Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

Advent: Do We Really?

The season of Advent is upon us. We are in the second week of this lovely season and so we sing.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

John the Baptist came before the Lord as a prophet sent from God to prepare the way. He did this by calling people into a baptism of repentance. That is, in preparation for the coming of the Lord, he was inviting people into baptism “to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins” (Lk 3:3).

Our God is coming! But do we really want God to come? Do we really desire Advent?

shelteredbyhisglory.jpgEmbracing Advent is more than just anticipating the coming of God, it’s an anticipation of participating in the life for which God comes to offer us. This is a life wrapped up in the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Yet it’s a life that can only be received by those willing to repent. This is why John the Baptist came before the Lord as a prophet sent from God to prepare the way. He called us into a baptism of repentance, telling us “to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins” (Lk 3:3).

If we follow the good news of the Lord’s coming, we are led to Jerusalem where the cross awaits our Lord. It’s not the path anyone would expect of this Jesus, who was born as King of the Jews (Mt 2:2) but that to the cross he goes and we either follow him there or we don’t follow him.

The apostle Paul tells us that it is by the death of Christ on the cross that he destroys division and hostility between Jew and Gentile. The cross is where enemies, factions, and tribes are reconciled as one new people who belong to God. This is the reason for the Advent of God, the coming of Christ. Now do we really want God to come? Do we really desire Advent? Or is Advent just some religious ritual we observe on four Sunday’s in December only to go back to business as usual, lost in the growing animosity of our tribal ways?

I’m not asking such questions in a vacuum of nothingness but in the context of an American culture that is heading towards a chaos of hatred and political division. The polarities of left and right, Democrats and Republicans, is the new tribalism that is bubbling up like as a volcano ready to erupt. As a divided Congress argues over the impeachment proceedings of President Trump, many people are already poised along the sidelines, ready to defend the side they are on at all costs. And sadly, many Christians are lined up on one side or the other while trying to convince themselves and others that God is on their side too.

So again I ask, do we really want God to come? Do we really desire Advent? Christ has come, we believe, to heal the nations. As we sing in the great hymn O Holy Night

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Now Christians, if we really believe this and want to participate in this gospel, then maybe it’s time we let go of our tribalistic garments and be the church. Because it’s very difficult to see how we can embody this gospel as long as we continue aligning ourselves with the sides of left and right, Democrat and Republican.

Whether America knows it or not, America needs the church. Not the church it is all too accustomed with, a church that has baptized the gospel into Americanism, but the church that is wholly aligned with King Jesus. Not the church that confesses “Jesus is Lord” on Sunday but then gives her allegiance away to the tribal politics, but the church whose singular alignment with King Jesus results in embodying the kind of life that makes for peace.

Oh church, do we really desire Advent?

Advent: Waiting With Hope

One of my favorite lines in the Psalter says “I was too troubled to speak” (Ps 77:4, NIV). It’s a line that has resonated with me for seventeen years, ever since that doctor in the emergency room pronounced Kenny dead. For I still know not the words that adequately describe losing my son.

In my lament, I ask how can it be that my son is dead? Why did God allow this child to be conceived and born only to die three days later? Where was God throughout those nine months as my wife and I prayed so fervently for the well-being of our son? Why did God not heal Kenny when the doctors were attempting to resuscitate him? Has God even heard my cries begging aloud for him to help my son? Yet God did not answer… Why?

Seventeen years later, I’ve certainly processed through these questions of lament. I seem to think I can answers them, at least in part, as abstract theological inquiries, though that offers little, if any, comfort. Perhaps I can even answer some of those questions in a pastoral manner that gets at the heart level.

Maybe.

But even then, these answers don’t assuage the grief and pain of such a loss like this. As a believer committed to following Jesus, all I am left with is the hope that one day God is making all things new. So I hope for the day of salvation when death will be no more, when the grief and pain is consumed in the fulfillment of redemption, when the tears and disappointment are gone, when the blessing of joy and peace are forever lived in the presence of the Lord, when the sting of death gives way to the victory that we will forever share in with the Lord.

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This promise of hope is one of waiting. It is to look upon a distant bright star showing forth among clouds of darkness, with an anticipation veiled by tears. This is advent hope.

For four-hundred years after being exiled into Babylonian captivity ended, Israel waited for the day of the Lord. That’s four hundred years of waiting. At the time, they weren’t sure when that period of waiting would end and that is what makes waiting with hope so difficult.

The season of Advent is upon us again. We celebrate Advent knowing that the Lord has come. God came into our world in the person of Jesus, born as a baby destined to suffer a humiliating death on the cross so that he could take his life up again in resurrection and thereby save us all from the sting of death, our sins. While we have this assurance of hope, by faith we still wait for it as the day when salvation will be fully realized. Until then, what we have is hope. So we wait with hope.

Waiting with hope isn’t so easy. It’s never so easy and the hope we have doesn’t negate the darkness of silence that we live with as we wait. So what can we do? Wait! And don’t look pass the darkness by For as the great hymn Be Still, My Soul reminds us, the mystery of our hope is known as we wait in the darkness.

Be still, my soul when dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in the vale of tears
Then shalt thou better know His love His heart
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears
Be still my soul the waves and winds shall know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below

The Witness of Preaching The Word.

If you’re a pastor then one of your responsibilities likely includes some preaching and the same is true for me. You may not preach every Sunday or maybe you’re a student pastor who speaks at a gathering of high school students every month. Whatever your role as a pastor among your church is, you understand the importance sharing a word from God in the scriptures when the time comes. As the apostle Paul says, “Preach the word…” (2 Tim 4:2).

preachingWhen it comes to preaching, most of us understand the importance of preparation. We’ve read a few books on the subject of homiletics, we’ve learned the skills of exegeting a biblical text and reflecting theologically on that text. More importantly, we know that tending to our own faith is important if we are to preach from a life of authenticity. That is, we know that we must be disciplined in living as a follower of Jesus ourselves if we are going to preach messages that ultimately are asking people to place their trust in Jesus and follow him.

That’s all good and I don’t want to diminish the importance of sermon prep and tending to our own faith at all. However, I do want to talk about another aspect of good sermon prep that doesn’t seem to get as much attention. I’m talking about the being with other people, which is both very pastoral and, as I will try to explain, necessary for good preaching.

In his book Faithful Presence, David E. Fitch writes about the way God is present in the world and the church is the people whom God works through to make his presence known. That’s because the presence of God isn’t aways obvious and so “he requires a people tending to his presence to make his presence visible for all to see” (p. 27). Later in the book is a chapter devoted to the discipline of preaching and a part of that chapter is about the preacher.

The preacher must not stand over the community but must stand as one among the community being present to the people in the community’s midst, for it is in this space that Jesus is found. From this posture comes the practice of proclamation. This is not a rhetorical performance. This is proclamation of the gospel for the people gathered in Christ’s name in this space and in this time (p. 100).

In times where we hear too many stories of pastors who stand over the people as authoritarians because they have a large platform, that is worth reading again and again but I digress.

Besides taking time to engage in some exegesis of the text, an important and critical aspect of sermon prep is spending time with people. Whether that’s visiting someone in the hospital, spending some time in a local coffee house with a college student, or just enjoying some food and fellowship with a small group, this time spent with others is invaluable to preaching. Not only will it (and should it) help shape the focus and function  of our message (cf. Long, The Witness of Preaching, 3d ed., 2016) but it will also help us discern what biblical texts we might preach, whether we’re selecting from one of the lectionary readings or planning a themed sermon series.

When we spend time with others, listening to them we are able to discern where God might be working. This opens space for the intersection of the gospel with the lives we are living so that we all might reimagine how God is working in our lives both individually and as a church. This is why Fitch rightfully says that “Proclaiming the gospel is always contextual” (p. 103).

Now as a pastor, I understand that it’s impossible to spend equal time with everyone but spending time with people is more about the quality of that time than quantity. Are we attentively listening and observant as to how God might be working when we are with people? Another important question is to ask if we are even spending time with people? I don’t know that it’s a given practice of serving as a pastor anymore, which is a shame. But if you want to preach good sermons that help lead others in the way of Jesus, spend time with those people. Yes, still take the time to care for your own faith and carve time out in your schedule for engaging the biblical text exegetically and theologically but also take the time to be with the people whom God has entrusted to your pastoral care as you preach. When we do, we are able to be the witness in preaching the word.

For Those Who Wish To See The Christian Faith Prosper

Should churches ditch their projector screens and go back to singing from hymnals? Yes, according to Tom Raabe, who wrote an article that was published on The Federalist website titled Why Churches Should Ditch Projector Screens and Bring Back Hymnals. When I first read this article during the past summer, I just shook my head a little and then didn’t give the article any more attention. However, since then I keep seeing this article show up in my social media news feeds as though people agree with the author. So indulge me for a few moments because I would like to offer a response.

439859_5_As you can probably tell already, I disagree with the conclusion that Mr. Raabe draws in his article. The author observes the disappearance of hymnals over the years as more contemporary expressions of church have emerged. He laments this loss on the opinion that projected screens are “horrifically ugly” and especially so in traditional worship sanctuaries. That is his opinion, which he is certainly entitled to hold, but such anecdotes seem to be little more than just filler information.

The crux of his argument is that the loss of hymnals will result in a weakened theology and so a weakened Christian faith. According to Mr. Raabe, “Old hymns were carefully crafted with theology at the forefront. Traditional hymns present doctrine clearly and beautifully convey the gospel story of saving grace.” Perhaps so, but that’s an argument for singing older hymns and not retaining hymnals. The problem is the claim of the article which is offered with this conclusion, a conclusion that lacks any supporting evidence for the claim that is offered:

Those who wish to see the Christian faith prosper, however, should consider the long-term effects that replacing hymnals with screens will have on worship and faith itself. What technology giveth, technology taketh away. The musical and theological repertoire of the church will be constricted. Even marginally unfamiliar hymns will slide out of the public consciousness, forgotten forever—and worship will be impoverished for it.

If we wish to see the Christian faith prosper? Really? For every church that is struggling to navigate the rather uncharted secular waters of a post-Christian America, vitality is simply a matter of turning off the video monitors and digging out some hymnals from a storage room?

If this were the case, then how do we account for the vitality of churches throughout history that existed long before the invention of the Guttenburg Printing Press? Those are churches that didn’t possess any hymnals. Or how do we account for those vibrant churches in third-world countries who don’t always have the luxuries of either hymnals or video-projection systems? Let’s be honest and recognize that Mr. Raabe’s concern is not a problem with western Christianity, it’s a problem with traditional Christianity in America. This is an American issue and a concern of some who sense a great loss as they see their church, and other churches too, declining or even closing and don’t have any idea of how to stop the decline.

I actually sympathize with this concern because as a pastor, I have served in such churches and know of many more churches that are facing this very real concern. However, trying to turn the calendar back into the mid-twentieth century when most churches still sang from hymnals will do nothing to address the concern. There are many reasons why churches are declining and addressing the issues will require more than just a technical change, something that can be done without any new ways of thinking and acting.

Arguing for the resurgence of hymnals assumes a building-centric model of church. It’s possible that this sort of church model will not even exist in America by the later half of the twenty-first century. Of course, nobody knows for sure but what we do know is that the problems that keep churches from fully living as participants in the mission of God are deeply embedded issues in the way that churches think and behave. The article I am critiquing is but one example but when the issues are beyond technical problems, an adaptive approach is required. That is, church leaders must discern the difficult questions about the modes of thinking and doing within their church that is contributing to the loss of mission. Once these problems are identified, the solutions will require new practices based on new ways of thinking. Hence, adaptive change.

Adaptive change always begins with a renewed commitment to living as followers of Jesus who are learning to contextually embody the gospel once again. While such embodiment of the gospel should remain faithful to Jesus and thus a coherent expression of the gospel, the expression will differ because it is a contextual expression. Those who wish to see the Christian faith prosper will remain resolute in following Jesus and inviting others to join them in this kingdom life. And when a church that is serious about following Jesus gathers for worship, that gathering will be one saturated in a deep and healthy theology of the Christian faith — God the Father, Son, and Spirit at work.

The Bible and Following Jesus (Pt. 2)

My conviction is that the church has received scripture as the word of God to us so that we may learn how to live as followers of Jesus who embody the gospel as participants in the mission of God. That is what I shared in The Bible and Following Jesus (Pt. 1) which requires, for many Christians and the churches they serve among, a new way of reading scripture. Such a reading involves a new hermeneutic that is Christ-Centered (Christology) and Kingdom-Oriented (eschatology). It matters because we, or at least I, want to see Christians and the churches they serve among faithfully embodying the gospel in a manner that is contextual appropriate for the circumstances they face.

i283445314525658362-_szw480h1280_So as people striving to follow Jesus, we must read the Bible as instruction for learning how to live as followers of Jesus. This matters all the more because in our ever-changing society we are facing new questions for which there are not always easy answers. I’m talking about questions surrounding realities like racism and reconciliation, peace-making in a violent society, gender dysphoria and sexual orientation, and escalating social displacement, to name a few. In order to discern what it means to embody the gospel as we face these questions, we must first read the Bible with the right hermeneutical question in mind.

Here’s what I mean. In recent months I have read a couple of articles asking the question of what does the Bible say about transgenderism and transgender-people. Now in one sense I want to say that this is a misleading question because the Bible says absolutely nothing about transgenderism and transgender-people. We know this because those words are never even mentioned in the Bible, so how could the Bible ever speak about something not even mentioned in the pages of scripture? Well, that’s easy. Indirectly, the Bible surely may speak to the questions we have on this subject just as it does so indirectly on a host of other subjects (e.g., firearms, vaccinations, climate change, etc…). So perhaps if we ask what does the Bible say about transgenderism and transgender-people, we might get an answer.

Not. So. Fast.

If we open the Bible asking this question first, we begin reading the Bible with a utilitarian goal in mind. My hunch is that most people, more traditional or progressive, who begin here in their reading of the Bible will simply discover that the Bible says exactly what they came expecting the Bible to say. That’s because such utilitarian objectives usually begin with a conclusion in mind.

As I have suggested, if we believe we are called to follow Jesus then we must read the Bible as instruction in learning how to live as followers of Jesus. This is why Paul says, “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (2 Tim 3:16-17). Scripture is neither given to us to condemn or vindicate others. That is God’s job, not our. We have received scripture to teach us, correct our mistakes and develop our character so that we are able to do good works, that is embody the gospel.

So instead of beginning with a question that asks what the Bible says about _______, I believe we should open the Bible to ask how this word from God is instructing us to live as followers of Jesus. Then we are equipped for discerning together as a church what the scripture says and what it means to follow Jesus and embody the gospel to transgender-people, or people who are living in social displacement, or people who have endured racism throughout their lives.

     “The church has received scripture as the word of God to us so that we may learn how to live as followers of Jesus who embody the gospel as participants in the mission of God.”

The Bible and Following Jesus (Pt. 1)

As a Christian striving to follow Jesus, I believe that all scripture is inspired of God and is an authority on matters of faith. And if I were interested in proof-texting the Bible to support my claim, this is where I would cite 2 Timothy 3:16-17 which says “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.” In fact, this passage is probably the most cited text in the Bible when talking about the inspiration and reliability of scripture.

i283445314525658362-_szw480h1280_What I find interesting about this passage is just how often it serves as a launching pad for discussions, and even debates, about the inspiration of scripture. For the most part, these discussions seemed driven more by modernist concerns where Christians thought the truth of the gospel hinged on propositionally proving the truthfulness of scripture. However, today these arguments make less and less sense, having lost much of their effectiveness in our postmodern and post-Christendom society. One of the main reasons why these arguments have lost their effectiveness, I’m convinced, is because Christianity in America has become something like the emperor who had no clothes. The only difference is that society isn’t afraid of saying so anymore.

Examples of what I mean are plentiful today but what it amounts to is that people see the Christian church and sense the incongruence, if not hypocrisy,  between what Christians believe and the way Christians live—living a life that reflects pretty much the same beliefs, values, and practices of society. The reality reflects what Ronald J. Sider observed in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience which showed that while Christianity focused on defending truth, the lifestyle of many Christians became a functional denial of the truth (p. 29)

“Evangelicals rightly rejected theological liberalism because it denied the miraculous. In response, we insisted miracles were central to biblical faith at numerous points including the supernatural moral transformation of broken sinners. Now our very lifestyle as evangelicals is a ringing practical denial of the miraculous in our lives.” – Ronald J. Sider

Part of the problem is that many Christians misunderstand the reason for which we have received the scriptures. It’s worth noticing that in the passage cited above from 2 Timothy Paul isn’t writing to defend the truthfulness of scripture as the inspired word of God. He assumes it is and assumes that Timothy does so too, meaning the text assumes that the readers believe scripture is inspired of God as well. So instead of dogmas about the nature of scripture, Paul is writing about the function scripture has for instructing those who follow Jesus (“the person who belongs to God”) in living a life of doing good works. In other words, the church has received scripture as the word of God to us so that we may learn how to live as followers of Jesus who embody the gospel as participants in the mission of God.

As I have suggested before, if we believe that we are called to follow Jesus then we ought to read scripture as a word instructing us on how to live as followers of Jesus. This means we are reading scripture through a Christ-Centered (Christology) and Kingdom-Oriented (eschatology) hermeneutical lens. While there is more that needs to be said about how we read scripture with this hermeneutic, it matters that we begin thinking about the function of scripture and how we ought to be reading scripture. It matters to me because I want to see Christians and the churches they serve among faithfully embodying the gospel in a manner that is contextual appropriate for the circumstances they face.

In a second post, part 2 of The Bible and Following Jesus, I will explore more about why it matters more than ever that we understand clearly the purpose or function of scripture. Right now, I just want to emphasize the reason we have received scripture. If we don’t understand that, we’ll just continue down an adventurous road that misses the point which has already proved to be a costly turn in the wrong direction.

      “The church has received scripture as the word of God to us so that we may learn how to live as followers of Jesus who embody the gospel as participants in the mission of God.”

Mercy Without Justice?

Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick are both well-known former NFL quarterbacks and to some extent, cultural icons in our present-day society. Many people have admiration for one and disdain for the other, and this ying and yang reflects much more about where people land on the social-political spectrum that it does about either former quarterback.

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You may not know this but both Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick are professing Christians. Tim Tebow endeared himself to many evangelical Christians and other conservatives for his willingness to express his faith in a public manner, for his pro-life stance, and holding to other traditional Christian values. I have nothing against Tim Tebow and if you’re a Christian, even if you disagree with Tebow on some issues, you shouldn’t either. But on the same hand, you shouldn’t have a problem with Colin Kaepernick either. Yet when Caepernick began protesting the racism and numerous police shootings of black men in America by kneeling during the performing of the National Anthem, many of the Christians that lauded Tebow expressed anger towards Kaepernick. Why?

While the differences between Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick might be categorized as a conservative versus liberal difference, I want to think from theological perspective. Specifically I’m thinking about the categories of pastoral and prophetic gifts. The pastorally gifted person comes along encouraging us to live more deeply into what we already believe to be true, which is exactly what Tim Tebow exemplified. There’s nothing wrong with that either, as we all need such encouragement at times. At other times we need the prophetically gifted person to help us see the injustices that exist, injustices that we tolerate and even sometimes accommodate. Denouncing injustice, the prophet calls us to repentance. Whether we like it or not, we need Colin Kaepernick as much, if not more these days, as we need Tim Tebow.

Our challenge is receiving the message of a prophet which is disruptive, certainly not what we want to hear. With few exceptions, only the oppressed seem welcoming of the prophet’s protest. The privileged and powerful become defensive and dismissive of the prophet because the prophetic word is a rebuke calling for the privileged and powerful to repentance. That’s the way it was when God sent prophets to speak his word to Israel and that’s the way it is when prophets speak today.

Consider the case of Botham Jean who was fatally shot in his own apartment by former Dallas Police Office Amber Guyger. After Ms. Guyger was convicted, Brandt Jean, the brother of Botham, chose to forgive Ms. Guyger and give her a hug. The moment was captured on video, a video that instantly went viral (I shared it too) and may prove to the most shared video ever. There’s much to love about that moment and the extension of mercy that Brandt Jean offered to Amber Guyger. It’s a pastoral moment, reminding us of the grace and forgiveness that every Christian believes is right.

However, after Amber Guyger was sentenced to prison, there was a video of Botham Jean’s mother pleading for justice. Her plea was aimed at the underlying racism that played a part in this entire case and has plagued the city of Dallas. In comparison to the video of Brandt Jean forgiving and hugging Ms. Guyger, the video of Botham Jean’s mother was seen and shared by very few people. Why? I believe the answer is that we, the mostly white Christians who have the privilege and power among society, don’t want to hear her prophetic pleas for justice. And it seems like we never do.

The other day I was rereading through Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham City Jail. Dr. King wrote this letter, in part, as an explanation to the white moderate pastors who have grown tired of his protests, remarks:

“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstration into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects, and does not grapple with underlying causes.” (A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches, 1986, 2003,p. 290)

His critics were more concerned with the civil unrest that was taking place in the quest for civil rights than they were for the injustices of racism and lynchings that oppressed people of color. The prophetic voice of Dr. King was too much for too many and we know this because we all know what happened on the morning of April 4, 1968.

I am a minister of the gospel who serves as a pastor with the Newark Church of Christ but I also believe my calling must bear an occasional prophetic voice too. So let me say unequivocally that mercy is a beautiful gift to offer but it should never diminish or neglect the need for justice. The vision of the gospel is one that offers both mercy and justice, not one over the other. But too often in America, where racism and racial injustices still exists, white Christians have clamored for grace and mercy while remaining silent when it comes to justice. It’s time for this posture to end. Mercy without justice must end.

This calls for repentance.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:8, NRSV