Followers of the Prince of Peace?

640px-Collared_DoveJesus is all about peace.

Isaiah 9:6 (NIV) foretold his birth, predicting the coming of one who would bear four exalted titles: 1) Wonderful Counselor; 2) Mighty God; 3) Everlasting Father, and 4) Prince of Peace.

When the Messiah arrived, his message included this important, peaceful strand. The Sermon on the Mount is recorded in both Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6:20-49, but is it in Matthew’s account where the peace motif shines. Among the famed Beatitudes, we find this commendation:

Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children (Matthew 5:9, CEB).

At his arrest, Jesus corrected Peter when his petulant disciple drew his sword to defend the Lord. “Put back your sword in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52, NIV). The rest of Jesus’ words on the occasion are lesser known: “Or do you think that I’m not able to ask my Father and he will send to me more than twelve battle groups of angels right away? But if I did that, how would the scriptures be fulfilled that say this must happen?” (vv. 53-54, CEB). Jesus overcame one of history’s greatest acts of terrorism – crucifixion – not through superior strength but through a radical act of passive non-resistance. God exalted the Prince of Peace by raising him from the dead, vindication and a seal of approval upon Jesus’ counterintuitive ways (Acts 2:31-33).

Elsewhere, the New Testament affirms the humility that is inherent in the peace ethic. Paul portrays Christ as one who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8, CEB). Following Jesus’ example, as much as possible, we are to “live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18b, NIV). We are sanctified entirely not just by “God,” but by the “God of peace” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Further, the writer to the Hebrews exhorts:

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy. Without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14, NIV; italics added).

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A meditation on the cross

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This sermon excerpt was composed by  Wilson Deaton, Sr., the late Nazarene pastor. It was posted this week by his son, Wilson Jr., at the NazNet.com website. It captures in a beautiful way the centrality to Christian faith of Christ’s sacrifice outside the city wall of Jerusalem so long ago.

Mount Calvary is the tallest, brightest, most glorious mountain peak in all of world history. The Prophets of the Old Testament pointed forward to Calvary. All the apostles in the New Testament pointed backwards to Calvary. All the bleary eyed devils in hell point upwards to Calvary. All the glorified saints and angels in heaven point downward to Calvary. For Calvary is the center of God’s spiritual universe.

Yet Calvary itself was no better than that little slanting hill here on Oak Street UNTIL the blood of the world’s redeemer lifted Calvary from the lowlands to the highlands and made it forever the most talked about mountain peak in the world’s history.

Calvary is the meeting place between God and man. Calvary is the weeping place for sin. Calvary is the birthplace of hope. Calvary is the resting place of faith. Calvary is the hiding place from judgement. Calvary is the starting place for heaven. Calvary is the hope and only hope for this broken world. Calvary is something more than just a historical place. Calvary is enjoyable, singable, shoutable, have-able. At Calvary our hearts our regenerated. At Calvary the new man is created and the old man is cremated. O friend, have you been to Calvary? I say, thank God for Calvary!

A teacher named Mr. Chiavetta

Awkward me with braces toward the close of 8th grade.

In seminary, a prof once instructed the class: “Think back to when you were in junior high.” A student raised his hand and asked: “Do I have to?”

Many feel that way. Junior high – now often called “middle school” – is that awkward in-between time. You’re no longer a young child, but you’re not yet an adult. Living in the cracks can be excruciating.

A few years ago, I not only thought back to junior high; I went back. In the village of Spencerport, New York, I drove by what used to be Ada Cosgrove Junior High (now the high school). I thought back to the 8th grade day when my world fell-in. Did a close relative die? Was there a fatal car accident? No – there was nothing as dramatic as that. But in the world of an 8th grader, being ostracized is a punch in the stomach. The injury occurred when around the lunch table a friend launched a verbal assault:

We don’t want you at this table. Why don’t you just go sit somewhere else?

It had already been a rough year. I’d been bullied relentlessly in social studies class, a special agony for a bright but sensitive and slightly built boy terrified at the prospect of a fight. My friend’s cutting words over lunch were the last straw. I stood up and – half-dazed – made my way down the hallway toward the music room.

Mr. Chiavetta was the 8th grade guitar teacher. My clumsy fingers never mastered the instrument, but he didn’t seem to mind. He’d patiently shown me the basic chords and encouraged me. What’s more, I knew that he was a follower of Jesus. His door was open that fateful day, so I slipped into the music room where he greeted me warmly. “Mr Chiavetta, do you have a minute to talk?” I wondered. “Sure, Greg, what’s troubling you?” Knowing I was in a safe place, I broke down in tears and told him what had just happened in the cafeteria and what a discouraging year it had been. He listened kindly, and when the emotional blister was lanced, he prayed with me. That day, his name wasn’t Mr Chiavetta. That day, his name was Jesus.

There’s a lot of talk about public schools these days. Saboteurs have never been stronger. Yet on that day, a troubled boy found courage to go on because an underpaid 8th grade public school music teacher showed up for work. As a Christian, he spoke comforting words in my heart language. To this day, I’m grateful.

There are many public school teachers like Mr Chiavetta, people of Christian faith who are society’s unsung heroes. This essay is for them. You matter. When politicians cut your budgets, when some would rather inscribe “abandon all hope ye who enter here” over your school-house door, when the hours are too long and the rewards seem too few, please  stay. You made a difference for me and you still make a difference for many.

Catchy slogan, bad theology

not-perfect-just-forgivenYou’ve seen the t-shirts, ball caps, and bumper stickers:

“I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”

It’s a catchy slogan. The problem is, it’s bad theology.

To be fair, who wouldn’t want to celebrate forgiveness? God’s pardon of our sins, after all, is at the heart of the Gospel (Romans 5:1, 1 John 1:9). This is known as justification. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, God has accepted us. When we welcome Christ into our lives, turning away from our sin, we are adopted; we become part of God’s family (John 1:12; Romans 8:15; Acts 3:19).

Where the “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” mantra goes off the rails is in the first phrase: “I’m not perfect.” The problem is, Jesus himself called us to be perfect in love:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48, NIV).

Too often, people quote only v. 48, not taking into account the preceding verses. Jesus is not calling us to an absolute perfection. Such a state of affairs does not exist this side of the Second Coming. John Wesley (1703-91) correctly taught that we will always live with a thousand “infirmities,” which include forgetfulness, misunderstandings, good intentions gone wrong, and the like. But this does not exempt us from perfection in love. The Common English Bible catches this nuance well: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (v. 48).

Wesley always asked about his preachers: “Are you going on to perfection?” He longed for them to grow, for their love to become complete. Justification (forgiveness) is not the end, just the beginning! Sanctification (the ongoing process of cleansing) begins when God forgives us. The one who has experienced the lavish grace of Christ naturally wants to go deeper with God, what Peter calls growing in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus (2 Peter 3:18). Like a healthy baby doesn’t stay a baby for long but progresses through life’s stages – toddler, child, teen, adult – so a new follower of Jesus grows up in his or her faith.

But let’s go back to the “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” mantra. As currently promoted, it stunts the growth of Christians. A follower of Jesus who is growing up in their faith will naturally be filled more-and-more with God’s love (Ephesians 3:14-21). If being “forgiven but not perfect” becomes an excuse for not loving, for mistreating a fellow believer or one who has no profession of Christian faith, then the saying may become a weapon in the hands of the devil.

It might not be a catchy slogan, but a more accurate ball-cap would read:

“Are you forgiven, too? Let’s grow together.”

My love is not yet complete. Is yours? If not, then let’s toss aside slogans that stamp a misguided seal of approval on sin. Let’s spur each other on and refuse to excuse each other’s failings as if no other outcome is possible. There is victory in Jesus!

Religion and politics don’t mix

A beaker filled with water to which oil has been added, demonstrating insolubility of oil in water.

When I was a boy, conversations around the dinner table helped knit our family together. Many words of wisdom from my father and mother were delivered in that setting, including : “Religion and politics don’t mix.” I wonder: Have we forgotten this wisdom?

A woman had been part of her denomination for decades. However, she recently left because leaders in her congregation strongly hinted that to be “Christian” means voting for a particular political party. This story comes from my home country, yet as a missionary living in West Africa, I encouraged pastors to strictly avoid endorsing specific candidates or their parties, to merely ask people to pray then vote their conscience. This was in accordance with the long-standing informal policy of my denomination.

In the global village now connected via the internet, these same pastors now know instantly what world leaders say. They hear American politicians promising to remove any remaining legal obstacles to U.S. churches endorsing political candidates and they hear the applause of church leaders. Yet is this wise? Such a move could be disastrous, making congregations satellite campaign offices instead of places where people can come to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. It would take our eyes off the unshakable Kingdom (Hebrews 12:28) that Jesus taught us to pray would come (Matthew 6:10), encouraging instead the church to down the cup of temporal power, a poisoned chalice that so far we’ve only been sipping.

The temptation is real in multiple countries. It was campaign season, and a West African politician approached one of our pastors and his associate, inviting them to visit his home. There, he pulled out a dresser drawer filled with money. “I’ll allow you to help yourself to this money,” he promised. “All you need to do is next Sunday endorse me from the pulpit.” That day, the two pastors resisted the temptation. Instead, they told me the story and I commended them for their courage.

Jesus knew something of this temptation. Forty days and forty nights in the wilderness eating nothing, he was famished. Matthew 4:1-17 (CEB) recounts three ways that the devil tried to entice our Lord to abandon his mission. His final method was to tempt Jesus with power, taking him to a high mountain and showing him all the world’s kingdoms. “I’ll give you all of these if you bow down and worship me,” he offered. Yet Jesus replied: “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, ‘You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him’ ” (4:10). When offered rulership – its power and its perks – the Son of God firmly refused. He would not be deterred from the holy mission his Father had set before him.

An election is just around the corner in Kenya. Last Sunday, our pastor encouraged people to register to vote, but added: “In our church, we don’t endorse candidates or parties.” My pastor knows the wisdom of neutrality, that the witness of the church can be compromised if we are not careful. I think he’d agree that what my parents insisted around our family dinner table is good advice. Religion and politics still don’t mix.

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Image credit: Carpenter Valley Assocation

Thoughts after a cancer ward visit

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By myself (User:Piotrus) (Own work (taken by myself)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A hospital chaplain spoke of the comfort provided to Christians by the belief we have eternal souls. As patients’ bodies gradually become weaker and more uncooperative, they rest in the fact that no disease can diminish their soul which would soon go to be with Jesus. While I respect that position, N.T. Wright has correctly noted that the New Testament hope in the face of death is not disembodied existence but the resurrection.(See his excellent book, Surpised by Hope).

Yesterday I visited a cancer ward. There were many who were wasting away, limbs shriveled, eyes sunken, their frail frames a shadow of what they once were. As I prayed with a friend, my prayer was that God would restore his health. Yet whether God chooses to heal, our faith is that this is not the final chapter. Creation is followed by re-creation. Mortality surrenders to immortality; death is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54). Eternal life follows resurrection at Christ’s return, God’s gracious gift to the righteous (John 3:16, Romans 6:23).

“He fell asleep in Jesus.” So wrote a friend of mine at the passing of a loved one. It’s a good summary of what happens when people die: They fall asleep. When Jesus returns, believers will have a sweet awakening to life eternal, while punishment and destruction is the rude awakening reserved for the wicked (John 5:28-29; Rev 20:11-15). Both Jesus and Paul used “sleep” as a snynonym for death (John 11:11-14, 1 Thess. 4:13-18). Yet Christians fall asleep in the steadfast hope that the same Jesus whom God raised to life will himself raise us to eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:51-55). One short sleep later and Jesus (at his return) will receive us (formerly mortal but now immortal) into his strong arms. The old Negro spirituals called this the “great gettin’ up mornin.’ ” What an amazing awakening that will be!

When it comes to how Christians conceptualize death, sleeping in Jesus is a minority position. Most instead believe in an immortal soul that leaves the body at the moment of death. While I see no conclusive biblical evidence for an “immortal soul” – an idea from Greek philosophy – there are a few New Testament passages traditionally interpreted as teaching a conscious existence apart from our bodies (Luke 16:19-31; 2 Cor 5:1-8, 12:1-5). This is called body-soul dualism, the belief that the enduring part of the human being is not the body but an indestructible soul.

Whichever position one takes, one thing is certain: We must be ready for our own demise. The writer to the Hebrews affirms that all human beings are “destined to die” and “after that face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27, NIV). There are no post mortem opportunities to make things right with God. Are you ready for that encounter?

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.

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