gentile believers. The problem is that the Jewish believers were looking down upon the Gentiles, pointing to their shameful sins, while claiming superiority because they has the law of God which meant they belonged to God’s covenant and has circumcision as a sign of this position. But Paul will have none of that! He reminds this church that they all are sinners and are justified by God through faithfulness of Christ. In turn, Jewish and Gentile believers alike now live by their faith, of which the patriarch Abraham is an example of.

That is Paul’s argument in Romans chapters 1-4 and because of this grace, Paul unequivocally says, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1). So these sinners, who are both guilty of very shameful acts, are not only “made righteous” (justified) but they are at “peace with God.” How can God just forgive such sinners and just set aside the wrong they have done? It’s a good question to ponder because it’s not just those sinners… those Jewish and Gentile believers whom God has made righteous? It’s us! By faith, we too are Justified and it is because Jesus died “for us” (5:8).

But this grace is even deeper. Paul says, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God though the death of his Son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (5:10). Let me point out two things out about this passage:

  1. The word for “enemies” is from the adjective ἐχθρός which in the active (provided by the present-participle “being” verb ὄντες) sense describes someone who is hostile and opposing to God. In other words, while we were actively opposing God with our sin, God reconciled us through the death of Jesus. We might say that while we slapping God in the face with our sin, God reconciled us. 
  2. Verse 10 is also a rhetorical argument about salvation. Paul is saying that if God reconciled us through the death of his Son while we were actively being hostile to God, even more then will we be saved by the life of Jesus. In other words, if God reconciled us even as his enemies, then we can be confident that he will save us in Christ.

This is the grace of God! This is how God responds to us, who are sinners. He extends his grace, justifying us and reconciling us so that we are assured of our salvation in Christ. That is also the basis for which we can extend grace and mercy to others because we know that even as we were enemies of God, he extended his grace to us.

An Ever Relevant Message

We live in a culture whose capacity for any sort of grace seems to be shrinking. Commit any certain number of sins that our culture deems outrageously unacceptable and wrath of a public culture is unleashed, just as it was for Hulk Hogan. Grace is as scandalous as it ever was. It was when Paul wrote Romans and it is today. Why? Because the culture at large doesn’t believe that scandalous people deserve forgiveness and a second chance.

Not so with God and not so with his people, the church. As scandalous as the grace of God may be, it remains more than ever relevant. What a message for every local church to embody, to be a community where nobody looks upon another because we all know that we are a sinner as much as the next person… knowing that just as God has extended his grace to us, we must extend the message of grace in the way we speak and treat one another.

The grace of God is as scandalous as it ever was but if you get it… What a beautiful scandal to be caught up in!

The Blessing of True Freedom

The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence begins by saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” While American’s regard this statement as gospel truth, that which serves as the foundation for American life, Christians should recognize that this statement itself is misunderstood and incoherent.

Let’s assume for argument sake that the Creator spoken of is the God we read of in the Bible. Of course, the moment we make such assumption is the moment we have a problem with the American ideal of freedom. That’s because the idea of autonomy in which we, as creation, are free to live independently from our Creator is wrong. Yet, this is exactly the course in which America has pursued freedom from the beginning. The very next line of the Declaration of Independence reads, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” In other words, the so-called self-evident truths of life, liberty, and happiness, are secured and sustained by human self-governance. Yet since we are speaking about truths that are allegedly endowed by the Creator revealed in the Bible, when we turn back to that creation story we find a very different perspective regarding creation and freedom.

Retracing Our Beginning

In the Genesis creation narrative, we learn that we are created in the image of God and not only given rule over the rest of creation but also told to multiply (cf. Gen 1:26-31). The purpose here is about participating with God in caring for his creation with such stewardship that creation flourishes and grows as God desires.

However, God is not a dictator who will force himself upon us who bear his image. Instead he gives us much freedom, including the freedom to make our own way — which we have done to our own peril. But this freedom was never meant as autonomy. God told us in the garden that we were free to eat of every tree except this strange tree known as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (cf. Gen 2:15-17). That’s because knowing good and evil, becoming the judge of what is right and what is wrong, belongs to the Creator whose knowledge and wisdom is so expansive and just that it is beyond the comprehension of creation. Our role was to work with God caring for his creation, remaining dependent upon Creator to sustain life.

Yet that is not how the story unfolds. We were told the original lie, that we could become just like God. So rather than living dependent upon our Creator for life, we sought independence by eating of that one tree and trying to become like God in order that we might gain his knowledge and forge ahead as autonomous creation (see Gen 3). The results weren’t nearly what we expected, as we became fearful of one another and so preoccupied with ourselves that we were willing to kill one another in order to try preserving our existence.

The Original Lie Continued

Fast forward many, many years into the relatively short existence that America has forged for itself. The great thing about bearing the image of God is our capacity build a suitable life for ourselves. With some notable exceptions, America has done just that. However, Americans have also bought into the original lie and believed that freedom is human autonomy, choosing to live independent of our Creator. This idea of human autonomy in America is pushed even farther, expressed as individualism. Under the rights of the constitution, each individual is free to live as they wish so long as it doesn’t cause any harm to another person (and even that qualifier is inconsistent).

This idea of American freedom is deceptively attractive because it appears to work so long as everyone has the same basic values and moral framework. However, somewhere in the middle of the twentieth-century the homogeneity that existed in America, that was maintained by a largely White power-class, began disappearing. Rather than any single culture defining who Americans are, the nation is comprised of many cultures. However, since the foundation of American freedom is anchored in human autonomy, meaning that every individual is free to express themselves as they see fit, there isn’t any higher authority what is right or wrong. Any appeal to God or some other type religious authority is immaterial to a nation who has charted a course of freedom based on human autonomy.

Jesus and the gospel he brings is the truth that sets us free… from the original lie which enslaves us…

While secularists may laud what appears as progress to them, this notion of autonomous individual freedom is now descending into chaos that is ultimately unsustainable. For example, in Missouri, a transgender student with male anatomy insists that his/her freedom to identify and dress as a girl should allow her to change clothes in the girls dressing room, which does not sit well with other students and parents (understandably so). Elsewhere across America, in what should be painfully obvious, we have a problem with gun-related violence yet any talk of considering new laws that would place more restrictions on certain types of guns and implement more regulation upon gun ownership is opposed by lobbyists trying protect the individual rights of gun owners. And then there is the story of Kim Davis, a clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky who has been jailed for refusing to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples even though same-sex marriage is now legal. I’m not trying to take sides on either of these examples, I’m just pointing out the chaos that the American idea of freedom is descending into.

The Gospel and Human Freedom

The idea of American freedom, autonomous individual human independence, is imploding. I’m far from being even close to being an amateur expert on Friedrich Nietzsche but America is certainly beginning to look a lot like the Nietzschean will to power. Unfortunately, there are too many Christians who believe in the American idea of freedom and champion the idea as though it is from God. It’s not! As we have seen, if we take the biblical story seriously, our freedom was never intended as human autonomy and it never will be. Jesus and the gospel how brings is the truth that sets us free (cf. Jn 8:32) but that freedom is freedom from the original lie which enslaves us — the notion that we can live independent of God. So through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God sets us free again by reconciling us to himself and each other as one new creation. This new life in Christ, says the apostle Paul, is the freedom to live life by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 5:11-26).*

Can we see the truth? Rather than individual autonomy, our life in Christ, which is lived by the power of the Spirit, is a communal life lived under the reign of God and that happens in the church of Jesus Christ. In particular, it happens in the local church which is a community that God places us among. This is where we learn how to live as new creation, participating with God in his mission of restoring life so that it may flourish as he has created life for and celebrating this life to the glory of God. Yet as long as the American story of individual autonomy is the story that shapes our imaginations, we will continue absorbing the gospel into the American story. This is why we must hear the gospel told scripture (particularly preaching and teaching) and Christian tradition, though baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and by engaging in the gospel as we gather together for worship, fellowship, and ministry. This is how we are formed to live as an embodiment of the gospel, as a living reality of what is true and what is true freedom!

May we receive the blessings of God and learn to live freely in Christ by the power of the Spirit!


* I’ll return to writing specifically about the way in which local churches learn to live by the power of the Holy Spirit with my next post.