A more excellent way: An open letter to my fellow clergy

clerical collar.jpgI opened my e-mail today and found a message from my state Board of Elections. In less than 2 months, Americans will go to the polls and cast their vote for many elected offices. These range from local Sheriffs, city council members, state representatives, governors, judges, the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.

Politics has always fascinated me, since the day in 1974 that the honorable Rep. Barber Conable came to my 6th grade class in Spencerport, NY. Later, his opponent visited as well. At the end, we had an unofficial in-class vote, and Rep. Conable was handily re-elected. To this day, I’m not sure how my social studies teacher managed to get such a high-powered duo to come visit, but it left a deep impression on me:

I learned that voting was something every good citizen should do.

But as much as I appreciate the importance of taking part in the democratic process, with time, its many flaws have left me hungry for a better way. Maybe it’s because Jesus taught his followers to pray:

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

With each attack ad, with each half-truth or outright lie uttered by candidates, all in a bid to gain or keep power, I become more anxious for the day when King Jesus will return and take his throne (Rev. 19:4). He is the one who is “true and just” (Rev. 19:2). We can count on him to lead us with integrity and love.

But meanwhile we live here on this earth. How shall we as members of the clergy carry ourselves in the run-up to elections? Here are two suggestions:

  1. Maintain political neutrality. There’s an increasing tendency among my fellow members of the clergy to speak out for candidates of one party or another. In so doing, the danger is that we will be seen as operatives of the GOP or the Democratic Party instead of (like Paul), an ambassador of the Gospel (Ephesians 6:20). This unwise taking sides shows up in various ways. It may be allowing for the distribution in church of a “voters’ guide” which is really no more than a thinly-veiled means of pushing one party’s candidates. Or perhaps we used to pray regularly during worship for the nation’s highest official. But now? We never pray for the new leader. People notice the subtle signals that we as their spiritual leaders send.
  2. Use social media wisely. Today, the “pulpit” is no longer limited to the piece of furniture that sits at the front of the sanctuary. Choosing to bash politicians online lowers us to the level of partisan hacks. Instead of using our social media megaphone to encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thess. 5:11), we loudly condemn the latest comments from high elected officials. The danger is that by routinely criticizing every remark, we become nothing more than background noise, easily tuned out. When the key moment comes when I as a messenger of the Lord must speak a prophetic word, I no longer have the ear of my listeners because I’ve foolishly forfeited it long ago. If a sermon is carefully prepared and prayed over, why should it be any less for a Facebook status or a Tweet? Whether during an election season or other times, ask yourself:

Will this comment attract people to Christ or drive them away?

Jesus opens his arms and invites us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NIV). His invitation is non-partisan. It is extended to one-and-all, regardless of political persuasion. As preachers, when we maintain political neutrality and use social media wisely, we commend all comers to the only One who can unite us, our Christ who breaks down walls (Ephesians 2:14). In troubled times, is that not a more excellent way?

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Image credit: Test Everything Blog 

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Hezekiah’s prayer (2 Kings 19:14-19)

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Note to the reader

I preached this sermon on Sunday morning September 9, 2018 at the University Church of the Nazarene on the campus of Africa Nazarene Univerity (Ongata-Rongai, Kenya). It was part of the “prayer” theme announced for the month of September.

Hezekiah has always amazed me. He is that rare king in Israel’s history who pleased the LORD and walked with integrity. May we be like Hezekiah.

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“Hezekiah’s Prayer” (2 Kings 19:14-19, NIV)

“Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD. And Hezekiah prayed to the LORD: ‘LORD, the God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, LORD, and hear: open your eyes, LORD, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to ridicule the living God.

It is true, LORD, that the Assyrians have laid waste these nations and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands. Now, LORD our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone, LORD, are God.”

INTRODUCTION

His name was Dominick. He was big; I was small. He was tough; I wasn’t so tough. He stood in my way on the road, grabbed the handlebars of my bike, and sneered:

Where do you think you’re going, punk?

My little boy’s heart beat fast with fear. What do you say to someone so scary, someone much taller and stronger than you? Then I had an inspiration. “Dominick, you may be bigger than I am, but my brother is bigger than you are!” Reluctantly, he let me go.

There have alway been bullies like Dominick in our world. They strut on the world stage and throw their weight around. King Sennacherib of Assyria was one of them. He stood in the way of little nations and threatened to beat them up. 1 Kings 19:12 lists some of the nations that had crumbled before the Assyrian armies – Gozan, Harran, Rezeph, Hamath, Arpad, Lair, Sepharvaim, Hennah, and Ivvah. Like a row of dominos, one-by-one, they capitulated.

THE THREAT TO JUDAH

King Hezekiah took the threat very seriously. 2 Chronicles 32:1-5 gives a parallel account. They heard the news that the Assyrian army was coming from Lachish, so they took action. The King ordered that the water outside the city be cut off. If Sennacherib’s thirsty army was determined to lay siege to Jerusalem, then why give them something to drink when they arrived? Next, he ordered the city’s walls to be reinforced, and he added watch towers to be constructed on the walls. Finally, they made large numbers of weapons and shields.

Brothers and sisters, hear me: When faced with the enemy’s threats, don’t remain idle. You may not be able to do everything, but you can do something. 

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

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Profits, but at what price?

 

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Armies commonly use missiles and guides bombs as supposedly precision instruments, but targeting can go badly wrong.

CNN reports that the guided bomb that killed 40 schoolboys on a school bus in Yemen on August 9 was manufactured by Lockheed Martin, a U.S. Defense contractor. In the same article, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis noted that the targeting was done by Saudi Arabia, not by the U.S. Apparently, that excuses us as Americans from any responsbility in this tragedy…or does it? This appears to be nothing more than a “guns don’t kill people, people do” NRA-type argument, just applied this time to another nation.

 

I’m not a big fan of firearms, but last summer, I tried out several borrowed guns at a firing range. When I later priced a.380 Smith and Wesson, I was suprised to see that it cost nearly $ 400.00 USD. (That’s more than twice the annual income for a family in Malawi). The gun itself is of a durable plastic but the mechanisms aren’t particularly complex. I can’t imagine that it would cost Smith & Wesson anywhere close to that to manufacture, so there’s likely a big profit with every sale.

Walter Rauschenbush observed: “When fed with money, sin grows wings and claws.” If there’s hefty profit in a single handgun, imagine the profit in a guided bomb like the one that annihiliated the hapless schoolboys in Yemen.

At the end of my work day, I want to know that my labor helped make the world a better place, even if in the smallest of ways. Everyone has to live with their own conscience, but if I were an employee of Lockheed Martin and woke up to gruesome images like those from Yemen, I’d find another job.


 

Image credit: By Thomas Quine (Missiles) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Dan Boone on human sexuality

booneWe live in a sex-saturated world. Unfortunately, many Christian communities are late in addressing sex from a comprehensive and theological perspective.

In his e-book, Human Sexuality II: A Primer for Christians (2017), Dan Boone – long-time pastor and President of Trevecca Nazarene University – attempts to frame the issue from a compassionate yet traditional perspective. Central to his vision is keeping first things first, meaning that sexuality is not primary. Instead, that honor belongs to Christlikeness:

The ultimate act of being restored in the image of God (sanctification) is not getting married but being transformed into the likeness of Christ. Every human being is made capable of receiving this grace, regardless of their sexual identity or gender (Kindle location 134).

He likens the current libertine cultural juggernaut on all things sexual to the Borg, a sinister and domineering collective introduced in the popular American television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Traditional sexual norms are under attack. Like the Borg who assimilated all in their path, it may seem that “resistance is futile.” To resist what he calls a “downward pull of epic proportions” (location 328), Christians must be equipped with a holistic view of God’s good purpose for sex. Our response to the re-writing of cultural sexual norms must not be loveless and legalistic (what he calls “hard-hard”) nor mushy and negligent of biblical norms (“soft-soft”). Rather, the church (like Jesus) must be compassionate and loving yet hold to unchanging principles instituted by God for our good, or what he calls a “soft-hard” pastoral approach (location 482).

Boone responds to the assumption that “sex is just sex, nothing more” with a strong rebuttal based on God’s design of male and female becoming one flesh (Genesis 2:24):

It is an encounter between two people in which each does something to the other, something that cannot be erased. You become an ongoing part of the person. Something occurs that cannot be taken back. Sex leaves an indeliable imprint on the soul of another person (location 604).

Tragically, promiscuity promotes incessant bonding and breaking and leaves the individuals who participate in it empty. As such, it is deeply corrosive to human beings.

Dan Boone devotes considerable space to issues surrounding homosexuality — see chapters 4, 8 and 9. He calls into question the cultural consensus that sexual orientation is innate and immutable, noting that “more adolescents leave a homosexual attraction than embrace it during the teen years” (location 747). Unfortunately, he cites no authority to back up this claim, weakening his case.

Chapter 10 lays out a positive case for celibacy in singleness, which New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III has called the only other biblical option besides heterosexual marriage. Unlike Witherington, who bases his comments on Matthew 19:1-12, Boone surprisingly does not enter into any in-depth biblical examination of the topic. Still, the chapter adds value by contrasting what he calls “the gay script” and the “identity in Christ script” (location 1823). Underlying his comments regarding the necessity of lifelong celibacy for the Christian who is same-sex attracted is the belief that all same-sex intimate behavior is sin. (See Chapter 8 for a review of the handful of Bible passages that prohibit homosexual behavior and his agreement with traditional interpretations of the same).

Some questions remain unanswered. If sex between “two people” (as Boone terms it) involves “bonding” and hook-up culture promotes the constant breaking of those bonds, causing damage to both parties, would this not apply to both heterosexual and homosexual relationships? On this basis, one might conclude that same-sex marriage is a social good in that it pre-empts such damage by discouraging promiscuity and promoting monogamous love. This position is advanced (for example) by Justin Lee at the close of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christian Debate (Jericho/Hachette, 2013).  Boone’s treatment would be strengthened if he had answered Lee and other Christians who consider the covenant of same-sex marriage a healthy alternative to the toxicity of same-sex promiscuity. (See Chapter 9 where he does briefly address same-sex marriage, but concludes based on Scripture that it is “not the same thing” as heterosexual marriage” – location 1343).

All-in-all, Dan Boone does a respectable job of exploring numerous questions surrounding human sexuality. He is correct when suggesting that the discussion should begin with a church-based curriculum for children, laying foundations for the teaching of sexuality from a Christian perspective. His book is a primer and therefore necessarily short. However, this reader would have appreciated a more in-depth dialogue with opposing viewpoints, as mentioned above. Despite this shortcoming, churches will find in Boone’s book a good starting point for a long overdue conversation.

From death to life (Ephesians 2:1-10)

Cherimoya_sprouts_emergingThis is the sermon that I preached on Sunday morning, July 1, at the Upstate, New York District campgrounds in Brooktondale, New York, near Ithaca.The occasion was the first Sunday of the Family Camp. It’s a place 300 Nazarenes and friends gather annually, a quiet corner tucked away in the Catskills where cell phone signals are weak but God’s moving is strong. We all need Brooktondales in our lives, locations to get away from the daily noise and tune-in to His voice.


 

I. INTRODUCTION

“Dead” – It’s a word nobody likes.

If I were a teacher of writing, I would have advised Paul against starting the second movement of his letter to the Ephesians in such a morbid way. Yet, there it is in Ephesians 2:1 –

And you were dead…

II.  DESCRIPTION OF SPIRITUAL DEATH

What is Paul doing? In Ephesians 2:1-3, he holds up a mirror to the face of every individual who lives as if God is not. It’s not a pretty picture.

“You were dead.” How so? First, you and I walked in “trespasses and sins” (v.2). This is no exception to the rule; it is the rule. Note the word “walking.” These are patterns, habits; it’s a way of life without God.

According to recent surveys, 39% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29, when asked about their religious affiliation, give themselves the label of “none.” With that figure comes consequences. The word “sin” is becoming an antiquated word in our language, and yet it is a necessary word, a word closely akin to “evil.” This week, a man walked into a newspaper office in Baltimore, Maryland and systematically targeted five employees, executing them on the spot. If we cannot talk about evil, if we cannot talk about sin, then what vocabularly shall we use to describe such heinous actions?

Sin takes many forms, but at its root, it is disobedience to the laws of God. It is doing what God forbids us to do or neglecting to do what God commands. Sin always operates both vertically and horizontally. It is rebellion against God but also a trespass in some way against others.

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Paul continues. Spiritual death is the outcome of death-inducing habits. Verse 3 mentions the passions of our “flesh.” Passion can be like nuclear power. If contained, it can be positive, but as soon as the reaction escapes the boundary of the reactor, there’s negative fallout. Passion brings husband and wife together, and often, children are the good result. But when passion is misdirected outside the bounds of marriage prescribed by God – whether through adultery or even the viewing of pornography – damage occurs. What should bring life instead produces death.

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Working on book # 5

My wife sometimes reminds me:

You can’t edit a blank page.

As is often the case, she’s absolutely right.

Such maxims have encouraged me in the past and helped me move from “some day” to “now.” My doctoral thesis on prevenient grace was published in 2010. Next came a short book about hell, appearing in 2013. In 2014, I published a daily devotional book in French, then followed that up in 2016 with a book on the church’s mission. In case you’ve noticed, that puts me (more-or-less) on an every three years schedule for the writing of a new book. So, since 2018 is already half gone, here’s to kicking off the 2019 project:

Excellent Generosity: Ten Principles for Giving Living

The book is based on a Clergy Development seminar that I’ve given three times in Africa (Zimbabwe, Angola, and Kenya). All three times, it was very well-received. So, my intention is to expand each of the principles into one chapter of the book, with (of course) an introduction and conclusion to-boot. I hope to end up with something in the range of 100-110 pages, which is about what people seem willing to read these days.

As in the past, this blog will serve as the platform. Writing a chapter seems daunting; writing a blog post, less so. Here goes!

 

 

 

Solving the riddle of the 10-40 window

Lifeflight_Trust_Westpac_Rescue_Helicopter_-_Flickr_-_111_Emergency_(1)Warning: This post contains a graphic image that readers may find disturbing.

A father and his young son were driving down the highway. Suddenly, they suffered a terrible crash. The father was instantly killed, but his son survived. Severely injured, they helicoptered the boy to a nearby trauma center. As the medics rushed him into surgery to save his life, the trauma surgeon arrived, took one look at the victim, and concluded:

I can’t operate on him. He’s my son.

How can this be?

Maybe you’ve already figured out the solution to this riddle. (Pause reading if you need more time to think). The answer?

The surgeon was the boy’s mother.

Many people struggle to solve the riddle, even though female doctors have been commonplace for decades. The story illustrates that long ingrained patterns of thinking or assumptions about reality are not easily set-aside.

I’m an American missionary who has served for 22 years, mostly in Africa. I grew up in a Christian denomination that believes in missions, but until recently, “missions” always meant North America (or sometimes, the United Kingdom) sending missionaries “over there” to “the mission field,” i.e. Asia, Africa, South America, or remote islands. That missonaries were Westerners was an assumption, an ingrained way of thinking that we rarely openly acknowledged. But just like solving the riddle about the surgeon and the injured boy requires a new way of thinking, so solving riddles related to missions may require a new way of viewing the world and the role God wants us to play.

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Take the so-called “10-40 window.” In the 1990s, missiologist Luis Bush dubbed the belt with the world’s most unreached people groups the “10-40 window.” It runs between 10 degrees and 40 degrees north latitude and contains countries in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia that remain resistant and the most unreached with the Gospel.  Among these countries, Islam, Buddhism, and Hindu are the dominant religions.

The Joshua Project provides a rationale for this emphasis:

The focus of the Christian missions community 200 years ago was for the coastlands of the world. A century later, the success of the coastlands effort motivated a new generation to reach the interior regions of the continents. Within the past several decades, the success of the inland thrust has led to a major focus on people groups. Today, followers of Christ are concentrating their efforts on the unreached peoples of the world, most of which are in the 10/40 Window.

Missiologist Howard Culbertson promotes the 10-40 window idea as a way to encourage prayer for “a dying world” and “unreached people groups.”  Besides prayer, his website encourages readers to donate to missions efforts, to join groups that promote missions and to enlist others to catch a global vision.

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