Tag Archives: spirituality

Christian Witness: The Memory of Hope in a Secular Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I don’t Look Like A Christian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christianity: Reclaiming the Practice

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

THEN and NOW

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The words read “Alexamenos worships his god.”

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

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

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

GUITAR PICKING and CHRISTIAN LIVING

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

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

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

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

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

SO THEN…

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

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

The Christian Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Confession: The Blessing I Forgot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord, have mercy on me… a sinful man!

Disruptive: The Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus

Nobody, or at least most people, do not enjoy having their lives disrupted. But for most of us, it does happen. Think of a horrific car accident, being diagnosed with a terrible disease, etc… When such disruptions happen, one thing is for sure: life will be different!*

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The crucifixion of Jesus was a disruptive occasion for sure. In fact, Jesus dying on the cross is really the preeminent disruption of history as well as the climatic disruption within the biblical narrative. As Jesus hangs nailed to the cross and utters in his last dying breath “It is finished” (Jn 19:30) before finally dying, what has transpired is a horrid and violent moment of injustice. Here hangs in death the Son of God, the one who has unconditionally loved those around him without any judgment. But now this Messiah has been crucified—nailed to the cross—like many other Jews who became a political threat to the Pax Romana. The death of Jesus now seems like a reminder that the power of the sword, wielded by a conspiracy between Jewish religious authorities and the governance of Rome, wins. This death, with its display of power, is symbolic of rulers everywhere.

But then came the third day, which we now call Easter Sunday. On that morning the tomb where Jesus was buried was found empty. The grave of death was powerless to hold Jesus, who has been raised from death. And now vindicated by his Father who has raised him by the power of the Spirit, this only begotten Son of God has overcome. Victory is at hand! The cross, which appeared as the mighty power of human authority on display, is revealed as the power of God that overcomes sin and death.

“No matter how much anyone says otherwise, death has given way to new life as the grim reality of the crucifixion is matched by the promise of the resurrection.”

The Pax Romana, which was never really true peace, has been overcome by Jesus who now appears saying “Peace be with you!” (Jn 20:19, 26). And now having born the sins of the world and suffered the cost of death, Jesus has won the victory through crucifixion and resurrection.

This is the preeminent disruption for sure and life will surely be different but not for the reasons we might think. We live in a world that still clings to coercive power and self-justifying violence as the means of maintaining authority over others. But no matter how the rulers of this world try, it’s a losing effort. No matter how much anyone says otherwise, death has given way to new life as the grim reality of the crucifixion is matched by the promise of the resurrection. The crucified Jesus has been raised from death as a promise of hope for all who believe. The old life of self-serving and might-makes-right governing, of which the powers of this world cling to, is done. The days of that old life are numbered, they are coming to an end. For there is a new life, and eternal life characterized love and peace, of which Jesus is the benevolent king.

Now here is why this disruption matters. It leaves us with is a disruptive question: On whose side will we stand? Will we choose the old life whose power expressed in death has been rendered impotent, or the new life of peace whom the crucified and resurrected Son of God, Jesus the Messiah, offers?

Let us choose wisely and not be stupid!

* A shorter and slightly different version of this blog post was published as an article for the Chillicothe Church of Christ weekly bulletin on Sunday, April 16, 2017.

Worship In Spirit and Truth?

I’ve heard more than a few sermons on the subject of worshiping God in spirit and truth. I’ve even preached a few of those sermons myself. Using the passage of John 4:23-24, the focus of the sermon always presumed a question of what are the requirements that God expects of the church in worship so that the worship is pleasing to God and thus offered in spirit and truth? The preacher then begins proof-texting various Bible verses to clarify what God presumably requires of Christian worship and how the church is to carry out that requirement. And if you’re from my Christian tradition, the Churches of Christ, that sermon will always include an argument for a cappella singing in worship coupled with an argument against the use of instrumental music in worship.

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The passage of John 4:23-24 is part of a larger story about an encounter Jesus has with a Samaritan woman. However, the type of sermon I described in the preceding paragraph has very little, if anything, to do with Jesus. The focus of that sermon is the church and specifically what the church must presumably do to worship God in spirit and truth. Yet the focus of John chapter 4 and really the entire Gospel of John is Jesus. So do we see the problem with a sermon using a passage from John 4 that is focused on us, the church, and not on Jesus?

Regardless of what our views our on how the church should worship, John chapter 4 isn’t about that and if we don’t realize that then we’re going to miss the more important point. So moving on…

There’s this woman from Samaria whom Jesus meets at a well and asks for a drink of water. That was a surprise to the woman since Jews don’t associate with Samaritans. As the conversation unfolds, Jesus offers the woman “living water” which will forever satisfy her thirst and everyone else’s thirst who drinks of the water Jesus offers. It is the promise of “eternal life” (v. 14). This intrigues the Samaritan woman but then, and rather abruptly, Jesus points out her marriage situation. Whatever the circumstances are for why this woman has been married five times and is now living with a man who is not her husband, the woman now sees Jesus as a prophet (v. 19). Her marriage history coupled with her identity as a Samaritan raises questions about her suitability to receive the promise of eternal life. But it is these questions that prepare us for the twist in the story.

Jesus offers living water and says, “Come, thirst no more!” Now who are we going to believe?

The twist comes when Jesus says in v. 21-24, “…believe me a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Jesus says to the woman, “you will worship…” The personal pronoun is in the second-person plural voice. In other words, here is this Samaritan woman with a questionable marriage history who knows that she and the Samaritans are excluded from the temple worship of God in Jerusalem but now Jesus is telling her that she and the Samaritans will worship God. They who were excluded will now be included. Jesus is the Messiah (vv. 25-26) and this Samaritan woman along with other Samaritans now believe in Jesus (v. 39). The assurance of worshiping God in spirit and truth is an inclusive promise because Jesus is the Messiah who comes as God in the flesh, full of grace and truth.

Let’s not miss the irony here either. In John chapter 3 Jesus encounters a Pharisee named Nicodemus, an insider who excludes people like this Samaritan woman and thinks he’s on the inside because he keeps the Law and its traditions… But unless he believes in Jesus (that eternal life is possible because of what God is doing in Jesus), he’s an outsider. On the other hand, in John chapter 4, she who has been an outsider becomes an insider because she believes.

So worshiping God in spirit and truth is about believing in Jesus. This point is underscored from the wider narrative of the Gospel of John when we keep in mind that God is both Spirit and the Incarnate Word. So while in the past God dwelt among the temple, he now dwells among in the person of Jesus and as the Holy Spirt whom the Father and Son have sent. We worship God in spirit and truth not because of how we sing or pray when assembled for worship among our local church. No… we worship God in Spirit and Truth, or even better, in the Spirit and in the Truth because we believe in Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit.

This inclusive promise is the good news for everyone who has been an outsider. Those who have been treated as an outsider because of their race and ethnicity or because of questions about their own marriage history and moral lifestyle are now included in the promise. Here Jesus is offering living water regardless of the past… regardless of whatever circumstances, sins, doubts, and so forth. Jesus offers living water and says, “Come, thirst no more!” Now who are we going to believe?