Category Archives: Kingdom of God

Christianity and Racism: What Might We Do Next?

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

Multi Ethnic Hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________

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

The Pentecost Message Today: Becoming The Alternative to Racism

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

Pentecost Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord, have mercy!

Like A Servant: The Necessity of Character in Christian Leadership

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

Leadership Concept

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Shall We Christians Respond?

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

Bay Care Nurses Sacrifice the Weak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on Church Leadership During the Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

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

Worship Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One: On Mission with God

This is the prerecorded message that I preached for the Newark Church of Christ this past Sunday. The message, One: On Mission with God, is based on John 17:15-24 and is about the church being sanctified and sent as followers of Jesus united in our participation in the mission of God. The message is also challenges the notion that the basis of Christian unity is based on adhering to a list of dogmas and rules that have often divided churches, hindering their participation in the mission of God.

Truth: A New Way, New Life

According to John 14:6, Jesus says to his disciple named Thomas, “I am the the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” It’s one of the more well known and controversial statements Jesus makes. Too often it seems as though Christians have taken Jesus’s response as either an abstract idea or propositional claim. The former hears Jesus as the promise of salvation but disconnects that promise from the actual life that believers are to live, whereas the later uses the words of Jesus as a thesis statement in a philosophical debate about the nature of truth.

truth

Both approaches miss what Jesus is actually saying. To understand what Jesus is actually saying, we have to take the context into consideration. Within the Gospel of John, the disciples of Jesus are anxious because Jesus is talking to them about leaving. Even worse, Jesus is talking about leaving by means of crucifixion. This frightened the disciples and for good reason. It also left them confused about how they would participate in the coming life (restoration of the kingdom of God). But Jesus had told his disciples to trust in him rather than being troubled because they know the way to the place he is going, which prompted Thomas to ask about how can he and his fellow disciples know the way. That is when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…”

        “Jesus is assuring his disciples that he, the way in which he lives and what he is doing, is the truth that is life.”

So what is Jesus saying? In the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, all within the same evening, Jesus has washed the feet of his disciples and given them the new command of loving each other. So I’m suggesting that Jesus is making a claim about his way of life being the true way and that by embracing his way of life as the truth to live, his disciples—including us—will live the new life (eternal life) Jesus has inaugurated.

To understand, we have to understand the world that Jesus has entered. It’s a world of brut force in which might makes right. Nothing symbolized that kind of life in Jesus’ day more than the Roman cross that he would soon be crucified upon. But this kind of world is also revealed in less brutal but nonetheless self-serving ways whenever people put themselves above others, seek to serve themselves at the expense of others. There may not be a cross, gun, or other instrument of death involved but there will still be coercive (and manipulative) power involved.

Frederich Nietzsche described the kind of world Jesus entered into with the phrase “the will to power.” And it is this world of coercive power that Jesus is speaking against. Jesus is assuring his disciples that he, the way in which he lives and what he is doing, is the truth that is life. What Jesus is doing in reassuring his disciples is also a subversive claim to the world he has entered which acts as its own way, truth, and life.

Later in the Gospel of John, the Roman Governor Pilate will attempt to dismiss the truth Jesus claims with his question of “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38). Even though Pilate will still have Jesus crucified, his attempt to dismiss the claim of Jesus is already an acknowledgment of the possibility that Jesus’s way of life is the truth. It’s why Pilate must have Jesus Crucified because it’s the last attempt to quash the subversive truth that Jesus is unleashing upon the world. As David Bentley Hart points out, “Jesus has already subverted the order of truth to which Pilate subscribes, and Pilate has no choice but to act to restore it. Christ’s, however, is a truth that is only made more manifest in being suppressed; its gesture is that of the gift, which is given even in being rejected; and so, on the cross, Christ makes the sheer violence that underlies the economics of worldly truth transparent to itself, and opens up a different order of truth” (The Beauty and the Infinite, p. 333).

     “For us to truly embrace the claim of Jesus as truth, we must also embrace the way of Jesus as our particular and peculiar way of life.”

The truth, Jesus has claimed, is the way of life he lives. Pilate, threatened as he is by Jesus, attempts to rid his world of this subversive truth by having Jesus nailed to the cross. But even death on the cross cannot quash the truth and when God raised Jesus from death, it was a vindication of Jesus that emphatically declares his truth as the way of life.

What makes this so important for Christians today is that we claim to be people in pursuit of the truth and for good reason. That’s because we confess that Jesus is the Son of God and thereby claim that Jesus is indeed the way, truth, and life. But as mentioned earlier, this claim is neither abstract nor propositional. Rather, the claim of Jesus is a new concrete reality. It is the new way and life we are to live. For us to truly embrace the claim of Jesus as truth, we must also embrace the way of Jesus as our particular and peculiar way of life. We live as we believe and so to say we believe that Jesus is the way, truth, and life, we must learn to embody the life Jesus lived on earth as his followers. Anything less just numbers us among the ranks of the Pilates in this world who dismiss Jesus in order to cling to their own way of life.

Now it’s hard to think of a better opportunity to show the world the truth that Jesus is by embodying this truth in the midst of the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic. We do this by loving each other and loving our neighbors, extending compassion and showing mercy as people who serve in the name of Jesus Christ. I’m not saying or suggesting that God has this virus or that this virus is good but it is an opportunity for the churches to show that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is good. So how about it!