Category Archives: Scripture

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 While Christians are sent into the world, rather than withdrawn from the world, Christians must abstain from living as the world because they do not belong to the world.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.

I Don’t Miss Mayberry. . . And Neither Should You!

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Mettitt

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Mettitt

I’m old enough that I can remember watching The Andy Griffith show air regularly as reruns on television. I also remember watching the shows Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. It was good wholesome family oriented television that parents could watch with their children without having to worry about what those little ears and eyes might encounter.

Of course, The Andy Griffith Show took place in the fictional town of Mayberry. It was a small town, an all American kind of town. Neighbors knew each other, there weren’t any video games to keep children from playing outdoors, and the most serious crime was when Barney, the Deputy Sheriff would take Otis the drunkard to jail to sleep it off. That certainly seems like the ideal kind of place to live and make a life for ourselves. Heck, even though I didn’t grow up in a single parent home, it certainly would’ve been nice to have an Aunt Bee around always having a fresh-baked apple pie hot off the stove. If only we could return to way back when, right?

Wrong!

As the title suggests, I don’t miss Mayberry and what it represents and neither should you. As wholesome and pleasant as Mayberry may seem, I’m sure not a single Black person would enjoy going back to America’s Mayberry era. Not when being black meant being forced to ride at the back of the bus, not having the right to vote, and even being lynched. In fact, there’s more than a few groups of people that would not enjoy going back in time. That was a time when many still believed a woman’s place was nowhere else but in the home (not that there is anything wrong with women choosing to be homemakers) and sometimes that was a home where women were abused by their husbands while the law did little to nothing since it was a “domestic problem.” Let’s not forget the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped, and many other groups who were marginalized and mistreated.

So no, I don’t want to go way back when and I don’t know why any other Christian would either. In fact, I don’t know why Christians would long for any idyllic American culture, be it the traditional culture that Mayberry represents or the more progressive culture that America has seemingly become.

Growing up, we would sing the spiritual This World Is Not My Home during church services. Some churches still sing it. But do we really mean it? Because whether it’s the down-home traditional America or the more progressive America, many American Christians seem baptize the American ideal as the best thing since sliced bread.

Can We Recover Our Hope?

Christianity in America really needs to recover a sense of eschatological hope. That is, the church needs to learn once again what it is to live with hope. . . to be in the present what it awaits for and what it already is in the fullness of time. The Apostle Paul writes Philippians 3:20-21,

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Only when Jesus returns will everything in life, including our own bodies, become what it is meant to be. Right now we live with a promise which is hope to us in Christ because we know what our future is. So if this is what we are to eagerly await, why dream and politic for good ole’ Mayberry or it’s American antithesis? Christians belong to neither and await neither!

However, let me push this a bit farther. Within the context of Philippians 3:20-21, Paul is contrasting the Christian disposition of being set toward to the second-coming of the Lord with people who have their minds set on “earthly things (v. 19). While Paul is directly talking about people driven by hedonistic values where their own stomach becomes their god, it isn’t a stretch at all to say that Christians who for an idyllic American life also have their minds set on earthly things.

This is not to say that everything about America then and now is bad, as that would be a gross mischaracterization. There were and are many good things about America. Yet no matter how good we think America was or is, it will not be when Jesus comes again. One day when Jesus return, everything will be brought under his reign. Until then, the only way for the world to know now that Jesus is Lord is for us, the church of Jesus Christ, to live in hope of that day when every knee will bow and every tongue confesses. We can’t do that when we’re preaching sermons in the sanctuary, on Facebook, or else that says “I Miss Mayberry.”

Church Leadership: Posture and Presence

Years ago I worked as a machinist for Aero Metals, which was a small but growing manufacturing corporation in La Porte, Indiana. The company was locally owned and even though I worked the grave-yard shift from 11:00 PM to 7:00 AM, I met the owner on several occasions when he came in early in the morning. He would stop by to ask how everything was going, if I had any concerns, and other questions like that.

At the time I didn’t have any idea of what this guy was doing. I just figured that he was making sure every person was doing their job since he was the owner and the person who ultimately was writing the paychecks. Twenty years later and with a lot of ministry experience, I have a different perspective.

From the Office to the Floor

You might recall watching the show Undercover Boss which runs on CBS television. The show is about a boss, usually the CEO of a very large and lucrative corporation who puts on a disguise and then does the job among those doing the manual labor. He or She, the head honcho becomes one of the store clerks, the delivery person, the food server, the warehouse personnel, etc…

As the boss does this, he or she engages in real conversation with the employees about the job and about their life. In doing so, these CEOs become aware of the struggles and challenges their employees face, both on the job and in their own personal lives. With awareness, each CEO is able to intelligently act in a way that positively affects their employees personal lives while also affecting positive change for the operation of their business.

By going out on the ground floor, listening and learning to the employees, the boss is able to serve the employees in a way that is win-win for all involved.

Christ-Like Church Leadership

My friend and fellow minister Fred Liggen* defines leadership as listening, learning, and loving. It is essentially what the undercover bosses are doing (just substitute the word “serve” for “love”). But more importantly, it is the sort of leadership we see from Jesus.

Jesus is among the people, in the fields and at the table with them. He meets people where they’re at and engages in conversation with them their. He is listening, learning, and loving them and therefore he is able to lead them. And according to Luke 22:24-27, we can see how Jesus expected that those who would lead in his kingdom would imitate his model of leadership… A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ Not so with you; instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Thanks to Jesus, my friend Fred, and a few others, I am convinced more than ever that this is what leadership in the church is. Ministers (Pastors) are not CEOs of their church, neither are the elders/shepherds. They both are called to be servants. Their capacity to lead is in the ability to come out of the office or out of the elders room at the building a gather with the members of the church in their homes, in the hospital room or waiting area, at a park, on the golf-course or in the fishing boat, at a restaurant, at a coffee shop, and even at the pub.

It is in these places where the listening, learning, and loving occurs and that is how servants of God can lead. It is about posture and presence among the people and with the people. This is where leadership happens. This is where church leaders are able to acting a way that blesses the individual lives of the church they serve as well as the church as a whole. It works for the Undercover Boss and it will certainly work for the minister or shepherd of the church who comes clothed in nothing but the love and humility of Jesus Christ.

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* I have had a sense of this leadership since following around my friend Ricardo Maia, who is a minister in his homeland of Brazil, as this was Ricardo’s way of leading as a minister. However, it is my friend Fred Liggen, who serves as the minister of the Williamsburg Christian Church, is the first person I know to use the phrase “Listening, Learning, and Loving = Leadership.” Both men are courageous ministers following Jesus as servants in the kingdom of God.

The Conversation Churches Must Engage

As the circumstances of our surrounding culture and community change, so do the issues that face every local church. Often the issues, be it poverty, sexuality, religious pluralism, etc…, remain general enough that a church can ignore them if they wise. But at some point a church will have a visitor come from that new Section 8 housing down the street, having many needs and lives in that new Section 8 housing around the corner. Or that church will learn that the local Muslims are planning to build a Mosque across the street from where the church meets. Or someone in that church will come out of the closet, telling others that they are gay. Suddenly what remained as general issue  become very particular issues that impact the local church in such a way that whatever the response is, it will reshape the identity of the church.

This is called a kairos-moment in the life of the church. The word “kairos” comes from the Greek language and literally means time but not in the chronological sense like the time of day. It refers to an event that is happening among the church which is an opportunity for the church. Regardless of the circumstances of such a kairos-moment, it is an opportunity from God to listen and then walk on mission with God in such a way that the church is transformed. Or, depending on how the church responds, it is an opportunity from God that the church ignores, rejects, etc… which leads to a loss of mission. This is where churches begin to decline, anxiously seeking to go back in time and repeat the past because they fool themselves into believing trying a hundred different versions of the same thing over and over will somehow reap different results.

Responding To A Kairos-Moment

As I said, such kairos-moments are an opportunity for the church. Yet because the particular circumstances of these kairos-moments are difficult issues that raise theological questions and awaken sensitive political triggers, it is tempting and easy for churches just to avoid the issues. Or what happens is that people in the church simply react with a defensive (and highly emotive) response. When this happens, various platitudes, that have more in common with the American left and right than they do with the gospel, are underscored with biblical proof-texts and used as weapons to win the fight. Yet, neither avoiding the issue nor taking a defensive posture will help. By avoiding these kairos-moments, churches are unable to hear God’s voice and by taking a defensive posture, churches are unable to see where God is working.

The first response to such kairos-moments is spiritual-discernment. Such discernment is a conversation that leads to a thoughtful and contextualized response so that the church may continue living on mission with God as faithful followers of Jesus who are animated by the Spirit. It is a conversation that the leaders of the church must have with each other but it is also a conversation that the leaders must have with the rest of the church as well − and the conversation between the leaders and the rest of the church must shape the conversation that the leaders continue having amongst themselves. Failure to have either conversation will again simply result in a lost opportunity, likely rendering the local church as futile among the surrounding culture and community.

Engaging In Spiritual Discernent

I want to suggest two criterions for engaging in spiritual-discernment regarding any particular kairos-moment that I believe will help churches step forward on mission with God These are not the only criterions that could be discussed but they are two that I believe matter immensely.

PROCEED BY GRACE WITH FAITH. The spiritual-discernment necessary here is a process that takes the church into a wilderness so to speak. Sometimes it can feel like walking on ice in the dark… to find the shore, everyone must continue forward but with each step there is a bit of uncertainty as to whether the ice is going to break. It’s easy to become frustrated.

Show each other grace, allow each other to think openly and even say things that may not sound so wise at the moment. And don’t worry about making some mistakes along the way. The journey into the wilderness will come with some mistakes but have faith. Just as God preserved Israel as they journeyed through the wilderness, so will God preserve his people today. What the promise-land looks like will be as surprising as it was for Israel but God will lead the church there. So proceed forward but do so by the grace of God for each other with an abiding faith in God.

ENGAGE SCRIPTURE, TRADITION, & CULTURE TOGETHER. The particular issues that churches face today may share many similarities with the circumstances that other churches find themselves in. Yet they are not exactly the same either, so churches cannot simply juxtapose scripture or Christian tradition down upon any issue and say that what was done before is the church should do now. This locks the church into merely trying to repeat the past rather than living as a present embodiment of the gospel.

The conversation of spiritual-discernment involves bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other. By doing this, churches will discern what their theological praxis (how the church embodies the gospel) must involve for the present circumstances. Formulaically, the conversation of spiritual discernment is: Scripture (S) + Tradition (T) + Culture (C)= Theological Practice (ThP).

S + T + C = ThP

By bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other, the conversation is asking “What does the gospel look like in this?” and “How does the church enact the gospel Jesus lived in this?” The only thing left is for the church to faithfully follow Jesus where the Spirit leads, acting upon what God reveals.

One Final Thought

There is obviously much more to say about bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other that can be said in one blog post. So I hope to say more in the coming months. Nevertheless, this is the sort of conversation that the church had at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), has had at different moments throughout history, and must keep having. Yet it’s also a conversation for every local church because that is where the circumstances of culture are encountered in the particular. With that in mind, such conversations must always take place from a posture of listening, that is bathed in prayer and unequivocally faithful to Jesus, who is the Lord, and therefore a faithful embodiment of the gospel Jesus lived and proclaimed.

Thank You All!

The following is the article “Thank You All” that I wrote for the latest and final edition of the Connecting Newsletter, a bi-monthly production of the Columbia Church of Christ (Connecting Newsletter 29, 2014). The article reflects upon our decision as a church to close and the future in light of the gospel story. At some later point I plan to write about the decision and process of closing a Church of Christ as I think this is a decision that more Churches of Christ will face in the coming years but for now…

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Church Logo

For most people, the holidays are a joyous occasion. With Christmas, we have the pleasure of gathering with our family and friends to celebrate life and we are also reminded of the birth of Jesus which is the dawning of hope for the world. Following Christmas, we celebrate New Year’s Day, saying goodbye to the past year while also anticipating with excitement what is to come in the new year. All that is to say that the end is never the end but a new beginning.

An End

As you may already know, the Columbia Church of Christ has made the difficult decisions to close. The following announcement has been posted to our website:

Thank you for your interest in the Columbia Church of Christ. After a year of discerning the direction God has for us as Christians, we have come to the conclusion that he is leading us to merge with other churches where we can continue serving him and his mission. Therefore as a church, the Columbia Church of Christ will close at the end of January 2015. Until then we will continue meeting every Sunday at 10:30 for worship in the Stone House (8775 Cloudleap Ct., Columbia, MD 21045). On Sunday, January 25, 2015 we will have a final celebrative worship gathering as a praise to God for the way he has worked through our church over many years.

Along with that closure comes the end of the Connecting Newsletter which has been produced for twenty-nine years now. So this article marks the final entry into the final newsletter as we enter into the final month for the Columbia Church of Christ.

While there is sadness that comes with this decision, there is reasons for giving thanks. I am thankful for the legacy of this church and I am equally proud to have served as one of her ministers. This congregation has been “a family of grace in Columbia” where the hurting and the struggling have experienced the hope of Christ. This church was also one of the first Churches of Christ to break with tradition regarding the role of women which has help pave the way for a growing number of other Churches of Christ to do the same. This church has been a generous supporter of global missions and local ministries offering help to people in need. So while closure is near, there is good to celebrate.

A New Beginning

Although the closing of the Columbia Church of Christ marks an end, it is not the end. Rather, we are entering into a new beginning. According to the gospel of Jesus Christ, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54). Therefore there is never an end but always a new beginning which we anticipate.

While the Columbia Church of Christ is closing as an organization, the kingdom of God is not losing anyone. God is leading us forth into other local churches where we can continue serving as disciples of Christ using the gifts that we have received from the Spirit. The earliest Christian community, which resided in Jerusalem, was eventually scattered through persecution (Acts 8:1). At the time, it may have seemed like the end but it wasn’t. God was at work and through the faith of these Christians, the body of Christ continued growing as a movement that is now a global witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. While we cannot know the particulars of the future, we know that we will continue living as participants in this mission of God.

A Word of Thanks

To all of you, who have continued supporting and praying for the Columbia Church of Christ, thank you! Words will never fully express our appreciation for you but they must do for now. May God bless you as he blesses each and every one of us… “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Num 6:24-26)!