A Conversation About Jesus and Religion

Yesterday evening while driving for Uber in Baltimore I picked up a man I”ll call Sammy, who was born in India but was raised in America. I picked him up at a bar in Baltimore and I could tell he had a few drinks but he was a nice man and was telling me about his work, which involved working with clients all around the world. Then he asked me what I do and that’s where things became interesting.

I explained to Sammy that I’m a Christian and have spent the last ten plus years of my life serving as a minister with churches. Sammy then told me that he is not religious but respects anyone who is because religion normally make people better people. The conversation then went something like this…

Sammy: “Do you really believe in one God?”

Me: “Yes, I do.”

Sammy: “Do you believe Jesus is the only one who can save everyone?”

Me: “Yes, I do.”

Sammy then proceeded to share with me his difficulty in believing like I believe. He said that at the end of the day all religions teach us how to be nicer people to others and that’s what he thinks is important. Then Sammy said, “But you believe differently.”

I could tell he was waiting for a response but I paused for a moment as we were pulling up to his destination. Then I said, “Sammy, I believe that Jesus was crucified but that God raised him from death and exalted him as Lord… as the one who is King over all. That’s why he is the only one who can save everyone. Of course, if Jesus wasn’t raised from death then none of that really matters. But if he was, and I believe he was, and if you believe he was, then even if we don’t understand how God works all this salvation stuff out, we know that it is through Jesus that God saves because Jesus is the Lord… the King.”

Sammy stayed silent for a moment. Then he said, “Wow, I never thought of it that way before. I know I have to go now but thanks, I need to think about that more now.”

Christians… If God has raised the crucified Jesus from death and exalted him as Lord, as we confess, then may the Spirit empower us to boldly live as witnesses for this good news of Jesus the Messiah!

What Am I Looking For in a Church?

     With the Columbia Church of Christ disbanding, I find myself looking to what is ahead and how I might continue serving God with the gifts he has blessed me with. I am thankful for those who have encouraged me to continue in ministry as a life-vocation, as this has reaffirmed God’s calling into ministry which has come at very necessary moments. I am also thankful for the Christian community that was known as the Columbia Church of Christ. Though the outcome was not what anyone expected when I began serving as the minister, it was the leading of God and along the way I also learned a lot about leading a church in a pastoral sense for the sake of God and his mission.
     Even though I have learned from all of my experience and education, it is my experience with the Columbia Church of Christ, participating in the Mission Alive training labs, and the Doctor of Ministry studies in missional leadership I am working on at Northern Seminary that has helped me understand how I must serve as a minister. And now that I am talking with some other churches about serving with them as a minister, one of the questions that always seems to come up is what sort of church am I looking for as a minister. So here is my answer to that question.
     Let me start by saying what I am not looking for. I am not looking for a church that is afraid of considering something new, reluctant in taking any risk, and simply interested in maintaining things the way they are. But on the other hand, I am not looking for a church that is just trying to change in order to follow the latest trends of what some other church is doing. Instead I am looking for a church that wants to pursue how God is working among them and in their local community for the sake of his mission so that they can continue participating with God in that work.
     So besides preaching and teaching, casting vision, spending time visiting with people, and all the other work that ministers often do (which I enjoy doing), I am trying to foster a conversation. This is a conversation about how we, as a church, participate with God in his mission, serving one another and our community as we serve God. It is a conversation in which the gospel, as known through scripture and the Christian tradition, is brought into conversation with culture so that we may discern how God is calling us to embody the gospel followers of Jesus. When this happens, there is participation in the mission of God.
     For me, as a minister, that means serving as a listener first in order to learn how God has been at work among the church as well as the local community. By listening and learning myself, I believe I am better equipped to help the church listen and learn so that we are able to discern how God is leading us. This also means that I am seeking from the elders shepherding the church buy-in on a commitment to leading by listening and learning, so that we are listening, learning, and leading together for the sake of God’s work among the church and  community. That’s ministry leadership… pastoral leadership… missional leadership!
     When this happens, we are able to discern as a church not only where God is leading but what might need to change and how that should occur. Further more, this ministry leadership enables us to discern how God is gifting various Christians within the church in order affirm their giftedness and encourage their faithful service using such gifts.
     That’s the sort of church I am looking for. The sort of church that wants to discover how God is at work among them and where he is leading them next in order to go there in faith, just as the people of God have done many other times.

Imago Dei: They Belong to God

As I continue talking with different churches about serving as a minister with them, I have started driving for Uber in the city of Baltimore. It’s a way to earn some needed income for my family but it’s also proving to be a great way of listening and learning as I taxi people from one destination to another. Last night as I was driving though the city and seeing the myriad of different people, I began reflecting on God, creation, and the image of God. So here are some of the thoughts that came to my mind.

One of the great sins throughout history has been the objectification of other people. By objectification, we see others only as an object or means of serving us. It’s a self-serving sickness that reduces others to the value of whatever they can do for us. And sometimes that’s pretty cheap… a one night stand, a quick high, and so on. Sometimes the objectification of others has resulted in some of the great injustices throughout history such as the importation of humans to work as slaves.

The Bible tells us that all people are made in the imago dei, image of God, bearing the likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27; 5:1). Later on in life when asked about paying taxes to Ceasar, Jesus takes a coin that bears Caesars image and says to give it back to Caesar because it belongs to Caesar (Mk. 12:13-17). What Jesus is also saying, which is what we often miss, is that we dare not give ourselves to Caesar because we bear the image of God and therefore we are to worship/serve God. But here is a further point about people and the image of God.

Now let’s clarify a further point about the image of God and the others we encounter every day. The others, those we are so tempted to objectify for our own ends, bear the image of God and therefore they belong to God!

To recognize the image of God in other people and recognize that they belong to God means that they are not ours to do with as we please. They belong to God and we are to serve them as we would serve God. Whether it is our family, a person who has been visiting our church gatherings, the neighbor down the street and even the obnoxious neighbor down the street, the person panhandling money on the street corner, the person…

We cannot see people only as a means to an end, as a commodity to fulfill our needs. The world is a more enjoyable place when we instead regard others with the dignity of being a human-being, a person bearing the image of God. When we resist the easy temptation of objectifying others and instead serve them, we learn what it means to love God and love our neighbor as ourself.

Church Renewal: Discerning The Way Forward

Many churches find themselves struggling to carry on the mission for which they are called. With membership numbers slowly declining and once vibrant programs running like a dial-up internet in an age of high-speed wifi, the concern is palpable. And even planting new churches, which is always necessary, is not guaranteed of a better outcome. For as many “successful” church plants, there are many more “unsuccessful” church plants. The issue isn’t a matter of how to do church better or start a new program that might grow a church. The challenge has to do with mission itself, particularly how we participate in the mission of God.

What Is The Challenge?

For many churches, “missions” has always been a program led by a committee to oversee the sending and supporting of missionaries among a foreign culture. Missions has not been the adjective missional describing the life of the local church belonging to Christ. That is to say that churches have not understood themselves as a missionary-people among their local community and culture, and therefore have not thought about the purpose like a missionary.

When missionaries enter a foreign culture, they seek to indigenously plant the gospel seed among the people they encounter. Doing that requires a cross-cultural approach that strives for both faithfulness to the gospel and contextualization of the gospel within the local culture. The missionary question asked is how is the gospel faithfully planted in a contextual manner so that indigenous Christianity forms? Most existing churches didn’t feel the need to think like this and ask this missionary question because the local community was shaped by Christendom worldview where regardless of how many non-Christians there were, the culture of the community was shaped by and functioned out of a broad Christian ethos. For example, public prayers were always prayed “in the name of Jesus” and whether or not a person lived like a Christian should, they were likely a member of some Christian church.

Things are much different now as the American cultural landscape is quickly becoming post-Christendom. Besides an overt secularism, society is shaped by pluralism where numerous voices present. These voices are engaged in a table conversation about the purpose and meaning of life and each voice is vying for an equal hearing (side point: sometimes those other voices would love for the Christian voice to get up and go to its own table… which is why Christians need to learn good table manners). This is the new culture churches find themselves among and it requires a cross-cultural missionary approach. The big difference is that instead of crossing into a foreign geographical culture, churches must cross into a foreign social-culture from their own. So the driving question is the driving question is how does the local church embody the gospel in a faithful yet contextual manner?

Engaging The Challenge

In the pursuit of the driving question, part of the challenge for the local church learning how to enter into a different social-culture as missionary people. This  has been of interest to me as a minister ever since I became aware of the new cultural context churches are finding themselves in. So as a minister, the question is how do I help lead a church to embody the gospel in a faithful yet contextual manner? 

I don’t make any claims of having the final answer on this issue, as I am still a learner myself. However, I am fairly convinced that the issue is deeper and more robust than just than trying the latest trend that appears from afar to work in another church, etc… The beginning place is always humility, realizing that something has to change. Once this posture of humility is present, a new listening posture can take shape where the church is able to enter into a necessary conversation.

This conversation is what the image to the left depicts as a “trialogue” where the gospel, known through scripture and Christian tradition, is brought into conversation with the local church at it is presently (not just in its “glory days” or where it would like to be in the future, though both the past and future cannot be completely discarded) and the local culture…

  • Gospel: This is listening to the creative-redemptive story of how God is reconciling and restoring in and through Jesus Christ, told through scripture and the historical traditions of the church. Such listening requires an openness to the reality that there may be elements of the gospel the church has missed or sort of neglected.
  • Church: The church is listening to one another, discerning how God is at work among the church. Of importance is the way in which Holy Spirit is gifting the church and the sort of passionate dreams that God may be awakening among each other.
  • Culture: The church is listening for the ways that God is at work among the local culture, so that the church might possibly join God in that work.

In one sense, this trialogical conversation is simple but it is also an open-ended conversation that (re)discovers how God is at work leading the church to live as his missionary people. Questions may arise about everything from the way the church practices benevolence to teaching and forming disciples to the new ways that fellowship becomes an intentional practice of church and so on. What is up for reconsideration is the gospel itself, as the church can only participate in the mission of God so long as it continues in the gospel first proclaimed by Jesus and then his Apostles.

A Final Word

One of the disastrous notions of modernism is the need to control and know the outcome. Seeking control in order to know and even manage the outcome, which is often motivated by fear, traditionalism, and maintaining comfort for the comfortable, already misses the point of a church living as God’s missionary people. Mission is not the result of the church doing God’s work, rather the church is really the result of disciples living on mission with God and that happens when the church is animated by the Spirit rather than controlled by human motives.

Christian Witness, Baptism, and Politics

In the simplest of terms, Christians are called to live as witnesses of Jesus. Called together as church, Christians embody the good news of Jesus in order to show the victory of God. It is a victory that God has accomplished through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as a testimony of the new kingdom life. That’s also why Christians must remember their baptism into Christ.

In Romans 6, Paul reminds Christians that those who have been baptized have died with Jesus and have been raised into new life in him. Paul’s point, however, isn’t just to remind them their salvation and it’s certainly not about salvation in some escapist sense, so that Christians reduce this life only as something to come in some sweet bye and bye. Rather, Paul’s point is to remind Christians of the new life they have already received and must now participate in as the basis for embodying the good news by no longer continuing in sin but instead walking in the “newness of life.”

So in essence, Christian witness is not about overcoming evil but about the embodied witness of victory in Christ. It’s the task of proclamation by word and deed. It’s a proclamation that explaining to the world the way life which the world witnesses among Christians. Hence, it is nonsensical for Christians to proclaim Jesus as the one who has overcome evil and yet live as though the battle with evil has yet to be settled.

Even though there is still plenty of evil that persists this side of the second-coming, God has already ensured through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus that evil does not have the last word — not even death, known by the sting of sin, has victory anymore. So rather than trying to win some culture war or any other war, Christians are simply called to live as an embodied witness of the new victorious life in Christ.

Christian witness is not about overcoming evil but about the embodied witness of victory in Christ.

This is why Christians cannot engage in politics like the rest of society so often does. For starters, Christian witness is neither liberal nor conservative (Democrat, Republican, etc… if you will) because those platforms are not the new life in Christ which the church embodies. That is not too say that Christians can’t have a political opinion, can’t vote, etc… But it is a reminder that duty of Christians is not to be an evangelistic spokesperson for any national politic.

In addition to this, Christians must refrain from demeaning people and politicians whom they disagree with. It has become common-place in American politics to belittle and ridicule those who take and opposing political view. Words like “liberal” or phrases like “right-wing” are used as antagonisms, especially in social-media where it is so easy to speak in ways that would likely not happen in a face-to-face conversation. Unfortunately Christians, including myself, have engaged in politics like this. How ironic is it that politics, meant as a means of maintaining civility, has become so uncivil.

One of the instructions Paul had for Christians was to “speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone” (Tit 3:2, NRSV). This means that no matter how much one disagrees with a Presidential Candidate or even someone else’s opinion shared in the latest click-bait article or meme, all temptations to respond with ridicule and vitriol must be resisted. This is not to suggest that Christians cannot express disagreement but to say that all critical engagement must be gentle and courteous. Plus, when Christians do engage politics in a gentle and courteous manner, they portray themselves as someone safe that others can engage safely without the fear of being verbally shot down for having a different view. And that might open the door for Christians to say that while this or that political issue is important, there is something else far more important and it has to do with Jesus.

❊❊❊❊❊❊❊❊❊❊

I’ve watched and listened to both the Republican and Democrat Presidential debates. I have my opinions and I’m sure you do as well. But as America moves closer to another Presidential election, my prayer is that we (Christians) remember whose we are and therefore not lose sight of the witness we are to embody. May God, our Father in heaven, give us wisdom from the Spirit to speak and act as ambassadors of his Son, Jesus Christ!

Engaging Conflict Requires An Attitude

Conflict is a part of life, period! It exists in everything from marriage to the work place and larger society. The only person who lives without any conflict is a hermit living on a remote island by him/herself and that’s a lonely life. For the rest of us, conflict is a given. In fact, I just spoke with a person who was telling me how an ongoing work place conflict, lasting for over a year, has been favorably resolved. Conflict can be stressing and perplexing but it can be a healthy thing too.

Yes! Conflict can be a healthy thing too and that’s good news for Churches, since every church I know of has its share of conflict.

Because conflict is amoral, this should not bother us. What should concern us is how we handle the conflict. In fact, that is where the anxiety about conflict arises because too often we don’t handle conflict well. Given the choice of fight or flight, we either run in hopes of avoiding the issue all together or we fight by responding with selfish postures attempting to win by injuring the other…

“She just believes every last word that Joyce Myers says.”

“He just think that because he has money…”

“They just don’t care about what the Bible says.”

“He just can’t see past his own traditions.”

“She just takes everything too personally.”

Those are just some of the things I have heard Christians say about someone else in their church. I’ve probably made similar such comments too. Although sometimes spoken in a direct manner, most of the time this approach is passive-aggressive in nature.

The problem with conflict is how we handle it. Often when challenged, we become defensive. Believing that we are right with little, if any, consideration that we might be wrong, we argue and protest against the other. If it is a policy or practice we disagree with, we’ll dig our heels in and turn what often is a minor issue into a major issue that must go our way. But again, the issue isn’t the conflict itself but the way we respond to the conflict.

The difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict hinges on how we handle the conflict. A healthy response to conflict begins with Christ-likeness. So the apostle Paul says that we are to have the same attitude of Christ, who humbled himself as a servant and became obedient even to the point of death (cf. Phil 2:5-8). In practice, having this attitude means…

  • Listening to understand before responding. Humility means recognizing that be wrong. Even if we’re not wrong, we can’t help resolve any conflict without listening first. Listening also involves, as my friend Fred always says, assuming the best about the other person when they speak.
  • Extending grace toward each other. Jesus was obedient to the point of death even though he was never in the wrong. His obedience is the extension of God’s grace and like Jesus, we must extend grace even when we have been wronged. That means forgiving and loving one another.

I’m not trying to suggest that conflict is easy. If it was easy, we wouldn’t try avoiding it or do so poorly with it at times. But ignoring conflict or failing to rightly deal with it allows what could be a great opportunity become a problem that threatens the and undermines the health of the church.

Listening and extending grace toward each other amidst conflict requires talking. One of way of doing this involves table fellowship. Serve each other by eating together. Invite some others to join if needed but the act of eating together helps create and maintain a hospitable atmosphere where we hear one another, clarify misunderstandings, apologize, forgive, and resolve to speak/act rightly moving forward. The result is reconciliation and at the end of the day that is what engaging conflict is about… so that we may be one even when we don’t agree.

May we all engage conflict with an attitude… the attitude of Christ!

Loving Your Enemy or Arming Yourself?

As the details of the mass-shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, we learned that the killer was targeting Christians. This comes only a few month removed from another mass-shooting where the killer targeted Black Christians at an AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, though racism was the motive in this mass-shooting. Added to all of this is the continued conflicts in the Middle-East and the threat of terrorism, especially the horrific persecution of Christians at the hands of ISIS.

All of that creates a lot of anxiety and I get that. It’s scary to think that a disturbed person might show up where you study or work, or where you worship, and shoot you simply because you are a Christian. It’s even scarier to know that there is a group or terrorists who would like to kill you, or someone like you and do so by cutting off your head or burning you alive. Yet if we allow that anxiety to brew, all kinds of dark emotions and desires take hold. And as we know, fear has been the base of much evil throughout history. Shouldn’t we just wish death upon such people and do everything we can to support taking them out before they get us?

Two Different Responses

Jesus ministered in a time and region filled with more anxiety than we’ll likely ever grasp. The Roman rulers had proved themselves as ruthless in dealing with their political enemies and the Jewish people were among those enemies. Yet within one sermon about the way of life we must live, Jesus says this in Matthew 5:43-45,

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven…” 

I know this is not an easy teaching but it’s not an impossible teaching either.

Too often this passage is caught in the middle of the ethical question about whether followers of Jesus can act in defense if they or someone they see is being attacked by an assailant. I understand the importance of this issue but I also think it often keeps us from seeing something profoundly important about this teaching.

Jesus is teaching us to see the enemy differently and treat the enemy differently! When people decide that we are their enemy and plot to do us harm, our instinct is to their level of evil and return the hatred. We do so by plotting how we might do to them as they would do to us. If they want to attack us, we’ll send an army to take them out before they get the opportunity. But Jesus, who defines for us by his own self-sacrificial life of service what is means to love, wants us to see the enemy as a person just like us in order that we will seek their best interest by doing good to them. By doing good to all people, even those who hate us, we participate with God in demonstrating what the inbreaking kingdom-reign of God is like. That, my fellow Christians, is why this difficult teaching is later echoed by both the apostle Paul and apostle Peter (Rom 12:14; 1 Pet 3:9).

How different is that from the advise offered by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Tennessee who, after invoking the mass-shooting in Oregon, urged Christians who are serious about their faith to get a gun. He went on to say, “Our enemies are armed. We must do likewise.” How different is that from what Jesus says! Lt. Gov Ramsey is telling is to see those who may harm us as the enemy rather than as a person like us, who bears the same image of God we bear. Invoking fear rather than encouraging faith, he is telling us that if someone is plotting to kill us then we should plan ahead by arming ourselves so that we might kill them in order to protect ourselves.

This is more than just reacting defensively in the moment, should we ever find ourselves under attack. What Lt. Gov Ramsey is telling us to do is decide now that we are going to respond with deadly force, doing harm in order to protect ourselves from potential harm. How different that is from how Jesus teaches us to live? How different is that from the disciples in Jerusalem who, when faced with a threat, did not discuss how they might arm themselves for protection but came together and prayed that would perform signs and wonders while empowering his servants to preach the gospel with boldness (Acts 4:23-31)?

Arming Ourselves!

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not under any illusion that following Jesus is easy, especially when it comes to loving the enemy. It’s not easy and it won’t ever be easy. It could be the way we are called to be a martyr for Jesus, just as it has been for other Christians throughout history. But that is why we must speak with boldness now and remind each other of this important teaching, so that we will encourage faithful discipleship if and when the road does get rough. Should I ever encounter someone doing harm to others, I won’t stand by and do nothing. I pray that I would have the courage to intercede as Chris Mintz did during last weeks shooting, putting himself in harms way to save others. I’ll assume you would do the same. But I won’t resign myself to hating those who hate me and preemptively plotting how I might kill them before they kill me.

We must reject fear and accept faith! If we’re going to live faithfully as followers of Jesus then we must resist any premeditated plan to categorize evil people as our enemy with the intention of doing them harm in order to protect ourselves. To do otherwise is to disembody the gospel, rejecting the way of Jesus when it appears too difficult. What we need is more faith… more faith in Jesus. So on that note, I do agree with one tiny aspect of what Lt. Gov. Ramsey said and that is that Christians should arm themselves. We should arm ourselves by putting on the full armor of God — the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God — and praying we are instructed in Ephesians 6:10-20.