Category Archives: Kingdom of 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!

Amidst Racism, Wars, and Other Afflictions: What Says the Church?

It’s a predictable script. When something terrible happens, such as the police-shooting death of one unarmed Michael Brown or the recently release of a video showing the beheading of missing American journalist James Foley, people become indignant. Something is wrong and something should be done. So the question is asked, “Mr. President of the United States of America, what say you?”

Our Way or The Way of God?

That’s how the script always seems to play out. The President must do something or at least say something. Depending on his response, one either cheers him on from the sidelines or one starts cursing him in one fashion or the other. Issues of racism, violence, and other cancerous maladies become political issues for the government to solve. Yet because the politicians and the masses that elect them can’t seem to even agree on what the first step towards a solution should be, the conversation turns into a toxic pit that poisons everyone who steps into it. And maybe in writing this, I’m showing symptoms of poisoning too.

Having said all that, I think I understand why people always turn to the government for a fix. To start with, for some people, the government is their best shot. Regardless of what they claim on a religious census, they don’t have the living hope in Christ that allows them to see how the gospel is redeeming, reconciling, and restoring life. But some people, Christians included, would rather just turn to the government in hopes for a quick solution to the problems… like passing a new law, sending some more troops, or creating a new program and initiative.

I think the devil likes it this way… keeping people, Christians included, seeking quick-fix human engineered solutions to problems that will only be resolved through a slow process requiring personal sacrifice. As a Christian, and as a preacher and minister of the gospel, I believe the slow process leads right to the cross of Jesus Christ. It’s the process that the church is called to participate in. But as I said, it’s a slow process that requires personal sacrifice.

It’s A Way of Life!

In the Gospels when Jesus calls his disciples to pick up their crosses and follow him, he is calling them to a very different way of life than what the rest of the world seeks. Jesus is clear that answering this call may cost the disciples their very own life but he assures them that they will actually receive life, a promise made with his own death and resurrection (cf. Mk 8:34-35).

This way of life is bears witness to what life looks like when God’s redemptive, reconciling, and restorative work is at hand. It’s a life that loves God by loving neighbors and even the enemies. It’s a life that champions peace rather than trumpeting the 2nd Amendment as though an AR-15 assault rifle will keep the peace. It’s a life that extends hospitality rather than judgment to all people, including the neighbors who that came across the borders in search of better living and the single-parents buying their groceries with EBT cards. It’s a life that exalts God as the Creator and Redeemer of life rather than patronizing Old Glory as the symbol of life, liberty, and happiness. It’s a way of life in which the things said and done during Sunday morning’s church service are also the things said and done at home, in the work place, and even on Facebook, Twitter, and so forth (for those who have a presence in the world of social-media).

As I said, this way of life bears witness the redemptive work of God in Christ. In this way, the church lives as a proleptic sign of why the gospel really is good news. It’s God offering the world through Christ and his church the alternative to fear, violence, and hatred. It demonstrates the possibilities of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration so that ideals like brotherly love, joy in Christ, and the peace of God move beyond the realm of spiritual platitudes, becoming instead virtues with concrete meaning. Though the church will always struggle in this endeavor, without intentionally pursuing this way of life the preaching of the church sings like a broken record playing the music of religious superstition than the songs of life.

What I’m Saying

If the church has any desire to offer the promise of hope amidst racism, wars, and all the other afflictions that plague the world, then we, who are the church, must learn to be the church Jesus envisions. If we really believe in the good news that Jesus preached, then we must learn to embrace it as how we live. Then, we can tell the world about God and sound like we actually know God. The results will not come quick as this is and will always be a slow process requiring the personal sacrifice but in doing so–following Jesus in this mission–we join God in creating a life legacy of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration.

Being Church In A Burning World

I want to mention three recent events, two of which you are already aware of unless you just crawled out of a cave and another issue that many of you are unfortunately all too familiar with. But let me first ask you one question: What do you think it means to be the church?

Coming Apart At The Seams

So, as I said, unless you just crawled out of some cave, you know that Robin Williams died last week. Like so many others, I was disappointed because he was a truly brilliant actor, comedian, and entertainer. Of course, I’m sure that those who knew him personally, especially his family, are heart-broken. It was even more sad to read that in the midst of suffering from depression among other health-related issues, Robin Williams took his own life. However, his death also reminded us of just how terrible and deadly the illness of depression can be. Sadly, thanks to the ridiculous blog of person and his absurd follow up post (which I won’t link to hear, so as not to give his ilk more publicity), we also know just how badly our society still sometimes misunderstands mental illnesses.

Also last week in Ferguson, Missouri, a young man by the name of Michael Brown, who was unarmed, was shot and killed a police officer. This has triggered both protesting and rioting. While we don’t know the full details of what happened that led to the shooting of Michael Brown, his death joins a list of unarmed black males killed by law enforcement. Regardless of what the investigation into the death of Michael Brown reveals, the fall out of his death has reminded again that racism is still an issue in America. And it seems the hostility is weaved into the ever increasing political polarization taking place in America, which political pundit Glenn Beck describes America as being “at or near a cold civil war.” Whether you agree or disagree, one thing seems clear: the cracks are getting bigger and the little 238 year experiment called the American Dream is fading.

Of course, while society around us is coming apart at the seams, some Christians would rather continue on pursuing their adventures in missing the point. Two weeks ago I spoke at the Bowie Church of Christ for their Wednesday Evening Praise on following Jesus (you can listen to the message here). It was a wonderful evening and the praise team did an amazing job of leading the church in worship. It was nice to visit with another church that allows women to serve as God has gifted them. However, word of this church having a praise team got out and it drew sharp criticism from another area Church of Christ who suggested that this violated the teaching of scripture.

Now do you understand what I mean by adventures in missing the point?

Being Church… Following Jesus!

We’re called to follow Jesus… learning to live our lives as Jesus lives his life. When churches and Christians are still occupied with trying to convince others why praise teams are wrong or arguing about who’s going to hell while the black community is living in hell (you should really click on that link and read the article), you can be sure that we’ve forgotten how to follow Jesus.

Our best response to a world suffering in depression, racism, and many other issues is simply to be the church, just like Richard Beck describes in this blog post (and you should really click on that link and read it too). You see, when we follow Jesus we learn how to become better neighbors, how to become hospitable with people who are different from us… different in skin color, country of origin, religion, and even sexual orientation. When we follow Jesus we learn how to show solidarity with the poor and oppressed, with the suffering. Only then do we gain the credibility to speak truth… to speak about this good news of the kingdom of God, the good news that Jesus preached.

The question of what it means to be the church is a huge question, one that too large to answer in one blog post. So don’t take this as an exhaustive answer but let me clearly say: we are being the church when we follow Jesus! Just because we are gathering to sing and pray does not necessarily mean we are being the church. That’s just a religious service. But we can be the church in that religious service when the invitation of Jesus and his communion table moves us to welcome the stranger, listen to the pains and fears of others as we bear that burden with them, and love each other enough to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of serving one another. We live as the church when this way of life transcends beyond the walls of our church buildings and becomes our way of life in our homes, our neighborhoods, our work and social spaces, and so on. Then… we can speak the truth of Jesus we are compelled to speak because it’s a message that has transformed our own way of life.

The world around is burning. Sometimes it’s a small smoldering fire and but here lately it seems like a wildfire that’s burning out of control like it seems to be right now in Ferguson, MO, The Ukraine, Iraq and Syria, Israel and Palestine, and West Africa. What we can do is learn to follow Jesus again! Can we do that?

Those Unhelpful Labels!

What kind of Christian do you consider yourself? A liberal or conservative? Perhaps a progressive or traditionalist? Maybe you consider yourself a fundamentalist or one of those “spiritual but not religious” Christians. What about a Neo-Calvinist or Missional?

Once Upon A Time…

In the year 2007 my wife and I moved to Ithaca, New York, a small town full of an earthy, free-spirited, political culture. Down the road from my house was a trendy little coffee shop that I frequented a couple times a day. One day one of the Barista’s, who knew I was a Christian, asked me if I considered myself a mainline-protestant or an evangelical? Well, I’m not one who likes to be cornered but I also knew that there were (and still are) some assumptions this person had attached to both choices that I didn’t want to claim. Fortunately, having been raised in the Churches of Christ, I responded as any Church of Christ member would and said, “I’m just a Christian.”

Several months later, the same Barista asked me if I believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Knowing that the person asking the question was not a Christian, I invited her to have a cup of coffee with me sometime so we could talk about her question. She did. And I did my best to explain over a nice cup of coffee why I believe Jesus is the only way of salvation. Her response… “So Rex, you really are a conservative!”

It’s kind of ironic because a year before that, when still living in Memphis, I had someone insist that I was a liberal because they knew I rejected a literalist reading of the Genesis creation narrative (creationism) and opposed the war in Iraq.

So Am I a liberal? A conservative? Or am I… Truthfully, I don’t really care!

Hyphenated-Christians?

But if you must know whether I consider myself a liberal or conservative, or whatever other designated tag you want to label me with, it all depends on where you stand in relation to me. You see, from my perspective, I stand perfectly in the center and it’s you who are either too far to the right or too far to the left.

How’s that for an answer! It also shows the absurdity of such labels. They’re all just too nebulous and too loaded for the kingdom of God. Fortunately, followers of Jesus don’t need such labels. That’s one of the values I greatly appreciate about my Restoration heritage that reminds me, we can just be “Christian’s only.” Not the only Christians but Christians only!

To say that we are Christians only without any additional hyphenated adjective allows us to stop defining ourselves by our own terms and instead define ourselves simply as followers of Jesus, which is what we are. Any thing else is too nebulous and in my experience as a minister, people and churches are too diverse to fit into the categories we want to label each other with.

So let’s just be Christians… followers of Jesus!

What If Our Churches…?

Maybe it’s time to admit that we’re broken! As Christians, we live in a culture that appears increasingly secular and uninterested in the gospel our churches have to offer… and maybe we just don’t have as much of that gospel to offer as we would like to believe.

Yesterday I posted an article titled Reasons Why Your Church Isn’t… It was a response to an article titled Why Church Members Don’t Invite Others to Church in which the Christians involved in the study seemed to cast blame on their church as to why they’re not participating. My post was intended to counter that blame because it is easy for Christians who are not involved in the ministry of their church to just place the blame on their church, when in fact they are part of the problem.

But the truth is that yesterday’s post does little to nothing in terms of offering a better way forward. So it’s time to shift the conversation back to Jesus.

A Different Way!

Do we know how to follow Jesus? Learning to follow Jesus is where we need to begin. After all, it is the invitation Jesus extends us. After commanding us to “repent and believe the gospel,” he invites us to embrace the challenge of being his disciple saying, “Follow me…” (Mk. 1:14, 17).

Now we can point the blame at each other for the problems facing our churches. Church leaders, like myself, can say it’s the fault of members who want to just sit in worship as consumers attempting to feed an appetite that will never be satisfied. Likewise, church members can blame the leadership for the lack of vision and courage as they keep trying to pour new wine into old wineskins in order to avoid upsetting the status quo too much. Ministers can blame the elders, who blame the deacons, who blame the ministers… and round and round we go.

But really, what good is blaming one another doing? I don’t recall reading any “one another” passages in the Bible that says we should blame one another.

Perhaps what we need is to take a step or two back and ask ourselves what does it mean to follow Jesus? What would it look like if we followed Jesus together? What would it look like if we change our expectations (repent) of what the entire church stuff is supposed to be and live with anticipation (believe) of seeing God at work (the kingdom of God at hand) as we follow Jesus together? What kind of activities would we then do together? What sort of things would we need to let go of in order to follow Jesus again?

A Place For Lepers

One of my favorite Jesus stories is the one told in Mark 1:40-45. It’s a story about Jesus and a leper whom Jesus heals. But it’s so much more.*

A Kingdom Story!

ImageLet’s think about the context a bit more. As already mentioned, this story occurs early on in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus has already appeared in the Galilean region proclaiming the good news (gospel) of the kingdom of God. This is a declaration that the reign of God has started breaking forth upon history and that people should change (repentance) everything about their expectations of what this means and accept (believe) what they hear and see, which is Jesus preaching and teaching with authority as well as healing the sick and driving out demons.

That all sounds good but it makes even more sense why this was called “good new” when we read of Jesus’ encounter with this leper. This leper approached Jesus and said to him, “If you are willing, you can make me clean” (v. 40). Take notice that the leper did not ask about the ability of Jesus to make him clean. He already believed Jesus had that ability. What he questions was Jesus’ willingness and that is apparently because Jesus’ religious contemporaries were unwilling to help this leper at all.

But Jesus was… Jesus is!

Here is what happens. The text says, “Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched our his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am will. Be clean!'” (v. 42). I suppose Jesus simply could have spoken and cured this leper of his disease but that’s not what Jesus did. Moved by compassion, Jesus treated this leper as a human being by touching him. He didn’t have to but he did because restoring a sense of value and dignity to this leper was that important. That’s because this is what it looks like when the kingdom of God is at hand.

Moved With Compassion…

Now here’s the caveat… In chapter one of the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom of God, he calls us to follow him. And we say “Yes! We will follow Jesus.” But even as we say yes, I wonder how many people there are around us who are crying out to Jesus saying, “If you are willing…” The encounter Jesus has with this leper teaches us something very important to following Jesus. If we want the people in our community to believe in the good news then just as Jesus was, we had better be the people who are moved with compassion when they cry out to God. Whether we encounter an actual leper or just someone who has become a societal leper because of their present life circumstances, we dare not be the religious people who turn a deaf ear to their cries.

A lot of energy is spent these days on the declining influence of Christianity in the western world. I have a strong feeling that everything will be just fine so long as churches learn to follow Jesus and become a place for lepers, reaching out and touching them with the compassionate hand of Jesus!

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* This post is my contribution to the Compadres Blog Tour.

Discernment and Mission: Seeing Beyond Our Own Church

“But the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying.” – Acts 12:24 (NET)

Many commentators treat this statement simply as a summary of what’s going on among this early movement of Jesus followers. While it’s entirely appropriate to this passage as a summation, we miss a lot if we limit this text to mere rhetorical strategy. Regarding v. 24, Luke Timothy Johnson says, “it is also a triumphant assertion of the movement’s growth despite the attempts of a tyrant to suppress it through the harassment of its leaders” (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 216). Therein is a clue regarding what ought to challenge every church’s understanding of what participation in the mission of God may involve.

Baptisms and Bible-Studies

Let’s first take a few steps back and think about church and mission. I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to the church and the mission of God, there’s a lot of for the spectacular occasions. For example, in the book of Acts, churches love to talk about chapter two where the Spirit is poured out and 3,000 plus people are baptized upon hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ preached. The same is true for chapter eight where an Ethiopian eunuch is baptized after basically asking Philip to study the Bible with him.

Churches love stories like these and would love for them to be the stories of their churches. That’s why churches talk about their yearly number of baptism or about the evangelistic Bible studies taking place, as if the number of baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies are the sure marks of a good church (don’t get me wrong here, I’m all for baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies). However, turn to Acts chapter twelve and we won’t find any spectacular stories of baptisms and evangelistic Bible studies. What we find is a church struggling in turmoil and this is where churches today must pay attention because, as I’m suggesting, they can learn a lot about what participation in the mission of God may involve.

A Theological Conundrum and Persecution

At this point in the book of Acts, its somewhere between 41-44 CE during the reign of Herod Agrippa and the church is facing a lot of challenges. First, Peter has already baptized Conelius and his household (ch. 10). The baptism of Gentiles has now thrusted a theological conundrum upon the church that results initially in a counsel (ch. 11) but one in which the church, through the ministry of Paul, will wrestle with for the next several decades. Second, Herod has begun persecuting the church, having James executed and Peter arrested (presumably to suffer the same fate as James).

While Peter is rescued from his imprisonment by an angel of the Lord, the church doesn’t know this. So when Peter returns to his church gathered at the house of Mary where, according to v. 12, “many people had gathered and we praying” (churches brag about baptisms but how often do they brag about gathering for prayer?). Peter, who already realized it was the Lord that rescued him from prison, tells the church that it was the work of God. Then we are told about Herod’s death (which also is the work of God), which says something about the continued unstable political climate the church lived within. But… With all these challenges facing the church, “the word of God kept on increasing and multiplying” (NET).

Seeing Beyond Our Church

Why did the word of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, keep increasing and multiplying? This is, after all, what matters. The answer is none other than God. God was at work and this early Jesus movement believed so, which is why they continued faithfully following Jesus even when the difficulty of their circumstances escalated. If more churches would understand that the multiplication of the gospel is the work of God then they might also understand the futility and unnecessary need for the utilitarian thinking that undergirds many books on ministry. The increase of God’s word is the work of God that happens through the faithfulness of the church and not through turning this multiplication into an end that justifies whatever means gets the job done. This is not to say that churches should cease casting vision and planning for ministry. Rather, vision and planning for ministry must begin with the question of discerning: how must the church live faithfully as participants in the mission of God within the current circumstances?

As I suggested earlier, Churches love to talk about the mission of God when it involves preaching, a lot of evangelistic Bible studies, and especially a lot of baptisms. More importantly, Churches love the mission of God when it means church growth with lots of people joining their church. But… That is not how God always works. Sometimes God is taking that large church gathering in Jerusalem and scattering it though out the region (cf. Acts 8:1-3) so that the word of God may keep on “increasing and multiplying.” Sometimes God simply needs the church to gather for prayer and fasting so that Barnabas and Saul can be sent off as missionaries to serve somewhere else (cf. Acts 13:1-3) so that the word of God may keep on “increasing and multiplying.” Sometimes a church’s best vision and planning for future ministry is not how God is working. Sometimes the vision for growth and new ministry Churches have for their church is not how God is working. And let’s be clear… The mission of God is about the increase and of God’s word, not the increase of their church or our church per se.

The question is then, are churches willing to participate in the mission of God even if it means faithfully walking down a path different than it envisioned? The answer to this question takes discernment but the story here in Acts is inviting and challenging churches today to see beyond the realm of their own church so that they may fully live as participants in the mission of God.