Tag Archives: Faith

Misreading Scripture

Christians believe the Bible is about the creative and redemptive work God is fulfilling in Jesus Christ. With all of the different stories and teaching told through different genres written in specific historical contexts, the Bible, stated in the most simplest of ways, is about Jesus. In fact, this is so fundamental that I can’t imagine any Christian who would disagree. Yet it’s still possible to read the Bible and miss Jesus, or at least miss what it really means to believe in and follow Jesus.

The Bible - Living As Participants in the Mission of God

In the message I preached to the Newark Church of Christ this past Sunday, I mentioned three lenses that Christians sometimes read the Bible through. Each lens appears legit because there is enough scripture and Jesus in the lens that the problems are easily overlooked by the indiscriminate reader. The three lenses I have in mind are:

  1. The Prosperity Lens. This lens, sometimes called The Health and Wealth Gospel, is based on the belief that God promises material wealth and physical well-being to those who seek him. Receiving this promise is a matter of faith. One major objection is that such a notion fails to account for how many faithful seekers of God, including Jesus and his apostles, all suffered on account of their faith. Right now, there are many Christians in countries like Iran and China who are suffering persecution for following Jesus. The fact is, that following Jesus just might result in suffering physically in some manner as well as enduring material poverty.
  2. The Soterian Lens. This lens is what Scot McKnight refers to as the soterian gospel in which the gospel is equated with salvation (The King Jesus Gospel, p. 29). The gospel is reduced to a concern of just getting people saved and thus about sharing the Four Spiritual Laws. The problem with this lens is that it relegates discipleship as secondary, creating a false-dichotomy between believing in Jesus and following Jesus. Thus, a person can come to faith in Christ and thus “get saved” but not necessarily become a disciple. 
  3. The Blueprint Lens. This lens, which is particular to my own history within the Churches of Christ and the larger Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, reads the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, as a blueprint or constitution for the church. The problem is that the New Testament, a collection of twenty-seven different occasional writings, becomes a new law focused on restoring an assumed ecclesiological pattern. Faithfulness to Jesus is about keeping this pattern rather than following Jesus and embodying the gospel he proclaimed as the real pattern for how his followers should live. (As a side for those among the Churches of Christ, to learn more about this hermeneutic and a better theological hermeneutic as an alternative, I highly recommend the new book by John Mark Hicks, Searching For The Pattern, 2019.)

As I said earlier, we can proof-text enough scripture and sprinkle in enough Jesus to justify each lens. One problem with each lens is that they shift the aim or the end (telos) of scripture away from the gospel that Jesus and his apostles actually proclaimed. Though the shift often seems subtle, the significance is important because it may (and has) hinder our participation in the mission of God.

In a conversation Jesus was having with the Jewish leaders, who wanted to kill him, he observed how they read the scriptures but missed Jesus. John 5:39 says “Examine the scriptures, since you think that in them you have eternal life. They also testify about me.”  Yes, that was possible then and is still possible now. Christians may not wish to kill Jesus but they certainly have killed in the name of Jesus because their view of Jesus looks more like a John Rambo than the King who became a slaughtered lamb on a Roman cross. Missing Jesus is how some Christians of the past justified segregated churches while saying that Civil Rights was not the business of Christians. It’s how some Christians today downplay the continued problems of racism or pretend that racism is a “political issue” that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In some upcoming posts I will explain why the Bible is centered in Jesus Christ and oriented toward the kingdom of God. In more theological terms, the Old Testament and New Testament present a narrative that is Christiologically centered and eschatologically oriented. This narrative, read through the lens of Christology and Eschatology, provides the script for and hence opens space for discerning how our local churches might contextually embody the gospel on mission with God. But first, there may be some lenses that simply need to be discarded if we’re going to read the Bible in order to live as participants in the mission of God.

Eyes Wide Open: Overcoming the Blindness of a Christless Christianity

Most Christians, and ever Christian I know, including myself, say they believe the Bible is the word of God, inspired of God and authoritative on all matters of faith. Very good! But as a pastor there are many times when what Christians say they believe and what they actually believe are different to some degree.

house-blindness

Earlier this year Mayor Theresa Kenerly of Hoschton, Georgia, was heavily criticized for racial discrimination after pulling the resume of a black man because of his blackness. According to the Atlantic Journal Constitution, the Mayor did not believe that her nearly all-white small town was ready to have a black man as a city administrator. But a few people defended the Mayor’s racism, including City Councilman Jim Cleveland who insisted that he understood the Mayor’s decision because Hoschton is not Atlanta. Mr. Cleveland insisted that he is not a racist but according to the report in the Raw Story, he had an interesting remark. Councilman Jim Cleveland said, “I’m a Christian and my Christian beliefs are you don’t do interracial marriage. That’s the way I was brought up and that’s the way I believe.”

Besides the obvious racism, what I find interesting is that Mr. Cleveland says he is a Christian but then defends his racism by saying that is the way he was raised and therefore the way he believes. In other words, even though he is a Christian, neither the gospel nor the Bible is his moral authority. Mr. Cleveland’s authority is the way he was raised. It’s also not a stretch to assume that Mr. Cleveland is part of a Christian culture, a church culture, that has failed to truly embody the Good News of Jesus Christ—despite the authority of the Bible. That shows also how easily Christians can read the Bible and still fail to see what Jesus and his kingdom really entails, just as the Pharisees and Jesus’ own disciples still failed to see.

In the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel is a story about a blind man that is brought to Jesus for healing. So Jesus spits in the man’s eyes and touches them so that the man could once again see and he was able to see then, only his vision wasn’t clear. When asked if he could see, the blind man replied, “I see people. They look like trees, only they are walking around” (v. 24). As Mark is telling the story, the remark of this blind man is really a commentary on the Pharisees and Jesus’ own disciples. Both have seen Jesus do plenty of miracles and heard him teach with authority but the Pharisees are still challenging Jesus’ authority, while the disciples are questioning him as they continue doubting. It’s not just the blind man who needs his sight restored, it’s the Pharisees and disciples who need to see clearly.

Let me push the matter just a little farther. From my understanding, both the Pharisees and disciples were familiar with the story of Israel and her scriptures. In his conversations, Jesus frequently references the story of Israel along with the Hebrew Bible as he engages both the Pharisees and disciples. Yet they still failed to see clearly. The same is true of Councilman Cleveland. I am sure he has some knowledge of the Bible and could teach a few Sunday School lessons to children about the miracles that Jesus performed. Yet he still fails to see clearly.

How about us? Do we read the Bible? If we proclaim the Christian faith, then we should. But… How do we read the Bible? Does the way we read the Bible open our eyes to clearly see Jesus and the Kingdom of God he has inaugurated? Or has our vision become obscured by the way we were raised or by our favorite church traditions? Is whatever cable news and talk radio we listen to or blind partisan loyalty to whatever politician and political platform we side with obscuring our vision?

Jesus touched the blind man’s eyes a second time and as Mark tells the story, the blind man “looked with his eyes wide open, his sight was restored, and he could see everything clearly” (v. 25). He needed to be touched again by Jesus to see clearly. The same is true for the Pharisees and the disciples, then and now.

As we read the Bible, if our reading obscures us from seeing Jesus then we are the blind!

The Gospel of Mark, along with the rest of scripture, is clear that the invitation of Jesus is to come follow him. We are called to follow Jesus, learning to live by the same beliefs and values of Jesus so that we may embody the Kingdom life that he embodied. That’s what discipleship is. But it is increasingly becoming obvious that discipleship is not Christianity is often known for in America. In fact, as the dichotomy between who Jesus is and what Christianity is, it seems more like a Christless Christianity has sprouted.

We can shake our heads at people like Councilman Cleveland, especially those of us who don’t defend racism, but we may be more like Mr. Cleveland than we realize. That we can justify war and violence, freedom of choice over the life of the unborn, national boundaries over mercy for refugees and immigrants, vitriolic rhetoric for the sake of partisan politics, and so forth with the most unGospeled wisdom and logic is revealing. We show that it is very possible to call ourselves Christians and yet fail to see Jesus and his Kingdom clearly. It shows that we can read the Bible and still miss Jesus, still miss what the Bible is all about and the life it reimagines for us to live as people called to follow Jesus.

I am glad that we read the Bible but let us read with eyes to see Jesus and his kingdom clearly. May the Lord come, by the power of the Holy Sprit, to touch our eyes again that we may see with eyes wide open!

A Word To The Church

The church has a problem with discipleship. But that’s nothing new. Most of the pastors I know are aware of the discipleship problem facing Christianity in America. What some may not realize is that the problem isn’t unique to us. Peek behind the curtains of the church from any time and place in history and I think we’ll see that discipleship was a challenge then just as it is now. Even in the New Testament this challenge existed, just go reread the apostle Paul’s letters we call Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, and Galatians.

youth-group-lessons-on-discipleship

Why is this important? It matters because it seems easy, perhaps even en vogue, to romanticize churches from other locations or periods of history as material for comparison against the worst problems of church in America. This is one of the major complaints I have regarding Francis Chan’s latest book Letters To The Church, 2018. Throughout the book Chan compares the attractional megachurch model in America with the cell-church or house-church models he has encountered in other countries, particularly throughout Asia. The problem is the idealism with which he paints the later so that he can contrast the seemingly worst characteristics of the attractional megachurch model in America with his romanticized view of the cell-church or house-church models.

Comparing the best against the worst of another is hardly fair but Chan also does so with little more than anecdotal evidence and an ad hoc (perhaps even post hoc) use of scripture. The result seems to suggest that if Christianity in America would just change, embracing the idealistic picture of the cell-church model, that churches would be making and forming disciples again. Now Chan, to his credit, seems to warn against reading his book like this (pp. 199-200) but it’s difficult to imagine how else we might read the book.

I’m not upset with Chan. I love his commitment to following Jesus which also, in his case, has meant a commitment to serving as a pastor. As a pastor myself, I know how trying this commitment can get at times. So my hat is off to Chan. I also agree with him that discipleship is a real challenging issue right now for Christianity in America. Consumerism, individualism, relativism, and probably a few other isms are a hinderance to following Jesus and we all, myself included,  struggle with these obstacles.

So what’s the solution? How do we face this challenge so that we might take more serious the call to live not just as church-going believers but as believers who are learning to follow Jesus on a daily basis?

Well, I don’t think we can just wipe the slate clean, so to speak, and start over. That is a myth inherited from the Enlightenment but no matter how much we try, we will still be shaped by the circumstances of our particular context. So although the Newark Church of Christ, whom I love serving as a pastor, is far from being the attractional-megachurch, it is still a more traditional church that gathers on Sunday’s in a worship space and then finds other opportunities for gathering together in prayer, community service, etc… And that’s okay! Could we do better? Of course, but God is still at work in this church through his Spirit, so I can’t just write off what God has done and is still doing.

Here’s what I can do and what you can do where you’re at, with the churches we participate among. Begin by observing how God has been at work and share those observations with a few others while considering what God might doing now and how the present work of God connects with the past for the hope of the future. In pastoral theology, this is called Appreciative Inquiry (recommendation: Mark Lau Branson, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations, 2004). When we begin to have a bigger sense of what God is doing among our church and where we sense that might be leading, consider how we might participate in that work as followers of Jesus and invite those others to join us on this journey. Let this journey be filled with prayer and scripture but let it also begin with where we’re at instead of succumbing to the apathy that gives up on our churches, writing them off as a hopeless cause. The apostle Paul never did that and neither should we.

I know what I’ve just suggested isn’t any quick-fix solution to the challenges we see in our churches and other churches. That’s because there aren’t any easy quick-fix solutions. The challenge of discipleship is great and requires more than just another simple step 1, 2, and 3 solution. I can’t promise that the road ahead will be easy because it probably won’t be but it is the way forward and the way of taking control over the one thing that God gives us the control over: our own decision to follow Jesus. So live as a follower of Jesus, serving as a pastor or whatever vocation God has called us to serve in, and as we invite others to come along the journey with us, they will come. Then we’ll be surprised at what the Lord has done in us!

I’m Not Renouncing My Faith

In recent weeks a couple of more popular Evangelical Christians have publicly renounced their Christian faith. In particular, I’m thinking of former pastor and author Joshua Harris as well as Hillsong Worship Leader Marty Sampson. Both seem to be struggling with the Christian faith as they understand it, though I’m not sure if that means they have completely abandoned belief in Jesus Christ or they’re just struggling with a lot of doubt right now. What I do know, based on what I have read, is that both are struggling with their faith.

iBelieve Series

My point isn’t to criticize or pass any judgment on anyone, including Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson, who struggle with doubts and even for a time may lose their faith. I’m just mentioning this to provide some context for this blog post. You see, I actually sympathize with those who struggle in their Christian faith because I have struggled in my Christian faith too. In fact there was a time during my seminary years, of all places, when I nearly walked away from this life of following Jesus because I wasn’t sure of what I believed anymore and I wasn’t even sure if it mattered.

The existential crisis for my own struggle with faith was the death of my first son, Kenny, followed by the death of my younger brother, John, a year later. Such suffering has haunted me. Not only did the death of my son and brother burden me with much grief and pain but my eyes began to see the suffering of others and the unfairness of it all. I remember well the afternoon I went to visit someone in the hospital battling cancer and walked through the pediatric oncology ward… Haunting!

The reality of suffering leaves me with many more faith questions than I have any satisfactory answers. Beyond that, as a pastoral-theologian, I know that life is much more complex than the fundamentalist Christian worldview some Evangelicals have. There are issues about creation and science, the end of time as well as God’s judgment, the nature of scripture, and so forth that I still wrestle with because some of the answers I have are not dogmatic absolutes. At least they’re not for me because the issue seem far too complex for such black and white solutions.

All that said, I still believe in Jesus. Even though there are questions for which I’m unsure of the answer, I still believe.

I still believe in the good news about Jesus, his death, burial, and resurrection, because I find the testimony about what happened to be believable. That is, I find the story of Jesus dying on the cross and being raised back to life (and bodily resurrection) to be reasonably credible. I’m not saying that this story is provable like one can prove the laws of gravity but I do think the story is credible, and therefore believable, just like the story of the American Civil War even though we weren’t alive to witness either event with our very own eyes.

What makes the story of Jesus believable is the evidence we have, the testimony that has been passed on from those who did see (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-8) and the effects what happened. While it might be possible that the story of Jesus was all just a ruse or some lie perpetuated by the early Christians, that possibilities loses their probability when considering the suffering of persecution many of these Christians endured. In one-hundred years time, from AD 25 to AD 125, history went from no existence of Christianity at all to a movement so numerous that some saw Christians as a new human race (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 359). This happened even though the believers didn’t have any legal standing and faced much opposition, including persecution and death. The only explanation is that what they believed about Jesus, his death, burial and resurrection, did really happen.

I also still believe in the good news of Jesus because of the hope that blossoms from such faith. The good news of Jesus is the story of how God overcomes sin and death, bringing about a new creation. Without that promise, our life ends in death so that all the suffering endured to that point is without any hope. Nihilism is what we are left with. As difficult as suffering is, it becomes utterly unbearable if life is nothing more than just “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”

As I said earlier, there are many questions about faith that I don’t always have satisfactory answers for but there is one thing I do know. If the story of Jesus being crucified and resurrected is true, and I believe there is credible reason for believing it is true, then it changes the course of history. The life Jesus lived, with all of his teaching, is the life that God is bringing into existence and it’s the life I want to participate in as a follower of Jesus. It’s a life lived by faith and a faith that’s big enough for and can co-exist with the questions and doubts we sometimes have.

So I’m not renouncing my faith and I pray you won’t either.

Be The Church!

Like others, I am tired of turning on the news only to hear that another mass-shooting has occurred. With the most recent shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio taking place within twenty-four hours of each other, it seems as if such violence has become an epidemic. Maybe that’s more perception than reality but nonetheless what is reality is the fact that more innocent lives were harmed and killed.

It is beyond me to understand how anyone could so maliciously plot and carry out a deadly attack on other people. Yes, I am aware of the anger and extremism, the hatred and racism, the mental health and emotional trauma, and the many other factors that come into play, including the easy access to certain firearms — assault weapons designed simply to kill with efficiency. I’m frustrated that elected officials just keep offering their “thoughts and prayers” without undertaking any reasonable solutions. I’m frustrated that, fifty-one years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., racism still has a grip on America and my frustration doesn’t end there. As a White person, I am also frustrated with many White people who either don’t seem to care about racism or seek to downplay it and even want to disassociate from the racism (a White privilege), failing to see how systematic racism still exists even if they don’t personally discriminate against any person of color. And if the truth be told, maybe I have been one of those White people too. I try not to be but I am a sinner too.

So what can I do?

What can we do?

As followers of Jesus, what must we do?

Be the church!

I know, I know… It sounds simple and even trite because for far too long “church” has been nothing but a place where people gather on Sundays. Our traditional understanding of Church in the west has often become an impotent caricature of the ekklēsia that Jesus called us to be as his followers. It’s the reason why many of the Sunday parishioners “go to church” and then leave an hour later as the same people they were before and as the same people they were when they first started going to church many years ago. Let’s be honest, this understanding of church is a place for people to sing songs about Jesus, hear a message about Jesus, and pray but not necessarily follow Jesus. I’m not against singing, preaching, and praying but such worship loses its way when those gathering for “church” leave only to sound more like an echo-chamber of whatever news-pundit they listen too as they continue pursuing a life shaped more by their own individualistic desires.

But that is not what I mean when I say “Be the church!” What I mean is hopefully a little more profound because it is about following Jesus and serving as a living embodiment of the gospel Jesus proclaimed. That means living as a people who gather, in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Spirit, with others, including people of other colors, nationalities, social-political viewpoints than our own. As we gather together, we do so as people learning to be practitioners of the Jesus way (discipleship) in which we embrace each other with love. This is a love that is full of the grace and truth that opens space for us to confront our sin with repentance and forgiveness so that we all may journey forward as reconciled brothers and sisters. This love is a fellowship in Christ that we have pledged ourselves to in baptism and that we continuously acknowledge together in the Eucharist. This vision of church, which Jesus has called us to be, is one that bears witness to an alternative kingdom — the reign of God — and becomes the beacon of light in a society shrouded in darkness.

This is the kind of church we are called to be and it is this kind of church that I believe God is working among to offer hope in the midst of despair and peace in the midst of violence. That’s why I posted on Facebook the other day this word for pastors, saying:

Pastors, the best response to a society boiling over with hatred and violence is for you to cultivate a living embodiment of the gospel among the church you serve so that there will be a community bearing witness to the way of peace in Christ.

This kind of church doesn’t effect change like a tsunami crashing upon the shore. Rather, it is a patient approach that doesn’t force its way of life on others but becomes such a beautiful portrait that others are captivated by it and want to become a part of this life. It is a life that flows from the prayers of those who are committed to living. So I leave us with the Peace Prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

A Little Truth On Loving Our Neighbors

“What must I do to gain eternal life?” It’s a question that many sermons, evangelistic tracts, and other church literature has answered. And if you’ve been around any church, you know how the answer goes. In the churches I have been a part of, the answer has always seemed to include teaching about the necessity or repentance and baptism. But when a Jewish lawyer came testing Jesus by asking the same question, the conversation about gaining eternal life went in a very different direction.

Bulletin Message Picture

In Luke 10:25-37 we have a well known story that has traditionally been known as The Good Samaritan. But the story, as Luke tells it, doesn’t begin with a man encountering assailants along a desolate road. It begins with a Jewish lawyer asking “What must I do to gain eternal life?” So Jesus answers the lawyer but not in a way that most Christians would expect. Jesus simply asked the lawyer “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

There are two observations worth noting here. First, Jesus seems to assume that knowing what is necessary for gaining eternal life is found in the Law of Moses. If living the eternal life is understood in terms of the kind of life we live and not just the length of life, then it makes sense. We can begin knowing how to participate in the kind of life Jesus is offering by reading the Old Testament. Why? Because the Law in its essence is about loving God and neighbor (we cannot do one without doing the other), which the Lawyer knows. So when he answers Jesus’ question by reciting the two great commands, Jesus replies “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

But, but but…

The lawyer wanted to justify himself, so perhaps with some chutzpah he asked “And who is my neighbor?” That brings up the second observation about Jesus’ question. How one reads the Law of Moses, or in our case, the entire Bible, will indeed shape how we define our neighbor. If we are followers of Jesus then we must read the Bible in light of who we know Jesus to be, the life we know that he lived, and the aim (telos) for which he lived his life — the kingdom of God.

Lest we misunderstand, Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan was despised and seemingly beyond the boundaries of God’s kingdom in the eyes of the Jewish people. Yet this Samaritan became The Good Samaritan or the one who was a neighbor because he exemplified love for his neighbor. Perhaps if Jesus was telling a story today, perhaps he might speak of an American Evangelical Christian and a “Truth-defending, Sound-Doctrine” Preacher as he tells a tale about an undocumented immigrant or a Muslim loving their neighbors (like Imam Abubakr Absullahi, an 83 year-old Muslim Cleric who is being honored by the US Government for hiding 262 Christians to protect them during an attack in Central Nigeria last year).

I mention this because we all have known of Christians who have made defending Biblical truth and sound-doctrine, which always seems to be their own dogma, the essence or primary focus being a Christian. Don’t misunderstand me. Truth and doctrine matter but when such concern is elevated about loving God and neighbor (and history is replete with examples), not only does such a pursuit become an idol but it takes a wrong turn away from eternal life.

Yes, I just said that. When our concern for sound-doctrine is elevated above or ignores loving God and neighbor, we turning away from participating in eternal life. That doesn’t mean we can’t turn around and get back on the right path. The grace of God says we can. That is why, when the Jewish lawyer recognizes that the neighbor is the Samaritan “who demonstrated mercy,” Jesus says “Go and do likewise.”

To love our neighbors as ourselves is to love God and if we love God with all our heart, being, strength, and mind, we will delight in loving our neighbors. But let’s also remember, that it’s possible for a Samaritan, an undocumented immigrant, or a Muslim just might be closer to the kingdom than some Christians because of the way they love their neighbors.

So what must we do to gain eternal life? And what does the Bible say? How do we read the Bible? Well, here’s a little truth on these questions that we should notice. In essence, the answer is that we should love God and love our neighbor. But to be clear, Jesus tells us a story of about loving our neighbor and how that involves extending mercy. Then Jesus simply says, “Go and do likewise.” Stop trying to justify ourselves like the lawyer, saying “Yes, but…” and just hear Jesus say “Go and do likewise.”

“Go and do likewise.” ~ Jesus

 

Promoting Peace: Churches Living in a Post-Christendom Society

This past Sunday I began a new three-week message series with the Newark Church of Christ called Neighbors: The Church Among Society. The idea of the series focuses on the question of how does the church, as followers of Jesus, live among society as neighbors. At face value, that might seem like a simple task and in some sense it is. However, now that many churches in North America, including the church I serve, find themselves living in a post-Christendom culture, the task becomes more challenging.

Neighbors - The Church Among Society

The challenge of a post-Christendom culture is that Christianity exists more and more on the margins of society. No longer is Christianity at the center of society and no longer is Christianity attached to the state so that the policies of society favor a Christian view. I happen to believe that is a good thing because there are beliefs and values intrinsic to the gospel that were lost, or at least diminished, when Christianity moved from existing as a mission-movement into a Christendom culture. However, with the post-Christendom shift, it requires churches to rethink what it means to live as followers of Jesus in a society the beliefs and values of the church differ from society.

So as followers of Jesus, how do we live as neighbors among society? Well, the prophet Jeremiah has a word that can help us reimagine our role as God’s people in a post-Christendom society:

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.

This text is important because it’s a word for how Israel should live in a society not of their choosing. In a nutshell, Jeremiah tells Israel that they should get used to living in Babylon and make the most of it because they’re going to be there for a while. That’s also an important word for churches living in the post-Christendom culture of North America today. Get used to it and make the most of the opportunity because it’s going to be this way for awhile.

Of great importance to the prophet is that Israel should “Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray for to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.” The idea of promoting the welfare of the city is to “seek the peace” (NIV) of the community and doing so requires a particular posture.

To begin with, there isn’t a word in the text about retreating or resisting the changes taking place in society. Withdrawing from engaging in society is out of the question but unless a church is careful, that’s what happens. I know because I once remembered eating in a restaurant owned by a Muslim family that catered to the small population of Somalian refugees. The restaurant had been open for about four to five years. So I was astonished when the owner told me that I was the first Christian to ever come in and eat at his place. Such avoidance of engagement with non-Christians is the sort of retreating that churches must avoid. Just the same, churches must avoid resisting the changes. Promoting the welfare of the community doesn’t happen by boycotting Starbuck or protesting the local PRIDE parade. Doing so only helps erect obstacles that places Christianity in an unnecessary adversarial relationship with society at large.

Promoting the welfare or seeking the peace of society requires learning how to exercise good table manners. We enter and engage our neighbors as neighbors who listen to understand before we attempt to contribute to the good. We do so by extending to others the courtesy and respect we hope they would extend to us (and do so even if they won’t). In doing so, we avoid offering banal answers to difficult questions and challenging issues. Instead, we are able to contribute by becoming what Tomâś Halík describes as “competent partners respecting the rules of dialogue” (Night of the Confessor, pp 134-135).

Taking such a posture doesn’t mean or require churches to abandon any convictions. Instead, the local church is able to discover where God is already at work in society and participate in that work for the sake of the kingdom — the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven. This approach is possible in a variety of different avenues, from partnering with local agencies that serve people in need to planting new churches that also seek to serve their neighbors as they lead people to follow Jesus.

Whatever form promoting the welfare of the city takes, it will involve prayer. So I’ll end this post with the Peace Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life
Amen