Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

Does Your Church Have Faith?

In terms of work, serving as a minister is my second vocation. Besides working for my father, who owned a small excavating business, for a few years after high-school, I also worked four years as a machinist. It was during these years that I became a follower of Jesus, began to sense a call to ministry, and eventually returned to college in order to engage in biblical and theological studies in preparation for ministry.

Though it sounds simple, this journey was far from easy. Many difficulties came, most notably the death of my son Kenny in the summer of 2002. Yet long before Kenny’s death came the first test and it had to do with whether or not I could step forward in faith or go backwards to what was known, manageable, and predictable.

It was the spring of 1999 and my wife and I, newly married, were living in Rolla, Missouri where my wife had a teaching job nearby. I had a machining job that paid a quarter above minimum wage which irritated me knowing that I had left behind a machinist job in LaPorte, Indiana that paid nearly three times what minimum wage was. Like most newlyweds, money seemed tight and that frustrated me… I mean, it really frustrated me. Though I was already accepted and scheduled to begin studies at Harding University in the fall, I told my wife that we should just move back to Indiana where she could get a teaching job and I could either get my old machining job back or take my brother’s offer up and go to work for a construction outfit through the Carpenter’s Union. Of course, you know the outcome. Thanks to the prayerful encouragement and persistence of my wife, we pressed ahead into the unknown and unpredictable.

There’s a reason why I am telling this story and it has to do with local churches and Christianity in America. But first a story about Israel and I think the point I want to make about local churches will make more sense.

Israel and the Uncertainty of the Wilderness

According to Exodus 12:40, Israel spent 430 years in slavery under Egyptian tyranny. That’s a long time. Given the brutal and harsh conditions that Israel suffered, Israel was eager for redemption. Yet once they found themselves in the wilderness, there feelings changed. Facing the perils of the journey as they encountered opposition, Numbers 14:2-3 tells us just how the Israelites felt:

“If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had perished in this wilderness! Why has the Lord brought us into this land only to be killed by the sword, that our wives and our children should become plunder? Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?”

Would it be better if Israel returned to Egypt? Of course not! But when we consider the circumstances they were facing, we can better appreciate the question.

For Israel, the way ahead was full of uncertainty and well beyond their manageability. Regardless of the oppression was, 430 years allowed Israel to become well acclimated to life in Egypt. It became a predictable life in which they knew the rules and everything they needed to do in order to survive. It was a manageable life that they understood, whereas the journey ahead was full of risk that required faith rather than their own understanding which was well acclimated for the past. But the temptation of returning to the safe, predictable, and manageable past was great… “So they said to one another, ‘Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt’” (Num 14:4).

The Local Church, The Past, and the Future?

Come back to present day and the question facing many local churches. It’s the twenty-first century in American and Christians no longer exist in world that many local churches were established in. That was a world characterized by modernism and Christendom, two socio-political realities that predates America as a nation. It was a world shaped predominately by Christian rule and human reason as the sure foundation by which we could be certain about what is true and what is right. More importantly, it was the world that many local churches remain well-acclimated for… unlike the postmodern and post-Christendom world these churches find themselves among now.

Because churches now find themselves existing in a postmodern and post-Christedom world, they find themselves in a wilderness so to speak. The world of modernism and Christendom safe, predictable, and manageable because it was well-known territory. Despite the problems it created (and both modernism and Christendom were fraught with problems), local churches knew how to function for the sake of God’s mission. Ministry programs at the church building would attract people to the church and evangelistic tracts using human-reason as their teaching method helped bring people to Christ. But that was then!

Now local churches find themselves living in unchartered territory, the wilderness of a postmodern and post-Christendom world. The way forward seems uncertain. Follow Jesus… Yes! Embody the gospel… Yes! Embody the gospel in a contextualized manner… How? The context has changed and the rules that easily provided clear direction and certain in the past no longer work so easily. Sometimes they don’t seem to work at all.

Now stepping forward in an unpredictable and uncertain world is risky and very uncomfortable at times. It requires faith but no amount of faith will eliminate the anxiety and the temptation to think that it would be easier if we just return to the past. In fact, many church will attempt to go back. I think this explains why some churches continue to talk about creating more building-centric programs, thinking that people will come if they build it. It is also, I believe, why in my own tribe, the Churches of Christ, many churches and Christians have become enamored with the book Muscle and a Shovel (despite it’s numerous theological problems (see John Mark Hicks 3-part review here, here, and here)… because despite the sectarianism and legalism of the past, most Churches of Christ know how to function in that past culture. Even though returning to the past will not help in learning how to engage among the new cultural territory, returning to the past is more comfortable than doing the messy task of faith which is continuing to journey forward through the wilderness learning how to live as a colony of heaven in an unChristian world.

One Final Word

The question churches face in the wilderness is whether they will try returning to the past or continue stepping forward. It’s a question of faith. It’s the question I faced in Rolla, MO, the question Israel faced in the wilderness, the question many other people of God have faced on occasions, and the question facing local churches in America today. How the question is answered is either a matter or faith or a lack of faith.

In the meantime, remember that Israel made to the promise land not by their own strength but by their faith in the God who delivered them. The church of Jesus Christ will make it too not by her own strength but by faith in the God whose promise in Christ is sealed by the Spirit dwelling among the church. I’m tired of reading article about the ten reasons why millennial won’t… or the ten steps every church needs to do in order to… At the risk of oversimplifying the journey ahead, churches just need to press forward in following Jesus and learning how to embody the gospel in contextualized manners. It’s a messier task filled with unpredictability, requiring discernment bathed in prayer and scripture but the church today is not the first to make this journey. So press ahead!

Cultivating People of Grace

Everybody sins, including you and including me. But to often, so it seems to be the case, we forget that we’re sinners as we heap judgment and condemnation down upon others for their sin. But as one who unapologetically believes in Jesus and is striving to follow him, I believe Jesus calls us to become conduits of grace in our world. And boy oh boy, does our world ever need grace…

If Only there was more grace

Last week I read the story of a Michigan City, Indiana police officer who was found dead from a self-inflicted gun shot wound. Growing up in the LaPorte, near Michigan City, the story interested me. The story itself is sad, as it is any time someone takes their own life, but the story is bigger than just a tragic loss of life. The officer had resigned his position just a couple days prior to his death after having been arrested and charged with three counts of level 6 felonies having to do with misconduct and possession of a prescription narcotic drug without a prescription.

I’m not repeating the story here in order to heap any sort of judgment upon this officer. In fact, I intend to do just the opposite with this post. I tell the story because it seems rather apparent that the officer had some personal struggles that had now led to further problems affecting his life and career. Adding his trouble was the fact that the news was well publicized locally and some people apparently used Facebook as a place to play judge, jury, and executioner by quickly heaping judgment and condemnation on this officer with vitriolic comments. Unless we have found ourselves in similar circumstances, we can only imagine the shame and how it must have felt for this man to have his life seemingly unraveling in such a public way. Nevertheless, this officer apparently felt so hopeless that ending his own life seemed like the only option and that is a great tragedy.

The reason I share this story is because it reminds me of how much every community needs the local church whether they know it or not. Every community needs people who know how to show grace and that should be the church who has encountered the grace of God. Here is why…

Society is often full of graceless people who are ready to judge and condemn, as though they have never sinned themselves. When people find themselves broken and their world is collapsing amidst the shame of judgment and condemnation, what they need is some friends who will love them rather than heap more scorn upon them. By loving such people, the church becomes a conduit of grace and mercy. As I have said in preaching before, everyone needs forgiveness and a second chance at some point in their life. When the church is the place where those who have failed and let others down begin encountering that forgiveness and second chance, the possibility of hope is believable.

Jesus, An Immoral Woman, and Grace

One of my favorite Jesus stories, one that I’ve written about before, is found in Luke 7:36-50. While dining by invitation at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, a sexually immoral woman, perhaps a prostitute, anoints the feet of Jesus with oil and Jesus doesn’t scold her. This doesn’t sit well with Simon, so under his breath he criticizes Jesus which in turn draws some very pointed teaching about grace from Jesus. Then Jesus tells the woman, “Your sins are forgiven… Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (v. 48, 50).

But there’s more and it’s matters much!

Jesus spoke words of grace to this woman and that’s important because she needed to hear that she is forgiven. But Jesus also embodied grace to this sinner in the way he treated her.

  • By not scolding her, Jesus extended hospitality and let her know that he is someone safe. Unlike Simon, Jesus will not heap judgment and condemnation on this woman whose tears signify the shame she already carries around with her.
  • When Simon, along with the others, judge this women with their glaring looks and scornful remarks, Jesus comes to her rescue and defends her. Jesus will not let this woman drown in her own tears of shame. Instead his protection lets her believe in the possibility of hope, hope that not even she is beyond redemption.
  • Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Jesus himself is willing to risk his own reputation and endure the scorn of others in order to show grace. Regardless of what Simon and the others think, this woman will not bear the shame alone anymore because Jesus is willing to bear it with her.

This sinful woman is able to leave this dinner party with forgiveness but she is also able to leave with hope because through the actions of Jesus, his word of grace has meaning.

Cultivating Grace

Talk is cheap and words are meaningless without action. Churches can sing all the songs about grace and pastors can preach sermons about how much God loves the sinner and forgives the sinner but unless the people that make up the church are able to embody the grace of God, those songs and sermons mean little.

Ministers, through preaching and teaching, must cultivate the churches they serve to become people of grace. And by that, I mean becoming people who extend hospitality to people drowning in the shame of their sin, defending them from the judgment and condemnation of others and doing so even at the risk of their own reputation. It’s not enough to offer recovery programs for those struggling with addictions or those who have suffered through a divorce. Those are certainly important in helping people turn the page, so to speak, and learn to live into the life God is redeeming them for. But when people find their life unraveling in brokenness, what they need is people who will put their arm around them and remind them that they are not what others, and maybe even they themselves, think they are… who will remind them that the grace of God is for them.

Cultivating churches to become a people of grace involves equipping the people to be present to their friends, neighbors, and co-workers in order to extend that grace in that hour of need. That means equipping people how to listen without judgment nor advise. Sometimes it might be necessary to offer some suggestive guidance just to help prevent someone from aggravating their trouble any further but other than that, advise is not needed. What every sinner needs, especially when they are drowning in shame, is someone to be their friend. And that means being the friend who will listen to them, praying for them and being present to them so that the phrase “Jesus loves you and so do I” has actual meaning.

One Final Word

Everyone sins. Unfortunately, sometimes the price of sin is very steep. Beyond adversely affecting the relationship with God, moral failure can be costly in a social sense and this is especially the case when it involves criminal activity. Grace will likely not eliminate these consequences nor should it necessarily do so either. But what showing grace just might do is make the fall bearable and let the person know that this too will pass… that there is hope, a second chance to get back up and live again.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, may our churches embody the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ to the glory of Father in heaven!

Loving The Enemy: Jesus and The Early Church

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven…”

– Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:43-45

This is the teaching of Jesus who refused to take up the sword against his enemies, instead submitting to the will of his Father in heaven by choosing the cross. This is the Jesus whom we are called to follow and if we call ourselves a Christian, we are making a claim to follow Jesus.

We’re fine with following Jesus until it comes to the way we treat those who would do us harm. Then we would rather have a militant Jesus who will say it’s ok to take up arms and, in the name of safety and self-defense, do violence to that enemy and even kill that enemy if necessary. We’re so comfortable with the idea of necessary violence as part of our way of living, that it is almost impossible to fathom that Jesus is calling us to a non-violent way of life as part of our kingdom witness. Seriously! Listening to some Christians defend the use of violence leaves me the impression that the Jesus they follow entered into Jerusalem with military gear and an assault rifle, like captured in the picture here.

The notion that Jesus is calling us to a non-violent way of life seems so asinine that some Christians will stop at almost nothing to negate this teaching of Jesus. Some will proof-text certain passages of scripture out of both their historical and theological context to do so. Others will appeal to utilitarian reasoning, beginning with some hypothetical circumstance that logically seems to necessitate some measure of violence, in order to dismiss the notion that Jesus calls us to not fight with violence. And some will even anachronistically read the Bible by claiming that Jesus, as the second-person of the Trinity, is violent because God allows violence to take place in the Old Testament (an argument that is fraught with poor theology and hermeneutics).

All of these attempts either ignore, evade, or attempt to redefine the historical and eschatological trajectory of the biblical narrative and the good news of the kingdom of God that it proclaims (the gospel Jesus preached) which tells us of the redemptive mission of God that liberates us from the old life marred by sin, much of which involves some measure of violence, into the new life as new creation in Christ. That is, the attempts at justifying violence prolong the old life even though, as followers of Jesus, we are called to live as new creation bearing witness to the heavenly life that God is restoring among his creation in Christ. Violence has nothing to do with this life that we are witnesses of!

Of course, I could be wrong. It is always possible that my reading of scripture is wrong and therefore my understanding of the life Jesus calls us to follow him in living, which includes non-violent living, is wrong. But one way of always checking our reading of scripture is by turning to early Christian history and seeing how some of the earliest Christian leaders, those who historically are much closer to the apostolic era, understand the life Christians are called to live regarding the issue of violence and loving our enemies. So here are a couple of blog posts here and here that have assembled some quotes from some of the early church leaders of the patristic era. You can click on those links to read all the quotes but here a few:

  • Justin Martyr: “We, who used to kill one another, do not make war on our enemies. We refuse to tell lies or deceive our inquisitors; we prefer to die acknowledging Christ.”
  • Irenaeus: “Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not now how to fight.”
  • Tertullian: “Under no circumstances should a true Christian draw the sword.”
  • Origen: “We have come in accordance with the counsel of Jesus to cut down our arrogant swords of argument into plowshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take swords against a nation, nor do we learn anymore to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our Lord.”
  • Athanasius: “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”
  • Clement of Alexandria: Christians are “an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without defilement.

I won’t pretend as though this teaching of Jesus answers how we should respond in every possible situation that seemingly creates an ethical dilemma. However, it should be evident that peaceful living (which includes non-violence) should be one of the virtues that characterizes the Christian life. That means at the very least that we should strive to nurture peaceful mind-set among ourselves so that in every circumstance we might respond in non-violent ways that bear witness to the eschatological reign of God in Christ. It also means that even if we conclude that there is a time when some measure of violence is justified (on the criterion for just-war, see here), we should never speak and act as apologists for violence — especially in a time where the ethos of American culture appears saturated by violence rooted in the things of the world rather than Christ.

May we learn to follow Jesus embracing the cross rather than the sword, loving our enemies rather than killing them!

People Matter… Including The Poor!

The Prophet Amos preached a message of judgment against Israel because, among other things, of their unjust treatment of the poor. In fact, when we read the prophets of the Old Testament it becomes clear that the poor matter to the Lord and that he expects people to act justly towards the poor, showing them mercy.

It’s also seems pretty clear in scripture that people are greater than the principles or policies we often organize and script our lives by. When laws and objectives are carried out at the expense of the people, there is injustice. When dogma and doctrine suppresses people, denying them mercy and justice, it is wrong.

I think this is why Jesus tells the Pharisees, “To and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice'” (Matt 9:13). The Pharisees have placed greater value on maintaining their tradition than extending grace to those they consider sinners but Jesus says they have it wrong. Offer mercy rather than sacrifice! In other words, people matter more than their traditions (and more than our principles, policies, laws, etc…) so they should be more concerned with doing right for the people.

Of course, when it comes to the poor, it is so easy to just trample upon them… either literally or metaphorically. That’s why the prophets speak so powerfully about justice for the poor.

And little has changed. We all know of numerous examples of how the poor are neglected and even afflicted by the lack of mercy and justice. So it is a great joy when hearing examples of service to the poor, especially when they show us that the poor matter more than revenue… or whatever other principle, law, or doctrine we are tempted to value over the poor.

Such an example comes from this story about a restaurant in Baltimore called Tabrizi’s, a Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern dinner place along Baltimore’s waterfront. Rather than taking in the big money to be made during Baltimore’s Restaurant Week, the owner of Tabrizi’s, Michael Tabrizi, is partnering with local homeless shelters to feed the homeless. According to the story, which you can read here, Tabrizi said, “It isn’t about revenue and money right now, we’ve done restaurant week before and we know the numbers, but right now it’s more important to promote the welfare of the city and its residents rather than to promote the business.”

That’s right. People, especially the poor, are more important than the business of making money, just as people are more important than a said principle, law, etc…

Tabrizi goes on to say about the homeless, according to the article, “These people don’t only suffer from hunger, but also from hopelessness, they feel that they don’t have any dignity anymore… We want them to come in and feel like they’re cared for.”

I don’t know what Michael Tabrizi’s religious convictions are but I know this sort of care for the poor reflects the image of God, our Creator. His example of using his business to serve the poor is an example for us all. May we take the opportunities were are given and the gifts we have received to care even for even the poor, blessing them as we have been blessed!

And one more thing… The next time I am down on the waterfront of Baltimore to dine out, I know which restaurant I’ll be trying.

Beyond Innocence and Ignorance: Practitioners of Reconciliation in an Age of Racism

Growing up as child, one of my favorite shows to watch was the Dukes of Hazzard which aired on CBS television from 1979 through 1985. That should come as no surprise. After all, not only did I think of Bo and Luke Duke as two cool dudes but they also drove one of the coolest cars ever, a ’69 Dodge Charger known as The General Lee. As for Daisy Duke… I was too young to care one bit about her short-shorts and cleavage. Later on, as an adult, I never had any interest in seeing the 2005 Film titled The Dukes of Hazzard but I have on occasion enjoyed a little childhood nostalgia by watching an occasional rerun of the show.

Innocence and Ignorance

For the sake of disclosure… I am white and I am a Christian trying to follow Jesus. I was born in Arkansas and raised in a small Indiana town by two working-class Christian parents, and I am comfortably in my element among southern and midwestern cultures. I share my little history with The Dukes of Hazzard because unless you have been hiding out somewhere deep in a cave, then you are aware of the controversy surrounding this show now. On June 17, 2015 a mass-shooting occurred at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina that left nine Christians dead. The killer, driven by racist motives, intentionally targeted black people. In addition to the discovery of the killer’s racist manifesto, photos surfaced of the killer waving a Confederate Flag… surely as a symbol of his racism and hatred for black people.

Consequently the Confederate Flag has come under scrutiny, with various states and business seeking to remove any display of the Confederate Flag. Ergo, the decision of TV Land to cease airing reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard. Of course, like so many other issues of our day, this has become a political controversy with people taking sides. Some are for the Confederate Flag, claiming that it simply represents southern heritage while others, like myself, won’t shed a tear over its loss because they see it for what it is… a symbol of racism.

Caught up in this issue is The Dukes of Hazzrd. Is the show simply a portrayal of a couple of good ole’ boys living their down-home southern country life or does it also represent an era full of racism that was sanctioned by southern state power? As a child, I was oblivious to any of the cultural meaning this show symbolized. I watched the show purely for entertainment, imagining myself as Bo and Luke Duke driving around in a cool muscle car. When I watched The Dukes of Hazzard, I was innocent but I was also ignorant.

Let me expand on this innocence and ignorance a bit more. At ten years old I knew very little about slavery and racism. I certainly didn’t know that for all the good things one might say about southern culture, that there was a horrible history of oppression inflicted upon black people that still lived on in the minds and values of some people. It’s the same way with The Andy Griffith Show. For all the good qualities we might make about the fictional town of Mayberry, in real life most of those good qualities existed only for white people. As I have written about before, I doubt many, if any at all, black people want to go back to the era of America that gave us Mayberry… “Not when being black meant being forced to ride at the back of the bus, not having the right to vote, and even being lynched.”

Reconciliation Trumps Politics

It’s the year 2015 and in less than a month I will turn forty-two. I am neither innocent nor ignorant anymore and neither are you. I am more and more aware of the ways in which I have helped sustain racism in America (read this personal story I share here) and I am more and more aware of the oppressive racism that still exists today. Further more, you may claim if you like that the Confederate Flag simply represents southern heritage… that it isn’t a symbol of racism but that is just a flat out denial of the truth! The Confederate Flag has always symbolized racism and white pride which is exactly why the Klu Klux Klan has always carried it and why Dylan Roof so proudly waved this flag for the camera.

I won’t lose any sleep if I never see another car chase involving the General Lee. It’s the same with the removal of the Confederate Flag. More importantly, I don’t see why you would either… especially if you are a Christian. I’m not naïve, so I don’t believe that removing the Confederate Flag from display on public properties will end racism. What I believe is that as Christians, God has called both we are called to something much more glorious than clinging to the foolish politics of supporting the Confederate Flag.

As Christians, we are called to live as participants in God’s ministry of reconciliation. In fact, at the heart of the gospel is God’s work of reconciling all people as one in Christ. That is, God is destroying the barriers of hostility that divide us so that we can live as neighbors rather than enemies (cf. Eph 2:13-14). So even if I wanted to, I won’t wave around the Confederate Flag because I know how offensive that might be to my black friends and neighbors… Because I believe that the ministry of reconciliation trumps politics everyday and that means valuing a relationship with people over seeing a Confederate Flag on display when I visit the south. To say otherwise and to value preserving the Confederate Flag over pursuing reconciliation with with people, including neighbors of different race, ethnicity, etc…, puts us in opposition to the work of God. Woe be to anyone who opposes God!

Moving Forward

If you care, and as a Christian you should, go talk to your neighbors, especially those who are different than you. Speak to those who believe differently, have a different skin color, talk in a different language, and so forth. More importantly, listen to what they are saying. Listen and learn! Listen to their stories. That’s when you will begin to hear the nuances of how systematic racism is still at work, which is necessary if our society ever hopes of bringing justice to this issue. But more importantly, when you listen, you’ll begin let go of those things that may divide you from your neighbor and in turn learn how to love them as yourself.

That’s the way forward because that is what the future will be when Christ returns. There won’t be any flag, not even an American flag, nor any racism or the symbols that holds on to those broken politics. If you want to participate in the new life that God is bringing about in Christ, then clinch not to the politics of the old dying world but live fully as practitioners of reconciliation by loving God as you love your neighbors as yourself.

Giving to God… Christianity in America

July 4th, the American Day of Independence, is around the corner, coming this Friday. Like every year, it will be a festive holiday with much celebration. I’m guessing that for many Christians the celebrations will be tempered by a sense of concern over the direction that America as a nation seems headed in. But that won’t be due to an unswerving holy allegiance to the kingdom of God as much as it will stem from an unholy allegiance to America. That’s the problem for Christians!

What Belongs to God…

What unholy allegiance? Well, here is Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. It’s the final week and Jesus has entered into Jerusalem, that holy city held hostage by the rule of Roman tyranny. Jesus understands what will happen to him in this politically and religiously volatile climate… death upon the cross! And he has reminded his disciples that if they are to continue following him, they should be prepared to carry their own crosses too because that is what might happen to them for participating in the kingdom of God.

The Pharisees and the Herodians know that Jesus will not align himself with Roman power, so they attempt to trap him with a simple question about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus’ response is familiar to us… perhaps too familiar.

“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” – Mark 12:17

Most Christians cite this well known response of Jesus as justification for paying taxes. Fair enough, as Jesus certainly seems ok with paying taxes. But what most Christians miss is what else Jesus is saying… that his disciples dare not give to Caesar what belongs to God – their life.

The coin has Caesar’s image on it so it is ok to give the coin back to Caesar but people bear the image of God, so they dare not give their lives to anyone but God. That means Christians, who follow Jesus, pledge their allegiance to nobody but God… not any nation and nor any president and the flag that signifies them. No allegiance to anyone except for Jesus who is Lord. But many Christians in America fail to see this and as a result they live quite comfortably aligned to a America, identifying themselves with the cause of America, and supporting almost every American endeavor to achieve and maintain that cause. However, now more than a few Christians see America as turning away from God, so their response is to fight for America to return to the ways of God. However, this is part of the bigger problem for Christians living in America.

A Turning Point?

The United States of America was never a Christian nation, regardless of what Christian values it may have one time embraced. As a nation, it’s goal has always been its own sovereignty which is completely incompatible with the Christian conviction that Jesus alone is Lord (Sovereign). Further more, regardless of whatever Christian values America at one time embraced, it also rejected many Christian values in order to establish itself through war and the exploitation and oppression of non-European people such as Native Americans and Africans.

Yet because many Christians, probably of White/European descent, believed in America as a “Christian” nation, they were comfortable among that version of America (this should be a call for much contemplation knowing that the Bible was read in a manner that allowed Christians to be comfortable with a secular nation). But now these same Christians feel a sense of loss… the loss of a “Christian” nation.

Perhaps this loss will allow a new recognition to take hold among Christians living in America, that we do not belong to Caesar even when Caesar is robed in the colors of red, white, and blue… that we must never give to Caesar America what belongs to God — our allegiance. Yet this will only work if there is an awareness among Christians who believed in the “Christian” nation version of America that this unholy allegiance to America was and is wrong. Without that recognition, Christian will likely only continue wasting time on trying to conserve the “Christian” nation that never existed and falter in following Jesus and living as witnesses of the Kingdom of God.

Discipleship Among a Secular Nation

As expected, there are a lot of Christians who disagree in some manner with the recent SCOTUS decision ruling in favor of gay marriage. That’s ok. But it’s also time to breath and relax. The decision is not as big as some Christian voice make it out to be. The SCOTUS ruling in favor of gay marriage will not make America any less of a Christian nation because it never was one to begin with. So with that in mind, instead of fighting for America to return to this allusion of a Christian heritage, it’s time to spend energy learning how to live among a secular American nation. That means learning how to live as a faithful follower of Jesus, embodying the gospel he proclaimed. Do that and the church in America becomes the people who “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Racism, Violence, and An Anemic Church

The murder of nine black Christians who were gathered for Bible-study at the historic Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last Wednesday by the hands of a single gunman who was there “to shoot black people” is horrific. But it is also a terrible reminder or the racism and violence that pervades America as a society. Unequivocally, racism and violence are two major issues in America, both of which causing great harm to the victims of such evil as well as undermining any sense of a civil society. The good news is that the church, called to live as an embodiment of the gospel of Jesus Christ, is poised to counter such racism and violence with the love and peace of Christ. Yet when the church ignores racism as a significant issue and justifies violence as a sometimes-necessary way of life, the church loses its prophetic gospel witness amidst an American society full of racism and violence.

Denial and Justifying the Wrong

The racism and violence that pervades in America should concern the church but sadly, this is not the case for many churches and the Christians who make up those churches. Instead of calling people to embody the love and peace of Christ as a counter-narrative to values of racism and violence, Father’s Day sermons were preached in many churches − because that’s the expectation of the chaplaincy pulpit.

It gets even worse when we turn on social-media, for there we encounter the failure of Christianity in America to embody a prophetic gospel witness. First, there are some white Christians who just want to deny the reality of racism. They speak of their own un-prejudiced treatment of blacks and other minorities and think that because they are not prejudice, that racism is not really that big of an issue. Some Christians will defend the symbols of racism, such as the Confederate Flag, as though these symbols are meaningless. They don’t want to have any constructive conversation about racism, a decision that white privilege allows since it is not the white person who has historically suffered under racism.

When it comes to violence, some Christians would rather talk about how allowing a concealed-carrying gun permit would make us safer. Instead of asking how the church can church can press deeper into faithfulness during such challenging moments, they want to talk about what level of violent measures might be necessary to make our worship gatherings more secure. In order to justify the “necessary” violence, appeal is made to Jesus. Yes, Jesus! Ignoring the peaceable kingdom-narrative that Jesus embodied… ignoring the self-sacrifical manner of life that Jesus lived which refused to harm others… ignoring the fact that Jesus went to the cross and told his disciples that if they are going to follow him then they better be ready to carry their own cross, some Christians will proof-text the story of Jesus overturning the table and driving the animals out of the temple to suggest that Jesus was violent and therefore justifies our violence. I’ve heard others, in a twisted anachronistic logic, appeal to Trinitarian doctrine to say that since Jesus is God in the Flesh that Jesus in the Old Testament approves of violence since God in the Old Testament approved violence (and they don’t even see the hermeneutical problems… should we stone every adulterer too? And put to death disobedient children?).

Forget the Irrelevant Nonsense… Embody the Gospel

This is where the church needs to wake up! Every day I read some blog or article about the evangelistic struggles that churches are encountering. Most of these article offer nothing but more nonsense (another phrase comes to mind but I’ll restrain myself) suggesting that if pastors just double-down on more creative preaching, if churches just get on board with the latest trendy worship style… was it contemporary, Taizé, liturgical, or…, offering four or five strategies for becoming missional, or offering four to five leadership principles to reignite your outreach, and on and on it goes. Nonsense!

You want to know why the church is becoming more and more irrelevant? It’s because the churches in America have little left by way of an alternative life. Regardless of what churches say they believe when you click on their “about us” page on their website, too many churches offer little alternative to the pervasive racism and violence because of the way they, through the Christians that make up these churches, ignore the issue of racism and justify violence. Who needs a church when that church appears and sometimes does embody the same life embodied by the American society at large? Why should any non-Christian desire to become a part of a church that isn’t any different from America? Nobody needs a church for that, they already have America!

If churches want to reach their community with the gospel of Jesus Christ, they must learn to not only speak the gospel but embody the gospel. That means speaking prophetically to the issues of racism and violence while embodying the kingdom alternative which is the radical love and peace of Christ demonstrated through forgiveness and reconciliation. We saw a sign of that embodiment when the daughter of Ethal Lance, one of the victims killed at the Emmanuel AME Church, said to the accused killer “But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

A Final Thought… The Kingdom Alternative

Are there other pressing issues the church should be prophetically speaking about? Of course, there are. But the issues of racism and violence are the issues at hand now and they are issues that have and will continue to plague society without any church ready to demonstrate the kingdom alternative. To dismiss the issue of racism and justify violence, or to try shifting the conversation by bringing up other issues, only makes the church more anemic. In such a difficult time, it is time to press deeply into the gospel and ask what it means to faithfully embody the kingdom alternative among a society plagued by racism and violence. That can’t be done pretending racism isn’t a big issue or engaging in hermeneutical gymnastics in order to justify violence. That happens by following Jesus who showed us what it means to love God and neighbor…even our enemies!