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Love. For the past six months we have been drinking deeply from the Epistles of 1-2 John in the rarefied air of the Rocky Mountains. The apostle wastes not an iota on trivia. The teaching that John stresses, in the starkest terms possible, is often barely acknowledged in Christian circles. The eternality of the Incarnation of Christ. The Cross. Love as the litmus test for all things Christian.

Love. People use the language of “love” for nearly everything in our world. Yet it is my observation that the genuine article, unfiltered, unvarnished, unconditioned love is unsettling even for Christians. It is “safe” to love ice cream, movies, cars, and Harleys. It is safe because it costs nothing whatsoever to “love” them. Yet we want to quantify, regulate, and restrict the flow of love precisely because we live in fear.

Love makes things unpredictable. Love makes things uncontrollable. Love makes things vulnerable. Love makes us not in charge. Love surrenders the power of domination. But in the real, genuine, unfiltered and unvarnished love … we are unconcerned with the unpredictability of love.

Listen to John. We know the text but it is the center of our “doctrine” as the apostle John’s?

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4.16b-21)

Many stunning things are in this potent paragraph.  But perhaps most radical is that the apostle John makes obedience to the Greatest Commandment, the exercise of the Second! How often do we find brothers and sisters under the pretense of love and loyalty for God avoiding, withdrawing from, their brothers and sisters. John, not me, says it is a “lie!”

See we turn love for God into the same thing as loving our Harley or ice cream. Such love costs nothing. But John will have none of it (and the rest of the Bible says ‘Amen’). Such love is bogus, fake news, a lie. We meet the image of God in our sister and our brother, our reaction to the icon, the photograph, the holograph of God is how we react to God.

The truth is we do not “abide with our brothers and sisters” because we do not love them. First John addresses this from the first verse to the last. The heretics in 1 John are not just anti-Christs, they are heretics because they disfellowshipped and left their sisters and brothers (1 Jn 2.18-20).

Love does not fear our sisters. Love does not fear our brothers. Love does not fear aliens. Love does not fear socialists. Love does not fear capitalists. Love does not fear Mexicans. Love does not fear African Americans, Donald Trump nor Barack Obama. Love does not fear poor people. Love does not fear someone with a different opinion than me.

We love because he loves us. If you and I are “in” him then the love that is in him will be in us. This is why John points to the Cross when he speaks of loving one another, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another … We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn 3.14-16). Loving those with whom we differ is, perhaps, the most Godlike action a human being can ever do. Since we know love looks like a bloodstained cross given for our sister and our brother we ought to be able to tolerate each other.

Love. It is the deepest, it is the hardest, Christian doctrine to practice. Unfiltered, unvarnished, sacrificial Love, is the imitation of God. If we loved each other enough to die for one another, John says, we would have far less division. Indeed the apostle says that rejecting part of the family of God is tantamount to rejecting the Father (1 Jn 3.11-12; 4.11-12; 5.1-2). John calls us to stop pretending we love God when we so freely walk away from the gathering of icons of God (1 Jn 2.19). To love one another means we do what our Father does, we suffer for the sake of unity. To practice love we just might get bloodied.

Stop living in fear of each other. Live in love. But we continue to live in fear … Love casts out fear.

The gospels, at their best, haunt me.

What I mean, is that they have this way sometimes of lingering after I’ve read them. They echo around in the back of my head. They seem to point to something just outside of my field of vision, as though I could see it clearly if I just turned my head quick enough. The gospels nag me.

One haunting text that has nagged me for some time is in Luke 19:41-44, lodged right between Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and his temple-cleansing action.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:41–44 NRSV)

The text invites the reader to join in Jesus’s distress, evoking emotion as Jesus weeps over the old city of David. His “If only” cry speaks to our own experiences of “what might had been”. Adding a bit of historical context sharpens the blow, as we see what Jerusalem will soon suffer at the hands of Rome, and indeed how the city had already suffered at the hands of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Seleucids. “If only you could see!” Jesus cries, and I can almost hear it.

Further though, the text invites us to only to lament the ancient disaster, but see its root—the failure of Jerusalem to recognize “the things that make for peace.” This is the bit that haunts me.

I think, given the rest of Luke’s gospel, that “the things that make for peace” probably mean things like God’s willingness to subvert power and honor the humble and lowly (Luke 1:51-53). I think it probably includes things like turning the other cheek and loving our enemies (Luke 6:27-29), or a willingness to repent or to extend forgiveness (Luke 17:3-4). I think it probably is a way of summing up the whole of Jesus’s way of life that ran counter to those who would be power brokers for the future of Israel.

What haunts me about this story is my own blindness to “the things that make for peace”. I can recognize the abstract ethics of peace, but am at a loss for how to bring a moment of it about in the real world. I’m not the only one either, of course. The air is full of violent rhetoric and shows of power, and the anxieties that beg for them are present in the church as well as in the neighborhoods in which we live. I’m at a loss to know how to deal with the spirits of fear, power, and conflict. This is how the gospel of Jesus is nagging at me today.

Of course, in the text, the “thing” that makes for peace ends up being a person; Jesus himself in all his simple glory. Often, I feel like those who met him on the road to Emmaus, whose eyes were opened for an instant, so they could just recognize him for a moment—before he vanished from their sight! I see a glimpse of the Lord, but the image vanishes before I know how to follow. In the end, I pray that the spirit will increase my capacity to recognize him, and teach me how to follow his trail. In that hope, I will immerse myself in his story until I can recognize his call to peace above the din of war. I will immerse myself in his story until I can see him touching the lepers or dining with Zacchaeus. I will immerse myself in his story until his gentle word of grace to the broken sinner drowns out the boasts of the Pharisees at the table. I will immerse myself in his story until I can see his cross in the hands of those grasping for power. I want to be able to see him, everywhere he is at work. I want us all to be able to recognize the peacemaking one.

If nothing else, maybe someday we’ll hear his quiet weeping over us. Perhaps a day will soon come when our eyes will be open and we will see his tears over our addiction to power and fear, and the spirit will move us to join in his lament.

Maybe that will be the start of something new.

PatrickMeadMy wife and I just got back from three days at Scotfest, the largest gathering of its kind in the United States. This annual celebration of all things Scottish and Irish (to be fair, it was about 80% Scottish) takes place in Estes Park, Colorado at an elevation of 9100ft. The setting is spectacular in the shadow of Longs Peak and by the east entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. While we enjoyed the Scottish food, goods, and music I kept seeing an illustration acted out in front of me, a morality play that was there to instruct the church if the church is willing to listen. To explain this, I have to delve into historical and personal matters related to Scotland. If such things do not interest you, keep reading anyway — there is a point which is going to be made.

When I was a boy, I was taught by my family that we were Scots. We traveled constantly, working here and there, never staying more than a few years in one place and, usually, much less. We had no home town, no state that claimed us. The roots given us by my family were Scottish roots.

As I grew up, I would sometimes work a job just long enough to buy a ticket back to Scotland where I would often roam alone, staying in downmarket B&Bs, observing, thinking, and feeling at home. I was enthralled with Scotland and loved it…but there was something about it that puzzled me; many of the Scots I met there were not proud of being Scottish and eschewed anything to do with their heritage. They told me they hated bagpipes, had never worn a kilt (and seeing a kilt was as unusual during those years as it would be to see one in America today). School books didn’t speak of William Wallace or Robert Bruce. Most didn’t even mention Robert Burns or Bonnie Prince Charlie. Gaelic was unknown and forgotten.

I remember well the night that this was driven home to me. I was in my early 20s and visiting friends in the west of Scotland when they handed me a census form. The government was taking a census and required visitors to fill it out, too. I was the only one in the house who checked the box indicating I knew and spoke Gaelic. That started a conversation with my hosts who told me they didn’t know a word of it, had never heard it, and weren’t interested. We talked for hours as they revealed that being Scottish to them was nice but a bit embarrassing. I was shocked.

Their money, they explained, was printed by the three major Scottish banks and was often refused by shops south of the border, treated as inferior by the English banks. They were lampooned on TV as kilt wearing idiots – bumpkins, drunks, or worse. After a failed attempt at independence in the early 70s many of the best and brightest emigrated to Canada, New Zealand, and Australia as they saw their options dry up at home.

There was a remnant that celebrated being Scottish but it was reserved primarily for visitors and ex-pats or for the ruling upper class. Those who wore the kilt were looked upon as odd and out of the mainstream, but they looked upon themselves as keepers of an ancient faith. The vast majority of Scottish tartan, kilts, bagpipe music, etc. was sold to Canadians and Americans over to visit the land of their ancestors. If you wanted to wear the kilt, there were lots of rules. There was (and is) even a book with the title “So You Want To Wear the Kilt” that spelled out all the rules. Bagpipe music was locked down and the tunes were not allowed to vary. To advance in the bagpipe world you had to be judged by a huge, arcane set of rules and procedures. Every note had to be played in a very exact way at an exact tempo and your face, posture, and demeanor had to be rigid and unchanging as you went through the very long judging sessions.

They were the few, the remnant, the last of the proud keepers of the Scottish ways…and they were choking the life out of it in the process.

At Scotfest, we spent hours and hours with the barbarians breaking the rules. There was Albannach (a Gaelic word meaning “Scottish”) with their wild hair, tattoos, undisciplined pipes and Celtic drums. There was Celtica whose pipes would take on “Smoke On the Water” or “Thunderstruck” and weave them into medleys with Scottish tunes such as “Scotland the Brave” and “We’re No Awa T’ Bide Awa” and who sent drummers into the crowd waving the Jolly Roger flag. Look them up on YouTube and see what I mean when I say that the barbarians have grabbed the kilt and bagpipe. Also look up Badpiper, Clanadonia, Red Hot Chili Pipers, and Saor Patrol.

When we went to their tents, they were packed and people stood twenty and thirty deep all around the tents in the driving rain or punishing heat of the day (in CO and at that elevation, you get all seasons every day). The pressing crowd was clapping, dancing, rejoicing, and enthusiastic. But…when Kami and I went a hundred yards away from the tents of the barbarians, we found the judging tents for the standard, classical bagpipers. No crowds…not even a single audience member. The only ones there were the pipers nervously fussing over getting every single thing right about their face, kilt, posture, and notes and the few family members who supported them. An unsmiling judge sat at the front and took notes, never reacting to the piper in front of them as they wrote down what they did wrong.

The contrast was so stark it took my breath away. I went to talk to the wild haired, tattooed members of Albannach and Celtica. They could not have been more friendly, open, and warm to me — a 56 year old short haired man dressed in American casual clothes. Their kilts were all over the place — ancient, philebeag, wild, disordered — and, therefore, their own. Their music was their own. And their passion for being Scottish and for all things Scotland dwarfed my own. They spoke of the upcoming vote on Independence next year in September (spoiler alert: it failed) with an excited, hopeful light in their eyes. They came from parents and grandparents who wouldn’t have considered such a thing (the Scottish National Party got barely 10% of the vote during most of the 80s and 90s). They spoke sadly of parents who told them they were ruining the kilt and Scottish music. I told them, “No, my friends. You haven’t ruined them; you’ve saved them.”

You see, now the main purchasers of bagpipe music are Scots and their people in the diaspora (Australia, Canada, and America). The kilt is seen daily on Scottish streets and it isn’t the kilt you would have once seen only at a military parade or, perhaps, an upper class wedding. No, now it is made of leather, or canvas and it comes in solid colors like black and tan or brown or blue or it is a standard kilt worn in a nonstandard way. It has become something embraced by the average person, not the old, stuffy class. It bunches about the waist or sweeps over the shoulder and far down the leg.

Gaelic is now seen on signposts and taught in schools (though, to be honest, it is still fairly rare to hear it spoken). Scots who once tried to moderate their accent and speak in more English or BBC tones are now thickening it up and using Scots words that had been dropped by their grandparents. And they’ve saved their national identity while older folk or those in the traditional remnant fear they have destroyed it.

When churches try to regiment everything and require lockstep obedience, they lose their kids. When their kids find Jesus, they react with incredible joy and great abandon. They seem like barbarians to their parents, but they are not ruining the church any more than Albannach and Celtica are ruining Scottish music and culture. While it might look – to those of us in our nearly empty tents – that they are ruining the faith it may very well be that they are saving it.

[Originally posted in 2013]

“With such values, will men stand for their liberties? Will they not give up their liberties step by step, inch by inch as long as their own personal peace and prosperity is sustained and not challenged, and as long as the goods are delivered? The life-styles of the young and the old generations are different. There are tensions between long hair and short, drugs and non-drugs, whatever are the outward distinctions of the moment. But they support teach other sociologically, for both embrace the values of personal peace and affluence. Much of the church is no help here either, because for so long a large section of the church has only been teaching a relativistic humanism using religious terminology.

I believe the majority of the silent majority, young and old will sustain the loss of liberties without raising their voices as long as their own life-styles are not threatened. And since personal peace and affluence are so often the only values that count with the majority, politicians know that to be elected they must promise these things. Politics has largely become not a matter of ideals–increasingly men and women are not stirred by the values of liberty and truth–but of supplying a constituency with a frosting of personal peace and affluence. They know that voices will not be raised as long as people have these things, or at least an illusion of them.” – Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?, 227

howshouldwethenliveSchaeffer was on to something 40 years ago it still rings true today. When the church melds with the world the church loses its distinctive voice (which is an essential voice in a society that rejects absolutes). The church has everything to lose in this game and nothing to gain. The reason we have been so easily drawn in is partly because the church lost its view of itself as distinctive from the world. Being part of a pseudo-Christian nation we didn’t think twice about adopting worldly values because we took it for granted that American values overlapped with Judeo-Christian values and so what harm could really be done in not maintaining our distinctiveness from society?

The answer is a lot…maybe even everything.

How sad it is when values are exchanged for goods and services and when ideals are traded for peace and affluence. How much will we give up in order to maintain our quality of life? How much of our faith will we be willing to compromise? How many of our values will we willingly flush down the toilet in the name of maintaining our stuff, our position, our power? Who do we and those who come after us become as a result of this sort of thinking and behaving?

These are sobering thoughts and we see the effects of this kind of thinking playing out all around us today. May we be the generation that stands up for what is right and holy and just. Let us be willing to check our comfort, our peace, even our affluence at the door if it means God is glorified, wrongs are righed and godly principles and values are upheld.

flagsIn a recent post I mentioned how the naivete of modernism was shattered when the dream of a logic-driven, rationalistic utopia was dashed to pieces when that same logic and reason and produced something as deadly effective as the atomic bomb. It turned out logic and reason did not always take us “higher” (that came in the 60s!).

What was so certain with modernity, an upward climb on the back of reason to a better society, came burning down in flames in the middle part of the 20th century. The 40s brought WWII and the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. The 60s brought Vietnam and the Civil rights movement. But there was something new going on that had the power and potential to shift the entire culture and that was the media. Television media was a catalyst that fanned these flames because prior to this time in history the images of war were left to the battlefield. Past wars brought about patriotism and support of all that was right with America. Now, these images were brought into living rooms across America which left people questioning many things about America: American particularism, values and beneath all of that and even more important than that, authority as a whole. With so much violence and bloodshed out there people were quick to deconstruct absolutes and positions of authority (including the church).

All three of these events and movements brought about a questioning of authority and authorities that we had done before but not in this form. For instance authorities had been questioned before. The Revolutionary War is the prime example of questioning authorities but everyone expected a new system of authority to take the place of the King. Now it wasn’t authorities that were being questioned it was authority as a whole. We were not even just questioning WHO was in authority but whether or not authority should be a thing at all.

Christianity had institutionalized itself and incorporated itself so thoroughly into the authority structures of the day that when cracks began to show in the “system” the church was too enmeshed to be immune from the fallout. A politicized and institutionalized Christianity has been in steady decline and Christianity as a whole has suffered from an identity crisis ever since.

The unfortunate bi-product of this cultural shift away from corporate authority to individual authority (they are in charge and I must follow to I am in charge and will do what I want) was a discard of absolute truth and the ability to truly know. Absolute truth and certainty is not something we get, however, from modernism. It is something we get from God, that modernism happened to value. Absolutes were one more casualty on the way to a society that values freedom over absolutes but in the process our society became a slave to the new system that sprung up in place of the old and all the consequences that come with self as the sole arbiter of truth and authority with no obligation or responsibility to the community.

When authority was unquestioned and unquestionable, the church got a pass and operated as an integral part of Western society and culture. You used to see politicians playing the Christian voting block or pandering to the Christian Right, which really had more to do with getting votes than actually being ideologically in line with anyone in particular. I don’t see that anymore. People aren’t concerned what Christians think when things are said publicly anymore or what repercussions will come from turning off the Christian voting block. Christianity lost political and cultural hegemony partly because we were really good at playing the game only to have the rules changed on us and we were left playing Monopoly while everyone else had switched to solitaire.

In the later part of the 20th and now the 21s century the church was in the cross-hairs along with everyone else who hinted of authority or absolutes. The pass we were used to getting had passed. This was not something we were used to. It left us dazed and confused. We were not used to a diminished role in society but that is what we were handed. If you ever want first century Christianity then you better get used to a world that looks down on Christians because that is what they experienced. First century Christianity did not operate out of a place of prominence and influence. It operated on the margins and underwent persecution. It just so happens that Christianity thrives from that position in the world and so we shouldn’t fear it.

From a worldly point of view that left Christianity in a vulnerable position. We had lost our voice, it seemed. From a spiritual point of view it actually positioned us to be more effective if we were paying attention because for the first time in a long time we had to pay attention. We had to learn to adapt. We couldn’t take things for granted but had to focus back on what was most important. That meant coming to grips with the fact that much of what we had considered important for a few hundred years were not the games the church should have been playing all along. The emperor had no clothes. We had to get back to Jesus.

The church now has an opportunity it hasn’t had in a long time. It is the opportunity to operate out of our own weakness. It is an opportunity to operate from the margins. It is an opportunity to put Jesus first again and submit to His lordship and stop feeling the need to play by the world’s rules…embedding and enmeshing our views and values into things like the political system. It is an opportunity to stop measuring the way the world measures and start making disciples. It is a time to reach out to the disaffected and disenfranchised and show them the love they have been searching for that is found in Jesus Christ. It is an opportunity to put first things first and to truly trust in the Lord because for the first time in a long time, if we are going to make it…really make it…we are going to have to trust God more and ourselves and our society less.

We are poised for explosive kingdom growth.

Let us not be fooled by the next sham tailor who promises us a nice new suit to replace the old one that wasn’t there to begin with.

markpowellChristians today are constantly bombarded with the latest ministry strategies, cultural and generational studies, and theological controversies.  It is important to pay attention to these proposals, but without a strong theological compass these varying voices can easily lead to uncertainty, frustration, and exhaustion.

 

With the approach of Good Friday and Easter it is helpful to consider how Paul summarized his ministry.  In 1 Corinthians Paul emphasized “we preach Christ crucified” (1:23, NIV).  Later, when giving instructions for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Paul states “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (11:26).  Yes, Jesus is risen from the dead, he reigns, and he is coming back.  But it is also important to pause and reflect on the cross.  Why exactly was it so important to Paul to proclaim Jesus’s death?  And why should Christians ritually recount Jesus’s death week after week in our worship?

 

The answer is simple.  God decided to reconcile us to himself through the cross.  God decided to change us through the cross.  God could have chosen any number of ways to redeem us.  In his infinite wisdom, God chose the cross.

 

Paul told the Corinthian church: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.  My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest of human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:2-5).

 

Paul was highly educated, and he often indulged in rhetorical flourishes in his epistles.  The foundation of his ministry, however, was Christ crucified.  Paul’s desire was for the faith of the Corinthian Christians to rest on the Spirit’s power, not Paul’s abilities.

 

One popular interpretation of “the Spirit’s power” here is to suggest that Paul’s message was empowered by miracles, but surely this is not Paul’s point.  It makes no sense for Paul to say, “I did not convince you with wise and persuasive words, but with miraculous fireworks!”  Furthermore, the biblical accounts suggest miracles have limited value when it comes to lasting spiritual change.  Rather, Paul simply notes that when we preach Christ crucified, God’s Spirit empowers the gospel message and uses it to transform lives.

 

Paul’s words are a great comfort.  When we preach a sermon, teach a Bible class, or have a spiritual conversation with a friend or loved one, we can trust that the Spirit empowers the simple gospel message to change lives.  We do not have to know all the answers.  It is not up to us to persuade others of the truth of the gospel.  God often works in spite of us and through our mistakes.  We are simply called to proclaim Christ crucified.

 

Paul’s words are also a great challenge.  Too often Christians think Paul’s strategy is inadequate and outdated.  We think we know better than God; we think the gospel needs our help.  So we supplement the gospel and exchange our birthright—the message of Christ crucified—for the latest best-seller.  Just as we are tempted to save ourselves by works rather than grace, so we are tempted to minster by works rather than grace.  To a world that is estranged from God and dying in sin, we offer self-help rather than God-help.

 

In the 1976 Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School, Gardner Taylor warned, “The preacher can set out to prove that God is great or that the preacher is clever.  However, you cannot do both in the same sermon.”  What is true for the preacher is true for all Christians.  Our words and our lives can show that either God is great or we are clever, but not both at the same time.  We have to choose.

 

Human ability can have impressive results.  Cleverness can fill a building, wisdom can increase a budget, and eloquence can incite powerful emotional experiences.  But God wants far more that what human ability can achieve.  God wants to demonstrate his love for a lost and dying world.  God wants to reconcile all people to himself.  And God wants to nurture deep and lasting spiritual change in our lives.  God has decided to do all this and more through the preaching of the cross.

——————–

Mark Powell is professor of theology at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tennessee. His latest book is Centered in God: The Trinity and Christian Spirituality.

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This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday.
The week before Easter.

For those who don’t follow the Christian calendar, Psalm Sunday may not mean as much as the Sunday that follows.

But Palm Sunday is important.  And maybe more so than you realize.

Where I preach, we will be handing out palm branches. They have symbolized victory in a span of time that reaches far, far back into the ancient world–to a period even before the Christ.

Indeed, palm branches are ancient history and they proclaim victory!

We all want to be victorious in some avenue or endeavor.
We want to win the game.
We want to win the girl/ boy.
We want to win the job.
We want to win the prize.
We want to win the election.
We want to win at life.

Nobody likes being a loser!

For those Jews some 2000 plus years ago, they were tired of losing–politically, socially, and economically. And so the palm branches represented the victory of the conquering King they dreamed and hoped for.

Today, we can understand those branches in a more meaningful way. We no longer have to be subjected to wishful dreaming. We no longer have to wait and wonder in breathless expectation.

Victory?  Yes, to be sure!

But the victory we celebrate is not the winner of the oval office or any other political manifestation. No, the victory we celebrate is the ultimate triumph of hope! It is the accomplished work of the now Reigning King! And that is hope I can live with!

In Luke’s version of Palm Sunday (Luke 19), Jesus is asked to quiet His disciples for their affirmations were disturbing and offensive to the political and religious power structure of the day.

I love Jesus’ response: “If they were to keep silent, the stones would cry out.”

This Sunday and every day as the song says…

Ain’t no rock, gonna cry in my place

 As long as I am alive I’ll glorify His Holy Name!

On to the victory only Jesus can bring! May every day be a triumphant march of the soul!

Palm branches indeed!

Les Ferguson, Jr.
Madison/ Ridgeland, MS

PatrickMeadI like watching magicians, especially the great Penn and Teller. I’m not one of those who gets frustrated wanting to know how they did it; I just enjoy the surprise and skill of the trick. There is an amazing amount of thought, preparation and practice in a magic trick and you have to get it exactly right or…it isn’t a good trick, you don’t get the result, and the audience is going to boo you right off the stage.

Is religion a magic trick? If you’d asked me that at any stage in my life I would have huffily denied it but, fact is, the way I lived and taught made my religion indistinguishable from a magic trick. It was all about doing the right things in the right way with precision and timing so that, if everything came together just right, you got the result you were going for. I learned that from growing up listening to preachers who railed against the people sitting in the pews – we baptized, church people! — telling us that if Jesus came back at that moment not all of us would be saved because we hadn’t done the right things in the right ways…or we’d done the wrong things. The upshot was: we weren’t going to pull off the trick.

On Wednesday nights I teach a small class at Fourth Avenue called “Just Jesus Stories.” We slowly walk our way through the stories, taking time to think about them, the people who heard them, the situation on the ground at the time, etc. We looked at passages in Mark 13 yesterday – not exactly a cheery chapter. In that part of the Jesus story the apostles were confused about Jesus’ comment concerning the temple, that their brand new, refurbished, beautified temple would one day be a pile of rocks. When four of them came to him privately to talk to him about what he meant he gave them a real downer of a talk about how people would rise up against each other, how they would be flogged in their churches, and how the sun would be darkened. Then he said this rather odd thing: “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”

 This puzzled me for years. I was raised to defend the faith, to “always be ready to give an answer” to any question about faith, doctrine, and practice. I was well schooled in our unofficial – but binding – catechism. I knew what to say. I knew what to do. I knew how to pull off the trick of salvation. But Jesus is aiming for something different here.

Let’s jettison one misconception first: He isn’t telling preachers to stand up before congregations unprepared. He isn’t telling worship leaders to pick their songs out on the front pew ten minutes before the sermon. He isn’t asking for you to not plan your communion remarks and hope you get something from a Snapple cap you found in your car on the way in. And he isn’t asking for us not to know what we believe and why we believe it. No, he is going for something else here. (and he was talking to his apostles, not us, anyway)

A clue comes in verse 9: “you shall be my witnesses.” The weight of this phrase doesn’t hit us as it might have hit them. Another word for witness is…martyr. Whether they heard it that way or not is arguable but the fact remains that the word “martyr” means the same as “witness” and was used that way of Stephen and those early Christians who died in the Coliseum, of starvation, or who were killed and tossed into unmarked graves all over the Empire.

But how can we witness for him if we don’t rehearse what we are to say for him? Look back in Mark chapter 12 where Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is. He doesn’t tell them any of the commands concerning what to say or do…but tells them how to be. Our witness is not our words, our precision obedience in this or that matter, or our perfect worship, or our systematic theology. Our witness is our lives, lived out in love of God and our fellow humans. No wonder an early Christian wrote, “We do not say great things. We do them.” By that he was not speaking of liturgies and the recitation of creeds but of a lifestyle that followed Jesus in love, grace, service, mercy, and humility.

It wasn’t the sermons of the condemned in the Coliseum that won over so many who watched them die; it was their faithfulness, their refusal to hate those who hated them, and their determination to live and die like their savior.

Religion isn’t a magic trick. You don’t have to get everything exactly right and hope for a good result. Religion – and I’m not afraid of that word – is all about our relationship with a Savior who calls us to live in love and follow Him. That is so simple that, like Naaman, when called to dip in the Jordan we rebel and want something more complicated. So we create and expand our lists of rules, procedures, and membership requirements and that has the effect of turning Jesus’ request for us to walk with him into…well…a magic trick that we hope works in the end.

But it isn’t magic. It isn’t a pre-prepared speech. It is life and what that life says to those who witness it.

Peace.

Recently a ”good, Jesus -loving” gentleman came to me after one of my English Dominant Latino presentations and said to me “Hector, I don’t see color.” I answered “Wow your sunsets must be boring!” I was not trying to be offensive or trite, it’s just that God made us different colors and we should recognize and rejoice in that. How boring it would be if we all looked the same.

What do you call a church whose church demographic does not match the demographic of the community around them? The answers I have received have varied from “dying” to “normal,” and everything in between. But can this disparity be called racist? Of course our churches are not racist. But the question was “could it be seen as racist?” Have you ever seen an all-white church meeting in a culturally diverse neighborhood? How does that feel? What does that look like to you?

Yesterday I had lunch with a couple who does see color (I’m pretty sure they had heard my previous story) and they wanted to know what they could do. They want to reach Latinos and other minorities but don’t know what to do. There are things that a church body can do to reach minorities, but today we will focus on you- the individual.

So what we can you do? Here are 3 things you can do if you a member of the dominant culture-

Believe it- First believe that racism exists today. We don’t want to believe it, but it’s there. And sadly Sunday continues to be the most segregated day of the week! If the kingdom of heaven is not segregated, why is the church segregated? I am pretty sure that is not how a church should lead.

See with kingdom eyes- I visited a church a while back and they said “We just don’t have any Hispanics in our area.” I was coming back in 2 weeks and I asked them to “look” for Hispanics in that time. When I came back they confessed that they were shocked at how many Hispanics they had seen – in the same community that 2 weeks earlier they were pretty sure that none existed! Look with kingdom eyes and God will let you see us! We are not hiding, but sometimes we are just invisible. You find what you look for.

Intentionally make a friend with a person of a different skin color. I know what you are thinking – this is manipulative! We can’t do that. While it may sound weird, let me tell you the story of how I got to know my wife. I first saw her at a birthday party some friends threw for me. I didn’t know her, but she looked great! So in the next few weeks I went to work and figured out who her friends were, what she liked to do and a little bit about her family (I should have spent a lot more time learning about her family! But that is a different story.). Within a few weeks of meeting her I made a casual meeting happen and I took that opportunity to invite her to coffee. In January we celebrated 23 years of marriage. Why do I share that story? Because I did exactly what I am proposing- I intentionally went out of my way to meet and get to know my wife only because of how she looked. That is not weird, it’s being human. I am not suggesting that you go and marry the next Hispanic you meet, but you can intentionally try to make them your friend.

I am convinced that if you use this simple formula you may make lifelong friends. Some of my best friends are white people! I am not sure that they intentionally sought out to make me a friend. If they did I am grateful! Because in the years I’ve known them we have laughed together, cried together and celebrated together- and most importantly we have worshiped our great God together. They still say things that I don’t understand (like “our goose is cooked” or “get your ducks in a row”- I don’t understand the fascination with poultry) but we have come to know and love one another. Maybe your life would be enhanced if you had a good friend that did not look like you.

And if you are buying lunch, I’ll be your friend.

Vote
I saw a sweet, elderly lady Sunday morning and asked how she was doing. She replied that she couldn’t complain. But she didn’t stop there. She grinned and added, “Oh, I could! But I’m choosing not to.” I want to be more like her.

We could all whine about the state our nation is in and the direction it is taking. We could share horror stories. We could wallow in joint commiseration. We could tear each other down and walk away feeling empty and hopeless. And the Devil would love it.

Fear Not.

Whatever your thoughts are on the election, thus far, there are some things we need to remember. Our enemy uses everything he can to distract us from our mission. Look back on your Facebook feed a year or so ago and check out the trending story. Something dominated the news. Something that threatened our safety. Something that was going to steal our rights. Something so ridiculous and horrible that you couldn’t believe we were even facing it.

Church, when are we going to realize that we’re being swindled? We’re being sold the lie that that we are hopeless and helpless and for some reason, we’re buying it. Right now, it’s our neighbor’s candidate. They’re going to be the end of our civil liberties. He or she is going to destroy all that we hold dear. We’re doomed if they are elected. They will destroy this great nation. They will be the end of America.

The truth of the matter is that we actually are in crisis. We were the second sin entered the picture. Famine, war, abuse, disease, destruction. The list could go on but you get the picture. We’ve got to quit getting so sidetracked with the smoke and mirrors of Satan that we forget the truth, our neighbor needs Jesus and it’s our job to make him look good. We can’t worry, complain and bash those around us and then try to preach the hope and joy found in the Christ. We’ll never be taken seriously.

Think Jesus.

Stop stirring up drama on social media. You are children of the Creator of the Universe. What do you have to fear? Your God has promised that he will never leave or forsake you regardless of what you face. He is a God who keeps his promises. Turn off the fuss. Quit watching the spectacle. Refuse to give what is happening in the world the authority to intimidate you. You have the power of the Christ living within you. The same power that crushed the grave is alive and well inside of you. Stop quenching the Spirit. Set your mind on things above.

Salvation was found at a cross, not a voting booth.

I’m thankful to live in a place where I have a small say in who may or may not be elected but salvation has nothing to do with Election Day. It began in a little town in the Middle East not on Wall Street. Lives were changed because of those who followed a rabbi from Galilee not in those who worshiped a political leader. Peace will be found within the Kingdom of God not the Oval Office.

Stop Missing the Good Old Days.

The good old days were those few days before Eve ate the fruit. We weren’t there. We don’t remember. Every moment of time since has been filled with sorrow for someone. Maybe you’ve had a pretty good life but we shouldn’t forget that while we were enjoying the good times our neighbor was mistreated, sick and hurting. The good old days are a myth and we need to stop pining for something that never existed.

Relax and accept your mission.

Go vote if you choose but that’s not why you’re here. Work a caucus if you can but that’s not why you’re here. Stand up for your favorite candidate if you feel the need. Slap on that bumper sticker. Wear that pin proudly but realize that’s not why you’re here. You were called to make disciples. You were called to love your enemy, feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, clothe the naked, love the unlovable and a make a difference in your little part of the world. Campaigning is easy compared to the task set before you but you were called to greater things and equipped for victory.

Making this country great has nothing to do with who’s elected in November and everything to do with how you treat your neighbor. Even the neighbor who looks, acts and votes differently from you.

It’s ok to be interested. It’s even ok to be concerned. It’s not ok to be terrified. You have nothing to fear. Your hope is alive and reigning and his name is Jesus. Now, go tell someone!

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