Tag Archives: America

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!

Diversity and the Wisdom of God

I believe in the church. By saying that, I don’t mean that I believe the church is the source of salvation. As believers, our salvation is from Jesus Christ and none other. What I mean  is that I believe the church, particularly in her localized expressions, is the means by which God is now making the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God known. That is, the local church is the vehicle or instrument through which the mission of God advances. This happens as the believers, led by the Holy Spirit, follow Jesus together as a local church.

Most likely we understand that the church participates in the mission of God by the doing of good works and that is indeed so. However, the witness of the church is also seen in who the church is.

Ephesians 3:10 says, “God’s purpose is now to show the rulers and powers in the heavens the many different varieties of his wisdom through the church.” The word that gets translated as “many different varieties” in the Common English Bible is an adjective describing the wisdom of God. It speaks of diversity and multiple dimensions or many sides. In fact, Joseph Thayer defined the word in his lexicon as “marked with a great variety of colors” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 1889). So God’s wisdom is shown in the fact that the local church is a diverse fellowship and read within the context of Ephesians, the church is a diverse fellowship of reconciled believers living as one unified local body of Christ.

Here is why this matters. Christian unity is not uniformity. As believers, our inclusion in Christ, which is our reconciliation to God and each other, does not eliminate our differences and make us all the same or imply homogeneity is the goal. Yes, we share the same common confession of faith in Jesus Christ but there is much diversity that still exists. The genius of the gospel is that it brings Jews and Gentiles, males and females, as well as slaves and masters all together in Christ (cf. Gal 3:28) who will no longer be defined by their differences, which foster division, but instead love and serve one another  as brothers and sisters belonging to God and each other—the family of God in Christ.

The beauty of the church is seen in her multi-colored expression of God’s accomplishment in Christ. As Christians then, we don’t become color blind as though our racial and ethnic identities have been erased. Our witness as a local church is that we are Blacks and Whites, Latinos and Middle Easterners, etc… who belong to each other and God in Christ.

Now let me ruffle the feathers and talk about the different political leanings found among Christian in America today. The reality is that Christians have different views when it comes to politics and voting. Some will lean left and others right, voting accordingly if they choose to vote. I’m not saying that every political view is right and morally/ethically justified and righteous. So there is a time for discussing the righteousness of our politics (and here I’ll recommend Lee Camp’s latest book Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians, 2020) but we must, it seems, acknowledge the political diversity that exists among Christians today.

What then does this political diversity have to do with Christian witness and the wisdom of God? Well, to begin, we live in a culture that is increasingly divided along political lines. In such a cultural climate, the genius of God’s wisdom might just be shown in the fact that though we may vote differently, we will still love and serve one another as brothers and sisters belonging to God and each other because we have received the grace of God in Christ. Consequently, wherever this increasing political divide leads among America, we will not draw sides based on how we may have voted and become a part of the “us vs. them” cultural divide. Even more importantly, should the cultural divide lead to some sort of active civil war, as Christians we will commit to not taking up arms because our reconciliation in Christ transcends whatever political differences we might have. Instead, as diverse people brought together in Christ, who now share a common confession of Christ with a commitment to following Christ, we will continue accepting one another with love and so maintain the unity of the Spirit as we speak the truth of Christ in love.

This is how we participate in the mission of God. As such participants, God displays his wisdom through our existence and good works to a society that desperately needs to know this wisdom.

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

Do Justice, Be Righteous

As I have stated in my last few posts, I believe the church is the living portrait of what God is accomplishing in Christ. Simply put, the church is the artwork of God which depicts the new creation God is bringing about in Christ. As the church follows Jesus in embodying the gospel by means of doing good works. the church serves as God’s poetry in motion.

Do Justice, Be Righteous

Our embodiment of the gospel as followers of Jesus happens as we become honest with the truth. In becoming honest with the truth, space opens for us to live as a community of healing, justice, and reconciliation. So let’s think a little more about what it means to live as a community in which there justice exists.

Let’s begin with the prophets of Israel, who did much more than just foretell future events to come. While the prophets proclaimed hope for the future, they also called people into repentance in regards to idolatry but also regarding corruption and injustice. For example, in a well known passage from Amos, the prophet says “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). This passage is one of thirty-four times in the Old Testament where the words “justice” (mishpat) and “righteousness” (tzedek). In short, speaks more of the resolutions and policies in governing and rendering judgments, where as righteousness speaks more about the character and conduct or the moral/ethical practices that people live by.

     “We read scripture to follow Jesus and so the Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented life that scripture proclaims must shape our imaginations for doing justice and being righteous as followers of Jesus.”

In surveying the way justice and righteousness are used as a pairing, Moshe Weinfeld says they refer not only “to the proper execution of justice, but rather expresses, in a general sense, social justice and equity, which is bound up with kindness and mercy” (Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East, p. 36). This is the thought world that Jesus speaks and acts from throughout his ministry and in his Sermon on the Mount when he says, “desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33, the word dikaiosunē may be render as both “justice” and “righteousness”).

Thus far, I have only used the words justice and righteousness without any adjective, such as social-justice and biblical-justice. I’m reluctant at times to use the phrase social-justice because it often comes with a lot of ideas backloaded into the expression that have more to do with ideologies than the gospel. I’m also reluctant in using the phrase biblical-justice because the word biblical often gets used to claim support for whatever ideas people already hold.

That said, the prophetic call for justice and righteousness in the Hebrew Bible has social implications. In fact, God has always expect his people to live as a blessing to others, which has everything to do with justice and righteousness in a social-sense. However, our social practices of justice and righteousness must derive from the good news of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God as it is narrated to us within scripture. We read scripture to follow Jesus and so the Christ-Centered and Kingdom-Oriented life that scripture proclaims must shape our imaginations for doing justice and being righteous as followers of Jesus.

This is why Jesus tells us to “desire first and foremost” the kingdom of God. However, that can’t happen if our sense of justice and righteousness is filtered through Democrat and Republican politics, or any other ideology. When political ideologies frame our understanding of justice and righteousness, the only thing we end up seeking is what we deem is good for us and the politic idol ideology that forms our thinking.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes on to say “you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). As followers of Jesus, doing justice and being righteous begins with our own character and a commitment that we will love every person, treating them with honest, fairness, kindness, and dignity. Regardless of a person’s race, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin, we must have the character to do for others what we desire for ourselves if we are truly seeking first the kingdom of God and his justice/righteousness. That is why we have to listen and care for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, just like Jesus did in his ministry.

This is what it means to do justice and be righteous, God’s poetry in motion.

The Honest Truth

The church, universally and locally, is the artwork of God. Basically this claim implies that the church lives as a portrayal of the new creation God is bringing about in Christ. This happens as the church follows Jesus in embodying the gospel by means of doing good works. This is what I mean by speaking of the church as God’s poetry in motion, which you can read more about in my previous post.

The Honest Truth - Philippians 3.5-12

The challenge we face is with the truth of ourselves and the truth of Christ. We have to be honest with the truth of ourselves so that we can receive the truth of Christ. This was the challenge the apostle Paul faced when he encountered Christ while traveling on his way to Damascus (cf. Acts 9, 22, 26). He thought he was right in his loyalty to Judaism and persecution of the church. However, his encounter Christ resulted in a collision of the truth for Paul. What he believed was right and what he thought made him righteous, his Jewish pedigree (cf. Phil 3:5-6), was in fact wrong. 

Paul came to the conclusion that the truth according to his Jewish pedigree, the story he told himself, was wrong. So in being honest with the truth of himself, the truth of how wrong he was, Paul was able to receive the truth of Christ. Having received this knowledge, Paul reveals what honesty with the truth means as he compares his previous life to the life he now has in Christ:

“These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith.” ~ Philippians 3:7-9

His honesty with the truth allows him to name what he once regarded as righteousness as nothing but “sewer trash” (other translations say, “rubbish” (NRSV) or “garbage” (NIV) but the word skubalon actually means bowl excrement).  It can’t be anything other because, for Paul, knowing Christ is to participate in the life which Christ has inaugurated through his crucifixion and resurrection. When comparing the truth that Paul lived by verses the Truth of Christ, there is no comparison. In fact, the story that Paul used to tell, the truth that he lived by, is now counted as a loss. 

However, Paul isn’t the only one faced with the question of truth. So are we because we are the stories we tell ourselves. Our truths, if you will, are the stories we tell ourselves and they include the multiple American stories, good and bad, even though these stories are increasingly in competition with each other. Yet, if we truly believe in Christ then we must see the deception in this kind of pluralism. If we confess as a matter of faith that Christ and the gospel he proclaims is the truth then the American stories we tell ourselves are not the truth. Whether these American stories are written in red or blue ink or with any other ideological pen, we must regard them as a loss compared to knowing (participating) in the gospel life of Christ. Such stories are certainly not anything we should be fighting for, as though participating in those stories is going to embody the gospel.

By naming these American stories as “sewer trash” in comparison to knowing Christ, space opens for us to participate in Christ in ways that were impossible before. The entrance into this new space is called repentance, in which we leave the stories we once lived behind so that we may fully participate in the story of Christ and his kingdom. In embracing this honesty with the truth, we need not protect any conservative image of America that denies the injustices of America, such as systemic racism. Nor do we need to jump on the liberal bandwagon, as though a better (progressive) America is the means by which we enter the kingdom.

This is call to be honest with the truth is a challenge for sure. The good news is that this call opens space for us to be people in which healing, justice, and reconciliation can exist. That is what I mean by the church living as God’s poetry in motion.

“The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead. It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose.” ~ Philippians 3:10-12

A Little Musing on Sermon Preparation for Pastors and the Church

I’m a pastor who preaches. Like many other pastors, most Sundays I will be preaching a message to the church I serve. I’ve been doing this for over twenty years now and still love doing so. Although I cringe sometimes when I read some of the sermons I wrote when I was younger, I’m thankful to God for his grace upon both myself and the churches I have preached to.

preaching-errorsAlthough my approach to preaching has changed over the years, the message strives to faithfully take what the scripture says and bring it to bear upon the life of the church. This is so much more than just exegeting a passage of scripture. You see, I believe that preaching is a way of helping lead the local church in following the way of Jesus by proclaiming the word of God as both a pastoral affirmation and/or prophetic declaration that is an invitation and challenge spoken in love and seasoned by humility, grace, and truth.‬ While that work is dependent upon the Holy Spirit, it does require sermon preparation on both the part of the pastor and church.

Preparation in preaching begins with following Jesus. Both the pastor and church must share a commitment in living as a community of disciples. How can a pastor lead people in following the way of Jesus if the pastor isn’t striving to follow Jesus? How can a church follow the way of Jesus if those who gather together on Sunday as the church are not following Jesus? I begin here because we all know examples of nominal Christianity in America, examples of Christianity in which consumerism, nationalism, and traditionalism have eclipsed the mission of God. Such idols obscure our eyes and hears from seeing and hearing the gospel. So good sermon prep begins by following Jesus in seeking first the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 6:33).

Preparation for the pastor also involves listening to people and reading books. First, let me say that reading theology, philosophy, etc… does not mean ignoring scripture or regarding the Bible as deficient in some manner. What reading does is allow the consideration of perspectives that otherwise might go unnoticed, cultivating a depth of knowledge and wisdom that shapes the message being proclaimed. In my own experience, such reading opens space for seeing more clearly how God might be at work in the world so that the church might continue participating with God in that work. However, in addition to reading and the exegesis of scripture, I am convinced that good preaching requires time spent with people, listening to their desires, struggles, and so forth. Listening to people is how the Spirit, in revealing the things of God (cf. 1 Cor 2:10), enables us to hear the word of God as a word to the people who will hear his word preached.

As suggested earlier, good sermon preparation isn’t just the work of the pastor. The believers who will gather for worship to hear the word of God proclaimed also have some preparation to do as well. The, whether as a monologue or dialogue, is not a passive occasion just to receive a “booster shot” for the week ahead. If preaching, as I contend, is to help the church follow in the way of Jesus, then our preparation as hearers of God’s word begins with the regular prayer of the psalmist, “Teach me your way, Lord, so that I can walk in your truth” (Ps 86:11).

Good preaching will always proclaim the word of God that we need to hear, which is not necessarily the word we will always want to hear. While hearing that word of God is impossible apart from the Spirit, preparation is a means in which the Spirit works so that pastors will have a message to preach that the church will hear. 

Let’s Not Turn Love Into a Platitude!

Over the last several months we have witnessed society delve ever deeper into an abyss of contempt and hostility. Beginning with the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by the high profile murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breona Taylor, and George Floyd, the vitriolic climate that has lurked mostly beneath the surface in America has began spewing. Some might even say the volcano has already began erupting. What we see is the rightful protests against systematic racism and the ever widening political gap between the direction America should pursue.

Some see the anger, injustice, and violence and wonder why we can’t all just get along. Such a sentiment isn’t new at all. Rodney King, a black man who suffered a horrific beating at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department, expressed the same sentiment back in 1992 following the riots in Los Angeles. Others will say we just need to love people. I heard two different people express that sentiment the other day. So let’s think about love just a little more.

woman-caught-in-adultery-painting-facebookMany people, Christian or not, know the two great commands in the Bible are loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Whether people believe in the existence of God or not, nobody can argue against the virtue of love. To love others implies acting benevolently toward others, doing good for them. This kind of love is what the Greeks called agapē but could also include friendliness towards others, the kind of love referred to as philia. But can we all just love others so easily?

Here is where I want to press more deeply into my Christian faith and speak about love, especially to my fellow Christians. You see, we all agree that Jesus was the perfect embodiment of love. But that ought to tip us off right there that there is more to love than just saying the word, being a nice person, and being kind.

Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so…

Yes, we believe that Jesus loves but how is his love expressed? Read the Bible. Read what Jesus actually did and what it cost him.

Look at the life Jesus lived and the way he interacted with people. In short, Jesus loved by the way he extended mercy to the suffering, justice for the oppressed, care for the poor, healing for the sick, hospitality to the outsiders (Gentiles), openness to the children, embrace for the unclean, and grace to the sinners. What is more important is that Jesus loved like this even when it meant breaking the religious rules of his day. He did so as a revolution, while calling his followers to do the same, even when it mean agitating the political powers of his day. Jesus loved even to the point of angering others, risking his own reputation, and causing great concern for his mother and brothers. Jesus even loved by speaking truth to power, to those whose concern was to preserve the status quo that benefited them. In the end, Jesus loved even to the point of suffering death on the cross.

And God vindicated Jesus, and the way he loved, by raising Jesus from death and exalting him as Lord and Messiah.

What it means to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves ought to be unequivocally clear from the example Jesus gave us. Loving people like Jesus means we might likely just anger and agitate some folks who benefit from injustice. Some of these folks will be found among the post-religious who reject Christianity but some might be found among the church. Our love for the oppressed, the poor, the sick, the unclean, the outsiders, and the sinners, might just threaten the livelihood of those who live comfortable with the religious, political, and socio-economic status quo. Our love might just require us to bear our own cross as followers of Jesus. Our love for God and neighbor calls us to follow Jesus and seek the kingdom of God, not the status quo of an unjust world. All that is to remind us that love is difficult and quite possibly dangerous. Nevertheless, it is what God commands us to do.

If we cannot love like Jesus, then any talk of love just seems like an attempt at ignoring the injustices and evils of our day. When that happens, we reduce love into nothing more than an empty word used as a platitude. Let’s not. Let’s not turn love to a platitude!

 

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!