Category Archives: Faith

Waiting By The Grave

IMG_0115It’s Holy Week and I sit next to a grave.* It’s the grave where my son was buried nearly twelve years ago. So no matter where I am at, there is always a part of me that is here next to his grave.

For some, a grave is a painful reminder. I understand, as it is for me too. Yet this ground in which my son was buried is also a sacred place of memory and anticipation.

It’s been five years since I have stood here in Searcy, Arkansas where my son, Kenneth James Butts, was buried nearly twelve years ago. In some ways, it seems far too long. Yet here I am and I come still asking why he died, wishing I could turn back time and change what happened.

But I can’t! So now I only a grave to stand by and remember.

Holy Ground

But this I am convinced of… That this ground has become holy ground. It’s holy ground because God has made it his place of dwelling, if only for a while.

During Holy Week we remember the final journey Jesus made into Jerusalem where he was arrested, crucified, buried and resurrected. I generally focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus. After all, these two events remind me that I am justified as a sinner and living with the hope of eternal life. But between the death and resurrection of Jesus is his burial in the tomb… a grave.

The grave is a cold and lifeless place of silence. Jesus is buried there to take his place among the dead. But God the Father is there too. Jesus is his Son, the second person of this Triune God. Jesus is the one through whom the Father has become flesh and now he is buried in the grave.

Holy Ground!

Waiting

So here I am next to my son’s grave. God knows! He knows because he’s been here, because he is here with me… with Kenny. It’s a sacred place of waiting. It’s waiting for the promise of the Father, that his Son, Jesus, would not be abandoned to the grave. That is the rest of the story remembered during Holy Week.

It’s my story and our story. By the grave there is waiting. By the grave God waits with us, just as the Father waited when his Son was laid in the grave. God waits with us as he waited for that early Sunday morning when his Son would rise.

I come to the grave not as a place of permanence but as a place of waiting, a holy ground where God waits too. And waiting in faith and hope for that day when the wait will be over, when I will no longer need to remember the past because the future will become eternally present.

But until then, I’ll be waiting!

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* This same article is published in Connecting 29 (April 17, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.

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.

Grace Is When God…

I’ve started reading through Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber, who is a Lutheran Pastor. After hearing the author speak once and knowing something of her story, I was intrigued when this book came out. One I started reading the book and learned that she was raised in a Church of Christ, it makes even more sense why I find her story intriguing. Now a word of warning to those with super-disdain for foul language… you are warned.

The author is just like us all, a sinner in need of God’s grace. I lament that she didn’t learn about the grace of God in a Church of Christ but I understand. I only hope that as preacher in a Church of Christ, those who hear me preach and teach will learn of God’s grace because we’re all hopeless without it.

As I do reflect on my own preaching and teaching as well as my own relationship to God, I become ever more aware of my own short-comings, my failures, my sins, my… I’m thankful the love of God, a love that has given me life in Christ and assures me that there isn’t any condemnation in Christ (cf. Rom 8:1). And then as I was reading Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber had this to say about grace:

Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word. My selfishness is not the end-all… instead, it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own s***. Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace—like saying “Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.” It’s God saying, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.” (p. 48).

God.

Love.

Makes all things new!

Feast on that over the weekend. Let the grace of God be a balm to our soul. Let it transform us, forgetting the past and striving for what lies ahead (cf. Phil 3:13) to the glory of God!

Two Profound Words on this Ash Wednesday

This Sunday I’m preaching from one of my favorite Bible stories, in John 11, where Jesus exclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The context of the story is the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus and so the text speaks voluminously on the theme of life, death, and hope.*

One of my favorites scenes in the story is when Jesus approaches the tomb where Lazarus has been buried and sees Mary along with some other Jews crying. There, the text says two words, “Jesus wept” (v. 35).

Though it’s the most simple of sentences possible, it’s a profound statement about God. You see, from the Gospel of John wants us to know that Jesus is God in the flesh. In fact, the beautiful mystery of the incarnation is not that Jesus is like God but that God is like Jesus. And in this story God is so identified with the pain and suffering of those mourning the death of Lazarus, that God weeps too.

Ash Wednesday and The Suffering

This is who the church is to follow, this God who comes full of grace and truth, who has become flesh in the person of Jesus the Messiah. As Jesus identifies with the suffering of the world, weeping with those who weep, so also must the church.

Enter Ash Wednesday. It’s the beginning of Lent, a season that some Christian traditions observe for forty-six days leading up to Easter Sunday. The practice derives from an ancient religious practice of using ashes to express mourning. For example, after suffering his afflictions, Job sat among the ashes and later used ashes in his response to God (cf. Job 2:8; 42:6). So a part of Ash Wednesday and Lent is reminding ourselves that we, as the people of God, are identifying with the brokenness and suffering of the world.

I neither commend nor condemn the observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent for Christians. I believe we have the freedom in Christ to either participate in this observance or not. However, as followers of Jesus, we must be people who learn how to identify with the suffering of others. In doing so we become the hands and feet of Jesus, offering the expression of God’s grace and truth. It’s an expression that acknowledges the unfairness and pain of a broken world marred by suffering but it’s also expresses the promise of hope we have in Jesus. For Jesus’ next act is the raising of Lazarus from the dead, a sign pointing toward his own resurrection which stands as the assurance of life to all who believe in him.

Identification With the Suffering

Of course, Lent is just a season for those Christians who choose to observe it. Identification with the suffering isn’t just for a season. This wonderful ministry should last until the day when Jesus returns, making all things new and drying up the tears from every eye.

Fortunately, in my experience, the church has done this well. I’m aware of the horror stories in which churches have failed the suffering miserably but that hasn’t been my experience. When I lost my father at the age of twenty-two, it was the church — a particular church I barely knew — that identified with my suffering. I remember the cards, the calls, and the visits. When my son died and life for my wife and I suddenly seemed to collapse, it was the church that lifted us up. I remember the church gathering in the trauma center to weep with my wife and I. We remember the days that followed with the church coming by to just listen, to serve, to comfort (we remember the little puppy we named “Shadow” that was given to us), and occasionally speak a needed truth, a word of hope. None of that ministry required any fancy programming or high-cost expenditures, just people willing to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.

And, of course! This is what we are called to be as the church of Jesus Christ.

So with the power of the Holy Spirit, may we enter the suffering world around us as people bearing witness to the grace and truth of God!

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* This post is published as an article of the same title in Connecting 29 (March 5, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.

The Web of Faith, Love, and Hope . . . And Doubt

In my church we sing the songs Lord, Reign In Me and I Surrender All. But to actually totally surrender ourselves to the Lord and let him reign in and over every part of our life… Well, that’s difficult to do.*

I tried doing this once. I prayed to God that he would have his complete way with me, transforming me into the likeness of Christ so that he could use me for service in his kingdom however he saw fit. Then my son died.

At the time, I wondered how Kenny’s death might be part of this process. As time went on and I began to see how God was using the tragedy of our son’s death to shape me, I became afraid to pray that prayer of surrender because I was afraid of what else it might cost me.

In some ways, I still am afraid of that prayer. But I know that I’m not alone.

What I’m speaking of is the struggle to trust God. And I know that there are many Christians who struggle with this. It’s not that we don’t have faith in God or that we don’t believe in Jesus. It’s a different struggle . . . a different sort of doubt. Imagine being hit by a car as you cross a street and then being asked to cross the street again. And so it is with life!

They Got Hit!

I imagine this is part of the struggle the Thessalonians were encountering. They put their faith in Christ and were taught to live a new life in Christ, renouncing their ungodly living, with the expectation of the immanent return of Christ. But when some fellow believers passed from this life before Christ returned, they got hit! Doubt set in and questions of trust gripped the consciousness of their faith.

After giving a report on some of his ministry happenings and exhorting the Thessalonians in godly living, the apostle Paul addresses the coming of Christ (1 Thess 4:13-18). This is Paul’s way of reassuring these Christians that they have not believed in vain. Paul continues on, saying in 1 Thess 5:8-10:

“But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on the faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”

Paul actually uses the action language of “putting on” faith, love, and hope because of the promise of life — salvation through Jesus Christ.

Keep Putting On…

As mentioned earlier, there are times when I’m still afraid to completely trust God and perhaps there always will be. Yet I do try and as I do, I am consciously aware of my own sinfulness and the need keep allowing God to transform me into the likeness of Christ. I’m also aware of how much the sting of death still haunts me, casting doubts through unanswered questions. It would be easier just to say “no” in not so many words and keep God at an arms distance away. But that isn’t faith, nor is it love and hope.

Perhaps this resonates with you, even if in different ways. My word of encouragement is Paul’s word of encouragement: keep putting on faith, love, and hope, knowing that we have received a promise of salvation that God will fulfill in its entirety when Christ returns. It’s the promise of the life that we will have together with God.

And Gathered With My Church…

As a final thought, let me say a word about the church in relation to our struggles of faith. In the larger world of Christian blogging there’s been a lot of conversation about the church lately and whether we need the church? Putting aside the theological issues with such a question, I believe that the church does matter and that we do need the church because it’s the church that helps us put on faith, love, and hope.

It’s the church that has passed on the gospel tradition we belong too and the scriptures that teach about this tradition. It is also in gathering with the church for worship, fellowship, and ministry that we remind ourselves of the truth and in doing so, assembling as a church becomes a way of putting on our faith, love, and hope. When I gather with my church, the Columbia Church of Christ, I am reminded of God’s grace and truth . . . of God’s promise in Christ. And gathered with my church, the Holy Spirit strengthens me to carry on with this web of faith, love, and hope that is sometimes mixed with doubts.

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* A similar version of this article was originally published in Connecting 29 (February 20, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.

“I’m A Sinner! Can I be Forgiven?”

“I’m a sinner! Can I be forgiven?”

That was the question I was asked a few weeks ago and it was asked by a Christian. The truth is, I know a lot of Christians, including myself, who have been confronted with this reality once again and have wondered about this question. This can be a difficult burden to bear.

Too Troubled to Speak…

I wonder if that is part of the problem the writer of Psalm 77 is facing as he cries out to God for help (v. 1). The Psalm never reveals what the actual issue is that has caused such anguish but whatever it is, the Psalmist says “I was too troubled to speak” (v. 4). That’s actually one of my favorite lines in the collection of 150 Psalms because I have experienced moments in my life when I was too troubled to speak… because of sin, death, doubt, etc… I’m sure others have too. What the actual issue is, it has troubled the Psalmist enough that he wonders if the Lord will forever reject him forever, no longer showing love, mercy, and compassion (vv. 7-9).

That’s a horrible feeling to live with. I’ve been there in my own life before and I’ve sat across the table with others in this same state of emotions. But the Psalm does not end here. The Psalmist basically states that he will remember the mighty deeds of the Lord done in the past and then he recalls these acts (vv. 10-20). Here is the key to the question of whether we can be forgiven: Remember and Recall the mighty acts of God!

But What the Lord Has Done…

What has the Lord done? Did he not lead the children of Israel, unworthy of his mercy, out of slavery and into the promise land? Did he not forgive King David, who had an affair with Bathsheba and then had Bathsheba’s husband Uriah murdered? Did he not promise to love and show mercy to the adulteress children Israel by sending a prophet named Hosea who was married to a prostitute as an illustration? Did God not show his love and willingness to forgive by sending us his one and only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins? Did this Son not show grace and mercy to a sinful woman in Luke 7 who could only wipe the feet of Jesus with her tears of shame? Did the Son not show mercy to Peter and the other apostles who, as his followers, abandoned him when he was arrested and sentenced to death by crucifixion? Did the Son not offer grace to Saul (who later became the Apostle Paul) who was a murderer and persecutor of Christ and his church?

And those are just some of the mighty acts of grace and mercy that I often recall.

Grace and Mercy!

When we are confronted with our sin, I find that there are two responses we try first. One is to wallow in despair, believing that God will not forgive us. I hope what I’ve discussed above reminds us that there is not any need for such despair, for the Lord does indeed does forgive.

The other response is to try and offer penance for our sin. Penance, as I am using the term, is the attempt to make ourselves worthy of God’s forgiveness by doing something to show how sorrowful we are of our sin. This is different from repentance in which we acknowledge that what we are doing is wrong and change so that we are not doing what is wrong anymore. In my experience, I’ve ministered with a lot of people who at one time were taught a legalistic approach to the Christian faith where we get right with God because of what we do rather than what God has done. For such people, including myself, it is always tempting to try and offer some expression of penance but that will never work.

God’s grace and mercy is just that. God forgives not because he is compelled to do so by anything. Rather, God forgives because he chooses to do so! God forgives because he is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8, NRSV). This is why God does forgive us! And of course, it is this grace of God that should move us to turn away from sin and as the righteous people of God he has made us in Christ.

So remember the might acts of grace and mercy that God has done in the past. And that includes the people around you at church who all can only stand in the presence of God because of his grace and mercy!

And when you find yourself in that place where you are saying, “I’m a sinner! Can I be forgiven?” Remember that the answer is, “Yes, you are!”

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)

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.

Ministry, Burden, and Calling

There are two images of ministry that are very different. There’s the glamorized image which is projected in many books. You know the ones… great stories of fast-growing churches and high profile pastors, innovative visions and the ten key moves that every other minister needs to take his or her church to the next level. Then there’s the other image that seldom gets spoken of, or at least it’s not featured on the shelf in that Christian bookstore.

Before I say a word about this other image, let me say that I’m happy for those ministry stories that become best-selling books. That’s because behind all those stories has been a lot of hard work and difficult leadership that led to the accomplishments that we read about in those books. Nevertheless, this image of ministry is not the norm. The other image of ministry that seldom gets spoken is one of ups and downs, celebration and struggle.

Reality check #1: Most churches in America are less than one-hundred members. Think about that for a moment. Those who are called to lead churches as ministers/pastors will most likely serve in one of these small churches.

Reality check #2: There is a reason why churches are less than one-hundred members. Whether the church has never grown beyond the one-hundred mark or it once was above that mark but has since declined, there is a reason for this. Usually that reason isn’t pretty but it’s part of the church’s story and therefore will be part of the ministry experience.

These are the churches that many seminarians will be called to serve among. Besides preaching and teaching, there are many other great aspects of this ministry that include baptisms, weddings, child births, ministry projects, helping broken marriages heal, being in the hospital room with families during very difficult times, and so on. But in between all these great moments are some very difficult moments too. Serving and leading among churches with such a variegated history of good and not so good times, will keep you up at night on more than a few occasions. Sometimes doing what is right means doing the difficult things and doing so knowing that may disappoint some people — people you have grown to love and care about. This is the burden of ministry, the heartache that stays with you. It’s the burden that you will keep rehearsing in your head, the burden you will bear whether or not it’s your burden to bear.

The bottom line is that ministry is very enjoyable, it isn’t always fun. And for those who think that church planting is easier… Think again! For every successful church plant, there are plenty of other churches that never last beyond five years after being planted. That’s quite a burden to ponder for the planters of those church.

So what is it that keeps one going through the tough seasons of ministry?

I believe it is the sense of calling. Ministry isn’t just a job, it’s a life . . . and it’s a life  that comes with a calling from God. For those who receive the call, the response is to go in faith as God sends and trust that God will provide. Along the way there will be plenty of times when ministry is exciting. Like most adventures, it’s easy to go at it when the good times are rolling. But when they’re not… Remember the calling!

Should We Interact? Yes!

Perhaps there isn’t any greater religious hubris than the Christian who thinks himself, his church, and the fellowship of churches that his church is affiliated with to be the only Christians. Yet this sectarian mindset is the thinking of some, perhaps many, in the fellowship known as the Churches of Christ.

But it certainly is not the thinking of every Church of Christ and thankfully so!

On the Christian Chronicle is an article titled “How Then Should We Interact?” The article discusses how some Churches of Christ are interacting with other local churches for the sake of God’s glory and mission. Of course there are still other Churches of Christ and members of the Churches of Christ who wish to remain in isolation, having nothing to do with other churches. But I am so glad that this sectarianism is dying among us, even if it is a slow process. Let it die!

Reading through the article and the comments by those among the Churches of Christ who are opposed to any interaction with other churches, I sense that the main reason for such opposition is a belief that we who call ourselves the Churches of Christ already know the complete truth of God’s word. This “we have all the truth” mentality is the root of this sectarian hubris. Not one church knows it all… not any Church of Christ nor any other church. We all know something, but not everything.

For this reason, let me clearly say that if you are a member of a Church of Christ, you have everything to gain from interacting with Christians from other churches. If you are a minister of a Church of Christ, you have everything to gain from interacting with other ministers from other churches. Just last week I attended a lunch with about fifteen other ministers from churches in Columbia and besides eating, we spent time praying and listening to a Messianic Jew share with us how he became a follower of Jesus and how we might win other Jewish people to faith in Jesus the Messiah. This week I am attending a D.Min class at Northern Seminary with ministers from various churches and we are all helping each other learn how we can better lead our own churches as followers of Jesus.

Churches of Christ… the beauty of interacting with other churches is that we need them and they need us. As more and more churches become smaller, as the American culture becomes more and more secular and post-Christian, and as more and more people suffer and grow up as unbelievers… we need them and they need us. As individual Christians, we need fellowship with those other Christians and they need fellowship with us. We never know when we might find ourselves struggling or find one of them struggling. Beyond this, not one of us knows all the truth and we might just teach each other a better understanding of God’s will if with the humility of Jesus, we’ll receive each other as a gift from God.

Some will object, suggesting that any interaction with other churches will just weaken or confuse our understanding of the Christian faith, the Bible, etc… That’s ironic since they don’t have any actual way of knowing that unless they are willing to interact with other Christians. Nevertheless, I am telling you that such a claim is bogus. My understanding of who God is, the life Jesus calls us to follow him in living, the Holy Spirit, doctrines such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and so on, have only become more robust as I learn from Christians of other churches. I am still able to say when I believe they have misunderstood the Bible at some point but I have also seen where I too have misunderstood the Bible. So how about a little more humility so that we may receive God’s blessing of our fellow Christians in those other churches.

May God be glorified as we embrace what Christ has already made every believer… One!