Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

Do Christians Need Power?

In one sense, it seems laughable that anyone seeking to become President of the United States would make an appeal to Christian voters by promising Christians power. Of course, that is exactly what Presidential Candidate Donald Trump has apparently done by talking about Christians and saying that if he’s elected, “you’re going to have plenty of power.” But this post isn’t really about Donald Trump or any other Presidential Candidate. It’s about the Christians for whom such a promise of power is desired.

The Power of the Kingdom

When Jesus began his public ministry, the burning question for Israel had to do with the Kingdom of God. As a people who were living under the rule of Roman authority, Israel longed for God to make good on his promise which meant the restoration of his Kingdom. That was Israel’s hope.

As a prophetic voice, teaching with authority and performing all kinds of miraculous signs, Jesus raised the possibility that he was indeed the Messiah who would restore the Kingdom of God. Yet as Jesus defied some of Israel’s traditions, challenging the authority of the religious leaders, those in authority began to see him as a blasphemer and eventually would help conspire to have him crucified under the rule of the Roman Governor Pilate. However, God raised Jesus from death, vindicating him as Israel’s Messiah and so his disciples held out hope that he would restore the kingdom of God.

In Acts chapter one, the disciples asked Jesus when he was going to restore the kingdom. The question is about power but it is something that they still misunderstood. Jesus replies to his disciples saying, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses… (vv. 7-8). Jesus was assuring his disciples that they would have power but not the kind of power they have in mind. Receiving the Holy Spirit to live as witnesses of Jesus is not the power of militant or political coercion; it is rooted in the same power of the cross. The Kingdom of God appears as the disciples live as witness of Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Messiah, embodying his way of life as their way of life.

Pursuing The Wrong Kingdom

Maybe Christians today have forgotten this or maybe they just don’t want to embrace it since it’s not desirable like the power of militant and political coercion! Many Christians read Acts with admiration for the way the early church so rapidly grew, dreaming of how their own local churches could experience such growth. Many other believers lament the decline of Christianity’s influence in much of North America, hoping that somehow America could return to whatever Christian values they believe the nation once had. All the while, Christianity in America appears ever closer to losing sight of Jesus and the gospel he proclaimed even as local churches are declining as their witness is becoming marginalized.

Perhaps that sounds overly critical and you think I am painting with too broad of a brush stroke. Perhaps I am and perhaps I am too critical. However, the only reason why any Presidential Candidate is appealing to Christians (though certainly not all) with an assurance of giving them power is because there is a large enough group of Christians who desire such. So here is an important truth: The desire for such power says more about Christians than it does Donald Trump or any other Presidential Candidate and what it says is not good… it even raises the question of idolatry.

The desire for any form of militant and political power places Christians with the  masses who demanded that Pilate crucify Jesus. Don’t get me wrong! I’m not saying that a desire for coercive power is a desire to crucify Jesus. What I am suggesting is that those who demanded the crucifixion of Jesus from Pilate wanted the Kingdom of God but not on the terms of the God the Father revealed in Jesus. They wanted a kingdom in which they ruled with political coercion and were ready to use militant force in order to secure that power. The desire to protect and preserve Christian values and a Christendom culture among America, which is the sentiment that Trump is appealing to, is a desire to have power over others and that is the same desire as those who crucified Jesus. But there is a cost… The price of attaining political power over others is the Kingdom of God because nobody can rule among this world and participate in the Kingdom of God. Only Jesus has received the authority to rule this world!

A Final Word

I am writing this because there are other followers of Jesus who see the same problem, even if they might express it differently than I. My hope is that this might help raise awareness of the problem and provide a corrective that is rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The local churches we fellowship with need us to speak out and call us back to the way of our crucified and resurrected Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

The pursuit of any coercive power is one we pursue to our own peril. However, the good news is that when we let go of the desire for such power, we gain the freedom to love one another and even love those whose beliefs, values, and lifestyle is drastically different then ours. Rather than wasting time trying to win political arguments about who should become the next President of the United States, we can spend time being present with people, loving and serving them, and showing them who Jesus is. This is the power of living by the Holy Spirit as witnesses of Jesus and it’s the only power we need! When we live by the power of the Holy Spirit as witness of Jesus, the Kingdom of God appears here on earth as it is in heaven!

The Good Muslim, Latino, and Black Man

Most Christians read the Bible. Still the best-selling book, according to the Guinness World Records, the Bible is available in numerous languages as well as more than enough English translations. For many Christians like myself and especially evangelicals, the Bible is regarded as the inspired word of God and therefore is regarded as authoritative in matters of faith. So it really goes without saying that reading the Bible is a good thing. But… as I have said before and will say again, how we read the Bible matters too!

In fact, how we read the Bible may matter more than whether or not we read the Bible. That’s because a bad reading of the Bible most surely leads to bad theological praxis, which means that a poor reading may be just as dreadful not reading the Bible at all.

The Interpretation of Loving Thy Neighbor

In the Gospel of Luke there is a story in chapter 10 about a lawyer, an expert in Jewish law, who approached Jesus with a question. The lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. So in v. 26 Jesus responded by pointing this lawyer back to what is written in the law. However, knowing that just reading the law does not necessarily mean that this lawyer will live out the intention of the law, Jesus also asked him about how he reads the law.

The question in v. 26 is pōs anaginōskeis and though some English translations differ, it is likely best rendered as “How do you read it? (NIV, ESV). The adverb pōs is a common interrogative asking “how” or “in what way.” The present tense verb anaginōskeis means “to read” and is referring to the law which Jesus has pointed the lawyer back towards in response to the question of inheriting eternal life. The question itself is about the lawyer’s “legal interpretation” of the law (cf. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 428). That matters because nobody just reads the law and does exactly what it says in literal fashion. Every reader is an interpreter and so how this lawyer or anyone else reads/interprets the law matters.

In the story, the lawyer goes on to correctly point out that the law is summed up with the two commandments of loving God and loving neighbor. Jesus agrees. But when the Lawyer continues, asking Jesus who exactly is a neighbor, Jesus presses in with the utmost of challenges… Jesus goes on to tell a story about a neighbor and in that story the neighbor happens to be a Samaritan (you can read the story of “The Good Samaritan” here). This is critical because Jesus is identifying a Samaritan, people whom the Jews hated, as a neighbor and therefore someone who this Jewish lawyer must love as his neighbor. Further more, when Jesus finishes the story by telling this lawyer to do as the Samaritan did, who acted with “mercy” (v. 37), he is telling him to treat all people with compassion (cf. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, 175).

And Our Neighbors Are…

Going back to the question Jesus asked of how that lawyer reads the law, Luke is reminding us that how we read the Bible matters. However, the discussion here isn’t about how we understand the doctrine of end times or the doctrine of atonement correctly, not that such doctrines are unimportant. The discussion is about how we love our neighbor and whether our reading of the Bible moves us to love our neighbors as ourselves by extending compassion to all people.

If we leave the discussion right there, loving our neighbor as we love ourselves doesn’t seem so difficult. However, when we remember that Jesus spoke of a Samaritan in order to define just how this Jewish lawyer’s neighbor was, we must own up to the fact that our neighbors include those whom we just may in fact dislike, fear, and even hate.

For a White Christians living in America, like myself, the story told in Luke 10 is a reminder that our neighbors include people who are Black, Latino, and Muslim. I mention these three groups of people because of the tensions that still exists between them and many White people, including White evangelical Christians. It also seems necessary as certain politicians and talking heads preach a message of  fear and animosity among White evangelical Christian voters, appearing as guardians of their livelihood at the expense of compassion for minorities.

A Final Word

The story that Luke tells involves a question about how one expert in the law reads or interprets the law. It also raises a question for us Christians as to how we read or interpret the Bible. For Jesus, any reading of the law that allowed a Jew to disregard a Samaritan as a neighbor was wrong. For Christians then, particularly those of us who are White evangelical Christians living in America, any reading of the Bible that allows us to disregard a minority person as our neighbor is wrong. In fact, any reading of the Bible that allows us to disregard anyone as our neighbor is wrong.

The story itself tells us how Jesus expects us to treat our neighbors… with mercy! We must treat all people with such compassionate acts that they will know us as merciful people. It doesn’t matter how well versed we are in the doctrines of Nicene Christianity, how quickly we can recite passages of scripture, or even if we read our Bibles, if in doing so we fail to show mercy to all people. Any lack of mercy is a sure indicator that we are not reading and interpreting the Bible rightly. Showing mercy is how we love our neighbor as ourselves and just as our neighbor is the good Samaritan, so also our neighbor is the good Muslim, Latino, and Black man!

The Gift of Non-Judgmental Grace

Working as an Uber Driver is a temporary gig and even though it’s not something I want to do for much longer, it’s really a pretty good job for what it is. One of the reasons I say that is because of the opportunity to meet a variety of people, as brief as our interactions are, and learn mostly through listening and observing.

I drive through the city of Baltimore, picking up one rider after another. One person is heading home after a day at work or college, another is headed to a bar or restaurant to meet some friends. It’s amazing to hear some of the things that riders will talk about with the person they are riding with or talking on their phone with when they forget that they are sitting in a car with someone they don’t even know. One couple chats happily with me about their new baby child, which they are enjoying a needed break from, while another couple argues with each other with one vulgar insult after another. Another rider is inquisitive about my religious beliefs while another rider is too drunk to care about anything but falling asleep (which he tried doing in the back seat of my car).

One couple I picked up was mocking a homeless panhandler we saw standing  at an intersection. They assumed the panhandler to be a drug-addict, which might be true. But this homeless person could just as easily be suffering from mental illness, could be a military veteran suffering PTSD stemming from his tours of duty in war, or he could be… Well, does it really matter?

As a minister I have spent time with people going through difficult times. Divorce, mental illness, addictions, jail-time, and so on. Though not always the case, often times the struggle stems from some bad choices the person has made… Sin! But something I’ve learned, which a few of my psychology friends have helped me understand, is the difference between excuse and explanation. Nothing excuses the wrong a person does but in many cases, there is an explanation for it. That is, there is an explanation for why that homeless panhandler just might be addicted to heroin or why that couple thinks they are better than that panhandler as I drop them off at the Capital Grill to eat a $300 dinner.

“But for the grace of God, there go I.” It’s something I try remembering as I encounter other people struggling though difficulties… especially since I know that I am a sinner too! And if it we’re not for the grace of God, we all…

We find it is easy to sit in judgment upon other people, especially when their sin is not our sin. It seems that our social-media experiences, where we quickly pass along memes and editorials that criticizes everything we disagree with in society, only encourages such judgmentalism. Regardless of the cause, we should resist the temptation to judge because if it were not for the grace of God…

Instead, perhaps we could give others the gift of non-judgmental grace. That is, instead of passing judgment on others, we empathize instead. Rather than assuming, we listen and/or observe in hopes that we might understand better. I’m not suggesting that we can never say something or someone is wrong but that instead of looking down on others for whatever circumstances they find themselves in, we regard others with mercy rather than scorn. Maybe giving others the gift of non-judgmental grace leads to other acts of kindness and blessing but whether it does or doesn’t, it makes us as people who are safe… people whom others can trust and approach when they are facing trouble. And that is where we join Jesus in the redemptive work of restoring and reconciling people to God, each other, and the life they have been created to live.

A Conversation About Jesus and Religion

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

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

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

Me: “Yes, I do.”

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

Me: “Yes, I do.”

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

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

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

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

Imago Dei: They Belong to God

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Witness, Baptism, and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom and Insight: Companions For A Complex Life

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

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

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

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

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