Category Archives: Kingdom of God

Living The Dream

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

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

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

- Martin Luther King Jr.

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

On The Other Side of the Tracks

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

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

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

Happy to Help, As Long As…

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

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

- Martin Luther King Jr.

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

Changing the Conversation

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

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

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

——————–

* “Let us walk with Jesus”

Because Jesus Says “Come!”

I don’t know what it would be like to walk on water as Peter did but according to the story, doing so led Peter to Jesus. Well, that was until he became afraid and took his eyes off of Jesus. That’s when he stopped walking on the water and began sinking. You can read the entire story of Peter in Matthew 14:22-36.*

Stepping Into The Chaos

Most people who remember the story do so thinking of Jesus. But we shouldn’t forget about Peter because in many ways we are Peter. We here Jesus say “Come!” and that means we must step out of the boat and walk. But stepping out of the boat is scary business because to do so means stepping out and on to the sea, the great symbol of chaos throughout the Bible.

Chaos is difficult and frankly, nobody wants it or needs it. Not I. Not you. The boat is a much safer place. Though it may be surrounded by chaos as it sails on the sea, staying in the boat gives us the illusion that everything is ok and will be ok. Whatever danger staying in the boat may pose, it seems manageable. Faith is unnecessary, we just need to keep sailing until we reach the shore. The only problem is that Jesus isn’t standing on the shore . . . he’s walking on the water, telling us to get out of the boat and come to him.

Peter did the right thing when Jesus called. He got out of the boat and with his eyes fixed on Jesus, he began walking on the water towards Jesus. What got Peter into trouble was taking his eyes off Jesus. That’s when he began sinking. Yet even in sinking, he still did the right thing. That is, he still reached out to Jesus.

Perhaps we would do the same when we feel ourselves sinking in the chaos. But I also know that the boat remains a few yards away. So we might just try swimming back to the boat, thinking that if we can just get back to the boat and get control of the situation ourselves − or at least get things back to manageable situation − then everything will be okay.

It won’t! Jesus isn’t there. Jesus is out on the water bidding us to come join him. Peter did. Even cowering in faith, he reached out to Jesus. And Jesus saved him and sent on to become a founding apostolic witness for this kingdom of God movement that has now gone global.

But Peter never got back into that boat!

Eyes Upon Jesus!

Of course, I’m not really talking about a boat! I’m talking about the church. Your church. My church. Our church.

Jesus is calling but to step on the water and go to him, we have to step out of the boat and that is full of risk. Yet the boat, as we know it, appears safe. It’s surely more convenient. It appears more manageable, as we know how to row this boat because we’ve done it for some time. And if we step out on to the water and find ourselves sinking in the chaos, which seems normal, the temptation is to swim back to the boat, grabbing for a life-preserver, a boat oar, or anything else to feel safe again. But doing so loses focus on Jesus because he isn’t sitting in the boat . . . he’s out walking on the water.

So keep our eyes focused on Jesus and we’ll walk on water, joining Jesus and following him in this Kingdom journey. Just like Peter did . . . who never got back in that boat!

——————–

* This article was originally published in Connecting 29 (October 15, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

Believing In Jesus and His Way

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

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

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

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

When The Glamour Fades… Discipleship

I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of Mark, which is probably my favorite  of the four Gospels in the New Testament. In a nutshell, the Gospel of Mark is about what it means to truly believe in Jesus. Discipleship!

Reading through the Mark’s Gospel will remind you that Jesus did call us to be just good “church-going” folks. Jesus calls us to follow him and as Mark reminds us, that call takes us to the place where we must choose to pick up our own cross and continue following Jesus into this narrow way that leads to life (cf. Mk. 8:34-35). So I’ll leave you with a quote from a book I recently read by Richard V. Peace, Conversion in the New Testament, reminding us that the following Jesus will not always be an ecstatic journey:

“To follow Jesus as the teacher/prophet/Messiah of popular imagination is one thing. This has glamour and appeal. Clearly Jesus is in touch with the power of God, and equally clearly he plays a unique and special role in God’s scheme of things. But the glamour fades quickly when following Jesus is defined in terms of self-denial and cross-bearing” (p. 257).

Whatever it may look like to deny ourselves and bear our own cross on a daily basis, we do it not because it is easy or pleasurable but because we believe in Jesus… because we believe that salvation only is found in following Jesus into his crucifixion and resurrection.

As darkness and evil continues among the world, may we remember our faith in Jesus!

What Question Are We Asking?

Reading the Bible is a good thing. But how we read the Bible may or may not be such a good thing! As I’ve said before and as I’m sure many others have said too, how we read the Bible matters just as much as whether or not we read the Bible.

Consider Jesus and the Pharisees in a story from Mark 3:1-6. There they all stand among a synagogue on the Sabbath Day. According to Exodus 31:15, doing work on the Sabbath day was a violation of the Law and anyone committing such a violation was subject to capital punishment. So as a man with a withered hand approaches Jesus, the Pharisees are looking at Jesus to see if he is going to keep the Sabbath regulation or if he is going to violate it, which in their eyes he has already done enough of (read Mark 2). That’s when Jesus asks the Pharisee a very interesting question in v. 4:

“Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or evil, to save a life or destroy it?” 

That’s one question but in reality it reveals two very different questions being asked, one by Jesus and the other by the Pharisees.

In one sense, Jesus and the Pharisees have a lot in common. They both love God, seek righteousness, and are committed to faithfully doing the will of God . . . kind of like us. Yet in another sense, Jesus and the Pharisees are very different. Their understanding of God’s will is different and it all stems from their understanding of the kingdom. The Pharisees believe the kingdom will only come by a strict adherence to the Law of Moses, which includes the traditions associated with Torah. But Jesus the kingdom of God is already at hand (and has already declared this good news – cf. Mk 1:14-15) and therefore believes that he and his disciples simply should live out the kingdom life.

And that is why when the man with the withered hand approaches, the Pharisees are asking a legalistic question “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” while Jesus is asking a kingdom question of “How do I do good in this place, bearing witness to the presence of God’s kingdom (reign)?”

Two very different questions!

I once knew of a thriving church of roughly 150 believers. They gathered for worship in a fairly new building on a side of town that was experiencing a lot of new residential growth. Some of the young parents began asking a kingdom question “How might we minister (do good) in this neighborhood?” After praying about this for a few months, they received a vision for how they might minister to other young families with children in that neighborhood. And with the blessing of their elders and minister supporting them, they began an exciting Sunday-School ministry, assisted by the purchase of a Joy Bus. God blessed this ministry and the church with lots of new growth and all seemed well.

And all was well until a few modern-day Pharisees came along asking a legalistic question “Where is their authorization in the New Testament for having a Sunday School?” By asking such a question while proof-texting the Bible, particularly the New Testament, in ad hoc fashion and resorting to their syllogistic reasoning, they divided the church. The Joy Bus was parked for good and this promising children’s ministry died!

Again, Two very different questions!

But what questions are we asking. When we pick up the Bible and read it, do we read it as a story where we ask how we might participate in the kingdom life as followers of Jesus in a consistent yet improvisational way? (See N.T. Wright, “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?,” and pay attention to the section The Authority of a Story to understand what it means to live in a consistent yet improvisational way.) Or when we pick up the Bible and read, are we asking questions like “Does scripture authorize us to do…?” or “Is there a direct command, apostolic example, or necessary inference for doing…?”

By recognizing that the kingdom of God is already at hand, we are free to read the Bible as a story which we participate in rather than a law which we must some how try to meticulously keep. This is not to ignore that there are commands in scripture which as followers of Jesus, we must obey. What this does is open for us new possibilities as people who are learning how to improvise the story we are participants of in a consistent way among our own contexts. It doesn’t matter whether or not we have an example in scripture for . . . because it’s the wrong question and asking the wrong question usually results in getting the wrong answer.

And if your still not convinced that the difference between the two different types of questions matter that much, Jesus looked at the Pharisees with “anger” as he was “grieved by the hardness of their hearts.”

Questions For Reflection:

  1. How does this change our understanding of what it means to be the church? Participants in the mission of God?
  2. What do need to do in order to be a tangible expression of the kingdom of God in our neighborhoods?
  3. What changes might we have to make in the way we go about doing church?

Church Renewal: Give Up The Old Wineskins

Last year the Christian Chronicle, a monthly newspaper for the Churches of Christ, ran an article on the Bar Church of Abilene, Texas that the Southern Hills Church of Christ helped plant. The Bar Church is a community of Christians that originally gathered inside a local bar for worship, fellowship, etc… in order to reach people who will likely never step foot inside the gatherings of a traditional church. As expected, news of a church plant meeting in a local tavern drew both praise and criticism. Without knowing any more details than what has been reported, I am one who applauds such effort and I want to briefly focus on the criticism as a way of discussing a larger issue with the gospel and the mission of God.

One critic said in response to the news of a church meeting in a bar, “Jesus might have gone to Matthew’s house, but he did not teach his disciples to go to places of public intoxication…” Not surprisingly, I actually disagree because Jesus himself, according to the Gospel of Luke, even acknowledged eating and drinking with these sinner’s and tax-collectors to the point that he gained the reputation of being a drunkard and glutton (cf. Lk 7:34). I suppose we could say that Jesus was only going into places of private intoxication (insert snarky face here) but the point is that Jesus not only sought out the “sinners” but was also teaching his disciples to do so as well. Yet the critics, who all likely come from a church fellowship that is declining, resort to the box they have the gospel contained within to rationalize their complaint. And this is a problem…

Listen to Jesus

According to the Gospel of Mark, the first parable that Jesus teaches occurs in chapter two:

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. Instead new wine is poured into new wineskins (vv. 21-22).

This parable occurs within a series of five stories in which the authority of Jesus is challenged (Mk 2:1-3:6). The problem with Jesus is that he does not live according to the expectations of the Jewish lawyers and Pharisees.

The Pharisees themselves meant well. Like Jesus, they wanted to see the kingdom of God at hand too. But unlike Jesus, they believed that the kingdom of God would only come when all of Israel returned to a strict observation of the Torah, especially the laws pertaining to the Sabbath and those that separated the clean from the unclean. For Jesus, however, the kingdom of God is already at hand (Mk. 1:15), so the efforts of the Pharisees are futile. Instead they, like us all, need to follow along with Jesus and learn how to participate in this kingdom, which involves something as simple as eating when you’re hungry rather than fasting or something more radical like wining and dining with the “sinners and tax-collectors.”

The kingdom of God looks like a reality where sinners are welcomed with hospitality, where those who suffer find healing, where showing mercy trumps the sacrifice of Sabbath keeping, and so forth. This is the kind of life Jesus calls us to follow him, learning how to participate as disciples. Yet Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work! That is why Jesus tells us the parable of sewing a new patch on an old garment and pouring new wine into old wineskins. We need new wineskins for new wine! We need new a new paradigm for this gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus preaches and calls follow him in living as his disciples!

Old Wineskins Will Not Do

I began this blog post with story of a Church of Christ that planting a very non-traditional seed of the gospel by helping plant a new church meeting in a bar. It’s but one example of what it might look like for a church to the new wine of the gospel into new wineskins. Just one example. It is by no means a suggestion that this is what every church needs to do. I believe way too much in the need for local contextualization of the gospel to even begin suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach. What I’m concerned about is those who want to cling to their old wineskins while criticizing any attempt at pouring new wine into new wineskins.

Any one familiar with the Churches of Christ can see the decline. Most churches, including the Columbia Church of Christ with whom I serve as a minister, are less than one-hundred members and declining. The culture around us is rapidly changing and learning how to navigate the waters in this ever changing climate has been… Well, as far as I can tell, were not sure how to do that.

In such uncertain circumstances, there are more questions than answers which that creates a lot of stress and anxiety. “How do we move forward in all this mess?” is the question that gets asked. Yet our human nature is to take the path of least resistance and that usually means reverts back to what we already know… the so-called tried and true approach. I think this is why Michael Shank’s book Muscle and A Shovel has become so popular. Because despite it’s sectarian approach that promotes a gospel focused on the “true church,” a form of legalism that many in the Churches of Christ seemed to have let go of, it offers an approach that is very familiar (if you read the book then make sure you also read this very well-written and critical review of the book by John Mark Hicks). But Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work!

Then What Do We Do?

Learning to follow Jesus together begins with hearing afresh our Lord’s first commandment: “Repent and believe the gospel! (Mk 1:15). We have to change our expectations of how we expect to see the kingdom of God at hand. Seeing God’s kingdom at hand does not happen by trying to restore the first-century church pattern from proof-texting the New Testament. The way forward is found in embracing the values and practices of Jesus as our own, within our own local contexts. That requires much discernment.

In order to discern, churches and especially the leadership of the church must learn how to listen together for the leading of God. You might consider reading Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton as a resource in learning how to listen as a church. Only as we listen and discern together will we discover the new wineskins necessary for the new wine of the gospel. Also, you might consider contacting Mission Alive, an organization that helps equip church planters and churches seeking renewal to live as “kingdom communities on mission with God.”

Conversations On Racism and Injustice

This past Sunday afternoon I attended the “Town Hall Meeting for Justice For All” hosted by the Bridgeway Community Church in my town, Columbia, Maryland. The meeting was in response to the events taking place in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man who was shot by the police. Even though there is 800 miles of Interstate 70 between Columbia and Ferguson, the issues that Browns death and the subsequent protesting have raised affect Columbia just as they affect every community.

The meeting itself was a great start to some courageous conversations that communities must start engaging in. Whites, Blacks, and Latinos all showed up for this meeting but the majority of the audience was Black. Pastor David Anderson served as a moderator taking questions the audience had for the five panelists that consisted of a school administrator, two police officers, a college student, and a local pastor. Of the five panelists, three were Black and the other two were White.

Black America and Fear

As you what has happened in Ferguson has brought to the forefront the problem of racism that still exists in America. Besides the problem of racism, there is a distrust of law-enforcement and a lot of frustration because of injustices that Blacks and other minorities have endured (and if you’re not sure what those are, I suggest you do a little more listening to some of your Black neighbors).

I went to this town-hall meeting to listen because I’m interested in what I can do to help facilitate racial reconciliation and be an advocate for justice. After all, as a minister of the gospel, the God I serve seeks reconciliation and desires justice, so… Any ways, I tried my best to just listen during this meeting and here’s a couple of things I heard:

  1. Negative Images of Young Black Males. During the meeting, the Black voice of the audience agreed that the Hip-Hop culture has created a caricature of the young Black male that contributes to the negative perceptions and that the Black community has helped perpetuate this image. I thought this is important because it tells me that when we hear the Black community saying there’s a problem, they are also willing to own their part of the problem too.
  2. Palpable Fear. There was a point when the audience was asked if those who are minorities raise their children to carry themselves in certain ways in public because of a fear of being mistaken by law enforcement and others as being up to criminal activity. This is the fear of how their children might be perceived when they’re hanging out, walking down the street, into a store, etc… and how might the police react if their children appear “suspicious”? As an observer, this fear was extremely evident in the response of the minorities present (who were in the majority there). And I must say, words cannot really express how sad this is because nobody should have to live in fear for their life or the lives of their children.
  3. Where are the Whites? As I said, the majority of those in attendance were Black. Now there could be a variety of reasons for this, so I don’t want to make too much of this observation. But I do want to say that the problems of racism, et al. is a problem for the entire community, not just minorities. White people, like myself, don’t have to engage in conversations like this because we’re not the ones who suffer from systemic racism. That’s part of our White Privilege. But the problem isn’t going away and if it gets worse (with the violent protests of Ferguson as a sign of what might be on the horizon), we’ll all suffer the consequences. So let’s all work together for the good of racial-reconciliation and justice!

Where Do We Begin

Working together for reconciliation and justice begins at the table, so to speak. That is to say, we have to start by talking and having a conversation together about these issues. As you know, such conversations are not always easy but we must have the necessary courage, humility, and love to gather at the table with others for some talk.

Now I’m not any expert but one thing I’ve learned as a minister is the importance of listening. Or let’s say, I’m learning the importance of listening and more importantly, listening first. Listening to understand before we speak is important because in conversations like this, there are tense moments of disagreement at times. Someone says something that we disagree with and our gut reaction is to respond immediately, countering…arguing. And then we’re just talking past each other, or shouting past each other like they do on what passes for nightly cable news.

Instead of that, Don McLaughin, who serves as the preaching minister for the North Atlanta Church of Christ, suggests that we learn to say “Tell me more” (you can listen to all he has to say about this and more on this podcast). If we don’t understand or don’t seem to agree with what someone says then by saying “Tell me more” rather than counter-reacting, we can here their point of view and what it is that has led them to feel this or that way. We may still disagree but at least we’ll understand better and we’re validating the feeling of others.

One Last Thing…

As a parting word, let me encourage us to begin a conversation. Maybe it’s with a friend of another race or ethnicity, or maybe that conversation starts by attending a town meeting on race and justice matters in your own community. Help your church to start having these conversations (churches should be leading the way in conversations about reconciliation but sadly, we’re not!). Learn to ask questions and listen… Imagine what could happen if we just start having conversations!