Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

Living The Dream

The last time I checked, my children attend school with children from thirty-four different nationalities. Our neighborhood is a diverse dwelling of different races, ethnicities, religious beliefs and most everything else you would expect of a suburban community located between the cities of Baltimore and Washington D.C. There aren’t separate water fountains and everyone is free to sit where they like on the city busses. So clearly things have improved from the not-to-distant days of the past when racial segregation was legal in America.

For that reason and for good reason, we observe January 19th as Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” 

- Martin Luther King Jr.

But we would be foolish to believe that dream has been fully realized.

On The Other Side of the Tracks

The neighborhood I live in is also on the decline. It’s a neighborhood where some of the homes are designated as Section 8 housing. That means the increase of lower-income residents, which are more likely to be minorities, and the perceived increase of other social problems such as drugs and crime typically associated with lower-income neighborhoods. Yet I distinctly remember a Christian advising me to pick a different neighborhood to live in, one that wasn’t like “the hood.”

In fact, this is not the first time I have had a Christian offer me advice on where to live based on the conditions and social make-up of the neighborhood. I once had a Christian tell me I should avoid living in an area of town literally on the other side of the railroad tracks that had a lot of Muslim immigrants. When I lived in Memphis, in a neighborhood with its share of challenges, there were several occasions when a Christian questioned my wisdom about where my family and I lived.

None of these Christians are bad people. There not white supremacists or anything like that. They believe in civil rights for everyone and they will gladly volunteer serving meals to the homeless, organizing school supplies for students in need, giving to local charitable organizations, and even helping their church with its benevolent ministries. But then they go back home where it’s nice, quiet, and above all, safe.

Happy to Help, As Long As…

I am writing this because every Christian I know believes in loving others and believes in helping those in need, like the poor. Yet this help is often done at a distance, socially and physically, that we, who are the privileged control. Roberto S. Goizueto writes in his book Caminemos Con Jesús,* “As a society, we are happy to help and serve the poor, as long as we don’t have to walk with them where they walk, that is, as long as we can minister to them from our safe enclosures. The poor can then remain passive object of our actions, rather than friends, compañeros and compañeras with whom we interact” (p. 199). Do we see the problem?

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.'”

- Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King spoke of a dream that had to do with human equality. Certainly our society closer to realizing that dream than it was back on that August day in 1963 when Dr. King spoke of this dream. Yet full realization of the dream destination awaits. Ultimately redemption awaits the return of Jesus who will come and make everything new (cf. Rev 21:5). Yet we, who are the church and already share in this newness of life, are to live as a portrayal what this future hope is life among the present. But this requires more than just ministry to those who have less, little, or none, who don’t live in the nicest or the safest neighborhoods, who may exasperate their struggles with their own poor choices, who may for now only know how to depend on the government for welfare and other social-services… This is a call to walk among them!

Changing the Conversation

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not sure what all of that should entail at the most concrete level, where the rubber meets the road. I also know that I talk a better game than I play. However, I also know that as Christians we believe God loved us by becoming one of us… becoming flesh in person of Jesus and dwelling among us. So for us to truly care about helping those living in various degrees of poverty, loving them as neighbors just like God has loves, then we must learn how to dwell among them.

One way of dwelling among such people involves changing the way we go about deciding where we will live. Let’s have a different conversation about where we should live. Instead of prioritizing safety, quietness, and convenience when we buy or rent homes, we move where we can participate in the mission of God as dwellers among the people we are called to serve. That begins with prayer and discernment regarding how and where God is calling us to live on mission with him and then we trust God as we obey his leading. Instead of flinching at a neighborhood because it suffers socially, we ask God if this is where he is leading us and how he wants us to serve.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. It’s a dream that I believe is anchored in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s live the dream.

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* “Let us walk with Jesus”

When Someone Dies

The news this past Sunday that Stuart Scott, a veteran journalist and ESPN sports commentator, passed away after a long battle with cancer is a reminder of how shocking and terrible death is. Scott was still a young man, only 49 years old, with plenty of life left to live. More importantly, he was a father to two young daughters who are now left to live life without their father.

Death is never easy but it is something everyone of us will experience and not just our own death or the death of someone very close to us. Everyone of us will eventually have a friend, co-worker, etc… who receives the heartbreaking news that someone they love dearly has died.

Real time! What do we do? There are not any trial runs for this. What we do next, how we respond is what we will do for better or worse. I’m saying this because in my experience many people still struggle with what to do when someone they know is now faced with this grief and suffering.

I don’t want to diminish the loss of any life but it is one thing when we are talking about the death of someone in their 80’s or 90’s who has lived a great life. While their is still grief for the family and friends of that person, there is reason for celebration too. Maybe their death is a relief in some way since at an elderly age, death likely means the individual is no longer suffering from ill heath. But when we are talking about the death of someone younger, such as the death of a child or the death of someone leaving behind young children (as in Stuart Scott’s case), there is only sadness, grief, and suffering.

There are some things that we can do that will help others through the process of grief:

  1. Say “I’m sorry!” Don’t say anything else. That is, don’t try to explain it, theologize it, or mitigate it with words. That will not work. There is nothing that we can say that will make the loss of a loved one any easier except by saying, “I’m sorry!” By saying this, you are letting your friend know that you sympathize with them and believe me, that means more than it may seem.
  2. Give time! I don’t really like the phrase “Time heals all wounds” because I’m don’t think it is true. Nobody “gets over” the loss of someone they love. However, people can learn to live with the grief and pain of someone’s death but that take time… a lot of time. It has been 12 ½ years since the death of my son and eleven years since the death of my younger brother. Both losses still hurt. But I have learned to live with each loss, which took time as in years. Don’t force those who have suffered a loss to get over it but allow them the time to learn how to live with the loss. It’s a process that may involve counseling at some point or participation in a support group but regardless, it’s a process that requires time and time that cannot be regulated by us.
  3. Remember! Throughout the process of grief there will be certain days that are harder than the others… the birthday of those who are lost, the anniversary of their death, holidays. Can you imagine what the next Father’s Day will be like for Stuart Scott’s children? Thanksgiving? Christmas? A simple phone-call or a card says “We remember!” And this is not just about remembering the person who died but remembering the people who still grieving in pain.
  4. Say a prayer! As a believer, I believe in prayer and so I believe it is important that we remember to pray for those who are suffering the loss of someone they love. There is always the question of if and when do we pray with them and ask them if we can pray for them. It’s a good question but there isn’t any right or wrong answer except to say that through our friendship and experience, we’ll gain the wisdom necessary to answer that question.

Christianity In An Age of Religious Pluralism

Perhaps you’ve heard of Duck Dynasty. I’m a fan. I’ve not seen every episode but I’ve seen a bunch. Besides the humorous adventures of the Robertson clan, the fact that I minister with a Church of Christ and that there’s enough red-neck still in me keeps my interest. One of the great values of the show is that every episode ends with the family eating and praying together, which is a great example to set.* 

Our Context Matters…

The show has established a platform for the family to express their Christian faith and Phil Robertson has seemingly taken advantage of this platform the most. On a few occasions Phil has made some comments which might not raise any concern in his own context but certainly do elsewhere. Having said that, I don’t want to spend any more time criticizing Phil or discussing his past remarks.

I mention Phil Robertson in order to make an observation about a difference between his context and the context of many other Christians, including those among the Churches of Christ. The Robertson’s live near West Monroe, Louisiana where those who affiliate with a Christian church make up roughly 90% of the population.  Compare that to Columbia, Maryland, where 56% of the people do not claim any church affiliation. On top of that, the last time I checked, my children attend school with children from thirty-nine different nationalities. As you might imagine, along with those thirty-nine different nationalities comes a plurality of religions and assortment of values that sometimes differ drastically from the values held by many Christians.

All that is to say that while I appreciate the public stance Phil Robertson is willing to make for what he believes, his example is not a model for every Christian. The response Phil Robertson takes is one that is shaped by his own cultural context. Yet more and more Christians find themselves living in an urban to suburban context that is very different, one where religious pluralism is a reality that requires a different approach.

Apologetics As A Way of Life…

When taking a stance for Christ, one of the frequently cited verses is 1 Peter 3:15. In this passage, the apostle Peter says, “But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess” (NET). For many Christians, Peter is talking about defending the existence of God or the resurrection of Christ. That’s why this passage is a favorite proof-texts among the enterprise of Christian apologetics. I’m all for providing good intellectual answers for those who struggle with Christian belief but what Peter is talking about in this passage is apologetics as a way of life. That is, to set Christ apart (sanctify) in our hearts is about making the way of life that Christ teaches our way of life. A quick read of the entire letter of 1 Peter should make this abundantly clear. 

Embracing apologetics as a way of life involves at least two steps:

  1. The first step in taking a public stance for our faith involves the way in which we set Christ apart in our hearts as Lord. We make sure that our life reflects the life of Jesus. What we say and do reveals our true values and when we profess Christ as Lord but exemplify a different set of values than those which Jesus embodied while on earth, we nullify our witness. One of the values Jesus lived by while here on earth involved the formation of relationships with other people. When we form relationships with others our Christ-likeness becomes a testimony that gives us a credible basis for proclaiming Jesus.
  2. Because we regard Jesus as Lord, the way in which we give an answer for the hope we have matters too. We don’t have an argument to win, just the good news of God’s victory in Christ to bear witness of. As David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw say, “Surely such claim for the supremacy of Christ pits us against other religions and other ways to God. But the conviction that Jesus is Lord actually does the opposite: it frees us from coercion and control. It is Jesus that is Lord, not us. We do not need to land a knockout punch to win an argument against another religion. We are witnesses! We do not need to be prosecuting attorneys on behalf of Jesus. We are witnesses!” (Prodigal Christianity, 158).

As believers and followers of Jesus, we are called to live as his witnesses. In an age of increased religious pluralism, we must become more intentional about taking a stance for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such intentionality includes boldness but let’s not confuse boldness with brashness. Our bold witness of Jesus must reflect the life of Jesus if we are to truly set Christ apart in our hearts as Lord.

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* Except for a few stylistic changes, this exact article was originally published in Connecting 29 (December 3, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

Engaging In A Culture War

Whatever you think about the current state of American culture, it’s clear that Christianity no longer has the influence it once had. There isn’t any use in becoming upset about it or complaining about it because that will change very little, if anything. Instead consider asking how should Christians posture themselves amidst a culture that appears less than receptive to Christianity?

The Courage Not To Fight Back!

Perhaps you’ve seen the movie 42 about the story of Jackie Robinson. There’s a scene in the movie where Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers is talking with to Jackie Robinson about the challenge his is going to face…

“People aren’t going to like this. They’re gonna do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse, and they’ll only hear yours. Follow a blow with a blow and they’ll say the Negro lost his temper. You’re enemy will be out in force and you cannot meet him on his own low ground. We win with hitting, running, fielding… only that. We win if the world is convinced of two things: that you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player.”

Robinson asks, “You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?”

So Rickey says, “No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.”

Perhaps the best response Christians can have towards the current changing American culture is having the courage not to fight back!

Christians Have Lost Their Temper?

Every year as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day approaches, there are some Christians who insist upon engaging in a culture war over the greeting “Merry Christmas.” By insisting upon the phrase “Merry Christmas” as opposed to “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings,” they think that the society at large will remember the “reason for the season.” They call for Christians to boycott stores that don’t mention Christmas, voice their protest in various social-media outlets, align themselves with various political talking-heads (some who may not even be Christians), and even make a movie about saving Christmas.

Is this really about living as faithful witnesses of Jesus or is it about preserving a culture that favors Christian sentiments? In other words, is this culture war over Christmas motivated by a desire to serve God or a selfish political desire?

To be frank, I really don’t care whether a person says “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” What I’m concerned about is the notion that some Christians have which believes that this is a spiritual battle that they must stand up and fight. They seems to believe that Christians can and should go blow for blow with society. However, taking a page from Branch Rickey, when this is done, society only seems to think that Christians have lost their temper… and seem quite ready to leave us to ourselves where we can pout in the corner while we have a tantrum.

Isn’t there a better way? I certainly believe so!

Love, Service, and Hospitality

For the last few weeks I’ve been preaching through the book of 1 Peter. In one sentence, this is a letter that addresses how Christians must live as the holy people of God amidst a hostile culture. Never does Peter say anything about fight back, standing up for your rights, boycotting and protesting those who don’t show favor to Christian values. Instead Christians are persistently reminded to be the church. That is, instead of trying to determine how the rest of society should live, Christians should make every effort to embody the living hope they have received.

One of the more important passages in about Christians embodying the  living hope they have received is found in 1 Peter 4:7-11:

For the culmination of all things is near. So be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of prayer. Above all keep your love for one another fervent, because love covers a multitude of sinsShow hospitality to one another without complaining. Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God. Whoever speaks, let it be with God’s words. Whoever serves, do so with the strength that God supplies, so that in everything God will be glorified through Jesus Christ…

Loving one another, serving one another, being hospitable… Think about it! Branch Rickey told Jackie Robinson that they would win with hitting running, and fielding. Peter is telling us who call ourselves Christians that we win by loving one another, serving one another, being hospitable towards each other.

If we really believe in Jesus then we need to be Christians who have the courage to not fight back… or at least not fight back on society’s own low ground. Instead we must learn to fight with love, service, and hospitality. Then we become a living demonstration of the reason for the season, the life Jesus came into this world to offer through his own death and resurrection.

When Preaching Fails

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

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

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

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

Will You Vote Today?

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

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

The Christian Distinction

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

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

Christian Voting

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

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

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

Believing In Jesus and His Way

A Farewell to MarsI’m currently reading through Brian Zahnd’s book A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. The book is about the peaceful, non-violent way of Jesus Christ, which is often ignored and even dismissed as irrelevant by many Christians living in America. In other words, American Christianity believes in Jesus as the Savior but does not necessarily follow Jesus as Lord… at least not when it comes to putting down the sword and picking up the cross. This is why Zahnd says quite clearly and convincingly that, “It’s not enough to believe in Jesus; we also have to believe in the Jesus way!” (p. 142).

To illustrate his point, Zahnd does a little historical work regarding southern culture and the Christian revival throughout the southern states that preceded the American Civil War. Here’s the quote:

In seeking to preserve an economy dependent upon slave labor, Southern churches had embraced a fatally distorted faith. Probably without even knowing what they were doing, these Christians had quite effectively used Jesus and the Bible to validate their racist assumptions and protect their vested interests. They went to church on Sunday. They got saved. They loved Jesus. They waved their palms and shouted hosanna on Palm Sunday. But like the crowd in Jerusalem eighteen centuries earlier, they didn’t know the things that made for peace. And Jesus wept over an America headed to hell. The churches were full and slavery continued—until the Civil War, that is. Then 750,000 people died for the sins of America (p. 146).

My question is how long will Christians keep dismissing the non-violent way of Jesus as irrelevant and how much more carnage will we suffer as a result?