3 holy habits for citizens who follow Jesus

praying-handsYesterday, the United States inaugurated its 45th President. The colorful pageantry we have come to expect as power passes from one American administration to another was on full display.

Whatever our feelings might be toward a given leader, emotions are fleeting; habits endure. Here are three holy habits to develop as citizens who follow Jesus, no matter what country we call home:

1) Pray for leaders. As missionaries, my wife and I often let our supporters know specific ways that they can pray for us. We know that the task God has given us is too big on our own. If we are to make it, we need teammates, people calling our name before the throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:16, Ephesians 6:19). In the same way, Scripture asks us to pray for “kings and for everyone who is in authority, so that we can live a quiet and peaceful life in complete godliness and dignity (1 Timothy 2:2, CEB). The task of civic leaders is heavy and often thankless. Are we in the habit of praying for them?

Sometimes it’s hard to know specifically how to pray for leaders. Here’s a public prayer I recently offered:

Lord God, we pray that you will guide our new President. Give him your wisdom and self-control. May he seek the good of others and listen to those who are marginalized. Grant that he may not depend upon himself but upon you in all the important decisions that he must make. Surround him with those who will have the courage to say what must be said. Make his heart tender that he might lead our nation in a directon that pleases you. In Christ’s name we pray, AMEN.

2) Call on leaders to do what is right.  So important to the Bible’s message is doing what is right by the poor, the forgotten, and the powerless that this concern is woven like a golden strand throughout both Old and New Testaments. Deuteronomy 27:19a (NIV) warns: “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Likewise, Amos was a simple farmer from the village of Tekoa, near Bethlehem. In the 8th century BC, God sent him on a mission to Bethel. There, he railed against the abuses of Israel’s elite, insisting: “A lion has roared: who will not fear? The LORD God has spoken; who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8, CEB). His message – while addressed to many nations – was also for the leaders of his own people, Israel’s elite. He accused them of crushing the “weak” and the “needy” (4:1), offenses that he later in the chapter warns will result in domination by foreign powers, famine, drought, and disease.

Jesus modeled this kind of prophetic spirit in Matthew 23:37-39 when he wept over Jerusalem for having killed the prophets and having rejected his own message. Earlier in the chapter, he condemned the teachers of the law and the Pharisees not only for their hypocrisy but for having forgotten “the more important matters of the law,” including “justice, peace, and faith” (23:24, CEB).

While praying for our leaders is crucial, it is insufficient. We as prompted by God must go further, raising our voice on behalf of those unjustly targeted. Amos and Jesus give us a pattern for responsibly engaging our leaders, calling on them to do  what is right. Moments arise when – to use the words of Dallas Willard – a “holy discontent” wells up inside and we must prophesy or else be disobedient to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Who are the “fatherless, the foreigner, and the widow” in our day? Who are the citizens around us who are neglected, even oppressed? There comes a time when Jesus followers must speak up, voicing our opposition to policies and decisions made by our leaders that crush the weak and needy among us. To do less is to deny who we are as Christ followers.

3) Be the change.  Beyond prayers and speaking up for what is right, a final holy habit comes from Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This outlook is implied by Paul in Romans 2:21b-22a (NIV): “You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?” We cannot expect the behavior of our leaders to be exemplary if our own conduct is sinful. Instead, Paul elsewhere calls us to be “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation” (Philippians 2:15a, NIV), to be “people who shine like stars in the world because you hold on to the word of life” (Philippians 2:16a, CEB).

A pastor in a large cathedral in Nairobi recently invited the police to come to a special service. At a key moment, more than 200 officers came forward and received a prayer for God’s safety and blessing. Though later during his sermon he did not hesitate to admonish them to act with intergrity at work, he reminded everyone present that the character of the police and all our leaders is merely a reflection of the character of a people as a whole. The leaders produced are a direct product of the community that produces them.

800px-martin_luther_king_jr_nywts_6
Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks of “self-purification.” As civil rights marchers faced police brutality in the 1960s, he knew that hate could not be overcome by hate, so instead he called his people to non-violence. Self-purification meant rehearsing behind closed doors how to passively resist when publicly beaten by a billy club, dragged by the arm or aggressively handcuffed.

King’s self-purification was applied in a specific circumstance during the civil rights movement, but what would happen if followers of Jesus applied it more generally? He knew that they had to be the change. If they wanted non-violent police, then they themselves had to be non-violent. Likewise, if we desire public leaders who are righteous, what private sinful practices must we allow God to eliminate in our own lives? A transformation of the public realm must begin in the private realm, yet long experience teaches us that human beings are woefully indadequate to make such changes in their own lives. Only God’s power can do that! (2 Cor. 5:17, Romans 12:1-2; 1 Thess. 5:23-24).

Praying for leaders, calling them to do what is right, and modeling needed change are three holy habits for citizens who follow Jesus. God may lead us to develop others, depending upon the situation. Nonetheless, no matter who occupies positions of authority over us, may these practices help God’s people live with winsomeness and integrity.

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Images used in the essay are in the public domain.

Passing the faith along: all ages on the journey together

Greg and son, Brad, at a park in Albertville, France
Greg and son, Brad, at a park in Albertville, France
We were lost in Versailles.

Sure, we had the address of the congregation we wanted to visit, but somehow got all turned around. With the 10 a.m.  service time fast approaching, my wife and two young sons followed nervously behind me. On the corner, a Roman Catholic nun waited to cross the road. In my best French, I greeted her then told her what church we were trying to locate. “Turn right at the next street,” she advised. “I think it’s just a few hundred meters down on the right hand side.” Thanking her, we followed the directions and soon found ourselves walking in the front door of the church. Simultaneously, twenty gray-haired worshipers turned to see who had come to visit. When they discovered a young family with children, their eyes lit up and smiles beamed. Unfortunately, their pleasant surprise didn’t last long. We were at the wrong church! Reluctantly, the usher directed us to the next street where he assured us we would find our denominational tribe.

God loves the elderly, yet churches that have only older folks know that their days are numbered. In nature, a failure to reproduce can spell the end of a species. It is no different for communities of faith. A failure to pass along a Christian faith to the next generation will inevitably lead to a church’s demise. Well has it been said that the church is always only one generation away from extinction. To endure, she must reproduce. This happens in two important ways.  First, we share our faith with those outside the community of faith, inviting them to put their faith in Christ, to join their story to the story of God and God’s people. A second way is by nurturing faith in our children, passing our faith to the next generation. It is this second way that concerns us here.

How can the church more intentionally and effectively pass Christian faith along to children and youth, making their commitment to the people of God lifelong and not just something they grow out of as they come into adulthood?

A lesson on the importance of inclusion comes from the Xhosa and Zulus of South Africa. When a serious matter affecting the community arises, or a dispute, the chief may call an indaba, a meeting where everyone has a voice. Traditionally, the youngest speak first, followed by those older. Finally, the elders speak.  All the while, the chief listens carefully, taking into account all points of view before rendering a verdict on the matter-at-hand. As a Xhosa, this is the inclusive leadership style that Nelson Mandela brought to the South African presidency. It helped heal wounds festering from decades of racial segregation. It brought together black, white, colored and Indian,  young and old into a national indaba that allowed a nation to begin to turn the page on a dark chapter and imagine together a brighter and more hopeful future.

Among the people of God, indabas can take the form of prayer meetings. In our church, my parents went to adult choir practice at 5 p.m. and the evening service didn’t start until an hour later. At 5:30 p.m. some of the old saints not in the choir would gather for prayer in the “upper room” over the gymnasium. Tired of running around in the hallways with my brothers, around 12 years old, I climbed the stairs to the upper room one Sunday evening and asked if I could pray with them. They welcomed a boy when they could have chased me away. I remember the prayers of those saints, as they prayed for the pastor, cried for lost loved ones, and asked God to send a revival to our church. Those prayers from Mr and Mrs Whitman, Mr and Mrs Laird and others impacted my young life. They taught me to trust God for things small and large.

The danger of the “grown up table” and the “kids’ table”

At large family gatherings at holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas, children are sometimes segregated at the “kids’ table.” In Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Zondervan, 2011), Kara Powell and Chap Clark lament that too many churches follow that kind of separation between the ages when it comes to church. With good intentions, have we allowed children’s programs, youth programs and adult ministries to function independently with little time to mix between generations? Why are we then surprised when youth find it difficult to transition to adult membership in the community of faith? The gap is huge and – while they may have come to the same building for years – they are virtual strangers to each other.

Recognizing the high church dropout rate of young adults, Powell and Clark give many ideas of how families can instill lifelong faith and church involvement in their children. For our purposes, let’s talk about inter-generational worship, service, laughter and play.

Worshiping together

We need not repeat insights about worship detailed in an earlier chapter. Here, the focus is on all ages worshiping together. North Americans used to do this better than we do now. Somewhere along the line, we’ve grown more impatient not only with crying babies but with wiggly toddlers. Yet even toddlers and young children are picking up more during a worship service than we think. As a pastor, one Sunday night I received a drawing from red-headed 8-year-old Amy after the service. She’d drawn a picture of me while preaching. The picture was detailed, including my mustache and tie, but what encouraged me most was the the Bible reference she’d scrawled at the bottom, my sermon text. That little girl hadn’t just been drawing. She’d been listening!

A church in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe included all ages in a raucous Sunday morning worship service. People came from distances and weren’t tied to the clock. Three hours together gave ample time to get up and move, as the worship team encouraged us to dance to the lively praise music. That day, I saw a 60 year-old grandma move out into the aisles right next to 5 and 6 year old boys and girls. There was no “adult table” and “kids’ table” that day. We were in it together, and having exercised well during the music and offering, adults and children sat still and listened well to a 50 minute sermon preached in English and translated into Zulu. It was a fine spiritual meal enjoyed by all ages.

Serving together

The Puritan proverb warns: “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” Wholesome work gives human beings dignity, and working together side-by-side – young and old in service to others – builds character and fosters Christian community.

While in seminary, my church took a mission trip to the Bahamas. Our task was to help finish off the inside of a new church building, putting up dry wall and installing a suspended ceiling. The trip was life-changing in many ways, but one special dynamic was the broad age range of the participants. There were several grandpas and grandmas on the team, along with twenty-somethings like myself, all the way down to 16 year old “Eric.” Eric was new to the church and had no profession of faith. As he began to feel more comfortable with us, he began to open up about his troubled home life and some of his destructive addictions. For the first time, Eric felt like he had a family as he saw the love of Christ lived out before his eyes, both in our love for him and the Bahamians to whom we had come to minister. By the last day, he had prayed to confess his sins and invite Christ into his life. I’ll never forget the joy on Eric’s face when we went down to the beach and our pastor baptized him in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

There’s something about an activity where those of all ages work together that binds us together with cords of love. Youth see that Christian faith is for the long-haul and appreciate the listening ear and wisdom they receive from those much further along in the journey. It’s not showy but it is solid, and that’s winsome.

Laughing and playing together

Life was never meant to be serious all the time. Victor Borge famously said: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” and he’s right.

One of the mainstays of our bi-annual family reunions is the night when we settle down after a good meal and someone starts to tell the old stories. “Do you remember when….?” And even though most everyone has heard the stories before, they never fail to evoke laughter. When they hear the harmless antics – and sometimes a bit of mischief – my nieces and nephews think it’s hilarious what their mom or dad did, and who better to tell the story than their uncle or grandma? In the same way, the church does life together, and stories of embarrassing mishaps from mission trips, Vacation Bible Schools or Bible Quiz meets get trotted out, a telling of the inter-generational story that binds us together.

In South Africa, churches love to host a braai (barbeque). Often there are games with young and old taking part. Playing and eating together as the people of God makes memories and builds relationships. Braais are an all-day affair. It’s a time to slow down and get to know each other better in a relaxed setting. It’s a place to belong.

Summing it all up

The church needs its children and youth. They are both her present and her future. For Christian faith to be both winsome and “sticky,” being intentional about all ages worshiping, serving, laughing and playing together is key. As older believers invest in the lives of children and youth, commitment to Christ and Christ’s community – the church – becomes a cherished legacy that young adults will long to pass along to their own children. Having studied the people of God, let us in the next section of Christlike Disciples, Christlike World sharpen the focus to this question: What is the church’s mission? 

Which church is the true church?

A note to my readers:

Life has been hectic, but a good kind of hectic, with a fruitful teaching trip to Zimbabwe last weekend.  My weekly Saturday blog did not happen, but I’m pleased in its place this week to reproduce for your enrichment a short essay from my friend, Edward Fudge.

We’ll see you again next Saturday.

– Greg

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“The right true church, part 2” – by Edward Fudge – from his gracEmail of July 26,  2015

EdFudge1The year 1054 is remembered in church history as the year Pope Leo IX excommunicated Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople and declared himself head of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Patriarch responded in kind and the Great Schism was under way, thereafter with East (Constantinople) and West (Rome) both contending for primacy as head of the exclusive true church. The Reformers promised the right of individual biblical interpretation, which in turn brought a multiplicity of churches. Soon, Protestantism had its own contenders for “the true church.”

Most cults claim to be God’s only true or faithful people. Mormons teach that the true Church went into apostasy shortly after the original Apostles died, but that God restored it about 1830 through the prophetic ministry of Joseph Smith, Jr. Mr. Smith is said to have translated the Book of Mormon from ancient inscriptions on gold plates under instructions from an angel named Moroni. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that Jesus returned to earth invisibly in 1914 and set up his kingdom, with their Watchtower Society as its visible form.

The Philadelphia Church of God is but one of several offshoots of the Worldwide Church of God which claims that it alone represents God’s “government” (and New Testament Church) today, based on the unique doctrines of the late Herbert W. Armstrong whom they see as the last-days “Elijah the Prophet” of Old Testament prophecy. (Happily, the original Worldwide Church of God has denounced its cultic past and has udergone a Christ-centered reformation of its own.)

Amid all these confusing and contradicting claims, we do well to remember Jesus’ warnings concerning would-be messiahs. We do not need to go running here or there in search of the “true teacher” or the “true church.” The Bible does not envision “Lone Ranger” Christians who intentionally avoid fellowship with others. But while “church” is very important, no particular brand in the Yellow Pages has any exclusive claims on God or his salvation. Jesus — not any religious institution or ecclesiastical organization — is the door to the Father. Whoever has Jesus has life, and whoever remains in union with him is complete in the eyes of God.

 

 

Back to the drawing board

drawing_boardTo my readers:

Well has it been said: “There is no good writing, only good re-writing.”

A potential publisher has asked me to submit the first few chapters of my book proposal, tentatively titled:

Christlike Disciples, Christlike World: The Transformational Mission of the People of God

So, in today’s post, I’ll re-work the introduction to the book into a more suitable form, given the way later chapters have been unfolding.

For those who like technical terms, the project is designed to bring together three major areas: soteriology, ecclesiology, and missiology. Too often, these are treated on their own yet they belong together. Whether I succeed in casting a coherent vision, I’ll let you decide.

– Greg

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INTRODUCTION: WHAT’S IN A WORD?

“Transformation” is the latest buzzword, but what does it mean? The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines it as “a marked change in form, nature, or appearance.”

Transformation = change, but that’s only part of the picture. While we usually recognize when change has occurred, observers may disagree strongly whether a given change is positive or negative.

Truth be told, it’s not enough to call for transformation. Change for change’s sake is not enough. We must identify and work in the power of the Holy Spirit toward the kind of transformation desired.

In the title Christlike Disciples, Christlike World: The Transformational Mission of the People of God, the positive objective is clear:

All creation must become like Christ.

When all that God has made resembles Jesus, then we as God’s people can say: “Mission accomplished.”

Three headings provide the structure of this book:

1) Meet the people of God

2) Understanding our transformational mission

3) Getting it done

As an American born in the middle part of the twentieth century, my worldview was shaped by individualism. As a child, I was taught to take pride in being independent. It is only as an adult living in Africa that I’ve come to question the value of independence. Instead, I’ve come to appreciate interdependence, the contentment and purpose that come from seeing oneself first-and-foremost as part of a greater whole.

This experience has shaped the way I read the Bible and – consequently – how I understand the church and its mission in the world. Whereas my Western cultural spectacles had led me to view the individual as the primary reality and the church as secondary, the mere gathering of saved individuals, this “me first and we second” order now seems backwards. My new eyeglasses have helped me perceive a new reality, the larger story of what God wants to do collectively through the church. I have come to view my own salvation in Christ as caught-up within that bigger, corporate story. It is now “we first and me second,” a point-of-view much closer to the Scriptural witness of both Old and New Testaments.

Historically, we are witnessing the convergence of two worldviews. In a world made small by jet travel and the Internet, Africa’s collective outlook carries huge appeal for Western youth who are postmodern, inclusive, cooperative, and group-oriented in their thinking. To be successful today, any call to Christlike discipleship must find its grounding within that framework, a perspective that longs to make a positive impact in the here-and-now, in-short, a transformational point-of-view.

Christlike Disciples, Christlike World targets two groups. It can be used for those new to the church who want to know what we’re all about. Alternatively, it can be studied in small group settings as a way to re-focus our vision around the “why” of our existence as the church. Short chapters conclude with questions for discussion.

Let’s turn now to this question: Who is the church? Let’s meet the people of God.

Can the American church master the marriage two-step?

DSCN4560In light of this week’s historic Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, it looks like conservative churches in the U.S. may be doing some fancy legal dancing in coming days.  The question remains: Can the American church learn the marriage two-step?

The two-step is simple. Step one is a civil ceremony  followed by step two, a blessing officiated by the faith community. In Côte d’Ivoire, a West African nation, I attended the religious ceremony for one of my students and his bride. When they arrived at the church, they had come straight from the mayor’s office where they had already been married. Now at the church, the pastor led them through a second ceremony, “in the presence of God and these witnesses,” brothers and sisters-in-Christ who added their blessing and approval in a service of holy matrimony.

Such an arrangement seemed odd to me at first since I only knew of one-step weddings. When my wife and I married in 1985, I recall the solemn words intoned by my brother, the presiding minister:

“By the authority invested in me by the State of New York, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

On the application for the marriage license, the Reverend signed his name as the “officiant.” Practically speaking, he was acting both as an agent of the church and as an agent of the State, two roles wrapped up in a single individual. No prior ceremony at the town hall was necessary. We had merely picked up the paperwork from the town clerk and had the minister sign the forms after the ceremony at church, along with our witnesses.

But I wonder:

Has the one-step wedding joined together church and state in a kind of unholy matrimony?

As long as ministers of the Gospel are accredited by the State to perform wedding ceremonies that include a civil function, they are acting as de facto agents of the government, what one colleague of mine called a “sub-magistrate.” In this arrangement, it follows logically that the State controls the procedure including who qualifies to be married. As of June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that two men or two women have the constitutional right to be joined together in marriage. It is not far-fetched to think that pastors who have in the past performed wedding ceremonies “by the authority invested in my by the State of ______” could be pressured to perform ceremonies for all comers, whether opposite sex or same-sex.

Here’s a better way:

STEP ONE: Conservative pastors must opt out of the current system. Instead, he or she would refer inquirers to the Justice of the Peace (JOP) or his/her equivalent in a given jurisdiction. The marriage license would be issued.

STEP TWO: People of faith who desire to have their marriage blessed in the presence of God and others of their faith community can do so, whether at the church, synagogue, mosque, or other house of worship. For Christians, this is the service of holy matrimony.

Our logic is clear: We understand holy matrimony to be a rite of the church which is distinct from the civil union (wedding ceremony) performed by the magistrate. As those faithful to the Scriptures, we believe that the blessing of holy matrimony is a life-long covenant sealed before God only by a heterosexual couple, one man and one woman.

What if two men or two women who have gone through a wedding ceremony conducted by the Justice of the Peace desire a religious blessing as well? Such a couple would be free to seek out a faith community that is willing to perform this ecclesiastical rite. More churches in the U.S. now do so than before. However, since the civil and religious aspects of a wedding would have been disentangled, the prospect of a gay couple legally coercing a conservative minister to perform the ceremony would be avoided since – by opting out – no conservative pastor would any longer be accredited by the State to carry out civil marriage functions on its behalf.

The United States is a pluralistic nation. Though once there was a Christian consensus, this is no longer the case. While some Christians consider the Bible authoritative on the question of marriage, in a democratic society, its teachings cannot be imposed upon those of other faiths or no faith. On the other hand, the longstanding tradition of the one-step wedding makes us vulnerable to having the unorthodox marriage views of others imposed upon us. It is high time that we get out of the civil marriage business. It is time that we learn the marriage two-step.

God’s not-so-secret plan to save creation

earthIt’s a classic scene in television’s West Wing. Josh Lyman mistakenly announces to the White House press corps that the president has a “secret plan to fight inflation.” His colleagues rib him mercilessly.

As it turns out God is nothing like Mr. Lyman. The divine plan is not to fight inflation but to save creation, and it’s not at all a secret. In fact, Jesus announces it openly:

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16, NLT).

The Greek word translated as “world” is kosmos. It can also be translated as universe. God – the creator of the universe – has a deep and abiding love for all creation. Psalm 145:9 affirms: “The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (ESV). Later, Psalm 149 calls on all creation to praise the LORD. Nothing is excluded – sun, moon, stars, angels, human beings, the creatures of the ocean depths, animals that scurry along the ground – all must give glory to the creator. In Isaiah’s vision, even trees join the people of God in joyful song (Isaiah 55:12).

The catastrophe

Yet something has gone terribly wrong in creation. Something is broken and must be repaired. Paul explained the devastating consequences of our first parents’ poor choice to disobey God. Death was the result of sin, or disobedience (Romans 5:12). This disastrous consequence rippled out to damage all that God had perfectly made. Romans 8:20-21 (NIV) tells us:

Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope,  the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.

In the first section of Christlike Disciples, Christlike World, we looked at the people of God, the church. Beginning in this chapter, we focus on the church’s mission. What are the people of God supposed to do? God wants to use us as partners to repair what is broken:

God’s intent is transformation, to restore to its original state all that God has made.

It’s a not-so-secret plan to save creation. And what is the catalyst that God will use to do that? It’s you, it’s me, it’s us as the church, a monumental mission inspired by our immense God. Yet too often in the past, our mission has been truncated, as if God cared only about the spiritual condition of individuals. In fact, God wants to make us Christlike disciples not as an end in itself, but as a means to a far broader end. This is the transformational mission of the people of God, to be God’s instruments of change in our community, our culture, and nature itself, redeeming the very biological ecosystem that sustains us.

ripples in a pond

Rock, ripples, and results

If we could only have one Gospel, I would choose Luke. It’s an amazing story of the difference Jesus of Nazareth makes in our world. The birth narrative in Luke 1-2 announces the coming of the Son of God to earth, the incarnation, the divine taking on human flesh.

Have you ever dropped a rock into a pond? What happens? The rock makes ripples. In a way, Jesus is like a rock that God the Father dropped into the pond of human existence. If Luke gives us the story of the rock, Jesus of Nazareth, then Acts is about the ripples and the results. In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells his 11 disciples that they must wait for the power of the Holy Spirit, who would live inside of them. Then – and only  then – can they effectively ripple out, impacting others in positive, life-changing ways:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8, ESV).

The Greek word for “power” is dunamis. It is the root from which derives the English word “dynamite.” When filled with the Holy Spirit, our lives ripple in powerful ways, positively influencing those around us. We become evidence of the transforming capacity of the Gospel.

Yet our world is highly change-resistant. The forces of the status quo don’t give in easily. Jesus found that out firsthand when they arrested, whipped, stripped and hung him on a cross to die. Now on a hill outside Jerusalem, the resurrected Christ warns his disciples: “You will be my witnesses.” The Greek word used in Acts 1:8 for “witnesses” is marthures, giving us our English word “martyr.” This is no ordinary testimony they will bear, but a testimony even unto death. Among those who heard Jesus that day was Peter, who tradition tells us was himself crucified upside down, when he considered himself unworthy to die in the same manner as had Jesus. Likewise, Stephen became the first martyr, stoned to death for his Christian confession (Acts 7). Advance always comes at a cost. The early history of the church is a bloody one. Writing in the 2nd century AD, Tertullian observed: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” What was true then is true today as numerous Christians in the Middle East are being martyred for no other offense than their faith in Christ.

Thankfully, the rock and the ripples are followed by results. Luke’s account in Acts shows the Christian faith moving out in ever-wider circles. Individuals are transformed, leading to transformation of communities and their pagan practices: Saul, Apollos, Lydia, Priscilla and Aquilla, Cornelius and many more become testimonies of the explosive, transformational power of belief in the risen Lord. In later chapters, we’ll look at some of those stories in greater detail.

Summing it all up

God cares deeply about all creation – human beings, communities, trees, animals, and the whole of creation, all of which were originally meant to praise the creator. Yet human sin – willful disobedience to God – marred what God had made perfect. Not willing to give up on what he had made, God in Christ has launched a not-so-secret plan to save creation, and God’s holy people, the church, are partners in that holy, transformational mission. In the next chapter, we’ll look at the human heart, where the problem originated and where the divine solution must begin.

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Image credits

Earth: Celestia Mother Lode

Pond: Insight 4 Living Today

 

Christian education: Digging deeper, building higher

skycraperI love skyscrapers. If visiting a new city, I’ll often head straight for the tallest building and – as long as the fee isn’t too much – take the elevator to the observation deck. There’s nothing like the view you can get of the city when perched up so high.

I’ve learned a few things about how engineers design skyscrapers. The more floors tall a building is, the deeper the foundation must be.

That’s a good picture of how the church should think about education. The church encourages education of all kinds for its people because she knows that God is not glorified by ignorance. Jesus never saw a contradiction between heart and head. He called us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Matthew 22:37). Jesus invites us: “Build high!” Followers of Christ are free to pursue truth and discovery in all its forms, but to build higher, we must first dig deeper.

Digging deeper

The Psalmist affirms: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. All who practice it have a good understanding” (Psalm 111:10a, ESV). God is the sure foundation upon which we can build in all areas of life, including educationally. Saint Augustine (d. 430 AD) called this “faith seeking understanding.”

The Jewish people knew how important it was to properly teach their children about God. In Deuteronomy 6:6-8 (NIV), God commands :

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.

Children are like wet cement. It is never a question of of whether they will be imprinted but only who will do the imprinting.

Parents are a child’s first teachers, and when it comes to learning about God, they turn to us. Once when our older son was only three years old, he was thinking about the song that he had learned in Sunday School, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” As we drove in the car, his question was earnest: “Mom and Dad, does God really have the whole world in His hands?” “Yes,” I replied, “God really does.” There was a long pause. Finally, he replied: “God must have really big hands!”

Theologians can debate the finer points of whether God as spirit can have hands (John 4:34). To do so is to miss the point. The imagery of “big hands” is a lesson about God’s immensity, that God is bigger than creation – and, by extension – bigger than any problem we face.

Not all lessons about God taught by parents are helpful. A mother warned her son: “Even if I can’t see what you’re doing, God sees.” While this may be true, is it helpful? She planted in the young mind of her son an image not of God as a loving Father who forgives  and can help us rise above our failures, but rather a as divine version of the CCTV monitoring cameras used by countries to track their own citizens. We must be careful what we teach and how we teach it, nurturing in our children a desire to draw near to God as one who is not only bigger than our problems but also loving, gracious, and worthy of our trust.

One program that helps build deep faith foundations is Bible quizzing. Memorization of Scripture is encouraged by the Bible itself (Psalm 119:11) and few programs have been as successful in grounding youth in God’s written Word. In moments of uncertainty, passages memorized serve as an internal moral compass, guiding us to make decisions that are pleasing to God.

Yet Christian education – at home or at church – should focus not just on Bible memorization but also discovering how each of us fits into what Michael Lodahl calls the “Story of God.” That story in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments reveals God as a tri-unity (Trinity), God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Knowing that some of the subjects they would discuss could be unsettling, a theology professor was wise. He would always begin his class by inviting students to recite the Apostles’ Creed, the foundational, ancient summary of that story of faith:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.

Educating our children in the things of God begins at the youngest age. It is the task of parents and other members of the household of faith to bring them up to love God. While learning about God is lifelong, many churches make a point to catechize children around the age of 12. Catechism is a system of questions and responses that a child memorizes. Some traditions call this “foundations of faith.” It is another opportunity to make sure that our children have experienced the transformational work of Christ in their lives, that for them Jesus is not just the Savior of the world but their Savior. Children who have not yet decided to follow Jesus can be encouraged to make that decision.

Easter Sunday is traditionally the day when new believers are baptized. Graduates from the catechism class who have a clear profession of Christian faith but who have not yet been baptized should be given the opportunity to be baptized by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling. Since Christian baptism is a sacrament of initiation and therefore is not repeatable (Ephesians 4:5),  those who at the request of their parents were already baptized as infants or young children can publicly participate in a ritual that reaffirms what their parents did for them — see the liturgy in the “Appendix.”

Building higher

Because God calls us to love the LORD with all our mind, the people of God are not threatened by education in all its forms. Rather, they embrace it as another expression of their worship. Though the emperor Charlemagne (d. 814) was wrong to not allow for the education of girls, he is to be commended for requiring cathedrals and monasteries to provide a course of study for intelligent boys who also had the desire to learn. Later, Pope Gregory VII (1073-85 AD) insisted that clergy be well educated, leading over time to the founding in the mid 12th century of the first university (the famed “Sorbonne”) attached to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Areas of study included theology, philosophy, law, mathematics, and medicine. Such an openness to both the book of revelation (Scripture) and nature’s book (science) was the seedbed that would later produce men like Gregory Mendel (1822-84), a monk who became a renowned geneticist.

Besides Roman Catholicism, the Reformed tradition of Christianity (birthed in the early 16th century) has taught that “all truth is God’s truth.” Celebrated English physicist Isaac Newton (b. 1642) was also a man of abiding faith, writing extensively in the fields of science and theology.  This dual curiosity was shared by the Anglican priest and co-founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-91). Wesley was fascinated by medicine, and wrote a book outlining remedies for common ailments. He also developed a machine used to shock those suffering from depression, a crude precursor to 20th century electroshock therapy.

Today, this ability to see science and Christian faith as compatible – not contradictory – lives on in persons like John Polkinghorne, an accomplished theoretical physicist who later became an Anglican priest. His attitude reflects the maxim of the late longtime Dean of Eastern Nazarene College:

There is no conflict between the best of education and the best in the Christian religion.

Far from undermining Christian faith, encouraging our children to pursue knowledge in whatever academic discipline they choose will often establish their faith. It gives them the confident message that our faith is robust, not like a fragile teacup, ready to shatter under the slightest pressure. Psalm 19:1 (NIV) celebrates: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Because God is the Creator, the creation will point to its author, like a painting tells us something of the character of the painter.

Christian education is like a skyscraper. With Christian faith as a solid foundation, we invite our people to build the skyscraper of knowledge higher than ever before. Yet to build higher, we must first dig deeper. For the people of God, education is founded upon the fear of the Lord, then builds upward. The pursuit of knowledge in all its forms is not an affront to God but a noble expression of what it means to love God with all our mind. This is our duty, and this is our joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Accordingly, no matter the academic discipline, we encourage followers of Jesus to reach as high as they can, to build the superstructure of knowledge and discovery as high as they can.

 

 

A skeptic once defined “faith” as believing with all your heart what you couldn’t possibly believe with all your head. Yet Jesus never saw a contradiction between faith that is passionate and faith that is reflective. He urged us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Matthew 22:37). Loving God does not mean checking our brain at the church door.