Category Archives: Scripture

The Ministry of Cultivating A Gospel Passion

I’m reading through Charles Taylor’s book Modern Social Imaginaries which is one of those thick reads akin to running a race waist deep in mud. Nevertheless, if I understand Taylor correctly, he describes how modernity brought about the notion of a modern-state as the means of establishing civility among European society where much savagery existed at the time. Of course, the idea that that morality and civility can be brought about by legislative governing is a modernistic idea and an anthropocentric one too. That is, the capacity to generate a well ordered life for people is an activity of human power.

Now I might be making too much of a leap here but given this modern notion that centralized authority could establish and regulate civility, this also gives some understanding of how the modern church denomination became so popular. A denomination provided structure that could regulate beliefs and practices of the Christians who belonged to the various churches within the denomination.  Even among the Churches of Christ, though not structured with the typical polity of most denominations, the editors of various journals along with the popular “gospel meeting” preachers served to regulate the local church.

The Limitation of Regulation

Like the modern-state regulated civility with establishment of new laws, the drafting of statements of faith and church by-laws by denominational boards helped regulate the beliefs and practices of local churches. Sometimes this regulation, as in the case of the Churches of Christ, was predicated on a legalistic reading of scripture that turned the Bible (and particularly the New Testament) into a constitution that served as the foundation for the regulation. In the end, the objective of such regulation was faithful Christians and faithful churches.

However, even though the modern denomination remained a strong presence throughout the twentieth century, it was during that time that we began to see the impossibility of regulating civility by legislation. Despite such coercive power, the twentieth century proved to be one of the most deadliest in history (if not the most) with numerous wars and conflicts that have now spilled into the twenty-first century.

Few believe that governments can maintain lasting peace, though without a doubt they will continue trying. I also suggest that like the inability of governments bring about civility, church denominations cannot make faithful Christians by regulating the beliefs and practices of a church (and that includes appealing to scripture as a legalistic text). Despite written and unwritten creeds, church’s still struggle to live on mission with God and Christians still struggle in remaining faithful to Jesus.

Cultivating Passion

Nothing can replace passion! When someone is passionate about something, they will pursue that passion vigorously and good will come of that provided that the said pursuit is based upon a health passion. So it also seems that local churches flourish when there are a core group of people with a passion that is rooted in Jesus and his gospel and that individual Christians are most likely to remain faithful when they have this passion.

And where does this passion come from? A living encounter with God and what he is doing in Jesus by the power of his Spirit! It is a spacial-jouney whereby a new core identity takes shape, one that is in alignment with the kingdom of God. This is why Jesus announces the gospel (cf. Mk 1:15) and then invites us to come follow him (cf. Mk 1:17), which is an invitation to come learn how to live the kingdom life as an embodiment of the gospel he has announced. The fulfilling of this passion is then brought into fruition by the Spirit rather than enforcing regulation, which is exactly what we read of in the book of Acts.

If the fulfillment of this passion could be achieved through regulation of law, we would have a different story to tell about the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ own day. But that won’t work and I think we are coming to realize this with what we see happening in many churches across various denominations and fellowship. If ministers of the gospel and other church leaders want to form people with a passion rooted in Jesus and his gospel, a passion that results in people serving as God gifts them and calls them to do so, then we must, as Alan Roxburgh suggests in his book Missional Map-Making, cultivate that passion as an artisan working soil (p. 138).

This cultivation involves, I believe, preaching, teaching, and leading people to see what God is doing in life. Doing this requires presence among the people while simultaneously having the ability to ask good questions as a listener of both the people (the church you serve) and culture. Scripture is still very much involved but the aim is more than just pointing people to scripture. Ministry points people beyond scripture toward that living encounter with God.

Our Redemptive God

This message, This Is God, was preached before the Westside Church of Christ in Baltimore on Sunday, July 12, 2015. The text I preach from is Exodus 3:1-10 which is one of my favorite passages to preach on, especially as a guest preacher. I hope this message will encourage you!

People Matter… Including The Poor!

The Prophet Amos preached a message of judgment against Israel because, among other things, of their unjust treatment of the poor. In fact, when we read the prophets of the Old Testament it becomes clear that the poor matter to the Lord and that he expects people to act justly towards the poor, showing them mercy.

It’s also seems pretty clear in scripture that people are greater than the principles or policies we often organize and script our lives by. When laws and objectives are carried out at the expense of the people, there is injustice. When dogma and doctrine suppresses people, denying them mercy and justice, it is wrong.

I think this is why Jesus tells the Pharisees, “To and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice'” (Matt 9:13). The Pharisees have placed greater value on maintaining their tradition than extending grace to those they consider sinners but Jesus says they have it wrong. Offer mercy rather than sacrifice! In other words, people matter more than their traditions (and more than our principles, policies, laws, etc…) so they should be more concerned with doing right for the people.

Of course, when it comes to the poor, it is so easy to just trample upon them… either literally or metaphorically. That’s why the prophets speak so powerfully about justice for the poor.

And little has changed. We all know of numerous examples of how the poor are neglected and even afflicted by the lack of mercy and justice. So it is a great joy when hearing examples of service to the poor, especially when they show us that the poor matter more than revenue… or whatever other principle, law, or doctrine we are tempted to value over the poor.

Such an example comes from this story about a restaurant in Baltimore called Tabrizi’s, a Mediterranean/Middle-Eastern dinner place along Baltimore’s waterfront. Rather than taking in the big money to be made during Baltimore’s Restaurant Week, the owner of Tabrizi’s, Michael Tabrizi, is partnering with local homeless shelters to feed the homeless. According to the story, which you can read here, Tabrizi said, “It isn’t about revenue and money right now, we’ve done restaurant week before and we know the numbers, but right now it’s more important to promote the welfare of the city and its residents rather than to promote the business.”

That’s right. People, especially the poor, are more important than the business of making money, just as people are more important than a said principle, law, etc…

Tabrizi goes on to say about the homeless, according to the article, “These people don’t only suffer from hunger, but also from hopelessness, they feel that they don’t have any dignity anymore… We want them to come in and feel like they’re cared for.”

I don’t know what Michael Tabrizi’s religious convictions are but I know this sort of care for the poor reflects the image of God, our Creator. His example of using his business to serve the poor is an example for us all. May we take the opportunities were are given and the gifts we have received to care even for even the poor, blessing them as we have been blessed!

And one more thing… The next time I am down on the waterfront of Baltimore to dine out, I know which restaurant I’ll be trying.

Giving to God… Christianity in America

July 4th, the American Day of Independence, is around the corner, coming this Friday. Like every year, it will be a festive holiday with much celebration. I’m guessing that for many Christians the celebrations will be tempered by a sense of concern over the direction that America as a nation seems headed in. But that won’t be due to an unswerving holy allegiance to the kingdom of God as much as it will stem from an unholy allegiance to America. That’s the problem for Christians!

What Belongs to God…

What unholy allegiance? Well, here is Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. It’s the final week and Jesus has entered into Jerusalem, that holy city held hostage by the rule of Roman tyranny. Jesus understands what will happen to him in this politically and religiously volatile climate… death upon the cross! And he has reminded his disciples that if they are to continue following him, they should be prepared to carry their own crosses too because that is what might happen to them for participating in the kingdom of God.

The Pharisees and the Herodians know that Jesus will not align himself with Roman power, so they attempt to trap him with a simple question about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus’ response is familiar to us… perhaps too familiar.

“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” – Mark 12:17

Most Christians cite this well known response of Jesus as justification for paying taxes. Fair enough, as Jesus certainly seems ok with paying taxes. But what most Christians miss is what else Jesus is saying… that his disciples dare not give to Caesar what belongs to God – their life.

The coin has Caesar’s image on it so it is ok to give the coin back to Caesar but people bear the image of God, so they dare not give their lives to anyone but God. That means Christians, who follow Jesus, pledge their allegiance to nobody but God… not any nation and nor any president and the flag that signifies them. No allegiance to anyone except for Jesus who is Lord. But many Christians in America fail to see this and as a result they live quite comfortably aligned to a America, identifying themselves with the cause of America, and supporting almost every American endeavor to achieve and maintain that cause. However, now more than a few Christians see America as turning away from God, so their response is to fight for America to return to the ways of God. However, this is part of the bigger problem for Christians living in America.

A Turning Point?

The United States of America was never a Christian nation, regardless of what Christian values it may have one time embraced. As a nation, it’s goal has always been its own sovereignty which is completely incompatible with the Christian conviction that Jesus alone is Lord (Sovereign). Further more, regardless of whatever Christian values America at one time embraced, it also rejected many Christian values in order to establish itself through war and the exploitation and oppression of non-European people such as Native Americans and Africans.

Yet because many Christians, probably of White/European descent, believed in America as a “Christian” nation, they were comfortable among that version of America (this should be a call for much contemplation knowing that the Bible was read in a manner that allowed Christians to be comfortable with a secular nation). But now these same Christians feel a sense of loss… the loss of a “Christian” nation.

Perhaps this loss will allow a new recognition to take hold among Christians living in America, that we do not belong to Caesar even when Caesar is robed in the colors of red, white, and blue… that we must never give to Caesar America what belongs to God — our allegiance. Yet this will only work if there is an awareness among Christians who believed in the “Christian” nation version of America that this unholy allegiance to America was and is wrong. Without that recognition, Christian will likely only continue wasting time on trying to conserve the “Christian” nation that never existed and falter in following Jesus and living as witnesses of the Kingdom of God.

Discipleship Among a Secular Nation

As expected, there are a lot of Christians who disagree in some manner with the recent SCOTUS decision ruling in favor of gay marriage. That’s ok. But it’s also time to breath and relax. The decision is not as big as some Christian voice make it out to be. The SCOTUS ruling in favor of gay marriage will not make America any less of a Christian nation because it never was one to begin with. So with that in mind, instead of fighting for America to return to this allusion of a Christian heritage, it’s time to spend energy learning how to live among a secular American nation. That means learning how to live as a faithful follower of Jesus, embodying the gospel he proclaimed. Do that and the church in America becomes the people who “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The Culture War… Laying Down Our Weapons and Following Jesus

On Monday, with the release of Vanity Fair’s feature and cover shot of Caitlyn Jenner, formally known as Bruce Jenner, social-media was set ablaze. Trending, is the appropriate way of describing it. On Twitter, on Facebook, and I suspect in a whole lot of other social-media outlets.

Not surprisingly, the Christian sub-culture had a lot to say as well. Like a day of tornadoes forming one after another across the Mid-West, so it was with Christians talking about Caitlyn Jenner. With everything from quick-press blog posts, photo sharing with platitudes, to 142 character praises or condemnations, Christians either rushed to the defense of Jenner or they expressed their criticism.

And so Caitlyn Jenner became the latest object in the so-called culture-war we engage in. Last week the object was Matt Chandler and the Village Church over their handling of a marriage/divorce involving Karen Hinkley and Jordan Root. The week before that was the Duggar Family regarding the scandal involving the sexual abuse allegations of Josh Duggar. Before that it was…

What in the name of Jesus are we doing?

A Not-So-Civil Culture War

Every time something controversial trends, depending on where we stand, we respond either taking the side of the prosecutor or the defender. For what… Jesus and the gospel? I’m not sure of the reasons, though I have my suspicions, but I’m sure that such reactions keep us from being the salt and light Jesus has called us to be (cf. Matt 5:13-16). In we’ve become part of the zeitgeist, noisy voices in a large auditorium of where nearly every conceivable religious and political view is shouting right along with everyone else in this culture war.

When it comes to engaging culture there’s a fine line between using social-media to influence people and using it as a coercive instrument. When the goal is simply to criticize, intimidate, and even silence the other side, we become coercive. Regardless the instrument, social-media or a sword, coercive power is not the way of Jesus and therefore not the way of his church.

You might recall Chic-fil-A, World Vision, or even last April’s fiasco with the State of Indiana passing the Religious Freedom Act as examples of what I am getting at. It’s a failure for sure. While one side may win this battle or that battle, we all lose in this not-so-civil culture war.

Listening, Learning, and Speaking

It’s time to lay down our weapons, to rid ourselves of coercive forms of power, and end the shouting contests that solve nothing. I’m not suggesting that we should remain silent and never speak on controversial issues. Sometimes we are called to vigorously speak out against matters of injustice, unethical practices, and falsehood. But how we speak matters!

To begin with, we must listen to the wisdom of James, listening and learning before we reactively speak and become angry (cf. Js 1:19). Listening and learning, with one ear attuned to Jesus and the other towards culture, will allow us to speak gospel words.

More importantly, we must acknowledge that the most important place − the front line − for engaging culture for the influence and proclamation of Jesus and his gospel is among our neighborhoods with people we have taken the time to build meaningful relationships and friendships with. Unless we’re willing to dwell among people, especially those we call “sinners,” and become present with them (and to them), we really have nothing to offer. We certainly don’t have any business preaching without first dwelling among and listening.

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…

– 1 Peter 3:15, NIV

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

In various ways we can build walls that divide us from numerous other people. The result is a culture of us verses them, where this wrong is justified. What we are left with is an is what Miroslav Volf describes as a “glaring incongruity” where “in a world so manifestly drenched with evil everybody is innocent in their own eyes” (Exclusion and Embrace, p. 79).

Then comes along Jesus who calls us to follow him and as we do, challenges us to break down these hostile divisions. Here is a challenging story about Jesus found in Matthew 9:9-13:

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him. As Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Most Christians are familiar with this story and Jesus’ saying, “I want mercy and not sacrifice.” But I wonder… Have we really taken time to do just what Jesus says and “Go and learn what this saying means”?

Breaking Boundaries

Last summer after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by officer Darren Wilson, protests erupted across America. Regardless of what happened on August 9, 2014, the incident and the ensuing demonstrations showed that there was still much racial tension between Blacks and Whites. This had to do with the perceived feeling on the part of the Black community that they are still treated unfairly by Police and the White power establishment. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, there normally is always a certain amount of truth to perception. Nevertheless, the situation created a politically hostile climate and threatened to create an “Us vs. Them” world. If you were on the side of the Darren Wilson and Law Enforcement then it seemed that you were against the Blacks. On the other hand, if you were on the side of the Blacks then it seemed as though you were against the Police and White people.

Here in Columbia, people joined in these protests. I was one of them and I took my daughter along with me. We joined with some from our community to say that “Black Lives Matter!” Believe it or not, I was told by one White person that I was being racist because I stood there peacefully demonstrating with other Black and White people. My daughter and I stayed at the demonstration for about two hours, where I engaged in several good conversations with some Black people about issues pertaining to racism and discrimination in America. At the demonstration, there were several Howard County Police officers present in order to make sure the demonstrations remained peaceful and lawful. So as my daughter and I were leaving, I walked up to the police officers and thanked them for doing a very difficult and underpaid job.

Why go and demonstrate with a community of Black people? Why stop and thank the police for doing their job? Here is why. Because I will let my Black Neighbors and my neighbors who serve as police officers become my enemy and become the “them.” It has nothing to do with my opinion of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri and what has happened in other police shootings of Black men. It has everything to do with following Jesus and refusing to allow the barriers that society would like to build up define who I will fellowship with.

Following… Jesus or the Pharisees?

It seems that if we really are following Jesus, then we cannot just religiously talk about reconciliation. We must actually attempt to practice reconciliation which involves getting up and following Jesus into the homes where he eats with those people, the “tax-collectors and sinners,” who were excluded behind a barrier that his society had built. Jesus did this without ever endorsing or approving of any sin and so can we.

Our society is full of divisions where an “Us vs. Them” reality exists at some level… Blacks and Whites, Christians and Muslims, Liberals and Conservatives, etc… Too often we align ourselves with a version of “Us” and hedge the boundary lines. That’s not the way of Jesus. So what can we do?

  • Option #1: As followers of Jesus we can actually follow Jesus among “Them” in order to show mercy rather than sacrifice. Remember, that Jesus’ practice of mercy is done among the sinners. The Kingdom of God was a space that had room for everyone, not just the righteous.
  • Option #2: We can follow the Pharisees, justifying our exclusion of “Them” in order to maintain our own purified socio-religious and political enclave. Remember, the Pharisees read their Bible’s too and they had their reasons which sounded very biblical too (perhaps they even came replete with biblical proof-texts). Yet they were wrong!

When Jesus said, “I want mercy and not sacrifice,” he really meant it and it is important that we honor his desire. But to do that, maybe instead of becoming quick to defend our religious freedom so that a pizza parlor doesn’t have to cater a gay wedding, we should instead pause and discern what it means to show mercy rather than sacrifice. Or maybe, instead of becoming quick to defend our rights by joining in an online bullying campaign because some small town restaurant owner doesn’t share our same moral-political view, maybe we should learn what it means to show mercy rather than sacrifice.

After all, Jesus did also say “Go and learn what this saying means…”

The Love of God and Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

No!

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

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

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

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

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

Now, go do that.

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