Friday, November 06, 2015

Why The Bible Is More Than Just Blessings And Promises

Photo Credit: Chineka
It may be surprising to many modern day Christians but the Bible was not initially written in the manner in which most of us receive it today. Not only was it written in languages that many Americans do not speak (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek), but it was originally transcribed without the headings and numbered chapters and verses that are now normally found within the Holy Scriptures. Though these elements add convenience for us in locating certain passages of Scripture, this division of God's Word can have unintended consequences.

In his book The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, Scot McKnight comments on the danger that can be found when instead of viewing the Bible in context as we relate to our place in God's grand story, we mainly pull verses out of context simply for our own benefit. McKnight says this:
"Dividing the Bible up into verses turns the Bible into morsels and leads us to read the Bible as a collection of divine morsels, sanctified morsels of truth. We pause for each one to see if we can get something from it. Now I want to meddle with a significant problem. For some morsel readers of the Bible, the Bible has become a collection of morsels of blessings, and we can write one out for each day of the week. Random verses, with generosity poured on top of generosity. On other calendars we get, instead of a blessing, a promise each day. Random verses, with blessing on top of blessing or promise on top of promise. (No one has yet composed a Wrath of God Calendar of Warning, though some seem poised to begin making such a calendar.) 
What happens to the Christian who reads the Bible, day after day and week after week, as little more than a collection of morsels of blessings and promises? For one, everything is good and wonderful and light and airy. These people become optimistic and upbeat and wear big smiles...until something bad happens, until they enter into a period of suffering and feel distant from God, or until they hit a wall. For every hill, there is a valley. 
One of the most important things about the Bible is that it tells realistic truth. Sure, there are kinds of wonderful blessings surrounding Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul...and there are also days of doubt, defeat, disobedience, and darkness. David was on top of the world at times, but he also asked God this question: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1). Edith Humphrey, a New Testament scholar, made this important observation of what happens when we focus solely on blessings and promises: "It is unfortunately the case that some contemporary expressions of Christianity have forgotten, or are embarrassed by, this moment of dark reflection, and instead espouse an unrealistic and warped view of spiritual victory." She also speaks of the "relentlessly upbeat" moods that lead to "false security and canned joy." 
It is important to know the blessings and to rely on God's promises. Please don't misunderstand my point. But the blessings and promises of God in the Bible emerge from a real life's story that also knows that we live in a broken world and some days are tough. The stories of real lives in the Bible know that we are surrounded by hurting people for whom Psalm 22:1 echoes their normal day. 
Those who read the Bible as story refuse to cut up the Bible into morsels of blessings and promises because they know the Story. They know that the David who found God's blessing and trusted in God's promises knew the dark side of life. Imagine how the God of the universe, who chose for some reason to communicate with us in the very thing that makes humans so distinct - sophisticated language in the form of story covering spans of time - must respond as he observes his people seeking random sayings! It's a wonder that God at some point hasn't made the words disappear from the page, so that we open our Bibles up and nothing but blank paper stares us in the face. We deserve it."
Yes, the Bible does contain blessings and promises that can bring encouragement to our days. But it is so much more that. When we "cherry pick" verses to fit our agenda, we do a disservice to the great story that God has given to us through His Word.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

2015 Demographics for U.S. College Students

Photo Credit: US Dept of Education
The nation's college students are growing in number and our campuses continue to become more diverse. Taken from the most recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac and the Open Doors Report, the following statistics from the 2013-2014 school year contain some interesting facts concerning the current make-up of college students in the United States:

  • There are approximately 21 million college students studying within the United States.
  • Of those 21 million students, more than 4 out of 10 are American ethnic minorities and international students. 
  • Within the state of California alone, there are nearly 2.7 million students. This is an amazing 13% of the country's total! Of these students, over 1.7 million are American ethnic minorities and international students. 
  • Texas has over 1.5 million students in the state, including half a million Hispanic students. 
  • Primarily due to the presence of New York City, 1.3 million students attend college in the state of New York and nearly half of those students are American ethnic minorities and international students.
  • The number of Native American students across the country is approaching 200,000. 
  • Students of Asian American/Pacific Islander heritage now number close to 1.2 million students. 
  • There are 2.7 million African Americans on our campuses, over 13% of all students.
  • Hispanics and Latinos are rapidly growing in number and influence and now comprise well over 14% of all students, totaling over 2.9 million students. 
  • The number of international students currently studying in the U.S. is now over one million. 
  • In demonstration of the country's increasing cultural diversity, half a million of America's college students define themselves as being multi-ethnic.
  • Another 1.2 million students do not self-identify as belonging to any particular ethnic group nor do they define themselves as being multi-ethnic.
  • Students of European descent are still in the overall majority with 10.9 million. If current trends hold true, however, there will be no ethnic majority within the next few years.

What does this all mean? The college campuses of the United States are becoming more diverse, the coasts are rapidly growing and our cities are home to many of the nation's students. In order to reach these students, campus ministries like the one that I work with, Cru, need to adopt new approaches that will effectively reach: 1) students of color; 2) those that speak a primary language other than English; and 3) those in our major cities. The world is here. How will we respond?

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Can One's Religious Beliefs Excuse Them From Their Job?

Photo Credit: King County, WA
What is going on in Kentucky concerning county clerk Kim Davis issuing marriage licenses is an important matter. It is likely, though, that few of us (including me) have a deep understanding of how the law works in these types of cases.

I would suspect that many of us have strong biases in this particular situation and are likely primarily focused on "our side" winning and not necessarily attuned to what the law requires.

A country that values religious freedom as well as the civil rights of all its citizens ensures that cases like this bring with it many questions. This is not a simple matter.

I found this article from Eugene Volokh in The Washington Post to be helpful for me in grasping some of the legal issues related to this case. Things are not "cut and dry" here but Volokh's insights helped me in gaining a greater sense of the issues at play.

Here's a highlight:
"Under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, both public and private employers have a duty to exempt religious employees from generally applicable work rules, so long as this won’t create an “undue hardship,” meaning more than a modest cost, on the employer. If the employees can be accommodated in a way that would let the job still get done without much burden on the employer, coworkers, and customers — for instance by switching the employee’s assignments with another employee or by otherwise slightly changing the job duties — then the employer must accommodate them. (The Muslim flight attendant I mentioned above, for instance, claims that she has always been able to work out arrangements under which the other flight attendant serves the alcohol instead of her.) 
Thus, for instance, in all the cases I mentioned in the numbered list above, the religious objectors got an accommodation, whether in court or as a result of the employer’s settling a lawsuit brought by the EEOC. Likewise, the EEOC is currently litigating a case in which it claims that a trucking company must accommodate a Muslim employee’s religious objections to transporting alcohol, and the court has indeed concluded that the employer had a duty to accommodate such objections. But if the accommodation would have been quite difficult or expensive (beyond the inevitable cost that always come when rearranging tasks), then the employer wouldn’t have had to provide it. 
Now I’m not saying this to praise the law, or to claim that it’s demanded by vital principles of religious principles. One can certainly argue against this approach, especially as applied to private employers, but also as applied to the government. 
The government is barred by the Free Exercise Clause from discriminating based on religion, but the government has no constitutional duty to give religious objectors special exemptions from generally applicable rules. Maybe it (and private employers) shouldn’t have such a statutory duty, either. But my point so far has been simply to describe the American legal rule as it actually is, and as it has been for over 40 years (since the religious accommodation provisions were enacted in the 1972 amendments to Title VII)."
(HT: @spulliam for the article link)

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Understanding Marginalization Of Sub-Dominant Cultures

Photo Credit:
United Nations Photo
"Dominant cultures" and "sub-dominate cultures" might be terms that are foreign concepts to many of us. I often find it helpful to define terms, which I'll attempt to do here, so that we're on the same page with one another as we grow in cultural understanding together.

In its simplest sense, a dominant culture is a culture within a nation or geographic area that determines what is "normal." To put it another way, members of a dominant culture are those who most often get to experience their values, beliefs, customs, and way of life as that which is considered the norm.

Within the United States, it is those of us that have a European American heritage that would be considered the dominant culture. Additionally, because those of us of European descent are more than half of the U.S. population, we can also be considered the majority culture.

On the flip side, a sub-dominant culture are those where the values, beliefs, customs and way of life of its members are not considered the norm. Examples within the U.S. could be Muslims of Middle Eastern heritage, Americans of Chinese descent or Mexican Americans. Within the U.S., we might also refer to those that identify within these groups (as well as many other sub-dominant groups) as ethnic minorities.

However, dominant/majority and sub-dominant/minority are not necessarily interchangeable terms. For example, Afrikaners within apartheid-era South Africa (and in many ways, still today) were most certainly of the dominant culture since they held positions of governmental authority, owned the bulk of land and established cultural norms. However, they would not be considered the ethnic majority since less than one out of every ten South Africans identify as an Afrikaner.

It is probably helpful to consider dominance/sub-dominance as related to power and ethnic majority/ethnic minority as related to numbers of a population. Although sub-dominant and ethnic minority groups often are the same groups within a society, it is possible for an ethnic minority group (e.g. Afrikaners in South Africa) to be the dominant group.

Understanding these nuances can be helpful for us in recognizing the ways that sub-dominate and ethnic minority cultures can be marginalized within a society. In Suffering & the Sovereignty of God, Dr. Carl Ellis offers the following insights as to how marginalization can take place and the role that Christians can play in addressing it:
"Marginalization happens when that which is valid is regarded as invalid merely because it differs from the prevailing standards of creature-ism [i.e. judging the Creator by the standard of the creature]. Thus, people who fit this description are relegated to a position of insignificance, devalued importance, minor influence, or diminished power. How does marginalization affect human interaction? 
Every society has a dominant culture and at least one sub-dominant culture. Each of these has a corresponding cultural agenda and intra-cultural consciousness. Those in the dominant culture tend not to realize they have a culture, and those in the sub-dominant culture know very well that everybody has a culture. 
All in the sub-dominant culture are exposed to the dominant cultural agenda. But few in the dominant culture are even aware that there is a sub-dominant cultural agenda. Therefore, to those in the dominant culture, the concerns of the sub-dominant culture tend to be marginalized. We can define these dominant and sub-dominant cultures in terms of race, generation, gender, geography, language, etc.  
This begs the question: who is going to show the world how to deal with these kind of power differential dynamics? It must be the body of Christ. There are four dimensions of marginalization:   
1) Relational (face-to-face) marginalization
2) Systemic marginalization - which is marginalization by way of time-honored conventions and protocols, 
3) Marginalization by design - which is intentional marginalization resulting from subjugation [e.g. the African slave trade], 
4) Marginalization by default - which is marginalization resulting from a lack of either real or perceived power... 
One thing that exacerbates ethnic-based suffering in the world today is the lack of a full understanding of marginalization. For example, we tend to think of only one manifestation - relational by design. We don't think much about the other three dimensions. If we in the church are going to have something prophetic to say to the issue of ethnic-based suffering, we must deal with [all four dimensions of suffering].  
Every sub-dominant group has a distinct paradigm for marginalization. For example, the African American experience has largely been a struggle against racism and its effects - an application of creature-ism. Therefore, racism is regarded as the paradigm for all marginalization. We may know that marginalization does not ultimately require a racist motive. However, from an African American perspective, marginalization is assumed to have a racist motive. 
Anglo-Americans without this paradigm tend to view African American protest against marginalization as "playing the race card." African Americans, on the other hand, may view Anglo Americans' protest as being in denial. When this happens we will speak past each other, because we do not understand that marginalization is the foundation of ethnic-based suffering. The theology of the Christian community has been weak in that area. If we are going to be a prophetic voice against marginalization, we will need to address it with some serious theology."
My hope in gainer a better understanding of these concepts is that we will grow together in our ability to address injustice in the world so that a greater number of people will come to know our Creator, the God of justice, truth and grace.

(HT: To my friend Chris Pratt for the heads up on Dr. Ellis's thoughts on this matter)

Monday, August 24, 2015

How Walking Can Be Viewed As A Spiritual Metaphor

Photo Credit: pedrosimoes7
From April Yamasaki's book, Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal:
"In Scripture, walking is often used as a metaphor for spiritual living. The Law repeatedly reminded the people to walk in God’s ways: “Therefore, keep the commandments of the LORD your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him.”  
This is echoed by the prophets: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The letters to the early church are filled with references to walking in love, walking by faith, walking in truth, walking in darkness or light — all references not to the physical act of putting one foot in front of another, but to the spiritual life of faith.  
One of the things I love about this metaphor of walking is that it’s drawn from everyday life. Walking is not like running the Boston Marathon, or swimming across the English Channel, or climbing Mount Everest, or performing some other great feat. I walk to the grocery store, I walk for fitness and to visit a friend, I walk outside to enjoy nature. Walking is something ordinary that I can do at any time.  
And yet, as Arthur Paul Boers points out, walking is also “an act of dissent; it is countercultural.” In North America, the automobile is still the preferred mode of transportation for many. In the city where I live, the installation of more bike lanes has been the cause of some controversy. Most drive to school, work, or church. Even I usually drive the three minutes from home to church instead of walking— it’s ten times faster, I have too much to carry, I need to go across town later anyway, I’m not wearing the right shoes, I have to pick up someone else, it’s raining. As a child of my culture, I always seem to have a reason to drive instead of walk, to go faster instead of slower. So for me, walking is both an ordinary, everyday activity and yet challenges me as countercultural. 
So too walking as metaphor for spiritual living. The spiritual life is something we can practice any day. I can take it one step at a time, not looking too far back or too far forward, focusing on the present moment. I can slow down. I can become quiet before God. I can pray. I can read Scripture.  
Just like walking down my street, these are ordinary things that I can do without any special training or skill. And yet they also go against the grain of my culture that tells me to do more and do it faster, a culture that values speaking up instead of being quiet, that sees prayer as unnecessary and Scripture as out of date. As a countercultural activity, walking is an apt metaphor for living a life of faith."
Yamasaki, April (2013-02-01). Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal (Kindle Locations 866-890). Herald Press. Kindle Edition.

(HT: @CSCleve for the recommendation of the book.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What Is True For The College Freshmen Of 2015?

Photo Credit: US Department of Education
Each year at the start of the new school year, Beloit College releases what they call the Mindset List -- a list of important facts and events which influence the worldview and perspective that this year's college freshmen class brings with them.

This year's list, which is made up for the graduating class of 2019, represents those students who were born in 1997. As you can see, this year's list highlights advances in technology, significant world events, and the many ways that today's college students experience the world differently from their parents.

You can read the complete list here but I've included some entries below that I found particularly interesting:

  • Princess Diana, Notorious B.I.G., Jacques Cousteau, and Mother Teresa have never been alive in their lifetimes.
  • Google has always been there, in its founding words, “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible.”
  • They have never licked a postage stamp.
  • Email has become the new “formal” communication, while texts and tweets remain enclaves for the casual.
  • They have grown up treating Wi-Fi as an entitlement.
  • The NCAA has always had a precise means to determine a national champion in college football.
  • Cell phones have become so ubiquitous in class that teachers don’t know which students are using them to take notes and which ones are planning a party.
  • They have avidly joined Harry Potter, Ron, and Hermione as they built their reading skills through all seven volumes.
  • Playhouse Disney was a place where they could play growing up.
  • TV has always been in such high definition that they could see the pores of actors and the grimaces of quarterbacks. 
  • The proud parents recorded their first steps on camcorders, mounted on their shoulders like bazookas.
Please remember to pray for the 22 million U.S. college students that are starting classes over the next few weeks. They are part of a changing world...and they also have the opportunity to influence how the world changes.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Embracing Our Ethnicity: A Lesson For Each Of Us

Photo Credit: YouTube
A bizarre story out of Washington state hit the news this weekend when it was revealed that the leader of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal, is actually white. While it's not odd that a leader within the NAACP would be white, what makes this story interesting is that Dolezal has been "passing" as an African American woman for at least most of the past decade.

Based on the reporting that has been done on her background, it appears that the 37-year-old Dolezal developed a strong connection to African Americans and black culture over the course of her life. Her parents had several adopted black siblings and she studied at Howard University, one of the premier historically black colleges within the United States. She went onto marry a black man and began darkening her skin, as well as wearing her hair in what most would consider more traditional African American styles.

What is Ethnic Identity?

So what is ethnic identity exactly? In its simplest sense, ethnicity refers to a group of people who identify with each other (and are identified by others) because of common factors like a shared history, physical appearance, cultural values, beliefs, customs, language, religion, national origin and other factors. In light of this, one's ethnic identity refers to the degree that one identifies with and belongs to a certain ethnic group or groups. When the Bible refers to ethnos -- a race or nation of people -- this is to which it is referring.

Because of our troubled history in the United States when it comes to ethnicity (e.g. the near genocide of Native Americans, the horrors of slavery, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, etc.), there are strong feelings when it comes to this issue.

In the example of Dolezal, at some point in her life, she chose to move from simply identifying WITH black people to identifying AS a black person. Her case raises serious questions about how we identify ourselves ethnically, how others identify us and why this is important.


The story of Rachel Dolezal is of particular interest to me because of some of the commonalities that I appear to have with her. I, too, developed a strong interest in black culture at a young age and have developed strong relationships with African Americans over the course of my life. Like Dolezal, I have held a leadership role in a predominately black organization, The Impact Movement, that serves the needs of the black community.

In my early years of ministry, I sensed that God was leading me into a ministry focus of black college students. Fortunately, I had several African American mentors that cautioned me to resist the temptation to try to become something that I was not in order to gain approval in black social circles. They shared with me how they knew of well-meaning white people that would attempt to prove how "down" they were with black folks by changing the way they dressed and or fumbling through feeble attempts at incorporating black slang into their conversation.

I'm grateful that this advice was afforded me early on in my journey of cross-cultural ministry. I learned long ago that no matter how much I loved my African American friends or how much I cared about issues that were important to the black community, I would never be black. God had made me a white man and if I was going to truly build relationships with those different than me, I needed to learn to become comfortable in my own skin.

Acceptance Within the Black Community

What I have learned over time is that being myself is all that anyone asks of me. If they're asking for more than that, it's not something I need to worry about. Granted, there have been challenges as a white man seeking to cross cultural lines where I've had to work hard to build trust and credibility. This, of course, is understandable. Because of the strained relations between the white and black communities throughout our country's history, there can be initial skepticism when I enter into predominately black environments.

But you know what I've found? I've learned that once most Africans Americans see that I care about them as individuals and about the issues that are important to them, then I've often experienced a high level of acceptance. I've learned that if I operate from a place of love and authenticity, then I'll be welcomed more times than not.

This is something that I wished Rachel Dolezal had learned earlier on in life. In reading about her story, it appears that she genuinely respects black culture and cares about black people. She's been a true advocate that has spent significant time in bringing attention to issues of concern to the black community. But she doesn't have to present herself with false claims about her ethnic heritage or upbringing in order to do so. According to my experiences, a white person that works tirelessly for African Americans will likely be embraced within that community.

God's Grace in Christ

Beyond the view that others may have of her, I hope that Rachel gains a greater understanding of God's love for her and His sovereign wisdom in choosing to make her a white woman. I believe that God has given each of us our ethnicity for His glory and to accomplish His purposes in the world. He can use who we truly are to make a true impact on the lives of others.

It appears that God has given Rachel Dolezal a genuine love for the African American community. This is a good thing. When we advocate for and identify with those that are ethnically different than us, the world is given an example of what it means to live out the gospel of God's grace. Just as Jesus left his heavenly home to identify with and live among us, we too can identify with others in a way that demonstrates our love for them.

However, we don't have to pretend we are something we are not. Even during His time on earth, Jesus never stopped being God. His divinity was not dependent upon his humanity. We, on the other hand, do need each other to grow in our humanness. And one of the most profound ways we can grow as people is to develop relationships with those different than us. I applaud Rachel Dolezal in her efforts to identify with African Americans, but I wish she would have not been deceptive in the process.

Author Brennan Manning refers to "the Imposter" as the false self that we make known to others for fear that our true self won't be accepted. We present an image that we think others will like rather than who we really are. I wonder if this is what happened with Rachel. I wonder if she thought that black people would never fully accept her if it was known that she was white. And that saddens me because I don't think it's based in reality.

But, even if it were true, there's a God that created her and fully embraces her within her ethnicity. Fortunately, I believe this applies to all of us. So whatever your God-given ethnicity might be, don't waste it. Embrace your ethnic identity as a gift from God to be used for His glory and your good. The world will be better for it.

Monday, June 08, 2015

R.C. Sproul on the Minister & the Need of God's Holiness

Photo Credit: Keith Cuddeback
From chapter two of R.C. Sproul's The Holiness of God:
"Ministers are noteworthy of their calling. All preachers are vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. In fact, the more faithful preachers are to the Word of God in their preaching, the more liable they are to the charge of hypocrisy. Why? Because the more faithful people are to the Word of God, the higher the message is that they will preach. The higher the message, the further they will be from obeying it themselves. 
I cringe inside when I speak in churches about the holiness of God. I can anticipate the responses of the people. They leave the sanctuary convinced that they have just been in the presence of a holy man. Because they hear me preach about holiness, they assume I must be as holy as the message I preach. That's when I want to cry, "Woe is me." 
It's dangerous to assume that because a person is drawn to holiness in his study that he is thereby a holy man. There is irony here. I am sure that the reason I have a deep hunger to learn of the holiness of God is precisely because I am not holy. I am a profane man - a man who spends more time out of the temple than in it. But I have had just enough of a taste of the majesty of God to want more. I know what it means to be a forgiven man and what it means to be sent on a mission. My soul cries for more. My soul needs more."

Friday, May 08, 2015

A Conversation About Growing Up Black

"I walk tall, keep my head up, try to be articulate and polite. I think I'm going to be fine because I act a certain way. But, of course, that has nothing to do with it. How people perceive you is not always up to you." Bisa, Age 17

The New York Times has posted this powerful short video where a number of young men and boys are asked to share about their experiences of growing up black in America. 

With the recent increased focus that has been placed on the ways that black men are perceived, especially in their relationship with law enforcement, this video helps to put a voice to the feelings that so many black men experience.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What Will We Do With Jesus?

Photo Credit: Daniel Y. Go
I post the following words each year during Holy Week. This piece was written by Douglas McKelvey for the liner notes of the Jesus miniseries soundtrack in 2000 and offers one of the most insightful pictures of Jesus Christ that I've ever seen written outside of Scripture.

For those of us that consider ourselves to be followers of this Nazarene carpenter, I trust it serves as a poignant reminder as we remember the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord:
"What do we do with this Jesus? This was the question on every one's mind at the swing-point of history 2000 years ago. The Jews, the Romans, Herod, Pilate, the High Priests, even Jesus' own disciples - they all found themselves wrestling with the same perplexing question: "What do we do with this man?"
For some reason he didn't seem to fit very conveniently into anyone's agenda - personal, national, religious or otherwise. The Jews wanted a warrior king to drive the occupying Roman army out of the promised land. The Romans wanted to maintain and expand their empire over the known world. Everyone else just wanted what people everywhere have always wanted: pleasure and prosperity and to be left alone.
Jesus came along and upset all of that. He refused power. He didn't seek fame. He treated the pleasures of this life as inconsequential. He humbled himself as a servant and his selflessness alone became a walking indictment of all human agendas - base and noble alike.  It's no wonder he made people nervous. He was like a splinter in the soul. Even those who despised him couldn't ignore him. They buzzed around him constantly, angry and perplexed.
In their defense, his presence must have been a bit overwhelming. The story of his life on earth is more than we seem eager to contend with today, but people then had no choice but to physically rub shoulders with him. They walked the same dusty roads and breathed the same air. There wasn't any getting away from it. He kept popping up at odd moments, infuriating people with his compassion, perplexing them with his gentle wisdom, and frightening them with his unbearable love. And then there was the whole business about claiming to be the Son of God.
Truth is, Jesus was an absolute scandal. He taught that the least were the greatest, the rejected were the blessed, the wise were the foolish, the weak were the strong, and the secure were the lost. He taught that people should selflessly love, not just their friends and families - which would have been difficult enough - but strangers and enemies as well. He called on those possessed by their possessions to leave their wealth behind to follow him into a life of uncertain suffering for the one promised consolation of his love.
His words grew so appalling one afternoon that many of his followers gave it up for good and returned home, muttering that his teaching was too hard. They had had enough. Those who stayed were apparently in too deep already. Most scandalous of all was the way Jesus publicly and persistently rejected the proud, self-righteous religious leaders of the day and instead drew prostitutes, half-breeds, political revolutionaries, smelly fisherman, and turncoat tax-collectors into his circle of friends - all of whom soon and somehow found themselves, by his very acceptance, transformed from what they had always thought they were into a new existence as children of God.
It's one of the eternal ironies surrounding Jesus that those who allowed the exposure of their own weakness, shame, and guilt were the very ones who were afterward able to drink with joy from the fountains of eternal forgiveness and love, while those who fought desperately to prop up their own crumbling facades of self-righteousness were in the end reduced to a ridiculous position, raging blindly against love and their own liberation. Jesus was always hard to take that way - an insult, even - because beneath it all, it seemed that everyone needed him whether they wanted to or not, prostitutes and Pharisees alike.
And that really was the crux of the problem. His very nature exposed the heart and forced the hand of everyone around him so that in the end, after the haze and baggage burned away, it was all laid out pretty simply. You were left with only two possible ways of answering the question "What do we do with this Jesus?" You could either follow him or you could crucify him. 2000 years of science, progress and religion don't seem to have changed things for us all that much. The human heart is still the human heart. Nuclear power, psychotherapy, and satellite television notwithstanding, most of us still find ourselves - in our more honest moments - faced with the same troubling question and the same simple options that perplexed Christ's contemporaries...
"What do we do with this Jesus?" It is something to think about..."
May we each take some time in the coming days to reflect on the One who gave His life so that we could live.

Monday, February 09, 2015

The Miraculous Story of Michigan's Austin Hatch

Photo Credit: MGoBlog
Basketball player Austin Hatch has faced unimaginable tragedy in his young life. Having lost a number of immediate family members and nearly his own life in two separate plane crashes, Austin has shown remarkable faith and perseverance in his journey to earning a basketball scholarship at the University of Michigan

ESPN tells his inspirational story here. Get your tissues ready.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Are Millennials Leaving The Church...Or Just Searching For Authentic Faith?

Photo Credit:
There is a perception that seems to be pervasive in American evangelical churches that Millennials (i.e. those born in the early 1980s to the early 2000s) are leaving the Christian faith in droves. Some studies (such as this one from the Pew Research Center several years ago) helps to demonstrate that this might not be the case.

In fact, having worked in ministry with young people for twenty years, it's my opinion that those of Generation Y are mostly looking for an authentic expression of Christianity. They are tired of the fake religiosity that many of them have experienced personally or only know through negative portrayals of Christians in the media.

This does not mean, however, that there are not Millennials that were raised in the Church and have left. There are. But I think it's unfair to single out this generation as somehow having abandoned its faith in ways that haven't also been true of my generation (Gen X), my parents' generation (Boomers) and others before that.

As a member of this Gen Y, Barnabas Piper offers some helpful insights on the belief that Millennials are abandoning the Church in greater numbers than previous generations:
"In decades past America was a traditionally churched, religious nation. A significant portion of society was religiously involved, and church was a cultural centerpiece. Those who grew up in explicitly religious families and contexts attended church out of habit. It was expected that come Sunday morning they would scrub behind their ears, put on their nice trousers and tie, and off to church they'd go. The power of cultural expectations was enormous. In entire swaths of the country a person was a pariah if he wasn’t a churchgoer. But no more. Sure, the Bible belt still exists, but the cultural pressure to be in church week in and week out has waned to near zero. 
Along with waning cultural pressure, the respect for institutions has diminished among young people, and with it the respect for institutional leaders. While the good Reverend McGillicuddy might once have been a community icon and an authority figure in people's personal lives he is no longer. Neither are churches community hubs (at least in white communities). Young people don't look to institutions or their heads for instruction. The trust isn't there. 
And there is a reason trust is missing for the institutional church. For decades a gospel of moralism and legalism was taught in numerous churches. People attended because it was the "right thing to do" and a way to "get right with God." 
The expectations placed on members were a particular brand of morality built around which things we don't do (drink, cuss, smoke, watch certain movies, listen to certain music, etc.). It was a burdensome law, one nobody could keep. Many didn't even try though they acted like it on Sundays. And while everyone knew it they kept on doing it. Except now young people won't pretend any more or follow an institution so full of fakery. They don't trust the hypocrisy and they reject the moralism. 
So what is it young people are leaving behind? In many cases they are leaving a faux godliness. Millions of lost people, people hanging their hat on morality or mere attendance, populated the pews of the church in previous generations. They were just a lot harder to pick out than those who brazenly walk out the door, so hard we can't even be sure how many there were."
To read the rest of Piper's post Are Millennials Less Godly than Previous Generations? please click here.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Role of the Church in Pursuing Justice

Photo Credit: caboindex
Taken from "Letter from a Birmingham Jail":
"In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists. 
There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' 
But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. 
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are. 
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust. 
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. 
But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. 
But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands."
To read the complete letter, please click here.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Selma: A Movie Worth Seeing

Photo Credit: Sahil Khan
My wife and I saw Ava DuVernay's Selma last night. Focused on the voting rights efforts that took place in a small Alabama town in 1965, Selma provides a powerful glimpse into the leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement that transformed our country.

One of the things that I appreciated most about the movie was that Dr. King was not presented as a perfect, Messiah-type of figure. DuVernay shows us King as the noble leader that he was but doesn't ignore some of the more unsavory aspects of his personal life of which many modern day Americans are unaware.

Similar to towering figures of the Bible such as King David or Simon Peter, Dr. King was an imperfect person that made himself available for God to do great things through him. Though obviously gifted as an orator and leader, Dr. King was just a man. But he was a man that was willing to sacrifice his personal comfort -- and eventually his life -- so that freedom and dignity could come to all women and men.

In focusing on King's humanity, Selma demonstrates the difference that fallen people can make in our world when submitted to God's service.

One of the scenes that I found most moving took place fairly early on in the film. King (played brilliantly by the talented David Oyelowo) finds himself alone late at night in the family kitchen. It is obvious that he is feeling the weight of his call while dealing with the stresses of family life in the midst of preparing to leave for yet another march. He slowly walks to the phone and places a call to the noted gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson. He asks her to sing for him over the phone. Though she had been in a deep sleep just seconds before, she breaks into a powerful chorus of "Precious Lord Take My Hand":
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I'm tired, I'm weak, I'm worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
Just like us, Dr. King needed God's strength to do what God had called him to do. As we prepare to celebrate the MLK federal holiday this weekend, Selma provides a fitting reminder of how far our country has come...and how far we still have to go.

Jason Cook has provided a fuller review of the movie on The Gospel Coalition website. Here's a highlight:
"Selma does not cower away from the physical and emotional brutality of the struggle for African American voting rights in Selma, Alabama, during a three-month period in 1965. By concentrating on this historical vignette, Selma shines. 
Rather than approaching this biopic as a quest to compile the highlights of a venerated figure’s life, Selma director Ava DuVernay focuses on a tiny window of history that changed history. SCLC uniforms (black suits, white shirts, and thin black ties) and scarred stoic faces juxtaposed against the pressed and unkempt uniforms of police officers and state troopers as they clash throughout the film in raw and ugly dispute. 
Further, Selma does not cower from exposing the moral failings of Dr. Martin Luther King. While the impact of Dr. King’s leadership of the Civil Rights movement is magnanimous and will rightly reverberate into history, he suffered from the common condition of profound creaturliness. This fellowship with mere mortals is a surprising strength of the film. Dr. King appears, well, human. 
Throughout Selma he’s tired from long nights, distracted by threats to his family, fearful for the lives of the faithful, and doubtful concerning the ultimate end of the movement—a side of “Doc” we seldom see in grainy microfiche. The film tastefully addresses his smoking habit, his insatiable appetite for food, and his covert sexual promiscuity. Raw and honest, DuVernay portrays a terrestrial Dr. King who is pedestrian at worst and valiant at best—all the while honoring him as a towering historical figure worthy of remembrance."
To read the full review, please click here.

I highly encourage you to see this film. To find tickets for your local theater, please visit here. The dream lives on.