Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

A Deafening Silence

October is around the corner and the fall season is almost here. That mean people will be buying Pumpkin Spice Lattes, apple cider from the local market, and planning for Halloween parties, all while children anticipate going out Trick-or-treating with their friends. October also means Baseball playoffs and with the Chicago Cubs having the best record in baseball, I really look forward to the playoffs this year. But with each playoff game, the fans in attendance will be asked to stand during the seventh-inning stretch for the singing of God Bless America. But maybe instead of having a nice patriotic song to declare the blessing of God on the nation, maybe the Lord has another word he wants us to hear.

The land was full of evil and idolatry, violence and corruption was everywhere. There didn’t seem to be any end to the injustice and wrongdoing taking place. All that was left was lament, to cry out to the Lord in complaint as to why he tolerates such wickedness and does not come to save his people.

So that is just what the prophet Habakkuk did. He lamented, pouring out his complaint to the Lord and so the Lord answered. The Lord said that the most dreaded Babylonians, with their strong and violent military, were coming and it would not be pleasant. Not the response Habakkuk was hoping for, so he cried out to the Lord again and again the Lord spoke. This time expressed his anger with a series of rebukes, saying “Woe…” regarding all the ways that people have acted unjustly and engaged in idolatry. But it’s the statement the Lord makes at the end of his response that should pierce the heart.

“The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.”

– Habakkuk 2:20

And then it as if the Lord has just dropped the mic and walked off the stage. The silence is deafening, as it should be. With all of the injustice, idolatry, and corruption, along with the utter hubris that always seems to lurk behind such evil as people complain and accuse others with a pointed finger, it is as if the Lord has had enough. Now the Lord is imploring the people to look at him, to bow before him with humility and recognize that he alone is the Holy God.

That seems to be a message we need to hear in America, whether we are Christians or not. Right now there is evil and corruption all around us. There is a problem with racial injustice as, by way of example, “black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers,” even when they are unarmed and appear to have their hands in the air as in the case of Terrence Crutcher or as in the case of Charles Kinsey, a therapist who was unarmed but still shot by police as he was trying to help an autistic patient. Violence abounds in places like Chicago where as of September 1st of this year there have been 471 deaths and 2,300 shootings, as well as places like Dallas and Baton Rouge where police officers were murdered simply because they serve the public in law enforcement. And with a scandal like that of the Wells Fargo scam, we are reminded that wealth and power allows for corruption to take place seemingly with impunity.

Maybe it’s time for Americans to stop singing God Bless America and instead just be silent before the Lord!

So just for a little clarification, I am not suggesting that America should do away with God Bless America for good but that given all the hatred and violence, maybe it’s time for America to be silent before the Lord for a season.

Can We Listen to the Protest?

For the last couple of weeks we all have seen the news of football players refusing to stand during the playing of America’s National Anthem. Some people have applauded while many others have condemned. This has all taken place amid a larger conversation about race-relations in America as it has become painfully clear over the last several years that racism is still a problem challenging society. How we respond, especially those of us who are white like me, will either further the divide or open a door for reimagined future where racism begins to lose its grip on society.

I’ve never known what it’s like to suffer oppression but I have experienced suffering of another kind. I’m referring to the death of my son Kenny when he was just three days old. Sixteen months later, my younger brother John died unexpectedly too. I was only twenty-nine then and only seven years removed from when I sat beside my father as he laid in bed and took his last breath, succumbing to cancer. These deaths and the suffering they trigger has had a lasting impact on my personal narrative, the story of my life. Although I have learned to live with such grief and pain, it’s still suffering.

One of the realities of such suffering is dealing with those who think they know how I or someone else who has suffered should handle such tragedy when they have never endured such tragedy themselves. I’ve heard people say things like “just got to let it go and move on” when my life seemed to be emotionally paralyzed with grief and it seemed impossible and even undesirable to move on because the only thing I wanted to do is hold my son one more time. Others said  something like “Don’t think like that… God works in all things for the good of…” (cf. Rom 8:28) when I voiced my anger as I questioned why God did not save son.

Those who have endured great suffering whether it be a serious health crisis such as cancer, the death of someone like a child, divorce, etc… understand what I am talking about. For all the suffering endured there is also the frustration of having someone who has not walked in our shoes telling us how we should handle it. And frustrating it is! That’s also why even though I have never suffered social-political oppression, I believe I can speak up for the oppressed on at least one issue: The frustration of having those who have never been oppressed criticize them and school them in a better response.

…it is utter foolishness for us, who are not oppressed, to think that we can define how those who feel oppressed voice their protest.

Right now in America there are many minorities, and particularly Blacks, who feel as if they are being oppressed. Whether the reality matches their perception does not matter, though I will say that I believe there is always some truth to the perception and that seems true in this case as well. The rest of us are not in any position judge the oppressed, especially if we cannot even take the time to be present with them first in order to listen (= listen to understand) a little. But that’s not what happens these days. Instead the voice of protest is quickly dismissed and criticized by plenty of people. Thus, as certain football players have chosen not to stand for the playing of the National Anthem, choosing to kneel in order to raise a voice of protest over the oppression of blacks and other minorities they see taking place in America, others have been critical as reported here and as we have all seen in our social-media feeds. Of course, if we haven’t ever suffered oppression then we have the privilege of so easily dismissing and criticizing those who do protest since we’re not the one’s suffering, but I digress!

We may dislike the way some football players are choose to kneel during the National Anthem as they protest the oppression they see but we are not the ones to judge. In fact, it is utter foolishness for us, who are not oppressed, to think that we can define how those who feel oppressed voice their protest. The best thing we can do is listen as they voice their protest. Any failure to listen and so critically dismiss such protests is itself a form of oppression. God forgive us for such a sin!

So can we listen? Can we talk to someone who is a minority living “one the other side of the tracks” in town and ask them what struggles they have because they are black, because their first language is Spanish, because they come from somewhere in the Middle-East? If we’ll listen to such people, and hear the ways in which they still struggle because they are a minority and because of some of the injustices that still occur in America, we might just learn to have empathy for their suffering. When that happen we might just discover together ways of cultivating a more civil and just society for all people. And if we’re Christians doing this in the name of Jesus, as we should, we help extend the kingdom of heaven so that the will of God takes place here on earth as it does in heaven!

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

~ Micah 6:8

Proleptic Vision: Christians, America, and the Upcoming Presidential Election

How should Christians, people who profess to believe in and follow Jesus Christ, live? In one sense that seems like a simple question to answer: Christians must become like Jesus Christ. That’s why the Apostle Paul says, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). However, this opens other important questions such as how such life formation shapes the way we act towards the poor, the way we live in marriage, the way we love our enemies, and so on.

Though it has not always been the cast, most of these other questions are a no-brainer. Of course, the life Jesus lived should shape the way we act as husbands or wives, the way we love our enemies (even if we don’t agree on what all that entails). Yet there is one aspect in which Jesus doesn’t seem to have a lot of influence these days and that is how Christians relate to earthly nations in light of history.

The fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians is a well known passage of scripture for its proclamation of the gospel, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation this gospel offers to those who believe. Consider though, the historical implications of the gospel. Because of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul says in vv. 20-24:

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.

What a huge historical claim this passage makes about the future and end or goal (telos) of history. As Jürgen Moltmann notes, the future and hope is already present to Christians in Christ (Theology of Hope, p. 161). This makes history proleptic whereby the future of history is already known to those who believe, giving the church a proleptic vision. All dominion, authority, and power is and will surrender to the reign of Jesus, who will then hand over the kingdom to God the father.

…Christians must regard all nations and history in light of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ along with that appointed time when the kingdom of God is handed to God the Father and all other kingdoms are destroyed.

Right now, America is engaged in a vitriolic and contentious political campaign that will culminate in the election of a new President of the United States. In varying degrees, Christians in America are for the most part also engaged in this political campaign. Some Christians would even suggest, as one article does, that the future of America is at stake with this election. Should Christians have such a concern? Remember what the passage above from 1 Corinthians already implies for believers: the future of America and every other earthly nation is already known. Whatever claims of sovereignty America and other earthly nations make, Jesus Christ has already defeated such sovereignty which will surrender no later then when the end (telos) of history dawns.

This must change the way Christians live historically in relation to the nations and that includes America. Sine Jesus Christ is already victorious over all dominion and authority, including America and every other earthly nation, then the work of Christians in every local church is the proclamation of this victory (cf. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, p. 147). Just as I suggest that Christians should read the Bible through the hermeneutical lenses of christology and eschatology, the Christian life and ministry must be christologically-centered and eschatologically-oriented. The doctrines of christology and eschatology should shape the proleptic vision of the church, changing the way Christians should relate to all earthly nations and history. That is, Christians must regard all nations and history in light of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ along with that appointed time when the kingdom of God is handed to God the Father and all other kingdoms are destroyed. The Christian witness then involves letting the world know of this victory. All earthly nations, including America, must know that they are neither eternal nor sovereign because God has already established his eternal kingdom through the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Lest I be misunderstood or even falsely accused, I do not hate America. Problems notwithstanding, America has and will most likely continue to be a good nation to live among. So please, if you’ve read this far, do not think of me as an anti-American hater, because I’m not. I just believe that Jesus is Lord and that my allegiance is therefore due to Jesus and his kingdom.

So how should Christians in America relate to earthly nations in light of history, particularly as it pertains to the upcoming election? As November 8th approaches, it does seem that Christians have good reason for concern (though neither fear nor anxiety). Whoever is elected as the next President of the United States or whoever becomes a Mayor among any number of American cities does matter. Those holding such such offices should be people who will serve by seeking the relative good of all people. However, Christians must not be misled into thinking that the future of America is really what matters. What matters is that Jesus Christ is the crucified and resurrected Lord! What a failure it is for Christians to become so entangled in the business of who wins an election that the gospel takes a back seat, resulting in a diminished and compromised Christian witness.

For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, let them see and hear!

A Christian Hermeneutic: Until Christ Is Formed In You

Anyone can pick up a Bible, read it and quote it. But that doesn’t mean they’ll read it right and begin living the life the Bible points to, revealed to us by Jesus. In fact, remember when Jesus was led into the wilderness and tested by the devil? Well, the devil even quoted scripture and I’m quite sure his use of scripture was not what God had in mind.

I’ve been busy finishing a thesis proposal for my Doctor of Ministry degree in Contextual Theology at Northern Seminary. My interest and the focus of my research is on missional hermeneutics and how a church reads the Bible in order to live as participants in the mission of God. It’s an important issue as churches navigate new challenges brought on by rapid changes in their local communities. It’s also an important issue because not every Christian/church reads the Bible well. Reading the Bible to simply protect the status quo of tradition in your church, to legitimize the American way of life, to promote the  “name it, claim it” prosperity gospel, and so on. Bad reading!

How we read our Bible matters also as we are faced with new moral and ethical challenges. With great advances in technology, new discoveries in science, the availability of a plethora of information at the click of a mouse, and the onset of globalization, we have reason to inquire about what is right and wrong or how we should act and respond to this or that issue. Racism, homosexuality, gun violence and terrorism, abortion, marriage and divorce, materialism and charity… to name a few of the issues.

Some of the issues may seem to have an easy answer where it seems clear as to what the will of God is and therefore how Christians should believe and act. For some Christians it is but for others it’s not as clear cut. In fact, there are Christians, who love Jesus and desire to follow him as much as you, who have come to some different conclusions than you. Whose right and whose wrong isn’t the point. What matters is that we recognize that facing the difficult challenges and finding answers to the questions they raise, if that’s possible since that is not always the case, is more than just a matter of asking what does the Bible say?

I don’t want to be misunderstood though. Asking what the Bible says is a good question but it is always a matter of interpretation and our interpretation is always based on a hermeneutic. Everyone has a hermeneutic whether they know it or not, the real question is whether it is a good hermeneutic or a bad hermeneutic. One person’s hermeneutic might be happiness and so long as it makes a person happy or brings them joy, then nothings wrong. Another person’s hermeneutic might be the virtue of “do no harm” and so an action permissible as long as it doesn’t result in injury to anyone else.

For Christians and churches, our hermeneutic is anchored in Jesus Christ. In a blog post, there is only say so much that one can say which may (hopefully) raise more questions than it answers and that is my hope here. But let me try explaining what I mean by Jesus Christ as our hermeneutic by quoting one passage of scripture from the Apostle Paul:

“My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you (Gal 4:19)

This is one of the classic passages when talking about spiritual formation and it seems clear that Paul ministry sought to form the church in the way of Jesus Christ. How Jesus lived, becoming a crucified servant, and the purpose for which he lived, the kingdom of God, must become our way and purpose for how we live. This is the hermeneutic we must read the Bible through, which I believe is shaped by the dual lenses of christology (the life Jesus lived) and eschatology (the goal for which Jesus lived).

To describe this Christian hermeneutic another way, this hermeneutic is christologically-centered and eschatologically oriented. Reading the Bible through this hermeneutical lens is not likely to make the challenging issues and questions faced by churches any easier in addressing. However, it provides a beginning point that for determine right and wrong not based on happiness or lacking any injury but on whether our actions are Christ likeness in perspective and direction.

And if the church, the Christian life, isn’t Christ likeness… Well, you know!

Speak Carefully: Words Do Matter!

This post isn’t about the politics of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton but it is an observation and an opportunity to learn. I want to offer some thoughts about the words we speak in public. While I have in mind church leaders such as elders and ministers, what follows is sound advise for anyone and might just help you avoid having to insert a foot in your mouth or worse.

Unless you’ve been cave dwelling for the last few days, you know that Donald Trump is taking a lot of criticism for his remarks about Hillary Clinton and the second amendment. Trump suggested that Clinton wants to take away the second amendment right to bear arms and that there’s nothing that can be done about it but then suggested that people “the second amendment people” could do something about it. Trump’s critics believe that this is a veiled threat while his supporters believe it’s only a plea for increased political activity.

Hillary Clinton responded by reminding her supporters that “Words matter…” Whatever Trump may have meant is besides the point. What is important and is at least one thing that Clinton is right about is that words do matter!

“Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.”

– Proverbs 21:23

Let’s not pretend that words are insignificant and meaningless. What we say does matter and so we better take care to think about the words we use.

Everyone of us, especially those who speak in public forums, will eventually say something ill-advised. That’s seems par for the course and when it happens, the best thing we can do is apologize. However, the more we speak out of turn, saying something careless or hurtful, the more credibility we lose. And remember, credibility is part of our trust factor and it’s like a tree… it takes years to grow and just a few minutes with a few foolish words to tear down.

As a minister, I write my sermons out word for word as a manuscript. While I don’t preach word for word from the manuscript, writing my sermons out like this accomplishes several objectives and one of those is giving careful thought to the words I say. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way because I have had to apologize for something I said, something that was true but was poorly stated, which led to insult rather than instruction. In fact, if your a beginning preacher, here’s some free advise: take the time to write your sermons, thinking carefully about the words you use because the words you speak do matter.

A politician might be able to play the game of political spin and get away with saying something careless but that is not so likely with us who lead among churches. Regardless of what Trump may have meant, let’s see his carelessness as a reminder that our words do matter. Let us resolve ourselves to be wise and give thought to what we say before we speak!

Got Faith?

Willmar TornadoThe picture you see to the right was the tornado that touched down a third of a mile from my house on July 11, 2008. My family and I had just moved to Willmar, Minnesota and I had just returned from a stop at the nearby Best Buy where I overheard there was a confirmed tornado touch down in Kandiyohi County. I didn’t make much of it because the skies were still bright but five minutes later, while retrieving a flashlight from the trunk of our car, I noticed that the branches on the trees looked like a vacuum cleaner was sweeping them up. In what seemed like minutes but really was a couple of seconds, I heard what sounded like a jet approaching and noticed my ears were beginning to pop as I looked up at the sky to see the twister approaching.

As soon as I realized that a tornado was coming, I ran back into house screaming for my wife to get the children and get into the basement immediately. Fortunately for us, the tornado made a slight turn in direction and we, along with the other residents on the south side of Willmar were spared a direct hit. Damage was minimal, with only two injuries and some property damage nearby (including three homes that were leveled).

Fear and Faith On A Stormy Sea

I have a fascination with storms, especially tornadoes but on that particular occasion, I was scared. So when I read Mark 4:35-41 where the disciples are become frightened on a boat as a storm comes along, I can identify with them. In fact, I really want to speak out in their defense. These were seasoned fisherman who were used to the seas but this storm was big enough to scare them. In fact the storm was strong enough to cause the waves to break over the boat. So if the boat should capsize, they all are probably going to drown and they know that. That’s why disciples wake Jesus up and frantically ask him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

Well, if you’ve read this story then you know Jesus rebukes the storm and silences it, saying “Peace, be still” (KJV). But then Jesus turns to his disciples and says to them, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Can we have enough faith so that our natural impulse of fear does not become our master? 

I used to think that Jesus was rebuking his disciples for their lack of faith which is why it seemed like Jesus was being a little unfair. However, the text never says that Jesus is rebuking his disciples per se. So what is Jesus doing? Perhaps his question about fear and faith is not so much a rebuke as it is a teacher challenging his learners (which is what a disciple is). After all, I think Jesus, as a human, can understand why a storm provokes fear and let’s not forget that fear is a normal reaction too. But Jesus has also began to demonstrate the inbreaking of the kingdom of God by healing diseases, driving out demons, and teaching with authority that was unlike any of the other religious authorities. Then, according to the Gospel of Mark, in chapter four Jesus has taught a series of parables about the potency of faith. So it seems that Jesus is taking advantage of the opportunity to point out their fear and remind them that they need to have faith.

Faith, of course, is important and necessary. Jesus knows that his disciples will face more danger, more unnerving encounters, and challenges bigger than this storm. And for that, they will need to have faith. Not just intellectual assent that confesses belief in Jesus, but a living faith that is willing to follow Jesus even to the point of death on the cross. Can the disciples have such faith? But the more important question: Can we have such faith?

Assuming you’re a Christian like I am, can we have enough faith so our natural impulse of fear does not become our master? 

Faith and The Way of Jesus

Right now we live in a volatile society that is rupturing quickly. I’m not one for doom and gloom but there’s hardly a day that goes by without the report of another terrorist attack somewhere and sometimes that somewhere is here in America. Political extremism, racism, and violence are spending like cancer and regardless of who’s to blame, such evil is a danger to everyone. Those without faith think the problem will be solved by more of the same, matching one extremism with another extreme or trying to solve violence with more violence. But as the late Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

The only way of peace is the way of Jesus, the way of the cross. That is, the kingdom of God breaks upon the wold as we, the disciples of Jesus, his church, embody his self-sacrificial life and emulate his character as a witness to the rest of society. Some Christians don’t get this. Even though they proclaim the cross as God’s victory over evil, they’ll reason (utilitarianism) as to why God’s power of the cross must be set aside for the power of the sword in one form or another. But how can we live under the cross as follower of Jesus and set aside the cross. As Leonard Allen writes, “The church that lives under the cross will consist of people possessing cruciform values, that is, the character traits and virtues necessary to follow the way of the cross” (The Cruciform Church, p. 187).

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus calls us to follow him all the way to the cross. With a hindsight faith, we believe that even though Jesus was crucified and buried in a tomb, the tomb is now empty and Jesus is alive. Sin and death have been defeated and the kingdom of God is appearing. It is our calling to live as witnesses and show the world the way of peace, where hatred is replace with love, where the light drives out the darkness of racism, violence and any other malady. But this is not an easy call. It never was and never will be. It takes faith.

Fear is a natural response to any storm, whether it be a literal storm like a tornado or a metaphorical storm in the form of racism and terrorism. But here is Jesus saying to his church, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Overcoming Racism: The Pursuit of Reconciliation

Like most others, I am saddened by the violent loss of human life. Whether it is the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile or the deaths of the five police officers, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa, there are now seven different families that are grieving the loss of someone they loved. As a follower of Jesus and a minister of the gospel, I am grieved because I don’t like seeing and hearing of others suffering. I am also  frustrated because I believe the church of Jesus Christ in America should be an example of reconciliation but isn’t. But as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, I believe we must!

On television and social-media, the vitriol and anger is so palpable that it can be cut with a knife. Some want to point fingers, but don’t! Blaming others for flaming the current racial divide only stokes the fire more. The truth is that racism and inequality has always been a problem in America but those who have suffered as a result of such hatred, particularly blacks, are tired and are crying out to those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see. Some seem to think that violence will help but it won’t. It never has and never will. In fact, violence only begets violence which only begets more anger and hatred which only begets more violence which only… you get my point.

But there is an alternative to blaming others and killing one another, an alternative that seeks true peace and reconciliation. As a praxis, peace and reconciliation begin with a conversation that’s possible because Jesus has died on the cross, exposing the darkness and rendering it powerless (cf. Col 2:15). On the cross, Jesus extends true love and forgiveness. In turn, we are free to love each other with enough humility to hear the pain of the other, repent as necessary (whether it’s injustice or just indifference and apathy), forgive each other, learn to speak truthfully with each other and serve with each other for the sake of justice.

What we need is a conversation where we come around the table with enough humility to listen with empathy to others, especially to people of different skin colors. Overcoming racial and social differences requires that we engage others, listening with empathy for the struggles of the other. Love demands that we engage others, listening with empathy to their struggles of being hated and discriminated against. The pursuit of reconciliation demands that we are willing to repent where necessary, forgive one another, and stand with the oppressed in their desire for justice.

The place for such conversations should be our churches and that means becoming intentional about creating and cultivating space for such conversations. Our pursuit of reconciliation is the outworking of the gospel we profess and our currency that gives visible substance to our gospel, so that our proclamation of the gospel is a living tradition rather than dead traditionalism. But for far too long churches have been on the wrong side of the fence either because we were engaged in unjust practices of racism or because our we remained indifferent, pursuing other issues we deemed more important. This has to change! If we believe that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ and not Democrat or Republican politics that offers true peace and reconciliation then it must change and that change must be us. So let’s open space for others of different color at the table, just as Jesus has done for us, that we may pursue reconciliation with them.