Posts tagged ‘Gospel’

Charleston

A view ofthe Emanuel AME Church is seen June 18, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, after a mass shooting at the church on the evening of June 17, 2015.  US police on Thursday arrested a 21-year-old white gunman suspected of killing nine people at a prayer meeting in one of the nation's oldest black churches in Charleston, an attack being probed as a hate crime. The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southeastern US city was one of the worst attacks on a place of worship in the country in recent years, and comes at a time of lingering racial tensions. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

There have been plenty of tears in Charleston these past few days. When 21-year old Dylann Roof first walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, he appeared as though he came to join the congregation in its Wednesday evening Bible study. But after nearly an hour, he opened fire, killing nine people, including the church’s pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney. According to reports, he announced as he stood up and drew his gun that he was there “to shoot black people.” Survivors said Roof also told the congregation, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

I wish I could attribute what happened in Charleston to the simple fact that Roof is a deranged lunatic, which, if preliminary reports are any indication, he probably is. But there is more at work here than just Roof’s psychological health. What happened in Charleston is also a reminder that ideas have consequences. Good ideas have good consequences. And yes, bad ideas can have devastating consequences. Roof, as insane as he may be, is a man with ideas – deeply racist ideas. And these ideas have now left a church, a town, and a nation in mourning. This is why, in today’s blog, I want to take a moment to remind you of what the gospel has to say about racism. For the bad ideas of racist hatred can never be allowed to trump the holy ideals of perfect love.

Acts 10 tells the story of a Roman soldier named Cornelius and one of Jesus’ apostles, a Jew named Peter. Generally, Jews and Romans did not get along. This had to do in part with the fact that the Romans were the occupying force in Israel at this time. It also had to do with the fact that Romans were Gentiles, and Jews and Gentiles despised each other. One of the prayers many pious Jews of this day would pray was, “Blessed art Thou, [O God], who did not make me a Gentile.” So you can imagine that Peter must have been more than a little uncomfortable when three men came to his door and said, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion” (Acts 10:22). Just the mention of a Gentile soldier, especially when that Gentile soldier happens to be working for the army that is occupying your nation, would have turned Peter’s stomach. But this group of men had a special request of the apostle: “A holy angel told him to have you come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say” (Acts 10:22).

It is at this point that Peter had a decision to make: does he turn his nose up in disgust at these men because of their racial and political differences, or does he welcome them and honor their request?

“Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests. The next day Peter started out with them” (Acts 10:23).

Peter, rather than walking the well-worn and socially accepted road of the racism of his day, instead chose the road of racial reconciliation. Indeed, when Peter finally does talk to Cornelius, he announces, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear Him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). God, Peter explains, loves people without regard to race. He loves people “from every nation.” This is why, when another apostle named John sees a vision of heaven, he sees people “from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).

Peter’s words, then, cut the core of the problem with racism. Racism says, “Even if God accepts people from every nation, I will not.” And to not accept someone that God has is not only hateful, it is wicked.

In my mind, the most eerie, yet poignant, part of this tragedy at Charleston is that Roof, when he first entered the church building, walked up and sat next to Pastor Pinckney. In a predominantly black congregation, and as someone who had not been there before, he would have surely stuck out. The pastor could have shunned him, or, at the very least, ushered him to a more “appropriate” spot that wasn’t right next to the church’s leader. But Pastor Pinckney welcomed him. He gladly let him sit next to him. He, as Jesus said, loved his enemies even though, at the time, he didn’t know Roof was his enemy.  Indeed, in one of Roof’s most chilling confessions, he said he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.”  Now that’s amazing love from a congregation who has every reason to hate.

Oh, that we would all have a double portion of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal’s spirit. For a spirit like that is just what we need to prevent tragedies like this.

+ IN MEMORIAM +

Cynthia Hurd
Susie Jackson
Ethel Lance
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Tywanza Sanders
Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons
Rev. Sharonda Singleton
Myra Thompson

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June 22, 2015 at 5:15 am 5 comments

The Greatest Show On Earth

20150329_100138This past weekend at the church where I serve, we presented our annual Palm Sunday pageant depicting the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a lot of work for all involved, but I always come out of the pageant with a deep sense of satisfaction and awe, for I have the privilege of working with amazing people who have amazing gifts and know how to use them in amazing ways.  I am deeply thankful for the people with whom I get to work.  They are a blessing to me.

In one way, our pageant can be characterized as a spectacle. It has moving music featuring a live orchestra and choir, well-choreographed lights, lots of actors, and a graphic enough depiction of Christ’s death that we make available an alternative worship service for small children who may be unsettled by what they see. But, of course, it isn’t the spectacle of our Palm Sunday pageant that makes it valuable and powerful. It’s the message. There is simply no better message than the gospel message – that Christ was crucified for sinners. Our prayer is that this message – as it is presented in the pageant – leads hearts to repentance and faith, even as God has promised in His Word.

In Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion, there is an interesting reaction to His death from the bystanders: “All the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48). The word for “spectacle” in Greek is theoria, related to our English word “theatre.” This is a most appropriate word because crucifixions were indeed gory theatre. If someone was an enemy of the Roman State, the governing officials, though they could have executed such a person in other, more efficient and less gruesome ways, chose crucifixion. Why? Because crucifixion served as a public, humiliating spectacle. In fact, most criminals were crucified naked so as to shamefully expose them. Jesus is no exception. His crucifixion is meant to be theatre. It is meant to be spectacle. It is meant to be theoria, just as Luke says.

But in the middle of this spectacle, something unexpected happens.

When the crowds see the darkness that covers the land, when they hear the news that the curtain of Jerusalem’s temple has been torn in two, when they hear Jesus commend Himself into His Father’s hands, and when they are startled by the testimony of one of Jesus’ executioners saying, “Certainly this man was innocent” (cf. Luke 23:44-47), they “return home beating their breasts.” In Jewish piety, this is a sign of repentance (e.g., Luke 18:13). What begins as theatre and spectacle becomes a life-changing event that testifies to the truth of Jesus’ identity and to the promise of God’s salvation.

At many churches this Holy Week, there will be a certain amount of spectacle. There will be Maundy Thursday services that conclude dramatically with a reading of Psalm 22 and a stripping of the church’s altar to remind us of Christ’s humiliation on the cross. There will be moving Good Friday Tenebrae services that turn sanctuaries black with darkness to remind worshipers of the darkness of sin and of Jesus’ death. And, of course, there will be energetic Easter services, complete with Easter lilies, rafter-shaking music, and the historic, thrilling Easter greeting, “Christ is risen!” to which the congregation will respond, “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Yes, there will be plenty of spectacle this week. And this, I would note, is great. I love the spectacle of this time of year.

My prayer, however, is that even as spectacle may be an inevitable and helpful part of Holy Week, we remember that it is not all of Holy Week. For the spectacle is meant to point to something better – and to Someone greater. The spectacle is meant to point us to the cross – and to the One who died on it. And Jesus is more than a spectacle. He is your Savior. That’s what those bystanders at Jesus’ cross discovered as they beat their breasts. And that’s what we are called to believe.

March 30, 2015 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Changing Racist Hearts

Credit:  AP / The Washington Post

Credit: AP / The Washington Post

It’s been a tough week for race relations in America. Saturday, March 7 began with a march, led by President Obama and Representative John Lewis, across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the day 600 voting rights demonstrators, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., crossed this same bridge and were met by state troopers who attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas. Indeed, Representative Lewis was among those seriously injured in that fateful march. Reflecting on the events of fifty years ago, the president noted:

In one afternoon fifty years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher – all that history met on this bridge.

It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America.

And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so many others, the idea of a just America, and a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America – that idea ultimately triumphed …

What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate.[1]

If only the president’s final line rang a truer longer.

The very next day, a video surfaced showing members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a horrifyingly racist song on a bus. The University quickly denounced the video, suspended the fraternity from its campus, and expelled two of the students involved.

But then came this:

Attorneys and law professors have watched with interest this week as the University of Oklahoma moved swiftly to disband the school’s SAE chapter and expel two students on suspicion of leading the racist chant, which was captured on a now-viral video.

University President David Boren acted decisively in dismantling the chapter, but experts say the university may be on shaky legal ground.[2]

The issue at hand is whether or not the University of Oklahoma violated the students’ First Amendment rights by closing their fraternity and expelling two students simply because they sang a song that many find – and, I hasten to add, should find – offensive. As Terrence McCoy reports in an article for The Washington Post:

The expulsions immediately struck constitutional law experts such as professor Eugene Volokh, of the University of California at Los Angeles and the Volokh Conspiracy blog, as strange. Did the University of Oklahoma, a public institution, just punish speech that, while clearly abhorrent, was protected under the First Amendment? Was this a violation of the Constitution?

Private institutions – like Sigma Alpha Epsilon – can freely punish speech that breaches their codes or standards. But a public institution such as the University of Oklahoma, which takes public money, operates as an arm of the government under the law. “So, in effect, it’s not a university punishing a student for a racist video or social media post, it is the state itself acting against an individual – a person, importantly, with all the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment,” wrote the University of West Alabama’s Will Nevin on AL.com.[3]

This case is yet another example of how woefully inadequate civic laws can be to address the deeply moral aspects of the human condition and experience.

One the one hand, the First Amendment was put in place to serve an important common good – that of protecting this country’s citizens from being oppressed, even in their speech, by their government. This freedom is important and ought to be fiercely protected.  On the other hand, we must never forget that societal freedom is inevitably fraught with personal danger. Free speech, it turns out, does not always translate into right speech. Just because legally we can say almost anything doesn’t mean that morally we should.

An opinion piece by Byron Williams of The Huffington Post struck me as especially lucid in regard to this story’s moral entailments:

America’s approach to the original sin of racism maintains an aspect of arrested development. It is too easy to temporarily transfer our moral indignation toward a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma that no longer exists than it is to take the more difficult path that could lead to a meaningful transformation.[4]

Notice the explicitly theological and moral category Williams uses for racism: it’s America’s “original sin.” But notice also how Williams also offers a distinctly non-civic answer to his distinctly theological and moral framing of this problem:

The expelled students have already succeeded in dismantling their fraternity chapter. Shouldn’t they be given opportunity for redemption? In lieu of expulsion, could the university have found another way to educate all involved about the poisons of racism?

The ease with which one can easily sing a song for amusement that dehumanizes another cannot be eradicated by an expulsion that, in my view, is unconstitutional.

Because racism is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned.

Moreover, it could prove to be the most meaningful class the students involved ever take.

To answer what he refers to as an “original sin,” Williams proposes a path to “redemption.” Though he does not frame redemption in a particularly Christian way, his argument is nevertheless rich with not-so-subtle theological overtones and vocabulary. Racists, as Williams notes, “cannot be eradicated by an expulsion.” In other words, if we want to root out racism from society, racists will need something more than punitive measures. As Christians, we know that racists will need Jesus – even as all sinners need Jesus. And racists will need followers of Jesus who are willing both to stand up against them and to seek the transformation of them.

One student’s words on last Monday’s NBC Nightly News broadcast express my hope for the students of Sigma Alpha Epsilon: “I want this to be a rehabilitory time for them.”[5] I hope it is. Because although the First Amendment may be able to defend them legally, it’s only Jesus who can change them internally. And it’s only Jesus who can heal people left broken by these students’ words relationally. So let’s lift our eyes to that hope. After a week like this last one, it’s a hope that we need.

_________________________

[1] Chris Cillizza, “A single photo that tells the powerful story of the 50th anniversary of Selma,” The Washington Post (3.7.2015).

[2] Matt Pearce, “Is University of Oklahoma frat’s racist chant protected by 1st Amendment?Los Angeles Times (3.10.2015).

[3] Terrence McCoy, “Why expelled Oklahoma frat boys would have an ‘excellent chance’ in court,” The Washington Post (3.11.2015).

[4] Byron Williams, “It’s Not Unconstitutional to Be Racist,” The Huffington Post (3.11.2015).

[5] NBC Nightly News, Lester Holt reporting (3.9.2015).

March 16, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Why Brian Williams Is Just Like You (And Vice Versa)

Brian WilliamsSix months. That’s how long NBC has suspended Brian Williams, the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, in response to inaccurate statements he made about riding in a Chinook helicopter that was hit by an RPG while reporting from Iraq in 2003.[1]

Before I proceed any farther with this story, a bit of disclosure: I like Brian Williams. I have been watching Brian, and before him Tom Brokaw, on NBC Nightly News for years. I suspect I’m not the only one.

But this blog is not so much about the misdeeds and subsequent suspension of Brian Williams as it is about the public response to the misdeeds and subsequent suspension of Brian Williams. Two primary responses to this debacle seem to have emerged.

The first is that of antipathy. On Twitter, whole hashtags are devoted to ripping Williams for his sloppy retelling of his time in Iraq. The crush of critics reveling in what can only be described as a psychotic schadenfreude is unnerving to newsmen such as Bill O’Reilly, who told Jimmy Kimmel: “Anybody who is enjoying the destruction of this man — you got to look at yourself. And there’s a lot of people who seem to be real happy his career is going down the drain. That disturbs me.”[2] I couldn’t agree more. The prophet Obadiah warns, “You should not look down on your brother in the day of his misfortune, nor rejoice over…people… in the day of their destruction, nor boast so much in the day of their trouble” (Obadiah 12). But this is exactly what some people are doing. They are filled with gleeful antipathy.

But this isn’t the only response to this sordid affair. There’s another, much more supportive response to the embattled reporter – that of sympathy. Some folks have rallied to Williams’ side, especially on the Facebook page for Nightly News. Again and again, supporters have commented, “Bring back Brian Williams!!!!!!” (Sometimes, their messages have included even more exclamation points). These people are willing to overlook Williams’ faux pas and offer their unreserved, untempered support. They feel bad for the news anchor and believe his actions should get a pass.

Honestly, I am not comfortable with either of these responses. The antipathy of some smacks of an arrogant judgmentalism while the sympathy of others seems to be little more than a sappy sentimentalism. As Christians, I believe the best thing we can offer Brian Williams – and others caught in similar transgressions – is our empathy.

Though the word “empathy” was coined only at the beginning of the twentieth century, it is an important and helpful term to describe the similarities between others and ourselves. When we understand how much we share in common with others, it helps us help others. This is part of what the preacher of Hebrews says constitutes the very heart of Jesus’ ministry: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus, through His incarnation, empathizes with us. He puts Himself in our place and knows exactly how we feel. He then helps us accordingly.

So what does it mean to empathize with Brian Williams? It means we need to admit that we, like he, are prone to yarn spinning. It means we need to be willing to say, to borrow a mantra from the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, “Je suis Brian Williams.” Those who are highly antipathetic toward Brian Williams seem to have forgotten this. From their perch of righteous indignation, they throw stones, ignoring that their perch sits in a glass house. The apostle Paul’s words are especially apropos here: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Romans 2:1).

But true empathy goes farther than just identifying with another person. True empathy leads to helping that person. How can we help Brian Williams? In the same way Jesus helps us. He calls us to repentance. This is where folks highly sympathetic to Brian Williams go wrong. In their zeal to support the anchor, they have minimized and rationalized his sin.

I find it hopeful that in a statement released by Steve Burke, CEO and President of NBC Universal, Mr. Burke indicated that Brian “shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”[3] Remorse can be well and good, but not unless it is what Paul calls “Godly sorrow [that] brings repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10). My prayer is that Brian Williams’ remorse is a Godly remorse.

Do you know what the best part of repentance for Brian Williams will be? At this point, Brian has no guarantee that his suspension will not ultimately become his termination. NBC has refused to guarantee his position. But even if NBC says, “You’re fired,” in repentance, Jesus says, “You’re forgiven.” And that’s better than any anchor chair. And that’s a promise good not only for a national news anchor, but for low-profile, everyday sinners like you and me.

_____________________________

[1] Roger Yu and Melanie Eversley, “NBC: Brian Williams suspended for six months,” USA Today (2.11.2015).

[2]Bill O’Reilly says Brian Williams ‘made a mistake,’ not sure he will keep job,” Fox News (2.10.2015).

[3] Erik Wemple, “How can NBC News’s Brian Williams ‘win back everyone’s trust’ from the beach?Washington Post (2.10.2015).

February 16, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Humans: Never for Sale

Credit:  texasgopvote.com

Credit: texasgopvote.com

Shortly before the new year, The New York Times published a short, heartbreaking article featuring stories from U.S. sex trafficking victims. Though there were only two stories, these were all that was needed to shock and grieve their reader. I share one of the two here:

Now 32, Genesis was offered her first hit of crack cocaine by her mother when she was 13. By 18, she had a criminal record. She spent her teenage years in and out of strip clubs before becoming the property of a violent pimp. By 21, Genesis had lost a baby and become addicted to drugs.

For years under a violent trafficker, Genesis said she was never allowed to leave his house. The rooms were bugged, the bathroom had no doors. She said her pimp used to tie her and other women he trafficked to a weight bench, beat them and starve them …

“I didn’t know I was in hell,” she said. “I thought it was just life. Over those years I was held hostage, shot at, beaten with a pistol. And somewhere in my sick mind I thought this is how life is supposed to be.”[1]

If only Genesis’ story was unique. But it’s not. Sex trafficking is a much broader problem. Though it’s hard to track because so many victims of sex trafficking do not report their experiences, the Department of Justice estimates that as many as 300,000 children may become victims of sexual exploitation each year.[2] Even if the numbers are lower, one case of sex trafficking is one too many.

The sadness of human exploitation struck me in a new way as I was reading Revelation 18 in my devotions this past week. John is describing the fall of Babylon, a city symbolic of the world’s evil. John describes the decimation of this world’s systemic sin once and for all:

“Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come!” The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes any more – cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and bodies and souls of men. (Revelation 18:10-13)

John’s Babylon sold many things to enrich itself. But most tragically, it sold the “bodies and souls of men.”

John’s Babylon is not far from us. Every time a young lady is prostituted out to the darkest of men, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by pimps – just like in Babylon. Every time a woman performs simulated sex acts at a club for a gaggle of wide-eyed gawkers, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by the adult entertainment industry – just like in Babylon. Every time a person sits hidden behind a flickering computer screen, staring at erotic images of the most carnal of acts, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by the porn industry – just like in Babylon. Every time a scared woman is counseled and even cajoled to abort her baby even though everything inside of her is telling her not to, “bodies and souls of men” are sold by the abortion industry – just like in Babylon.

How sick.

As heart-rending as human trafficking may be, John promises that, mercifully, this sick industry will meet its end. The “bodies and souls of men” will not be sold forever. Babylon will fall. And when Babylon does fall, the merchants who made their money off the pain of people will grieve their destruction and cry, “Woe” (Revelation 18:19)! But those who have been oppressed and sold will celebrate their liberation and shout, “Rejoice” (Revelation 18:20)!

May that day of rejoicing come quickly.

If you need help out of being trafficked, click here.

_______________________

[1] The Associated Press, “Sex Trafficking Shelter Filled With Survivor Tales,” The New York Times (12.29.2014).

[2] William Adams, Colleen Owens, and Kevonne Small, “Effects of Federal Legislation on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children,” Juvenile Justice Bulletin (July 2010).

January 26, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Must Christianity Change or Die?

Credit: Rudy Tiben

Credit: Rudy Tiben

Sometimes, it can feel as though the sky is falling and the bottom is dropping out all at the same time. It seems like I can go barely a day without reading a dire report on church attrition, especially among the younger generation. Between high school and turning 30, 43 percent of once-active young adults stop attending church.[1] As of 2012, almost one-third of young adults were unaffiliated with a religious institution.[2] In one survey, researchers found that nearly one-third of young adults left the Christian faith because of its “negative teachings” related to gays and lesbians.[3]

Such gloomy statistics lead to predictable calls to fix the Church by changing its teachings, lest the next generation, discontent with the Church’s antiquated morals, leave her altogether. Take, for instance, this call from popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans:

Young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people …

Young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness …

The evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and … millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt …

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.[4]

Evans’ last line is striking to me. In response to changing cultural norms, Evans maintains that the Church must change the substance of her message. In the words of the famed Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong, “Christianity must change or die.”[5] How must Christianity change? Evans offers some suggestions:

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

Evans’ words here are fascinating – and confusing – to me because, understood one way, they are commendable, orthodox, and necessary. But understood another way, they are deeply troubling. For instance, if a “truce between science and faith” means understanding the respective spheres of each and welcoming scientific discovery while at the same time remaining faithful to Scripture’s narrative, I’m onboard. If, however, it means dumping the historicity of Scripture’s creation account, I’m troubled. If having “our LGBT friends feel truly welcome in our faith communities” means showing love, compassion, and going out of our way to listen and learn from the LGBT community, I’m more than all for it. If it means calling what is sinful, “just,” I’m troubled. Sadly, I can’t help but think that, all too often, it’s the latter understandings of these statements that are insinuated. Otherwise, it is feared, a whole generation of young people will leave the Church.

But is this really the case?

Take Rob Bell. Here is a man who has, at least in part, bought into Spong’s motto, “Christianity must change or die.” In his book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Bell asks candidly, “Can God keep up with the modern world?”[6] He fought to build a community – Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids – that would lead the way in this new Christianity. Until he left. In an interview with Oprah, he says his Sunday mornings are now regularly filled with he and his 13-year-old son surfing.[7] Rob Bell was leading a changed church. But even a changed church wasn’t enough to keep Bell around. And he isn’t the only one.

For decades now, churches that have changed the substance of the Christian faith have not been gaining members, but losing members. And now, even as young people are leaving traditional churches, they are not joining these changed churches. They are leaving altogether.[8]

It would seem that if a church is willing to “get with the times,” so to speak, and embrace our culture’s zeitgeist, its pews should be filled to overflowing with the ranks of the enlightened, all breathing a collective sigh of relief that, finally, the offensive, narrow, bigoted Christianity of yesteryear has been relegated to the scrap heap of history. But this has not happened.

The problem with changing the faith of the Church – even the parts of the faith that are not particularly palpable to our modern ears – is that such changes inevitably displace Christianity’s eschatological hope with an evolutionary drum.

What do I mean?

Whether it’s the so-called “war” between science and faith, or the question of gay marriage, or the role of politics in faith, many Christians have simply traded one side of Rachel Held Evans’ despised culture war for the other. They desire to evolve beyond what they perceive as a restrictive, judgmental, intellectually archaic Christian faith. So they laugh at those who take Genesis’ creation account historically, or cry “bigotry” against those who express concern with gay marriage, or look down on those who argue for a more traditionally moral politics. These are old ways that must be done away with, they think.

But what happens is that they become so animated by grievances from the past and trying to right them right now that they forget about – or at least relegate to the background – any sort of ultimate hope for the future. They wind up fighting for a certain kind of culture rather than finding their hope in a different type of Kingdom. They become so obsessed with what’s next that they forget about what’s last.

When you dispel the Christian faith down to nothing more than a fight for this or that cause célèbre, more often than not, you end up with nothing – or at least with nothing that can’t be found elsewhere. And why would anyone go somewhere for something they can get anywhere? This is why changing Christianity’s substance doesn’t gain people; it only loses them.

So what course of action can a Christian take? In a world full of cultural convolution, Christianity’s answer is elegantly simple: “Stand firm in the faith … Do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14). Don’t change the faith. Love others. That’s it. And really, who can improve on that? Some things don’t need to change.

_____________________

[1] Melissa Stefan, “Have 8 Million Millennials Really Given Up on Christianity?Christianity Today (5.17.2013).

[2] Vern L. Bengtson, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 148.

[3]A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues,” Public Religion Research Institute (2.26.2014).

[4] Rachel Held Evans, “Why millennials are leaving the church,” cnn.com (7.27.2013).

[5] John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change Or Die (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1999).

[6] Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 8.

[7]Super Soul Sunday: Oprah Goes Soul to Soul with Rob Bell,” Oprah.com.

[8] Rod Dreher, “The Dying (No, Really) Of Liberal Protestantism,” The American Conservative (7.25.2013).

January 19, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Where’s Your Advantage?

Bible 1A few months ago, I reworked my retirement portfolio. Though I pray it will be a long time before I have to draw anything from it, there were some changes I wanted to make now because I know they will be to my advantage later. And I always like gaining an advantage.

As time goes by, I have been traveling on business more and more. One of the things I have been doing recently is joining a bunch of rewards programs because they offer so many advantages. I get airline miles for one trip from another trip. I get points for free nights whenever I stay enough nights at a hotel chain. I get occasional discounts and supreme customer service because I rent a lot of cars. These reward programs come with a lot of advantages. And I always like gaining an advantage.

The other night at the elders meeting at my church, I shared some words from the apostle Paul: “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God” (Romans 3:1-2).

If you were to ask a Jew in the first century what advantage he had, he would probably quickly respond by saying he was a son of Abraham (cf. John 8:33). He might also brag a bit about his devotion and virtue (cf. Romans 2:17-20). But when Paul speaks of a Jew’s advantage, he has something different in mind. “First of all,” Paul writes, “they have been entrusted with the very words of God.” What gives a Jew an advantage is not his pedigree as a son of Abraham or his piety as a squeaky-clean rule-follower, but God’s self-disclosure in His Word. What gives a Jew a spiritual advantage is, very simply, the Bible.

Of course, this advantage is not just for the Jew. It is for anyone and everyone who calls on the Lord. The Bible can give us an advantage in marriage as we look to God’s Word to enrich our relationships with our spouses. The Bible can give us an advantage in work as we understand our labor as God’s calling. Most importantly, the Bible can give us an advantage with God as it reveals to us God’s Son who died for our salvation. The Bible is our supreme advantage because it shows us Christ’s advantageous work on our behalf.

It is no secret that most people love to have an advantage, whether that advantage be on the field, or in the office, or in an investment portfolio. Some people will even go so far as to take advantage of someone else in order to gain an advantage for themselves. Paul’s question of us, however, is: Where’s your advantage? Paul says that our first advantage should always and only be God’s Word. Indeed, when Paul writes, “First of all, [you] have been entrusted with the very words of God,” we assume that, because Paul writes about the Bible as our first advantage, there will also be a second, and perhaps even a third, advantage. But Paul never names another advantage. After all, with an advantage like God’s Word, what other advantage could we possibly need – or want?

So please, take advantage of the advantage of God’s Word. After all, airline miles expire. Hotel points have blackout dates. Rental car companies tack on hidden fees. But God’s Word endures forever. And there’s just no better advantage than that.

October 27, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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