Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

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.

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* 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!

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.

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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.

Freedom Isn’t Free… But The Price Is More Than You Realize!

According to Google, the first definition of freedom is “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” Of course, that is only one definition of freedom but it is the operative understanding of freedom in Western democratic societies. In his book God, Freedom, & Human Dignity, Ron Highfield explores the ways this sense of freedom is expressed, showing how such freedom depends completely upon human effort (pp. 91-96). Such freedom is obtained and preserved  by the political means of economic, military, and technological initiatives. Or so Western people think this is what makes them free!

What this concept of freedom requires is the removal of every obstacle that is believed to stand in the way of such freedom. Every obstacle that is… including God! In the Western sense of freedom, God is ultimately viewed as an obstacle to freedom and a great illustration of this is the way that Western democratic societies view sexuality. Whereas God is viewed as restricting our sexual liberty, we believe, in our Western sense of freedom, that we should be able to have sex whenever and with whomever we choose so long as our “partner(s)” is a willing participant too (their freedom of choice). Thus, if it is God that stands as an obstacle to this sexual liberty then it is God that must go. How ironic it is that conservative Americans who want to conserve traditional American values, including the Western notion of freedom, also lament the “removal of God” from American culture. It’s ironic because the very notion of freedom that conservatives (as well as liberals) want to preserve ultimately requires the removal of God in order to chase dream of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — as we become our own gods.

“…We’re like a prisoner escaped from jail.”

The sad reality is that Western society is far from knowing freedom as it is actually enslaved to its own spiritual blindness. Because the democratic sense of freedom is one that is obtained and preserved completely through human effort, it is a dream of freedom that is never fully achieved. This freedom is an illusion and it’s much like a rainbow with the illusion beautiful enough for us to keep chasing but always remaining just beyond the hill (whatever obstacle that may be). This democratic pursuit of freedom means that we’re like a prisoner escaped from jail. We may no longer be restricted by the confines of a jail cell but we must keep on the run, always looking over our shoulders, remaining in hiding as we keep fighting without any peace or rest. What a pity! Especially since the price of this illusion has been a lot of bodies piled up on the battle field in order for us to try reach the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

But as I said earlier, the Western idea of freedom isn’t the only idea of freedom. Another idea is to remember that our lives have been created by the living God, who sustains our lives with every breath of air. Apart from him, we slowly die. In fact, we have been slowly dying since the original sin in which the man and woman attempted to become like God rather than to live dependent upon God (cf. Gen 3:4-5). Because God is the source of life, creating and sustaining all life (a notion that goes against the deistic philosophy that Western societies have built upon), we find true life, liberty, and happiness in God. But how… “If [we] insist on being the absolute cause of [our] existence, desires and actions, how can [we] acknowledge that [we] are God’s creature[s], preserved by his power, obligated by his law and in need of his grace?” (Highfield, p. 95).

“…we find true life, liberty, and happiness in God.”

The story of good news told in the Gospel of John begins by declaring to us that God is the Word who has become flesh in the person of Jesus, the Son of God. It is in Jesus, the Incarnate Word that we find life by believing in him (cf. Jn 1:1-4; 20:30-31). Because we find life in Jesus, who teaches us how to live again, we find the life, liberty, and happiness we were created to enjoy. It’s not a freedom in which we are able to live however we want, as though we are able to live apart from God and his will. Rather, it’s the freedom to be the people we were always created to be, living a life sustained by God and his will revealed to us in Jesus.

Consequently, the freedom we have in Jesus, the Incarnate Word, is able to fully satisfy our longing for happiness, joy, and peace because we are no longer trying to achieve what is impossible for us. Drinking from the living water that Jesus gives (cf. Jn 4:10, 13-14) frees us from futile need of having to secure freedom on our own and at the expense of people who are either in the way or become an expendable means to maintain the pursuit.

The good news about this divine freedom, is that it isn’t something we have to work for or fight for in any sense of the notion. Divine freedom is the gift of grace given to us from “God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16, NRSV). It’s the gift of grace given to us by God the Father who raised his Son Jesus from death and then sent the Spirit as a promise of this eternal life. And that’s the truth that sets us free!

“Divine freedom is the gift of grace…”

So yes, freedom isn’t free. It costs more than we will ever truly imagine. It cost the life of Jesus who died in agony upon the cross so that we could be reconciled with God and live eternally again. Some people, however, will object with their “but…” as they insist we must chase the ever illusive idea of Western freedom if we are to be free. Sadly, some of these people are Christians, but what they don’t realize is that their self-pursuit of Western freedom isn’t free either. It’s an expensive cost too and it’s not just the cost of soldiers serving and dying in wars for “the cause of freedom.” Those who persist in persist in pursuing their own sense of freedom will pay the price of their own lives as they live enslaved to that illusive dream… working and fighting for a dream of freedom that never fully materializes as they hope it would.

That’s why I put my faith in Jesus Christ and why I encourage you to do so as well!

“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – Jesus Christ (John 8:32)

Social-Media and Our Celebrity Status

One of the books I’m currently reading is God, Freedom, and Human Dignity, by Ron Highfield,* who was kind enough to have InterVarsity Press send me a free copy of the book. I have promised to write a review of the book which I will do when I finish reading but I want to share what I believe is a very astute observation about human culture in the age of social-media.

The fourth chapter of the book discusses ways in which humans can live indifferent to God. One of those ways is when we come to view ourselves as celebrities, which turns our focus inward. As the author notes, “Fame demands to be admired for its own sake” (p. 70). Consequently, when we see ourselves as a celebrity of some sort, we begin seeking admiration for ourselves.

I believe most people, including myself, struggle with the desire for a certain amount of fame. Besides the desire to be liked by others and appreciated by others, we want recognition for our accomplishments — especially from our  vocational peers. And while a certain amount of praise and admiration is necessary to our emotional health, we seem to live in an age that some might say has become very narcissistic.

Although the author never uses the term narcissism, he does speak about this celebrity problem saying:

The culture of celebrity so pervades our lives and the means of placing our words and images in front of the world are so available that we are tempted to aspire to something like celebrity status for ourselves. We rent space in the virtual world where we can display our pictures, our curriculum, vitae and our contact information. We report to our “friends” what we had for breakfast this morning or what we are thinking this moment. We tell the world about our family vacations and even post our home movies. …we are seduced by the celebrity view of existence; that is we do not feel that we exist unless someone is viewing our image, reading our words and thinking about us. Our value is measured by the number of people who know our names, and who we are depends on what people think about us (p. 73).

Of course, measuring our intrinsic value by what other people think of us creates a world of problems. We begin to view the world as revolving around us, where we become the god of our world, and… Well, were right back to the original sin and we know the fall out of that.

This raises questions for all of us who love blogging, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc… When is it too much? How do we use social-media for its incredible merits without developing and practicing a “celebrity view of existence”?

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* Ron Highfield serves as the Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University.

Another Shooting and Our Futile Talk

It happened again. I’m talking about another mass shooting. Except this time it happened in my city, at The Mall in Columbia, a mall that my family and I frequent regularly. Three people, Briana Benlolo, Tyler Johnson, and the gunman himself, Darion Marcus Aguilar, died. Five others were physically injured and many others traumatized. As far as my wife and I can tell from the news reports, the Howard County Police have done a great job with a very difficult and tragic situation. A word of appreciation is also in order to the many other Law Enforcement agencies as well as the Fire and EMS agencies for their response in securing the mall and helping the injured and the many other by standbys to safety.

But I’m angry!

I’m angry not because of this tragic shooting but because violence like this is seemingly becoming a social trend, and epidemic. By epidemic, I am speaking of our perception of reality that is shaped for us through the prevalence of 24/7 news and social-media saturating society with information, creating a cultural epidemic of mass-shootings. Consequently, we live in a culture of violence that is brewing more violence. While we don’t know the particulars of the motive for the shooting the other day, we’ve seen enough of these shootings before to know that there’s a deeper underlying problem that has a grip on our society. In recent years we have all watched with sadness the news of mass shootings in places like Newtown, Connecticut… Aurora, Colorado… Fort Hood… Virginia Tech… And those are just some of the recent mass shootings I recall off the top of my head.

But I’m also angry because every time there is a shooting we are told that we should grieve, which is the right thing to do, but then we try to figure out what went wrong and how we can prevent such a tragedy from happening again. This is where the conversation turns to the tiresome politics of gun-control, better security measures, and the violence in the entertainment industry. If only we had less guns, says the one side, while the other side argues that we need more guns. If only we have more metal detectors or more armed security, says someone else, while someone else says that problem is too many violent video games.

If only… We think we know what the problem is and what we need to do in order to fix it. But the hubris of our enlightened minds has fooled us, leaving us to believe that politics will save us from this quagmire we find ourselves sinking further and further into. Yet what we have to show for it is nothing but an abyss of spiritual blindness that is increasingly expressed through fear, hostility, madness and violence. All the while, people continue to suffer, families mourn, and communities are gripped with horror that gives way to numbness… until it happens again and again and again.

Yet we don’t want to consider that maybe the problem is a spiritual problem. Can we even do that? I believe we must, so hang with me for a little more.

The prophet Hosea spoke to a people who found themselves in similar times. Yet the prophet urged Israel to see the problem for what it is, saying:

Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites,
because the Lord has a charge to bring
against you who live in the land:
“There is no faithfulness, no love,
no acknowledgment of God in the land.
There is only cursing, lying and murder,
stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds,
and bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Because of this the land dries up,
and all who live in it waste away;
the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea are swept away.

Hosea saw all the bloodshed that was so rampant that affected even the land and animals. Yet the problem was not the violence and other atrocious behaviors. The real problem was the fact that Israel had become unfaithful to God, no longer loving God nor acknowledging him. That’s a very different problem. It’s a spiritual problem and the only way Israel could hope to overcome her troubles was through faithfulness to God, loving God and acknowledging him (this is as much a moral/ethical position as it is confessional).

Here in America, our issues with violence and every other malady in our society are not the problems; they’re just symptoms of the problem. We have told God to go sit in the corner because we can run life better through our political and social schemes. And the words of the prophet are like silent raindrops falling, echoing in the sound of silence!*

It’s not that there is never a time to have political and social conversations about pragmatic steps that can reduce violence. But until we’re ready to let God be a part of the conversation, we are fooling ourselves and jeopardizing everyone else with our spiritual blindness. For only God can teach us how to love and live in community with each other. Until we are ready to do that, all of our political and social talk remains futile.

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* I’m paraphrasing the words of Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence,” here but alluding to the words of the prophet Hosea cited above.

Following Jesus Into the New Year

Well, it is officially 2014. A new year has arrived and while that comes with hopeful expectations for the days ahead. I pray that our days are filled with great joy, love, and laughter. As the prayer of serenity goes, let’s change what we can, accept what we can’t change, and have the wisdom to know the difference.

The Big Issue

With that being said, I am still convinced that the biggest pressing issue facing the Christian church here in America is the question of discipleship. Last year I wrote an article for Wineskins titled Living the Way of Jesus in which I defined discipleship as “learning to live in the way of Jesus.” In simplest terms, it involves following Jesus and learning from him so that we can learn to think and act as Jesus does. In our own day and age this involves reading about the life Jesus lives within scripture, learning among the company of others who are following and learning from Jesus, learning to connect this with all of scripture (Old and New Testament), and practicing what we learn as we go along, even as we fail some along the way, so that our life is continuously formed as a disciple.

I stand by that definition as a simple explanation of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. While other nuances might be better suited to help people understand better what we mean when we talk about discipleship, I believe the definition itself is consistent — according to the scriptures — with Jesus’ call “Come, follow me!”

In Our Own Communities

Having said all that, we must remember not to spiritualize discipleship. Learning to live in the way of Jesus is not about pursuing a life that is so extra-ordinary that it cannot be lived within the every-day mundaneness of life. We all know the stories of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Theresa. Likewise, we all know someone who has moved to serve as missionaries in some country that is very far away from all family and friends. All such people are commendable and should Christ call us to be a martyr, to serve the poor in a third-world country, or evangelize the lost as a foreign missionary, then we should go and do just that. Yet the reality is that many of us are called to such a life. Instead, we are called to be disciples right where we live in our own urban to suburban to rural communities.

So how do we continue learning to live in the way of Jesus right in our own neighborhoods as carpenters, school teachers, nurses, lawyers, truck-drivers, engineers, pastors, stay-at-home parents, volunteers, and whatever else we may be? I use the language of up, in, & out which I learned from Mission Alive who learned it from 3DM who probably learned it from… Any ways, living relationally up towards God, in towards our church, and out towards those in our neighborhoods is a good rhythmic guide to get started with.

Practically speaking, there are several things we can do to practice this rhythm of up, in, and out.

  • Commit a part of every day as time spent praying and reading scripture (Up). It’s only the second day of the new year, so it’s not too late to begin a daily bible reading plan. This is also a time to pray about what we are reading, praying that we can understand God’s will and live it out in our lives.
  • Be a regular engaged participant in the gatherings of the local church we are members of (Up, In). Plan on being fully present in the worship celebrations, the partaking of the Lord’s Supper, small group fellowships, etc… Pray about the gatherings before hand and be an intentional participant during the gatherings. Not only does this please God as we give him praise and thanksgiving but we also encourage the other Christians among us (even some who maybe a nominal Christian only, having lost sight of discipleship).
  • Commit ourselves to becoming better acquainted with others in our neighborhoods (Out). For many, this is the most difficult task and it’s not getting any easier. No longer are our neighbors just Christians attending a different church than our own, our neighbors now may be Muslims, Hindus, Agnostics and Secularists, and even former Christians who are skeptical of Christians (sometimes for good reasons). So take a batch of cookies to them, invite them to a cookout, or attend their cookout (if invited) and be respectful. That is, go as a learner and let God provide the occasion for us to be his witness, as it will happen if we pray about it and are patient enough to allow God to redemptively work ahead of us.

Just remember that when it comes to discipleship, it seems that Jesus is more interested in teaching us how to live the heavenly life here on earth than to muse about the heavenly life to come. Hence, part of the Lord’s Prayer we are taught to pray is for the will of God to be done here on earth as it is done in heaven.