This month: 184 - Grace and truth
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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jonathanstorment

My family and I love reading, traveling, daddy/daughter dates, playing hide and seek, good music, and long meals with friends. We still miss LOST, and all four of us have Superman uniforms. We are passionate about bringing Heaven to Earth and want to follow Jesus while repainting discipleship for those around us. We are followers of Jesus and I preach at the Highland Church of Christ. We participate in something called A Restoration Movement, and we've come to realize that might be larger than we thought.

Homepage: http://jonathanstorment.com

By Jonathan Storment

I think it’s interesting that the Bible never hints at what race Adam and Eve were. When the first human is introduced into the story he is simply called ’ādām, which means “humankind.” Their “race” is not identifiable; Adam and Eve are neither black or white, they’re not even Jews.

The division of humankind into nations and races isn’t even mentioned until Genesis 10, and even then none are presented as superior to another.

Genesis is emphasizing, unlike all other ancient religions, that the image of God is in everyone, not just the kings or queens, or the elite classes, but in every single human being.

But not everyone throughout history has read it that way.

Louis Agassiz was a widely respected Swiss biologist back in the 19th century. And he argued that black people were not actually descendants of Adam and Eve but a separate species altogether. He believed that the book of Genesis, and specifically the creation of the first humans was really something that applied “Chiefly…to the history of the white race, with special reference to the history of the Jews.”

Agassiz was a Christian, and the son of a pastor, who said that he wasn’t trying to justify racism, just trying to do present the scientific and theological facts as he saw them.

This was the way that the Bible was used and abused by many white Christians for several hundred years. And it had, as you might guess, horrific implications.

No less than the Vice-President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens said in his famous Cornerstone address that the whole Confederacy rests on the fact that ““that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

He went on to say, “The negro by nature, or by the Curse against Canaan…is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system…. It is best, not only for the superior but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances or to question them. For His own purposes He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another in glory.”*

Growing up in the South in the 1980’s, I heard this idea from a few different people who sincerely believed that when God cursed Canaan for murder and placed a mark on him that this was the origin of the black race.

Churches of Christ great strength is that we submit to the Bible. We believe it is the Testament of King Jesus and we are His people. But an honest reading of the Bible realizes that this is not what Genesis is saying. If anything, it’s undermining the a basic and very revolutionary part of Genesis. 

In its day, Genesis would have been shockingly counter-cultural because the ancient world believed only the rulers were made in the image of god. Genesis is a radical democratization of who are God’s image bearers. 

With This Faith

Last week, I wrote about how science was co-opted in racism through the Eugenics project, but to me the much more troublesome truth is the way Christianity was used to re-inforce the evils of slavery and racism in the deep South.

But maybe you know, that globally and historically speaking, that was only a small group of Christians. Maybe you know that the Church across the world condemned slavery early on, especially the Catholic Church.

Maybe you know that while psuedo-theology/science in American and England was developing ways to justify using people as tools there were, at the same time Christians all over the world who were fighting to remind us of who God really is and that we would all one day stand before Him.

In the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, there’s a place where Martin Luther King Jr. says, “I have a dream …” Most of us have heard this part. “… that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

But did you know that just a little later in the paragraph, he says, “With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

With what faith?

The very same faith that had often been used to oppress them.

One of the things that makes me think Christianity isn’t just some socially constructed thing is that when slave owners taught their slaves Christianity they thought it would make them more submissive and compliant, instead what happened is that it gave them a hope for freedom.

They read the same Bible as the people who claimed to own them and knew that this was a God who was on the side of the oppressed.

Tim Keller points out that Dr. King did not say to white Christians, “Racism is wrong because everybody has to be free to follow their dream.” He got up and said, “Racism is wrong because the God of the universe, the Rock, the unchanging, just God says it’s wrong, and you’re not listening to him.”

Dr. King didn’t tell white Christians to get less religious, to become secular, leave the church and become liberal and liberated.

He told them to listen to the very Bible their ancestors had once put in the hands of slaves.

Church as A New Race of People

So every January, there is a Monday in America which the mail doesn’t run, and many of us have a vacation day because of a preacher from Alabama who gave his life in ministry, Dr. King would say later in life that he saw his primary identity as a preacher of the Gospel.

He did what he did in service to Jesus and the church.

I want you to know that this runs deeper than just one good man, it runs deeper than even just a few hundred good churches.

Before Dr. King, many of you don’t know of a man named John Woolman, he was a Quaker who lived in the 1600’s

Woolman was a entrepreneurial businessman who probably did as much as anyone in America to bring to an end slavery…and chances are you’ve never heard of him.

I read his journal a few years ago, at the beginning of his diary, Woolman realized that he had fallen away from meetings and he recommitted himself to gathering with the other Quakers.

Because he realized that he was becoming a kind of person he didn’t like. He knew that he was gathering with/spending time with the wrong people, and if he wanted to hear the voice of God he needed to be with people who knew how to hear Him.

So he went, and heard from God in more ways than he’d hoped for.

He noticed that some of his fellow Quakers held slaves, and that bothered him…a lot.

So he started privately taking these brothers and sisters aside and sharing his concerns. I want you to think about the courage this took, back in the day, many in the abolitionist movement were very harsh and judgmental, they would shout their angry condemnation of slavery from a distance, but not Woolman. Which is why he was so effective.

He didn’t believe you could love people in theory, but only the actual people in front of you, and out of concern for them, and for the people they thought they owned, Woolman spoke for God.

He went all over the country, and everytime he’d go to the Quaker meeting house, they’d all sit for hour(s) of silence, and then when God would give Woolman a word he’d say it.

And it worked.

Here’s something that Woolman said repeatedly:

These are souls for whom Christ died, and for our conduct toward them we must answer before that Almighty Being who is no respecter of persons…I have been under a concern for some time on account of the great number of slaves which are imported into this colony.  I am aware that it is a tender point to speak to, but apprehend I am not clear in the sight of heaven without speaking to it.

Eventually, the 1780 Slavery Abolition act become official, and it comes from the tiny little Quaker colony called Pennsylvania, that was shaped by a business man who was moved by the voice of God.

Yes, in the name of God many people have promoted and reinforced the myth of white superiority. But it was also in the name of God that this myth was and is being deconstructed and revealed for the lie that it is.

It is with this faith that a Quaker spoke for God and told his friends that these people were family, not chattel.

It is the faith of the slaves that taught the slave-owners that God never made second-class variations of His image.

It was with this faith that a preacher from Alabama stood up to the racism of his day, and it this faith that is calling all of those who hold to it today to do the same.*Quotation taken from book “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” by Kelly Douglas-Brown

By Jonathan Storment

“The highest goal of human beings [is] not the preservation of any given state or government, but the preservation of their kind.”-Adolf Hitler

In the 1940’s two Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark performed a series of tests on African-American children designed to see how living in a segregated society impacted them.

They gave the children two different dolls, identical in every way except one was white and one was black, and asked them questions like “Which doll is nice?” “Which one is bad?” “Which one is good?’

Consistently the kids would point to the white baby as good/pretty/kind, and the black baby as bad/mean/ugly.

And then the researchers would ask the question “Which doll do you look like?”

The test became known as “the Doll Test” and it’s research became a cornerstone piece of evidence in Brown vs. the Board of education to overturn institutionalized segregation in America.

The problem is when black children are given the same test today, they still often give the same answers.

So I wrote last in this series, about how the Myth of White Superiority traces all the way back to a first century Roman historian named Tacitius and his observations about an Anglo-Saxon tribe he believed to be more moral and courageous than other humans he had interacted with.

This is the myth that influenced so many of the founding fathers of America (this is uncontested fact coming from the writings of people like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin).

But today we don’t talk about Tacitus, most of us aren’t even familiar with his ancient line of argument, even as it undergirds the reality we live in.

In fact, in the 19th and 20th century this particular line of argument actually hid behind the two most respected disciplines of the day: Science and Religion.

Next week I’ll talk  about the way religion was co-opted for this myth, but today I want to talk about the way a kind of pseudo-science was implemented toward the myth of white superiority.

Progressive Racism

I want you to imagine having your head physically measured to tell you what kind of job you would have or person you should marry.

Imagine being subjected to a battery of physical tests by “scientists” who already had a priori assumptions about who you were and what your future ought to be, based solely on the color of your skin and their assumptions about what that inferred about your ability to think intelligently.

This is the world that black men and women lived in for centuries, and in some ways have still inherited.

Some scientists used to argue that black men and women were “poor in abstract thought yet good in physical responses.” They were believed (by some scientists as recently as the 1960’s) to have lower IQ’s than other races (of primarily European descent) This lead some politicians to begin to push for all incoming immigrants to America to have to take IQ tests before allowing them entry.

There are so many more, and frankly more disturbing examples of the way the Eugenics experiment in Europe and America both colluded with and compounded the systematic racism against black people. If you grew up in church, you know that Christianity was co-opted in this, but for today what I’d like to notice is that this didn’t start with religion.

It was, in it’s day, a progressive view of the world.

In fact, in a New York Times article from a few years ago titled “The Case For Old Ideas” the columnist Ross Douthat pointed out that religion played a key role in fighting against these ideas:

When technological progress helped entrench slavery, the religious radicalism of abolitionists helped destroy it. When industrial development rent the fabric of everyday life, religious awakenings helped reknit it. When history’s arc bent toward eugenics, religious humanists helped keep the idea of equality alive.

If you’re thinking that this is just another preacher trying to “defend the faith” by spinning some revisionist history consider this.  Hitler based much of what he did to the Jewish people on Eugenics theories developed in America and Europe, based on politically motivated pseudo-science that was working toward progress, toward a certain utopia that was built for and by white people of European descent.

Race As A Scientific Category

Adolf Hitler looked across the world and saw a growing population and with a limited amount of earth, he foresaw a growing struggle for land, and so he wrote his book Mein Kampf (German for My Struggle).

He believed that human races were like animal species and that racial struggle was just a part of life.

Hitler rejected any notion of God or religion (although he would manipulate them and use them) and ultimately Hitler said, “If I can accept any divine command, it is this: Thou shalt preserve thy species”

In fact the reason that Hitler was seemingly unstoppable was because the “liberals and socialists [of his day] were constrained, whether they realized it or not, by attachments to customs and institutions; mental habits that grew from social experience hindered them from reaching the most radical conclusions [about their lack of faith in God].”

In other words, the biggest hinderance to actively opposing Hitler, was that Christianity had so captured the imagination of the West, that people still believed the implications of the Gospel, even if they no longer believed the Gospel.

Imagine that, imagine a world, where people believed that all people were created equal, but they slowly begin to no longer believe in a Creator, and you will begin to understand why the brutal force of Hitler’s logic was so effective.

I know that some of you reading this will disagree. Richard Dawkins vehemently denies that Hitler’s atheism had anything to do with his evil ethics.

But the philosopher John Grey, himself an atheist, wrote a scathing response to Richard Dawkins dismissal of  in his article in the British Guardian called “The Atheist Delusion”:

Always a tremendous booster of science, Hitler was much impressed by a vulgarized Darwinism and by theories of eugenics that had developed from Enlightenment philosophies of materialism. He used Christian antisemitic demonology in his persecution of Jews, and the churches collaborated with him to a horrifying degree. But it was the Nazi belief in race as a scientific category that opened the way to a crime without parallel in history. Hitler’s world-view was that of many semi-literate people in interwar Europe, a hotchpotch of counterfeit science and animus towards religion. There can be no reasonable doubt that this was a type of atheism, or that it helped make Nazi crimes possible.

In other words, the idea that the first century Roman historian Tacitus promoted, that there was a superior race of Germanic people, had now merged with Nietzsche’s observation that God was all but dead in the European culture and institutions.

And without a Creator who made people in His image, all that is left is power and force and a fight for land.

This is how the evils of slavery, the holocaust, and systemic racism happens. It is what is capable of changing people from being an image-bearing person of dignity to rats (vermin) fit for heinous science experiments.

The Christian hope for the future is to be a place of worship for people from every tribe and every tongue. The Jewish/Christian story is of a God who made all of us in His image, and who stands up for the dignity of everyone.

And it’s that story, and that story alone, that has convinced the world that racism is wrong.

It’s why your heart breaks when you hear a black boy or girl talk about a white doll being better than a black one. Not just because it’s a lie, but because it’s an especially evil one.

The Christian story is the one we are reaching for when we say that the idea that there is a superior race is a myth.

And the world depends upon the people of God to keep saying so.

By Jonathan Storment

“The Caucasian differs from all other races: he is humane; he is civilized and progressive…. The Caucasian has often been master of other races—never their slave.” – Unitarian preacher and romantic transcendentalist thinker Theodore Parker

Last year, I went with some people from the church I serve to one of my favorite museums. It’s the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis Tennessee, built on the Lorraine Motel the very place where Dr. King was assassinated.

We got to board a bus just like the one that Rosa Parks sat on, we saw actual slaveship manifests, and re-visited some of histories most inspiring and damning moments.

I brought two of my kids along with me to bear witness to the horror and hope of American History.

At one point early on, my kids started asking questions like “How could anyone ever think this is okay?” And I think I said something to them like “The Devil gets people to do some evil things and if you do them enough, eventually you will stop realizing that they are evil.”

I really do believe that racism in America is a Principality and Power, and like my friend Sean Palmer says, “If we don’t recognize this we won’t understand how people can swear their not racist (and mean it).”

But like demons in Jesus day, they must be named. So here’s the name I want to tell you for this one.

Here’s the story I want to tell my kids when they get a little older:

Naming the Demon

What you’re seeing around you is not your fault. You didn’t start this story, it existed long before you ever arrived on this earth.

In 98 A.D. the Roman historian Tacitus wrote what has been called “one of the most dangerous books ever to be written.” And maybe it is, after all, it was a book that helped lay the ground work and inspire the Nazi myth of their racial superiority and thus the justification for the ruthless elimination of “lower breeds of humanity.”

The book is called Germania, and in it, Tacitus is making some observations about the Germanic tribe of people who fought off Rome’s empire, and how impressed he was with them. He’s impressed that they’ve never intermarried, describes them as people unlike anywhere on earth: Red hair, blue eyes, and a strong build.

Tacitus praises their moral character, and how they don’t “laugh at vice” and that they have “good moral habits” He loves their system of governance, a way of self-governance that he describes in detail, one that values participation by everyone. He praises and describes a form of governance that captured the imagination of people like Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and the like.

And he connects this form of government, these people of noble character, with a particular kind of skin color and ethnic background.

And the Anglo-Saxon Myth was born.

I first read about this in Kelly Brown Douglas ‘s excellent book Stand Your Ground:Black Bodies and the Justice of God. And I found it fascinating that I had never heard this story before. It never dawned on me to ask, “Where did the first white slave owners get the idea that they could justifiably treat another human being as beneath them?”

Today, the myth of White superiority is still going strong… it’s even making a resurgence in the mainstream politics and media. But for most of my Caucasian brothers and sisters reading this it sounds strange to say. We live, after all, in 2020. Most of us would never say that one race of people is superior to another, but here’s the thing, we live in a world that was built by people who did, and created the world accordingly.

The Great White Hope

I can’t emphasize this enough. The United States was built on this strange and toxic idea that people of Anglo-Saxon descent were more moral, smarter, better people. From the Constitutional declaration that African-American slaves were only 3/4th of a human being, to no less than the people who drew up the founding documents (including many Presidents) explicitly describing their belief about God’s calling for their ethnic group the.

The founder of American democracy, Thomas Jefferson, saw democracy as an virtue given to him by his race…and he got this idea from a book 1600 years old at the time.

Jefferson wrote to his granddaughter Anne, “Tacitus I consider as the first writer in the world without exception,”

So yeah, he was kind of a fan.

Douglas points out that Jefferson believed, like many others, that these new Americans had been chosen by God to “implement an Anglo-Saxon system of governing. He considered Americans to be the New Israelites.”

Douglas notes that this has implications for things much broader than slavery.

It will lead President Theodore Roosevelt  to later be concerned about an influx of immigrants who aren’t people of color, but aren’t of Anglo-Saxon descent (Roosevelt refers to them as “new stock” and was very concerned about the birth rate of people from “old stock”). It will lead to the Jim Crow laws of Segregation. It will lead to Dylan Roof walking into a church in Charleston and murdering people in cold blood and to people of color having to point out that black lives matter.

It is the myth that is responsible for the idea of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny (which I’ll talk about next week). For a closer look at all the implications of this story weaving it’s way into the fabric of the western world, check out this by my pastor friend Sean Palmer. 

It is the story that is behind so many other stories that we today. It’s behind many of our headlines and the news feeds, it’s a story that crawled it’s way out of German forest through the pen of a 1st century historian with some bizarre ideas about how race is connected to morality and character, and how one race in all the world is better than the others.

And it’s a lie.

But at least now you know it’s name.

If you haven’t heard, Jonathan Storment recently wrote a book called “How to Start a Riot“. To whet your appetite, here is chapter 4 from the book. This chapter is a call on the church to understand and embrace our prophetic role in the world. The chapter is entitled, “Calling All Prophets”. Comment on this post for a chance to get a copy of the book!

Calling All Prophets

“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. . . . Things are different now. So often the
contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain
sound. So often it is an arch defender 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.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Recently, I was driving through a fast-food drive-thru when I saw a bumper sticker on the vehicle in front of me. It was a quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca, who said, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”1

I live in West Texas, and Taco Bueno is not normally where I go for profound ideas. Nobody ever says, I’d like a tostada and a side of Socrates. But I very much understand this quote. The dark side of religion, the part we don’t talk about, is that it can be misused by mis-leaders to maintain the status quo. It is, as Karl Marx said, “the opium of the masses.”

When I talk to my friends who are leaving their churches and giving up on following Jesus, I’ve learned that some of them have heard the message that Christianity is basically saying something like: Sure the world stinks right now, but if you just wait until you die, then everything will get sorted out.

For the past hundred years in some theological circles, resurrection has been misrepresented as a doctrine that promotes indifference. Somewhere along the way this core truth of Christianity changed from a revolutionary story to one that maintains the status quo. We started hearing the resurrection of Jesus presented as a way
of saying, “If you just wait ’til you die, things will get better. So don’t rock the boat now.”

But Acts offers us a different idea about what resurrection means. It’s not this idea that endorses the way things are. Instead it is a story about a person, and a hope that what God did for that person is going to happen for the entire world.

Some of the riots in Acts are directly tied to Jesus’ followers preaching the resurrection. Because the resurrection isn’t always seen as a good thing. If the status quo works for you, if the world benefits you, you might not like the idea of a God who is turning the world upside down.

“The last shall be first” sounds great for those who are at the back of the line; but if you are at the top of the food chain, it sounds a lot more like a threat.

The resurrection was, and still is, a revolutionary doctrine. It doesn’t just mean that death no longer has the final word. It is so much bigger than that. Resurrection is about God setting the entire world right. It is the energy that has sustained and fed the people of God for centuries.

Especially the prophets.

The Role of a Prophet
The prophet’s role in the Old Testament was not a popular one. Not a lot of little kids dreamed of growing up to be a prophet. Prophets weren’t exactly the Spiderman of the day. In fact, most prophets were only appreciated posthumously.

But the world needed prophets. And here’s why. In 1 Kings we read about a king named Ahab who lives next
door to a fellow named Naboth. Naboth just happens to have a vineyard, a fine vineyard that has been handed down in his family for generations.

Ahab begins to covet that property. Ahab approaches Naboth and offers him a good price for the vineyard. But Naboth says No.No amount of cajoling will make him sell. So Ahab gets all mopey and upset. That’s where his wife Jezebel finds him when she comes home. He’s sulking like a third-grader. When she finds out what the
problem is, Jezebel reminds Ahab that he is the King of Israel, and tells him “Cheer up! I’ll get you that vineyard.”2

Jezebel’s premise is that a king can take whatever he wants. So she sets up false witnesses to lie and say that Naboth had been blaspheming. Naboth gets stoned, and Ahab gets his vineyard.

Sounds like a happy ending, right?

But Ahab and Jezebel have not counted on one thing. A prophet named Elijah. Elijah comes to confront Ahab, telling him, “God is about to wreck your world for what you did to Naboth.” Which probably sounds normal to us. If a king acts unjustly, God enforces justice. But that’s not the way it used to be.

When a king did something in ancient times, it was the job of the gods (at least, the job of that king’s god) to legitimize it, to justify it. (This is why they used the blasphemy charges to get the vineyard.) But the God of Israel is a different kind of God, and he is trying to set humanity on a different path. One where those in power don’t lord it over others. This God doesn’t exist just to legitimize existing power structures; he actually calls them to be accountable.

To some people, that’s a new idea, even though it seems as if it should have been around forever. In fact, according to the Scriptures, if you are in power, God holds you more accountable. The prophets exist to remind us that God is larger than our power structures. When we humans get too big for our own britches, the prophets remind us that we answer to someone else. One more thing about Naboth: He is the only person in the Old Testament who is stoned unjustly. But he isn’t the last just man stoned in the Bible. In Acts 6 and 7, we find a story that kind of parallels Naboth’s. It’s about a man named Stephen.

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.”

So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him
before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against
this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (Acts 6:8–15)

I know this story sounds weird. This guy gets backed into a corner and his noggin starts glowing. Which is unusual. Bible characters
don’t often transfigure into Tinkerbell. But one of the things going on here is that the Jewish people in power are worried that they are going to lose their power.

So they start claiming that they are the true Jewish faith and this group of Jesus’ followers are imposters. Specifically, they claim that Stephen is speaking words of blasphemy against Moses and God. That’s when Stephen’s face starts glowing. Which is like an
immediate conversation stopper, because these people know their Bibles. They know about the time in Exodus 34 when Moses had
been up on Mount Sinai with God. You may remember that strange story. When Moses came down off the mountain, he looked like a glowworm. His face was so shiny that the people he was leading were terrified.

Stephen’s enemies know this story, so they probably understand what God is showing them here. They are accusing Stephen of being against Moses, and suddenly he starts looking like him. But they just keep on attacking Stephen.

The Story of Subversion
They ask Stephen if their charges against him are true, and Stephen responds by saying, “Once upon a time . . . .” Then the high priest asked him, “Are these charges true?” To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran.” (Acts 7:1–2)

When I was fourteen, my parents sent me to stay for a week with some of our extended family in Russellville, Arkansas. Which
is about ten miles from the edge of the earth. To give you some kind of context, I grew up on a farm with goats and sheep and well-water, and these particular relatives called us “city folks.” They are great people, though. They raise horses and live
on a huge tract of land.

At one point that week, they decided they were going to have some fun with me. They were going to teach me how to ride a horse.
So they put me on this one horse that looked kind of gentle but had apparently been secretly possessed with an evil spirit. About five minutes into the ride, I suddenly found myself flying through the air and landing flat on my back. Not being one to give up easily, I climbed back on my bucking bronco to show this mare who is boss. Apparently that was her agenda, too. Not thirty seconds went by before I was back on the ground, wheezing for breath and wondering why cows are the main ingredient in hamburgers.

While that was not a pleasant experience, it did make a great story. When I got back home, I told all my friends about getting off
this massive beast of a horse. But what I failed to tell my friends, and what I haven’t told you yet, is that the horse I had been riding was actually . . . a Shetland pony.

The way I told the story to my family, they would have thought that I had been bucked off Sea Biscuit. We all tell stories with a slant. We emphasize certain things and minimize or leave out others. That’s exactly what Stephen is doing. He retells the story of Israel, but he tells it in a particular way. He is going to emphasize Abraham, and then Joseph and Moses and David. And here’s why.

Stephen is being accused of blaspheming the Temple. Stephen reminds them that in their own history, God showed up to people
and in places outside of the Temple. God is not confined to expensive, elaborate buildings. God does just fine revealing himself in
burning bushes or deserts.

The second point Stephen makes is even more powerful. He retells the story of Israel, but he emphasizes times in their history
when the so-called religious leaders of the day rejected someone through whom God was actually working. Joseph was rejected by
his brothers. Moses was rejected, twice, by the very people he was trying to lead out of captivity.

The point Stephen is making here is huge! He’s telling them their own narrative and letting them know that they are playing the wrong parts. This may explain why he ends his sermon the way he does. He calls them stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears, which in my experience is not a good way to endear yourself to the audience. And then he asks one of the most provocative questions in the entire Bible: “Was there ever a prophet that your fathers didn’t persecute?”

Did you know that, except for a few isolated incidents, prophets always were sent to the people of God? Prophets were sent to let them know they had wandered off track somehow. And it hardly ever went over well.

Religious people did not usually respond, “Okay, you’re right. We’re sorry.” Instead, they figured out that the best way to silence
the prophets was by killing them. And they did. Jesus refers to this in Matthew 23:29–30 when he is talking to the religious leaders of his day: “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’”

Modern-Day Prophets
After Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he was immediately blacklisted by the FBI as the most dangerous black man in the country. They suspected he was a communist.

Today we celebrate his birthday as a federal holiday.

We decorate the tombs of prophets. But it’s not the wrong action of the government in those civil rights days that disturbs me so much as it is the inaction of the church. Dozens of times I’ve read Dr. King’s letter to white clergy, a letter written from his Birmingham jail cell, and every time it haunts me. I’ve often wondered why the people of God so easily accept and maintain the status quo.

This line from Jesus is one of the most convicting things Jesus says to me. I’m religious. I’ve grown up in church. I love the Lord
and believe the Lord loves me. And that’s exactly the crowd Jesus is talking to in Matthew 23. To them, to me, Jesus doesn’t just say your ancestors did this, but he points out that they would have probably done it had they been alive. For the last few years a question has haunted me. I wonder what I would have done if I had been alive in 1960. And if I’m honest, I think I would have fought against civil rights.

Because I know me. I know how easy it is for me to play the wrong character in my own story. That’s why we need prophets, even
though we don’t always appreciate them.

Notice the way the story of Stephen ends:

When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Acts 7:54–58)

I love this. They cover their ears and start yelling! How mature. What’s next? I’m rubber and you’re glue? And tucked in the middle
of their murdering is a little detail about Stephen seeing Jesus. Being a prophet has lots of downsides—like being hated and disliked,
even being murdered. But for all the negatives, the one profit to being a prophet is that you get to see God. Think about it—Ezekiel,
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and now Stephen.

The heavens open up and Stephen sees Jesus. It’s a heavenly court scene. And that’s significant, because Stephen is currently in
court. He’s on trial for his life.

At the moment of condemnation by that earthly court, however, Stephen gets a vision of that heavenly one. One in which he is
loved and commended. In the middle of a ton of scowls, he knows he’s made God smile. This is something the prophets know that we tend to forget—that if God is smiling at you, all other opinions are inconsequential. The life of a prophet may be hard and short, but it’s worth it to get to see God.

That’s what I think gives Stephen the power to end his life on a note of grace and faith.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out,
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:59–60)

Stephen has just seen Jesus, the embodiment of resurrection, so he’s not concerned about what they can do to him. As Dr. King said
before he died, there is a certain kind of fire that no water hoses can put out.

Did you see the way that this story ends? Luke tells us, “He fell asleep.”

Prophets Never Die
This is the point of the resurrection. Prophets never die! Can you see the power that Stephen has found here? He knows that even if God allows him to die, it will not be in vain. And it isn’t, because right there in this murderous crowd is a guy named Saul.

The very guy who is going to spread the gospel to the entire world, we first meet while he’s participating in a murder. If you have read Acts, you know that he later will be named Paul, and he’s going to write more about the resurrection than any other New Testament writer.

He first sees the power of it right here. Years later, in his letters, when Paul refers to the saints who have died in Christ, do you know what his favorite term is for death? Sleep.

Death is so final and injustice is so permanent, unless you believe in the resurrection. In that case, death is just a nap.
Archeologists have discovered a first-century sign in Jerusalem that warns people not to steal bodies from graves. I can imagine why that was necessary. If one guy missing from his grave causes so much ruckus, they don’t want it ever to happen again. But they couldn’t stop it! The fuel for the book of Acts is the undeniable fact that death had been defeated.

And that is still the fuel for the church.

I love the last public words Dr. King ever spoke. On the night before he was assassinated, in his final speech, he said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming
of the Lord.3

That’s remarkable. He feared no one. This was the last speech Dr. King ever gave; he was shot in Memphis the next day. His reward for living a life that was not dominated by fear. But in so many ways, the influence of his life was just beginning.

The same hope and faith in the risen Lord that sustained Stephen in his final hour gave peace and calm to Dr. King on that last day. The resurrection is still what animates and sustains prophets everywhere.

This dangerous idea doesn’t belong just to apostles and visionary civil rights leaders. The heart of Acts is this grand message that the hope and strength of resurrection are God’s gift for everyone.

Calling All Prophets
Do you know who Stephen was?

Right before the Acts 7 story of his death, we read about a time when the apostles feel overwhelmed with people needing help.
Widows need to be fed and food needs to be distributed, and the folks in one minority group are fussing because their widows don’t
appear to be getting their fair share.

The apostles tell the complainers it’s not right for the Twelve to stop preaching the gospel to wait on tables, so they pick seven guys
to deal with the feeding and the fussing.

Stephen is one of them. He is, in the words of the apostles, a waiter.

You’d probably never have known his name, and people wouldn’t name their little boys Stephen if this had not happened. But Stephen wasn’t just a waiter, and you’re not just a soccer mom, or a mechanic, or a member of the quilting club.

You’re a prophet. At least you can be, if you accept the opportunities the Lord opens up for you. This is one of the main points of
Acts. Peter’s first point in his first sermon tells us this:

This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.

Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:16–18)

This point, in a patriarchal society, is huge. No longer does God’s Spirit rest only on a select few. Now, through this new thing God
is doing through Jesus, the Spirit empowers young men and old women, seventh-grade girls and sixty-year-old truck drivers. All of
us can be God’s servants. His prophets.

At the church where I preach, we have a senior saint named Ruth who goes to the jail every week and teaches people art. Because she hopes that if she gives them a healthier way to express themselves, they won’t find themselves back in the vicious cycles that got them locked up.

She teaches art in the name of Jesus. Because God is on the side of justice, and our dear Ruth is on the side of God.

Another woman at our church, a woman named Susan, is a quiet, joyful servant who hates being in the spotlight. But every week you can find her at inner-city schools teaching at-risk kids how to read.

She knows what a difference this will make in their lives. God is on the side of justice, and Susan is on the side of God.

A couple of college students from our church named Jason and Steven have recently started going to some apartments across town
to try to make a positive difference in the lives of some refugee children. Jason and Steven have started a soccer league for these kids who wouldn’t be able to play otherwise.

Jason and Steven know God is on the side of justice, and they are on the side of God.

A woman named Linda was a flight attendant for thirty years. But she quit this job that she loved to start a non-profit agency called
Eternal Threads. Linda now goes all over the world equipping girls whose only options to make money tend to be pretty dark. She
teaches these young women how to make crafts to sell. She is giving them a way to eat that doesn’t involve selling their souls.

God is on the side of justice, and Linda is on the side of God.

It is inevitable that if you do this kind of thing for long, eventually you’ll bother people who don’t understand. You may even have to speak against some things they like. But that goes with the territory, because you’re a prophet.

God is calling all prophets, and in this sense we’re all called to be prophets. Stephen’s story is our story. This is the message of
Acts. The resurrection can turn cowards into apostles, and waiters into prophets.

It did in Stephen’s day. It still does.

A few years ago I heard the well-known preacher Tom Long tell the story of Flora Miller. Flora was a senior saint who lived during the heart of the civil rights movement in Atlanta. She was a white, third grade Sunday school teacher in a conservative, all-white church.

At one point, the civil rights workers in Atlanta adopted the strategy of sending African-American Christians to white churches
to force their hand on whether they would be as inclusive as the gospel requires. Flora’s church found itself in a predicament. They
knew their congregation might be “visited,” so the leaders of the church met to decide what to do if someone of color showed up at
their church.

One Sunday morning the leaders announced their decision. They stood up and told their people that, after much prayer, the elders of the church had decided that they would allow African-American guests to join the assembly “so long as space provides.” They repeated that statement, slowly enunciating each word: “So long as space provides.”

If you looked around that morning, you would have noticed that space was not an issue for this church. They met in a spacious
building that could accommodate hundreds of other believers. This statement was not an earnest decision to stand against the racism of their day. It was a public relations stunt. It was a sham, a front.

Then they said it one more time, just in case anybody didn’t understand the unspoken message. “They will be welcome, so long
as space provides.”

That’s when little old Flora Miller, who had been at that church most of her life and had served and loved these people for decades,
girded her loins and stood up. Right in the middle of the elders’ stinky announcement, this sweet, elderly, Sunday school teacher said, “Well, if we happen to run out of room, they can have my seat.”4

To most folks she looked like just your average Sunday school teacher, but Flora Miller was a prophet standing against religious bigotry.

Even though it was far from popular and even though it might have cost her valued friendships, she spoke truth.

The biblical word for that is “prophet.” Stephen found out that choosing to be one may put you in a grave, but the resurrection
assures us that prophets never die.

One of the best ways I’ve ever heard the Holy Spirit described is “The Wild Goose.” The Celtic Christians called the Holy Spirit this, not to be irreverent, but because they knew something I think we’ve forgotten.

They know that the Holy Spirit is wild.

A few years ago, Leslie and I led a team of college students to work with an orphanage in India for a few weeks. At one point, the leader of the Orphanage took us to see the place where Apostle Thomas was thought to have been martyred. We thought we were going to a museum.

We were wrong.

Turns out that the orphanage we were working with was taking us to a Prayer conference at the site where Thomas was  martyred.  Hundreds of Christians from around Southern India had gathered, including…I kid you not…Benny Hinn’s mentor.

Everyone called him Apostle Bob (not his real name) and at one point during the prayer time, A.B. said he wanted a representative from every nation up on stage to pray for them. I didn’t like where this was headed, so I just kept my eyes on the floor and tried to pretend like I was deep in some kind of spiritual focus that shouldn’t be interrupted.

They actually picked Leslie out of the crowd to be the American representative. She joined a line of people on the stage, taking her place at the far left, and then it happened. Apostle Bob started at the right side of the stage and starting putting his hands on people’s head saying “Fire” and then they would fall back into some designated catcher’s arms.

I remember thinking, “Thank God they didn’t choose me.”

That was premature.

Because my sweet wife, didn’t want to do this alone, and so about half-way through the prayer session, she comes off the stage, down to me, cuts right past my spiritual shoe-staring, and takes me back to stand in line with her.

Thanks Les.

I got in place just in time to be popped in the head by the man, and fell back, more pushed and pulled, than slain.

I’m laying on the floor in a Church in India thinking about all the college students I had brought here, and what they must have been thinking. But I was sure I knew what it was, I had grown up thinking it.

A few years before, I had been to Sri Lanka with a team of people from the Hills Church to do Tsunami disaster relief. We served the area of the world that had been hit the hardest, and to this day some of our Church members are still there.

But what I remember about that trip was the blind woman who was healed. One of our shepherds had gone with us, and during the Sunday morning church assembly, a woman had come up asking for prayers, because she had been blind for years.

The Shepherd prayed, and God healed her.

That same day, I prayed for a 4 year old boy with a heart murmur. The next year when we went back we learned that the blind woman still could see, and the young boy had died.

Recently I wrote about a major shift that I’ve had in how I think we are called to relate to God and His Spirit. I have learned that most Western Christians try to talk about the way the Spirit works in two different categories. Either Magic…or Deism.

But neither of those does justice to the Bible or to most of our own experiences. The Spirit of God is not something that we can control or commodify. Listen to how often we talk about the Spirit and say things like “I want more.”

I get the sentiment behind that, but on one level it can be the greedy result of having gotten much of what we want for our entire life.  God is an experiential God, but that might not mean what you think, and it certainly doesn’t mean that God works on our terms.

But then the other danger is the one that our fellowship has been far more guilty of than we know. We came by it honest. The Restoration Movement is a product of good people trying to make sense of God and Church in the boom of Western Enlightenment. A movement that was built on the understanding that God made the world, wound it up like a watch, and then stepped away.

So we ask questions like “Can God do the supernatural?” never realizing that those are not words we are given by Scripture or the earlier Christians. Or we try to “Name the blessing and claim the healing” somehow missing the humility that seems to characterize the prayers of the early church.

And all along we miss the one thing the Spirit is trying to do in us.

Help us to let go of our deep desire for controlling outcomes and even our own life.

I believe that preparation is a friend, not enemy, to the Holy Spirit, but there is a world of difference between preparation and manipulation.

I believe that if Jesus and the Disciples needed the Spirit than I most certainly do and I still believe on many levels what the Churches of Christ taught me to believe, that the book of Acts is not a book of exceptions, but examples.

But I also believe that a life filled with the spirit is primarily known by fruits of the Spirit. And one of the more disturbing parts of this conversation between Christians is that it is most often marked by condescension. Certain groups define the other as primitive or weird, and themselves as enlightened or orthodox.

Frankly, I’ve seen more ugliness in Christians when we are talking about the Holy Spirit than almost any other topic.

One group thinks they’ve got God figured out, and another thinks they’re crazy.

Which is why my favorite description of the Holy Spirit is a Wild Goose. Because if you think you can put God’s Spirit in a well-defined box, it’s probably not God you’re chasing.

This was written by Jake Jacobson and Jonathan Storment, preaching intern and preaching minister at the Highland Church of Christ.

“The Internet is a Gift from God” –Pope Francis”

“He [Pope Francis] apparently hasn’t scrolled down to the comments yet.” –Steven Colbert

A few years ago the head of the Catholic Church in England took a stand against the next wave of sin. 
It wasn’t homicide, abortion, or drugs. The sin this time was something far more innocuous.

He took a stand against Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and all the other ways that we can connect to one another virtually. He said that too much communication via technology is dehumanizing. We lose the social skills that are necessary to interact face to face. Or even worse, we lose the desire.

His main point was that real friendship is hard work that involves sacrifice, time, and serving one another. The danger of our social networking is that the emphasis seems to be on quantity of relationships above the quality of them.

How many times have you been sitting at a table in a really good conversation when your pocket starts to ring, or your conversation partner starts to text someone else? Are we losing the art of being fully present anywhere by attempting to be present everywhere?

This is not to be nostalgic, or to say that we should just go back to the good ole days of candlelight and ink pens. But when was the last time you turned off your phone? Or went to visit someone instead of sending an email?

There’s one Saturday Night Live character who often has some fairly insightful commentary on social media and how it is used today. The problem, he says, is that kids today don’t understand how to show respect to other people because all they care about is their social media profiles. They only care about the way people view them based on how funny, pretty, intelligent, or fill-in-the-blank-here that they are. It’s all about image.

But I think that problem belongs to more than just kids.

Many adults are catching on to the benefits of social media as well. Facebook and Twitter are picking up steam in the business world; sites like LinkedIn allow professionals to become connected with one another. The problem with these sites is that it’s all about image. How do you present yourself? Who are you?

These are questions most of us ask throughout life. Who am I? What is my purpose? How do others view me, and what do they think my purpose is?

These are good questions, but they can also be dangerous ones.

They can become consuming questions. Like Narcissus, we can find ourselves in love with our image, and find a crushing need to keep it up.

We want to appear as people have (or haven’t) defined us. And what’s worse is that we will do anything to sustain that image of who we are or of who people think we are.

In a word, it can become idolatry, only this time we aren’t bowing down to a golden calf.

Now, we are simply looking in the mirror (or more likely, at the computer screen).

I like the way that John Ortberg talks about this:

“Technology is always a doubled-edged sword, because it reflects the wonder of the Imago Dei and the wickedness of the fall. The printing press which brought the Bible to the masses did the same for pornography.”

Is Social Media good or bad? Yes.

It puts on full display the human condition for better or for worse. But we’ve been doing that for thousands of years without the Internet, and so maybe it’s time to learn how to plug some ancient ethics into how we live in a very new era.

The apostle James has an important word to say to the church that had grown and spread all over the ancient world, and it can be helpful for this discussion about social media as well. He writes about the tongue in chapter 3, about how it has all this potential for good but the trappings of evil too. The tongue is capable of doing things like offering words of encouragement or thanks to men and women who serve other people. It is capable of complimenting our spouses, children, co-workers, or friends on something well done. It is capable of telling that inspirational story of a man or woman who beat the odds of cancer and is able to go home to their family.

It is capable of great good. But the tongue is also capable of great evil.

As if we didn’t know that already.

Sure, it’s capable of blessing the Lord, but it can also curse human beings who are made in God’s likeness (James 3:9). It’s with our words that we are capable of bullying, gossiping, and many other words of violence, hatred, and division.

In Genesis God speaks a world into existence, and then God creates humans in His image with that same ability. The tongue is capable of creating our identity, of presenting an image—an image of who we may or may not be—of ourselves to others. This image tells other people that we are funny, pretty, intelligent, or better on social media.

And what’s dangerous is that we recognize bullying, gossiping, violence, hatred, and division as much worse than fibbing about who we are. If we are caught up in our use of social media in the number of “likes” or “favorites” that we have, we probably have forgotten something about who the Bible says we are, something about who God says we are.

I think social media tells us something very true about ourselves: that we are social beings. But I also think it misses what God tells us about who we are: created beings who represent the image of the creator himself.

And that means that we are already “liked” and “favorited” by the one we worship.

So we must bear the weight of the image of God well, even in the virtual world of images, or maybe especially in the virtual world of images.

As James says later in chapter 3, our tongues proclaim (or fingers type) the wisdom that comes with knowing who we are: words that are pure, peaceful, gentle, obedient, filled with mercy and good actions, fair, and genuine.

They say that preachers help form churches, but the reverse is true as well. Churches form preachers. Preaching is a product of a hundred senior ladies coming up with a word of encouragement.  It is the culmination of dozens of different people being kind, when they just as easily could have been harsh. It’s loving people when they are off, because you trust God could form them into something more than they currently are.

On an average Sunday morning, our congregation consisted of Bro. Foy, the patriarch of the church, who was more than a little mentally unstable. Not a joke, but he is the reason I’m a preacher, because mentally unstable makes interesting sermons, and passionate preaching.

There aren’t many memories from my church childhood that don’t involve Bro. Foy. The first funeral I ever did (I was 14), he wrote for me. I remember sitting up behind the pulpit with him, and him telling me that I was going to do just fine.

Mrs. Ruby, the widow who sat on the third row and sang alto, until we had to start taking communion to her house. Eventually she lived with my family for a few months toward the end of her life, and also managed to get me hooked on Days of Our Lives as a teenager (anybody know how Beau and Carly are doing?).

There was Marquieth, an African American young man was always there. He lived with Bro. Foy. Because Bro. Foy, after recognizing that he was a racist,  had moved into an all black community and started teaching 5th grade math. Marqueith was a

Then there was Simran, the Sikh, who came straight from Chennai, India  to Benton Arkansas as a High School graduate. He came to America to study, but he became family. Simran never became a Christian, but I learned so much about what it meant to be Church, by watching this little group of Christians welcome him in like family. Simran became my Indian brother, who served us communion from time to time even though he didn’t take it.

There was Brian, my friend who also had down syndrome. He’d lead a few of the songs every single time we met, even though one of us had to start it for him. Nervously, we begin asking him to say some of the prayers for church, until we realized he just might know God better than any of us, then he prayed every Sunday.

There were my parents, who had the wisdom to know that just because a church doesn’t have a youth group doesn’t mean that it’s not good for their kid to be there.

Hospitable, inclusionary, they were convicted and tempered with kindness. Patient and Generous to me in every way, and they loved the Bible, and they loved to build bridges.

Words like liberal and conservative couldn’t be used to describe us, and we never used them ourselves. Those were words of politics and they just didn’t fit what we were doing there.  We argued, like any human community, and there were tense times (like when Foy started preaching against women wearing pants), but we apologized and forgave quickly.

We had too, after all we took communion together.

I saw the beautiful thing that is a community of reconciliation, and you’ll never convince me that this is not something worth giving my life for.

After finishing High School, I was content to just keep working construction and preaching at different churches from time to time. But Bro. Foy thought my life could be more than that. So during my senior year, he drove me to Harding University, and he offered to pay for my first semester.

I found out later that he had to take out a loan to do that, but he never complained. I heard one inner city kid tell about how Bro. Foy had co-signed for his first car. He died with hardly anything, but a full auditorium of people.  Because his investments weren’t in Merrill-Lynch, they were in people, people like me.

Chances are you don’t recognize any of these names, but I do, and I recognize now what they were doing, and just how much it really cost them.

Cloud of Witnesses

Since then, I’ve had so many great heroes in my faith. From Monte Cox teaching me that the Kingdom of God was bigger than I’d even imagined, and the message of Jesus was better than I’d ever dreamed. To Rick Atchley teaching me how to talk about God and how to care for a local congregation, and mobilize her to serve God and bless the world.

I once heard the preacher Tom Long point out that the Gospel of Luke opens up with the elderly. You’ve got Elizabeth and Zechariah and Simeon and Anna, people who are well into their AARP benefits. But then Long points out that these older people pass off the gospel to the younger people and then trust God enough to trust them with it.

And the rest of Luke and Acts, is young people taking the gospel all over the world. It looked different than the senior saints could have ever imagined, but it was exactly what they had always hoped for.

And these senior saints could do that, because they trusted that God was bigger than any one generation.

In writing this article, I have once more overwhelmed with just how good God has been to me. In surprising ways, and through surprising people God gave me the Gospel not as an idea as much as a people.

I feel a bit like the Hebrew author who, after listing a few names of some heroes of the faith just had to give up, and say, “There are a whole cloud of witnesses…I don’t have time to tell you about Duane, or Nathan, or Donna or Tina or Nina and Al or Bert or Bub”

There are more to name. but even if I did try and name them, the whole world might not have enough room for the books.

But they are my cloud, and with every sermon I preach I still know, they gave me witness.

“All creation has an instinct for renewal.” –Tertullian

A few months ago I read about some research done between the Universities of Oregon and Kansas about how what we believe about what God will do in the “end times” affects how we live now.

And it was disturbing.

They discovered that people who believed in Hell were less likely to do bad things, like commit crimes or like Nickelback. But they also discovered something shocking…people who believed in Heaven, were more likely to commit crimes and do violence toward other people.

Maybe you’ve heard the statistics about how, when the Genocide happened in Rwanda, it was (per-capita) the most Christian nation in the world. In fact, it was so Christian that there were other churches that rose up and killed entire other churches that weren’t in their tribe.

As we backed up and tried to unravel how this entire tragedy happened, Christian missionaries discovered that the story about Jesus that Rwandan people had been told was that if you believe in Jesus, then wait until you die, then you will be able to go to Heaven.

Does that sound familiar?

Imagine There’s No Heaven

For the longest time the Jewish faith didn’t talk about the afterlife. In fact, there is a Jewish tradition that says that after someone has died, you shouldn’t say a word about the age to come.

This tradition comes from the recognition of the human tendency for avoiding death. It knows that we tend to  want to imagine that there is no death and to give pat answers to complex questions.

But it also comes from the faith that God made this world good, and death was not a part of it. The Jewish Christian faith is a very “worldly” faith. It is a faith about this world, and this life and to speak in the face of death about another time and another place is to dis-regard that this time and this place matters.

I like the way that Rabbi Joseph Telushkin says this:

Judaism is always very “this worldly” oriented. And the moment people start getting fixated on an afterlife, it can have the effect of diverting their attention from their work in this world.

In other words, our focus on the age to come, can actually make us miss what God is doing in this age. And if that sounds strange consider again how rarely Jesus talked about Heaven, he was fully invested in this world.

In fact, I think this is why we need to talk about Heaven a bit more, and quite a bit differently.

Because for most of us, when we think about Heaven, we were taught to think about pie in the sky when we die (by and by). We grew up singing songs about Flying away, and reading passages like 1st Thessalonians 5 in a very different way than the first Christians would have read it.

Think about the way the Bible ends.

Heaven comes down.

The tree of life and the rivers and the garden that we read about in the beginning of the Bible are back. And so is God! Fully and finally all things are made new. Which is different than God making all new things.

God restores the whole world.

Which means that this world matters right now.

Restoring Restoration

The reason that people who believe in Heaven are more likely to commit violent crimes is because what Christians have started teaching about Heaven is nothing like what the Gospel talks about for the Age to Come.

When we disconnect Heaven and this world, then we probably shouldn’t be surprised when people do that in their lives. We probably shouldn’t be surprised when there is actually a correlation between a belief in Heaven and violent crimes on earth.

We shouldn’t be surprised, but we should start telling a better story

The dirt and trees and babies and business and food and wine and friendships and commerce and family and justice and compassion and technology and  our acts of service and worship…all of this matters more in the present because of what God’s future is.

There is not going to be a single part of creation where God is going to allow Satan to say, “At least I won there.”

In his book The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons makes the observation that the upcoming generations of Christians will be known as Restorers. They don’t start their Bible in Genesis 3, and they don’t end them in Revelation 20.

They believe that the story is bigger and better than we had thought. And that’s a very good thing. Specifically for people in our particular tribe.

Because we are after all, A Restoration Movement.

Sometimes God lets us stumble into things that are bigger than we thought.

For years, we’ve been using language that connects (in surprising ways) with a whole generation of people, we just didn’t know it!

Happily Ever After…After All

I don’t know about you, but I love a happy ending. I love the stories where the dog doesn’t die in the end and the Hobbits get to go back to the Shire.

But the problem with happy endings is that is rarely how reality goes.

We live in one of the few eras of history that thinks that a happy ending means it must be inferior art. I get why we think that, it seems like any story that is close to reality must also include suffering. But there is a deeper kind of despair to this isn’t there? Most of us have a kind of low-grade gloom about life. We keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the bottom to finally fall out once and for all.

Happy endings are for children, and now that we know life is meaningless, the last thing we want to do is be seen as naïve.

Welcome to the world of the disciples on Easter morning.

Death has once again taken someone you love and you know that this is the final ending of all stories. Cancer seems to be relentless. Poverty and injustice are overwhelming. It seems like most marriages start off happily just to end in divorce.

There are days when a happy ending just seems impossible.

JRR Tolkien actually wrote his epic happy ending in a world much like ours. When he wrote the Lord of the Rings, people accused him of telling an escapist story, one that didn’t deal with the harsh reality of the world.

But Tolkien’s response was soaked in the Gospel. He responded to his critics that the reason that people love Happy endings is because they are somehow true to the deepest parts of reality.

In other words, at the heart of the Universe is a God who is telling a story that will resolve in the best possible ways.

But the Gospel is that what God did for Jesus, He will do again. That what God did for Jesus’ body is what He will do for all of us, and for all of Creation.

When the last shoe drops, when the final plot of story line is told, when the final turn comes, all shall be well.

Death itself will die, and Hell will pay back what it owes.

God will be with His people.

And they live Happily ever after.