Tag Archives: christianity

Review: Good but falls short sometimes

9781601429513Some parts I agree, some parts I disagree.

That is a good summary of my reaction after reading Brian Zahnd’s book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News. The title of the book is, of course, a play on the famous sermon given by Jonathan Edwards preach in 1741, entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Zahnd is correct in pressing the reader to rediscover God as a God of love who showed us his full nature in the person and work of Jesus. He writes, “God couldn’t say all he wanted to day in the form of a book, so he said it in the form of a human life. Jesus is what God has to say!” (50).

Zahnd is right in his acknowledgement that God’s anger and God’s wrath have become a point of morbid fascination with some denominations and sects of Christianity- especially within the United States. And while there are obviously biblical passages that speak of God’s wrath, it is appropriate to allow Jesus to have the final word on points where there appear to be tension. That is the major idea presented in the first three chapters of the book and an idea that I fully agree with. I also enjoyed his interpretation of Revelation found in the closing four chapters of the book.

However, it is the middle three chapters that caused me to pause and caused me to really consider how to judge Zahnd’s work. Two chapters deal with atonement theology and the third deals with hell. In the chapters on atonement, Zahnd essentially takes a view of atonement traditionally called the moral influence theory. Moral influence theory sees Jesus’s death as a great demonstration of God’s love that causes “a change in [the] sinners’ heart so that they are drawn to God” (Olsen, The Mosaic of Christian Belief, 258-259). Zahnd says something similar: “Jesus was faithful to embody God’s will even to the point of shedding his blood as he forgave sinners. Jesus did not shed his blood to pay off God in the form of a ritual sacrifice…Jesus shed his blood in faithful obedience to his Father’s will, demonstrating divine forgiveness even as he was crucified!” (105). For Zahnd, Jesus’ death was an example of love and an example of forgiveness.

What Zahnd fails to confront are the multitude of verses and illusions that see Jesus’s death through the lens of sacrifice. He doesn’t mention Paul’s argument in Romans or the  use of “propitiation,” for example. I’m not saying that all of Zahnd’s interpretation of Jesus’s death is wrong, however, it is incomplete. For a full discussion of atonement theology, read N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright begins at the same staring point as Zahnd: Is it theologically correct to say that Jesus’s death was a punishment for sin?, however Wright is able to explore that question to much greater depths.

The third chapter that gave me pause is Zahnd’s treatment of hell. He begins the chapter by pondering if Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel is in hell. He then goes on to wonder about Anne Frank and the other victims of the Holocaust or the devote Muslim woman who shows charity and worships the best she knows how. He is right in noting that the “simplistic equation…Christians go to heaven, where they enjoy eternal bliss, while everyone else goes to hell, where they suffer eternal torment” (119-120) is more of a populist notion rather than a biblical idea. However, his main ally is C.S. Lewis who is known lean toward universalism.

I admit we get into trouble when we begin pronouncing eternal judgment on people when that judgment solely belongs to God. But Zahnd’s conclusion that hell represents “refusing to receive and be transformed by the love of God” (137) again isn’t wrong it is just incomplete. He equates hell to the realm of the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who refuses to come inside for the party. Which is true, but he doesn’t address passages that speak of God’s judgment. Zahnd doesn’t throw out the reality of hell but he redefines hell in a way that might make people uncomfortable because he doesn’t address some of those other biblical passages.

Overall, Zahnd writes a thought-provoking book that challenges the reader to take a fresh look at what it means when the Bible says “God is love.”

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Like Reading a Seven-course Meal

as kingfishersOver the last year or two I’ve come to appreciate the pastoral wisdom of Eugene Peterson. Previously I had known him as the writer of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language but I didn’t know that he was first and foremost a pastor. He was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Maryland and lead the church for 29 years.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God is a book that is directly birthed out of Peterson’s pastoral experience. In fact, the book is built around 49 of Peterson’s sermons, preached to his church. The book reaches to dramatic heights and delves into phenomenal depths. Peterson’s words show the richness of scripture while making them accessible and able to be brought into the sermons of pastors today.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a collection of 49 sermons grouped into seven sections. Each section is introduced by Peterson to invite the reader into the conversation of what it means to preach in the “company” of Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul and John. By “company” Peterson means for the reader to “enter into the biblical company of prototypical preachers and work out of the traditions they had developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (xxi). Peterson achieves this goal beautifully; he speaks of story telling, praying and poetry, allowing our imaginations to be “Jesus-filled,” and preaching theologically.

There is so much good in this book that it is hard to pick just one example- but I’ll do just that. In the introduction to “Preaching in the Company of Isaiah,” Peterson says this: “The unrelenting reality is that prophets don’t fit into our way of life. For a people who are accustomed to fitting God into our lives or, as we like to say, ‘making room for God,’ the prophets are hard to take and easy to dismiss. The God of whom the prophets speak is far too large to fit into our lives. If we want anything to do with God, we have to fit into God” (116). This is such a profound and needed flip that we must do-especially within our Western culture. God cannot be something I just add into my life. As if we can add God to the plate of our already full lives. We must flip our understanding to see that we fit into God. We join God. We are found in God. We become a part of what God is doing. Peterson points out such an important point in this short paragraph- and that is just one example.

This is one of the books I will continually reference and quote within my own sermons and sermon preparation. When this book is released on May 16, 2017, it needs to be on your list to buy, read and reflect upon.

I received this book from Blogging for Book in exchange for this review. Find more information on the book here.

Or watch this extremely interesting short-film featuring Eugene Peterson and Bono talking together about Psalms.

North Korea and The Good Shepherd

I’m fascinated with pictures of North Korea. The dichotomy between the “public” life and the “private” life of the country is unsettling. It appears, from all accounts, that the picture of success, power and happiness that the country wants to show the world is nothing more than a charade. The reality is much different. It appears that life there is hard and the government gives the people just enough perks to keep them content. Censorship, control and fear keep the citizens of North Korea from knowing and experiencing the prosperity and freedom that exists just a few miles away in South Korea- which ranks in the top 50 countries in the world in per capita GDP. By comparison, North Korea ranks 210 out of 229 countries.

Why do the citizens of North Korea allow this?

They allow it because they don’t know any better. For most of them they cannot even imagine a life different than the one they live.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot of people you know? People who live their lives never knowing, never imagining that life could be anything more than what they are experiencing. Life can’t be anything more than stress- financial, emotional, or familial. Life can’t be anything more than counting the hours until 5 o’clock- day after day. Life can’t be anything more than rejection.

We may know people like that, but are you and I people like that? Can we fall into that same mindset? Absolutely we can.

In a very familiar verse, Jesus says “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Jesus says that in him, there is life and, more than just life, there is full life and in the following verses he says that it is an eternally safe life. Jesus is not saying that there won’t be stress- but that it cannot steal your life. Jesus is not saying that there won’t be days that are boring or numbing- but that they cannot kill your life. Jesus is not saying that you won’t experience rejection- but that it cannot destroy your life.

This isn’t “Joel Osteen” positive thinking Christianity, this is Christianity under the watch and care of Jesus, the good shepherd.

As sheep we either know the voice of Jesus and follow him or we follow the thief, the robber, or hired hand and when the wolf comes the thief, robber, and hired hand don’t protect the sheep, they exploit the sheep. The good shepherd, Jesus, stands in-between the sheep and wolf and lays down his life for the sheep. The sheep are the same and the wolf is the same but what’s different is the shepherd.

Is your life full? Who is your shepherd?

 

Christians can’t add to the “believe me” culture

unknown-1By now we all know the terms “fake news” and “alternative facts.” Whether you’re on the right or left, Republican or Democrat, American or a citizen of another country, Christian or another religion or no religion, there must be concern about the increasingly subjective nature of truth. When facts, evidence, logic, and cause and effect are set aside and replaced with “believe me,” we must be skeptical of the one who is asking for our blind trust. We wouldn’t get on a bicycle outfitted with wings and just believe if someone told us that it could fly. Facts, evidence, logic and cause and effect tell us that a bicycle, although outfitted with wings, cannot fly, no matter how much someone tells us to believe that it can.

I could be talking only about politics but the same is true in our churches. Our churches cannot be places where facts, evidence, logic and cause and effect are set aside for a “believe me” stance. In a world of fake news and alternative facts, we cannot proclaim biblical truth, gospel truth, as a “just believe me” kind of truth. We have to value our integrity and the integrity of the message we proclaim better than that.

A 2013 study by Gallop showed that trust that American have in their pastors, ministers and clergy has plummeted in recent years. In the study only 47% of Americans gave clergy a “very high” or “high” rating on honesty and ethics;  that number has dropped from 67% in 1985. That number was even lower for those ages 18-34, with only 34% rating clergy “very high” or “high” in honesty and ethics. In an already skeptical generation, 7 out of 10 do not see pastors and ministers as honest or ethical. We have much work to do here.  There have been enough politicians who have lied, corporate CEOs who have stolen and pastors who have fallen to make the most trusting person cynical and skeptical. As Christians, not just clergy, we have to commit to living honest and ethical lives. This isn’t following moral rules for morality’s sake but so that in a world that appears unreliable, we must stand out as reliable, truthful and trust worthy.

As I am now preparing sermons each week, I am more aware than ever of the need to be deliberate in showing that, while the message of Jesus takes faith, it is not a faith devoid from facts, evidence and logic. It is a far different thing to show that the message of Jesus is true rather than just saying that the message of Jesus is true. I may not get it right all the time, but I hope that I am at least aware and thinking about it. Showing the message of Jesus to be true begins with a life lived true to the message of Jesus from the inside- out, showing how it connects to every area of life, how the truths of scripture match our observations of reality and not just saying  “believe me.”

(And here I’ll quote my sources in order to be honest and ethical: http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2013/december/seven-people-americans-trust-more-pastor-gallup-honesty.html, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/18/trust-in-clergy-gallup-poll_n_4468205.html)

Today’s World: One size fits all doesn’t apply

If there is one thing we should all be able to agree upon is that we can’t agree upon anything. Take hamburgers for example. How many ways can there be to put a patty of ground beef between two pieces of bread? Yet we have McDonalds, Burger King, Whataburger, Five Guys, In and Out, Carl Jrs and Wendy’s- just to name a few- and then there are the people who (for whatever reason) choose not to eat meat, so we have to include veggie-burgers too. Suddenly, a patty of ground beef (or soy) between two pieces of bread just got very complicated.

If hamburgers are a multi-layered, not to mention regionally influences issue (Whataburger in Texas, In and Out on the West coast), why do we think that issues effecting the nation and world have simple, black-and-white resolutions? Why do we think that “one size fits all” when it comes to complicated and far-reaching issues?

As a person who sees himself as a moderate on almost every spectrum (religiously, politically, socially), I find it extremely hard in today’s environment to boldly put my opinion into one single camp. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s not that I don’t listen, read and try to understand the issues- it’s because I have and I do. It seems to me that it is just as naive to not know anything about the issues we face as it is to believe that there is a simple, one-off solution to those issues. We simply cannot continue to believe that single solutions fix multi-faceted problems. However, it appears that the only solutions given are the two extremes on any issue (either everyone has to eat veggie-burgers or everyone has to eat Burger King). This only feeds into the divide. Everything has to be all one way or all another and those with an opinion different than our become the enemy. This is not to say that we don’t hold our preference, but we choose to understand why someone might hold the opposite preference. And we choose to engage in the art of…gasp…compromise.

Compromise has been beaten up and left for dead recently. To compromise, in our world, means that we have given up on our convictions. We have surrendered. We have given in. The response (and the anti-thesis) to compromise has become the “double-down.” When presented with an alternative opinion, view, perspective or preference, instead of intelligently debating the similarities and differences in order to come to a compromised solution, we simply repeat our previous position louder and with more ferocity.

On every spectrum the left goes further left and the right goes further right, what is going to happen to the vacuum created in the middle? It will either be filled by those displaced from the far left and the far right or the extremes will tear the whole continuum apart.

What makes me particularly concerned is that it also seems like the two pillars of Christian social-gospel (for lack of a better phrase) are equally susceptible to the current climate of providing simple solutions to multi-faceted problems. For centuries Christians have held on to love and life as nonnegotiable when it comes to the social-gospel (social-gospel meaning the way that the message of Jesus interacts with social issues, economic issues, government issues, justice issues, etc).

These two pillars, love and life, are both firmly grounded in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and the second is like (equal) to it, love your neighbor as yourself. Then the story that Jesus tells immediately following that statement (Luke 10:30-37) Jesus links love and life together. In the story, love of neighbor takes the form of protecting life. Couple that with the Bible’s repeated calls to care for widows, orphans and strangers- it is a natural next step to see early Christians, as well as modern Christians, caring for the sick, opening hospitals, opening schools and building  orphanages.

Yet these pillars are susceptible to the same “simple solution to multi-faceted problems” issue that we have been talking about. Is it inconsistent to be pro-life (in the anti-abortion sense) and be pro death penalty, military expansion and involvement in the world, refugee ban and at the same time being anti poverty -reducing initiatives, access to birth control, paid maternity leave? Is it inconsistent to proclaim that Jesus loved me and gave himself to die for me (while I was a sinner separated from God) and then put qualifiers on those that I love?

There are those that say there is no inconsistency, that these are apples and oranges and that justice or security demand tough choices to be made. There are those who say these examples are the very definition of hypocrisy, that pro-life means supporting all life, in all forms and love, if it’s a reflection of the love of Jesus, means loving all people. Christians fall on both sides. But again, the way that love and life apply to current issues is multi-faceted. What promotes love and life: closing abortion clinics or/and combating poverty? Using military strength to protect and defend the weak and vulnerable around the world or/and promoting the sanctity of all human life? Is there a continuum where we can fall between responsible love and reckless love? Or a chart that shows which lives matter more than others? These may be uncomfortable conversations but having them forces us to think through our positions and evaluate if they conform to the gospel of Jesus and the kingdom of God that Jesus announced. And if we discover that something is out of step with either, it us our application of love and life that needs to change not the definition of the gospel or the meaning of the kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven.

I guess what I’m saying comes down to this: we must begin to see and understand that these issues are large, complicated and ever changing (solutions that might have worked a decade ago, may not work today). And the way that we approach issues must be large, multi-tiered, and ever changing. Most of all we, as Christians, must have the hard conversations of how love and life (shown and enacted in Jesus Christ) interact with these issues. To believe that there are single solutions to these problems and continuing to practice “double-down” debates won’t provide long term solutions, in fact they are just as likely to create further problems.

 

When Following Leads to Opposition

Close-up of fire and flames on a black background (Huge file)

Current Sermon Series

I want to take this post to clarify/ elaborate on something I mentioned in my sermon last Sunday. In Acts 10-11, we read the account of Peter and Cornelius. Peter, a Jew, goes into the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, and preaches the message of Jesus to him and he and his family believe and they are filled with the Holy Spirit. This is an awesome event! God has opened the gospel to Gentiles.

But not everyone is happy. When Peter returns to Jerusalem, some of the leaders in the Jerusalem church are not pleased that Peter went to the house of, ate with and (presumably) shared Jesus with Gentiles. Peter obeyed God. Peter got to be a part of an amazing work of God. And when he got back to church, he faced opposition.

In my talk, which you can listen to here,  I said that if you want God to start a holy fire in you, then you will face opposition. In the talk I define “holy fire” as having a passion to know God, to know God’s movement in the world and a passion to be a part of that movement. If there’s a holy fire in you, there’s a chance that you’ll face opposition from some Christian-people, church-people, people who you would think would be the most excited about what God is doing. Where I want to clarify/ elaborate is why?

Why will you face opposition?

  1. You’ll face opposition because people don’t know the context. The church leaders in Jerusalem only heard part of the story. They didn’t know that God had spoken to Cornelius or that God had spoken to Peter. All they knew was that Peter had broken the social norms by associating with this Gentile, Roman military officer and his family. But when Peter explained everything, the whole story, and placed it in the context of Jesus’ words, the church leaders understood, changed their position and began glorifying God.
  2. You’ll face opposition because you’re different. Let’s be honest, for most  Christians and most people who attend church, God is not their utmost passion. God is a passion but not their utmost passion. God’s plans are not their utmost concern and being a part of God’s plan isn’t their utmost desire. There are a lot of other things that get in the way- some of them are good things but God’s desire is for us not to have anything before him. Being passionate about God (while it’s how we all should be) makes you different and when you’re different you’ll face opposition.
  3. You’ll face opposition because you’re making others uncomfortable. The Jewish-Christian church leaders were uncomfortable that Peter would go to the house of a Gentile because it broke a social taboo. For you and I,  opposition could come from those who think that talking to “him” or “her” or inviting “those” people to church is breaking a social taboo and it makes them uncomfortable.

Now that we have seen potential reasons why opposition could come our way if God has begun a holy fire in our lives, what can we do about the opposition. We’ll take each in turn.

  1. Don’t keep what God is doing in your life to yourself. God could be working in your life in very personal ways but be willing to let others know what God is teaching you. Let them know the context and the Scriptures that are speaking to you. This is important for two reasons. First, your pastors, small group leaders, friends can help you and encourage you. Two, you may inspire them to want to God to work in their life as well.
  2. Walking with God and putting God as the utmost thing in your life doesn’t make you different. It makes you exactly who God wants you to be.
  3. God’s way naturally challenges the status quo. In God’s kingdom the last are first and the first are last. Jesus didn’t come to save the righteous but the needy. In God’s kingdom, the poor are blessed, the gentle are blessed, the peacemakers are blessed. Read the Sermon on the Mount and see how God’s kingdom makes the status quo uncomfortable. Making people uncomfortable, if it’s for the sake of the gospel, is good- that’s how movements and revivals begin.

God wants us to be passionate about knowing him. God wants us to be passionate about what he’s doing in the world and passionate about how we can be a part of it. Sometimes that will bring opposition. But our faithfulness to God’s calling in our lives can lead, like those who opposed Peter, to change their hearts and glorify God because of the amazing things God has done.

The Church Can’t be a Scapegoat Anymore

For too long the Church has been a scapegoat. I’ve been guilty of this as much as anyone. Everything that has been or is wrong with Jesus followers is the Church’s fault. Writers and researchers tell us that people outside the Christian faith like the teachings and message of Jesus but they don’t like the teachings and message of the Church. Jesus teaches love, grace, forgiveness and countercultural ideals. The Church, on the other hand, teaches discrimination, guilt, fear and Christian- imperialistic ideals. They can get behind Jesus, but the Church- no so much.

And so we get categories like “spiritual but not religious” or “Jesus-follower” instead of Christian. There are even people like USA Today columnist Tom Krattenmaker who call themselves secular Jesus followers. I am currently reading Krattenmaker’s new book, Confession of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe (Convergent, 2016) and I’ll write a full review next week, but his main point is that “Jesus and Christianity are not one and the same” and that “one can sense a respect for Jesus, even a fascination with him, despite the decline of institutionalized Christianity” (13-14). It’s hard to argue that he’s wrong. Taking an objective look at the message of Jesus and (in too many cases) the message of the Church that bears Jesus’ name, it’s easy to see one is not a good reflection of the other.

What are we to do? Our M.O. has been to make the Church the scapegoat: the Church needs to change, the Church needs to reform, the Church needs to be dismantled and rebuilt.

Here’s where we have to reframe the conversation because the Church (and we know this) isn’t an organization or an organism within itself. We can’t go and find “the Church.” The Church is constructed of people. And the people that construct the Church are you and me. The harsh reality is that when people have a problem with the Church, they have a problem with you and me and the way we live out the message of Jesus that we claim to believe.


When people have a problem with the Church, they have a problem with you and me.


No longer can we make the Church the scapegoat for our laziness, for our spiritual immaturity, for our the way we have coopted the message of Jesus for our own gain or for our pure disobedience. I’m guilty of it, you’re guilty of it, we are all guilty of it. And we all need to change.

The Church can no longer be the scapegoat for our sins. Individually we need to refocus our lives on what Jesus said, what Jesus did, what Jesus taught and believing when Jesus said that those who love him will do what he’s said and live the way he lived. When we individually refocus then the Church and our local churches will naturally refocus. If we take Jesus seriously there shouldn’t be a reason for anyone to express the sentiment of Gandhi when he said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. You’re Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Are we ready to stop passing the blame and get serious about following Jesus?