Posted in reflections

Repurposed

I’m not sure when I started liking instant coffee.

Maybe it’s the simplicity. There’s no need to fuss with fancy machines that clutter up limited kitchen counter space.

This morning I spooned the last of my hazelnut Tejas Café into my Starbucks mug. Reaching under the sink, I nearly tossed the empty container into the trash, then hesitated. It was a well-made plastic jar, with a sturdy top and thick clear plastic sides. Fashioned in a factory, then filled with coffee, it shipped to the HEB grocery warehouse. A driver then delivered it to my neighborhood store. There it had waited on the shelf…for me. Oh, the good times we had! Every morning, I received its aromatic offering. Now, a few weeks later, the jar had nothing left to offer. It was empty. We looked at each other. Was this the end?

Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life asks: “What on earth am I here for?” For a while, my alma mater used the slogan, “Discover Your Purpose.” Like that empty jar of coffee, what do you do when you come to the end of your purpose? Is there a purpose after the purpose? Can we be repurposed?

This can be a challenge for retirees. After an active work life spanning forty plus years, some at the traditional retirement age of 65 are like a Honda Accord with 200,000 miles on the odometer, well-worn for sure but with another 100,000 miles in the engine. My father had served as Corporate Comptroller of a large supermarket chain in the Northeast. He later found purpose in a duet of blue collar jobs, first as a delivery driver for a parts manufacturer, then as a cashier at the local grocery store. Only at age 87 did he turn in his name tag. Other retirees have found new purpose through volunteer work at church or in the community.

Yet it’s more than retirees who face this question. At any age, career change is repurposing. An educational missionary for 23 years, I’d taught pastors from the certificate to the doctoral level. Though fulfilling, the face-to-face and online classrooms with their supplementary administrative and supervisory duties consumed me. My purpose had morphed into my taskmaster. It was time to repurpose, but what next?

As a pastor in Missouri, prior to missionary service, I always looked forward to visiting at the hospital when church members fell sick. I’d also held a weekly Bible study for residents of a nursing home and remembered how they’d brightened up when we prayed and sang hymns together. Teaching at a university in Kenya, an offer arrived to move to Austin, Texas. I’d receive a stipend for one year as a hospital chaplain resident, a combination of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and 1,000 hours clinical work in a network of hospitals. Amy and I said our farewell to African brothers and sisters and jetted West.

Residency was a grueling year. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I’d hurriedly get dressed following an urgent middle-of-the-night page for a Code Blue or to comfort a grieving family in the ICU. In my weaker moments, I wondered if I’d made the right decision to leave a status academic position. But my doubts always evaporated when tearful families said: “Chaplain, we’re so glad that you came.”

Now I’m a hospice chaplain. The listening and comforting skills I honed in hospitals serve me well. Alzheimer’s patients in skilled nursing facilities can be calmed by a prayer, a hymn, or even a silent vigil at their bedside. Exhausted caregivers in private homes – usually a husband, wife, or daughter – need someone to witness their tears and to listen. After a heart-to-heart yesterday, a caregiver smiled and concluded: “I feel peaceful. Thank you, Chaplain.”

The prophet Isaiah writes: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19, NIV). My coffee jar is no longer empty. It now sits on a shelf, filling up with coins for the annual missionary offering at church. In the same way, God has repurposed my ministerial vocation. What new purpose will follow your purpose? New directions can unfold slowly, but be at peace. Whatever your age, God still has meaningful work for you to do.

Posted in Bible, reflections

The nature of Jesus’ fast in the wilderness

Jesus was in the wilderness fasting for 40 days and 40 nights, as described in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt. 4:1-11, Mk. 1:12-13, Lk. 4:1-13). Was this fast:

a) going without both food AND water, or

b) abstaining only from food?

Consider:

1) Luke 4:2b (NIV) – “He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.” There’s no mention of drinking nothing, only of eating nothing. The text does not say “he ate or drank nothing, and at the end of them he was hungry and thirsty.” Luke’s “he ate nothing” provides clarity missing in Matthew’s and Mark’s account.

2) The devil’s temptation centered around bread, not water. He tempted Jesus to turn stones to bread, focusing on where he knew Jesus’ weakness lie, i.e. his hunger. Otherwise, surely the devil would have said: “If you are the son of God, strike this stone with a rock, and water will come forth,” much as Moses had done in the wilderness (see Exodus 17:1-7). Water is the # 1 requirement for life in any climate, but particularly in an arid one.

3) We believe that Jesus is fully divine, but also fully human. The incarnation means that Christ took on human existence in the flesh, with all its biological limitations and requirements. The human body cannot last more than a few days without water. Therefore, both Jesus and John the Baptist must have found water in the Judea wilderness, perhaps the Jordan river (see Matthew 3:1-6).

Conclusion

The correct answer is (b), that Jesus went without food but did drink water when tempted in the wilderness.

Our mission statement as Nazarenes is to make “Christlike disciples.” If we emulate Jesus in our spiritual practices, then it’s important that we correctly understand how Jesus fasted. To get this wrong may damage our bodies.

_________________________

Image credit:

Signimu & Google & Penubag, Apache License 2.0 http://www.apache.org/licenses/LICENSE-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Christlike justice, reflections

Four confessions of a American Christian

On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, a crowd of angry American insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol. When the Senators, Representatives, and other staff emerged from hiding, the carnage was appalling. The Capitol had been ransacked and (more importantly), five individuals had lost their lives, including a U.S. Air Force veteran and a U.S. Capitol police officer. Most heartbreaking for people of Christian faith was the presence in the mob of “Jesus Saves” signs. These were hoisted side-by-side with Confederate flags, as if no one thought it strange to carry a deeply divisive symbol of White Supremacy alongside the name of the non-white Savior of the world, the Redeemer of all tribes and nations and peoples and tongues (Revelation 7:9).

What follows are my confessions, those of an American Christian, more specifically, an American ordained minister. I offer these as a mea culpa, an attempt to bring out into the light-of-day some of the unhelpful elements of my own worldview that (in their small way) have contributed to an atmosphere where such acts of animosity like those of January 6 in Washington D.C. are the sad outcome.* These cultural blind spots can easily undermine key principles of Christian faith, such as love for neighbor (Mark 12:31), caring for the poor (Matthew 25: 31-46), or the equal dignity of all human beings as those created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27, Galatians 3:28). By reading my confessions, perhaps you will see – as in a mirror (James 1:23) – a fleeting reflection of yourself and chart together with me a new direction, with God’s help.

  1. Confusing hard work with white privilege

Because I grew up in a setting with few minorities – Black or Brown – whether at school or at church, I had no life experience to counteract the idea (more caught than taught) that whites are better off economically because we work harder than non-whites. Now I realize how erroneous that idea is, and life experience has been my teacher.

It has been said: “Some are born on third base and think they hit a triple.” I may not have been born on third base, but I was at least born on second. Now 57, I’ve met scores of people on my life journey so far, fellow travelers from various backgrounds who work harder than I ever will, yet they will never know the head-start that I’ve known as a white American. I confess that I’ve been too concerned to guard my own place and comforts and far too little concerned to stand in solidarity with those who were not gifted the same opportunities.

2). Accent upon “independence” rather than “interdependence”

This brings us to a second false idea, the American myth of our “independence,” an idea stemming back to July 4, 1776 when the United States declared its “independence” from England. From the time we are little, we as Americans are socialized to brag about how “I did it myself.” Frank Sinatra even sang the immortal “I did it my way.” There’s the idea that ultimate freedom is the freedom to be an individual, whatever that looks like. The positive side of this cultural value is that Americans have been amazing inventors across two centuries. Individuals have dared break out of group-think and imagine new ways of doing things. But there is a shadow side to that fierce independence and that is overlooking the negative consequences that my actions in the name of “liberty” can have upon others. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of our interdependence, that even our mutual health and survival hinges upon upon the decisions we make together, whether to wear a mask or to roll up our sleeves for a vaccination.

3) America as “God’s Chosen People” or “The Greatest Nation on Earth”

Besides the issues of work vs. white privilege and independence vs. interdependence, a third area of confession relates to how I view my country in relation to other nations. Peter Marshall’s and David Manuel’s 1977 The Light and the Glory: Did God Have a Plan for America? is an important propaganda piece for those who see America as occupying a unique place in God’s affection, a kind of New Israel. (This textbook has been widely used in Christian homeschooling for children). Rather than examining our national sins alongside our national virtues, it’s a one-sided presentation, arguing a 20th century version of “manifest destiny,” the 19th century rationale for U.S. expansionism.

The truth is that God loves the U.S. in the same way and to the same degree that God loves all nations. God sent Jesus to be the Savior of the world (John 1:29, 3:16), not just one country. To love one’s country is patriotic; to believe that God’s special favor resides upon it above all others is ethnocentric and idolatrous. Of this attitude of American exceptionalism, of the idea that we are a nation that is a cut-above, I repent.

4) Trusting in guns and military might more than trusting in God

Finally, I’ve placed too much trust in guns and weapons of war and not enough trust in God. This temptation is nothing new. The Psalmist observed: “Some nations boast of their chariots and horses, but we boast in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7, NLT). Former President Jimmy Carter – himself a devout Christian – has lamented the warlike posture of our nation over time, claiming in April 2019 that the United States has been at peace for only 16 of our 242 years as a nation. I confess that too often I’ve soft-pedaled the clear teaching of Jesus for Christians to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), thinking it an impossible ideal reserved for some future time after Jesus returns. I’ve remained quiet when our Defense budget is increased yet again, even though it is already larger than the next 10 countries combined. May the Lord forgive me for my silence and give me courage to speak against our war-like ways, even as the number of homeless in my own city explodes in the middle of an historic pandemic. Surely, we can do better, and I would be part of the solution.

Conclusion

Confusing hard work with white privilege, the false notion of “independence,” American exceptionalism, and militarism — These are four areas where I confess my complicity with larger American cultural narratives that, left unchecked, contribute to the chaos like we saw on January 6, 2021. As people of Christian faith, may we go to God in prayer and fasting, asking the Lord to reveal to us these blind spots and others. Once we have knowledge of them, may God give us the grace we need to confess them and repent, changing our thinking and our behavior, becoming like Christ in thought, word, and deed.

*Note: In doing so, I acknowledge that I’m looking at one side of the coin only, that there have been positive contributions of the unique American take on Christian faith, such as the “can do” attitude that can be channeled to make positive change in the world in the name of Christ. Abolition of slavery is just one example.

____________

Image credits

cross and baseball player: by the author

handshake: Official website of the supreme leader of Iran, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in discipleship

Discipleship vs. the Kingdom of God: The Detrimental Divorce

“What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”

This somber warning from the traditional wedding ceremony calls us to respect the permanence of marriage. But the warning could also be applied to two key concepts from Matthew’s Gospel that belong together, namely, discipleship and the Kingdom of God. So when did we divorce them, to the detriment of the Gospel?

Discipleship is Christ’s call for us to follow him. To Simon and Andrew he said, “Come, follow me…and I will send you out to fish for people” (Matthew 4:19, NIV). Disciples make disciples, but is spiritual reproduction our sole end or only a means to a greater end? Is the disciple’s only mission to make more disciples? How does the Kingdom of God fit into the picture?

What we got right

To answer this question, let’s begin by looking at the mission statement of The Church of the Nazarene. It reads:

“Making Christlike Disciples in the Nations.”

Much in our mission statement is spot-on. First, it’s relational rather than transactional. It asks not “Are you saved?” but rather “Are you following Jesus?” Scott, a missionary from another denomination, was church planting in Mozambique. He confided: “I don’t talk about ‘getting saved’ anymore. I talk about being a disciple.” He had learned the hard way that too many thought they had arrived once they’d prayed a “sinner’s prayer.” That approach encouraged them to depend upon a past moment rather than cultivating a living and growing faith in the present. Though he didn’t use the term, Scott realized that the language of discipleship dovetails with God’s work of sanctification.

Secondly, the word “Christlike” evokes holiness, our foundational emphasis. Peter was not content to leave holiness language buried in Leviticus 11:44. Speaking of God’s holiness, Peter reiterates the Old Testament command: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, NIV). If Jesus is the picture of what God is like, then to be like Jesus is to fulfill the command to be holy.

Finally, our statement lays out the scope of our mission. We are to make Christlike disciples “in the nations.” Perhaps a day will come when we find intelligent life on other planets. At that time, we’ll need to review the scope of our mission, but for now, the Great Commission from Jesus is for Earth (Matthew 28:16-20).

The missing Kingdom

But let us return to Matthew’s Gospel and broaden the perspective. It contains more than the Great Commission with its talk about making disciples. It also includes the Lord’s Prayer, which holds this crucial line:

“Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, NIV).

Jesus introduces the eight so-called “Kingdom parables” of Matthew 13 with the formula: “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” But Matthew is not alone in using Kingdom language. In Acts, Luke does so as well, ending the book with a portrait of Paul under house arrest in Rome yet still busy with Kingdom work:

“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30-31, NIV).

In Jesus’ ministry and in Paul’s, there’s a happy marriage between discipleship and the Kingdom of heaven (or Kingdom of God). There is an all-consuming mission for disciples to fulfill that is larger that just enlisting more disciples. Disciples – as we make them – are to be deployed in helping to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. This is the implication in the Sermon on the Mount of images like “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:13-16).

I’ve been in the Church of the Nazarene since birth. On the rare occasions that we talk about the Kingdom of God, we tend to use it interchangeably with the church. As for “Making Christlike disciples,” for all practical purposes, this has meant adding members by profession of faith to our church membership rolls. At the annual District Assembly, pastors report on how many new members were added. If we have more members to report, then we are fulfilling the mission. But is this sufficient?

During the American Civil War (1861-65), General George McClellan built up an impressive Army, the Army of the Potomac. He excelled at organizing the men, drilling them, and marching them in rank-and-file. What he never seemed to get around to doing very much was fighting. President Lincoln – tired of waiting for the army to attack the enemy – quipped:

“If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it for a time, provided I could see how it could be made to do something.”

Like McClellan, our mission statement builds up a fine “army” and even talks about how to enlarge it, but where it is silent is clarifying any objective larger than growing its own numbers. But how might our mission statement read if we took into account the grander purpose for which we make Christlike disciples? What if that purpose was tied to the second great theme in Matthew’s Gospel, that of the Kingdom, in answer to Jesus’ prayer for God’s kingdom to come “on earth, as it is in heaven”? What would it take to join together again disciple-making and Kingdom building?

A better mission statement?

A mission statement should be grand in scope and audacious in aspiration. Thankfully, we already have an excellent start by emphasizing discipleship, but it needs more. With the “army” of disciples in-place, what’s the army to do?

Here’s a change that would re-unite discipleship and the kingdom of God:

“Making Christlike Disciples Who Change the World”

Matthew’s Gospel pictures disciples as agents of change. We are the light that disperses darkness (Matt. 5:16); we are the yeast that works its quiet change throughout the batch of dough (Matt. 13:33). Likewise, we are those who water a mustard seed that grows into a tree, allowing a place for the birds to nest (Matt. 13:31-32). Jesus portrays the Kingdom of God as the direction history is headed, an outcome inaugurated by his coming into the world but carried forward by his disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Make Disciples? Absolutely, but as we make them, let’s head into the battle, the Kingdom work that is our calling. It’s not a call to build the Church so much as it is to use the Spirit-anointed Church to bring in the Kingdom.

Somewhere along the line, the two ideas that Matthew’s Gospel joins together – discipleship and the Kingdom of God – got a divorce, to the detriment of the Gospel. Isn’t it high time for a reconciliation?

Posted in Christian ethics, discipleship, reflections

Upright, or uptight?

There’s just one letter difference, but what a difference it makes.

To be upright is to be righteous. It refuses moral compromise but does so in a way that attracts rather than repels. It’s the loving, kindhearted, winsome quality of character and integrity epitomized by Jesus.

In the quest to be upright, some become uptight. Uptight religion scolds; it’s suspicious of laughter, always serious, and rarely lets down its hair. Steering clear of the ditch of sin, it ends up in the opposite ditch of joyless austerity. Uptight religion repels rather than attracts. It empties churches, then calls itself persecuted, blaming the “devil” or “the world.”

Uptight religion majors on what good Christians don’t do. In the early editions of my denomination’s Manual, they were called the “special rules.” Here’s a sampling:

Don’t dance.

Don’t go to the movie theater.

Don’t play the lottery.

Don’t swim with members of the opposite sex.

Let’s be clear. There’s a place for prohibitions in the Christian life. After all, the 10 Commandments include multiple “do not” statements including “do not steal,” “do not murder,” and “do not commit adultery.” (See Exodus 20:1-17). But while the church of my youth did plenty right, it also unwittingly sowed in my heart the notion that religion is mostly about keeping rules. Mine was an uptight religion, and I still struggle to see faith through the lens of what God asks me to do rather than what he commands me to avoid.

Uptight religion was certainly not God’s intention for Adam and Eve (See Genesis 2-3). The LORD created an amazing garden, with a dizzying variety of plants and trees. God turned them loose in the garden and said, “Go have fun!” Imagine the freedom they enjoyed. They could drink of the crystal-clear brook, soak-up the sunlight that filtered through the canopy, and – best of all – feast on the fruit of hundreds of trees. There was a single tree that God said was off-limits (Gen. 2:16-17), the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We can’t know for sure how many trees were in the garden, but it’s safe to say that (as a percentage) more than 99% of the trees were in-bounds. That’s freedom!

Sadly, uptight religion wants to fence-off more trees in the garden than God ever intended. It forgets that God is much more often the God of “yes” than the God of “no.” This positive outlook is captured by Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:20 (NLT): “For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes’ And through Christ, our ‘Amen’ (which means ‘Yes’) ascends to God for his glory.”

As the scales of uptight religion fall away from my spiritual eyes, I’m coming to see upright religion in a new light. If uptight religion is negative, emphasizing what we don’t do, upright religion is positive, accentuating what God calls us to do. I’m coming to understand holiness as engagement with the world rather than a rules-based sequestering myself from the world. It’s a confident thrust forward rather than a suspicious step back. It’s Jesus’ attitude as he sends out the 12 apostles in Matthew 7:8-9 (NLT): “Go and announce to them that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!”

What about you? Is your Christian faith of the upright or the uptight variety? May God help us to discern this crucial distinction.

Posted in chaplaincy, reflections

Coffee and milk

“God, may you and I be like coffee and milk; once mixed together, they can’t be separated.” So says the Haitian prayer.

As a hospice chaplain, I’ve encountered some coffee and milk marriages. Couples may have been together for 50 or 60 years. Because life for one of them is drawing to a close, one is labelled the “patient” while the other is the “caregiver.” But this fails to capture the myriad ways their lives had already become mixed together long before they began the hospice journey. Family photos on the wall, twin recliner chairs in proximity, bookshelves carefully arranged with reading treasures, tended plants on porches or back decks, family pets lovingly caressed – the evidence of two lives marvelously intertwined is on full display.

Not all marriages are like this. I’ve heard that it’s possible to live under one roof and already be emotionally divorced from one’s partner. Spouses have been downgraded to roommates. But tell me: Just because this can happen, must it happen? The clues of enduring love that I discover in the homes of hospice couples encourage me to cherish the relationship that – other than my relationship with God – is the most rewarding. Coffee and milk, anyone? 

Posted in book reviews, reflections

Scott Daniels on exile and the stories we live by

scott-daniels
Scott Daniels

How are Christ followers to live when society seems increasingly hostile to the church? T. Scott Daniels in Embracing Exile: Living Faithfully as God’s Unique People in the World (Beacon Hill, 2017, Kindle edition) takes up this question, mining the biblical metaphor of “exile” for insights that can serve the People of God at a moment when – in the United States – our cultural influence is waning.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when Christian clergy were paid deference, and the church was closer to the center of civic life. For Daniels, the word “exile” – evoking the 70 years that the Jewish people were in captivity in Babylon following the fall of Jerusalem in 586 A.D. – is appropriate to describe the sense of disorientation Christians feel in 2020 America. Daniels observes: “People who live in exile feel displaced. They feel like resident aliens. They feel like a people who have to live counterculturally” (location 56).

One of the key fears of Christian parents – according to Daniels – is that they will lose their children to the surrounding culture. To pre-empt this outcome, he emphasizes that we must formulate a story and the practices to sustain that story (location 111).

Daniels cites the 19th century German philosopher Nietzsche who famously concluded that “God is dead.” If this is true, then meaning must be made by each individual. But is this enough? Daniels thinks not:

Without God there is no more certainty or hope about the future. When the only meaning life has is the meaning an individual creates, it ceases to have any real or lasting significance. When the story that gave people meaning and purpose – the story of God – is gone, all that remains is a kind of hopeless despair (location 605).

In subsequent sections, Daniels outlines what alternative stories people live by. These include the “success” story, the “nation” story, the “humanist” story, or a fragmented story that weaves together elements of each (See Chapter 3, “This is My Story.”) Daniels summarizes well the non-God stories that thrive.

embracing exile

Overall, Daniels has written a helpful book that resonates with our cultural moment. Each chapter includes engaging discussion questions that let readers expand on the ideas presented. But where Embracing Exile comes up short is its failure to examine what version of the God story large segments of the American church have been communicating in recent decades. Is it possible that the messages we’ve been communicating have been more reactionary than Spirit-led? As the broader culture changes rapidly, has our response come from a place of fear rather than a heart of love?

In the church where I grew up in the 1970s, we often sang the hymn “I love to tell the story.” The lyrics by Ian Eskelin have stayed with me:

I love to tell the story,

‘Twill be my theme in glory.

To tell the old, old story

Of Jesus and his love.

Love is at the center of the Gospel message (Romans 5:8, John 3:16), but is love what we’re still all about?

A store in a mall became concerned about the number of teenagers who were loitering. Some suggested they were shoplifting or keeping older shoppers from entering. The manager did some research and learned that the highest frequencies can only be heard by those younger than 18.  So he installed a machine that would broadcast painful high frequencies near the store entrance. When younger teens came close, their ears hurt, so they hurried away. On the other hand, those 18 or older kept coming in. Their ears weren’t hurt; they couldn’t hear the painful high tones.

At the center of the Good News is love, but is love what we’re now broadcasting? Is it possible that what used to be a story of love with an attractive melody has mutated into a discordant and shrill refrain? Has what we believe to be Good News instead become Bad News in their ears, driving them away?

It’s possible that many youth turn to other meaning-making stories – what Daniels calls “metanarratives” (location 501) – not because they have rejected the historic, winsome Jesus story of loving God and loving others (Mark 12:30-31) but because that’s not what we’re broadcasting anymore.

Here are three areas where our story – rather than attracting youth – may have repulsed them:

  1. Caring for the Earth – A strong stewardship ethic is apparent in Genesis and the Psalms, yet how often have we heard Christians mocking “tree huggers” or ridiculing those who advocate for phasing out the energy sources driving climate change? How might Lisa, an 11-year-old girl forced to flee with her family from a forest fire engulfing their Colorado home, respond if she overheard such comments?
  2. Gun violence –  Tonya, a 13-year-old girl near Pittsburgh, practices an active shooter drill with her classmates at middle school. After school, she steps off the bus and spots her churchgoing neighbor’s political yard sign touting “God, guns, and country.” If you were Tonya, what reaction might this produce?
  3. Two moms – In Chicago, Antonio, a 15-year-old boy long passed-over in the foster system, is finally adopted by a lesbian couple. At home one night, taking a break from his homework, he picks up his phone and begins scrolling through social media. He clicks on a viral YouTube video of a preacher who insists that “homosexuals are going to hell.” How would you feel if you were Antonio?

Note: Each of these scenarios ends with a question mark because I’m raising questions, not drawing definitive conclusions. Here’s another question: Rather than “Blessing Babylon” – as Daniels titles Chapter 5 – have we (with every good intention) unwittingly been “Cursing Babylon”?

The “exile” metaphor (while certainly present in Scripture) presupposes that a hostile culture has in some way marginalized a faithful church. (The Babylonians forcibly marched the Jewish mobility into exile, after all). This metaphor seems to imply that the church is the “good guys” and everyone else the “bad guys.” Yet as Wesleyans, we believe that God’s prevenient grace is active in every corner of God’s creation (John 1:9; Romans 2:14-15).

An emphasis upon “exile”- while well-intended for all the reasons Daniels outlines – may foster a back-door self-righteousness, a “batten down the hatches” approach that sequesters itself at just the moment when a world drowning in hate needs the engagement of a church turbo-charged by love. We are a missional people. Does talk of “exile” fuel that mission or impede it?

This short essay passes over other themes that Scott Daniels covers, themes that deserve their own consideration. Daniels, to his credit, gently invites us to think together about how we engage the world in faithful ways, without being “squeezed into the world’s mold” (Romans 12:2, Philips). We should thank Pastor Daniels for a well-written and thought-provoking book.

Posted in sermons & addresses

Reboot! (A sermon on Colossians 3:1-11)

View sermon online (beginning at 40:40) –  https://www.facebook.com/149735601721319/videos/295600038414974

My younger brother, Chad, worked in tech support. Sometimes I’ll call him when my computer gets cranky. If my computer were a car, then he’s like the mechanic or technician who knows his way around under the hood and gets his hands greasy. But Chad would admit that often the best solution to a computer problem is simple: Reboot!

A one-word summary to Paul’s message in Colossians 3:1-11 is exactly that: Reboot. Paul details the glitches, the things that are going wrong, then he offers the fix, the divine reboot that makes all the difference.

First, let’s set the stage.

At the end of Colossians 2, beginning in v. 13, Paul had already written of the futility of a rules-based religion. Bodily discipline and pious self-denial only treat the symptoms and not the disease. He concludes in v. 23 – “They provide no help  in conquering a person’s evil desires.”

Now in chapter 3, Paul – who himself had been the most zealous of rule keepers as a Pharisee – shows us a different way, a life focused not on the keeping of rules but on the new life that only Christ can give. And so he begins in v. 1 –

“Since you have been raised to new life in Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand.”

Note the passive voice. He doesn’t say “since you have raised yourself to a new life in Christ.” Rather, “since you have been raised…” Only God can do the job! Christianity is not a self-improvement program. We are forgiven and transformed not by what we do, but by what God in Christ has done and is doing in our lives. The word for this is grace.

Because of God’s grace, his power at work in Christ and therefore working inside of us, we are able to do what Paul says next: “Set your sights on the realities of heaven.”

Steven Covey wrote Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the habits is this: “Work with the end in mind.”

Set your sights – Paul says – on the realities of heaven, our end, our goal, our objective.

My work as a hospital chaplain has brought into sharp relief what Paul is talking about. In pre-COVID times, I’ve stood with families by bedsides when they said their goodbyes to a beloved and godly grandmother about to meet Jesus. I sat with two twenty-something sons as they accompanied their dad to death’s door, tearfully telling him all that he had meant to them. He was a churchgoing and loving father who obviously had raised his sons well. The comfort that faith brings in those moments has no price-tag.

Work with the end in mind. Set your sights on the realities of heaven. In verse 3, he reminds us that our “life is hidden with Christ in God,” then in verse 4 affirms that when Christ returns, we also will share in his glory. What a promise!

So the stage is set. Paul turns our eyes toward the risen, exalted Christ who is seated in power at God’s right hand. He encourages us to focus on the prize before us. Continue reading “Reboot! (A sermon on Colossians 3:1-11)”

Posted in Christlike justice, missions & evangelism, reflections

Holiness in the age of George Floyd

Black Lives Matter protesters in New York City, 7/13/2020 

How do holiness and promoting justice in society relate? In a Facebook post on July 25, 2020, longtime Nazarene Pastor Michael Hull observed:


My heart is breaking with concern as I watch many of my beloved denominational leaders rushing to ‘take a knee’ before the cultural idol of ‘social justice’ rather than leading us to the true answer for the hour: a clarion call to Christian holiness.

His alternative solution? “The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the promise of Christian holiness IS the answer! It’s revival we need.”

There’s much to consider in what Pastor Hull has written, and I hope you’ll read the entire statement on his FaceBook page, as linked above. There’s no question that sin in the human heart is a sickness that needs the cure that only Jesus can provide. By “revival,” Hull and those of us in the holiness tradition recognize that God wants to change our hearts. We individually need forgiveness of sins and the heart cleansing that the blood of Jesus provides (1 John 1:7-9). For this end we constantly pray.

But as a 3rd generation Nazarene who grew up in a revivalistic tradition, I wonder whether this individualistic lens is sufficient in our current cultural moment. “Just get people saved and sanctified and everything will be fine” is the sentiment I hear periodically. Usually it is voiced at a moment of societal reckoning like we’re witnessing following the brutal killing of George Floyd, a Black man arrested and murdered at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25.

I’ve been processing in my heart and mind what we all saw in that video. In this essay, I want to talk about it on two levels, namely, emotionally and theologically.

First, what can we say emotionally?

I’ve tried over the last 60 days to hear the voices of Black, Brown, and Asian Americans as they open up about their daily experience of living in the United States. (In this pandemic, that has mostly been through watching short testimonial videos and reading stories online). What I’ve heard is a heart’s cry from people who in a hundred ways, large and small, sense that they have been disrespected, wronged, and marginalized because of their skin color. Hull criticizes some of our Nazarene denominational leaders for “taking a knee before the cultural idol of social justice.” I respectfully disagree. What I see our denominational leaders doing is what hundreds of thousands across our land have been doing. We’ve stopped, we’ve sat down, and we’ve attempted to listen to the hurt. (If you haven’t watched the movie, “Just Mercy,” I highly recommend it as a good discussion starter). Out of those conversations have come stories of individuals of color who have been hurt by society in general and (sometimes) by churches. Only when we acknowledge that and ask for forgiveness can we experience God’s healing together.

Some years ago, General Superintendent Jerry Porter and other denominational leaders met with a group of Black Nazarene pastors. At the end, he knelt in front of one of the lead pastors and on behalf of the Church of the Nazarene asked for their forgiveness for our silence and (sometimes) complicity around racism. That moment seared itself into my memory, as I read about it in Holiness Today. I remember thinking that this is the essence of entire sanctification, of God’s Holy Spirit moving the church as a whole to a place of repentance. These kinds of gestures can be the first rain drops of a mighty divine downpour among us! And as we see similar gestures unfolding in our society – powerful signs of God’s prevenient grace at work – can we dare believe that the God who has entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21) is up to something new?

In the spirit of Dr. Porter’s historic gesture, I’ve been gratified to see reports on social media of pastors who – following George Floyd’s death – have headed into the streets to stand in solidarity with those raising their voices in support of Black lives. On Facebook, Adam Lipscomb, pastor of the City Life Church (a Wesleyan church in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan) wrote of his involvement in one such protest on May 30, 2020:

I was at the protest downtown in Grand Rapids tonight. I was asked to pray by the organizers of a nonviolent protest that was to include a silent march. There were other groups that were not part of that protest that were filling the space before the non-violent protesters arrived. It’s easy to watch the news tonight and think that only one group was involved. There were multiple groups, some of which were Christian, nonviolent, and very disciplined. Other groups were from some sort of militia, and there were identifiable provocateurs.

I spent much of the night as part of the safety team standing between the protesters and police. I did end up taking an opportunity to pray publicly. It was a particularly dicey moment, and I shouted out my prayer over the crowd. I’m home now and will continue to pray for peace with justice.
#BlackLivesMatter

It shouldn’t surprise us that the devil will try to sow weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). Jesus warned us as much. But it strikes me that what Pastor Lipscomb did and what many clergy and laity from a broad spectrum of denominations are doing is God’s good work and puts feet to our holiness.

Secondly, what can we say theologically?

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police calls us not only to process emotionally but also theologically. On this score, there is much to say.

1 Thess. 5:23-24 is a favorite passage for those of us who are persuaded that entire sanctification is a second definite work of grace after the New Birth. Yet as many sermons as I’ve heard preached on that passage, I’ve yet to hear a preacher underscore that Paul’s admonition is not to an individual, but to a church. When Paul writes “May the God of peace sanctify you through and through,” we could translate it as “May the God of peace sanctify y’all through and through.” Yes, God sanctifies individuals, but God does so in the context of our relational networks. In Africa, the meaning of Ubuntu is summarized as “I am because we are.” We cannot conceive of individual holiness apart from our connections with other human beings, so we could just as well say social sanctification as sanctification. It’s all of one piece.

Chanshi Chanda 

Hull criticizes the term “social justice” as an “idol.” He says “the moment that ‘social’ is added to justice, it isn’t.” He doesn’t explain what he means by that statement. In fact, justice often plays itself out in the social setting as is evidenced by the Old Testament prophets’ calling out the injustices of their day. Sometimes, young idealists are mocked as being SJW’s – Social Justice Warriors. If they dropped the word “social” and just became JWs (Justice Warriors), would that satisfy their critics? Maybe we should just adopt the language of Zambian Nazarene Chanshi Chanda, who speaks of “Christlike Justice.” (See his excellent primer, Christlike Justice and the Holiness Tradition, where he maintains that our theological tradition is the natural soil for justice concerns to grow). Perhaps we should speak of Christlike Justice Warriors – CJWs? But I have the sneaking suspicion that whatever label we might use – SJW, JW, or CJW – someone would criticize. It’s time to ask ourselves:

What is it about the demand for justice that makes us profoundly uncomfortable?

How might our view change if we saw our pursuit of justice not as a distraction from holiness but as one important way that the church models Christian holiness for the world to see?

Finally, we need to revisit our concept of sin. Sin is not just individual; sin can be systemic. This is what the prophet Amos had in mind when he admonished Israel:

Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph (Amos 5:15, NIV).

God’s favor upon His people was dependent (according to Amos) on how just the court system was. For that system to be corrupt (i.e. sinful) brought God’s judgment upon the people. In verse 14, seeking good and not evil had an objective. It was “that you may live.” God cared about whether the systems in place were righteous or evil. Society flourishes when justice dominates.

Dr. John Nielson of Eastern Nazarene College, at a BLM Prayer Rally, Quincy, MA – 6/14/2020 

This is but a taste of the Scripture’s concern for justice. As Nazarenes who are part of the holiness tradition, we must consider whether revival comes first and then racial reconciliation follows, or whether we have the order backwards. As the church, should we not come alongside anyone animated by God’s prevenient grace (Christian or not) to work for racial reconciliation as a necessary prerequisite and foretaste of revival? Is this not the model from Zaccheus? First, he acknowledged his wrongdoing then explained how he would be reconciled with those offended, by making restitution (Luke 19:8). Only then did Jesus say: “Today, salvation has come to this house…” (Luke 19:9a, NASB). Reconciliation preceded revival.

Thank you, Pastor Michael Hull, for your thoughts. You are my brother in Christ. I’ve been struggling to understand what holiness looks like in the age of George Floyd and I sense that you are, too. Let us continue to feel, to think, and to act as the Lord leads us in the holy way of Gospel reconciliation.

_______________________________________

Image credit (Black Lives Matter marchers)

Wikimedia Commons: Eden, Janine and Jim from New York City / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Posted in From soup to nuts, reflections

Wearing masks and loving neighbors

It’s July 4 and I’m inside.

What a strange place to be during our nation’s birthday celebration. But this year in Texas, we had a guest show up uninvited. His name? Mr. COVID-19 and he doesn’t mix well with others.

Our Governor just ordered Texans to wear masks when going out in public. (To show he wasn’t joking, he pushed the announcement to our cell phones, like an AMBER alert for missing children). In Houston, San Antonio, as well as in Austin (where I live), a recent surge in COVID hospitalizations means that intensive care units are at near capacity.

It’s difficult to say to what extent people are complying with the Governor’s order. My observations are only anecdotal. A quick trip for groceries to our North Austin Walmart yesterday would indicate that people are taking this pandemic seriously. I watched as parents in the parking lot put on their own mask then helped their young children adjust theirs. Waiting in the line outside the door, we stood 6 feet apart and shuffled slowly toward the entrance. We were Black, White, Latinx, and Asian, a multi-cultural crowd, and I heard no one griping as we waited for admission.

Good citizenship aside, you don’t need to look far in the Bible to find a reason for Christians to wear a mask. The Second Great Commandment from our Lord is relevant: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:39, NIV). And since any of us can be a spreader of corona virus, even if we show no symptoms, our mask becomes a visible symbol of our consideration for others’ welfare. If Jesus were here, he’d have his mask on.

In practice, our Christian duty is sometimes elbowed aside by other considerations. There’s a libertarian streak in us Americans. We place a premium on self-expression and individualism. Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” become a hit for a reason. Still, there are times when both our individual and collective interests are served by adhering to what experts advise. This is one of those times.

So here’s to a happy July 4th, from behind the mask. Let’s pray that this time next year, such measures will be unnecessary and we can get back to the group activities that make this day special.