Encountering Truth in a Post-Truth Society

As of last year, the word post-truth officially entered into the American vocabulary. Ergo the Washington Post recently ran a piece with the following headline: “Post-Truth” named 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. The article then went on to say, “It’s official: Truth is dead. Facts are passe.”

So this, among other things, is what we’ve come to as society. Truth has become whatever we, as our individual selves, want to believe. It’s not just the politicians or the journalists, it’s us. That’s why there is all the influx of fake news stories about this or that we’ve passed along as truth in various social-media outlets. Most of the time, we don’t even care enough to even see if what we’re sharing is true or not. Why? Because the fake news story agrees with what we wish to be true. As my friend Sean Palmer remarked on Facebook, “We [don’t] see things as they are. We see things as we are. The lies are a symptom, the ego and false self are the disease!”

The question we must as is where do we go from here? Where might we find truth in order that we see life as God wills life to be?

Let’s begin with how our western society has understood truth and the birth of modernism in the 17th century, particularly with a couple of philosophers named René Descartes and Immanuel Kant. They led us to believe that the human mind and our ability to objectively reason was the foundational basis of what could be known and how we could resolve moral issues. Truth was reduced to whatever could be scientifically proven and the western world began to operate as though human reason could solve all of our problems. Though it wasn’t the intention of Descartes and Kant, this resulted in a grandiose view of humanity and what could be achieved through human ingenuity.

The human mind and objective reasoning might all sound good but then came the 20th century with depression and world wars, gas chambers and nuclear bombs, and humanitarian crises such as famine and the rise in urban blight. This is what the human mind, with its capacity to objectively reason, produced? It became rather obvious that science and human reason wasn’t solving every problem. Enter into the conversation two more philosophers named Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. They helped us see that we’re not as objective in our reasoning as we wish since we all think from a location shaped by our experiences; and sometimes our motives are less than pure. Thus, modernism bequeathed postmodernism.

“Truth is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the gospel story which centers in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Now I am far from well-read in the field of continental philosophy. However, from what I have read, it seems that postmodernism offered a good corrective to the arrogance of modernism which placed such high confidence in human reason. However, the downside of postmodernism is a trajectory that has led us into a post-truth reality where our only source of truth is our individual selves. Obviously, we have a problem when the only source of truth is ourselves. While we are all shaped by our own biases, experiences, and motives, is there any truth beyond ourselves? I believe so and if you’re a Christian, so then should you. Truth is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the gospel story which centers in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I further believe the Bible is a truthful, and therefore trustworthy, witness of Jesus Christ, his gospel, and teaching.

We know this truth in the passing of tradition among the church. What I am speaking of is what Roberto S. Goizueta describes as “a truth that emerges from the interaction between two particular persons and that, therefore, transcends each of them” (Caminemos Con Jesús, p. 158). In our case the two particular people is ourselves and the local church which is always part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church whom Christ is present among. Among the local church is the tradition of what the first witnesses of the crucified and resurrected Jesus saw and began telling others who then told others and so forth. They we’re simply telling what they saw first-hand and subsequently experienced vicariously through their encounter of the gospel among the church. So the gospel story of Jesus and his teaching became the tradition passed on from one generation to the next.

One of the ways we encounter this tradition even as we share in it in order that we might know the truth is through the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist where we remember Jesus Christ. In the partaking of bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we encounter the truth of what the world really is coming to be as God wills. We anticipate the future of history in the present (prolepsis) as we remember the past by sharing in the Lord’s Supper together as we sing hymns and pray as well as read scripture and hear the word of God proclaimed. Gathered together for this Eucharistic meal is where we then learn how to live into this future as a witness of the truth so that others, in a post-truth society, will encounter the truth of Jesus Christ.

Caging The Tiger: Church Leadership and Toxic Christians

The Church of Christ my family and I were a part of when I was a child was a small congregation. Most of my church experience, especially as a minister, has been with small congregations. By small, I mean congregations of less than one-hundred people and that includes children.

If you talk to members of these congregations, they’ll usually talk about the closeness the members have with each other. The local church is like an extended family, which seems good. In fact, one of the challenges that larger churches face is trying to retain this sense of close community so that all members have a sense of belonging and deeper relationship with at least a few others in the church. This is one reason why small groups have become so popular. Another thing about small churches is that most of them want some numerical growth. So generally, there is an excitement when someone decides they want to place membership and for various reasons, these small Churches of Christ are always happy when a person from another Church of Christ wants to become a part of their church. However, there’s a real danger in that sometimes there is such a desperation to welcome a new person or family that someone toxic person is welcomed without any reservation or qualification.

“If you want a lamb and a tiger to live in the same forest, you don’t try to make them communicate. You cage the bloody tiger.”

– Edwin H. Friedman

Who is the toxic person I have in mind? Typically he or she is a Christian who every few years gets upset about something in their church and leaves for another church (note: they’ll always has a “scriptural” reason that justifies their reason for leaving). This person is toxic because he or she is an argumentative and divisive bully who thinks they are smarter than others. They’re eager, too eager, to assert themselves as a leader which has more to do with their own ego than it does with serving. They are quick to correct others and will even insult others as a way of demonstrating their diluted sense of superiority, especially when it comes to knowing the Bible and matters of sound doctrine. However, there’s a reason why such a person has left the last church. Though not always the case, sometimes such a toxic person leaves is because the others of that church had enough and someone rightfully stood up to them. Like any bully, the last thing this toxic Christian can handle is anyone who will not cower to their coercive and intimidating pressure.

So what should be done with such a toxic person among a church? In Friedman’s Fables, the Friendly Forest fable ends with these words, “…If you want a lamb and a tiger to live in the same forest, you don’t try to make them communicate. You cage the bloody tiger.”

Cage the tiger?

Yes!

Let me say it again… Yes! Cage the tiger!

Caging the tiger here takes some courageous and wise leadership so as not to create further conflict, if that is possible. So ignoring the problem until either other people begin leaving the church or become so frustrated that they lash out will not work. The only way of caging the tiger is to confront the individual  and speak the truth in love, candidly explaining the problem. If the person will not listen and change, then you must lay out the resolution for them (which is no longer up for discussion). If the tiger is not caged and a toxic person is passively empowered then there more problems will surface. I know of one church where most of the adults stopped participating in any Bible classes because they were tired of always being corrected and insulted by one particular toxic individual. I once witnessed people get up and walk out of a meeting because they had reached their limit for tolerating the lecture they were about to receive from another toxic member (who had acted like this many other times). That shouldn’t happen and it doesn’t have to if someone will have the courage to lead by wisely caging the tiger.

Cultivating a healthy culture in your church depends on caging the tiger!

When I was serving with the Columbia Church of Christ, a man started visiting our church. He had previously served as a minister with several other Churches of Christ but was now on disability and our church was the nearest Church of Christ. So he showed up but made it quickly known how much he disagreed with our gender-inclusive practices. So for the next two weeks when he showed up to Bible class, he promptly told the women how wrong they were and you could see the hurt and frustration on everyone else’s face. It was rather obvious that he was here to create division. So I met with him and explained to him that though he was welcome to be a part of our congregation, gender-inclusiveness was a part of who were as a local church and if he could not accept that then there were other churches in the community for him to visit. He never came back and that’s ok. The following Sunday, the atmosphere of our Bible class was back to normal with a lively discussion fostering an an encouraging conversation about how we live as followers of Jesus.

That’s one example of caging the tiger. It’s not the only way, just one way. But by all means, if you’re a church leader then have the courage and wisdom to confront the toxic people and cage the tiger. Cultivating a healthy culture in your church depends on caging the tiger!

So again, I will say it and close with these words… Yes! Cage the tiger!

Churches Seeking Ministers: On Renewal and the Way Forward

Over the last couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to talk with plenty of churches seeking a new minister to come serve with them. One thing that nearly every church has in common is they want to grow. They seek both spiritual and numerical growth that will result in fruitful ministry and this is a good desire. However, in my experience, many churches don’t really understand what they are wanting. That’s why I find this cartoon below funny… It’s all too real!

pastor-search-committee

Very few churches, if any, would say it in so many words but the truth is, most churches want growth without having to make any changes. In fact,

One of the questions I like to ask search committees is what sort of goals or outcomes does their church wish to accomplish with the new minister. The answers almost always includes evangelistic growth and getting more church members involved in the ministries of the church. I then follow this response  with another question asking about what sort of changes might be necessary. In other words, what must the church begin doing differently in order to obtain the results it desires? Most of the time the search committee struggles to answer this question, sometimes the answer is an awkward silence. Why is that? Why is there an expectation of the new minister to help the church go forward without any change? In the worst case scenario, any suggestion of change might is an anathema.

It is silly to expect any sort of future growth without change. Actually, it’s insanity. If a church keeps doing the same thing then it will keep getting the same results. Also keep in mind that every church is perfectly organized to get the results it is getting. So if a church expects something different with the new minister, change is necessary. If a church that has plateaued or began experiencing decline want to experience new growth, reach new people, engage in more fruitful ministries, etc… then something must change and that change is much deeper than just finding a new minister.

Without change then, the expectations of the new minister are unrealistic. Yet, at the same time, the new minister may have unrealistic expectations of the church if there is an expectation of change the church is neither ready for nor has had time to discern. And so it becomes a catch-22 with the only likely result being a lot of frustration. Sound familiar?

“The best barbecue is slow-cooked barbecue!”

What I want to suggest is a different way forward with some slightly different expectations of the new minister and church. What if churches and ministers had different expectations of each other? What if instead of expecting new growth and change, the expectation became discernment? This means the minister, along with other leaders (e.g., shepherds), and the church are listening to one another for how God is leading each other forth as participants in his mission? Together in prayer and dwelling in the word  (scripture), the minister helps the church discern how God might be working. Here the minister is helping the church to hear God’s voice as to what sort of changes might be required so that the church may obey God’s voice and continue bearing kingdom fruit. That’s what discernment is… hearing and obeying so that the church might faithfully participate in the mission of God.

This is a different set of expectations that not only opens space for God to work through his Spirit but also gives pastoral consideration to the reality that change is difficult. No longer is the cart placed before the horse, so to speak. The new expectation is discernment − hearing and obeying − rather than growth but with the awareness that such faithfulness will yield the fruit God desires in his own time. The role of the minister still involves preaching and teaching as well as equipping but on a path of discovery with the church, helping the church discern the way forward. Now instead of the minister having the responsibility of trying to facilitate change, for which the church may not be ready for, in order to bring about growth, the minister and church may grow together as they discover together where God is leading

This is admittedly more difficult as it requires patience and time. But keep in mind a little barbecue wisdom: the best barbecue is slow-cooked barbecue! And with apologies to those churches where I attempted change as a quick-fix solution for growth, I’ll admit that I’ve only learned this through some frustrating moments in ministry. But this is where renewal begins. It’s going back to Jesus and the his gospel, wrestling with what it means to follow Jesus as a local church and embody his gospel among the local context. It’s a question of discernment that takes place in prayer and with scripture, allowing God to chart the future of where he wants the church to go.

Advent: The Dissonance of Christmas

In protest of the Vietnam War, John Lennon wrote a Christmas song called Happy Xmas (War Is Over). The background of chorus that goes “War is over now, if you want it, war is over, now!” Well, maybe so… or not!

Not every Christian may realize this but the advent of Jesus ushered in a new cosmic war, a Spiritual battle, that wages on. It has to do with the clash of kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world − the collision of powers between God and the rulers of this world.

This clash of powers begin right from the onset of Jesus’ birth. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us that the joy of Jesus’ birth gave way to bloodshed once King Herod learned that the baby being born was considered the ing of the Jews. Once his conspiracy to kill Jesus failed, Herod ordered the murder of ever boy age of two and under born in the vicinity of Bethlehem.

The slaughter of these babies is horrible but it’s also the consequence of God’s kingdom colliding with the kingdoms of this world and it doesn’t end there. Eventually the Jewish and Gentile rulers of this world conspire together, crucifying Jesus. But thankfully, God raised Jesus from death and the resurrection of Jesus is God’s assurance that the rulers of this world have lost.

…to proclaim that Jesus is King is to renounce the claims of sovereignty the rulers of this world make, whether these claims come in the form of a monarchy, oligarchy, or even a democracy.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the rules of this world will surrender their claims of sovereignty so easily. We only need to read the book of Revelation to understand how this cosmic war wages on and is waged against Jesus and his church until God’s victorious reign is fully realized in the second-coming of Christ.

So where does that leave us who proclaim Jesus as King? We sing “Hark the herald angels sing ‘Glory to the newborn King!  Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled…’” but our story reminds us that leaning into this reality places us against the kingdoms of this world. For to proclaim that Jesus is King is to renounce the claims of sovereignty the rulers of this world make, whether these claims come in the form of a monarchy, oligarchy, or even a democracy.

This isn’t a denial of the role which governments serve as God’s agents for maintaining law and order in a fallen world (cf. Rom 13:4). However, the war is over and in King Jesus, God has won the victory. As believers, who profess our allegiance to King Jesus, we bear witness to this victory. We declare that the kingdom of God is here!

And at the very least, singing “Glory to the newborn King!” should evoke some sense of dissonance with the world and even our own country. That won’t always be easy but the good news is that we’re on the winning side.

With Thanksgiving… An Advent Message

Sunday, November 27th, was the beginning of the New Year per the Christian Calendar. It was also the First Sunday of Advent. Below is the video of the Advent sermon I preached at the Westside Church of Christ from Psalm 100 which is called “With Thanksgiving.”

Happy New Year!

You may not realize it but Sunday will mark the beginning of the new year. So… Happy New Year!

According to the Christian calendar and in keeping with our historical Christian tradition, this Sunday is the beginning of the new year. And not only the new year but it’s the first Sunday of Advent, where we become mindful of the coming of God.

The reason this may be unfamiliar is that some groups of Christians have paid little attention to Christian history with its tradition, including the Christian calendar. If that’s the case, where does that leave us? Without the Christian calendar, the only calendar telling us the seasons and dates is the secular Western calendar which our lives are oriented around more than we realize. In terms of Christian or gospel formation, without the Christian calendar we are formed only by secularism as it pertains to how we live in response to the seasons of the year.

The late Charles Taylor described Western society as so enmeshed in secularism that a transcendent reality can only be seen like rays of light peeking through a cloud. Perhaps then it’s of little surprise that people, Christians included, have become so oriented around consumerism, nationalism/tribalism, and technology. All the more reason why we must give more attention to the Christian Calendar and to the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, and Ordinary Time or what some refer to as Kingdom Time.

Does this mean that our secular calendars are all bad or without value? Of course not! There are days on the secular calendar worth remember, like Thanksgiving which we will celebrate tomorrow. However, giving our attention to the Christian Calendar allows God to form our imaginations and worldview even more so around the gospel story as told throughout the biblical narrative. One way of doing this is reading the scripture readings that are listed in the Revised Common Lectionary for every week of the Christian Calendar.

So I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. More importantly though, Happy New Year! Advent is upon us, so let us turn our attention to the coming of God. For our God, who became flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus, will one day come again and make all things new!

Politics and The Way of Jesus

If there’s one takeaway from this past political season for me, it’s that most Christians are still trying to conserve a Christendom culture in America. Not a Christian culture or gospel culture but a Christendom culture. That’s a society where Christians are the dominating force in shaping laws, practices, and cultural values. With Donald Trump* as President Elect, some Christians may even think they have won the latest battle in effort of saving Christendom. But really, it’s just one more anxious response that will fail.

Regardless of what Christian-friendly policies the succeeding government may enact, morality can’t be legislated and neither can religious beliefs and values. More importantly, neither Christians nor any supposed Christian nation is made by legislation. Christians are formed as people see Christ among local churches in the lives of the Christians who make up those churches, as people see the church embodying the way of Christ in word and deed. So while the election may prolong some semblance of Christendom in America, it is only avoiding the inevitable death of a Christendom society. This election will certainly not change the souls of the growing number of non-Christians, who have a growing distaste for their perception of Christianity and particularly evangelicalism. Yet the more Christians leverage political power for the conservation of Christendom, trading the power of the gospel for state political power, the more  alienating Christianity becomes and unnecessarily so.

In general, it is the church in America that needs to hear Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15). Christians, of which I am unapologetically one, must learn again how to embody this good news of the kingdom of God as their way of life in every local church. Put another way, we Christians must learn to follow Jesus again. We must learn to believe what Jesus believes about the kingdom of God and share the same values as Jesus so that our way of life becomes an imitation of his life. We can’t treat this gospel simply as a propositional truth we proclaim while serving for an end of some political agenda. Either the truth of the gospel becomes embodied as our way of life, lived together as local churches within local neighborhoods and community, or else the truth is lost.

As far as politics go, we must remember that the gospel itself is a politic. As Eugene Peterson once said, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is more political than anyone imagines, but in a way that no one guesses.” Thus, our way of life as followers of Jesus should be a politic itself, a gospel-politic that is neither Democrat nor Republican. Let’s occupy ourselves with the gospel-politic rather than trying to control the political outcome of the state. Though there may be particular political issues that are of interest to us because of their impact on our local community, we must realize that the means of American political power − both the right and left − is incompatible with the kingdom of God. The power of the gospel is expressed in a life of humility and love that’s dying to self in service to others, where as American political power (like all worldly politics) involves various expressions of a coercive “might makes right” force. The power of the gospel invites people to participate in the Kingdom of God by faith, rather than legislating a way of life by political mandate.

The question that we Christians must ask is what do we want? Do we want to participate in the mission of God and see the kingdom of God extended into our local communities? Or do we want laws on the books that may reflect some Christian values but only create barriers between Christians and non-Christians? If the time has not already come, it is very near when we will reach the proverbial fork in the road. Which way will we go? I submit that only one way is the way of Jesus, lived out as local churches serving on mission with God.

* Regardless of who you or I believe should have been elected as the next President of the United States, Donald Trump is now the President Elect. Just as we should do for all governing officials, we must also pray for Donald Trump as he prepares to lead America as the nation’s next President (cf. 1 Tim 2:1-2).