Category Archives: Faith

When Our Reasoning Fails Us

“God gave us a brain, so use it.”

It’s a well known phrase you’ve probably heard over a thousand times. I certainly have. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve heard this phrase repeated a lot by Christians when discussing something to do with church business and ministry. Sometimes it has seemed like an effort in reasoning one’s way around the good news of the kingdom of God, dismissing Jesus by saying “Yeah, but.”

I was a seminary student living in Memphis and was working part-time with an older church that was in decline. They provided housing for my wife and I, and I would preach once a month and engage in other ministry opportunities in the neighborhood. But that is where the challenge was.

The church, a community of about 80 to 100 middle-class white people, gathered for worship in a poor neighborhood of minorities that challenged by drugs, poverty, and crime. As far as the neighborhood the church gathered in, it had its share of homeless people, many of whom suffered with mental health issues and/or drug and alcohol addictions. And that was the problem.

A friend of mine and I tried serving those who were homeless as best as we knew how. Besides hanging out with them in places like a Waffle House, we offered food from the church’s pantry, and invited them to join us for worship on potluck Sundays. But it became clear that the homeless were unwanted and some of the other church leaders went so far as to tell them so, locking the doors behind them. A few of the church members were even blatant racists, which is equally disgusting. But as we pushed against this disdain for the homeless, some of the church members voiced their reasons…

“We can’t help everyone.”

“It’s dangerous, with the drugs they’re on and what not.”

“Let them get cleaned up first so they can show respect to God in his house.”

They even were able to invoke the Bible, proof-texting in order to justify their reasoning.

And here’s the scary thing about this story… It illustrates how Christians, people who profess faith in Jesus and read the Bible, can reason their way around the gospel and faith as they actually rationalize following Jesus right out of the equation.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Rom 12:2, NRSV

So yes, God did give us a brain… a mind, that is, and we should use it. But it also must be renewed in Christ by the Spirit if it is to be of value to us living as Christians. That raises an important question for us: Are we are seeking transformation that leads us to live more like Jesus and to make decisions that reflect the good news of the kingdom of God?

Living and making decisions based on fear, self-preservation, discrimination, and national politics only continues our conformation to the world. We can reason ourselves into living and making decisions based on the fear, self-preservation, discrimination, and national politics, and even proof-texting the Bible in order to justify our rationale, but when this happens our reasoning fails us!

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!

Loving Your Enemy or Arming Yourself?

As the details of the mass-shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, we learned that the killer was targeting Christians. This comes only a few month removed from another mass-shooting where the killer targeted Black Christians at an AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, though racism was the motive in this mass-shooting. Added to all of this is the continued conflicts in the Middle-East and the threat of terrorism, especially the horrific persecution of Christians at the hands of ISIS.

All of that creates a lot of anxiety and I get that. It’s scary to think that a disturbed person might show up where you study or work, or where you worship, and shoot you simply because you are a Christian. It’s even scarier to know that there is a group or terrorists who would like to kill you, or someone like you and do so by cutting off your head or burning you alive. Yet if we allow that anxiety to brew, all kinds of dark emotions and desires take hold. And as we know, fear has been the base of much evil throughout history. Shouldn’t we just wish death upon such people and do everything we can to support taking them out before they get us?

Two Different Responses

Jesus ministered in a time and region filled with more anxiety than we’ll likely ever grasp. The Roman rulers had proved themselves as ruthless in dealing with their political enemies and the Jewish people were among those enemies. Yet within one sermon about the way of life we must live, Jesus says this in Matthew 5:43-45,

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

I know this is not an easy teaching but it’s not an impossible teaching either.

Too often this passage is caught in the middle of the ethical question about whether followers of Jesus can act in defense if they or someone they see is being attacked by an assailant. I understand the importance of this issue but I also think it often keeps us from seeing something profoundly important about this teaching.

Jesus is teaching us to see the enemy differently and treat the enemy differently! When people decide that we are their enemy and plot to do us harm, our instinct is to their level of evil and return the hatred. We do so by plotting how we might do to them as they would do to us. If they want to attack us, we’ll send an army to take them out before they get the opportunity. But Jesus, who defines for us by his own self-sacrificial life of service what is means to love, wants us to see the enemy as a person just like us in order that we will seek their best interest by doing good to them. By doing good to all people, even those who hate us, we participate with God in demonstrating what the inbreaking kingdom-reign of God is like. That, my fellow Christians, is why this difficult teaching is later echoed by both the apostle Paul and apostle Peter (Rom 12:14; 1 Pet 3:9).

How different is that from the advise offered by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Tennessee who, after invoking the mass-shooting in Oregon, urged Christians who are serious about their faith to get a gun. He went on to say, “Our enemies are armed. We must do likewise.” How different is that from what Jesus says! Lt. Gov Ramsey is telling is to see those who may harm us as the enemy rather than as a person like us, who bears the same image of God we bear. Invoking fear rather than encouraging faith, he is telling us that if someone is plotting to kill us then we should plan ahead by arming ourselves so that we might kill them in order to protect ourselves.

This is more than just reacting defensively in the moment, should we ever find ourselves under attack. What Lt. Gov Ramsey is telling us to do is decide now that we are going to respond with deadly force, doing harm in order to protect ourselves from potential harm. How different that is from how Jesus teaches us to live? How different is that from the disciples in Jerusalem who, when faced with a threat, did not discuss how they might arm themselves for protection but came together and prayed that would perform signs and wonders while empowering his servants to preach the gospel with boldness (Acts 4:23-31)?

Arming Ourselves!

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not under any illusion that following Jesus is easy, especially when it comes to loving the enemy. It’s not easy and it won’t ever be easy. It could be the way we are called to be a martyr for Jesus, just as it has been for other Christians throughout history. But that is why we must speak with boldness now and remind each other of this important teaching, so that we will encourage faithful discipleship if and when the road does get rough. Should I ever encounter someone doing harm to others, I won’t stand by and do nothing. I pray that I would have the courage to intercede as Chris Mintz did during last weeks shooting, putting himself in harms way to save others. I’ll assume you would do the same. But I won’t resign myself to hating those who hate me and preemptively plotting how I might kill them before they kill me.

We must reject fear and accept faith! If we’re going to live faithfully as followers of Jesus then we must resist any premeditated plan to categorize evil people as our enemy with the intention of doing them harm in order to protect ourselves. To do otherwise is to disembody the gospel, rejecting the way of Jesus when it appears too difficult. What we need is more faith… more faith in Jesus. So on that note, I do agree with one tiny aspect of what Lt. Gov. Ramsey said and that is that Christians should arm themselves. We should arm ourselves by putting on the full armor of God — the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God — and praying we are instructed in Ephesians 6:10-20.

Reconciliation: From Creation to New Creation

I wish people could see what I see. That’s how I felt last Friday evening as I drove home. Twenty minutes before I was sitting in a room with other Christian men seeking to follow Jesus. Some of us, like me, were White and some others were Black. As I sat in this room, I could here some Hispanic Christians in another room singing hymns in Spanish. It was a beautiful moment. For though we all were different in our racial and ethnic makeup, we were there as one in Christ.

I wish people could see what I see.

When God created us in his image, he created us equally and yet he also created us with much diversity. It was and remains a beautiful thing. The problem is that when this beautiful diversity should have moved us to glorify God, we have used it to glorify ourselves by lifting ourselves up while we put others down. We take the created diversity as both a sign of our superiority and a sign of inferiority regarding others. We say that our race and ethnicity, or our gender, or our intellectual giftedness, and so on, makes us better than others of a different race and ethnicity, of the other gender, with different intellectual gifts, and so on…

In the desire to glorify ourselves and display our superiority, we even made God, our Creator, inferior. Some do this by sheer denial of his existence, while most of us do it by denying his glory and power to one degree or another in the way we live. The end result has become a of division and animosity, where we separate from God and each other. Invisible walls build us as suspicion and fear increase, opening the door to all sorts of sin and unjust acts in our feeble attempt at maintaining our alleged superiority at the expense of God and others.

From Creation to New Creation

But some of us have encountered the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ! There on the cross, sinless and innocent as he was, the death of Jesus demonstrated just how horrendous the pursuit of our own glory and superiority really is. That we would be so driven our own will as to play a part in killing an innocent person is indicting. And we would have got away with it except for the fact that God raised Jesus from the grave, vindicating him as the Lord… as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Then we realized how broken we are, how wrong we have been, and that it is us who must change, who must lay down our own will in exchange for his will — the will of God, the Heavenly Father.

No longer can we pursue our own glory and insist insist upon our superiority, not when the Lord himself became the humble and suffering servant. Now rather than glorifying ourselves, we seek to glorify God by humbling ourselves in order that lift the other up through acts of service. We are learning to love our neighbors as ourselves and even loving our enemies, and in doing so, loving God. We don’t cease to be diverse people. We’re still Black folk, White folk, Hispanic folk, and so on. We’re still engineers, business managers, and even a few preachers. But rather than seeing the differences about us as a threat to our own existence, we see the beauty of God our Creator in all of our diversity. By the power of the Spirit now dwelling among us, we glorify God for the wonder of beauty and power seen in each person as a reflection of the image of God. We also glorify God for saving from our broken selves so that we could share again in the beauty of life that God has created, this new creation in Christ.

As I said earlier, I wish others could see what I see.

For that’s how I was able to see the beauty of last Friday sitting in a room with other Black men and White men next to a room full of Hispanic people, all Christians seeking to follow Jesus. Diverse as we are, yet one in Christ to the glory of God.

Perhaps you do see what I see… and if so, then blessed are you!

“But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed.” – Ephesians 2:13-16

Does Your Church Have Faith?

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

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

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

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

Israel and the Uncertainty of the Wilderness

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

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

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

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

The Local Church, The Past, and the Future?

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

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

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

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

One Final Word

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

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

Dear Kenny… Thirteen Years!

Dear Kenny,

It has been thirteen years since I first laid my eyes upon you. I’ve never forgotten and I never will. The memories are separated further and further by time but the memories never fade and I hope they never will.

Kenneth James Butts July 31, 2002 - August 2, 2002

Kenneth James Butts
July 31, 2002 – August 2, 2002

Yesterday your mom and I, along with your sister Caryn and brother Jared went out and played with some alligators at a park in Florida. We even managed to get your mom to pick up an alligator, which was no small feat. No worries though, it was all safely done with a guide. I imagine you would have had as much fun as your brother and sister. Any ways, this is all part of a vacation that we decided to take this year. But I do so much wish you were here… we all do.

I imagine what you might be doing now or anticipate doing as a thirteen year old boy. I’m sure some of it would cause a bit of worry with your mom and I but I know there would be so much to boast and brag about on you, just as we do with your sister and brother.

As I think about you and think about life, there is more than I could ever write down. I still mourn your passing and I still wonder from time to time about the questions of why you didn’t live and what God was doing when you stopped breathing… why he allowed this to happen. I don’t have any great answers but at this point in life I don’t worry about getting those answers as there are not any easy answers to such questions.

My faith, Kenny, is big enough to live with the disappointment, the grief, and the questions. More importantly, whatever doubts there are, God is big enough to handle them. I don’t have answers to every aspect of faith but I believe in Jesus, I believe that he conquered sin and death by dying on the cross and being raised again from death. That’s what gives me hope or who gives me hope.

And when Jesus comes again…

Thirteen years seems so short and yet it seems so long since I first held you and then held you no more. But one day we will embrace once again. How I long for that day, my son!

With great love,

Your Dad

The Love of God and Marriage

A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of Henri J. Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved in a bookstore. I started reading through it and as I read about the love of God, I began to think about this love and marriage. Does marriage express the love of God? And if so, how so? So read on…

We are the the beloved children of God. This is a truth imprinted throughout scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. But the truth and believing the truth are two different matters. For various reasons, maybe our own sinful awareness or perhaps a traumatic childhood, we’re so prone to rejecting the truth that we are loved by God.

Unfortunately, as our rejection contradicts what Nouwen describes as that sacred voice that tells us we are Beloved, we begin a futile chase for love in various streams and substances that never satisfy. They have the appearance of fulfilling our desire for love but ultimately they fail to deliver anything but eventual misery. Whether we’re chasing the bottom of a whisky bottle, that next pornographic website, a bigger house then the one that already is stretching our financial means, endless work just to appear as someone great in the eyes of our peers, etc… it’s all the same. That’s why we must come to the knowledge that we are eternally loved by God.

Yet knowing that we are eternally loved by God, our Creator, we lose the desire to vainly seek love in created realities.

Knowing that we are eternally loved by God matters much. As Nouwen says, “Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert. Once you have touched wet ground, you want to dig deeper” (p. 37). So once we come to a full awareness that God loves us and that our deepest desire for love is found only in God, then we continually seek that love in God.

However, as I think about this, I think about marriage… After all, we are creatures and so our are spouses, yet we seek love from one another. Is this vanity?


In the story of Adam and Eve, the Lord says, “It is not good that the man should be along; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gen 2:18, NRSV). Then God creates a woman for the man and Adam has a wife named Eve. Before going on, let me point out that the word “helper” (‘ezer) is not about hierarchy in the relationship between the man and woman. The same word is also used in Deuteronomy 33:29 where the Lord describes himself as Israel’s helper and I’m quite sure the text is not implying that Israel has a hierarchal relationship over God. What the Lord is doing is creating a helper who will bless the man as his partner and had it been that the woman was created first, then the Lord would have created man as a helper to bless them woman as her partner. Because in truth, both the man and woman need each other as partners who help each other and that is what this relationship is about… Two people, who through a mutual relationship, will help each other as partners.

Consequently in Genesis 2:18 we find an expression of God’s love for us as he gives us partners to help us along in life. In the context of marriage, it means that marriage itself is a blessing from God. While not everyone will marry in life, nor do they need to in order to have the love of God fulfilled in their life, this is important for those of us who are married. Our marriage is an expression of God’s love toward us. In marriage, God is giving us a spouse as a helper and likewise, God is giving us to our spouse as a helper too. That is, when two people are married, God is blessing them with the intention of them living as lifelong partners who help each other through life. So when we look at our spouse and our spouse looks at us, we are seeing what should be a tangible reality of God’s love.

Of course, that’s not always the case. Marriage is never a perfect blessing because it is an expression of love clothed in flesh… in the humanity of Adam. It’s a risk that God takes. It’s the same risk God takes in creating humanity in his image, who will fail to reflect his in numerous and sometimes very horrendous ways. Sometimes the expression of God’s love through the blessing of marriage  backfires horribly and for those who have experience this failure, I am deeply sorry. Nevertheless, for many of us, despite our sins and weaknesses, God is still able to express his love to us through our marriages.

Realizing that we are loved by God means that we also must learn to let that love permeate everything we think, say, and do.

Early on in marriage, after the honeymoon is over, we begin to see the short-comings and weaknesses in our marriage. Unfortunately, what we often see our the problems that our spouse’s have, while failing to recognize our own problems. Often then, the first response is to try “fixing” our spouse, by criticizing and correcting, which only adds to the problems. Stop that! It doesn’t work. There is only one person in this world that we have enough control over to affect change and that is ourselves. So my suggestion is this: INSTEAD OF TRYING TO CHANGE YOUR SPOUSE, DECIDE WHAT YOU MUST DO TODAY IN ORDER TO SHOW THE LOVE OF GOD TO YOU SPOUSE.

Now, go do that.

As a husband or wife, be a helper and be an expression of the love of God to your spouse.