Hope Remains!

Aunt PatThis past Wednesday my Aunt Pat, who is pictured on the left, took her last breath in this life. Having battled cancer for the last couple years of her life, her suffering finally came to an end. That is another way of saying that although my aunt will be very missed, her death is a relief in some manner as she is no longer having to endure the pain and suffering that usually comes with the final stage of cancer.

I don’t want to be misunderstood about death. Death is a terrible thing. Whether it comes at the end of a very long and beautiful life or it comes prematurely through tragic circumstances such as violence, disease, etc… death is still something that should grieve us. Death has grieved me and still does, from the day when I was twenty-two years old and watched my dad, who had cancer too, take his last breath, to the day when my first son, Kenny, unexpectedly died and a year after that when my younger brother tragically died. Death stings and hurts because once someone we love is gone, they’re gone.

Death also grieves God who created life to flourish rather than perish. So when we turn on the news and hear of people who were violently killed in an Orlando nightclub, or in some school like Sandy Hook Elementary, or at a movie theatre in Auroa, or even in foreign countries like the Westgate Mall shooting in Nairobi Kenya, God is grieved. It matters not what the victims religious beliefs were or what sort of moral lifestyle they lived, these are people created in the image of God and loved by God.

In this world of death which is also filled with much hatred and violence, it is tempting to become cynical. It’s tempting to throw our hands in the air as though life is hopeless. But I refuse such cynicism because I believe that God has become a human like us in the person of Jesus Christ and that in the coming of Jesus, God is reconciling all things through Jesus who was crucified and raised victoriously from death (Col 2:19-20). I believe there is a day coming when Jesus will come again and make all things new, a day when the new heaven and new earth will be one and death will be no more (Rev 21:1, 4-5).

So even as death seems all around us, hope remains! Until the day when Jesus returns or the day when I take my last breath, which I hope is not any time soon, and I rest in Christ while awaiting his return, I will live with faith(fullness), love, and hope (1 Thess 5:8). Let’s seek peace with each other, loving our neighbors and even our enemies, forgiving others as God forgives us, grieving with those who are grieving, and let the Spirit of God sanctify us that we may live with faith, love, and hope.


Here is a video of the choral group singing the hymn Be Still, My Soul, which I listen too frequently. I first heard this hymn when I was struggling to make sense of life and maintain my faith after the death of my son and younger brother. This hymn speaks gives voice to the grief and pain of suffering as well as the hope that encourages faith.

Christians… What’s Next?

It was during the mid-afternoon this past Sunday when I heard the horrific news of yet another mass-shooting taking place in Orlando. Fifty people who bear the same image of God that you and I bear are now dead, with many others wounded and traumatized. Just a couple hours before I was speaking to a church about being people of peace and reconciliation. But now I feel the dissonance between being a people of peace and reconciliation among such hatred and violence because part of me knows that Christians in America are not really perceived as people of peace and reconciliation.

Whenever such macabre violence takes place, there is always a response. We want to voice our frustration as well as show our solidarity with the victims. But what next? Whenever mass-shootings occur there are a lot of other questions  raised. What do we do about gun violence? Mental health screening? Terrorism? And on and on the questions go. These questions bring out the best and worst of society, which is all available for instantaneous access through social-media. For some of the best responses, we have learned of some Muslims who gathered in prayer for the victims. It has also been reported that several Chick-fil A restaurants, founded by Christians who have infused Christian ideals into their business, in Orlando opened their restaurants to serve food to those lining up to donate blood.

But then there’s the ugliness, revealing questions how much animosity, discrimination, and self-interest above the interests of others shapes our thinking − Christians included. Not even a day passed and social-media was already filling up with Islamophobia and homophobia. Some of the same old political antagonisms began making their rounds out of fear that our individual rights are at risk, which is ironic considering that those murdered have already lost their rights. In the worst case scenario, there are even some professing Christians that twist the Bible in such perverse ways, like this Sacramento Baptist Pastor, that they praise evil as good.

Something is very wrong when our Christianity sounds more like American politics, Pharisaical judgmentalism, and anything else other than Jesus! And somethings got to change.

Most Christians I know want a society that reflects the values of Christianity. Fair enough. But know this… We can sing God Bless America to our hearts content and invoke the name of God in public discourse but that won’t do diddly squat. The mentioning of God in public doesn’t make a society Christian anymore than wearing a Stetson Western Hat makes one a cowboy. Change happens as we embody the gospel as our living faith, our way of life and that happens by first realizing that our way of life should reflect the life Jesus Christ lived himself. And if we want a “Christian” society, that is a society where there is love rather than hatred, peace rather than violence, reconciliation rather than division, etc… the presence of the kingdom of God, then it is upon Christians to show the way!

The apostle Paul desired that Christ would be formed in us because God’s redemptive goal is that we become conformed to the image of Christ (cf. Rom 8:29; Gal 4:19). Our formation in Christ must change and reimagine for us what it means to be Christian, how we read the Bible, and how we act as living embodiments of the gospel. If our understanding of Christianity, the way we read the Bible, and how we live does not resemble the life Jesus Christ lived, then we are wrong. This isn’t a call to perfectionism but a call to become the people Jesus gave his own life for us to be, and to stop trying to justify versions of Christianity that sound more like America or the Pharisees than Jesus Christ.

I don’t have the answers for how the Federal and State Governments should deal with the issues of violence, terrorism, and many other relevant issues. I really sure that I don’t have all the answers as to how embodying the gospel works itself out with every different issue. But I am sure that America doesn’t need you and I or any other Christians to argue about who should be the next President, how to address gun violence or terrorism, and so forth. What America does need, whether the nation knows it or not, is for us who are Christians to be Christians all the more and be, as local churches, living embodiments of the gospel demonstrating why the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news. Let’s do this!

Church Renewal: Becoming The Gospel

For churches seeking a minister, a common theme seems to be the question of how to evangelize and grow as a church. Some churches realize this question is bigger than any simple answer while others seem as though the church just needs a minister who is good at starting new programs. This desire is certainly laudable but I would like to suggest that this is placing the cart before the horse. I’m not against programs, evangelism, and other ministries but any such movement and the way a church organizes itself for that movement must flow from the way a it follows Jesus and embodies the gospel among the community.

I’m reading Michael J. Gorman’s book Becoming The Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, since it relates to my Doctor of Ministry studies. As the title suggests, Gorman argues that the churches Paul ministered among were not called just to believe the gospel but also become the gospel. This is what I mean when speaking of the way a church must follow Jesus and embody the gospel. Gorman describes this becoming the gospel as “…the church is a living exegesis of the gospel of God” (p. 43). That is, the local church serves as a faithful interpretation of the gospel, which is how the disciples participate in the mission of God.

[Let me pause here and point out too that faithful interpretation of the gospel does not mean a reproduction of first century, fifth century, sixteenth century, or even twentieth century ecclesial forms, as the interpretation must always speak contextually in the social-anguage of the local community but that is really another issue. I just want to be clear that we are not talking about restoring any past easier segment of the church, this is about participating in God’s mission of restoring life by reconciling people to be a new creation in Christ. Now back to the point.]

For Gorman, by becoming the gospel, a church becomes a proclamation of the gospel in word and deed. This must happen both in an inward (“centripetal”) and outward (“centrifugal”) direction. However, the deed of the gospel must always proceed the word of the gospel. Those worried about whether this diminishes the evangelistic need of teaching the gospel to those who do not belong to Christ need not worry. Such evangelism will happen naturally as the church becomes the gospel in deed.

Driving this point even further, Gorman says, “As they [local churches] become the gospel, they will have opportunities to speak the gospel” (p. 45). What he is getting at is the natural response of a church speaking the gospel by virtue of being what a church is always called to be, an embodiment of the gospel or, to use his words again, a living exegesis of the gospel. He illustrates this point by referring to a barking dog, which never needs someone to instruct it to bark… Dogs know naturally when to bark and how to bark so as to alert of a danger, warn a possible intruder, etc… Ergo, when churches become the gospel, they will naturally know how and when to speak the gospel.

So why is this so important? Beyond the need for local churches to become living embodiments of the gospel (which is immensely important), this also has something to say about not putting the cart before the horse. Local churches want to engage their community, evangelizing and ministering to people outside the body of Christ, which is a good thing. But instead of focusing on that per se, which is the cart, focus on the horse. That is, the focus should be on the  formation of disciples who learn how to follow Jesus and embody the gospel amongst themselves and within their local community. So instead of asking how to develop a new evangelistic program, a church might ask:

  • What does it mean to live as a follower of Jesus and what is involved?
  • What changes (repentance) are necessary in order for a church to continue following Jesus?
  • What particular practices are vital for embodying the gospel among various gatherings, different neighborhoods, and even in the home?
  • What means of creative expression might help make this living gospel contextually intelligible among the local community?

I’m thinking out loud a bit with these question but I believe that by asking them and listening for how the Spirit of God speaks in the conversation, churches will begin seeing the way forward. When that happens, the beginning of renewal among local churches is at hand.

On Judgment: They’re People, Not Problems

So there’s this trending video of a woman walking through a Target store as she holds up her Bible and rants about the evil of the devil and Target over the retail chain’s new transgender restroom policy. I haven’t linked the video here or shared it on any social-media platform because I refuse to give publicity to such stunts. If you want to see the video, do a Google search you’ll also see how effective she was in winning the masses to her viewpoint. And yes, I’m being sarcastic.

Like the infamous protests of the Westboro Baptist Church, this woman has the right to freely express her opinions and I have the right to mine. So when I saw the video clip, my reaction was a big sigh. After all, regardless of our opinions about the restroom policies of Target, it seems pretty stupid for someone to go waving their Bible around a store as they rant and carry on (= judgment). Such tactics may have had their place in some other bygone cultural era but not now… not in the twenty-first century of a post-Christendom society like much of America has become. Of course, I doubt this woman thinks about that or thinks much of what Jesus had to say about judging of others.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” – Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 6:37, NIV)

But as I thought about it more, I realized that a lot of people are quick to judge others. Everywhere we turn, people are passing judgment on others.

Judging Others

As a side gig to earn some extra money, I’ve been driving for Uber and do so mostly in the city of Baltimore. Like most cities, Baltimore has its share of social challenges. One of those challenges is a seemingly growing number of homeless people, both men and women, who either sleep in tents underneath overpasses or move around from shelter to shelter. When they’re not sleeping, they are standing at an intersection panhandling for money… a dollar or two from every willing motorist who is willing to spare a little extra cash.

While driving for Uber, I have heard a few riders make some rather condescending remarks (= judgment) about the panhandlers. It’s frustrating to hear how people who just finished eating dinner at an upscale sushi bar or steakhouse can so easily and so callously talk about the homeless. In fact, what this often brings to mind is Herman Melville’s powerful one-line critique of the well-off who pass judgment on the poor.

“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” – Herman Melville

However, the other night something scary happened. As I was making a turn, a man panhandling for money was struck by another motorist. The man was flipped over the hood of the car, landing on his head and shoulders. It was scary because what turned out to be a spilled soda looked life, from a slight distance, blood flowing on the ground. The last thing I or anyone else wants to see is someone else seriously hurt or killed. Fortunately, other than a few bumps and scratches, the man appeared to be ok. The driver stopped and was visibly upset, worried that she had seriously hurt someone. Myself and a couple of other motorists got out of our vehicles to help the man who had been hit while waiting for the police and EMS to arrive on scene.

That gave me a chance to talk with both the man who had been hit by the car as well as the driver who hit him. The man’s name was Dan and the driver’s name was Chelsie. It was good to learn both of there names because that meant I had to see them both as people. And they both are people! Though they both have two different lives, they are nonetheless people. That is also to remember that they both are someone’s child, perhaps someone’s brother and sister, someone’s old classmate. The people we meet every day are people just like you and I.

As I was driving home later, I realized that it’s easy to become desensitized to the city and all of it’s challenges. It’s easy to see a bunch of inconsiderate drivers and forget that they are people with real lives, perhaps even a life that is unraveling and full of pain. Of course, I’m never one of those inconsiderate drivers so… Oh wait! It’s also easy to see panhandlers on every street corner and presume to know why they’re begging for money (= judgment) and to see them not as people with real lives, with real problems and real stories, though tragic as they probably are, of which I have been spared (but for the grace of God, there go I!).

Becoming More Like Jesus

I don’t have the answer to all the social challenges face America, whether it’s homelessness, transgender rights, or else. What I do know is that we must resist judgment and condemnation, opting instead to engage people and get to know them by name. When we get to know someone by name, we see them as a person rather than a problem, and people are always people we must love rather than problems we must overcome. I am not saying that we can never have any convictions about what is right and wrong or by engaging people that our understanding of right and wrong must change. Sometimes our encounters with other people should and will move us to adjust our views and sometimes they won’t and shouldn’t but that is besides the point. What must change is us… you and I!

Rather than judging and condemning people we hardly know, if we even know them at all, we must become present with them and engage them so that we can get to know them a little more. That’s true for the transgender person standing in line at Starbucks with us, it’s true for the person panhandling for money at the intersection on our way home from work, and it’s true for our neighbor who doesn’t speak English too well, who has different political and religious beliefs than us, and it’s even true for the neighbor who’s favorite football team is the rival of our favorite football team. Though we cant strike up a conversation with everyone, it is to say that instead of passing judgment we should get to know the people we are quick to judge. When we do, what changes is us. We become more understanding, full of compassion, and eager to show mercy. And that means we become more like Jesus.

And if we still feel that someone or some organization has made a wrong decision, then I have a suggestion. Rather than going on a public rant I would like to suggest that we pray about it. That too seems more like Jesus!

Cruciformed: Reflections on the 2016 Pepperdine Bible Lectures

A week ago I was on my way to the best Pepperdine Bible Lecture’s to date, at least in my opinion. I’m thankful for the leadership of Mike Cope, Rick Gibson, and the rest of the staff for organizing and hosting such an encouraging time of worship, fellowship, and teaching. This years theme was Cruciformed: Living In Light of the Jesus Story which is always a very timely but perhaps even more so as more and more Christians among North America recognize that we now live in a post-Christendom/post-Christian society.

The main features of the Pepperdine Bible Lecture’s are always the worship, fellowship, and teaching. The bonus is the location of Malibu, California with the view of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica Mountains. I had many people ask if I was having a good time and I’m sure I asked other people the same question. Nevertheless, it seems that one would really have to try hard not to have a good time.

I have always enjoyed gathering for worship at the Firestone Fieldhouse, as the singing is uplifting. Whether singing a song like How Great Is Our God or The Lord Bless You and Keep You as a blessing to Ruby Bridges, my heart is filled with joy. And yes, I just mentioned Ruby Bridges, who delivered a powerful message late Wednesday evening. Her message was one that everyone in living in America, and especially every parent, needed to hear. Hearing N.T. Wright and Greg Boyd speak and teach was a joy because I have learned so much from these two Christian scholars from their books. While I was encouraged and challenged by every keynote address, I especially appreciated the addresses delivered by Randy Harris on The Scandal of Carrying the Cross and Dave Clayton on The Scandal of the Resurrection. I enjoyed all of the classes I went to but really the 2-part class taught by Pat Bills called Once Bitten, Twice Shy which is about the way elders and ministers lead together (available on a free podcast here); if you’re an elder or minister then I highly encourage you to download the two sessions and listen to them.

Hula PieBesides the worship and teaching at the Bible Lectures, fellowship is also a key feature. Like always, I run into old friends and make new friends. Some people I meet in person for the first time after already knowing them through social-media, which is really nice. I’m terrible at remembering names but if I ran into you, it was my delight to speak with you even if it was only for a brief minute or so. Of course, the one disappointment, as there is never enough time to spend with friends. And to the friends who recommended that I order the Hula Pie at Duke’s (pictured to the left), it was great but next year I really hope that my wife can come with me to share some pie as well as some great worship, teaching, and fellowship.

While Shopping At Target This Week…

The author of the post below, Tim Pyles, is a fellow minister who serves with the Broken Arrow Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’m thankful for his reflection here. Read on…

Thinking Out Loud

target store

I needed to purchase a few household items on Tuesday, and I just happened to be driving past the SuperTarget store that is near our home. I was vaguely aware of Target’s recent policy statement regarding the use of their restrooms by transgender individuals, and I had also seen an online headline or two about the American Family Association’s initiation of a petition to boycott the retailer. If you find it hard to believe that I wasn’t thoroughly steeped in all the sordid details of the “outrage du jour” among some conservative Christians, trust me when I tell you that my father’s death and funeral last week have kept me from being overly concerned about this latest skirmish in our nation’s culture wars.

So, I walked into Target on Tuesday and…. everything seemed so perfectly normal. The people looked perfectly normal. Well, normalcy is relative; everyone at least looked “big…

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Baptism: What Are We Missing?

Sadly, the teaching and practice of baptism is a conflicted issue among Christians. Talk to ten different churches in any community and one will certainly hear at least several different views, if not more, expressed about baptism. The snarky part of me wonders if the only thing Christians agree one about baptism is that it somehow involves water and is mentioned in the Bible. While that’s an overstatement of the case, it does highlight the confusion that exists over the issue of baptism. It also seems that what most churches have to say regarding baptism is, at best, only a part of the story. So could this not actually be a problem and one that runs deeper than the issue of baptism itself?

Woman Being Baptized

Two Opposite Positions…

Most of the conversation about baptism has to do with the bigger subject of salvation. As humans, we are sinners and our only hope for salvation is the grace of God, particularly expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This good news calls us to renounce our sinful way and receive this grace, the promise of salvation, from God which calls for a response of faith. That much all Christians seem to agree on but it is at this place in conversation where baptism is located and also where a divergence of trajectories regarding the role of baptism begins.

There are two popular positions among contemporary Christianity which are polar opposites of each other. The first position, and one I am the most familiar with since it is held by most Churches of Christ, says that baptism is essential for an individual to receive the promise of salvation from God. In the most extreme expressions of this position, it is held that one cannot possibly be saved without baptism and without receiving baptism for this reason which unintentionally seems to reduce to nothing more than a “ticket to heaven.” The other position says that baptism is not essential for an individual to receive the the promise of salvation from God. In the most extreme expressions of this position, baptism is viewed as merely a symbol that may even be optional as to whether or not one participates in baptism.

It’s important to understand that churches espousing both positions can cite biblical proof-texts and put forth reasons based on those biblical passages to support each view. My own view is that baptism is a necessary part of receiving the promise of salvation and therefore baptism cannot be reduced to a mere symbol but that baptism as a sacrament (means of grace) cannot be expanded into the sum-total of God’s grace so that we cannot exclude from the fellowship of Christ those who, for whatever reason, have believed in Jesus but were unable to be baptized (in fact, I am personally inclined simply to proclaim Christ and invite those who believe to receive baptism and let God do the judging about who receives his promise of salvation and when they receive that promise). But the problem with both positions is that they seemingly fail to account for the real reason why Paul even mentions baptism in Romans 6:3-4 and Galatians 3:27-28 (I have linked to the extended passages in each book so you can click on those links and read the passages for yourself).

Digging Deeper…

In both Romans and Galatians Paul is dealing with issues stemming from differences between Jewish and Gentile Christians as a result of the inclusion of Gentiles in the gospel. In Romans, Paul is particularly addressing the question of how God can show favor (grace) to both Jews and Gentiles. By insisting that both Jews and Gentiles are justified by grace through faith, Paul must deal with the question of whether Christians should continuing in sin so that the grace of God might increase. In short, Paul’s response is an emphatic “No!” and his reason is that the Christian has been “baptized into Christ.” In Galatians, Paul is dealing with the question of whether or not one is saved on the basis of faith or the Mosaic Law. By insisting that Christians are saved on the basis of faith, Paul must deal with the question of whether the Law or any other status marker, such as maleness, gives one an advantage. Again, in short, Paul’s response is an emphatic “No!” and his reason is that Christians have been “baptized into Christ.”

Do we see the problem? When we reduce baptism to merely a “ticket to heaven” or just a symbol having nothing to do with salvation, we lose the meaning of baptism in both Romans and Galatians. We also reduce the biblical meaning of salvation from being redeemed and transformed into the image of Christ to mere forensic justification of our sins but I digress. Getting back to the problem, in both cases Paul is neither concerned with the issue of baptism being necessary for salvation (though based on my understanding of scripture, I believe Paul would be dumbfounded at the suggestion that baptism is unnecessary) nor with whether baptism nullifies faith if it is indeed necessary (Paul, I believe, would say that baptism is part of our faith response to the work of God in baptism which we receive from God, which is why he speaks of our baptism in the passive-tense voice). These are issues we bring to scripture ourselves, sometimes making so much of them that we fail to see what scripture actually says. Furthermore, if baptism is merely about getting saved or just a symbol of salvation, what Paul says about baptism in Romans and Galatians makes little sense.

Paul is rhetorically invoking the experience of baptism into his arguments in Romans and Galatians because in baptism we undergo a profound change that reorients the aim (telos) of our life as believers who follow Jesus. Baptism is our surrender to Jesus in which we give up our old life in exchange for his new life. Faith here is not having perfect doctrinal knowledge of what baptism is but is entrusting ourselves to God, letting him do the work of crucifying us with Christ and then raising us into the new resurrected life of Christ (indeed a mystery of faith). Because we have been baptized and therefore have died to the old life, we cannot continue allowing sin to rule our lives. Likewise, our value and role is not determined anymore by our ethnicity, gender, and social-status since we have been baptized into Christ. As a result of God baptizing us into Christ, we are now equals in Christ who live our lives as instruments of righteousness and we have faith that God has saved us, is saving us, and will save us when Christ returns.

Why This Matters…

We have often heard it said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time during the week because local churches tend to be homogenous when it comes to race and ethnicity. There’s a lot of truth to this. Many local churches have also been fellowships where being white, wealthy, and male means power over minorities, the poor, and females. At the same time, the demarcation that the Christian church as the fellowship of Christ distinct from the world has becoming increasingly blurred, so much that some Christians are unsure of the differences between the way of Christ and the way of being a good American.

Perhaps it is just coincidence that this has also occurred when baptism has too often either been reduced to a mere salvation ticket or a mere symbol of salvation. But maybe it’s not a coincidence. Maybe it’s time that to rethink our understanding of baptism, dig deeper into the theology of this sacrament, and consider what it truly means to live as a people who have been baptized into Christ. After all, if we truly desire to follow Jesus as participants in the mission of God, it seems necessary that we truly understand that we have indeed been baptized into Christ and belong to his new life − lest we continue living as though we are baptized into some other reality still belonging to the old way of life.

As a minister who has been asking questions about baptism for sometime, I still feel like there is much more digging to be done and more repenting to do! How about you?