My Times are in Thy Hand

William F. Lloyd, composer of "My Times are in Thy Hand"
William F. Lloyd, composer of “My Times are in Thy Hand”

I’m one who travels by jet, a lot.

Those who – as one of my Ivorian students put it, “vivent dans les avions” (live in planes) – get over thinking about the thousands things that could go wrong on an airplane at take-off, landing, or mid-flight. Statistics that prove you’re more likely to die in a car crash than in an airplane are comforting.

But whatever probability theory teaches, I find peace in theology, knowing that I am in God’s hands.

When our older son, John, was just 3 years old, he learned the Sunday School chorus, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” “Dad and Mom,” he asked one day from the back seat of the car, “does God really have the whole world in His hands?” “He sure does, Johnny” we replied. Johnny was quiet for about 10 seconds, then finally commented: “God sure must have big hands.”

I sang tenor with the A Cappella choir at Eastern Nazarene College. The choir was known for closing out its concerts with an interpretation of Psalm 31:15a, with lyrics by William F. Lloyd:

“My times are in Thy Hand,

My God I wish them there.

My life, my friends, my soul I leave entirely to thy care.”

But I really like the last line of the song: “Then after death, at Thy right hand, I shall forever be.”

The hope that we have in Christ is the resurrection of the body. No human or diabolical scheme can shake that faith. No missile can shoot it down.

Our love and prayers go out to those mourning the loss of loved ones on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

I believe in the resurrection, when wrongs not righted on this earth will be squared away and loved ones separated by evil and senseless acts will be reunited. God will have the last word.

Maranatha!  Come, Lord Jesus, and complete your Kingdom.

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Image credit: Cyber Hymnal

The church: God’s holy people

Benin_2007_9L’unité fait la force – Unity is our strength. This national motto of the West African country of Benin is a window into the larger sub-Saharan African worldview. Individuals are not unimportant, yet they find their deepest identity not alone but as part of a people.

This collective cultural value shows up in pagne, the colorful cotton material locally woven and sold in many places across Africa. One popular pattern shows cracked fingers, separated one from another, dry,  lifeless, and empty. Next to them are hands, healthy and strong. All five fingers are connected, grasping pieces of gold that could only be gathered as they worked together. The Ivorian proverb reinforces a similar message: “You can’t pick up a grain of rice with just one finger.”

Modern individualism notwithstanding, historically, the United States has shared such a collective vision. Our tragic Civil War was fought from 1861-65 in part over the issue of whether we would be a single people. Prior to that conflict, it was common in writing to say: “The United States are.” Now we say “The United States is.” The Latin phrase, E plurbus unum – one from many – appears on the seal of the nation.

This longing to be part of a people is no stranger to the pages of Scripture. Peter wrote to the diaspora, believers scattered over five provinces of the Roman Empire:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

It is with the community of Christian faith that any study of how we can positively impact the world for Christ must begin. The church was here before any of us were born, and it will continue when we are gone. The words of the well-known African saying – “I am because we are” – are no less fitting when it comes to matters of belief. So while we will later look at our individual response to Christ’s call to follow him, we purposely begin with a more important concept than “me.” Let us begin with “we.”

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Christlike Disciples, Christlike World

Christ-3It was 1972, and the Presidential race was on.

The 20 minute bus ride home from school was a raucous affair. Toward the front of the bus were the Nixon supporters; at the back congregated those who preferred McGovern. Like opposing sides in a volleyball game, we’d chant back and forth:

“Nixon, Nixon, he’s our man.  McGovern belongs in the garbage can!”

Of course, the erstwhile supporters of the Senator from South Dakota substituted the President’s name and rocketed the ball back to their 5th grade enemies at the front of the bus.

And so it went.

I soon learned that while the bus was an O.K. place for politics, the sacred halls of the church most definitely were not. If someone brought up the election at church, it was in hushed tones in the foyer, never publicly. On the few occasions where a brave soul ventured further, they were beaten back with an all-purpose proverbial stick, an elder gravely intoning:

“Religion and politics don’t mix.”

So when it came to deciding what our country would look like, venue was important. This 5th grader learned his lesson well. Bus? Good. Church? Bad.

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Emperor Constantine or King Jesus?

constantinebust3
Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome

Constantine served an Empire founded upon military might. Jesus loved people, establishing a different kind of Kingdom altogether, the peaceable Kingdom of God. Where do our ultimate loyalties lie?

The Roman Emperor Constantine (280(?)-337 AD) represents the fusion of the state and Christianity. In the years following his 312 AD conversion at the Milvian Bridge, Christianity moved from being tolerated to being favored by the state as a way of uniting and advancing Empire. John Wesley (1703-91) argued that the People of God lost something essential in the process. Wesley lamented in his sermon, Of Former Times, that the “kingdoms of Christ and of the world” were so “unnaturally blended together” that the “power, riches and honour” that Constantine lavished upon both clergy and laity made the church a partner to evil.

I have been long convinced, from the whole tenor of ancient history, that this very event, Constantine’s calling himself a Christian, and pouring in that flood of wealth and honour [power] on the Christian Church, the Clergy in particular, was productive of more evil to the Church than all the ten persecutions put together. From the time that power, riches, and honour of all kinds were heaped upon the Christians, vice of all kinds came in like a flood, both on the Clergy and laity. From the time that the Church and State, the kingdoms of Christ and of the world, were so strangely and unnaturally blended together, Christianity and Heathenism were so thoroughly incorporated with each other, that they will hardly ever be divided till Christ comes to reign upon earth. – See more at: http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-102-Of-Former-Times#sthash.i51T1EXN.dpuf
I have been long convinced, from the whole tenor of ancient history, that this very event, Constantine’s calling himself a Christian, and pouring in that flood of wealth and honour [power] on the Christian Church, the Clergy in particular, was productive of more evil to the Church than all the ten persecutions put together. From the time that power, riches, and honour of all kinds were heaped upon the Christians, vice of all kinds came in like a flood, both on the Clergy and laity. From the time that the Church and State, the kingdoms of Christ and of the world, were so strangely and unnaturally blended together, Christianity and Heathenism were so thoroughly incorporated with each other, that they will hardly ever be divided till Christ comes to reign upon earth. – See more at: http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-102-Of-Former-Times#sthash.i51T1EXN.dpuf

Before Constantine, Christians always had a conflicted relationship with temporal powers, not encouraging their young to serve in the Roman legions and  looking to advance another way of doing things, a peaceable Kingdom not of this world (John 18:36). But with the ascent and apparent conversion of Constantine, Christian leaders over time gained a favored status, entree into the halls of power. Increasingly, bishops and pastors became more concerned with promoting their own importance and status and less concerned with enacting Christ’s prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

This caution from Wesley about the dangers of melding spiritual and temporal power appears to have been unheeded in recent decades by some conservative Christian leaders in the United States. Yes, there was the occasional prophetic warning from the likes of former Nixon White House counselor turned prison reform advocate, Chuck Colson: “The Kingdom of God will not arrive on Air Force One….” Still, many placed an emphasis upon getting the right Christian people into political office which would then assure that their most cherished values would be protected and promoted.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was caught up in this philosophy. Too much of my time and effort as a pastor were spent on  might be called “moral environmentalism,” i.e. preaching about things ethical, writing letters to newspapers and opposing things I deemed nefarious. The result was predictable: I became known in town for what I was against rather than what I was for. My conviction was that elected officials should work to maintain a holy environment as conceived by my evangelical Christian worldview. I even distributed “voter guides” annually in our congregation, brochures produced by a quasi-Christian lobbying group that was a thin veneer for a political party.

Looking back, those lobbyists used me to promote their own political power as surely as Constantine used the church of his time to promote his. My complicity cheapened the witness of our local church. Ironically, in my zeal to keep a corner of America morally strong, I lost sight of the compassionate Jesus who always starts not by scolding sinful behavior but by graciously meeting people where they are and lovingly transforming the human heart.

Far from co-opting the system to advance a social agenda, Jesus promoted another system entirely, that of a non-violent Kingdom based upon love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31), new wine in new wine skins and all confirmed with signs, wonders, and authority (Hebrews 2:4, Matthew 7:29). By his creation of an alternative, global community of character,  Jesus transcends the interests of political parties or nations, uniting believers from places as far-flung as Iran, China, the United States, Russia, France, Argentina and Zambia around a different task, that of making Christlike disciples. Verses 1 and 3 of William Dunkerley’s hymn say it well:

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth…

Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me…

We live in a world of Empires. There are still Constantines who would co-opt Christianity to consolidate earthly power. As followers of Christ, the temptation remains to think that this can be a “win-win” for both state and church, yet history tells us a different story. The church always loses when with the best of intentions she seeks to promote herself through the political structures of this world.

So, what will it be, the Empire of Constantine or the Kingdom of Christ? It’s time to choose.

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Image credit: Constantine the Great Coins

Preston Sprinkle on scandalous grace

charisWhy do we need one more book on grace? It’s a fair question. In Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us (David C. Cook, 2014), author Preston Sprinkle gives a convincing though incomplete answer.

Preston Sprinkle is best known for co-authoring with Francis Chan Erasing Hell (2011). This time around, Sprinkle goes solo, painting a handful of biblical portraits mostly from the Old Testament, each one an example of the relentless pursuit of God’s grace (Gk. charis). It is through these pictures of grace that Sprinkle targets his objective:

Rich, poor, successful, homeless, healthy, disabled, black, white, brown, young, old, famous, abused, pervert, or priest – whoever you are and whatever you have done or have not accomplished – if you are human, then you are cherished and prized and honored and enjoyed as the pinnacle of creation by a Creator who breeds charis (p. 38).

Too often, we don’t take the time to plumb the height and depth of grace. Too quickly – Sprinkle maintains – we move on to other aspects of salvation without marveling in this, God’s “gift” to all of us, the undeserving. His observation is a fair one. Dwelling upon grace can be an important remedy for those who have grown up in a legalistic setting where “working out our own salvation” (Phil. 2:12) leaves believers with the nagging feeling that they’ll never quite measure up.

Sprinkle – though a PhD in Bible from the University of Aberdeen – wears his learning lightly. With language that is picturesque but not ornate,  gritty yet not vulgar, he refuses to PhotoShop the blemishes of OT characters like Samson, Rahab, Abraham, and David. His point is that God’s grace reaches us as we really are and not as we pretend to be. We cannot earn grace. Rather, “God loves you because of who He is and because of what Christ has done” (p. 108).

What shall be our response to God’s scandalous grace?

The author purposely leaves this to the Epilogue, in order to allow the reader to bask sufficiently in God’s grace. Yet one wonders: Will the reader who only makes it halfway through the book end up with a balanced, biblical picture? For though God comes to us where we are with all His grace, it is never his intention to leave us in our mess. The angel announced that Jesus would “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21), not save his people in their sins. It is the concept of transformation following repentance that rounds out the Good News. Though in the Epilogue Sprinkle addresses the vital role of obedience, repentance (a change of mind regarding sin) is never mentioned, making the book incomplete. Neglecting to tease out the relationship between grace and repentance is an omission that -  from the perspective of Wesleyan theology with its deep concern to avoid antinomianism (lawlessness)  – is nothing short of glaring.

Yet on balance, Charis is a welcome book. The old Methodist hymn said it well:  “It’s not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing it the need of prayer.” The gift of God’s grace is not for those who think they are healthy but for those who are convinced that they are sick and powerless to make themselves well. And that, truth be told, includes us all.

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Image credit: Amazon.com

Brian Zahnd and the peace of Christ that opposes Empire

indexIt’s all the rage, this little anti-war tome, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace (David C. Cook, 2014; Kindle edition). Pastor Brian Zahnd has written an insightful and controversial book that will push many followers of Christ to re-evaluate what Jesus would do not just in our lives as individuals but as nations sharing one planet.

Pastor Zahnd – like many Americans at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – was solidly behind the foray into the country ruled by Saddam Hussein. Zahnd had led in public prayers for the troops, bellicose war prayers for which God later gently nudged the pastor toward repentance. Gradually, Zahnd re-examined his position and is now as staunch a proponent of peace as he is an opponent of Empire, no matter what country is behind it. In place of Empire, Zahnd espouses a different more durable kind of arrangement:

“The resurrection is not only God’s vindication of his Son; it is the vindication of all Jesus taught. Easter Sunday is nothing less than the triumph of the peaceable kingdom of Christ.”- location 231

Herein lies an attractive feature of Zahnd’s work: It’s mostly about Jesus. It’s hard to argue with that methodology if we are going to be Christians, little Christs. Yet ironically, have we as followers of the good and gentle shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11, NIV) justified wars in his name? Zahnd argues convincingly that we have. Citing the disastrous medieval military campaigns to take back Jerusalem from Muslims, he concludes: “The crusades are perhaps the most egregious example of how distorted Christianity can become when we separate Christ from his ideas. Yet we continue to do this – we worship Jesus as Savior while dismissing his ideas about peace” (location 160).

Pastor Zahnd rightfully protests the melding of Christian and militaristic symbolism, recounting a visit to the chapel at the U.S. Air Force Academy where the “cross” at the front of the sanctuary was made up of swords. Zahnd concludes that this becomes a strange composite, a tribute more fitting to the Roman god of war (Mars) than Jesus, the Prince of Peace. The danger is that the church – which should be promoting the kingdom of God – unwittingly becomes a mere chaplain to the state. He explains:

“Our responsibility is not to chaplain the state but to call the state to repentance and to surrender to the King who is Lord. Our responsibility is to be an alternative to the state. Christians would do far more good for our country by learning not to look to DC for solutions but to the glorious Son of God, who loves us and gave himself for us and, in doing so, gave us a whole new way of life – one not shaped by the power of force but the force of the gospel ” (location 35).

Yet Zahnd’s argument suffers from off-putting elements for the otherwise open-minded reader. Rejecting the label of “pacifist,” he concludes: “But I am not a political pacifist. What I am is a Christian” (location 1354).Does this imply that those who have reached different conclusions on war and peace are not Christian? My experience is that Mennonites – who are unashamedly part of the peace church tradition – avoid statements like Zahnd’s that appear to demonize Christian brothers and sisters outside their circle. Further, Zahnd’s two caustic poems in the book may leave readers with the same bad taste in their mouths.

Beyond the question of the sometimes acerbic tone is that of biblical interpretation. It only makes sense that the “peaceable kingdom” of Isaiah 2:2-4 would figure prominently in Zahnd’s thinking, the famous vision of swords beaten into plowshares. What he neglects to mention is the prophet Joel’s contrary admonition: “Hammer your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Train even your weaklings to be warriors” (Joel 3:10). Joel’s is an end times vision of the armies of the earth gathering together for battle. So this prophecy is all the more important for Zahnd to address since war talk among 21st century American Evangelicals is often wrapped-up with apocalyptic scenarios.

At times Zahnd’s arguments are not sufficiently developed. While it is clear he opposes the offensive use of military force that Empires require, he leaves unaddressed the defense of nations or loved ones under attack that is the arena for Just War Theory.

Weaknesses aside, Brian Zahnd’s A Farewell to Mars makes an important and timely contribution. Zahnd’s writing style is engaging. He succeeds in presenting from Scripture an historic and peaceful alternative to the well-worn path of war that for America and the world has too often yielded little but bitter fruit.

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Image credit: Amazon.com

When soteriology and ecology embrace: Howard Snyder’s expansive vision

Howard Snyder
Howard Snyder

“Ecology” is one of those musty words crowded out by more trendy fare, terms like “environmentalism” and “Creation Care.” But if theologian Howard Snyder has his way, ecology will soon be on everyone’s lips.

In Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace: Overcoming the Divorce Between Earth and Heaven (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011; Kindle edition), Snyder – a theologian of mission and John Wesley scholar –  boldly challenges the Church to broaden its narrow conception of salvation to encompass the full panorama of God’s loving concern, as presented in Scripture. If the ideas championed in his book were to take hold, the mission of the Church in the world would look radically different than it has for much of the past 100 years.

John Wesley often structured his sermons in terms of “sickness/cure,” and Howard Snyder adopts a similar methodology. Following Chapter 1, a treatment of the “divorce of heaven and earth” due to a dominant neo-Platonism that prioritizes the value of spirit over matter, Snyder details a “fourfold alienation”  under the heading of the “ecology of sin” (see pp. 68-78):

1) alienation with God;

2) alienation from one another;

3) alienation from ourselves (internal division), and

4) alienation from the land.

Following a time-honored Wesleyan paradigm, Snyder treats sin as a moral disease. Because sin is fourfold in nature , the Gospel as cure must address each aspect of the condition or be incomplete. Snyder argues that evangelical soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) has indeed been grossly inadequate. While we have effectively addressed the first point (alienation from God) – preaching tirelessly about justification and sanctification – we’ve had less to say about points 2 and 3 and until recently were wholly silent on point 4. (Note: Snyder correctly points out that John Wesley himself later in life had much more to say about God’s concern for all creation, not just human beings).

For Snyder, the one biblical concept that covers all four alienations is that of healing. This healing is not a far-off, wholly spiritual prospect reserved for an ethereal “heaven.” Rather, healing is for the here-and-now, an expansive, cosmic restoration of all creation in which the Church – empowered and gifted by the Holy Spirit – actively participates. Snyder argues (p. 38):

But an agenda remains. The church spread throughout the earth but often doesn’t see the earth. The church is still far from realizing its potential to renew and heal the land. Millions of people have been reconciled to God. Yet the full promise of salvation as creation healed is yet to become real and visible worldwide.

Turning from sickness to cure, the book capably unpacks the meaning of the covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:8-15). This first covenant is both everlasting and for the “preservation of creation” (Snyder, p. 55). Importantly, it is a three-way covenant, i.e. between God, humans, and creatures. Snyder observes that it “has never been revoked, and largely defines stewardship on earth” (p. 90). In Chapter 6, “The Groans of Creation,” the reader uncovers what such stewardship means in relation to climate change, the overstressed oceans, and deforestation. At its core, taking care of the earth is a human question since it is poor people who are first and most affected by human practices that throw the earth’s systems out of kilter. Synder rightly observes: “Creation care is pro-life” (p. 83). Later, he concludes: “If we are passionate about people, we will be passionate about their world” (p. 152).

Salvation Means Creation Healed is an ambitious book, perhaps too ambitious. Chapter 11 delves into the nature of the Church, introducing material on worship styles that – while interesting – is tangential to the  main thrust of the book. That central concern is relating soteriology to ecology. Thankfully, Snyder finds his footing once again at the end of Chapter 12, speaking of how the “stigmata” ( the marks of the Church) should be practiced through four principles as related to Creation (pp. 198-200):

1) the earthkeeping principle;

2) the Sabbath principle;

3) the fruitfulness principle;

4) the fulfillment and limits principle.

These four principles provide a positive agenda for how the Church can rectify the fourth alienation, our distance from and poor stewardship of God’s good earth.

Howard Snyder adds his voice to a rising chorus of those who have concluded that the Church’s mission – particularly the modus operandi of its Evangelical branch – has been too other-worldly. His is a clarion call to rediscover the biblical Gospel, the full scope of God’s concern for all creation and our duty under God to care for the land. Since Evangelicals – including the descendants of John Wesley – have placed soteriology at the center, Snyder’s re-casting of ecology in soteriological terms is very welcome. May both his tribe and readership increase.

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Image credit: Greenville College