On nails and hammers

The Japanese proverb reminds us: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

It’s an interesting statement for those who belong to the community of Christian faith. We understand the necessity of sometimes being the nail that sticks out. Scripture warns us of the danger of conforming to the pattern of the world (Romans 12:1-2, 1 John 2:15). Jesus encourages us to follow a narrow road that leads to life and to avoid the broad road that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:14-15). And make no mistake: There’s a price to pay if you’re the nail that sticks out. Protruding nails attract hammers, pressure to “go along to get along.” Moral compromise pounds on the door and threatens to kick it down.

This is nothing new for believers. When a bright light shines in a room, people may let their eyes adjust; more often, they douse the light. Most of us realize – in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – that there is a cost to discipleship.

That being said, sometimes I think that Christians needlessly invite the hammer, almost as if we’re looking for a fight. It’s an annual ritual in the U.S. in December to lament the so-called “war on Christmas.” Does this invite mockery? People see Christians who in other lands are martyred for Christ. They see what genuine persecution is and can detect false equivalence a mile away.

But let’s talk about what sometimes happens within the community of faith. With reference to “the world,” our sermon has only one point: “Don’t conform.” Yet I wonder: How do we treat brothers and sisters in Christ who won’t be squeezed into our Christian cultural mold? Do we suddenly ourselves become the hammer, pounding down nails who stick out?

Make no mistake: We have a common goal which is to be like Jesus. Still, conforming to the pattern of Christ – while producing holiness – hardly results in uniformity. Some believers drink coffee, others tea, still others abstain from caffeine. There are Republican saints and Democratic saints, all who love God and neighbor (Mark 12:29-31). Certain Jesus followers sport long hair, tattoes, and a Harley. Others wear short-cropped hair, play golf, and drive a Prius. There are meat-loving Christians and vegan Christians. Some teach in public schools and advocate for public education; others prefer to teach their children at home. We’re a motley crew. What beauty there is in diversity!

Paul recognized the value of diversity in the Body of Christ when he celebrated the various gifts that God the Holy Spirit has lavished upon us.  He asks:

If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts of the body just like he wanted…You are the body of Christ and parts of each other (1 Cor. 12:17-18, 27, CEB).

Natalie Goldberg tells of eating at a restaurant. Unsatisified with her waiter, she complained about him to another waiter. He replied: “I know he’s odd, but if they dance to a different drummer, I say, ‘Just let them dance’ ” (Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within [Shambala, 2005, 21]). How much contention in the church would we avoid if we took the attitude of that waiter?

“Lord, help those today who are suffering for the sake of the Gospel. Shield the blow when the hammer comes down upon them. And forgive me, God, when I have been a hammer, clobbering a brother or sister in Christ who is guilty of nothing more than following you as the person you made them and gifted them to be. AMEN.”


Image credit

Frabel at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

If denominations took a StrengthFinder™ test

dscn6415Gallup’s StrengthFinder™ is all the rage. Take a 30 minute test online and you’ll discover your “Top 5,” the key elements of who you are and how you see the world. This constructive tool has helped me understand how God has wired me and what value I can add to the organizations where I work. It focuses on what is right with an individual and not what is wrong, designating 34 “strength themes” and describing them in detail.

Disclaimer: Though I’ve taken the test, have been in 2 workshops explaining the strengths approach, and have been coached on my Top 5  strengths, I am not a certified coach.

But I wonder:

What would the top strengths be if the StrengthFinder™ test were applied not to individuals but to Christian denominations?

I’m a lifelong Nazarene (in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition), so I have a better basis of speculating what my own denomination’s strengths might be. But because my readers come from a variety of Christian backgrounds, I’ll attempt an assessment of a handful of other Christian traditions based on what I’ve studied and observed about them supplemented by conversations over the years with individuals within those traditions. Feel free to correct me where you think I’ve gotten it wrong.

Take a minute and read about all 34 strength themes, then come back to this essay.

For brevity’s sake, let’s identify the top 3 from five major traditions.

(Note: Though I currently live in East Africa, my observations are most applicable in the North American setting which – as an American – is the context with which I am most familiar).

1) Roman Catholicism

a. command – For Roman Catholics, the Pope is the undisputed spiritual leader. Though advised by the Magesterium (collection of Cardinals), he can speak ex cathedra (from the Chair), making pronouncements that are binding upon the faithful. It makes for a unified and authoritative voice on matters of social ethics.

b. ideation – Across time, Roman Catholicism has been theologically creative. The doctrine of purgatory was innovative in its time, and the veneration of Mary and the saints has provided a conversation starter between Roman Catholic missionaries and those for whom ancestors are a large part of their religious worldview.

c. empathy – Hospitals and schools often sprout up wherever the Catholic message is preached. There’s a “can do” attitude apparent in various RC orders, from Jesuit priests (and their education emphasis) to the compassion of nuns as exemplified (for example) in Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

2) Episcopalians/Methodists

a. inclusiveness/includer – The Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. (ECUSA) prides itself on creating space for people that society has marginalized. Unlike many denominations, the ECUSA is happy to ordain women, as is the United Methodist Church.

b. harmony – Peace and reconciliation are important themes for both Episcopalians and United Methodists. For example, the UMC held a peace seminar in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in August 2015. Likewise, in 2013, the ECUSA participated in a World Council of Churches (WCC) conference in Busan, South Korea that emphasized the theme of justice, peace, and reconciliation.

c. positivity – Christians within this tradition often have a post-millenial view, believing that the church’s role is to help build the Kingdom of God while we await the return of Jesus Christ. There’s a strong belief that we can make the world a better place now, that the Gospel has marked social elements to it that are not incidental to the Christian message but are at its very core.

Continue reading “If denominations took a StrengthFinder™ test”

Wipf & Stock publishes latest Crofford book

mere-ecclesiology-coverJ. Gregory Crofford, Mere Ecclesiology: Finding Your Place in the Church’s Mission (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2016)

Available in paperback for $ 13.60 USD at Wipf & Stock by clicking here, or at Amazon.com for $ 17.00 USD by clicking here. An Amazon Kindle e-book edition will be available in early 2017.

Book synopsis

Too many churches limp along with no clear sense of mission. In Mere Ecclesiology: Finding Your Place in the Church’s Mission, Dr. Crofford clarifies the purpose of God’s people through the metaphor of spiritual respiration. “Breathing in” (worship and discipleship) leads to “breathing out” (transformative service in the world). Newcomers and seasoned believers alike will be challenged to discover their calling as the Holy Spirit sends the church out on a challenging mission to heal families, communities, and creation itself.

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Dr. Gregory (“Greg”) Crofford, Ph.D. (University of Manchester), is a Senior Lecturer and the Ph.D. (Religion) Program Coordinator in the Religion Department at Africa Nazarene University (Nairobi, Kenya).

An interview with the author

What led you to write this book?

Christianity is fragmented. I wondered: What are the characteristics that all churches within the Christian tradition share? Mere Ecclesiology is an attempt to identify what unites us and to celebrate it.

You talk about “spiritual respiration.” What do you mean by this rather odd term?

Just like the human body must breathe in order to survive, so must Christ’s body, the church. It’s a word picture. “Breathing in” represents discipleship, coming to Christ and growing in our faith, both individually and corporately. ” On the other hand, “breathing out” is the mission God gives the church in the world, impacting communities through service that transforms. A healthy church will evidence both movements of the Holy Spirit, inward and outward.

Your chapter on “calling” has some surprises. Why do you present the word in such broad terms?

One of the downsides of the clergy/laity divide in how we conceptualize the church is that we become like a soccer match with only a few playing on the field and the rest watching in the stands. Yet Ephesians 4:11-16 teaches that all of God’s saints (believers) have a place of service, a role to fill not only in the church but in how the church fulfills her mission for the sake of the world. It is not just clergy who have a vocation from God. We all have a calling to fulfill. This is really where the sub-title of the book comes into play: “Finding your place in the church’s mission.”

Continue reading “Wipf & Stock publishes latest Crofford book”

Running toward evil

Firefighers ascend the World Trade Center on 9-11-01

Firefighers ascend the World Trade Center on 9-11-01

We’re far enough away from the celebration of the 15th annivesary of the destruction of the Twin Towers to reflect on some of its lessons. There is one image that inspires me most: First responders ran toward the evil, not away from it. As people descended the stairs of the World Trade Center, firefighters ascended, not unlike police who run toward the sound of gunfire, not away from it.

This is a useful metaphor of how the church at her best should operate. When we see systemic evil, should we not run toward it, by our presence carrying the light of the Gospel into the darkest of places? Yesterday I listened to a paper presented by a pastor. His topic was corruption in society and how the church can respond in ways to weaken corruption’s grip. In the African nation where this pastor lives, raising his voice too loudly can have consequences, but he has decided it is better to run toward evil with Gospel light than run away and let the darkness deepen.

But it’s not just Africa that needs light. As Americans, have we romaticized rural areas as “God’s country” while avoiding large cities as if they are under the curse? Now as the drug epidemic impacts small villages and towns, it’s only reluctantly that we’ve admitted the problem is not geography but the human heart. If we invite believers to run toward cities it’s not that rural areas don’t count. It’s only that cities have more people whose hearts need the transforming work of God’s grace. Cities set the moral pace for a nation at-large, so it makes sense that we as Christ followers would want to live there, showing another way to live, a better way, a loving way, a Kingdom of God way.

Too often when I’ve known I should run towards evil, like Jonah, I’ve run in the opposite direction. Yet God’s question to the prophet still rings in my ears: “Should I not be concerned”? Let me be like those 9-11 first responders, going in when all the world is going out.

 

 

Church of darkness or church of light?

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Mr Squeers, the evil headmaster at Dotheboys

There are lessons for the church in unsuspecting places. Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is one such place.

The 2002 film version builds around a stark light/darkness dualism. Apart from Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’ cold and wealthy but tightfisted uncle, runners-up for the malevolence trophy are Mr and Mrs Squeers, the heartless taskmasters of Dotheboys, a hellish boarding school for males. It is here that 19-year-old Nicholas takes a job as a teacher. Soon, he sees firsthand the wickedness of his superiors, especially in their abuse of their crippled boy servant, Smike.

During this part of the film, lighting is almost entirely in dark shades. Only young Nickleby shines like a lantern, becoming a benevolent savior to the captives of Dotheboys.

When Nicholas flees the wretched school, he takes Smike with him. As they leave the forest, day dawns and with it a splash of color and light. They join a troop of merry actors and eventually end up back in London. There, Nicholas meets the fair Madeline Bray. Though poor, she selflessly cares for her grumpy and abusive father. Her suffering ennobles her; she casts a pure light on all she meets.

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Madeline Bray falls for the noble Nicholas Nickleby.

But in day-to-day human existence, there is more than pure light or unmitigated darkness. There are shades of gray, a mixture of both good and evil even in the lives of individual Christians and in the life of the church. This is implied in Paul’s words to the Ephesians:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (Ephesians 5:8).

At first reading, it seems Paul is describing their current reality, that they already are “light in the Lord.” The context suggests otherwise. Verses 3-5 give a laundry list of sins they were to avoid, including coarse joking, greed, immorality, and idolatry. That Paul warns against them assumes that all was not well in the church at Ephesus. Likely, dark practices had crept in; sin cast ominous shadows over what would otherwise be the joyful lives of “children of light.”

Good, bad – light, dark. When it comes to the church, have we been both, acting sometimes like Nicholas and Madeline, other times like Ralph Nickleby and the Squeers?

Could it be this strange mixture in the church of good and bad confuses our world and prevents nonbelievers from fully considering the claims of the Gospel?

Let’s try to step into the shoes of a young adult who has no profession of Christian faith but sees how the church (and its members) operate in society. Would such a person tag the church as a “church of light,” righteous, compassionate and coming to the aid of the oppressed, or as a “church of darkness,” self-righteous, concerned mostly for its own needs and silent about the oppression of others?

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Why might others perceive us to be a “church of light”?

  • digging wells in the developing world – Churches and missionary organizations have dotted the remotest parts of Africa with wells, giving a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus (Matthew 10:42). That kind of compassion makes me proud!
  • combating human trafficking – It may be a restavek in Haiti, or a young girl trapped as a sex worker in Bangkok or Dallas. Slavery exists today in various forms. The church is waking up to the problem and swinging into action.
  • recovery groups – The Celebrate Recovery movement continues to grow. Churches across the United States sponsor small accountability groups that allow people to break free from “hurts, hang-ups and habits,” from overeating to pornography addiction. Many churches sponsor divorce care groups, bring healing to those who have suffered a failed marriage. There is new life in Christ!

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of darkness”?

  • spending mostly on herself and her own comfort – Do we really need fancier sound and lighting equipment for worship times that last only 1-2 hours weekly? Does God really want us as a church to go “first class” (like prosperity preachers claim) or could we be having a greater impact if a larger percentage of our tithes/offerings received were funneled outward toward the needs of our local community?
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Ralph Nickleby, self-absorbed speculator

  • silence when others mistreat minority groups  – In Nicholas Nickleby, Smike (who had run away) is recaptured. Mr Squeers ties him up and promises to cane him within an inch of his life. Nicholas looks on in anguish; what will he do? Will he passively allow the beating or will he intervene? In righteous anger, Nicholas shouts: “Stop! This must not go on.” He rushes forward, snatches the cane from Mr Squeers and beats him (but less than he deserved), then unties the hapless Smike. The Roman Catholic Church and the vast majority of Protestant denominations correctly teach the historic view that God does not condone homosexual practice (Romans 1:18-31, 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Still, can this excuse our passiveness in the face of another caning? While rightly including commonsense provisions about which gender must use which public toilets, a recently minted Mississippi law jumped the rails, striking more broadly at LGBT individuals, permitting rental discrimination by landlords and allowing employers to fire employees solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. We’ve raised our voice against other injustices; why not now? Does not Christ’s love compel us as the church to speak up when any human being is grossly mistreated?

Nicholas Nickleby does well to portray characters who exemplify darkness and light. Where the film is less effective is showing that most people live their lives somewhere between those poles, in the shadow-land. Yet God calls us to holiness, to live according to a consistent, higher standard! Individually as followers of Christ and corporately as the people of God, we are called to forsake all that is dark and to live only as children of light. Where we have sometimes acted as a “church of darkness,” may God accept our repentance, filling us once again with his light, with unconditional love.

Karibuni: Coming close in 2016

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God’s people worship in rural Benin (West Africa)

There’s a wonderful tradition I learned in Nairobi, Kenya. When visiting someone at home, instead of knocking on the door, the visitor calls out in Swahili: “Hodi.” If the host answers “Karibu!” (or to a group, “Karibuni”), then you are welcome to enter. In both singular and plural forms, the greeting means the same the thing: Come close.

God put on flesh; his name was Jesus, “the LORD saves.” We celebrate Advent as a Karibu moment, as the time when God in Christ came close.

It’s difficult to know someone at a distance. A Skype call can keep a relationship going, but it works best as an interlude between in-person encounters. Even in a world drawn closer together by technology, there’s no substitute for incarnation.

The well-known question is appropriate: If God seems far away from you, then who moved? (Hint: It wasn’t God). Following the Advent season – a time when we reflect upon Jesus coming close to us – I sense in return God’s call for me to individually draw closer. It’s God saying to me: Karibu. Yet we live in community and work out our faith corporately. So Jesus also says to us as a group, as the church: Karibuni.

One reason I advocate for frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper is that it dramatizes the divine Karibuni. Communion symbolizes our Lord Jesus with strong arms outstretched in welcome to us. He says:

You are welcome! Come close.

In partaking of the bread and the wine, we experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, the drawing grace of God that woos us away from our sin toward something better, a life of holy love. At the Table, we are transformed, we are one and we are at home.

In Philippians 3:10a, Paul expresses his deepest desire in life: “I want to know Christ…” Only surface knowledge can be gained at a distance. Deeper understanding comes with close proximity. This year, I’m saying to God with all my heart: “Hodi.” I’m sensing his loving response: Karibu! Will you join me and together draw closer to Christ than we ever have before?

Connection: the fourth Nazarene core value

A frequent error message computers generate is: “Connection lost.” When wireless is working well, the world is at our fingertips. On the other hand, when connection to the internet is what my Brit friends call “dodgy,” frustration ensues.

What is true for IT is true for Christian churches. Connectivity counts; it always has. The Apostle Paul lived centuries before the internet, so he used the technology at his disposal. With ink, papyrus and messengers, the missionary from Tarsus kept scattered communities of faith connected, encouraging them, teaching them, mobilizing those who had more to share with those who had less. For the maintenance and advance of God’s Kingdom on earth, connection counts.

The Church of the Nazarene is a recent example of a far-flung community that has historically thrived through connection. During a question and answer session at the March 2015 Africa Regional Conference held in Johannesburg, South Africa, General Superintendent Eugenio Duarte wondered outloud whether – besides being Christian, holiness, and missional – “connection” shouldn’t be added as our fourth core value.

As I type these words, my wife and I are enjoying the company of our older son. He’s been here in Cheonan, South Korea teaching English through a program sponsored by Korea Nazarene University (KNU). It’s a wonderful example of the blessing of Nazarene connection since many of the teachers are graduates of other Nazarene universities. KNU is able to provide a service to its community while offering a chance for Nazarene-connected youth to gain exposure to the broader world. Connectivity still counts.

Yet in churches, connection is no accident. It’s intentional; it takes a lot of hard work to maintain. Local churches that are large and have means could go it alone and provide most of the programs their children and youth could ever need. But as a pastor of a small church in central Missouri, I was glad when the Kansas City District banded together to rent a camp. Our children and teens made friendships with others on the district that they never would have met otherwise. Most importantly, they made decisions for Christ that were life-changing. They grew in their spiritual and world outlook and our intentional commitment to connection was the reason.

If I’m a cheerleader for Nazarene connection, I have personal reasons. It was at a district junior quizzing meet held at the Schenectady church on the Upstate New York District where I first met the girl (Amy Bean) who years later said “yes” to my marriage proposal. At the quiz meet, my father was the photographer , and he had trouble getting us to stand close together for the photo. (Those of my generation will remember “coodies.”). Later at Eastern Nazarene College when Amy and I began dating, my dad joked that now he couldn’t keep us apart!

April 1975 at the Upstate NY District Junior Quiz - Amy and I finished second and first place

April 1975 at the Upstate NY District Junior Quiz – Amy and I finished second and first place

Recently, there’s been a discussion around the question of what divides Nazarenes and whether those divisions will lead us to split. In response, I wrote an essay warning about the dangers of schism. Judging by the number of views – it made my top 5 -as well as “likes” and positive comments on social media, the essay struck a chord with many. Others saw it as a “shushing” of those who who want to have conversations, a call to stick our head in the sand. One way to see an increase in conversation on a topic is to recommend not discussing it for reasons of unity! That seems to be what happened in this case.

I’ve no stomach to wade into discussions on the specific matters that are so divisive. The purpose of this post is merely to remind us all what is at-stake. Connection is a pearl of great value for which I might not be willing to sell everything I have, but I’d be willing to sell a lot (Matthew 13:45-46). And as an American, I realize that we Americans culturally have placed far less value on the interdependence that makes us strong, preferring to elevate the independence that we think makes us happy. Nearly 20 years of living in non-American settings has helped me realize our American blindspot. When talk of a split in the Church of the Nazarene originates in the U.S., it’s worth asking whether it’s the Lord that’s provoking the conversaton or whether the cultural blindspot is in-play.

Christian, holiness, missional – They’re our three core values. Perhaps it’s time to consider adding as our fourth value connection. Let’s not trade away this valuable pearl for a song.

The seductiveness of schism: a caution to fellow Nazarenes

gallant_lady_shipwreckAs Nazarenes, our core values are clear. We are Christian, we are holiness, and we are missional. Regarding the first value – “We are Christian” – we celebrate the remarkable times in which we live. For the broader Church of Jesus Christ, these are days of conciliation, of unity, of coming together for the sake of the Gospel and the advance of the Kingdom of God on earth. It’s a great moment to be alive and on the winning team!

The evidence of growing unity is all around us. In 1998, a joint declaration between Roman Catholics and Lutherans on the nature of justification was pronounced, a declaration ratified in 2006 by the World Methodist Council. Closer to home for those in the Wesleyan-Holiness orbit,  2011 saw the birth of the Global Wesleyan Alliance, with the 2013 meeting witnessing the participation of 11 denominations, including the Wesleyan Church, the Salvation Army, the Church of God (Anderson), the Church of the Nazarene, the Free Methoodist Church USA, and others. These are encouraging signs that the Holy Spirit is bringing us together in new ways, helping us advance in unity and with greater joint effectiveness.

As the only Nazarene missionaries living in the West African country of Benin (1999-2003), we reached out to missionaries of other denominations. Every Sunday night, twenty or so met together for Bible study, prayer and fellowship. On Wednesday, our missionary men’s group met for  breakfast. Despite differences, we were one in Christ. Friendships forged with brothers and sisters of different theological persuasions became our lifeline. While we didn’t agree on a handful of doctrinal issues, we knew this: We needed each other!

Against this larger backdrop of cooperation between churches of various traditions – a move to strengthen the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love, as the old hymn says – a dischordant note has been sounded this week by Nazarene pastor and blogger Josh Broward in his essay, “Will the Church of the Nazarene split?”

I don’t begrudge Pastor Broward his right to ask the question. Our denomination from the start at Pilot Point, Texas in 1908 has been founded upon a spirit of compromise to bring together diverse groups. Tensions have existed all along, and sometimes those tensions have resulted in schism, like when the Bible Missionary Church left the denomination in 1955 over the issue of television. Smaller splits happen in Africa, such as when a handful of Nazarene congregations in southeast Nigeria broke away from the denomination in the early 1990s. If Paul and Barnabas went their own ways over the issue of John Mark and his usefulness to the mission as a traveling companion (Acts 15:36-41), can we expect to always have unity in our time?

That being said, there are 4 reasons why expending energy talking about denominational schism is misguided:

1- Talk of a split ignores that the Holy Spirit is moving churches closer, not further apart. At the very moment when an interdenominational choir of Christians is learning to make beautiful music together, the “Shall we split?” dirge from some Nazarenes sounds strangely off-key. Instead, Paul advises:”So then we pursue the things that make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19, NASB).

Continue reading “The seductiveness of schism: a caution to fellow Nazarenes”

Something fishy about this meme

10606456_10154618217465010_6734428944087588241_nReligion and church get a bum rap. They have become dirty words, something socially acceptable to talk down.

Exhibit A: Let’s look at the meme to the right. It came across my FaceBook, shared and “liked” many times by others.

In the top line, note how “religion” and “church” are obstacles. They stand in the way of you doing what you really want to be doing (fishing) instead of being in church. The message is clear:

Fishing is fun, but religion and church are BORING.

Just go fishing. You’ll connect with God there, and have a lot more fun. What you need is relationship, not religion or church, or so the picture would have us believe.

Like most deceptive memes, there’s just enough truth here to sugarcoat the underlying falsehood. So let’s start with the truth in the meme. Many people – myself included – do connect with God through nature. While I don’t fish, I love to hike with my camera at the ready. No bird, rock, tree or flower can escape my 30x zoom lens. Like the Psalmist, I regularly see the hand of God in what the LORD has created:

“The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftmanship” (Psalm 19:1).

When walking with my camera, I am drawn to think about God. I talk to the LORD, and often I sense God’s presence in return, a sense of peace, of God’s love, of companionship with the divine. So far, so good.

Where the meme loses me and I start to say – “Now, wait just a minute here!” – is the false dichotomy, as if you can choose either a relationship with God fueled by nature or religion/church. Truth be known, we need not choose between the two. Both hold many comforts for the disciple of Christ.

Let’s start with the word “religion.” Contrary to the negative connotation given by the meme and by the title of Christian rapper Jefferson Bethke’s well-intentioned but half-truthish viral video, the word “religion” as used in Scripture is positive. Two prominent uses are found in 1 Timothy 5:4 and James 1:26-27. There, the instruction by Paul and James is not to jettison religion but to live out a form of religion that is genuine and caring. How can this be done? Both agree that how we treat others – the members of our family, the widows, the orphans – is to model positive and genuine religion. Interestingly, the word “religion” in both passages is understood socially. The true and honorable practice of religion means confirming the value of our professed relationship with God by treating those around us with love and concern. Though he doesn’t use the term “religion,” John ratifies this sentiment:

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen (1 John 4:20, NIV).

Beyond the Scriptural understanding of religion is one more philosophical. The second definition of “religion” in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary is “a system of religious beliefs or practices.” The words “belief” and “practice” are in the same constellation as the term “worldview.” Religion is the God-shaped “glasses” through which a believer views reality. C.S. Lewis once remarked: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” To infer that religion is somehow opposed to relationship is like saying we should never use our eyes so that we can develop a keener sense of hearing. Religion (symbolized by the eye) helps us interpret reality God’s way. Relationship (symbolized by the ear) gives us a sense of meaning as we talk with God and develop intimacy with our Creator. Just like we function better with both eyes and ears – when it comes to God – we need both religion and relationship.

A second word in the first part of the meme that is given a negative spin is “church.” I’d be the first to admit that there are plenty of churches that aren’t worthy of the title. Ingrown, judgmental, legalistic, these clusters of Christians give churches in general a bad name. Prison chaplain Lennie Spitale laments that many who find Christ and grow in their faith inside prison fall away once released. Though they try to go to church on the outside, too many Christians leave the impression that they have their act together. The ex-prisoner feels awkward and uncomfortable, often reconnecting instead with former friends with whom they fall back into destructive habits and patterns (Prison Ministry: Understanding Prison Culture Inside and Out [B & H Publishing, 2002, Kindle edition], 28).

potatoesBut I learned a lesson about potatoes that applies to churches. As a teen, my boss at the supermarket asked me to sort through a shopping cart filled with 10 lb. bags of potatoes. The bags were smelling ripe, so I ripped them open and dumped the potatoes out on the table. Usually, out of 20 or 25 good-sized potatoes, it was only 1 or 2 that were rotten. These I threw away, while the rest got bagged up for re-sale. So it is with churches. Some Christians in churches seem rotten, so much that we’d like to throw them away like I did with those putrid potatoes. But most believers are just fine, imperfect people like you and me who – by God’s grace – are coming to look more and more like Jesus. Will we throw away the whole bag of potatoes for the sake of a few smelly ones?

Church is not just an option for the believer. It’s a necessity. The writer to the Hebrews urged his readers to keep coming together for worship and mutual encouragement (Hebrews 10:25). Likewise, John Wesley (1703-91)  identified 5 crucial “means of grace” that help us grow in our faith. These are prayer, reading the Bible, fasting, the Lord’s Supper, and “Christian conference.” By “Christian conference” he meant every way that believers come together. This involves weekly worship on Sundays but also includes being part of a small group where we can take care of each others’ needs, pray for each other, laugh together and – when necessary – warn a brother or sister when we see something creeping into their lives that risks drawing them away from God.

The community of faith has been so positive, so life-giving and joyful for me across the years that it’s rare for my mind to wander during worship to somewhere else I’d rather be. Instead, on the occasional Sunday morning when job duties and airline travel schedules keep me away from church, my mind often wanders there, with questions like:

-I wonder what songs they’re singing?

-I hope the pastor’s sermon series continues well today.

-Do you think that Joe’s job search we’ve been praying for has turned anything up?

-Today’s the day that the Smith’s baby gets baptized. They must be excited!

Relationship, religion, church – what powerful words! I’m glad that when it comes to us and God, we need not choose between them. They each have their place in our Christian vocabulary. By the strength of our example, energized by the Holy Spirit, let us make each of these words attractive and winsome in the eyes of our culture.

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Image credit (potatoes): thekitchencousins.com

Persons transformed: Making Christlike disciples

crossAt the center of Christianity is a cross. How strange is it that an ancient Roman instrument of torture and execution has become the most recognizable symbol in the world?

Theologians have pondered the cross for centuries yet still have not been able to fully explain its meaning. There are many verses in the New Testament that speak of the sacrificial death of Jesus of Nazareth that day long ago outside the walls of Jerusalem. Among these, some from Paul’s letter to the Romans are among the best known:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (Romans 5:8-9, NIV).

We were still sinners.

To be a sinner is to sin, to disobey God either by doing what God forbids or refusing to do what God requires (1 John 3:4, James 4:17). The amazing thing about Romans 5:8 is that we deserved judgment but received grace, favor from heaven that we never earned. God could in anger have said to humanity after the disobedience of Adam and Eve: “You’ve made your bed. Now, lie in it.” Yet from somewhere deep down in the great heart of this Three-in-One God, compassion welled up. A baby was born in a manger in Bethlehem, Immanuel, “God with us.” Mary – a faithful young Jewish woman who had never had sex with a man – was confused. How could she be pregnant? What was this all about? Yet this miraculous conception had a purpose. The angel instructed Mary to name the child Jesus – “the LORD saves” – for “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, NIV).

In the Old Testament, sin always required a sacrifice to atone, to make human beings once again at-one with God. Reflecting on the book of Leviticus, the writer to the Hebrews observed:

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22, NIV).

But God demonstrated his love.

On the day Jesus died on the cross, that was far from obvious for the men and women who had followed him for three years. The evidence seemed to point in the opposite direction, that God was demonstrating hatred toward Jesus. Did not Jesus himself – borrowing the words of Psalm 22:1 – cry out:

” ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani? – which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ “

Anyone hung on a tree was considered cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:23). That their Lord had died naked and brutally beaten could only have been interpreted as divine abandonment – or was it?

As the disciples thought back over the time they had spent with their Lord, the cross finally made sense of some things that at the time were incomprehensible. They remembered the words of John the Baptist when Jesus came to be baptized in the river Jordan. Jesus’ cousin saw him coming, then announced loud enough for all to hear: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, NIV). As for Mary, the mother of Jesus, surely now the words of the angel made sense. Jesus himself had warned his disciples that he would die in Jerusalem and rise again after three days (Mark 8:31). Somehow, they had not been ready to hear those words. They filtered them out.

Now, what had looked like hate and abandonment suddenly began to look like love. The death of Jesus was not in vain. It fulfilled a divine purpose and was motivated by God’s love for us, for me! The innocent died so that the guilty might live.

We have now been justified.

Sinners merit God’s anger and punishment. Yet Paul says in Romans 5:9 that in Christ, we have been saved from God’s wrath. We can be  justified, forgiven, pardoned!

Transformation always begins when our broken relationship with God is restored, thanks to what Jesus has done for us.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) was a well-known writer and naturalist. As he neared death, his aunt came to visit with him. She asked: “Have you made your peace with God?” Thoreau replied: “I didn’t know that we had ever quarreled.” Thoreau’s response underscores the truth that we must be willing to admit that we have wronged God or else why seek God’s forgiveness? Confession is a prerequisite for pardon. 1 John 1:8-9 (NIV) teaches:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

From pardon to purity: transformation God’s way

To be reconciled to God brings the blessing of adoption into God’s family (Romans 8:15). Likewise, from that moment when we are reconciled, we become disciples of Jesus Christ, followers of his way. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis taught that Christians are to be “little Christs.” This is not possible on our own, but our transformation to become Christlike disciples begins immediately once we have been forgiven and agreed to let God direct us onto a new path.

This new mindset – a willingness to forsake our sins, to let God change us since we are powerless to change ourselves – is called repentance. Placing our faith in Christ and what he has done for us at the cross, nothing short of a miracle transpires. Jesus calls this being “born again” (John 3:3), from which we get the terms new birth or regeneration. Singer Keith Green recounts his own experience of deciding to follow Jesus, saying it was “like waking up from the longest dream.” Paul insists that we become a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). With the Holy Spirit of God now living inside of us (1 Corinthians 6:18), God makes everything new.

The word that describes God’s transforming work in our heart and life is sanctification. One meaning of the term is to be set apart for a sacred use. Some of the utensils used by the Hebrew priests in the Tabernacle were to be sanctified, i.e. used only in the sacrifice of animals in the worship of God (Leviticus 8:10-11). In the same way, the follower of Jesus is to consider himself or herself as belonging totally to God. The Christlike disciple does not have the option to specify which parts of his or her life God may control. To be entirely sanctified means that all that we are and have is now under the Lordship of Jesus Christ (Romans 12:1-2, 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24). When God has all that we are, then God’s holy presence – God’s purity and love – fill us. Sin becomes distasteful as our attention focuses less-and-less on self-gratification and more-and-more on how we can love and serve others in the name of Jesus.

God wants to change the world, so he changes us first.

mopAt 16, I took my first  job, working in the produce department of a grocery store. One night, my boss asked me to mop the floor of the back room. I did the job the best I knew how, but he was unsatisfied. When this went on for several nights, he finally asked me to demonstrate what I had been doing. “Greg,” he said, “you’ll never get the floor clean if you use a dirty mop dipped in dirty water. You’ll just keep spreading the dirt around.” The next night, I changed the dirty mop head for a clean one and frequently changed out the water. Success! The floor was clean and my boss was happy.

Looking at the church today, sometimes I think about mopping floors. We’ve understood that transformation of the world is not a distraction from the Gospel work. It is Gospel work. But unless we recognize that God must first transform us, then we risk just being dirty mops dipped in dirty water, spreading the dirt around and changing nothing. We cannot assume that just because individuals have been in the church all their lives that they have encountered the living Christ in a life-changing way! Each of us must decide to follow Jesus. Pardon and purity are available, but we must individually acknowledge our sin and make our peace with God through Christ (Romans 5:1). Paul challenges each of us:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2, NIV).

A key part of changing the world is allowing God the Holy Spirit to transform us first, then inviting others to journey with us as we follow Jesus together. Christlike disciples make other Christlike disciples. God wants to change the world, so he changes us first.

Summing it all up

The cross towers before us, a symbol of God’s love and the sacrifice of Jesus so that we can be saved from our sins. In the cross, Jesus built a bridge between God and humanity, offering his own blood so that we can be forgiven and cleansed, set apart for God’s own use. Justification and sanctification describe the radical transformation that God works in the lives of those who turn their back on their sins and decide to follow Jesus. As we become Christlike disciples – spurning sin and hungering for God – God uses us to make more Christlike disciples. God sends us out arm-in-arm into the world. Purified and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we become agents of the change God desires in society and all creation. What a mission!