Category Archives: Scripture

Ministry and Envy

Everyone wants to be appreciated for the good they do and at some level, everyone needs to feel appreciated. That includes pastors too. Although the ultimate reward for all Christian service comes from God, its hard for anyone to keep giving their best when their best seems to go unnoticed or is continuously met with criticism.

However, in ministry the need for appreciation can also develop into an unhealthy envy. The need for appreciation morphs into the need for recognition.  This is a problem that most pastors, including myself, have struggled with from time to time.

Yesterday Rich Little wrote a blog piece titled 5 Difficult Questions Pastors Must Ask and the first question was “Do I feel competitive with my peers?” Yes, I have at times. I’m sure other ministers have and do as well. This especially seems to be the case when our pees are recognized and we’re not… or at least not the way we think we should be recognized.

You see the problem. It’s the problem of envy, a sin of the heart that is often coupled with a lot of pride and sense of entitlement.

Saul, the King of Israel, struggled with envy too. After David had won the battle against the Philistines we are told in 1 Samuel 18:7 that women throughout different towns were singing “Saul has struck down his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.” Then in the very next verse we read that this “made Saul very angry.” And if you read the rest of the story, Saul attempts to kill David several times.

Attempted murder. That’s the result of Saul’s envious heart. It might be easy to ignore this as a warning since most of us would never even contemplate committing murder. However, when our hearts are consumed with envy, we become dissatisfied and frustrated with the ministry God has called us to because we want what our peers have. Maybe that frustration gets taken out on the family at home, whether that means becoming a workaholic who neglects our family because we’re trying to chase something we think we don’t have or just turning our anger into physical and emotional abuse. Or maybe that sense of entitlement turns into other unethical practices, such as buying one’s way onto the New York Times Bestsellers book list, to provide for ourselves what we think we don’t have. Or maybe we take our dissatisfaction out on the church we serve, berating them with “bold preaching” for not being the church that our envious imagination says we should be pastoring.

The best antidote for envy is prayer! Pray with thanksgiving for the way God has gifted us for ministry and with thanksgiving for the ministry God has called us to, whether that is with a large church or small church… a church in the city or a church in the country. Pray also for the people we serve in ministry. Doing so keeps the focus where it belongs, on God and others rather than ourselves.

And if you’re reading this and you’re not a pastor, then send your pastor a card telling them how much you appreciate their ministry. Believe me, such words of encouragement are precious and your pastor will appreciate it more than you realize.

Reading Scripture: Christianity and Church Community

One of the challenges that Christians face in North America is the individualism that we filter the Christian faith through. We do this because we are culturally conditioned as residents within North America which is shaped predominately by Western thought that is individualistic. That’s very different from Eastern societies, including those of the Bible, which are community-oriented in thought.

As an individualistic society, the most important person is the self, whose identity is always distinguished from the others. What matters is that we are true to ourselves and that we be ourselves because it is the self that is ultimately sovereign. That is different from the community-oriented life where family and tribe are more valuable than the self, so that the welfare of the family and tribe are more important than individual expression.

In their book Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes, authors E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien write…

If we’re not careful, our individualistic assumptions about church can lead us to think of the church as something like a health club. We’re members because we believe in the mission statement and want to be a part of the action. As long as the church provides the services I want, I’ll stick around. But when I no longer approve of the vision, or am no longer “being fed,” I’m out the door. This is not biblical Christianity. (p. 107).

No it’s not! The question then is how else might we handle different issues of conflict and disagreement so that we’re not bolting for the nearest door overtime we don’t get our way like something?

Well, w need to get over ourselves! What I mean is that as long as our concern is individualistic, not only is that being self-centered but it is very unlike Christ whom we confess as Lord… whose example we are to take up, which is exactly what Paul instructs in Philippians 2:5-8.

Perhaps it is time we ask God in prayer to retrain us to read scripture with a concern for the community above our individual selves.

Whose Side Are You Standing On?

Last Tuesday, March 3rd, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the United States speaking to Congress. Predictably, his appearance and speech was a political moment that showed the great polarization between Democrats and Republicans. Not surprisingly, his address was lauded with both support and scorn by Christians. Those who favor the right, the conservatism of Republicans, expressed their approval for the Prime Minister while those who favor the left, the liberalism of Democrats, criticized the Prime Minister’s appearance. And not surprisingly, though disappointing, many of these voices lending support or scorn were the voices of Christians… people who belong to the Kingdom of God.

This all seemed like a primer for what’s to come as America gears up for another major election, including the election of a new President. Many Christians will take to social-media as a vehicle for expressing their views, most of which will sound unabashedly either Democrat or Republican. So let me be clear: Christians, we have a problem!

Gospel of Reconciliation

When the Apostle Paul was writing to the Corinthian church to defend the legitimacy of the ministry he and Timothy are engaged in, he described the work as the ministry of reconciliation. Paul said that it was “…God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and who has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). In a world divided between Jews and Gentiles, fueled by years of animosity, Paul was called to proclaim the death and resurrection of Christ which was the climatic event bringing an end to the division by creating one new creation in Christ. In fact, much of Paul’s writing in the New Testament is dedicated to bringing out the implications of this reconciliation.

One of the implications for reconciliation is that those who are reconciled to God also become agents of reconciliation. After discussing how in Christ the wall of division between Jews and Gentiles has been destroyed, creating one new people known as the church, Ephesians makes clear that this “wisdom of God” is now being made known “through the church” (Eph 3:10). The church is able to participate in this mission of God because the Holy Spirit empowers it to live as a proleptic reality. That is, the Holy Spirit enables the church to live among the present as a witness of what the future is.

This is how the eschatology of the gospel works. The future of history, God’s future, has entered into the present through Christ and now his church who continues the ministry of Christ. This means the church is called to live as the tangible reality of what reconciliation looks like among a dying world that only knows division.

There’s just one problem: The majority of Christians in America seem to have forgotten this gospel of reconciliation. Or worse, they just don’t care. What makes me think this, you ask? Because too many Christians are more worried about upholding the present day divisions that having nothing to do with the gospel by aligning themselves with the American right and left… Republican and Democrat politics.

Swallowed Up Into the Division

One of the books I am currently reading is Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace. The author, who as a native Croation, lived through the wars in the former Yugoslavia, knows something about division and explains the real consequence of aligning with one side or the other…

The stronger the conflict, the more the rich texture of the social world disappears and the stark exclusionary polarity emerges around which all thought and practice aligns itself. No other choice seems available, no neutrality possible, and therefore no innocence sustainable. If one does not exit that whole social world, one gets sucked into its horrid polarity. Tragically enough, over time the polarity has a macabre way of mutating into its very opposite − into “both us and them” that unities the divided parties in a perverse common of mutual hate and mourning over the dead (p. 99).

Volf explains how people, by failing to remove themselves from the division, become swallowed up into the division, taking up the cause of one side or the other so that it becomes about “us” (whatever side we align ourselves with) against “them.”

Here in American, that polarity is the politics of the conservative vs. the liberal, typically known as Democrat vs. Republican. The problem for Christianity is that is aligning ourselves with either side, we become that side and lose the ability to participate in the gospel of reconciliation. Note what I did not say: I did not say that by aligning ourselves with one side or the other will prevent us from proclaiming “Jesus saves,” teaching a bible class at church, helping with our church’s VBS, or many of the other good Christian things we do. But let’s be clear, we can do all that and still fail to join in the gospel of reconciliation because this ministry is about living among the present old world of human kingdoms as a witness of the new in-breaking future world of God’s kingdom. And we can’t embody the new when we’re still enjoined with the old!

So, someone might ask, are you saying that Christians cannot vote? Nope! I’ve not said that once and to think that this is the issue is to miss the issue. Most Christians are way past voting. We’ve gone from being just voters to people who are involved in waging a social-media war for one side or the other, as if whatever side we are fighting for is the good news that give life to this dying world. Except, if we really believe the Bible, then we must admit that this is wrong and that the only way we can participating in bringing good news to America and the rest of the world is by aligning ourselves exclusively with Jesus’s cause… not Jesus’ cause and America’s cause but Jesus’s cause alone!

One Question

Let me finish by asking a question. But first, a quick story.

When I was a child at church camp, we would sing a song during devotionals called Standing On The Lord’s Side. The song went something like this…

Leader: “Tell me, whose side are you standing on?”
Church: “I’m standing on the Lord’s side.”
Leader: “I said, whose side are you standing on?”
Church: “Standing on the Lord’s side.
I stand, I stand, I stand… standing on the Lord’s side.

So it seems time for us to ask, whose side are we standing on? The American Right and Left or the Lord’s Side?

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.

Christians: Not of the World?

“Be in the world but not of the world!”

It’s a well known phrase that has been preached in many sermons and repeated by many, many more Christians. It is a conviction which many Christians, especially of the Bible-believing, conservative-evangelicalish type, understand the relationship they are to have with the world. That’s why you won’t hear such Christians talk about going out to see the movie Fifty Shades of Grey followed up by dinner at some restaurant like Hooters or Tilted Kilt.

Being “in the world but not of the world” is actually rooted in some solid biblical teaching. Jesus himself desired that his disciples would be both sent and sanctified. According to John 17:15-19, Jesus prayed to his Father about his disciples saying…

“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth” (NRSV).

The idea of sanctification means to be holy, set apart for God and his mission. While Christians are sent into the world, rather than withdrawn from the world, Christians must abstain from living as the world because they do not belong to the world. The Apostle Paul expresses a very similar concern as he commands the Christians in Rome saying, “Do not be conformed to this present world… (Rom 12:2).

To See The World as God Sees

But living as people who are not of the world is more than just abstaining from certain segments of the entertainment culture.

In his book Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf writes about the strangeness that Christians are to have regarding their culture as a result of their allegiance to God rather than country. Such strangeness gives “…a vantage point form which to perceive and judge the self and the other not simply on their own terms but in the light of God’s new world…” (p. 53). Thus, by embracing this strangeness, Christians are able to see the world as God sees it and respond in ways that reflect the new creation they belong to.

The importance of this strangeness cannot be overstated. Two Sunday’s ago I turned on the news and was horrified by the news that twenty-one Coptic Christians were beheaded as martyrs of Jesus Christ by the terrorist group ISIS. It is horrible and as expected, everyone believes something needs to be done about such terrorism. The world, including the United States, will meet such violence with violence. Militaries will wage war and the masses will champion the cause as if it will really save the world, ridding it of evil.

Yet a lot of Christians, including some preachers, are among the masses cheering this cause and here in the United States it too often ends up having to do with what is best for America… filtered through whatever political camp one affiliates with. So much for being not of the world!

To Speak As Christians

I’m not writing this just for the sake of being critical. I’m concerned with how the church is going convince this broken world of the gospel when so many Christians speak as people who still belong to the world?

I went and saw the movie American Sniper yesterday. It was a realistically brutal portrayal of war, in more ways than one. Besides the bloodshed and the loss of lives of both Americans and Iraqi insurgents, who both bear the image of God, families suffered on both sides for the gods of war. As the movie finished, I was left with nothing but sadness. There was anything to celebrate, there wasn’t any winners to applaud, and there wasn’t any heroes to venerate as a legend. What I saw were victims. That’s right, victims! I saw victims of a dark and broken world where everyone keeps trying to kill everyone not in a war that ends all wars but as a war that only begets more war.

The only way the world is ever going to know there is hope beyond such mayhem, the future hope which Jesus has established through his own crucifixion and resurrection, is for Christians to speak of such hope… to speak as people who are not of this world in response to the terrorism and violence of this world. The world doesn’t need the church to champion its way of the sword, as it already has plenty of people ready and willing to do that. What the world needs is for Christians “to be concerned about nothing among [the world] except Jesus the Messiah and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2) because it is only through the crucified Jesus that the world will ever know the hope of the resurrected Jesus.

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

As You Come Together

Here is a video of me preaching at the Westside Church of Christ in Baltimore on Sunday, February 8th. The sermon is titled As You Come Together and is based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-34.