Category Archives: Contemporary Christianity

Christianity and Racism: What Might We Do Next?

On Monday, May 25, 2020 I watched the video clip of George Floyd being murdered by a Minneapolis Police Officer. It was horrifying to see the officer so callously keep pressing his knee upon the neck of George Floyd while Mr. Floyd was struggling to breathe and began crying for his deceased mother to come help him.*

Multi Ethnic Hands

Words are inadequate to describe what happened. I can only imagine how the family of George Floyd feels as well as the many black Americans who witnessed yet another black person unjustly killed in America. George Floyd’s name joins a long list that includes recent names like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Philando Castile along with other well known names like Martin Luther King Jr., Emmett Till, Mary Turner, and many others.

Since the murder of George Floyd, protests have erupted across America and even in other parts of the world. We see the frustration and hear the cries for justice. It is unfortunate that along with the protests, violence and looting has also occurred but we cannot allow that to silence the righteous protests against systematic racism and police brutality.

America has a long history of systematic racism rooted in white supremacy. Denying this history or downplaying the problem only makes matters worse. With the way that systematic evils work, people can unknowingly be complicit in maintaining this injustice without having a shred of racial bigotry in their souls and regardless of their race/ethnicity. That, of course, only makes addressing the problem even more complex but that should not never be a deterrent. I want to be clear though that I unequivocally condemn racism and racist acts, and stand in solidarity with all who are striving for racial equality in all of life — especially my neighbors who are black. Those who are racists must repent [full stop].

Having a black nephew, having witnessed overt racism among a church years ago, and having served as a minister mostly in multi-racial congregations, the Spirit has routinely convicted me to speak out against the evil of racism with whatever platform I have. However, I am also understand the need to be constructive and help cultivate justice and reconciliation. So this is my concern and when Christians ask about what they can do, I want to say “be the church” but that requires some explaining too.

When I say that Christians need to be the church, I have in mind the life that the gospel envisions. This is rooted in a conviction that the church, manifested in local congregations embodying the gospel as followers of Jesus, is the living portrayal of true life where justice and reconciliation exist.

As people learn to follow Jesus, they begin embodying the gospel and in doing so, other people of different races and ethnicities are seen as people made in the image of God. Embodying the gospel also allows people to be honest with the truth, including both personal and corporate sins, which opens space for confession and repentance. That’s because in this new open space of confession and repentance, the gospel is also the grace of God which forms people to forgive and receive forgiveness. From the gospel, people also learn how to love one another so that a community of justice and reconciliation forms.

In the meantime, one practical step that Christians can take is becoming more informed about the issue of systematic racism in America. First, have a conversation with other church members, coworkers, and neighbors who are black. Ask questions, listen and learn from their experiences. Sometimes doing so might come with other pleasant surprises. With one church, I was visiting with an elderly black couple who migrated from Georgia to New Jersey when they were young. Their basement was a display of all the pictures, tools, and other artifacts that had been passed down in the family. It was quite a history lesson on what life was like for black sharecroppers working on peanut farms in Georgia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Reading books and watching films are also another way of becoming more informed. So I would like to make several recommendations:

  1. Here are some books I recommend which are all written by black authors.
  1. Here are several fairly recent movies I have watched that reveal the struggles that black people have lived with in America.
    • Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2019.
    • Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi, Fox 2000 Pictures, 2016.
    • Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, Paramount Pictures, 2014.
    • The Blind Side, John Lee Hancock, Alcon Entertainment, 2009.

May the church of Jesus Christ live with humility and love, in the power of the Spirit, so that by the grace of God, his kingdom, in which there is true justice and reconciliation for all, may flourish! Amen.

____________________

* This post is a slightly revised article I wrote and sent to the Newark Church of Christ on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. The revision is the italicized portion in the fourth paragraph.

The Pentecost Message Today: Becoming The Alternative to Racism

This past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday. Many churches corporately observed Pentecost Sunday because it’s on the liturgical calendar that is followed in planning worship. Even so, #PentecostSunday is hardly trending news. For me though, as a pastor, the day is one of my favorite Sunday’s to preach because the more I learn about that day and texts like Acts 2, the more the events of the first Pentecost Sunday matter.

Pentecost Sunday

Since I wasn’t in Jerusalem for the event, it’s hard to know what the mood of the people was like then. What we know is that the apostles Jesus had selected were in Jerusalem, just seven weeks from when Jesus was crucified as an insurrectionist by the Jewish authorities conspiring with the Roman authorities. What they witnessed—Jesus being beat and whipped, publicly humiliated, and viciously crucified—was a vivid reminder of Roman rule.   

The events of that Pentecost Sunday began with an accusation. Speaking about the works of God in the tongues of all the different languages present on that day, some said that the apostles had too much to drink way too early in the morning. So Peter spoke up and began to quote from the Prophet Joel and the Patriarch David, quoting passages of scripture every devout Jew was familiar with. His message to the people was that the day of God’s salvation was upon them. What they were witnessing, with the fierce wind blowing and the apostle’s speaking in the different tongues, was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all, male and female, young and old. And it’s happening because the Jesus they crucified has been raised from death and exalted as Lord and Messiah.

Convicted as they were, they wondered what they should do. So Peter’s response was to call them to repentance and to baptism in the name of Jesus Christ (for the remission of sins) and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was an invitation to participate in God’s kingdom, the new creation that God was ushering in as a new covenant made by the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And participate they did, so much that within one-hundred years this Jesus movement went from virtually nothing to a movement so large that a philosopher named Aristides spoke of Christians as a new human race alongside of Barbarians, Greeks and Jews (Aristides, Apology, 2).

The Jesus movement from the get go was envisioned as an all-inclusive movement in which all participants were regarded as equals. Pursuing that vision wasn’t without struggle but as the apostle Paul later insisted, what mattered was their baptismal identity as all who were baptized into Christ—Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female—  were one (Gal 3:27-28). So whether people realize it or not, the Pentecost message matters because it serves as a catalyst for a new community where all people are loved as equals.

But this is where we run into a problem. Two-thousand years ago, the Pentecost message was new. Today though, it’s not and that’s not for a lack of churches. In fact, many Americans have experienced American Christianity, in its more liberal Protestant expressions and in its more conservative Evangelical expressions. What they found though didn’t seem much different from the rest of society. Apart from a few religious phrases unique to Christianity, what people found was a worldly church of individuals driven by consumer appetites clamoring for political power so that they can have everything their way.

The Spirit Poured UponIn fact, the gospel experienced among many churches, though not all, doesn’t resinate as good news. Instead, it’s become like a television rerun aired one too many times and now the people are changing the channel. Right now, America is slow suffocating under the weigh of systematic racism that has existed from the beginning, though it has certainly changed in the way it manifests its evil presence. Sadly though, the church in America has largely failed in embodying the equality of the gospel message proclaimed on Pentecost. Instead of existing as the alternative to the racism (and other inequalities), Christianity in America has often compromised with racism. Too often, Christianity in America has failed to see that God has poured his Spirit upon black people too.

So may I suggest that the Pentecost message today is a message for the church to hear again. If churches are going to embody the gospel that Peter proclaimed in his Pentecost message, then change is required. That’s because the gospel can only be embodied by a church that lives from its baptism, living in the name of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. The gospel message can only be truly proclaimed by people who regard all people equally and therefore embody the prophetic life that brings justice and equality for all into the present reality. Anything less is why Christianity in America is increasingly irrelevant.

Pentecost is the day when God poured out his Spirit upon all flesh, including black people. The Hebrew word for Spirit is ru’ach, which may also be rendered as “breath.” We may think of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit as God breathing new life in Christ upon all people. How ironically tragic it is that the week before Pentecost a black man named George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis Police Officer by means of asphyxiation, prompting the protest of “I can’t breath”. It’s past time that the church in America hears the chants of “I can’t breath” and hears once again the Pentecost message, so that black people and other minorities may find a community where they can breathe.

Lord, have mercy!

Like A Servant: The Necessity of Character in Christian Leadership

If you’ve know me, then you know I read a lot. Mostly a wide range of books relating to theology and Christian ministry but some philosophy and social-culture too. Most pastors I know are also readers and frankly, it’s hard to imagine serving as a pastor without reading. I say this because reading a book is like having the author as a conversation partner forcing you to consider an idea or perspective that otherwise might remain hidden.

Leadership Concept

So within the broad category of theology and Christian ministry, I aim to read at least one book per year on leadership that I believe will help me serve as a better pastor. Of the books I’ve read, the best is Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 2007. Besides Friedman, other authors I’ve read and recommend include Alan Roxburgh, Mark Lau Branson, and Ruth Haley Barton.

Reading books on leadership increases an understanding of the challenges as well as the practices and skills to navigate those challenges. That said, as necessary as good practices and skills are to leadership, equally necessary for good leadership is good character. We live in a time when there are numerous examples of leadership failure, in churches and other segments of society, that seem rooted in a lack of character. Sometimes it almost seems as if character is unimportant so long as competency is evident. I don’t want to devalue competency but let’s be certain that a lack of character is a recipe for disaster.

By character I’m talking about the qualities a leader exhibits, especially in relation to the community organization he or she serves among. The word “serves” is of utmost importance for the character of Christian leadership. I say that because my point of departure for the way pastors and other Christian leaders serve is Jesus, whose life was that of a servant. Rather than employing top-down coercive or manipulative tactics, Jesus led by example and invitation.

During the last Passover Meal Jesus shared with his disciples, he heard them arguing about who among them was the greatest. So Jesus quickly responded saying in Luke 22:25-27, “The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects, and those in authority over them are called ‘friends of the people.’ But that’s not the way it will be with you. Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant. So which one is greater, the one who is seated at the table or the one who serves at the table? Isn’t it the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Just think about the difference between leaders who see themselves first as a servant and those who think their position ranks them above others. A servant leader seeks what is best for others rather than what serves his or her own agenda. A servant leader seeks to build others up and equip them for service, the other one often see others as just a means to their own end. Such a disposition doesn’t hinder the servant leader from taking a stand for what is right, it just means the stand isn’t self-serving.

To lead as a servant also impacts the way the leader relates to others. A servant leader isn’t concerned with stroking his own ego. The servant leader sings the praises of others, sees the potential in others and seeks to draw that out for the sake others. When mistakes are made, the servant leader take responsibility rather than blaming others. And let’s not be naive, there will always be someone who criticizes the decisions and actions of a leader. Rather than belittling and disparaging the critics, the servant-leader presses forward with discernment. If the servant-leader realizes the criticism is warranted, her or she owns it and if its unfair or baseless, the servant leader lets it go and moves on.

The character of good leadership begins with becoming a servant. And this is especially so among the church, where all serve under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who said those who lead must become “like a servant.”

Discipleship and The Local Church

Anyone that’s read the four canonical gospels knows that when Jesus began his public ministry, he also began calling people to follow him. This is where most conversations about Christian discipleship begin. As the conversation goes, most church leaders are aware that making and forming disciples of Christ is a challenge, to varying degrees, among churches in America.

Disciple-Making

Seeing the lack of discipleship has resulted in a renewed focus on making disciples, that is, forming people to live as followers of Jesus. This is a good thing. However, many times when a problem is recognized, attempts at correcting tend to swing the pendulum too far and in this case I wonder if the pendulum is swinging too far in focusing on making disciples.

The renewed focus on making disciples seems to imply that every disciple should make disciples. For example, David L. Watson and Paul D. Watson say in their book Contageous Disciple Making, “Making disciples is about having a relationship with Christ that results in a lifestyle of obedience to Christ commands, which requires disciples to make more disciples” (p. 48). Or Jeff Vanderstelt writes in his book Saturate, “Life on mission is not just about being disciples, but also making disciples who make disciples—and that can be learned only while on Jesus’s mission” (Kindle ed., L. 1477).

I agree that to be a Christian is to be a disciple, one who follows Jesus and obeys his teaching and that includes the teaching of scripture. That is the kind of relationship all Christians are to have with Jesus. But does that mean that all disciples will be people who make disciples?

Perhaps we need to better define what it means for disciples to be making disciples first. Francis Chan does write in his book Letters to the Church, “We want everyone trained to make disciples. No one should come as a consumer, but we need everyone to come as a servant using his or her gifts to build up the body” p. 176). If we are talking about an entire community of disciples (a local church) serving together as the Spirit has empowered each person, using their specific gifts and talents, then I agree and I think the apostle Paul would certainly agree as well (cf. Rom 12:5-8; 1 Cor 12:4-11; Eph 4:11-13). However, that’s not always clear. The quotes I shared above from Watson and Watson as well as Vaderstelt are somewhat vague. Do they mean disciples working together as a community making disciples or each individual disciples making another disciple?

I’m raising this issue because in a lot of conversation I encounter and even sometimes participate in, there are some who seem to believe true discipleship means ever single disciple is discipling another person in a one-to-one relationship. But that is just not the picture that emerges in the New Testament. In scripture the emphasis appears to be on the local church, as a corporate community, faithfully embodying the gospel.

Take for example Romans. In this letter the apostle Paul describes his appointment as an apostle “to bring all Gentiles to faithful obedience for his name’s sake” (1:5). Towards the end of the letter Paul says in 15:15-16:

Nevertheless on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (NRSV)

Then at the end of Romans Paul reminds the church again that the gospel he proclaims is to result in their “faithful obedience” (16:26).

If you’ve read this far then please know that I am not against making disciples. I am one who does believe discipleship, or the lack of, among Christianity in America is a problem. I just don’t see the way some tend to emphasize disciple making today as the focus in scripture. Instead, the focus seems to be on the faith formation of church so that the church, as we see in Romans, lives as a holy people unto God. Ideally, such a church will also be making disciples of the seekers, leading them into a relationship with Jesus that results in obedience to the teachings of Jesus. Then, as repentant believers who have been baptized into Christ, they too contribute to the churches participation in the mission of God as they learn to serve using their Spiritual gifts. So maybe instead of focusing on cultivating a disciple-making culture among our churches, we should just focus on the formation of faith in our churches and trust that as Christ is formed in our churches (cf. Gal 4:19) then the local body will function as her head, Christ himself, intends and organically make disciples.

Lastly, consider this blog entry as a thinking-out-loud con, something to consider but something that could undergo further nuance. What are your thoughts?

How Shall We Christians Respond?

As the length of the Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic wears on, the endurance of society is challenged. Besides the number of deaths in the US alone, getting closer to 50,000, numerous other people are ill while others are out of work and many businesses are shut down, facing an uncertain future. Of course, I’ve not said anything you don’t know already.

Bay Care Nurses Sacrifice the Weak

What this pandemic has also done is bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. In the first picture are two nurses serving on the front line of this battle. We all know by now that medical personnel have worked tirelessly and under great duress to serve, caring especially for the sick. Their compassionate service is worthy of our commendation. Then the other picture is a woman protesting the shut down in the state of Tennessee. Her sign reads “Sacrifice the Weak/Re-Open TN” (ironically as she wears a face mask). She is essentially suggesting that if reopening the economy means letting more people become sick and possibly die, then so be it. Her mentality deserves our condemnation.

The pictures above illustrate how the best and worst are revealed in difficult seasons of life. For some, tragedy and disasters result in love that is embodied in acts of compassion, mercy, and service. For others, the result is hate cloaked in selfish desires and appalling attitudes.

But what about those of us who profess the Christian faith, who claim to follow Jesus Christ? While the example of Christ should spur us to acts of love, we are still sinners and so we are capable of acting with hatred. If you doubt that, just open a history book where there are plenty of examples. The answer to the question depends on how we are formed as Christians.

     “My little children, I’m going through labor pains again until Christ is formed in you.” ~ Galatians 4:19

The Bible verse above, written by the apostle Paul, is one of the classic passage of scripture cited when talking about spiritual formation. While Paul was addressing a very different problem with the Galatians that what I’m writing about in this post, the point is that we embrace the name Christian are to have the way of Christ formed in us. Elsewhere, Paul spoke about such formation as transformation into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18) and being conformed his image (Rom 8:29).

I don’t have any clue about what those two nurses or the protester in the pictures above claim as their religious beliefs. My concern is with us who profess to be Christians, which is a claim to live as followers of Jesus. This pandemic will reveal whether it is Christ or the world (particularly partisan politics) being formed in us.

We just went through Holy Week, remembering the passion of Jesus Christ and yet I’m not sure we see the implications of his crucifixion and resurrection. On the cross is the One who humbled himself by giving up his very own life upon the cross for the sake of others, including the “weak.” If his way of life and example does not become ours, we have made sacrelige of his death, burial, and resurrection and we continue to do so every time we take the bread and wine in remembrance of him.

Everyone of us will have different opportunities before us in our own local communities. Opportunities to serve others or serve ourselves. I certainly hope we’ll choose the former, as we follow Jesus in giving up our needs for the sake of loving others. The choice we make is our witness as Christians and it will either bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ or it will make a mockery of his name.

Let’s choose wisely and faithfully, for the world around us is watching!

Reflections on Church Leadership During the Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

More than a month has passed since the church I serve, the Newark Church of Christ, decided to stop gathering together during this Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic. I must admit that when we first made the decision, I wondered what would become of our church. If we are not able to gather together for several months, I wondered if there would we even be a church left. Of course, as soon as this wave of anxiety came over me, so did my leadership reflexes.

Worship Center

The first rule of good leadership is don’t be anxious. Don’t panic and don’t give a foothold to the devil of anxiety. Yes, what we are going through makes for more difficulties but panicking amid anxiety either results in doing nothing or making an anxious decision. Neither of which is helpful and most likely would only make matters worse.

Like many churches, we began streaming online worship gatherings. However, as important as worship is, there is more to living as a church than just worship. If we’re to bear each others burdens, love our neighbors, and join in the work we see God doing—participating in the mission of God—then we remaining connected with each other was paramount.

So one of the things we’ve done as a church is begin including two short videos of different people from our church in each online streaming of worship on Sundays. These videos have allowed us to hear from each other and have helped remind us that we are a community, a family of believers called “church” in this life together. We have also began organizing online connection groups so that we could meet during the week for encouragement and continue growing in our formation as followers of Jesus. So using Zoom, Google Meet, etc… we spend some time checking in on what we are thankful for and concerned about, and then we spend some time in scripture but not just for the sake of Bible study. Instead, as we come to understand what God is teaching us in scripture, we want to embody that teaching in the way we live.

     “But I have been reminded that church is neither a building, place, or time. Church is people following Jesus and that’s what we are.”

In the meantime, our church still seeks to love our neighbors. Loving God and each other through worship and fellowship matters but so does serving and caring for people in our community. One opportunity was preparing sack lunches for people who might otherwise go hungry. Now our church is receiving shipments of masks that we are going to distribute within our community where there is need. And as we see other opportunities to the good works that God is doing, we’ll gladly do so as followers of Jesus.

Oh me of little faith… I initially wondered if we would even have a church after this pandemic. But I have been reminded that church is neither a building, place, or time. Church is people following Jesus and that’s what we are. So as a pastor, even though helping lead the church during this pandemic has required some adjustments, I have also realized that leadership is still much the same. That is, I serve as a minister of the gospel and so my role is still that of what any pastor’s role should be: helping the church hold to the gospel and allow the gospel to frame our way of life as a church. As that happens, we will continue participating in the mission of God as followers of Jesus.

What the results are is neither in our control nor something we need to worry about as church. The same is true for the church you serve among too. But perhaps the eyes of those living in our local towns and neighborhoods will be opened to see real community taking shape among our churches as we embody the gospel. And if that’s the case then we’ll see the church growing as it should, with the seed of the gospel pollinating and blooming anew.

Christian Unity and the Embodiment of Love

If you knew you were about die, what would you want to say to those you love the most? What would you want to do? It’s a hypothetical question that doesn’t really need an answer except to say that most of us, if not all, would want to say and do those things that really matter, that are of the utmost importance. And so it seems with Jesus too, on the night before he was crucified.

Jesus Washes an Apostle's Feet, Laurie Olson Lisonbee, 2006

“Jesus Washes an Apostle’s Feet,” Laurie Olson Lisonbee, 2006.

According to the Gospel of John,  Jesus washes the feet of his disciples in chapter thirteen and then begins addressing his disciples before he retreats into prayer. The foot washing is important because Jesus is offering his disciples an example of the life he is calling them to live. It’s a life of radical love embodied in the virtues of humility and servitude. It is the life Jesus has lived, the way and truth of the gospel, and why he insists that his disciples must love each other as he has loved them (13:34-35; 15:12). 

This life of love embodied in humility and service is the way, truth, and life of Jesus that reflects the gospel, the very Word of God, revealed in Jesus Christ. Compared to the world, this truth is the alternative the disciples are sanctified in (set apart) and sent into the world as witnesses of. This is the reason, Jesus prays in John 17 that his disciples will be one.

        “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.” – Jesus Christ, John 17:21

Sanctification and unity point us toward the mission of God (Carson, The Gospel According to John, 566). To be sanctified and sent out as a unified community of disciples is to continue participating in the very mission that God sent Jesus into the world to fulfill.

This is as true today as it was then. Being sanctified is not just a salvation issue and Christian unity is not uniformity achieved in keeping a list of church practices. This is not to suggest that holiness and theology is inconsequential. Some issues, such as the Triune nature of God or Christian marriage, are worthy of our reflection and discernment. But perhaps what matters most is the way we love each other. Our capacity to love one another is what Jesus desires when he prays that we will be one. For in being so one with each other that we will love each other as Christ has loved us, we reflect that love outward to the world around us. That’s a love that draws the rest of the world into the love of God (Gorman, Abide and Go, 124)

This is the truth we all are called to embody, for it signifies that we are united in Jesus Christ as a people known for the very love of God.