Category Archives: Faith

A Memorial Message For a Child

I recently spoke at the memorial service for a young man who was murdered. I did not know the man and only recently had come to know his mother, who asked me to speak. Undertaking the pastoral role of peaking at any memorial service, where family and friends are understandably upset, if enough of a challenge. However, when the deceased person is a child and was a victim of a violent crime, there challenge seems even greater. My role is never to judge but to comfort. How does a pastor do that and speak not only to the hope God extends in Jesus Christ but also to the desire for justice?

I have included the manuscript of the message I shared at the memorial service. However, I have changed the names of all people and locations as well as the dates in order to protect the privacy of the actual family. I am sharing this manuscript for whatever help it offer to others, especially those called to serve in similar circumstances.


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John Smith, Jr., passed away on January 8, 2018 in Massachusetts. John was born in Atlanta, Georgia on July 10, 1987 to his mother, Juanita Bowen, and father, John Smith, Sr. John is survived by his mother, Juanita, and his step-father, Michael Bowen, his sisters, Janice Rice and Tina Smith, his brother Alex Smith, and his auntie, Debora Stone. He was proceeded in death by his father, John Smith, Sr.

Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.” Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” – John 11:38-44, CEB

Several days ago I sat down with John’s mother Juanita and asked her to tell me about her son. She described her son John as someone who loved to have a good time, teasing and laughing. And like any good son, that also meant teasing and laughing with his mother. But Juanita also noted how she could always count on John to help her with the little, the often thankless jobs like carrying in the groceries or just pausing to open the door for another person. I don’t know about you but where I’m from that’s what we call a “gentleman.” 

More importantly though, Juanita recalled how her son John was always “very loving and very hugging.” That sounds like a wonderful son to have.

But that’s also part of why the passing of John is so difficult, especially for his mother and his step-father. As parents, we never expect to bury our children. They’re supposed to bury us. And so no matter the age, when a child passes away there is a grief and pain that words cannot fully describe. 

Of course, this child, John is more than just a son. He’s also a brother, a nephew, and a friend to others. And to lose a brother, nephew, and friend at the young age of just thirty-two is a difficult burden to bear. 

I am also aware that John’s death was not because of an accident or illness but because someone else took his life from him in a criminal act. And so, we’re here today because a terrible injustice has occurred, an injustice committed not just against John but also against his mother and step-father… and against his brothers and sisters as well as his auntie… and even against his friends.

But I am here speaking today as one who believes in Jesus Christ. My conviction that Jesus is the Lord and Savior also means I have some convictions about the way the world works and the path of history the world will follow. What I’m getting at has to do with redemption and the need for justice and mercy along the way. 

A few minutes ago we heard a passage of scripture that recounted the time when Jesus raised a young man named Lazarus from death. Lazarus had been sick and by the time Jesus showed up, he had died from his illness. So Jesus raised him as a sign that God is at work in our world, redeeming life and will in fact bring an end to the curse of death we all face. 

So Jesus said, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” (Jn 11:40). It’s a question and it invites us to ask if we do believe. Because if we do believe then we have hope for redemption from all the grief and pain in life, including death. And if we do believe then we are right to also want justice just as God desires justice. So we do desire for the government, whom God has ordained as a lawful authority, to hold accountable those responsible for taking John’s life.

But if we believe in Jesus, we also must be people who show mercy. I’m not sure what that always looks like and it seems rather difficult to think about showing mercy to people who have acted unjustly towards us. But I also know that evil wins when our righteous anger and protest of injustice becomes hatred and vengeance. God wins when we remain steadfast in love, extending mercy just as God has shown us mercy.

All of this doesn’t make the death of John or anyone else, for that matter, any easier. To Juanita and Michael as well as to the rest of John’s family and friends, I am truly sorry that John has passed away. As a parent myself who has had a son pass away, I know that there isn’t any “getting over” such a loss. The grief and pain of losing someone you love is a terrible thing. 

What we have is hope… hope which springs from our belief in Jesus Christ, our Lord. According to the passage of scripture we read earlier, when Jesus shouted for Lazarus to come out of the grave, he did so. And one day the proclamation that God has made in his Son, Jesus Christ, and particularly through his death and resurrection, means that the grave of death is not eternal. Instead we are offered the promise of eternal life with Jesus Christ, our Lord and that is our hope.

Christian Witness: The Memory of Hope in a Secular Time

Over all, I have enjoyed a very good life. I was raised by Christian parents in a household with two brothers and two sisters. I’ve always had food on the table, adequate health care, and I’ve been blessed with a good education. Today I am a Christian and I’ve been able to spend much of my adult life serving as a minister with local churches which is something I love doing. I’ve been able to travel both nationally and internationally, which is more travel than a lot of people enjoy. Additionally, I have been married to my wonderful wife Laura for nearly nineteen years and we have been blessed with three wonderful children. So when I come home, I can definitely say that life is good.

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I have much to be thankful for and probably more so than I am even aware. So much that I give thanks to God each day for the life I have. Yet there have been times when life has been difficult. At the age of sixteen, I was critically injured in a car accident that should have been fatal. I was only twenty-three years old when my dad was diagnosed with an aggressive stage-4 cancer in his pancreas and died two months later. There have been times when my family and I have had very little financial resources to live on, creating a lot of unnecessary stress. However, the most difficult part of life came when my oldest son died, followed a year later by the death of my younger brother. That was such a difficult period of life and looking back, to think that I have thus survived this journey of grief I am on is sheerly by the grace of God.

In all of the ups and downs of life, I can still surely say that life is good. That doesn’t mean that life is always easy or pleasant. What makes life good is God, who blesses each day with existence and also blesses the existence of life with a future hope in Jesus Christ.

Now admittedly, if it were not for this future hope in Jesus Christ then a lot of life would seem like one big cruel joke. I say that because there is too much bad, too much evil, and too much pain that goes on and that seems especially true for people in certain parts of the world where every-single-day is a constant struggle among abject poverty, living with systematic injustices, and having the apparent the cruel misfortunes of being born the wrong gender, wrong race, wrong nationality, etc…

I can’t explain why the bad exists… Well, I probably could begin to do so but at the end of the day, all such explanations seem inadequate. So I won’t. What I will say is that despite the bad, life is still good and I believe it is so because of the promise of hope that God has made in Jesus Christ. As scripture says in 1 Peter 1:3-5:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. This inheritance is kept in heave for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”

This is the Christian difference regarding life. Life is good not because of the present circumstances, which are ever changing for better and worse, but because the future is salvation — life redeemed, reconciled, and restored.

As Christians we can’t forget this and lose our memory of hope. In this time of secularism that has become America, the secularist sees hope for the future when the economy is strong, when good paying jobs are plentiful, when the children are doing well in school and extra-curricular activities, and so forth. But as nice as that is, it could all be gone tomorrow.  As Christians though, we see things differently and must. We see through our memory of hope, recalling the story of Jesus that culminates in his crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation. Because of that, we know the future full of hope. Our memory of hope is our Christian witness and we speak of it as an invitation for our secular neighbors to discover what can only be seen through the eyes of faith.

 

I don’t Look Like A Christian

tattooedcoupleA few weeks ago while sitting in a coffee shop reading, a young woman asked me what I was reading. I told her that I was reading the Bible and that led to a small conversation about reading the Bible. But then the young woman said, “I just started going to church. I know I don’t look like a Christian but I am.”

I thought about what she said. I could see the tattoos covering her arms, the numerous body piercings, and the Gothic hair style dyed an unnatural color. Was that why she said that she didn’t look like a Christian? I’m guessing so.

Okay, that got me thinking about what does a Christian look like. Regrettably, too often churches have cultivated a culture where Christianity has a certain dress-code that has more to do with style than modesty. I don’t think most churches mean to cultivate such a dress-code but when you walk into a church service where the older Christians dressed in their best Sunday dresses and suits and the younger families all have on clothing from Ralph Lauren and Ann Taylor stores, well… And this goes for us pastors too. I once noticed at a ministry conference how many of the pastors were wearing pretty much the same clothing, like they all just finished shopping at True Religion and Lucky Brand.

I’m not saying Christians are wrong for wearing the clothes they wear, even if it does become rather monolithic. But people need to know that looking like a Christian has nothing whatsoever to do with the clothes they wear, their hairstyles, and so on. Of course, few would disagree with me and yet there are still communities where Christianity has a look that may exclude anyone who looks different.

What then does a Christian look like? There are so many ways to answers that, ways which are all true. For example, a Christian looks like someone following Jesus. Or a Christian looks like someone who has been baptized and belongs to a local church. And a Christian looks like someone who has the Holy Spirit living within them as they turn away from sinful behaviors and learn to love both God and their neighbors more each day.

All that is to say that perhaps the best way of describing the look of a Christian is to say that a Christian looks like someone whom God is at work transforming into the image of his Son, Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 8:29).

So after thinking about what this young woman said for a little while, I went up to her again and told her that I think she looks like a Christian. She smiled and asked, “Why is that?”

I told her, “Because I see Jesus Christ forming in you.”

Christianity: Reclaiming the Practice

According to Acts 11:26, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Before this, followers of Jesus were typically called “believers” or “disciples.” But now the citizens of Antioch said they were Christians and I’m pretty certain they were not meaning to compliment these believers. To say “I am a Christian” today may draw some sneers but not for the same reasons. So perhaps we can ponder a little more what it means to be a Christian.

THEN and NOW

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The words read “Alexamenos worships his god.”

In the eyes of this Greco-Roman city, these people were following someone who had been crucified and as the apostle Paul would later remind the Christians in Corinth, this was considered foolishness (1 Cor 1:23). As a matter of fact, Jesus was not considered a hero or a good honorable person among the unbelievers, to some he was a crucified ass as the third-century Alexamenos Graffito etching depicts. And I use this language not to be vulgar but so that we might understand the point. If hearing Jesus spoken of as a crucified ass makes you uncomfortable, imagine how Christians must have felt  nearly two-thousand years ago. Yet these Christians remained fiercely loyal, swearing their allegiance to King Jesus and embodying the way of life he lived while on earth — even to the point of suffering death themselves.

But my, my… How things have changed. I once was asked by a barista in a local coffee house if I considered myself a mainline Protestant Christian or an Evangelical Christian. Realizing that this person likely had assumption about both groups that I didn’t want to own, I was very thankful for my Restoration heritage which gave me the language of saying “Christian only but not the only Christians,” So I told the barista, “I’m just a Christian and nothing else.”

That seemed like a good answer in 2007 but ten years later, I’m not so sure. There are ideas associated with the term Christian that give me reason to pause and sometimes option to just say that I am a follower of Jesus. So it’s not that I’m ashamed to confess my faith in Jesus, as I’m not, It’s just that when Christianity has become so embedded in American politics that it’s nearly impossible at times to see any cultural difference between the two, then Christian means something very different from what Christianity should be.

GUITAR PICKING and CHRISTIAN LIVING

As already pointed out, Christianity began as a way of life. To be a believer was to be a disciple of follower of Jesus in community with other believers. That is what it meant to be a Christian and thus to be a part of the ekklesia of King Jesus. It was more than just believing. It was believers putting into practice what they believed about Jesus and the life he lived while on earth.

However, Christianity as a practice isn’t how we typically think of being a Christian. MacIntyre describes a practice saying:

“A practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods. To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them. It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes to the standards which currently and partially define the practice” (After Virtue, 3rd ed., p 190).

In other words, every good has certain practices that must be followed for that good to exist. If the good is playing the guitar, then there are certain practices such as properly fretting chords and scales, picking techniques, etc…  that must be learned and followed to say I can play the guitar. Any person may be able to pick up a guitar and produce a sound from making contact with the strings but that does not make such a person a guitar player. The same is true with Christianity. There are certain practices that must be learned and followed to say that we are being a Christian (for an accessible read on such practices, I would begin with Fitch, Faithful Presence, 2016). While there is room for debate about what practices are necessary, there shouldn’t be any regarding the need for learning and following certain “standards of excellence” and “rules” in order to be Christian.

This MacIntyrean understanding of practice helps us as we think about our own confession of faith. To be a Christian is not just to believe in Jesus and have a set of beliefs about what is taught in scripture, it is to follow Jesus as a way of life. While that sounds so obvious, just a quick observation of society shows that it doesn’t always translate into practice. Yet it must. If we confess faith in Jesus then we must reclaim Christianity as a particular practice of which Jesus is the interpretive lens that focuses our understanding of what this practice involves.

SO THEN…

Our goal is the formation of Christ in our lives (cf. Gal 4:19) and it requires more intentionality on our part. If our desire to become like Jesus, then we must invest in the practices following Jesus. This isn’t a works oriented salvation, it’s called repentance and it is part of Jesus’s original call to come follow him… learning to be distinctly Christian.

“Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.” – Lamentations 3:40, NIV

This Battle Still Belongs to the Lord

The tragic shooting this past Sunday in Sutherland Springs, Texas has been a painful tragedy to hear of from afar. I’m upset for the many innocent lives that have been lost and hurt, and I’m angry that someone can just indiscriminately kill other people. Yet just as with the past church shootings in Antioch, Tennessee and Charleston, South Carolina, in ways that hit close to home, we are reminded again that churches face persecution. The question we face as the body of Christ here in America is “Now what?”

Sutherland Springs Shooting

The Battle Belongs to Who?

When I was in college, one of the popular songs during chapel and devotionals was The Battle Belongs To The Lord (if you’ve not heard the song, you can click on the title to hear an a cappella rendition of the song). It’s a song that encourages faith with lines like… “No weapon that’s fashioned against us shall stand [because the] battle belongs to the Lord.” Or, “When your enemy presses in hard do not fear… The battle belongs to the Lord.”

Yet, sometimes I wonder if Christians really believe this? Or have we so compartmentalized our faith that the battle we sing about has nothing to do with the physical life we are living? I ask that because with the news of so many mass-shootings which are now also taking place at church and other religious gatherings, the response of many Christians is not any different from the way the rest of the world responds.

For the past few days the response of many Christians on social-media was the reaction of anxiety expressed in the question of how do we protect ourselves from such harm. Don’t get me wrong! I am not opposed to undertaking measures that protect innocent people from harm but when Christians suggest that the number one concern of the church should be safety is just to lose sight of the gospel. When our anxiety about a mass-shooter coming to our church prompts us to immediately suggest locking all the doors of the church building during worship and/or encourage members to carry firearms, we are letting fear lead us rather than faith. [Whether it is moral/ethical for Christians to carry firearms as a means of personal self-defense is besides the point.]

It seems as though Christians in America have forgotten that following Jesus might mean suffering for the name of Jesus. It certainly has for our fellow disciples throughout history and even today among certain places in the world. So the possibility of suffering for the sake of Christ should not surprise us. Scare us??? Yes, the idea of having an individual or group enter our worship gathering to kill us is terrifying. The question we must ask is how should we respond?

A Christian Response

Consider these words from the Apostle Paul that have been the focus of many sermons on a Sunday morning. Ephesians 6:10-20…

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Exegeting the text isn’t the big issue we face with a text like this. In my experience as a pastor, the problem is that too often we have so spiritualized and privatized this passage of scripture that it doesn’t have any bearing on an issue like the threat of a mass-shooting. That is, we limit the “struggle” (v. 12) to the way Satan may be trying to lure us into sexual immorality, selfish behaviors, bouts of depression, and so forth. Now I’m not denying that any of those issues are real battles we face as Christians. They are real and this passage offers us sound instruction for facing those struggles. However, this text was originally written to Christians who were also facing forms of persecution for being followers of Jesus. So when we hear that a gunman has committed mass-murder inside a church gathering and realize that such a massacre could happen in our church gatherings too, this text offers us instruction for facing this struggle too.

The passage tells us how we, the church, remain strong. Our strength is in the Lord, not in our own fallibility. Putting on the full armor of God then is essentially living as the new creation we are in Christ (Lincoln, Ephesians, p 442). Of course, finding our strength in the Lord as we put on the full armor of God requires faith. That is why v. 18 says, “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”

When faced with any struggle, our response begins with prayer because it isn’t our battle to fight or win. The battle, as we sing, belongs to the Lord and it is a battle he has already won even though we may suffer. The promise of the gospel is not that we will be without suffering but that through the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ we have a victory now that will be known in fullness when our Lord returns. So when faced with struggles, we respond by praying and lifting our petitions up to the Lord… praying that we can live as his new creation rather than like the old creation that the rest of the world is.

Through such prayers we gain the strength to remain distinctly the church. And when it comes to the threats of violence, it doesn’t mean we ignore safety concerns. What it does mean is that we will act in faith rather than with fear and that by acting in faith, we don’t not consider just our own safety but how we go about our business of embodying the gospel. That is, besides considering how we might develop a protocol for responding to an emergency such as a mass-shooting taking place, we are also resolved to keep loving others, forgive those who wish us harm, and proclaim the word of God more boldly. If our response to danger is not an embodiment of the gospel then we’re not any different from the world and if we’re not any different from the world then are faith is nothing more than empty words we recite on Sundays.

One Final Plea

My fellow Christians, I am not asking that we remain naïve about the world or just throw ourselves into danger. My plea is that we not lose sight of the victory we have in Jesus Christ and that we respond to the potential dangers we face as the victorious people of the Lord. That won’t always be easy but let’s remember… This battle belongs to the Lord!

The Christian Mind

If we want to know how someone thinks, the place to begin is with what the person does. Except for the ignorance of acting without thinking, which we all are woefully guilty of at times, human action reflects human thought. The important question we must ask ourselves is what kind of thinking shapes the way we live?

Living Christ PosterThe question of what kind of thinking we do is important because virtuous thought doesn’t always seem natural. Just take children for example. Get any group of three-year old children together and they will play together without any concern for matters such as skin colors, clothing apparel, etc… But they’ll need to be told again and again to share. Sharing toys with each other is not a part of their thinking.

Unfortunately, as they grow up, this me-first selfish mentality is reinforced over and over. I remember years ago seeing a bumper-sticker that said “He who has the most toys wins!” And if you remember watching the MTV show Cribs, a reality television in which viewers received a tour of the homes belonging to Hollywood celebrities, actors, musicians, and athletes, then it sure seemed like there was truth to that bumper-sticker.

As Christians though, we are called to a different way of life and one that reflects the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. But old habits die hard. Following Jesus requires a new way of thinking so that our new way of living will take shape over time. This is the reason why Paul reminds us of the Christ-hymn in Philippians 2:5-11:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very natureGod, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! 

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The point isn’t simply to tell us about Jesus and help us develop a more sound doctrine of christology, though that’s certainly helpful. Paul is interested in cultivating our mind-set, as v. 5 says.

This matters because most conflicts in church are made difficult not because people disagree but the way people disagree. When “selfish ambition or vain conceit” as opposed to the humility of regarding others before ourselves and caring for the interests of others guides our train of thought, conflict becomes a disaster. As Christians though, we must learn to think in a selfless manner that seeks to serve others because that is the model and example we have learned from Jesus Christ. It is the Christian mind in us that places others above ourselves, considering their needs before our own and even when the cost to us is great.

A couple years ago I listened to Dr. Kent Brantly share his story of caring for patients with Ebola in the African country of Liberia. While treating patients, he contracted the deadly virus and nearly died. Yet he didn’t regret his decision to go serve others suffering from such a terrible illness. But in talking with a few other Christians about his story, I heard someone remark about the faith of Dr. Brantly and then quip how they doubt they could ever do that.

Well, it does take a lot of faith but that faith is the product of a mind that has been cultivated as a Christian mind. Our heroes of faith are people just like us who simply have allowed God to conform them in the likeness of Jesus Christ. That’s the only difference. So while I don’t want to downplay their faith, I don’t want to supersize it in a way that allows us to say that could never be us because that’s just not true. The question of faith is just a matter of how much our mind-set has been cultivated as a Christian mind, reflecting the mind-set of Jesus. So instead of saying we could never… we should begin with the dangerous prayer of “Lord, Jesus Christ, make me like you!”

A Confession: The Blessing I Forgot

“Rejoice Christian! Your sins are forgiven and you have the gift of eternal life in Christ,” says the preacher.

jesus-crucified-08-2“Good sermon, preacher!”, says me the faithful, church-going Christian. It’s the kind of sermon I want to hear and it’s all true too. It’s nice to be reminded of such spiritual blessings in Christ and it’s good to be so blessed.

Then like a good Christian should do, I pick up my Bible and read. Today I’m reading in Philippians, a letter written to Christians by the apostle Paul.

And so I begin reading about how thankful Paul is for the Christians who partner with him in the gospel and how Paul is in prayer for such Christians. That’s nice. I need prayers and I’m sure there are plenty of other Christians who need prayers too. So it’s good to know that Paul is full of thanksgiving and prayer for his fellow Christians.

And then I read how Paul is actually “in chains” for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. How terrible it must be for him to be confined to a jail cell like that but I’m thankful for his faith. I’m thankful too that nobody has ever put me in prison for being a Christian.

And then I read how Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Can Paul get an “Amen!”? Maybe a “Hallelujah!”? Of course he can. Now we got an idea for the next student devotional, the next church retreat. Hey… a good preacher might even develop a good sermon series about living for Christ, knowing that when we die — hopefully a very long time from now when were really old people — that we’ll gain our eternal inheritance in Christ.

Wow… this is going to be a really wonderful book of the Bible to read through.

But then Paul talks about standing firm in Christ and says… “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him…” (Phil 1:29, NIV).

I know those words were not written directly to me or any other Christian living today, yet those words are part of the story we’re called to embody. But when I think about the blessing of being included in Christ, suffering for Christ isn’t a part of such thinking. In fact, my first inclination is to say, “Thanks for such a grant but no thanks!”

Lord, have mercy on me… a sinful man!