Category Archives: Faith

The Tulsa Workshop… In the Rearview Mirror.

My son and I traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma for the Tulsa Workshop last week. This was my first time attending this conference and overall it was a great experience. The theme was “Speak Life,” so here are my thoughts…

  • Traveling with Jared was a great thing to do. As his father, just listening to the different things he comes up with to talk about is priceless. But more importantly, the relationship we are building is so important and priceless too.
  • There’s a Facebook group (which shall remain nameless here) that I belong too that consists of different ministers and church leaders. It was nice getting to meet so many of these men and women, whom I interact with on Facebook, face to face.
  • The speakers and teachers such as John Alan Turner, Rick Atchley, Don McLaughlin, Robert Prater, Terry Rush, Patrick Mead, Josh Graves, Dr. Kent Brantley and Brandon Hatmaker were great but the two that spoke to me…
  • John Alan Turner spoke on failure and the grace of God, mentioning his own failed church plant. He reminded us that “God sees, knows, and wants to heal you from all the hurt and pain… Everything broken gets fixed.” As a minister who just helped close a church, I so needed to hear that word. Thanks John!
  • Dr. Kent Brantley. Really, I need not say anything. His story is compelling but also a great reminded of what following Jesus means. It’s risky and it always calls us to service of others, even at times suffering for the sake of others. Thanks Dr. Brantley for your faithful witness!
  • My son and I were shown first-class hospitality by Robert Prater, his wife Maggie, and their children. Thanks for twisting my arm and forcing me to eat BBQ!
  • Robert preaches for the Crosstown Church of Christ and took me by their church building. It’s situated in the middle of Tulsa among a neighborhood that has gone through a lot of social change over the years. So much potential for kingdom work their and Robert has the passion for that kind of work. Lord, bring gospel fruit from the gospel seeds this church is planting.
  • I took some time out to meet with the elders of a church in Oklahoma about their search for a new minister. Perhaps a move to Oklahoma is on the horizon… perhaps, but it’s too early to know for sure. In the meantime, if you know of a church looking for a minister where I might be a good fit then let me know.
  • There was one class where the speaker seemed (in my opinion) to use a lot of guilt and fear to motivate people for evangelism. I don’t understand this. Using guilt and fear might motivate people but it will only last as long as there is someone to keep heaping on the guilt and fear. And that never produces maturity. A better, more healthy way, of motivating people for evangelism seems to happen by inviting people into the compelling story of the gospel in such a way that they want to participate in it and share it.
  • Pie night at the dinner… a chocolate peanut-butter pie. Enough said there!
  • My son was asking me about what “grace” is. So we had a good conversation about grace. He understands as a young seven-year old boy does. His response, “I just want to follow the Lord, Jesus Christ.”
  • That’s what I want to do as well. Sometimes we do that well and sometimes we don’t.
  • Traveling back, we spent the night in St. Louis and then had breakfast with Bob Clark, who preaches for the Lafayette Church of Christ where my son and I stopped our travels to worship with other Christians. Mike Brown led the church in worship and Bob preached through Mark 10. As for me, I left with an overwhelming reminder that the Lord’s mercy is upon me and leading me to live as a merciful servant just like him. That’s also why I need to take time out from traveling on the road and gather with the church. To God be the glory!
  • Nearly 3,000 mils of driving latter and fifteen hours spent driving on Sunday, I am still physically exhausted. But I am glad I went.
  • To God be the glory!

Did you go to the Tulsa Workshop? If so, share some of your experiences.

Becoming Responsible For Our Faith

Few Christians, if any, move into to a new town and just decide to join the church that meets closest to their house, like the church around the corner. There’s a lot that goes into deciding what church we’ll join. We want to know what the church believes, what their mission is, what sort of values do they embody, if there are any major troubling issues, if this is the sort of community we want are children to be a part of, and on and on go the number of questions we want to know.

That’s all fine. I get it because I have those questions too. In fact, those are some of the questions I ask of churches seeking a new minister to serve with. However, somewhere in time, we started concerning ourselves with other questions too that have to do usually with just a couple hours on Sunday… worship and preaching. We know the concerns in the way people judge evaluate whatever church they just visited… One person wants contemporary worship, while the other prefers the liturgy. Someone else can’t stand all those old hymns, while another person thinks the contemporary praise choruses are just a bit too shallow for their liking. Then comes the preaching issues… the sermon is too long, too short, lacking humor, not serious enough, too theological, too shallow, and on and on it goes.

From A Consumer Faith to a Dead Faith…

Somewhere in time our worship preferences became the standard by which we decided whether we liked a church or not, whether we would join that church or not. Somewhere in time the consumerism of American culture became a value among Christians and we started shopping for churches like we shop for everything else. Don’t believe me? Go visit any bookstore and look at the Bible section. Besides having to decide which English translation we prefer reading from, we now have specialty Bible’s marketed to almost every niche imaginable all to satisfy our consumeristic value.

Back to worship and church. We evaluate worship and the church based upon our consumer driven desires. Are we getting fed? Does the service inspire us? Are we happy? Somehow, church and worship became about us? But here’s the problem: When church and worship becomes about us, we develop an appetite that will never be satisfied! It becomes like an addiction and we need that bigger emotional high or that next powerful sermon to get our fix. The only problem is that as time goes by, it gets harder and harder to keep getting our fix. That’s usually when we bolt for another church because the church we’re at doesn’t get us high enough anymore. If we’re lucky enough, perhaps we can find a good sermon podcast or catch some cool church streaming their worship live but eventually that well runs dry too.

Before we know it, our faith has become dependent upon the church and its Sunday worship gathering. When the can’t deliver the goods, our faith begins to sail like a lead balloon. Eventually we come to the point where there isn’t any church with enough juice to fill up our faith and so we are left with a dead faith.

Maybe out of fear of God’s judgment, we keep showing up and going through the motions. Or maybe we show up because we have friends. But regardless, our faith…

What faith?

From Consumers of God to Worshipers of God…

But it doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t. It never was meant to be this way either. There are numerous passages throughout scripture that suggest we have a part in maintaining our faith that we must take responsibility for. This isn’t to suggest that we earn our salvation, that we make up our own faith, or that our faith is dependent upon us. It’s like food and eating. We’re dependent upon God for blessing the tree with fruit but if we’re going to reap the blessing of that fruit, then we need to go pick some fruit off the tree and eat it. If we can’t do that, then hunger is what we get.

“How can a young person maintain a pure life? By guarding it according to your instructions! …In my heart I store up your words, so I might not sin against you.” – Psalm 119:9, 11

“Be devoted to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.” – Colossians 4:2

“But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith by praying in the Holy Spirit, maintain yourselves in the love of God, while anticipating the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that brings eternal life.” – Jude 20-21

The best way for us to take responsibility for our own faith is to devote ourselves daily to the scriptures and to prayer. Such discipline is not always easy to maintain because there is so much in life competing for our time and attention these days. There are numerous daily Bible reading plans available on the internet. Some are free and some will cost a few dollars but as long as we can afford five dollar coffee drinks at Starbucks, we can afford to spend a few dollars on a Bible reading plan. So Pick one! After your reading spend a few minutes praying about it. Pick a couple of other times slots throughout the day for prayer and do that every day so that you can develop a rhythm.

By taking responsibility for our own faith through daily attention to scripture and prayer, not only will we discover our own faith coming alive but our experience during worship will change for the better too. Whether we’re in a high church, low church, traditional church, or contemporary church, we’ll come full of the Spirit. We may come with great joy or great sadness on our hearts, depending on what is happening in our own lives, but we’ll come with a genuinly Spirit-filled faith in Jesus Christ ready to truly worship God with our church.

I Went To Church And…

Ok, I’m not really a fan of saying “I went to church” or “I am going to church” since the church is a people and not a building or worship event. Nevertheless, that’s how our society speaks of gather for worship with a Christian church.

Most church communities have some sort of centralized gathering where people come together for worship and fellowship that includes singing, praying, reading scripture, preaching, and participation in the Lord’s Supper. Maybe these churches do a few other things together like Bible-class time or a meal but regardless, this is a very typical feature of church. Yet in recent years it seems like this tradition, especially of the contemporary style, has taken its share of criticism from both Christians and non-Christians (see, for example here and here). But yesterday, I went to church with my family and enjoyed it. So did my family.

A Little Context…

I am a minister of the gospel… a preacher or pastor, as some call me. I really don’t put a lot of stock in titles, as I am just trying to follow Jesus whom I believe is Lord. For the last three and a half years I served with the Columbia Church of Christ until the church decided it was time to close at the end of January 2015. I still believe I am called to serve as a minister of the gospel and so I am searching, waiting, and listening for the church God wants me to serve with next. But in the meantime, what do I do?

The first two Sunday’s in February I was doing some guest-preaching in a couple of different churches in the area. Then there were two different snow storms each of the next two weekends resulting in every area church canceling their services because of the weather and road conditions. So each of those two Sunday’s were spent at home with the family (no complaints).

Although I have daily disciplines such as regular prayer time and daily Bible reading to help maintain my own faith and don’t expect the worship gathering to sustain my faith, it felt odd to sit at home on Sunday and not be at church. Then came yesterday. I wasn’t expected to be preaching anywhere or doing anything else as a minister and I certainly didn’t have to get out of bed, should I have chosen to sleep in which I’ll admit was a tempting idea. So came the moment that I had to answer for: Do I go to church only because I’m the preacher or do I go because, for all of the criticisms I might raise, I really believe in and value gathering with other believers for worship and fellowship?

Into The Holy of Holies

So as I have said, I went to church. I went with my wife and children. We visited the Countryside Fellowship Church in Savage, Maryland where a few of the people from the Columbia Church of Christ are now visiting. I also happen to know the pastor of that church, so there was that connection too.

The atmosphere was relaxed, somewhat contemporary but it didn’t seem like the church was trying to keep up with the latest trendy fads in worship. The members were friendly and hospitable without pushing themselves upon us. The worship began with a reading from the Psalms and a call to worship. After singing several songs, the pastor preached on Revelation 3:1-6 (Jesus’ message to the Church of Sardis) and then we shared in the Lord’s Supper together before singing one final song. In so many ways the gathering was typical and normal with nothing spectacular except for the presence of the true living God. It was just church.

Yet it was nice, for a change, to sing, pray, read scripture, encounter the preached word of God, and share in the Lord’s Supper not as the preacher but just as a worshiper. It was nice to be reminded through song, prayer, scripture, word, and the Lord’s Supper that even though I am not righteous on my own accord, I belong to God and live in the glorious presence of God because of the blood of Jesus Christ by which I am made righteous. That message was especially pointed as we sang the song by Kutless Take Me In (To The Holy of Holies).

I Went To Church And…

I know that there are churches where worship is a lifeless endeavor of just going through the motions of a dead faith. Likewise, I know that there are other churches where worship has become such a professionally manufactured endeavor that the work of the Spirit seems stifled by a shallow faith. But as I reflect on going to church, I am reminded that when we come ready to give our heart to God we receive… not some superficial emotion that is meant as a mask to whatever junk we are dealing with. I’m still struggling with the worry of my family and I living in limbo as we await the next church I’ll serve with.

What I received was joy, the kind that Paul spoke of in Philippians 1 where he was content with whatever happens because of his solidarity with Christ. I received this gift of joy not because I deserve it or could obtain it as though it is a commodity. I received it simply because I showed up at church desiring to worship the God who, by his grace and mercy, has made me alive in Christ and given me his Spirit as the assurance of this life.

So yeah, yesterday I went to church and I am glad I did.

Persecution: A Time For Faithful Prayer

Twenty-One! That’s the number of Christians martyred the other day by the terrorist group ISIS… Milad Makeen Zaky, Abanub Ayad Atiya, Maged Solaiman Shehata, Yusuf Shukry Yunan, Kirollos Shokry Fawzy, Bishoy Astafanus Kamel, Somaily Astafanus Kamel, Malak Ibrahim Sinweet, Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros, Girgis Milad Sinweet, Mina Fayez Aziz, Hany Abdelmesih Salib, Bishoy Adel Khalaf, Samuel Alham Wilson, Exat Bishri Naseef, Loqa Nagaty, Gaber Munir Adly, Esam Badir Samir, Malak Farag Abram, Sameh Salah Faruq, and an unnamed worker from Awr Village.

I really appreciated the words of Jonathan Storment in his blog ISIS and “The Nation of the Cross” that he wrote shortly after the news broke. Like many of you, I am horrified by the image of seeing my brothers in Christ beheaded and having their blood spilled into the ocean. I have not stopped thinking about it. Those are my brothers in Christ… your brothers in Christ, if you are a Christian.

How do we respond? Some will suggest military action. But I am not asking how should the nations of this world respond to terrorism nor am I denying the role that God has allotted governments in punishing evil doers (cf. Rom 13:1-5). My concern is about our response as people who follow Jesus Christ, who are not of this world but belong to the new creation God has made in Christ. How do we respond here and now when our fellow Christians are being persecuted?

One response is to pray just as Jesus taught us (cf. Matt 5:43-44) and just as our first century brothers and sisters in Christ did when they faced persecution (cf. Acts 4:23-31). We pray not because we believe prayer will be effective in bringing about the results we desire; we pray because we believe that God the Father  remains Sovereign over his creation and we do so in order that our brothers and sisters in Christ may be strengthen by the power of the Holy Spirit to live as faithful witness of Jesus because only the light of faithful kingdom witness will dispel the darkness. By praying for our fellow Christians being persecuted we join in solidarity with them in faith as they suffer, serving the same Lord as members of the same kingdom.

And that is more important than we may realize!

You see, eventually we who live as Christians in America are also going to face persecution. And I’m not talking about being told that we can’t lead a prayer over the intercom at a school sporting event or having the Ten Commandments removed from the courthouse lawn. That’s not persecution! I’m talking about being kidnapped and killed just as our brothers in Christ from Egypt were persecuted. Eventually this is going to happen to us Christians… perhaps not in our lifetime but somewhere in the not so distant future. How we respond to the threat of Christians suffering persecution may determine how we will respond when faced with persecution. And it will teach our children how they should respond, rightly or wrongly.

As Jesus faced persecution himself, he prayed to his heavenly Father. It was a submissive act of faith that cried, “…not my will but yours be done!” (Lk 22:42). As Jesus hung from the cross, struggling just to breathe, he prayed for the forgiveness of his enemies… “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). When the disciples of Jesus began facing persecution, they came together and prayed for the Lord to “pay attention to their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your message with great courage… (Acts 4:29). When Stephen, the first follower of Jesus to be martyred, was being stoned to death, he prayed “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit… Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:59-60). Prayer matters! It is an act of faith. How we pray as other Christians suffer is how we will pray should we suffer persecution. In fact, how we act now, whether our first response is the faithful act of prayer or the necessary acts of pragmatism due to a lack of faith, will determine how we act then.

And as I have said before and should we ever be called to suffer persecution for the name of Jesus Christ… Courage comes from conviction. We will never have the courage to be a martyr for Christ unless we learn to live now with the conviction of the martyrs for Christ now.

O Lord God, your Son Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his resurrection he restores life and peace in all creation. Comfort, we pray, all victims of intolerance and those oppressed by their fellow humans. Remember in your kingdom those who have died. Lead the oppressors towards compassion and give hope to the suffering. Through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- An Anglican Prayer for the Persecuted

Christianity In An Age of Religious Pluralism

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

Our Context Matters…

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

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

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

Apologetics As A Way of Life…

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

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

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

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

——————–

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

Engaging In A Culture War

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

The Courage Not To Fight Back!

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

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

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

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

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

Christians Have Lost Their Temper?

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

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

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

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

Love, Service, and Hospitality

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

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

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

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

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

Living Hope!

Life is full of disappointment, hardships, and suffering. In my own life, the story has the grief and pain of losing a father, a son, and a younger brother. For others the struggle has been divorce, depression, abuse, chronic health problems, persecution, and so on.

Localized persecution made life very difficult for the Christians living in Asia Minor. So after the standard greeting, the Apostle Peter began his first letter to these Christians with these words:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you, who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. – 1 Peter 1:3-5

There’s a hymn that churches sometimes called The Sands of Time, with the words written in 1857 by Annie R. Cousin. The song captures the journey of faith that we live on.  “…Dark, dark hath been the midnight, but day spring is at hand,” reads one line. The fourth verse begins, “The King there in His beauty, without a veil is seen; it were a well spent journey, though seven deaths lay between.”

As difficult as life can become, the journey is coming to an end. That end is Jesus Christ who is coming again and bringing with him our salvation in its fullness. When we see Jesus appearing, full of the great mercy of God, we’ll see our King standing unveiled in the most splendid beauty. Then we will know that our journey has been a well spent journey, even though the seven deaths do lay between.

That hope… that’s what keeps me on the journey. May it offer you courage to keep on the journey too!