Category Archives: Kingdom Issues

Witness – part 2

In my last post, I did my best to dance around the idea that “witnessing” – understood as the act of articulating and arguing for the theological/philosophical claims of Christianity – is not something that all believers are called to do. Yes, we should study and grow in our knowledge of the faith. We should not be afraid of being embarrassed by losing debates or looking ignorant in the eyes of secular culture. But the evangelist-proper, the man or woman who is apt to make compelling arguments for the truth of the gospel, is probably a more specific spiritual gifting/calling, not a universal assignment. OK. Major paradigm shift there. And one that I hope not only alleviates a whole lot of illegitimate guilt, but energizes us to consider exactly what a universal Christian witness could look like “on the ground.”

I’m very comfortable suggesting that all Christian witness begins in behavior. Early on in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it explicitly clear that his followers’ being a bright city on a hill is metaphorical talk for highly visible good works that cause people to glorify our Father in heaven. So this is where we begin, this issue that exposes almost all of us as not quite as serious about our faith as we may like to think we are. Do we speak and (re-)act in ways that echo the life of Christ? Do we (re-)present the life of the Kingdom Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount? This Kingdom life is a strange, counter-intuitive existence! No critical spirits. No lustful looks. No need to be respected. No insistence on one’s own rights. Oh and the blessing of enemies. The praying for those who harm us. The refusal to be satisfied with a good action (fasting, praying, giving), but rather, the insistence on the right motivation. All this leaves us with a picture of life that is not “natural” to us, but in our dark world, even an incremental embodiment of it will stick out…

And this is where most witness-as-articulation should come in: responding to the inevitable questions that a life which is faithful to the teachings of Jesus will raise. Hence 1 Peter 3.15b-16, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” When was the last time someone “demanded an accounting” of your hopeful, yet odd, way of being human? Yeah. I can’t remember either. We can increasingly enter into this Kingdom-life by doing a couple of things…

  • study Jesus regularly and closely in the Gospels.
  • pray without ceasing…the psalms, the Book of Common Prayer, explosive extemporaneous prayer, etc.
  • practice silence and solitude, even if it’s five minutes to start and end the day.
  • commit to fellowship with other believers who will provoke you to love and good deeds (Heb 10.24).

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Be Witnesses (sermon follow-up)

“I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

– Isaiah 49.6b

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

– Matthew 5.14-16

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

– Acts 1.8

So this past weekend I preached a message that was intended to significantly alter our paradigm for evangelism and Christian witness. It was wonderful to be able to dig into this during “Epiphanytide,” the season of the Church calendar that celebrates the fact that the gospel has been revealed to the Gentiles – that we “who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2.13b)

Two thoughts came to mind as I prayed about this topic of evangelism. First, in my experience and tradition, evangelism is the act of articulating the explicit theological and philosophical claims of Christianity in order to persuade people to surrender their lives to Jesus Christ as their “Lord and Savior” (hello, “Sinner’s Prayer”!). We do this because we have been convinced that if someone dies without sincerely praying the “prayer of salvation” they will spend eternity in the unspeakable anguish of the darkest, hottest hell. Secondly, evangelism (in this vain) has been presented as the responsibility of everyone who calls themselves a Christian. We love our neighbors by warning them that “the bridge is out” up ahead, and doing so boldly.

I wonder if this understanding of “evangelism” is the standard in evangelical and charismatic circles. If so, it presents several challenges that came to mind as I prepared to preach to my congregation communicate to my faith community on this subject. For starters, most believers don’t feel comfortable or capable of engaging in the intellectual enterprise of gospel-articulation, especially in our increasingly post-modern, pseudo-philosophical, pluralistic culture. Let’s be honest, this is “missionary” work and we need to learn the language if we hope to be effective. Not everyone has the time or ability to become fluent in the language of theology, philosophy, and metaphysics. Secondly, if we take the call to preach the gospel seriously on a personal level, we will almost certainly live with a tremendous amount of guilt because of our inevitable failure to be faithful to that calling. Thirdly, many “outsiders” have been repelled by the Christian faith because they’ve encountered this sort of “witnessing” and it leaves them feeling like a project more than a person (see Dave Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons’ work in unChristian). And finally, this sort of “evangelism” tends to reduce Christianity to mere mental assent, moralism, and escapism, when in fact it is a call to join God’s family, to have his image restored in us, and to partner in his work of restoring the world.

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This is not easy…but it is necessary

In the wake of a provocative sermon…(you can listen to it here)

So this past Sunday was easily the most challenging in my 20+ years of ministry. I knew that I had to say some vulnerable things, some controversial things, some incomplete things, some…things. For only the second time in my life, I wrote out the sermon in a manuscript form. I knew that if I didn’t write things down I’d forget to say things that needed to be said, while simultaneously saying more than my usual fare of unnecessary things. As I predicted, the sermon did NOT offer a clear and tidy summary of the events of last week. It did stir some deep feelings in the hearts of some precious people, and I’ll forever be grateful for and humbled by the fact that they were willing to share their feelings with me. My prayer is that by writing this post, I will provide a pathway forward deeper into the darkness of America’s sin, so that while we’re there we can be a source of light and hope. This is not about backtracking or toning down what I preached on Sunday, but adding layers of complexity and understanding to it. Let the praying commence!

I think I’ll number a list of some of the issues that have come up in the last 48 hours…

  1. There are times when it’s healthy, appropriate and godly to walk away from a Sunday gathering with a deep sense of discomfort. Generally I do feel that the worship gathering should produce a people who are truly happy because they have been reminded of the fact that their God is the Lord! (Psalm 144.15) Yet at the same time, the realities of our broken world and our confused souls require a different response. In those moments, to leave church comforted is dishonest and probably selfish. We’re the people who are called to “weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12.15) If we couldn’t stir up tears on Sunday but we at least left feeling uneasy, that’s a spiritual gift – embrace it. (Amos 6 comes to mind…)

 

  1. These message was meant to address different ethnic groups differently because, generally speaking, their needs are different. We must not ever presume that the “black” or “white” experience in America is monolithic. People and cultures are amazingly complex and with that complexity comes a figurative kaleidoscope of perspectives. With that fact in view, however, there are some lowest common denominators that need to be addressed. My call to white Christians is going to be more authoritative and pointed because…I’m white. We are most inclined to listen vulnerably to people who are like us, who give us a sense of safety. I cannot imagine a context in which I could’ve even entertained the idea of “white privilege” if Cornell West was presenting it. However, when Pastor Tim Keller presented it, I could listen sincerely. I wish that wasn’t the case, but that’s my story, and I don’t think I’m the exception. White saints need to be a source of “oil and wine” right now to the black community. That probably looks like doing a whole lotta listening. Like inviting people who don’t look like us out for coffee and getting to know them. Like listening to public voices that challenge our thinking and genuinely listening to them. Does the African American community need “pointed” talk? Maybe. Some of my fellow pastors who are African American seem to think so, but my response to that possibility is prayer not pontification.

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The Strangers

“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.” [Leviticus 25.23 / ESV]

We all long for stability. On some level, stability – along with pleasure – serves as one of the ultimate aims of all human pursuits. We do good in school so we can get into good colleges so we can get good jobs so we can be good providers so we can qualify for good spouses so we can…? We don’t want to simply enjoy life, but to enjoy it consistently over the “long haul.” Stability even becomes a basis for bragging among the wealthy who feel the need to discriminate between people with money and those with “old money.” Stability. On a less crass note, the very notion of “home” is dripping with the nectar of stability. Our social relations – and our standing within them – give us a sense of stability in our identity. Granted, they can also be a source of misery and insecurity, but when our relationships are firing on all cylinders, we can (almost subconsciously?) derive our very own sense of being from them.

On some level, this is the way God designed us to be as humans. We are social beings created by a God who is a society in himself. But all of our social (and physical) realities ultimately exist to point us to the ultimate reality: God. And that is what I love about this “out of the way” text in Leviticus. God is telling his people: “yes, you can privately own land – but you can’t own it forever.” In a highly agrarian society, land is everything…wealth, prestige, opportunity, and STABILITY. God does not say that these things are bad and his people should not have them. He IS saying that he doesn’t want his people to see mere land as the source of any of those things! Whatever wealth or stability the land brought you may be nice, but God can bring you all of that without any land. Because he is GOD, and the land is very much not God.

I think there may be a more radical message here. God goes a step beyond telling his people what they must do – he tells them why. God wants them to be strangers and sojourners on this earth, which, to me implies that we should not be looking for complete satisfaction in the here and now. God is presenting himself as a stranger and a sojourner in the earth. Whuh-hu-hoa! He is here among us, but he’s a stranger. In the original Hebrew this refers to a foreign shepherd and this can only make me think of Jesus, who is called the “Good Shepherd.” But the phrase that I’m taken by is “with me.” He wants us to be with him! And the scheduled disconnecting of ourselves from the very things that keep us stable pushes us to him, the only real and lasting sense of “home.”

Most of us are not farmers, so we don’t relate to having to give up land in quite the same way as the original audience of Leviticus would have, but like all humans in all times, we long for the stability that material things seem to provide. We get very comfy in our lives and fall for the deception that God wants us absolutely comfy. I’ve heard about the “God of all comfort,” yet I’ve never heard a message that presented God as a stranger on his own planet! And I’ve never heard an explicit call to be a stranger with him. And you can bet a buck or two that no preacher in his right mind has ever told me that because of my wicked heart, an intentional and regular separation from “my stuff” is essential to maintain a healthy union with this Stranger-God.

This world does not need Christians who are looking to the same things they do in order to find stability in life. This world needs to encounter the Strangers: a God and his people who are not of this world… [John 18.36 / ESV]

The Trouble with Relevance

Having grown up in the evangelical/fundamentalist/Pentecostal sub-culture, I know what it’s like to live with the mind-set that the whole world is against you. Oh, and don’t forget: this is because you’re so committed to absolute truth and holiness. The “us v. them” mentality was unwittingly burned into my psyche, to the point that I often catch myself today assuming people have no respect for, or interest in, me or my Christian faith. Cultural disdain was proportionate to spiritual maturity. No, really.

Fast-forward to the turn of the 21st Century, and the Holy Spirit really started to stir many in my religious circle, convicting us of our delusions of superiority. Notice I said we were being convicted, I’m not saying we fully repented or put that nonsense to death (Colossians 3.5), but a consciousness began to dawn…a sense that our intentional, extreme disconnection from culture made us overwhelmingly ineffective in reaching it with the Gospel. You start to wonder what the point of all the services and meetings (and self-denial) was.

Enter the pendulum effect. “Project: Immerse-Oneself-In-Just-About-Every-Dimension-of-Pop-Culture” began. Couple this with preaching that was exposing the explicitly cultural and extra-biblical realities of church life, and we were getting made-over like a hillbilly on Today with Kathie Lee and Hoda. Toss the 8-button suit with the gaudy Versace tie and go getchyoself a tattoo and a scotch! And you know what? Nothing really changed. We were still petty, superficial, carnal people who were not bringing people to Jesus. We were a little bit smarter, but we weren’t much better for it. Sadly, some of us got so pulled into the vortex of uninhibited carnality, that we never recovered. Instead of being committed to the right things for all the wrong reasons, we were committed to nothing but our own pleasure and convenience.

So now what? Well, I’m not sure, but it seems that I have needed grace to discover at least three things:

  1. a sense of the beauty and wonder in the Person of Jesus Christ
  2. an understanding that the Church and the Kingdom aren’t synonymous, but neither are they mutually exclusive
  3. a deep appreciation for the history of God’s people on the earth and my connection to them

This has helped me become more comfortable in my “new creation” skin, and have a broader perspective on this issue of cultural relevance. The painfully predictable “baby with the bathwater” approach just isn’t a solution, but neither is the status quo. I’m guessing there’s a third way…