Category Archives: Contemporary Culture

Advent: Peace

This past Sunday was the second Sunday of Advent, focusing on the peace that is revealed and received in the coming of Christ. With the peace of God in mind, we have the Old Testament reading from Malachi 3:1-4…

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Malachi prophesied at a time when life in Israel was full of covenant malpractice. Everything from profane sacrifices offered by the priests in the temple to matters like sorcery, adultery, and oppression of the poor were rampant. But Malachi speaks of a day when the Lord will come and his people will once again be a pleasing offering. So I’m not sure if the words of the prophet were heard as good news or not but they do raise the question of who can endure.

Advent invites us to anticipate the coming of the Lord and with his coming,  the shalōm that is the Lord’s to give. Such peace isn’t just the absence of violence, though we certainly welcome a world in which violence is no more. Peace is a life of wholeness which is concerned with the well-being of our lives so that life, in its totality, is made complete. From a Christian perspective, peace is the reception of God’s new creation in Christ. The peace of Christ that is born in Advent with the coming of the Lord has to do with an entirely new community, a refined and purified community in whom God’s righteousness is the way of life.

Advent reminds us that God’s new creation, a righteous life of peace that comes through the refinement and cleansing of the Holy Spirit, is revealed in the coming of Jesus Christ, our Lord. The question for us is how do we participate in this new creation? How do we participate in the coming kingdom of God?

Well, well by faith, of course. But wait… 

Malachi mentions both a “governor” in the first chapter and then the “temple” in our text this morning. All that is to say that Malachi likely prophesied in what we refer to as Israel’s postexilic period of history. That means that Malachi prophesied sometime after the rebuilding and dedication of the Temple in 516 A.D. So this prophecy regarding the day of the coming of the Lord meant another four-hundred to five-hundred years of waiting. That’s a long time to wait for the day when the promises of God finally come true. Such waiting calls for endurance. But let’s push this endurance further because we know the advent story. 

God sent John the Baptist as the messenger to prepare the way of the Lord. Yet his life ended with his head being chopped off. Then we also have the coming of the Lord too: Jesus, born in the town of Bethlehem. The birth of Jesus was such a joyous occasion that King Herod had every baby boy in Bethlehem murdered in an attempt to kill Jesus, who was a threat to Herod’s kingdom and fragile little ego. However, the story of Advent doesn’t end with the slaughter of baby boys in Bethlehem. Jesus grows up to be a man and after his baptism, he begins proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom. So the promises of God proclaimed by Malachi, as well as the other prophets of Israel, are coming true but they are not as we anticipated. Instead, the kingdom of God for which the Lord’s people have hoped for and now are invited to participate comes by Jesus enduring death on a Roman cross—Crucifixion! This is the coming of the Lord.

The life that Advent calls us into is a faith measured by our endurance to wait for the coming of the Lord! Jesus comes but the fullness of his kingdom is still to come and so we, who believe, must continue waiting with endurance. Yet this can be a difficult aspect of having such faith.

There are some things in life that force us to either endure with patience or to give up our faith. I’m thinking of the different struggles we face, the grief and pain that life brings. Struggles with mental and emotional health just don’t go away because we say a prayer. Prayer matters but sometimes prayer is met with a long silence or even a resounding “No” just as Jesus experienced in the garden. We have other struggles too . . . struggles with sin, problems in our marriages or with our children, people we love who have died that we would like to just hug one more time. And the only thing we can do is wait with the patient endurance of faith, holding on to the hope that one day the peace of Christ will have delivered us from all these struggles.

Our faith is to not only say we believe but to wait, enduring the frustrations and disappointments and even suffering that comes from living between the coming of Christ. Such faith may seem naive and even blasé today but the righteousness of God will not fail. His peace, revealed in a baby named Jesus born to die on that old rugged cross but raised from death and exalted as Lord and Messiah, will one day come because this same Jesus is coming again. That’s the promise I’m holding on to and the promise I hope you hang on to as well.

 

Comprehensive Faith, Pt. 2: Hag-Ridden Christians

The church is called to be the community of believers in Christ in which the fullness of God exists through the power of the Spirit. You can read my previous post, Comprehensive Faith, Pt. 1: The Gospel and the Church, to get a fuller explanation of this calling, which is expressed in Ephesians 3:14-21. However, we can stifle this work of God and hinder his fullness from manifesting within us.

Sex, money, and power can certainly stifle the work of God among us but most of us know the perils of such vices. Then there is religious pluralism but most Christians I know understand that Jesus isn’t just a way but the way of salvation. So what could be so distracting to our faith today? 

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis employs satire to explore how the satanic enemy can weaken the faith of Christians. In the 15th letter, Screwtape says to Wormwood, “Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present.” Then a little later in the letter, Screwtape writes:

But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future—haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth—ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the present if by doing so we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other—dependent for his faith on the success of failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.

If follows then, in general, and other things being equal, that it is better for your patient to be filled with anxiety or hope (it doesn’t much matter which) about this war than for him to be living in the present.

The hag-ridden state that Lewis mentions has played out time and time again. The distraction from the eternal comes by way of fear and discontentment that can breed repulsion and contempt. This is how tribalism, nationalism, racism, and even denominationalism begin to take precedence among Christians. This is why we better pay attention to what is going on right now in America.

For years now various talking heads have built their platforms by stoking fear, arousing anger, and sowing division. finger at the other side. This happens on both the right and the left, and Christians are not immune. In an article titled The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart, Peter Wehner described how partisan-politics is creating turmoil among Christianity because too many Christians are choosing partisan political ideologies over the gospel.

Matt Chandler, who is the pastor with The Village Church in Texas, recently made a similar observation during an interview with Church Leaders. He was being asked how he, as a pastor, addresses issues like race, the presidential election, and COVID-19 vaccinations. In part of his response, Chandler said, “There is a failure of the church over the last 20, 30 years that there doesn’t seem to be a theological understand of what the church is meant to be that has more power than these ideological tribes that have formed. People are really choosing their ideology over doctrinal faithfulness.” That seems important but the concern can’t be just about the partisan-politics and ideological tribalism. The concern has to about how this is happening because it hasn’t happened over night. So how does this happen?

Well, back in the article by Peter Wenher, James Ernest is quoted as saying, “What we’re seeing is massive discipleship failure caused by massive catechesis failure.” In other words, there has been a negligence in teaching the meaning of the gospel resulting in a discipleship failure.” To this negligence, Alan Jacobs is also quoted as saying, “People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe, and that catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them. The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.”

I hope Jacobs is wrong regarding the chance churches have in the faith formation of people but that’s why we need to hear the meaning of the gospel again and again. It may be time for some Christians to give up the cable news channels, the podcasts and YouTube channels. What I do know is the word of God here in Ephesians 3. It’s a prayer asking that we would be strengthened by the Spirit so that we Christ will dwell within us so immensely that we are grounded in the love of God and therefore fulled with the fullness of God. May God the Father, Son, and Spirit fulfill this prayer among us today and forever!

Comprehensive Faith, Pt. 1: The Gospel and the Church

George Santayana, who said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s why learning history matters so much. However, to learn from history we have to be honest with the truth and sometimes that means facing some terrible moments in history. For this post, I have in mind events like the Rwandan Genocide, the rise of Nazi Germany that led to World War II, the American Civil War, and The Thirty Years War.

These wars were fought in the name of tribalism, nationalism, racism, and denominationalism by many professing Christians who did not wake up one morning with their hearts suddenly set on war. Rather, somehow, the gospel of Jesus Christ was slowly eclipsed or co-opted by other agendas surrounding tribalism, nationalism, racism, denominationalism. This is why Ephesians, a letter written to Jewish and Gentile believers struggling with divisions, matters. For this post, I want to focus on the prayer found in Ephesians 3:14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

This prayer is offered in response to the Gospel described throughout Ephesians, particularly in the first three chapters. As a summation of how the gospel is described, we (the church) have already received every blessing in life from God. Though we were once dead in our transgressions, God saved us by his grace through faith. God accomplished this salvation by sending Christ who made peace for us by reconciling us as one body through the death and resurrection of Christ. Now we are filled with the Spirit as the living portrait of God’s wisdom, a church demonstrating that God is able to make one family out of different people.

The prayer itself asks that you first we would be “strengthened” by the Holy Spirit in our inner being so that Christ would “dwell” within our hearts through faith. This language of Christ dwelling in our hearts is talking about Christ living in or taking up residence within us. So the role of the Spirit dwelling within us is that Christ will become the center of our personality, thoughts, and emotions along with everything else that identifies who we are.

Such strengthening by the Spirit so that Christ dwells among us is how we are “filled with all the fullness of God.” However, this is a blessing we can receive, reject, or just stifle by letting other claims and agendas take us captive. In the second part of this post, Comprehensive Faith, Pt. 2: Hag-Ridden Christians, I’ll discuss the failure of faith confronting Christianity in America today. For now, take time to reflect on why might be distracting us as believers that would eclipse the fullness of God among us?

Americans and the Wisdom of God

Years ago, I went on a college mission trip where we went from house to house, knocking on doors, trying to begin evangelistic Bible studies. One of the questions we were told to ask as an “ice-breaker” was the question of who do you think God is? I can’t remember how anyone ever answered that question and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how I would have answered that question either. Today, is different. Ask me who God is and I will unequivocally tell mention Jesus.

Yes, that’s a very simple answer in needs of further explanation but one of the foundational claims of Christianity is that when we see Jesus, we see God in the flesh. We call this doctrine the Incarnation. The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus as the eternal Word of God who not only was with God in the beginning but was God and who became flesh, making his dwelling place among us (Jn 1:1, 14). Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul recites an early Christian hymn that speaks of Jesus as the very icon or image of God and in whom the fullness of God lives (Col 1:15, 19). Likewise, the writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as “the imprint of God’s being” (Heb 1:3). Of course, when we consider the many miraculous acts Jesus did, they all point to his divine identity.

So, I am now able to answer the question of who God is. In fact, as I like to tell people, it’s not that Jesus is like God but that God is like Jesus because he is Jesus. That is, God is like Jesus because he has become flesh in the person of Jesus.

This matters much during this season of Lent as we approach Holy Week, during which, many years ago, Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross. Yes, God the Father raises Jesus from death and exalts him as the Lord and Messiah but now our answer to the question of who is God must include the image of Christ, God in the flesh, crucified. As Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, the image of Christ crucified means that God is like this (The Crucified God, 205). God is the one who has become flesh in the person of Jesus, choosing to work through suffering death himself on a Roman Cross.

Yet this just might be our stumbling block. We want to think of God as all-powerful, and he is, but he chooses to exercise his power through the humility of Jesus hanging on the cross. As believers, we’re called to participate in the mission of God by following Jesus and that seems fine until we have to choose between the power and wisdom of God manifested in the crucifixion of Jesus or the power and wisdom of the society we live among.

Remember, how the apostle Paul said, “Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified…” (1 Cor 1:22-23). Well, we might ask ourselves a question: If Jews look for signs and Greeks for wisdom, what do Americans look for? Who knows exactly what the answer is but perhaps science, politics, money, guns, education, and even conspiracy theories. Every day we are then faced with a choice of whether we will choose to live by the power and wisdom of Christ Crucified or will we choose some other power?

That’s a question that needs to be answered by everyone of us, both as individuals and as local churches. How we answer that question will reflect how we embody the gospel and whether our witness will tell the story of Jesus Christ crucified upon the cross or some other story we just slap some religious language upon. What will our answer be?

 

 

Are We Listening?

Per the Western Christian Calendar, this past Sunday was Transfiguration Sunday. The gospel reading, according to the Revised Common Lectionary, was Mark 9:2-9, which is the story of Jesus’s transfiguration. 

Within Mark’s Gospel, this story comes on the heels of Jesus telling his disciples how he will suffer death upon the cross in Jerusalem. This doesn’t sit well with the disciples, so much so that Peter rebukes Jesus. In response, Jesus tells his disciples that any who wish to follow him must first deny themselves, pick up their own cross, and then follow him. That’s the only route to the kingdom of God. So knowing that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, and therefore the true Messiah sent by God to restore the kingdom, matters. This is why God insists that we listen to Jesus but are we listening?

We live in a day and time when more information than we can imagine is available to us through books, podcasts, etc… all at the click of a mouse. Those who know me understand that I don’t have any issues with people listening to a variety of different voices on any given issue. Knowledge, truth, and wisdom are revealed by God in a variety of sources. So while there is nothing wrong with listening to what others might say, our embodiment of the gospel hinges on whether we continue listening to Jesus.

A quote often attributed to Edmund Burke says, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I often hear this quote cited to justify the Allies waging war against Germany in WWII. Whatever we think about the necessity of war, evil did not rise up in Germany because good men did nothing. Rather, evil rose up because the majority of Christians living in Germany stopped listening to Jesus. Their eye site wasn’t set on the kingdom of God and so a charismatic voice by name now infamous name of Adolph Hitler came along saying exactly what their itching ears wanted to hear. In doing so,  they joined him in leading much of Europe into hell on earth.

If we don’t want history to repeat itself, then we must learn from our history. Such learning should teach us to keep our ears tuned into Jesus and our eyes set on the kingdom of God. The voice of heaven has spoken and he says about Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” (Mk 9:7, CEB).

A lot could be said about how we listen to Jesus today. I’m suspicious of those who claim that Jesus somehow speaks to them directly. I’m not saying that’s impossible but I am highly suspicious. Too many self-proclaimed prophets have attempted to speak for the Lord but have shown themselves to be false prophets, with the latest being those who prophesied this past November 3rd. So how shall we listen to Jesus?

Read the Bible. That might sound cliché but in short, it’s the right answer and I cannot emphasize that enough. So, read the Bible and read it regularly.

However, as we read the Bible, we must also learn how to read the Bible rightly too. We commit to reading the Bible because God has given us these scriptures to tell us about the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. The Bible is telling a story that centers in on Jesus, whom were called to follow, and is oriented to the coming of God’s kingdom, which we are called to embody. Our reading of the Bible is meant to teach how to live as followers of Jesus bearing witness to the kingdom of God. That’s how we keep listening to Jesus.

Baptism, Temptation, and Mission

I’ve been a Christian for twenty-five years and serving as a minister of the gospel for the last twenty years. I’m ever thankful for the life that God has allowed me to live. Serving as a pastor with a local church is a fulfilling vocation but doing so can be difficult. While some days are filled amazing stories, other days our tragic moments because that is what life really is. One day the sun shines bright while another day the sun is obscured by dark clouds and this is the life that God calls us, as followers of Jesus, to embody the gospel among.

With that in mind, let’s consider the baptism and temptation of Jesus according to the Gospel of Mark. We read in Mark 1:9-13,

About that time Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.

Unlike the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t have any interest in telling us why Jesus was baptized or any of the details regarding his temptations. Instead, Mark’s interests is that we know that Jesus is not just a Jewish man from Galilee but that he is the Son of God on whom the Spirit descends and whom the Spirit now leads into the wilderness.

What we see in Jesus is the work of God. This is who God is and what God is doing. If we really want to know what God is about, Mark tells us about Jesus, the Son of God. This is what God is and is about. As Jürgen Moltmann says, “When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God,’ the meaning is that this is God, and  God is like this” (The Crucified God, p. 295). God is revealed to us in the baptized Jesus who, led by the Spirit, did not retreat into the heavenly realms but was led into the wilderness and beyond into realms of darkness that will take him all the way to Jerusalem where he, the Son of God, will be crucified.

This is this same Jesus whom calls us to follow him (Mk 1:17) and in whose name we are to be baptized.

So what Mark is telling us about the baptism and temptation of Jesus also matters for us who claim to follow Jesus. After all, Mark isn’t telling us about Jesus so that we’ll just have a better Christology. He’s telling us so that we’ll follow Jesus, the Son of God, because where he goes is where we encounter redemption and participate in the redemptive mission of God. That is, after all, what we signed up for when we were baptized into Jesus Christ and received the Holy Spirit.

As a church, this is not a choice we have. The Spirit, which we have received, will always lead us in the way of Jesus, the Son of God, to the glory of the Father. So either we follow Jesus into the realms of darkness or we don’t follow him. Participating in the mission of God isn’t limited the heavenly realm of worship in a place we might call a sanctuary. Rather, joining in the work of God means following Jesus out among places where darkness persists with people whose struggles evoke grief and pain. That’s where the Spirit led Jesus and that where’s the Spirit leads the church. 

This is what living as faithful followers of Jesus involves and it is how the church embodies the gospel in a meaningful manner to those we encounter. The gospel that we call the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t a slogan. It’s a storied message about Jesus Christ but it takes a community of people faithfully committed to that storied message as followers of Jesus living among people for it to mean anything more than a slogan in some ancient sacred text we call the Bible.

May we remember our baptism and let the Spirit lead us as followers of Jesus among places with people where God seeks to extend his love and grace!

The Problems with Church Leadership?

With the news of yet another well-known evangelical pastor falling into moral failure, I’ve seen a lot of chatter about what is wrong churches and leadership. In particular, the conversation seems to be about so-called “celebrity pastors” and the megachurches they serve with, churches that function more like a business enterprise. You can read two such critiques here and here but if there are plenty of other social-media posts too. Though there are obviously some leadership issues that need to be addressed, we need to make sure were addressing the right issues and not making more out of them than they actually are.

To begin with, let me be clear and say it is without any doubt that the failings of pastor’s like Carl Lentz (or Billy Hybels, Perry Noble, etc…) is terrible and reveals some troubling leadership issues in some churches. I say “some churches” because it is just some, not all and likely not even the majority of churches. Most pastors are honorably serving as men and women of good character and integrity as they follow Jesus. 

We should also be careful about the way we critique church leadership. I’m not a fan of churches organizing like business enterprise with their pastors functioning more like CEO’s rather than ministers of the gospel but I doubt this is the norm. Far from being big business enterprises with celebrity pastors building their brand, most churches are just local people serving in local communities with a pastor or two who serve as humble leaders with their church.

The problem of moral failures and abusive leadership can happen in any organization regardless of what kind of leadership model exists. So although some models undoubtedly are more conducive for problems to appear, it seems short-sighted to think that simply by changing leadership models will resolve the problems. Also, while it is true that some churches have a toxic hierarchal leadership derived from a business model, this is not the case with many churches in whom their leadership model differs based on denominational polity and traditions. So such broad sweeping criticisms not only seems unwarranted but also of shifts the blame, removing the responsibility of the moral failings from where they belong which is the particular pastors and churches in question.

One of the articles I linked above goes so far as to critique what the author describes as a “pastor-centric” model derived from the Pastoral Epistles. This model is contrasted with what the author believers as a better model, the APEPT model (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) derived from Ephesians 4:11-12. In my opinion, the author misrepresents the function of Timothy and Titus played as leaders sent to the churches in Ephesus and Crete. While it is true that Timothy and Titus were referred to as “pastors”, if we look at the functional tasks they were given then their work is what we typically understand as the work of a pastor. Of course, one of those tasks was to appointing of overseers and deacons (1 Tim 3:1, 8) and elders and overseers (Tit 1:6-7), so they were never to remain the only leader. Also, I don’t believe there is any hierarchy implied in the Pastoral Epistles that would place any particular leader (pastors, elders, etc…) over one another. Rather, they should serve in mutual submission to each other as they submit to Christ (more on that below).

I’m not opposed to the so-called APEPT model but I also find that many who are pushing this model make a lot of assumptions about the text of Ephesians. We don’t know if the “apostolic” referred any number of Christians with an apostolic gifting as people sent or was this in reference to the Apostles appointed by Christ. Also the grammar of the text leaves open the question of whether  “pastors and teachers” is one role or two separate? So maybe we ought to be a little more cautious about constructing a leadership model off of one passage of scripture. As best as I can tell, there isn’t any one specific model of leadership found in the New Testament, so perhaps we should resist imposing one model over others. Besides, I not sure the point of the New Testament is to offer a particular form when it comes to leadership models. So if we are to address the issue of leadership failure, particularly the abusive leadership and the lack of accountability, then we have to address that issue which takes us back to the leaders themselves.

Regardless of what leadership model exists, every leader if first and foremost a servant. My point of departure for Christian leadership is Jesus and the conversation he has with his disciples about greatness in the kingdom of God. Jesus says to his disciples in Luke 22:25-26, “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.” This humble servant mindset of Jesus would result in his crucifixion, so Christian leadership is to serve and do so from the logic and wisdom of the cross that Jesus embraced rather than a top-down position of coercive power. That’s true whether the leader is functioning as a pastor, elder, or even an apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher.

Because every leader is a servant following Jesus, mutual submission and accountability is required of every leader. Rather than elevating one leader above others, all leaders within a church should be able to question and challenge each other. Further more, all leaders should listen to each other and submit to the discernment of the entire leadership. That’s how mutual submission and accountability work. When any leader seems to be acting or involved in activity that could bring harm to the gospel and call into question the integrity of the leadership, other leaders must have the moral courage to address these matters (how to do this is a whole other matter). The failure to do so is what allows toxic cultures to grow until they implode in a big scandal.

Perhaps the best thing we could do as church leaders right now is reflect on how we are serving. One thing is for sure. People are not fooled. They know the difference between a servant and an authoritarian, between someone who submits to others and someone who submits to nobody, between someone who is accountable to others and someone who thinks they are exempt from the rules others must live by.

To My Fellow Christians Living In America

To my fellow Christians living in America, can I share with you a concern I have as a pastor?

America is now officially one week away from the official 59th U.S. Presidential Election. Although voting has already begun and election officials will likely continuing counting votes after November 3rd, the election will technically be over. Contentious politics, on the other hand, is far from over. The difficult and divisive issues will come again and again. That’s how politics go these days and I say that not to dismiss the importance of politics in a civil society. Every society needs officials to administrate, organize, and govern. What is really nice is when these officials can govern as representatives of their society, as leaders appointed to serve in office by ballots rather than bullets.

However, civility is not a given. There are many examples of political violence and civil war throughout history and America is not any exception. America has experienced civil war, political assassinations, etc…, so it would be foolish to think it can’t happen again. In the last couple of years America has seen the rise of extremists organizations, such as Antifa and Proud Boys. Recently, law enforcement arrested members of anti-government militia on charges of plotting violent attacks that included the kidnapping of Michigan’s governor. Then there’s the rapidly increased vitriol rhetoric that defines many political conversations, both in the news media as well as social-media.

As concerning as lawlessness and civil war is, that’s not my primary concern. As a pastor, my concern is with the witness of those who call themselves Christians and namely that in the midst of conflict, Christians will take up for one side or the other as though we belong to this world. That’s happened before as well. Instead of loving others, even if the other is an enemy, as Jesus taught, many Christians already seem to be taking up sides as though doing so matters more than bearing witness to the good news of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed — living as disciples of partisan politics. That’s the concern because should there ever be widespread violence, civil war, etc… who will bear witness to the things that make for peace if those who claim to believe in Jesus Christ take up sides with another kingdom of this world.

Lord, have mercy!

I’m not suggesting that Christians cannot have a political opinion about what is best  nor am I saying Christians should vote or not. I’ll vote. Whether you vote or not is not my business but there is a big difference between voting and taking up sides in a conflict and in doing so, treating certain others as enemies to be conquered. 

So if we consider ourselves to be believers, people who confesses that Jesus of Nazareth is the Lord and Messiah, remember then who we are called to follow. Remember the life that Jesus has taught us to live, with its very peculiar beliefs, values, and practices. Don’t worry about what results, short-term or long-term, will come from remaining true to our confession but trust that God will bring about his redemptive good through our faithfulness in living as witnesses of God’s kingdom. If we can’t commit to that because it seems too hard or just seems too out of touch with reality, then we are the ones to be pitied because we are the ones who call ourselves believers and yet do not believe.

Lord, have mercy!

Go and Listen: Racism, Justice, and Christianity in America

The Christian church in America has an image problem of its own making. That was the sentiment I had after reading the book Unchristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christian …And Why It Matters by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons published in 2007. Although perception and reality are not always the same, there is generally some truth to the perception and that is what should concern churches.

Fast forward to the year 2015. Barna released a survey reflecting much of the same conclusions from 2007. However, one conclusion that caught my attention is that 70% of millennials perceive Christians as insensitive to others. The article detailing this research points also to a perception of intolerance and exclusivity, demonstrating “a lack of relational generosity within the U.S. Christian community.” Now fast forward to the year 2020. I don’t see much that might change this perception of Christianity as we live through a pandemic, a tumultuous election season, and the continued struggle with racial justice.

My concern is particularly with the issue of racial justice because I believe the gospel is for justice and opposed to racism, and therefore I also believe Christians should be concerned with seeking racial justice too. As we think about racism in America, we see a variety of responses. In academic and intellectual conversations, Critical Race Theory and Police Reforms has garnered a lot of attention. On the street level, #BlackLivesMatter has become a movement and an organization, with people engaging in protests (of note: though the Black Lives Matter movement and the organization are related, I do believe they are separate and should be engaged as different entities). Unfortunately some of these protests have become violent riots and seem to get most of the media attention. Although it needs to be said that the ACLED analyzed more than 7,750 Black Lives Matter demonstrations between May 26 and August 22 and found at least 93% of the protests have been peaceful. Within the religious sector, some churches have organized rallies and panel conversations to discuss the issue of racism with the intent of getting people to hear different perspectives, particularly those of Black people. I was thankful to be invited to sit on one of these panel conversations as the only white person; it was a learning opportunity for me.

Let me clarify that I unequivocally do not approve any violence, looting of property, and killing. Whether from the left or right, such mayhem is wrong and will not bring about any good. Nevertheless, as I have already hinted, I see an opportunity for Christians because I believe the gospel that Jesus proclaimed and embodied ordains a way of life that seeks both justice and reconciliation. The question I have is whether Christians in America have the capacity to imagine such a gospel life and embody it as local churches? And to be quite honest, sometimes I have much doubt but I won’t surrender to such despondency.

So besides reading the Bible, which is always a necessity, where do Christians start? Before I offer my two cents, let me say that Christians have different views on ideas like Critical Race Theory, Police Reform, and Social Justice as well the Black Lives Matter organization. However, getting caught up in discussing the pros and cons of each is a side distraction that keeps us from addressing the real problem of racism. Though for some, it’s seems to be the side distraction they seek so as to divert attention from the issue of racism. That said, we would do well to remember that most of us affiliate with certain people, organizations, and ideas that are not “Christian” and most of us understand that there are occasions when our conscience will not allow for any affiliation. So how about we let everyone act according to their conscience and don’t pass judgment on others who do differently than what we might do.

Instead of getting caught up in these endless debates and finger-pointing games, I have another suggestion and I offer it especially to my fellow White Christians. How about we become listeners. Go to a Black Lives Matter protest, attend a panel conversation on racism, read one of the numerous books written by Black authors on the issue, which I have done. Just listen. Listening doesn’t require agreement with everything that’s said but it does say that we care and gives us the opportunity to learn. Listening is an act of love that opens space for us to help cultivate racial justice rather than just being perceived as insensitive to others.

According to the Barna research cited above, there is a silver lining of good news. When offered to select an image that describes present-day Christianity, “One in four chose the overtly positive image, the helping hand reaching out to a person in need (24%).” Maybe if Christians could learn to listen more and point less fingers or even worse, dismiss a movement, then perhaps that twenty-four percent would increase. So just go and listen. It’s really simple to do. It’s something Jesus did and so it’s something we, as his followers, should do too. 

Let Us Fix Our Eyes

My favorite Stanley Hauerwas quote says “Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bullshit.” I know those with sensitive ears might find such a statement shocking but that is a theological load of truth that Christians need to hear. We especially need to hear that Jesus is Lord and everything else is… as we move into the fall year of 2020, with a national election looming. We need to be reminded of it even in proliferation of the news media we are bombarded with everyday.

I didn’t watch the Democrat or Republican convention’s this year. I recognize the necessary role of politics in a civil society but I can read what the various speakers have to said without all the unnecessary hype. My interest here isn’t opining on the many claims, promises, etc… made by those running for office but I do have at least one exception. When politicians use Christian language, co-opting ideas and even the words of scripture for their own political end, I am compelled to say something because I find it troubling. 

This pilfering of the Christian faith for state politics happens often and Vice President Mike Pence is just the latest example. So my comments about what the Vice President says has nothing to do with his political affiliation. I was an equal critic of former President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush but here is the notable excerpt from Pence’s speech at the Republican National Convention:

My fellow Americans, we are going through a time of testing. But if you look through the fog of these challenging times, you will see, our flag is still there today. That star-spangled banner still waves over the land of the free and the home of the brave. From these hallowed grounds, American patriots in generations gone by did their part to defend freedom. Now, it is our turn.

So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and our freedom and never forget that where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. That means freedom always wins.

The quote references both Hebrews 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 3:17 but with the former, Pence replaces Jesus with “Old Glory” and “this land of heroes.” I’ve read the entire transcript of the speech as well as listened to the speech. It’s overwhelmingly clear that what Pence has in mind is not Jesus and the kingdom of God but America, in all of her patriotic splendor. 

As mentioned earlier, such rhetoric is nothing new for politicians, as every former living U.S. President and even those long past have applied Christian language and ideals to the American story. They’ve done so because Christians have for the most part tolerated and even believed what they’re saying. So the issue isn’t with the politicians but with the Christian church in America, allowing the Gospel story to be co-opted with little resistance and even approval on many occasions.

My concern stems from the fact that I am a follower of Jesus who happens to serve as a pastor and am deeply concerned for the Gospel witness of the church. Tolerating and even believing this co-opted rhetoric compromises the witness of the church. That’s because the American story is not the Gospel story told within the narrative of scripture and blending the two together isn’t the Gospel story. Blending the two stories together either adds to the Gospel story, which itself is a problem, or forms a civil religion out of America, becoming an expression of Christian Nationalism. Either way, this is a problem rife with idolatry because we live according to the stories we tell ourselves. These are the stories we accept and entertain.

Simply put, we are the stories we tell ourselves. As storied people, we live according to the stories we embrace. Like any narrative, the stories we embrace shape our beliefs, values, and practices. That’s how we become the stories we tell ourselves. The problem is that we’re trying to live two different stories simultaneously. Try as we might to convince ourselves otherwise, we don’t live two stories well — if at all. One must concede to the other and the story of Christendom, the melding of church and state, is the history of Christianity’s concession to a state narrative. Christianity in America has not been any exception. 

As I said, we don’t live two stories well but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, attempting to live both the Gospel story and the American story is a rather confusing witness. Just imagine Hans Solo, played by  Harrison Ford, within the story we know as Star Wars. There the Captain of the Millennium Falcon is with Princes Leia and Chewbacca. Immediately following the scene, Hans Solo begins talking about traveling to Nepal to recover the headpiece of the “staff of Ra” (taking up the role Harrison Ford played as Indian Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark). That wouldn’t make a lot of sense, would it? Yet, that’s what Christians do when they try living both the Gospel story and the American story or the blending of the two. 

Some will wonder about Paul invoking his Roman citizenship to question the legality of the guards who were about to flog him without any conviction (cf. Acts 22-25). However, acknowledging his legal citizenship in this world hardly constitutes living according to the story of the Roman Empire. Paul was about to be flogged because he was living the Gospel story, which ran afoul with both many of his fellow Jews and the Roman Empire. Here in America, things are different. The American story has been allowed to shape the Christian life. It’s why many Christians have justified the wartime sword in furtherance of American interests, despite claiming to follow Jesus who chose the way of the cross rather than the sword. Now, as we enter the home stretch of year 2020, we are left wondering why Christianity has become so anemic in America. Perhaps part of the reason is that we have been living an alternative story to the Gospel Story, with just enough of the later sprinkled in so as to make the alternative story seem Christian.

By the way… most states have passed laws making the use of hand-held mobile devices illegal while driving. Why? Because we can’t drive well while trying to fix our eyes on both the road ahead and our smart phones. Maybe it’s time to say we will fix our eyes on Jesus alone. Not Jesus and Old Glory, just Jesus alone. Perhaps become a one-sport people and run only that race which the writer of Hebrew speaks of because we sure aren’t doing well trying to run two entirely different races at the same time.

“So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.”

– Hebrews 12:1-2